John Martyn - Biography

By J Poet

British cult favorite John Martyn first came into the public eye in the late 60s as a blues based folk singer/songwriter with an impressive guitar style, but Martyn’s creativity was too restless to be contained by the folk scene and his sound soon included jazz, funk, rock, reggae, Arab melodies, samba and world music in general. In the 70s, he started playing electric guitar and took a more rock’n’roll approach to his music, without loosing the wrenching emotionality of his songwriting. He battled alcoholism for much of his life and became known for unpredictable performances that ranged from brilliant to embarrassing. He never became a major star in England, but his playing had a major influence on several generations of songwriters and players. In 2008 he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from BBC’s Radio 2. At the presentation Eric Clapton said, “[Martyn has always been] so far ahead of everything, it’s almost inconceivable.”


John Martyn (Iain David McGeachy) was born in 1948 in New Malden, Surrey, the son of opera singers. He picked up the guitar at 15 and started playing folk clubs after he finished high school. Davey Graham (the British John Fahey) and Clive Palmer (Incredible String Band) were early mentors and he moved to London where he became a regular at clubs like Les Cousins and the Kingston Folk Barge, part of a crowd of young musicians that included Bert Jansch, Ralph McTell and Al Stewart. He was the first white musician signed by Chris Blackwell to Island Records, as the label started moving away from reggae and toward pop music.


His first two albums - London Conversation (1967 Island, 2005 Fontana) and the Al Steward produced The Tumbler (1968 Island, 2005 Island Remasters) – were bluesy singer/songwriter fare, although jazz influences and Martyn’s unique emotional style was already evident on The Tumbler.


Martyn married singer Beverley Kutner in 1969 and they made two albums together. Stormbringer (1969 Island) introduced Martyn playing an echoplex guitar that allowed him to solo over loops he created in real time, a technique that became a big part of his style in the 70s. Levon Helm played drums on the album and it had a definite rock sound. The Road To Ruin (1970 Island) was more jazzy, and included Danny Thompson, later of Pentangle, on acoustic bass. The album got great reviews but failed to chart and the couple took a year off to raise their children. For Bless The Weather (1971 Island) Martyn was solo and created his first masterpiece. “Glistening Glyndebourne” the album’s centerpiece is almost eight minutes of guitar heaven. He followed it up with another jaw dropping set for folk/jazz, Solid Air (1973 Island), still regarded by many as his greatest album. It sold well in England and The States. (The tunes on Solid Air were used years later for the soundtrack of the 1998 BBC film Titanic Down.) Inside Out (1973 Island) an improvised set recorded in two days features Thompson and Stevie Windwood, Sunday’s Child (1975 Island) is a return to more song-oriented material, a romantic celebration of home life. Martyn took a few years off to recuperate from a heavy touring schedule but during his hiatus he appeared on Burning Spear’s Man in the Hills (1975 Island). One World (1977 Island, 2004 Island Deluxe) was more pop than Martyn’s previous efforts, although it included the experimental dubby track “Big Muff’ co-written with Lee “Scratch’ Perry. Martyn took a few years off during which his marriage collapsed. Grace and Danger (1980 Island, 2007 Island Deluxe) is a dark, jazzy exorcism of the pain he was feeling at the time. Glorious Fool (1981 Warners, 2006 WEA International) was produced by Phil Collins and featured Eric Clapton on guitar; it’s a polished radio friendly effort that made Britain’s Top 40. It was followed with another chart success Well Kept Secret (1982, Warners). 


Sapphire (1984 Island) and Piece By Piece (1986 Island) continue in a slicker direction with Martyn’s guitar mixed down so low as to become almost inaudible. Martyn moved to a small indie label Permanent Records for The Apprentice (1990 Permanent) a mixed bag of disco, smooth jazz and acoustic guitar playing. Cooltide (1990 Permanent) is a more cohesive, smooth jazz outing. After a flurry of live recordings and Best Ofs, Martyn cut And (1996 Go! Discs) an album of funky, smoky, sample heavy, trip hoppy music. He closed the 90s with The Church With One Bell (1998 Thirsty Ear) a collection of cover tunes by Rev. Gary Davis, Dead Can Dance and the Billie Holliday standard “Strange Fruit.”


Martyn slowed down even more after the turn of the Century, although former labels continued to flood the market with compilations and long lost concert performances. Glasgow Walker (2000 Independiente) was the first album Martyn composed on keyboard, another laid back, jazzy collection of bluesy quiet storm style love songs while On The Cobbles (2000 Independiente) returns to the acoustic, bluesy sound of his youth with help from guests Paul Weller, Mavis Staples and Danny Thompson. Those unfamiliar with Martyn’s music can start off with The John Martyn Story

(2006 Universal) or Late Night John (2004 Spectrum/Universal) a collection of his smooth, late night grooves. Martyn died in January of 2009, due to double pneumonia. A posthumous record was released in 2011 entitled Heaven and Earth.



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