Serendipity - Brendan Quayle

2 Nov 1998
Written by: 
Brendan Quayle

John Martyn was born in 1948 into a Scots musical family; the only son of two light opera singers who became separated shortly after his birth. Brought up by a close relative, most of his childhood was spent in urban Glasgow, but every weekend his father used to take him into the countryside, and every year he spent his holidays with his mother on houseboats touring the riverways of Southern England.

These early experiences of separation and the close contact with the countryside undoubtedly had a strong influence on the young Martyn. Time spent fishing, by the sea and on houseboats created a life-long fascination with moving water, for the play of the ocean and of the rivers and the lives that went with them. Later these childhood memories provided a source of pungent imagery for many of his songs, where lyrical details are often fused with images of separation and reconciliation, fundamental movements in emotional life, like the cycle of the seasons or the ebb and flow of a current in midstream.

John first picked up the guitar at fourteen and leaving school at seventeen entered the local folk scene under the wing of Hamish Imlach. Hamish took him round the clubs, introducing him to people like the Incredible String Band, who John recollects, 'had very interesting ideas and were very funky players in those days'. At the time John's musical ideas and his playing were very influenced by guitarist Davey Graham and the black musicians of the Stax and the Chess labels, people like Chuck Berry, Howling Wolf, Gary Davis, Snooks Eaglin and Big Bill Broonzy. Imlach introduced him to the extensive possibilities of combining traditional gaelic folk music with contemporary instrumentation and comment, drawing on a range of folk and ethnic styles ranging from ragtime to blues and country.

Hamish, John admits, 'was a mine of information on these things and simultaneously introduced me to socialism, because that was the driving force at the time. Folk music was folk music; it was for the people and quite deliberately so. Through the socialist aspect of the music I was introduced to a lot of the great black musicians. We used to pool our money and bring over these guys, like Gary Davis, to play at the clubs in Glasgow... that was the only way to hear them'.
Another formative influence in the early days was Clive Palmer who ran the Incredible Folk Club and founded the String Band. For a while he and John lived in a shed near Alston in Cumbria. playing music and selling things from foreign parts for a living. 'Those were wild times, and Clive was a remarkable man, a great musician and down to earth. Absolutely no bullshit, taught me lots of things to play'.

Arriving in London in 1967, John joined Chris Blackwell's predominantly black reggae label Island, a family company whose roster went on to include musicians who would collaborate with John on many of his albums. The early contact with West Indian music provided a useful source of ideas, but this was John's first real encounter with Rock and Roll. 'The first rock and rollers that I really liked were Free. I had never heard the blues played by white boys like that. They were amazing - I was really moved, genuinely moved, no-one else had such an effect. It was insane, they were so young. But absolutely no-one has ever come close to that kind of music. It was a cross between musical integrity and genuine soul'. John in fact played guitar on one of Kossoff's best known records, and Paul Kossoff returned the favour later, playing in John's band for the LIVE AT LEEDS album.

The first two John Martyn albums. LONDON CONVERSATION and THE TUMBLER both released in 1968, were in the folk tradition but contained some touches of remarkable lyrical ingenuity and jazzy instrumentation which set him apart at the time from his contemporaries. There is a sense of Spring and seasonal rhythm in these albums, of a fresh new talent bursting forth and of a poet drawing imagery from both the light and dark sides of nature. Compare the delightful 'Sing A Song of Summer', 'Knuckledy Crunch And Slipledee-Slee Song' and 'The River' with the menacing 'Gardeners' and 'Seven Black Roses'. There are also childhood reminiscences like 'Dusty' and 'Fairy Tale Lullaby' and distinctive renditions of old and new musical classics, like 'Cocaine' and Dylan's 'Don't Think Twice'.

