Starting out as a folk singer, John Martyn soon outgrew the
singer-songwriter scene and introduced a unique blend of blues, dub,
jazz, rock and funk into his music. Here he takes Jonathan Wingate
on a journey through the past darkly, down the road to ruin and back
Born Iain David McGeachy on 11th September
1948 in New Malden, Surrey John Martyn was the only son of two light
opera singers who separated when he was still a young child. “My family didn’t
listen to much music, because we all played,” he recalls. “When I was 14, I
copped Joan Baez singing 'The Silver Dagger'. Then I copped Davey Graham, which
just blew me straight away. I begged my daddy to buy me a guitar, although he
actually made me pay for it, ‘cos we weren’t too rich. I had a paper round and
a milk round, so I saved up the money. I was so keen, it was silly. I used to
run all the way home from school at lunch and just tootle about on my new guitar.”
By the summer of 1969 Martyn was hired to play
for an up and coming singer from Coventry called Beverley Kutner. Within a matter
of months, they were married and had travelled to America to record two albums
together, Stormbringer and Road To Ruin.
“Suddenly, we were in Woodstock, surrounded by all these Americans, swinging
like bitches,” he beams. “We were playing with The Band – Levon Helm…I’ve forgotten
the rest. Stormbringer was a step forward, but I’m not so sure about Road To Ruin,
although it was cool because I got to play with my friends like Danny Thompson.
Danny and I were like brothers. He plays very cool bass, man. When we were playing,
it was beautiful. But we were both a bit vicious. Danny used to give hotel managers
50 quid and go: ‘There, that’s for the damage.’ What damage? ‘There fucking will be,’”
John Martyn laughs like a blocked drain. “Of all the people I’ve met, Danny was
probably the sweetest.”
Would you say your hedonistic lifestyle has helped you creatively?
“It’s self-evident, is it not,” he says. “I don’t suppose I’d be making any music
without drink and drugs. I was drinking from the age of nine. I still fucking love
it when I get loaded.”
Between 1971 – 1981, John Martyn recorded an astonishing run of pioneering albums
including Bless The Weather, Solid Air, Sunday’s Child, One World, Grace and Danger and Solid Air, which most Martyn aficionados consider to be Martyn at the peak of
his considerable powers.
“Solid Air didn’t change anything, because by then, I was there,” he insists. “It
sold more, though. You’re talking about 30 years ago, mate. In hindsight, it don’t
make no fucking difference whether it’s true or it ain’t true. It’s all water under
the bridge. Gone – not forgotten, but gone." It was also during this period that the
Echoplex effects unit become a feature of Martyn’s music
“The Echoplex definitely changed my career, and was very important in developing
my sound. People hadn’t heard it before. I couldn’t find a way to get that sustain
and make myself sound like a saxophonist. It put the back beat on it, which I
invented…thank you very much.”
Were you trying to sing like John Coltrane or Charlie Parker played?
“Nah,” he chuckles, chugging back his glass of wine, “I’m good enough, but
I ain’t that cool. I never really made any cool moves or conscious career decisions.”
Martyn recently completed his twenty-second studio album,
On The Cobbles, which features a guest list including Paul Weller, Mavis Staples
and ex-Verve guitarist Nick McCabe. It’s a fine album, although Martyn seems
distinctly unenthusiastic about it, perhaps because he recorded it just before
he had his right leg amputated below the knee.
“I was very sore making this record, up to my arsehole in painkillers. I
can’t actually remember it much. I could have done it better if my leg
hadn’t been dropping off. Seriously, if you’ve got septicaemia going through
your body, you do not feel too fucking cool.”
So what does music mean to John Martyn in 2005?
“If you love music, then the music will come through you.
It’s nothing to do with physical chemistry between people.
The music will overpower you. The music is the driving force.
That’s more important than any personality or any thought.
It really is just the power of the fucking music, man. I don’t
give a damn what anyone else says. Essential power – that’s
what music is.”
Since his death there have been several releases of note including posthumous studio album Heaven And Earth completed by producers Gary Pollitt and Jim Tullio (who worked on his final album On The Cobbles), an expertly expanded Live At Leeds and the fine 4 CD box set Ain't No Saint, a career-spanning retrospective released on the eve of the singer's 60th birthday in 2008 - compiler John Hillarby choosing at least one track to represent each of Martyn's albums, the set also including rarities and outtakes.
the PDF version to read this interview in full