The Tumbler (remastered)

7 Nov 2005
Written by: 
John Hillarby

John met Al Stewart (Year Of The Cat) on the London folk club circuit. Stewart was already well known, being contracted to CBS Records and having released a single The Elf. In June 1968 he took to the stage to introduce John at Les Cousins and subsequently produced The Tumbler, which was recorded at Regent Sound, Denmark Street in London’s Soho, on 11th July 1968 and released in December the same year. John’s previous album, London Conversation (IMCD319), had been well received however The Tumbler documents an early step forward in his musical progression.

Music is a constantly evolving language, a shifting landscape of creativity where artists emerge, gain recognition and often subside into obscurity. Few artists successfully transverse this creative landscape and receive the recognition for innovation that they deserve. Remarkably talented, compassionate and often forthright, John Martyn is one such artist who has influenced and inspired whole generations of new musicians. Just when you feel that you’ve heard all he has to offer, when you’ve finally pinned down and categorised his music, he undergoes yet another metamorphosis. Folk? Blues? Reggae? Jazz? Rock? Trip Hop? Funk? John refuses to conform to any particular music genre whilst simultaneously embracing them all. His guitar playing has evolved over the years - acoustic guitar in the 60s, to electro-acoustic in the 70s with a wah wah pedal, fuzz box and echoplex, to the 80s which saw him playing electric guitar almost exclusively in a full band setting and the 90s which saw trip hop and funk enter his music.

There was no Hogwarts for John his guitar wizardry is self-taught; a truly progressive artist who has never been one to stay with a tried and trusted sound, preferring to explore, experiment and break new ground bringing new ideas, colours and textures to his music. His live performances are legendary and many of the songs on John's studio albums have evolved from exploring and pushing back accepted musical boundaries during these free and less structured live performances.

John is an incurable romantic who sings from his heart; no other artist sings with such commitment and emotion. People fall in and out of love listening to his magical songs of deep sensitivity. John’s music is a barometer of our emotional state, our well being can be measured by the songs we listen to; passion and spirituality are at the heart of them all and in the heart of the man himself.

John Martyn was born Ian David McGeachy on 11th September 1948 in Beechcroft Avenue, New Malden, Surrey, the only son of two light opera singers Thomas Paterson McGeachy and Beatrice Jewitt. John's parents separated when he was very young and his early childhood was spent being brought up by his father and grandmother in Glasgow. His grandmother instilled traditional Scottish values, “I was brought up with my grandmother and my father, I thought it was wonderful, I had a great time. The school was in walking distance and my grandmother being the old school kind of Victorian, she just treated me wonderfully.” His father taught him "how to fish and fuck and ride a bike!”

Glasgow was renowned for its shipbuilding and engineering industries but by the 1950s the demand for merchant and navy ships had dwindled. The declining city was a far from attractive place, and on many winter nights a thick smog enveloped the city so tightly that you could often see little more than a few yards in front of you. The old stone tenements of the Gorbals that Oscar Marzaroli had captured in his evocative photographs were being demolished and replaced with high rise blocks. John recalls it was a tough environment where "you went out and kicked a few heads or you were looked on as a pansy."

John walked to school at the Shawlands Academy in Moss Side Road and later attended the Glasgow School of Art but was asked to leave after a couple of months! “I was thinking it was all going to be bohemian, listening to Rolling Stones records all day and smoke dope and drink coffee. That was going to be my life style and it didn't work out that way.” His interest in music came from his parents but not just as a result of their profession, "my father was a bit of a raver... He had a Davey Graham record!” Davey Graham was to become one of the major influences on John’s music. I asked John about his childhood, “I was a cub scout!” He enthused. During the school holidays John stayed with his mother, “we had a houseboat on The Thames at Thames Ditton and then later opposite the Ship Hotel at Shepperton. The pub would be full of actors from the nearby film studios... A very strange bunch,” he added chuckling to himself. John saved up money from a paper round to buy his first guitar and learnt to play at fifteen years old. Aged seventeen, he left school and started to play in some of the local folk clubs under the wing of Hamish Imlach, who encouraged him to play and introduced him to many different music genres. Imlach, who could see the ability and promise in John, was born in Calcutta. He was a warm, generous man and a singer and blues guitarist with a considerable reputation.