On these albums there are also beautiful songs of first love and partings like 'Hello Train', 'The River' and 'Fly on Home' where lyrics of apparent simplicity are deepened with touches of irony and ambiguity, imbuing their subject matter with intrigue and mystery. These are classical Martyn touches which attract him to a discerning following, always keeping them wondering. 'The Tumbler' also featured one of the last recordings of the great jazz flautist Harold Mcnair, who died of cancer not long after.
'Those were basically acoustic albums. I was listening to Jansch and Graham and doing all the acoustic chops. I never played slicker or faster. It was a show-off British exercise. The Tumbler material was influenced by my partner, Paul Wheeler, a Cambridge philosophy student, who taught me the value of British intellectual tradition, in the Graham Greene/Noel Coward sense. We decided not to play the American way, but be selfconsciously British in everything. It was great, I enjoyed all that, but its potential for creativity was limited. I got bored with the folk/ acoustic thing. You can't keep churning that out, it stifles innovation, kills the personal touch'.


In 1969 John met and married a singer from Coventry, Beverley Kutner, who was making records at the time with producer Joe Boyd. The pair were signed up by Warner Brothers in America who sent them to Woodstock at the height of the folk-rock revolution. Working with Doors and Crosby/Stills/Nash producer Paul Harris, they came up with the STORMBRINGER album, a pace-setting acoustic rock adventure, with folk guitars filled out with pounding drums, piano and bass.

STORMBRINGER showed the influence of the Band's Levon Helm on drums and a range of other session men including the Mothers of Invention's Billy Mundi. The mysterious title track included another innovation, a wash of strings. But this song 'Woodstock', a paean to the people of the pinewoods, is still in the TUMBLER tradition. 'Would You Believe Me' is the critical song on STORMBRINGER containing intimations of the long and stormy passage ahead ('Its such a long long way, so many turnings'). This piece also featured the introduction of the echoplex guitar technique which John pioneered and which for years ahead became the highlight of his solo concert performances.

ROAD TO RUIN is another joint love album, celebrating country life and domestic peace, and the importance at the time of love as a philosophy ('What you feel is what is real' from New Day) in harmony with natural rhythm ('Tree Green'). John was 'happy as a man could naturally be, living in the middle of a mystery'. These were peaceful days when nothing seemed to really matter. As John recollects, 'At the time I was into heavy duty Kaftan and Bells'. The title 'Road to Ruin', he explains 'is really an adolescents' view of mortality. You know the idea, isn't it all fun, we're all doomed but we may as well enjoy it: we're all going one way, but we may as well get down into it while we're here'. The song itself shows Martyn at his most mysterious and surreal, 'moving down the road to ruin' and blown along by calibre session men like Dudu Puckwana (on Sax), Paul Harris (on piano), Dave Pegg (on Bass). and introducing Pentangle's Danny Thompson on double bass, the start of an historic partnership between the two men.
Danny Thompson proved to be another formative influence on John's musical career, the 'first real jazzer' that he played with for an extended period. Stories about the two men's exploits on tours over the next seven years are part of rock legend. John remembers, 'Aye, there was a time we played naked in Bolton town, and the time he actually nailed me to the floor under the carpet, with real nails, and proceeded to order and eat a full hotel breakfast at a table above, as I was coming to...'.


With Danny's help the two albums made during the early seventies, BLESS THE WEATHER (1971) and SOLID AIR (1973) turned John Martyn into an established figure on the concert circuit. His reputation as a live act with a difference, coupled with excellent album reviews, brought the people in; and John acquired a loyal following that has stayed with him through thick and thin, the high times and the long silences. By this time John was performing by himself or with Danny Thompson. The Martyn's had set up home in Hastings in Southern England and, in addition to Wesley, Beverley's son by a previous relationship, there were soon two more children, Mahri (sic) and Spencer.

Both albums took further John's unique fusion of folk, rock and jazz, deploying in addition to Danny and Richard Thompson, Fairport Convention's Dave Pegg, Dave Mattacks, Simon Nicol and others, BLESS THE WEATHER is a subtle and rich pastiche of gentle songs about love and contentment, with the echoplex complementing and giving electronic depth to John's characteristic touch of mystery.

Blessing the weather ('that brought you to me') and singing his 'songs to the sea' the music ebbs and flows like the tide in late evening. 'Walk to the Water' is the highlight, a surreal invocation of the spirit of place, the earth and water goddess, a personification of beauty and love and the movements of the earth, the tide, moon and sea. She who walks on the water is the feminine principle, lying at the heart of the matter and on the shoreline of consciousness, drifting in to move the minds and hearts of men. Like Tim Buckley and even Dylan or Cohen, Martyn's lyricism in this as in much of his later material, makes explicit use of images of femininity and romance to illustrate intimations of the transcendental, the wellspring of the classical poet of all that is inspiring and life enhancing.

