My wife doesn’t like John Martyn.
Years ago I had a tape with Van Morrison’s Beautiful Vision on one side and an assortment of John Martyn tracks on the other. I loaned it to a guy I worked with. He was getting tired of what was played on the radio. When he gave it back to me he said that he’d loved Morrison but “that guy on the other side is a bit much.”
But as one of his songs went
“Some people are crazy about him, some people just can’t stand his face.”
Martyn cut his teeth on the Glasgow and London folk circuits but was never truly a folk musician. He certainly admired and drew inspiration from the folk canon, and he made his name as an acoustic finger-style player. But the truth is more complex, and over a multi-decade recording and performing career he recorded music and gave performances that were nothing that you’d call folk music.
Martyn was influenced by Davy Graham (whose influence was out of proportion to his low commercial profile) and the two had a similar inclination to incorporate other styles into what they were doing. We can count him amongst an interesting cluster or musicans who, in the late 60s and early 70s, combined multiple influences while also throwing something that was uniquely their own into the musical pot. Nick Drake, the Incredible String Band, Sandy Denny and Richard Thompson would be other members of the group though I don’t want to draw a line around the membership. The approach was the same in broad terms, but the results were strikingly different.
The orthodox view of Martyn is that he started out as a primarily acoustic artist with roots in Scottish folk and the blues, that there was a defining, golden era in the early 70s before he changed his sound and (have the smelling salts handy) went electric as his personality changed and he sought greater commercial success. There was a backlash from long term fans in the 80s as he de-emphasised the acoustic guitar, ended his famous and successful musical partnership with ex-Pentangle bass player Danny Thompson and fronted an electric band.
I’ve recently had a good listen to Martyn. Most of his albums that I have fall into this defining era during which he made his reputation.
Martyn is one of those artists who defies easy categorisation. I suppose that during this period (after the two albums that he cut with his wife Beverley) his work might be classified as a folk/jazz hybrid. The foundation of what he did was his finger-style acoustic guitar playing and his engaging, expressive vocals, but he was already looking to expand his range and sound and increasingly was making use of electronic effects. His rhythmic guitar style and his use of delay effects and what amounts to a forerunner of looping was groundbreaking. The impact of some of these innovations is dulled with time , and anybody starting with Martyn now might find his percussive acoustic guitar work and especially his use of a rapid echo effect (think of the Edge’s famous guitar into to “Where The Streets Have No Name”) familiar. But there are other things to hold onto – the detail in his guitar playing, the emotion of his vocals, some fine songs and a seductive ambience.
Bless The Weather was released in 1971. The mood is mostly one of mellow contentment with married life and with frustration at the way his job would keep him from home (I’m not saying this is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but – Martyn was a serial philanderer). It’s a beautifully recorded album with warmth and detail in the acoustic guitar sound. His cover of “Singing In The Rain” shows his musicality and the decorations in his guitar playing. Most tracks feature Danny Thompson whose distinctive, highly accomplished double-bass playing was a significant component of Martyn’s live and recorded sound for much of the decade.
The key track amongst the predominant mellowness is “Glistening Glyndebourne” which marks the debut of the echoplex delay effects that would become his signature sound. The track was recorded largely live in the studio and Martyn was able to reliably reproduce it in concert. This is easier said now than it was done then with the effect units based on a tape loop and without the modern tap tempo feature. It’s a bit of a meandering mess, but it’s important just the same. Nobody else was doing anything close to this with echo at the time.
In early 1973 he released Solid Air, acclaimed as the definitive Martyn album and the best starting point for anybody want to explore golden-era Martyn.
He’s moved his sound on already, There’s a little more jazz in the sound, especially in his vocals which now feature a deliberate slur. “Man In The Station” and “Dreams By The Sea” are full band tracks with drums, electric guitar and keyboards. This makes me question the backlash that came his way in the 80s because he’d signalled his desire to play with a band so early and on the album which was so well received in real time.
