THERE were many embarrassing moments in my journalistic career, and some still have the capacity to make me cringe. One such came on a Sunday in 1976, at the July Wakes Festival. It was held at a site named Park Hall, adjacent to Charnock Richard services on the M6, which in the 1980s would become the Camelot theme park before being abandoned in 2012.
I was there to see Bert Jansch and John Martyn, the latter being top of the bill. Surveying the crowd basking in the sunshine (it was one of the hottest summers on record), I saw to my amazement that the bearded Martyn was actually sitting in the crowd on the grass watching whoever was then on stage (possibly Five Hand Reel). I wasted no time in approaching him, identifying myself and asking if he was up for an interview.
He looked a bit reluctant but said OK, so I engaged in an anodyne conversation to loosen him up before coming in with some killer questions. I was surprised how boring he seemed, but was nevertheless excited to be speaking to a living legend. After a few difficult minutes, I said: ‘And what time are you on, John?’
‘On what?’ came the reply. ‘And why are you calling me John? My name is Clive.’
He wasn’t John Martyn, of course, just a bloke with a beard. And when the real JM took to the stage, I realised they didn’t look like each other at all.
Martyn, accompanied by the peerless Danny Thompson on double bass, delivered an excellent 90-minute set which was recorded and released as an album more than 30 years later. I tried to enjoy the performance while still smarting from my stupidity. But all things considered, I wish I hadn’t gone to Charnock Richard that day.
John Martyn was born Iain David McGeachy in New Malden, Surrey, on September 11 1948. His English mother and Scottish father were both singers of light opera. They divorced when he was five and his subsequent childhood was divided between Surrey and Glasgow, which accounts for his tendency to alternate between broad Scots and Mockney accents.
Leaving art college in the mid-60s, he rapidly became a leading figure in the folk scene and in 1967 became the first white act signed to Island Records. The following year saw his first album, London Conversation, which included Back To Stay, later recorded by Bridget St John (yes, her again). Also in 1968 he released The Tumbler, a jazzier affair than its folky predecessor.
The 1970 album Stormbringer!, recorded as a duo with his wife Beverley (nee Kutner, a former squeeze of Bert Jansch and Paul Simon), introduced Martyn’s new sound, acoustic guitar run through a fuzzbox and Echoplex, a tape delay effect. This was swiftly followed by The Road To Ruin, the title track of which is lovely.
It was decided at this point that John should go solo again and in 1971 he released Bless The Weather, which was a great leap forward. The title track, featuring super work from Danny Thompson, Head and Heart and Just Now are all great songs, while Glistening Glyndebourne is the first full-blown Echoplex track he recorded.
In 1973 came Solid Air, where Martyn’s signature blend of slurred vocals, echoing guitar and Thompson’s double bass were now fully realised. The title track is a tribute to John’s troubled Island labelmate Nick Drake, who was to die soon afterwards from an overdose of antidepressants.
The simple, heartfelt message to a friend, May You Never, would become one of Martyn’s best-loved songs. With its benevolent theme it anticipates Dylan’s Forever Young which appeared on 1974’s Planet Waves album. Whether John inspired Bob is open to conjecture. Solid Air came out in February 1973 and Dylan recorded a demo of Forever Young in June that year.
My own favourite Martyn album is the next, also from 1973, Inside Out. It opens with the gentle, beautiful Fine Lines, and the penultimate track is Ways To Cry, another classic. In between we have music more concerned with feel than structure, and it works. For me, Danny Thompson is just as much the star of this album and deserves a joint credit.
This was followed in 1975 by a more conventional set, Sunday’s Child, which reflects Martyn’s then happy state of mind and joy in his young family – he and Beverley had a son and daughter. Highlights are You Can Discover and the traditional Spencer the Rover.
That same year Island was unwilling to release his album Live At Leeds, recorded with Thompson and drummer John Stevens, so Martyn decided to sell it mail-order from his home in Hastings. It came in a plain white sleeve stamped with his name and the album title. Having ordered it the day it was announced, I was delighted to receive a copy marked in felt-tip with a 1 in the box headed ‘Limited Edition Number . . .’ Later I realised he probably put 1 on all of them.
Martyn then took a sabbatical in Jamaica, spending time with the reggae producer Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, the result of which was the 1977 record One World. The best bits for me are Couldn’t Love You More and the last track, the sublime Small Hours, which was recorded in the open air and includes the sounds of birds and water. Sadly, this album shows the diminishing influence of Danny Thompson, who plays on only two tracks and not at all on subsequent albums.
Despite the inner peace of his music, John Martyn was a turbulent character whose life was dominated by drink and drugs. His marriage to Beverley ended in the late 70s amid claims of domestic violence and their break-up is chronicled on the 1980 album Grace and Danger. Here’s a live version of Sweet Little Mystery from the BBC rock programme The Old Grey Whistle Test, plus the truly agonised Hurt In Your Heart. Phil Collins appears on the album on drums and backing vocals, and he produced Martyn’s next outing, 1981’s Glorious Fool. This is a pretty pedestrian effort but worth seeking out for the penultimate track Please Fall in Love With Me, even if Collins’s drums are somewhat unsubtle. The next release, 1982’s Well Kept Secret, is in similar vein and gave Martyn his first top 30 album. By now his ethereal meanderings were long in the past and, no doubt encouraged by the zillion-selling Collins, his music was firmly in the humdrum mainstream. I kept buying his stuff out of loyalty, and usually regretted it.
By the way, for those interested, there is an amazingly good-value triple CD retrospective. Fifty-eight tracks for a mere £5.99.
Martyn’s later life was a chaotic tale of excess. In 2006, after he had moved to Ireland with his long-suffering new partner, the BBC showed the documentary Johnny Too Bad which told how his right leg had to be amputated as a result of his self-destructive lifestyle. He was appointed OBE in the 2009 New Year Honours list and died in September that year of acute respiratory distress syndrome, aged 60.
While John Martyn clearly had his faults – he came across as pretty unpleasant in the documentary and Beverley describes him as ‘Luciferian’ – he was blessed with huge talent and a wonderful voice. And it is clear that he inspired great loyalty in his friends – I am told by a mutual friend that Danny Thompson is still grieving for him. In his heyday he was one of the giants of the British music scene and was idolised by his peers.
At the 2008 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards he was presented with a lifetime achievement gong and Eric Clapton sent a message saying that John was ‘so far ahead of everything else it was inconceivable’. Martyn responded: ‘At last I’m a celebrity.’