Davey Graham, a groundbreaking musician credited with blurring the boundaries of folk, blues and jazz, was one of John's first heroes, “he was the man who impressed me so much with his playing that I decided to go out and play myself. I had in fact heard him by 1965, and I was so impressed that I wanted to be Davey Graham or if I couldn't be Davey Graham, I wasn't going to be too far away from him. So I went out and bought a guitar.”

John’s first gig was somewhat unexpected; “Josh McCrae got drunk in the pub and could not appear. So I was given the gig, because I was the only one in the audience who could play the guitar and sing. And about four months after that I played in a place called The Black Bull in Dollar, which is outside Stirling. I got eleven quid for it, that was wonderful.” Clive Palmer, who owned Clive’s Incredible Folk Club in Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow, founded the Incredible String Band with Robin Williamson in the mid 1960s and became a good friend of John’s, "the best banjo player I ever heard and a lovely man.” John and Clive shared a flat and frequented the music pubs and clubs, "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." They subsequently lived in a dilapidated cottage in Cumbria, John recalls, “there was no electricity, no running water, but we played all day. You walked out the front and there was nothing. Just the moor. And a spring for your water. Fine days.”

With a growing reputation on the club circuit in the North John decided it was time to move on and travelled to London. There was a booming and vibrant music scene with new clubs opening all the time, “I was dossing in London, sleeping in Trafalgar Square and getting moved on by the fuzz.” He took the name John Martyn at the suggestion of his first agent Sandy Glennon. His new surname came from the makers of his favourite acoustic guitars; substituting the letter “i” for a “y” and the first name John for no other reason than it seemed plain and simple. John started playing in the clubs around London such as Les Cousins in Greek Street, Bunjie's and the Kingston Folk Barge. “I was playing a club called Folk Barge in Kingston, and a fat man called Theo Johnson came up to me and said, ‘I will make you a star.’ Literally, quite literally! Verbatim! And I said, ‘Go ahead then,’ and he took the record to Chris Blackwell, he made a demo disc of two songs, and introduced me, and there you are!” Les Cousins, John recalls, was “a real buzz, a wonderful place.” Chris Blackwell, the son of a plantation owner, founded Island Records in Jamaica in 1959. The label took its name from the Alec Waugh novel Island In The Sun and early releases were by West Indian musicians, John reputably being the first white artist to sign to the label. Blackwell recalls, “I liked him and loved his voice so I signed him.”

London Conversation was released when John was just nineteen years old and a little over a year later John released his second album The Tumbler a very different album to London Conversation. The album was again in the folk tradition and featured the jazz flautist Harold McNair. John recalls, “On London Conversation I'd only been playing guitar for three months, so I was only playing to tunings, E tuning and ordinary tuning. Well between the two albums I got exposed to London, you see, and at that time all the heroes were about, you know, Jansch and Davey Graham, and I just kind of listened a lot to music that I hadn't listened to before, and I met Harold McNair... Met loads of people all of a sudden. Between the two I just met all these people that were older and more experienced than me musically. That's the reason for the change.”

John was gaining a considerable following and was invited to play by the BBC for John Peel’s Night Ride radio show broadcast on 10th July 1968 performing four songs that were later to appear on The Tumbler: Sing A Song Of Summer, The Gardeners, Goin’ Down To Memphis and The River, and Fairy Tale Lullaby (from London Conversation).

In the delightful and unusually titled Knuckledy Crunch And Slippledee-Slee Song John sings of his childhood and the summer holidays spent with his mother.

Lived on a houseboat when I was young
Very young, oh so young
Every Tuesday, I would feed all the swans
In the sun, oh such fun
Then one day a man was seen
Chugging along on his river machine
It was a boat...

