Despite a string of successful albums and an enviable reputation as a performer, commercial success and mainstream popularity had eluded John Martyn, not that it concerned him in the slightest! John constantly explored and experimented, and Well Kept Secret was no exception as John embraced a more contemporary sound than his previous albums.
Having recorded ten albums with Island Records, including two with his wife Beverley, 1980 saw the eventual release of his 'divorce' album Grace And Danger, documenting the breakdown of their marriage, the heartache and lost love.
It was a fresh start for John, not only in his personal life, but also musically. He had moved away almost entirely from performing solo to touring with a band, and he left Island Records signing a two album deal with WEA Records (the collective name for the Warner Brothers, Elektra and Asylum labels). Well Kept Secret was John's twelfth studio album and it proved to be one of his most successful, spending seven weeks in the album charts peaking at number twenty. Longstanding fans had come to expect twists and turns in John's musical quest but some found his new sound hard to take, whilst others maintained an open mind and found much to enjoy. "The songs that I write now are radically new. Awaiting on a fair bit of sympathy from people who loved old things. This is far louder and more direct... but certainly no less complex."
Sandy Roberton was managing John's affairs. Sandy had co-produced Ian Matthews' album Stealin' Home that included a cover of John's The Man In The Station and this prompted John to get in touch. I asked Sandy how they came to meet, "I was living in Fulham and John just turned up at my house and asked me if I would be interested in managing him. It was as simple as that."
John's first album for WEA was Glorious Fool, released in September 1981. With its title track dedicated to Ronald Reagan, the album was recorded at The Townhouse in London and produced by close friend Phil Collins, who, like John, had recently gone through a divorce. John recalled "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..." John and Phil forged a lifelong friendship, "he's a mate, musician, his ears aren't painted on, he doesn't have one eye on the dollar and the other on the expense account, he's a straight-man and I like him." John's new sound was more full-bodied and vigorous than previous albums. Eric Clapton played guitar on Couldn't Love You More and Phil Collins played drums throughout as well as producing, not the easiest of tasks spending time both in the studio and behind the recording desk. Phil asked Sandy to work in the control room as a stand-in producer as he found it difficult to keep leaving the drum kit to listen to takes and so Sandy assisted Phil until the drum tracks were recorded. The album was well received, "Produced by Phil Collins with appearances from him and even Eric Clapton, Glorious Fool is a brilliantly blatant bid for the long deserved big time." Wrote Melody Maker and "One of this year's (any year's) finest." The Guardian was similarly positive, "Martyn's breakthrough from Cult Status."
The recording of Glorious Fool was a good experience for John and he began work on his second album for WEA in early 1982. WEA wanted to emulate the commercial success of Glorious Fool and mount a full blown assault on the charts to make John a household name. Phil Collins couldn't assist due to an extensive touring schedule and it was suggested that Mike Howlett (formerly of progressive rock band Gong) would produce the album. Howlett had recently produced Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Darks Organisation and Architecture And Morality albums, as well as songs for Tears For Fears and A Flock of Seagulls achieving considerable commercial success. One of Howlett's stipulations was definitely no drugs in the studio so the suggestion was short lived!!
John asked manager Sandy Roberton if he would produce the album. Sandy had produced Steeleye Span and numerous albums for Ian Matthews including Stealin' Home, Siamese Friends and A Spot Of Interference. Sandy recalls, "Pre-production for the album was done at John's cottage in Lanarkshire. Initially the album was a more stripped down affair but John decided to have his band in the studio as he wanted to tour the album." John was exploring the use of a sequencer to record and then play back music in different tempos. During the early stages the band comprised Jim Prime on keyboards, Alan Thomson on bass and Jim Drummond on drums. Keyboard player Jim Prime had toured with Altered Images and went on to form chart topping band Deacon Blue in 1985 with Ricky Ross, guitarist Graeme Kelling, vocalist Lorraine McIntosh, bass guitarist Ewen Vernal and drummer Dougie Vipond. Bassist Alan Thomson came to John's attention when he formed a college group The Arthur Trout Band with John's cousin David Roy who played sax. Alan went on to work with Robert Palmer, Manfred Man, Andy Summers, Chris Rea and Eric Clapton and was an integral part of John's band from 1980 through to 2009. Jim Drummond started his career with rock band Strangeways, with whom he recorded five albums over twelve years and toured with Bryan Adams, Meatloaf and The Kinks, as well as working with Barbara Dickson and sax legend Dick Heckstall-Smith.
