Is John Martyn still a folk singer or not?
This is a totally irrelevant question and one which I'm glad I didn't bother to ask. For in this age of musical categories John draws only one dividing line which is only slightly less formidable than the Iron Curtain - the difference between honest and dishonest music.
In spite of his reticent disposition John minces no words and is downright invidious when it comes to selecting his beautiful people. The new album is called "Stormbreaker"1 and the song which reconciles all John Martyn's musical ideals is "Sweet Honesty" which was written three years ago by his wife Beverley, the other side of the partnership.
And the guy who reconciles John and Beverley is son Wezzles2, who's only eighteen months old and a good deal more ostentatious than either of his talented parents.
It's true that John Martyn has made a diversion from his first two albums "London Conversation" and "The Tumbler" in going to the States to record with excellent musicians like Levon Helm (The Band), Billy Mundi (Mothers of Invention) and Harvey Brooks (Electric Flag). And the big question is: "Why?"
Simply that John and Bev wrote some songs which they realised demanded more than two acoustic guitars to be fully exploited. And Joe Boyd of Witchseason decided that the States was the obvious choice for getting together one of the most natural and affluent albums possible.
As John modestly puts it: "It's the best of what we could do at the time, and we couldn't have done it any better. It was just a case of running through the tracks two or three times. Next time I'd like to bring them all over here to record, particularly John Woods3, the guy who engineered the album; although I don't really believe that the recording environment matters."
Why does John prefer to work with American session men than4 British?
"Simply because all the British musicians I like are working with other people. We shall be going to the States again this year for a concert tour. Woodstock's the best place I've found so far. I detest New York but upstate it's OK."
"We've tried to be perfectly honest on this album like Dylan and Steve Stills, who are so tasteful and never effete. We did a concert in Woodstock in aid of the Hudson River Sloop5 and Dylan was in the audience. It was a treat to see him alive and well; he seemed really beautiful."
Although John claims he would never return to his birth place of Scotland6 other than to visit his family or to play a gig in Dundee, he is equally as unhappy about London.
"I've been playing here about a year too long, and if I'd realised that before I'd have got out. It breeds constant paranoia."
"I don't really think there's sympathetic ears for the contemporary songwriter over here. In America, people like Nilsson and Laura Nyro are important. The casual listener over the past ten years has been addicted to a particular kind of music. There's a whole section of the industry devoted to giving the public its daily fix. There's some really good music in Britain that'll just never be heard - good honest music which people like John James produce. Not this so called heavy stuff. My idea of 'heavy' music comes from Zappa and Dylan whereas Led Zeppelin just make a noise."
"To me Jimmy Page is just an ego trip guitarist producing smeth music (a combination of 'smack' and 'meth'). It's the same with Kooper and Bloomfield, who give the impression of 'Let's get turned on and bury ourselves in the cans, man.' It's like music is being turned into a freak show, and you go and watch a spectacular... a phenomenon. It's so far divorced from reality... and yet it's real."
John believes that the memory distills all the sounds ever heard and nothing reproduced is ever original; but he is a highly original and distinctive songwriter. Beverley, who contributed four numbers, denies that she is a prolific songwriter, and admits that her material is drawn over a long period of time.
John and Bev have only ever played three gigs together, but are quite willing to fulfil the demand should the album catch on as it deserves to. "Stormbringer"7 is hardly recognisable as a British album which reveals a glaring point. That the British standard of songwriting and the American session and recording levels combine to produce a natural, funky acoustic sound, a good deal more tasteful than that used by Wezzles to our conversation. - JEREMY GILBERT
1muffnote: Stormbringer of course and not the last mishearing by the author.
2muffnote: Wesley but this could be a nickname.
3muffnote: John Wood as we know him.
4muffnote: Grammar, 'instead of' would be more appropriate.
5muffnote: This is interesting as this performance was not yet documented. The Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Inc. is an organization based in Poughkeepsie that seeks to protect the Hudson River through advocacy and public education. Founded by folk singer Pete Seeger with his wife Toshi Seeger in 1966, the organization is known for its sailing vessel, the sloop Clearwater (maiden voyage 1969), and for its annual music and environmental festival, the Great Hudson River Revival. This is one of the organization's biggest fundraisers; an annual music and environmental festival officially known as the "Great Hudson River Revival," it is America’s oldest and largest annual festival of its kind. The weekend-long festival has been held each June for over three decades, with attendances of up to 15,000 people.
6muffnote: Wrong again, John was born in New Malden, Surrey.
7muffnote: He got it right this time.
Scan kindly provided by Harry Young