Over the years it’s acquired a reputation as a “chill out” album, and it is often sonically beguiling and full of seductive textures: Martyn’s vocals (which are recorded so as to sound close up and intimate), the Fender Rhodes electric piano panning from side to side (Jeff Beck would use the same effect on his excellent Blow By Blow album a couple of years later), breathy saxophone, Danny Thompson’s bass. He shows off his acoustic guitar chops on “The Easy Blues” with it’s litany of old-fashioned sexual blues metaphors. The title track, Martyn’s reach out to his friend Nick Drake, sets the sensuous, laid back mood.
He works the echoplex trick again on a storming cover of Skip James’s “I’d Rather Be The Devil”. The effect is better realised than on the preceding album, and his impassioned vocal packs a big bluesy punch. There’s a drummer and a percussionist on this track but Martyn’s echo-assisted rhythm is so strong that they mainly add embellishment rather than set and control the beat.
Solid Air includes the definitive version of Martyn’s best known song “May You Never”. He’d recorded it before but hadn’t been happy with the results. This time he went into the studio with just his guitar and got a much better take. Eric Clapton, who was a great admirer of Martyn, recorded this song in 1977. Martyn said that the royalties he got from the Clapton recording exceeded the income from everything else he did..
Later that year he released Inside Out which had more experimental edge to it. Martyn produced this time and it’s a lovely sounding record. The acoustic guitar in particular is beautifully recorded.
The experimentation continues with more electric guitar, more effects (often interesting and usually very musical) and a wider range of composition. He’s stepping out as a guitar soloist too, both acoustic (the jazzy solo on “Ain’t No Saint”) and electric (his version of the traditional pipe tune “Eibhli Ghail Chiuin Ni Chearbhail”). He rolls out the echoplex to even wilder effect and adds a heavily distorted guitar part on the instrumental “Outside In”. The echo is now very much part of his sound and the improvisational aspect of the performances is growing all the time.
This wasn’t just studio wizardry. Martyn had his use of effects very well worked out – including adding multiple pickups to an acoustic guitar for live use. 1975’s Live at Leeds (yes, he did crib the title of The Who’s famous live album) is a snap shot of the famous Martyn/Thompson live act, including a nearly 19 minute version of “Outside In” which goes even further than it did in the studio and shows Martyn innovating again and anticipating and predating looping. The duo are augmented on this album by drummer John Stevens and ex-Free guitarist Paul Kossoff. But Kossoff got a guest spot during the show and wasn’t on stage for “Outside In” (indeed was totally absent from the album as originally issued) so how are there two guitar parts towards the end of the track? Martyn must have recorded and “stored” one part on tape earlier and then played it back so that he could solo over it.
This also speaks of great precision by the players. Martyn didn’t have access to the tap-tempo effects units that are common these days.
The version of Live At Leeds that I have is a later re-issue and includes extra live tracks originally left off the album. This was partly an economic consideration (Martyn had to pay the manufacturing costs himself and up front) and partly aesthetic because Kossoff didn’t play well that night. The extras you get now affirm Martyn’s original selection. The new additions aren’t nearly in the same class performance wise, and Kossoff’s soloing is sloppy compared to Martyn’s.
So there’s a four piece band on some tracks, a three piece on the rest, but really the magic is the interplay between Martyn and Thompson and their individual skills, and I can easily imagine that the two of them, with Martyn running his echo machines, would have produced a very satisfactory live performance.
The impact of Martyn’s innovations will have been diluted with time, but there was more to him than that. Certainly in the early 70s he was ploughing his own musical furrow and didn’t make many compromises. His approach to jazz from a folky starting point, his engaging vocals, the seductive productions and restless musical sensibility make him a unique proposition even now – with the caveat that like many artists who don’t dilute their work he may not suit everybody. Start with Solid Air and if you don’t like that you’re unlikely to like anything from this phase of Martyn’s career.
My copy of Live at Leeds has a second disk of live performances from later tours, many of them with Martyn fronting a more conventional band and playing electric guitar. What they show is that as far as he came in those three or four years he wasn’t anywhere near done developing.