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John Martyn

John Martyn

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 again

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.”

John Martyn 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.

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