SOLID AIR is much moodier. The title track describes his feelings at the tragic loss of a friend, guitarist Nick Drake. 'Nick was a beautiful man, but walking on solid air, helpless in this dirty business an innocent abroad. He was killed, like Kossoff, by the indecent, parasitic opportunism that pervades the music business.'
This album also features 'May You Never' and 'Don't Want to Know', perhaps John's best ever song, where he tries to distance himself from the tragedy, the destruction and greed which he sees in the world around him. Other tracks on SOLID AIR contain some of the best examples of John's use of natural imagery, of water, sea and air, to express sensations of loss and separation. In 'Over the Hill' and 'The Man in the Station', the travelling musician is longing to be at home. to be whole again, 'back where I come from'.


SOLID AIR was very successful both here and in America, where John was asked back again and again. At one point he did three tours in five months, 'Everywhere you went people were saying 'this guy's happening' and it all went to my head. I had discovered cocaine and heroin. I was doing dope and acid at the same time and drinking as well... You can imagine the state I was in. Anyway the industry wanted another SOLID AIR and they let me loose in the studio, a totally free hand... they must have been mad.' The result was INSIDE OUT, released in 1973, John's favourite album. 'It's very strange, a lovely album, it's everything I ever wanted to do in music, it's my inside coming out. It allowed me a vision into my own half-finished self. It was all heartfelt, creative stuff... It was also one up the bugle for everybody, for all those folkies who play jigs by the rote and think Nina Simone is too rhythmic'.

INSIDE OUT won John an award, a Golden Disc from Montreux. It was very experimental, containing skillful free-form rock-jazz fusions, some extraordinary guitar work and, like Tim Buckley, a purposeful exploration of the use of his voice as an instrument. Most of the tracks were recorded during late night sessions with Danny Thompson. Bobby Keyes, Remi Kabaka, Stevie Winwood and (on one eight of 'the second last note') Traffic's Chris Wood. The result is wild and high, music from inner space. The Western Isles will never quite seem the same after a listen to John's treatment on guitar of the classic tune 'Eibhli Ghail Chiuin Ni Chearbhaill'. Other instrumental and vocal highlights. mixing sawing bass lines, acoustic melodies and wild ecstatic guitar filled out with keyboards, saxes and drums include: 'Make no Mistake', 'Look In' and 'Outside In'. John's outlook on things at this time is illustrated in the lyric to 'Look In': 'Its nothing but a look in the mirror, its just another cow in the corn, just another gift from the Indian giver, just another blow on the horn. Look in, look out, look up, look down, look everywhere but don't look for me, get in, get up, get out, get on, get it, everything you can for free, I'm trying to make loving, make love in a peaceful place'. INSIDE OUT was precisely that, an attempt to shake loose from convention and constraint, to release the power and energy that lies trapped within, to hit that perfect note and find that peaceful place.

SUNDAY'S CHILD, recorded in 1975 was 'the family album, very happy, purely romantic, a nice period for me before I went totally Raj Bongo'. A more settled collection of songs, the music also contains a number of contrasts from the driving 'Root Love' to the tender 'My Baby Girl'. The boogying 'Clutches' shows the influence of Little Feat, with whom John was later to tour the States, confirming an American following built up during earlier tours by himself and with Free and Traffic. Always eclectic John uses a pure folk treatment for 'Spencer the Rover', and straight country for another old number 'Satisfied Mind'. His choice of these two songs for this collection exposes torn yearnings for the freedom, wildness and adventure of the road on one hand, and the pull of tranquil domesticity on the other. 'Call me Crazy' with its spacey echoplex finish and its lyric of both being moved in love and yet 'Moving on' sums up the tension he felt.


In 1976 John Martyn went to Jamaica, staying on Strawberry Hill, on the wrong side of the fence that separates the rich whites from the poorer blacks, but 'close enough to hear the pigs being slaughtered from down the valley'. John remembers playing with Lee Perry on a Max Romeo album. 'They asked me at the end of the session how I'd like to be paid; in counterfeit dollars or blue films. I took the dollars, 'de yankee dailah'.'

