Sunday, 23 February 2014

John Martyn (1948 - 2009)

Iain David McGeachy was born in 1948 in New Malden, Surrey. His parents (both opera singers) divorced when he was five and he grew up in Glasgow living with his grandmother. At Shawlands Academy he loved to listen to blues music and by aged 15 had become a competent guitar player and two years later was a regular on the Glasgow folk scene. There his mentor was legendary folky Hamish Imlach but John’s musical influences lay in many different musical genres including the classics. Soon John was touring the North of England folk circuit which was brim full of emerging Celtic talent like Billy Connolly, Gerry Rafferty, (Humblebums), Joe Egan and Barbara Dickson among many others. John became close friends with Clive Palmer (Incredible String Band).

Eager to become part of the burgeoning folk club scene of the mid sixties John moved to London and there he became a regular at the Les Cousins in Soho and Scots Hoose in Cambridge Circus. There he rubbed shoulders with Paul Simon, Ralph McTell, Al Stewart, Ray Harper, Donovan and Bert Jansch. John’s unique blend of blues and folk, musicianship and ability to write his own material meant he stood out from the crowd. Chris Blackwell (co-founder of Island Records) signed John in 1967 making him the first solo white artist to join the company. Island Records had originated in Jamaica in 1959 and was founded by Chris Blackwell and Graeme Goodall. The company relocated to the UK in 1962 and initially concentrated on reggae style music but by the mid sixties they recognised the developing underground music genre. The labels demographic were older teenagers and younger adults who preferred albums to singles. John recorded a folky album called London Conversation which was a folk album released in 1968.

By the time he came to record his second album The Tumbler, (produced by Al Stwart) the emphasis had moved to a more jazz feel with session musicians like Harold McNair (a reeds man - jazz saxophonist or jazz clarinetist) fleshing out the sound.

On tour John continued to experiment adding various effects to his electrified acoustic performances. As contemporaries Hendrix and Townsend were experimenting with feedback John Martyn fed his acoustic guitar through a fuzzbox, phase-shifter, and Echoplex to allow him to play off of tape loops of his own guitar. This gave him a unique sound which was captured on the Stormbringer! album (1970) and recorded in Woodstock, N.Y. with American musicians.

By now his influences combined folk, blues, rock and jazz as well as music from the Middle East, South America and Jamaica giving John and unique folk appeal. In 1973 Solid Air was released and became arguable his most commercial effort to date.

The album featured jazz bass player, Danny Thompson (Pentangle), John’s vocals were in a slurred vocal style, the timbre of which resembled a tenor saxophone. The same technique was used much later by Van Morrison. Martyn’s next project was an experimental album called Inside Out. It emphasised improvisation rather than song structure and John’s vocals were deeper and much bluesier.

John’s private life was in turmoil with marriage problems and battling alcohol dependency none the less he continued to perform although his personal appearances were erratic and inconsistent. Performances ranged from utter disasters driven by drunken antics to sheer brilliance as captured on Live at Leeds (1975).

At the time Island refused to release the album which featured Danny Thompson and drummer John Stevens, so John sold signed copies of the album by mail order. By the end of 1975, the singer songwriter was utterly exhausted and took a break year to travel. In Jamaica he met reggae producer Lee 'Scratch' Perry and there he was encouraged to start playing again. On his return One World (produced by Phil Brown) was released in 1977.

The album had a more upbeat feel and was recorded outside and in the early hours of the morning which provided an interesting array of incidental sounds that appealed to the hi fi enthusiast. No longer just a folk of blues singer the new hip direction earned John critical acclaim and the title, “Father of Trip-Hop, ” and One World charted in the UK albums chart. By the end of the decade the signer songwriter’s marriage had dissolved and his personal life was again in complete chaos. Depressed and alcoholic he produced Grace and Danger but Island initially refused to release the album because they felt the content was too depressing.

The songs painfully and honestly depicted the writer/performers personal predicament providing his fans with his most powerful material in years. Phil Collins (Genesis) played drums and sang backing vocals and John Giblin played bass. Eventually it was released and Grace and Danger subsequently become one of the highest-regarded in the John Martyn portfolio. It also happens to be John Martyn’s favourite album. Now tired of the limitations of his acoustic guitar and solo performances he concentrated on electric guitar with a full band setting for his music. John switched recording labels to Warner Brothers (WEA) and released Glorious Fool (1981), produced by Phil Collins and featuring Eric Clapton; and Well Kept Secret (1982).

Eventually he returned to Island records but not before he released another live album called Philanthropy.

Still battling alcoholism, John Martyn left Island records in 1988 after they refused to renew his contract. Throughout the nineties John continued to record and perform often with well known collaborators such as Phil Collins, David Gilmour of Pink Floyd and Levon Helm of the Band. Towards the end of the decade the adopted Scottish artist was more influenced by funk than folk and continued to record ground breaking materials. Despite failing health John Martyn was always determined to continue to experiment and in 2001 he collaborated with dance artist Sister Bliss and sang the vocals on a cover version of Deliver Me (previous recorded by the Beloved). The single reached No. 31 in the UK charts.

Throughout the latter part of his career Island records continued to release compilations of his works which although not representative of his contemporary developments none the less introduced many new fans to the brilliance of the man’s music catalogue. Martyn’s music features in several movie soundtracks and TV shows such as The Talented Mr Ripley and Human Remains respectively and continued to be a most well respected figure in electric folk having inspired many throughout the decades.

In 2001 the documentary Tell them I'm somebody else... was released and features live music as well as behind the scenes footage of John rehearsing and relaxing.

John Martyn continued to record and perform living between Ireland and Scotland. In 2009 he sadly died from diabetic complications.

Worth a listen
Cocain (1967)
The River (1968)
John the Baptist (1970)
Head and Heart (1971)
Solid Air (1973)
May You Never (1973)
So much in love with you (1973)
One day without you (1974)
Big Muff (1977)
Couldn’t love you more (1977)
Dealer (1977)
One World (1977)
Solid Air (1977)
Small Hours (1978)
Angeline (1986)

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