John commenced recording in May 1982 at RAK Studios, a converted Victorian schoolhouse in St John's Wood, London. RAK was founded in 1976 by producer Mickie Most, who had worked with the Animals, Jeff Beck and Donovan amongst others. Jeff Allen replaced Drummond on drums, Jeff had played in band East of Eden in the 70s and went on to record with Bonnie Tyler, Murray Head and Snowy White. London based percussionist Danny Cummings who has worked with Dire Straits, George Michael, Elton John, Talk Talk and Depeche Mode amongst other similarly well-known artists also joined John in the studio. Alan Thomson contributed guitar as well as bass to some of the songs and Sandy brought in other musicians to make 'guest' appearances; Mel Collins on sax, Martin Drover on trumpet, Lee Kosmin and Stevie Lange harmony vocals, ex-Jellybread keyboardist Pete Wingfield and legendary jazz saxophonist Ronnie Scott played on John's cover of the Johnny Ace R&B classic Never Let Me Go. "WEA were looking for an album that they could get on radio," Sandy recalls, "They were in the business of selling records. They were not Island who had nurtured John's beautiful eclectic music without agenda."
Having recorded Livin' Alone, Could've Been Me, Hung Up and Never Let Me Go, John took a break from recording and returned home to Scotland. On a fateful afternoon John, Alan Thomson, Jim Prime and Jeff Allen went for a walk through the countryside near his home in Roberton. On the way back John decided to vault a fence with disastrous consequences. The fence post he used to propel himself skywards collapsed and he fell on top of the fence impaling himself, suffering broken ribs and a punctured lung, Sandy recalls, "It looked like a hand grenade had exploded in his armpit."
On the way to hospital John stopped for a medicinal beverage or two and subsequently arrived at hospital so well lubricated that a period of drying out was required before they could commence treatment. Work on the album came to an abrupt halt and news of John's injury made the music press:
"Martyn's Fence Folly. John Martyn's determined efforts to update his 'laid back' image of the Seventies backfired on him last week when he attempted to vault a fence by his Scottish cottage which collapsed on him. Martyn fell on a broken post and fractured several ribs, one of which pierced a lung. He will now be laid up as opposed to laid back or even laid out for several weeks in hospital and a projected American tour has had to be cancelled while recording sessions for his next album have been delayed. But, assuming his period of convalescence doesn't drive him back to his previous image, a tour of England in September with his band will go ahead as scheduled."
John was admitted to Law Hospital in Lanarkshire and was far from a model hospital patient enjoying vodka smuggled in to him in mineral water bottles and even smoking dope! Frustrated by his confinement he soon discharged himself with the aim of finishing the album even though his recovery had a long way to go. Dosed up on painkillers and self-prescribed 'alternative' remedies John and band returned to RAK Studios to complete Well Kept Secret.
John's diet of pain killers was supplemented by Jamaican food courtesy of 'Lucky' Gordon who cooked every day at the studio. Sandy recalls, "Lucky had been involved with Christine Keeler during the Profumo scandal and had been an active musician but ended up cooking. I can still smell that wonderful Goat Curry when I listen to the album today!" Phil Thornalley engineered and Mike Nocito was the tape man, both subsequently experiencing chart success as part of Johnny Hates Jazz. John was determined to finish the album but was struggling with his health and the overwhelming demands of the record company to promote his forthcoming album through what seemed like never ending interviews, radio and television appearances, something he always disliked. John was at his happiest when he was playing, the music was the 'cool bit' and he detested the industry that enveloped music as a whole, viewing it with considerable distrust.