John enjoyed the place 'musically' but not 'politically'. 'The white people down there still have all the money and the clout, the blacks were slaves, brought there by white cruelty, and they aren't going to forget that. Yet they're all slaves in a way, the whites as well, who're slaves to the colonial tradition. The blacks still resent it, but because it's the status quo don't question it'. It was John's first experience of working intensively with black musicians. 'I learned there that all that stuff about there being no difference between black and white is absolute garbage. There is a difference. If you want the truth the blacks are hipper than we are, they've got more vibes and have lost less. They're a wee bit closer to the ground, stronger... that's for me'.

The sounds of Jamaica and its politics influenced his next album, ONE WORLD. To make this he returned to England and disappeared into the studios with Island boss and close friend, Chris Blackwell. The result was a masterpiece, a smooth, slick more commercial collection of songs. Although to some it seemed as though he was selling out, ONE WORLD was a great critical success... and sold well. Most of the old tensions are contained in this marvellously consistent contribution to rock legend: separation ('Dancing' and 'Dealer'), deep sentiment (Couldn't Love You more etc); and a new one, the terror of excess (Dealer, Big Muff). It also contains a wide variety of musical moods, from the soothing and gentle to the rough and funky. But ONE WORLD also marked a change in John's attitude: 'At the time I suppose I was becoming more concerned. I didn't like what was happening to me. I was becoming the epitome of the hippy era, the long haired father figure bearing down on mother nature with the lovely wife and lovely children, happy smiles and brown bread. I wanted to get a bit harder. So I changed the point from where I write and moved it to a less personal, more global, I suppose political, area'. The song 'One World' is also John Martyn at his most mysterious and metaphysical, it is (perhaps paradoxically for this era of his life) a song not about separation but integration. The album closes with 'Small hours'. This is an echoplex anthem (complete with Canada geese) and the last time he used this technique on record. The song is an old re-statement of hope and love 'for a new day's dawn'.

The ambiguity and irony in the songs of One World, like John's song lyrics generally, are not, he explains, the result of purposeful attempt to write metaphorically. 'The multiple meanings just pop out. I like to open up the possibility of differing interpretations, it deepens the mystique. When the Muslims actually closed the Gates of Perceptions they lost much of their following: the whole attraction was the fact that the Koran could mean anything to anybody. I like the concept of differing interpretations, its a nice area to work in... apart from anything else it doesn't tie you down... No-one can call you a liar because they don't understand what you're saying... I read Yeats and Burns a lot... maybe there's an influence there'.

After ONE WORLD there followed a long silence. It was three years before the next recorded album. During this time John's marriage with Beverley, that had withstood the strains of the 'life of a music man' for so long, finally broke up. But true to his Scots background, and in contrast to many of his musical contemporaries who were at this time entering the folds of religious conversions of one kind or another, John simply went on a binge ('essentially the same as usual, just more extended'). It was, he admits a 'dark period' in his life, during which he was crazier than normal, doing things almost with a death wish.
The album that resulted, GRACE AND DANGER, John admits was 'difficult to make'. It's a painful collection of songs, whose titles (Hurt in Your Heart, Baby Please Come Home, Our Love) require no further exposition but the mood is powerful, overwhelming in parts, the lyrics beautiful, and the music excellent, showing the influence of Weather Report and involving musicians like John Giblin on bass and Phil Collins on drums and backing vocals. 'Danger' also rocks and includes some new John Martyn classics like 'Sweet Little Mystery' and the anarchic 'Johnny Too Bad'. DANGER is a fine album, confirming John Martyn as a musician and lyricist in a class of his own, and solid proof that creativity thrives on adversity. 'Grace and Danger was very cathartic, and really hurt. I was really in love with that woman'. However, John and Beverley's marriage had by this time irretrievably broken down, and the Martyns were divorced within a year.