John’s mother was now remarried but John didn’t see eye to eye with his stepfather. John would visit in the school holidays but instead of staying with his mother he stayed with his aunt near Hampton Court Palace. Every Whitsun the Hampton Court Fair took place and these happy memories inspired him to write Dusty.

Nico, two-headed Cuban giant
He's looking with all of his eyes
At the colours that fall through the chestnut-tree night
'Cause tomorrow in London they rise
And don't you know that I'm dusty, too
Don't you know that I'm dusty through and through...

The candy floss lady is looking at me
Though she never has seen me before
She knows that I'm selling, let her buy all she has
And then maybe come back for some more
And don't you know that I'm dusty, too
Don't you know that I'm dusty through and through...

Roundabouts roundabout all closing down
And the men of the goldfish are gone
The cars and the arms are all tired now
And the lights on the grass are down
And don't you know that I'm dusty, too
Don't you know that I'm dusty through and through...

Nico, two-headed Cuban giant
He's looking with all of his eyes
At the colours that fall through the chestnut-tree night
Because tomorrow in London they rise
And don't you know that I'm dusty, too
Don't you know that I'm dusty through and through...

Saxophonist and flautist Harold McNair’s playing is influential, particularly so on Dusty, Fly On Home and the dark and worrying The Gardeners, adding a new dimension to The Tumbler demonstrating John’s musical progression from London Conversation. McNair was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and had released Affectionate Fink in 1965 on the Island label. “A very sweet little guy, very unassuming, very beautiful, very good flute player and a great alto player. He was definitely the best flute player I've ever heard. Nobody swung like him. They called him Little Jesus... He was West Indian. He did a great deal for me in that he opened me up. I started to think "wow there are people who can really do it". He did a lot for me just by example. We were never really close friends or anything, just good acquaintances. We played well together." The album was recorded in an afternoon! Dave Moses played double bass and Paul Wheeler second guitar. John had met Paul Wheeler at an Incredible String Band gig and both were regulars at Les Cousins. Paul remembers watching John performing in a cellar at Les Cousins when the telephone rang, only for John to pick it up mid song and hold a conversation in front of the audience!

John’s fast and dazzling finger picking guitar technique is a feature of the album particularly on Seven Black Roses, which John describes as his "visual guitar solo" or Spiders On The Strings. A vigorous and tonally expanded instrumental, one of the few songs from this album that John still performed live to wide acclaim in his 1970s gigs and one that remains an inspiration to all aspiring guitarists. Similarly A Day At The Sea showcases John’s rapidly developing technique. An ever-increasing fan base secured John another BBC radio appearance to promote The Tumbler. John and Harold McNair performed the unreleased Different From The Book, The Easy Blues, Dusty, Hello Train, Fly On Home and of course Seven Black Roses which was broadcast on 11th December 1968.

It was towards the end of 1968/ early 1969 when John first met folk singer Maureen Beverley Kutner. John was performing at the Chelsea College of Art supporting American singer Jackson C Frank. Beverley, who was signed to the Deram label, had released two singles Happy New Year and Museum, (the later having been written by Donovan) and she invited John to do some session work for her. 'Here he was, individual and rakish, all curly hair and smiles. He seemed like the ideal guy to help me out, plus of course it helped that I fancied him like mad." A whirlwind romance saw them living together in Denning Road, Hampstead and at 20, John married the then 22 year old Beverley on 22nd April 1969 at Hampstead Registry Office.

Although John was originally hired to be Beverley's backing guitarist they were soon to record two albums together. Stormbringer (IMCD317) was recorded in the summer of 1969 at A & R Studios in New York and was released in February 1970. The album featured The Band's Levon Helm on drums and other session men including the Mothers of Invention's Billy Mundi. Whilst John and Beverley were gaining popularity, other performers were struggling. A young Elton John was hired by Warlock Music to record a publisher’s demo of artists signed to the label. He sang seven songs including Go Out And Get It, Sweet Honesty and Stormbringer, which were recorded at Sound Techniques in Chelsea in July 1970. John and Beverley's last album together was The Road To Ruin (IMCD318), which was released in November 1970, after which John reverted to recording on his solo…

John Hillarby, September 2005