Released on 27th August 1982 Well Kept Secret was an adventurous offering from John. His laid back mellow vocals and heartfelt lyrics on Could've Been Me, Hung Up and Never Let Me Go are supplemented by more unpredictable songs. Whilst Glorious Fool had given some indication as to the direction he was taking, Well Kept Secret was a big stride forward. It was dynamic, charged with energy, emotion and vitality, demonstrating a rockier side to John's music, particularly on Gun Money, Love Up, Hiss On The Tape and Back With A Vengeance.
John consistently embraced the need to move forward and progress his music, experimenting and absorbing diverse musical influences as he went, but his music always reflected his personal life experiences, both happy and sad. "You see, every record I've made - bad, good, or indifferent is totally autobiographical. I locate the emotions around me at the time and... well, the emotions locate themselves more probably. I can look back when I hear a record and recall exactly what was going on. That's how I write. That's the only way I can write. Moods shift, the most prevalent feelings take over and... well, look at all the songs on Grace And Danger. That's probably the most specific piece of autobiography I've written. Some people keep diaries, I make records. It's all very fundamental, really."
Whatever the emotion John performs the songs with passion and heart, a tortured, lost love vocal on Hung Up, pleading on Never Let Me Go, and green-eyed jealousy on Could've Been Me. The expression of emotion throughout the album is phenomenal even on the belligerent rock bravado compositions of Gun Money, Hiss On The Tape and Back With A Vengeance.
The heart on sleeve Livin' Alone closes the album as John shares his loneliness, perhaps still contemplating and coming to terms with his recently acquired status as a single man.
I'm living with a heartache,
I'm not living alone, living alone,
I'm living with a heartbreak here.
"The songs are warm and intelligent and a majority of Well Kept Secret is pacier and louder than he's ever been on one album before... it's a good record, a class record," said New Musical Express1 and "Martyn's magical music has remained pretty much a mystery to the majority of record buyers... his considerable acclaim among pundits and fellow performers alike never being reflected in unit-shifting... there are gems like Hung Up and Could've Been Me and Never Let Me Go, as always coupled with snarling, fang-baring shouts of emotion such as Gun Money and Love Up, reflecting a harder edge than Martyn has honed on his music of late and giving balance and drive to the album... He's simply too good to remain a secret..." Wrote Dave Lewis for Sounds.
WEA released an edited version of Hiss On The Tape coupled with Livin Alone on the B-side as a 7 inch single (WEA K 79336) on 24th September and John's first songbook Open Window, containing thirteen of his best known songs was published to coincide with the start of a massive tour of the UK. The tour included a performance alongside Genesis and Talk Talk at Six Of The Best, a benefit concert for Womad (World Of Music, Arts And Dance) on 2nd October in the Milton Keynes Bowl and John also appeared on The Old Grey Whistle Test on 15th October performing Hiss On The Tape, Hung Up and Gun Money. The tour culminated with two nights at Hammersmith Odeon and Phil Collins flew in to London to join John on stage on the penultimate night of the tour on 22nd October. John was enjoying his music and loved playing with his band, "With a good band it's such a joy because there's a constant exchange of ideas and musical textures."
A second single followed in November, Gun Money (US Remix) (WEA 259987-7) with a live recording of Hiss On The Tape from a concert at Oxford Apollo on Sunday 10th October 1982 as the B-side in November. These songs are included on this release as bonus songs.
Although Well Kept Secret was John's most commercially successful release, WEA decided not to take an option on a third album and John was out of contract. He was soon to be without a manager when Sandy resigned due to his ever increasing frustration at John's personal lifestyle, a frustration that erupted with an exchange of blows on tour.
Having produced some of the most eternal, sublime and undefinable music John had somehow remained a 'secret' and Well Kept Secret is perhaps one of John's bravest, most progressive and audacious albums. Whilst it didn't appeal to all of his established fan base there is plenty to enjoy, the quality and sheer brilliance of the music surpasses style.
John Martyn's extraordinary music, sense of fun and laughter are sadly missed, we will never see his like again. One day he will no longer be a 'well kept secret.'
1 Danny Baker to be precise.