In 1981 John signed up to new management and left Island to sign up with Warner Brothers. 'It was all change then, I was reshaping my life, I wasn't married, I wasn't attached to anybody or anything, and I thought 'lets go for it, let's make some money, lets make a band; and that's when the band was formed. I'd asked Phil Collins to do the drum job on GRACE AND DANGER and we became really close friends, so he produced the next album GLORIOUS FOOL for me. In fact we were both going through divorces at the same time, so we just got on. It was great fun, you know, like Heartbreak Hotel, taking turns on the phone... 'darling please... all that... Everyone's the same'. GLORIOUS FOOL in 1981 was followed in 1982 by WELL KEPT SECRET.

By 1983. John Martyn was remarried, to the lovely Annie Furlong, and had returned to set up a new home in Scotland, in the country near the borders, far from his former family home in Hastings by the sea. He was touring widely, and while Island put out another compilation album 'THE ELECTRIC JOHN MARTYN', John issued his own live collection 'PHILENTROPY'.
After the Well Kept Secret tour, John and Annie took time off to be alone together in the peace and quiet of their cottage home in the Scots borders. There was also a change of management at this time, and John left Warner Brothers to return to the old family fold of Island Records. Island boss Chris Blackwell then sent John off to lsland's Compass Point studios in the Bahamas to record a new album. The result was SAPPHIRE released in the autumn of 1984. 'Actually it didn't almost happen, the production team had all fallen out, no-one was taking responsibility for anything, too much rum was being consumed all over the place, so I got Robert Palmer in who brought in some other excellent musicians, and that was it... it was all down to Robert in the end'.

Like many Martyn albums before SAPPHIRE was widely praised by the critics. Martyn sparkles in a new light playing relaxed gentle music, with a touch of flippancy for a new era. The album incorporates a range of styles: shuffle, soul, disco, reggae, but all uniquely played and mixed in the Martyn mould that, as always, sets him apart from the rest of the field. The feel of the album can be summed up by the words the reviewers chose to use: adjectives like 'subtle, smooth, gliding, solid, dreamy, elegant' and so on. Epithets aside, the album consists of a series of dreamy ballads (Sapphire, Watching Her Eyes, Fisherman's Dream) and jazzy offerings, with one rocker (Acid Rain) and an electronic (believe it or not) of the Judy Garland standard Over the Rainbow.

SAPPHIRE shows John Martyn to be contemporary without losing any of his old subtlety and mystery. All the old images are there too; moving water, light and colour, even separation (albeit temporarily in SAPPHIRE) but two tracks in particular (Rope-Soul'd and Coming in on Time) indicate a new state of affairs, that John has indeed come in on time. 'Almost anyway... 'Coming In On Time' is a strange piece, almost a vision of salvation, a cross between a complaint and a hymn.'

In 1986 came his final studio album for Island, PIECE BY PIECE, a (resoundingly contemporary) collection of compositions highlighting the man's extra-ordinary vocal range and his highly innovative and eclectic songwriting. The music is a showpiece for a battery of warm synthesiser sounds, drum and guitar effects, created by John and his touring partner, keyboards supremo Foster Paterson, saxophonist Colin Tully and bassist Alan Thomson. Highlights include the crashing 'Nightline', the ballad 'Angeline', a Foster Paterson song 'Piece by Piece', and two pure showpieces for Martyn's voice: 'Who Believes in Angels' and 'Lonely Love'.

On this album John says: 'What I tried to do was to sing more than play and have fun with some new sounds, like the strangled duck (on John Wayne). I've been trying to sing better for the last couple of years and push myself in a certain direction. I always find the vocals more difficult to get right in the studio, they're better live, generally. To get the effect I wanted on the track 'John Wayne' I had to go out and get completely rat-arsed, and then I did it on one take. Great effect'. This track is the highlight of a very powerful album.

Like the rhymes of the bards that once toured those misty tracks, John Martyn's songs contain a subtle weave of romance and intellect, emotion and meaning, which uplift the listener making the world less real. When the song and the spell is over, the listener comes back to earth, but the earth now is not quite so solid as it was before, the cadence of its time is less oppressive, and its laws have only a relative value.
Listen to him... This man's music will lift your heart and touch your mind.

This biography and recording history is a slightly amended and edited version of an appreciation of John Martyn which accompanied the review copies of his final Island studio album Piece By Piece in 1986. He has continued recording and touring since this piece was written.