|Wednesday, 04 February 2009 12:03|
Iain David McGeachy
Born: 11 September 1948, New Malden, Surrey, England
Died: 29 January 2009
Cause of death:
Notable because: Wrote 'Sweet little mystery' and 'May you never' and was an original artist.
John Martyn was a British singer-songwriter and guitarist. Over a forty-year career he released twenty studio albums and worked with artists such as Eric Clapton, David Gilmour, and Phil Collins. He has been described as "an electrifying guitarist and singer whose music blurred the boundaries between folk, jazz, rock and blues"
Martyn was born in New Malden, Surrey, England. Martyn's parents, both opera singers, divorced when he was five and he spent his childhood alternating between England and Scotland. Much of this was spent in the care of his grandmother. His strongest ties were in Glasgow, and he attended Shawlands Academy there.
Mentored by Hamish Imlach, Martyn began his professional musical career when he was seventeen, playing a blend of blues and folk that resulted in a unique style that made him a key figure in the London folk scene during the mid-1960s. He signed to Chris Blackwell's Island Records in 1967 and released his first album, London Conversation, the following year.
This first album was soon followed by The Tumbler, which was moving towards jazz. By 1970 Martyn had developed a wholly original and idiosyncratic sound: acoustic guitar run through a fuzzbox, phase-shifter, and Echoplex. This sound was first apparent on Stormbringer! in 1970, which featured Martyn's then wife, Beverley Kutner, as his collaborator. She was also jointly credited on The Road to Ruin, their next album in 1970. However, Island Records felt that it would be more successful to market Martyn as a solo act and this was how subsequent albums were produced, although Beverley Martyn continued to make appearances as a background singer.
In 1973, Martyn released one of the defining British albums of the 1970s, Solid Air, the title song a tribute to the singer-songwriter Nick Drake, a close friend and label-mate, who in 1974 died suddenly from an overdose of antidepressants. On this album, as with the one that preceded it, Bless the Weather, Martyn collaborated with jazz bass player, Danny Thompson, with whom he proceeded to have a fruitful musical partnership which continued until his death. He also developed a new, slurred vocal style, the timbre of which resembled a tenor saxophone.
Following the commercial success of Solid Air, Martyn quickly recorded and released the experimental Inside Out, a more difficult album with emphasis placed on feel and improvisation rather than song structure. In 1974, he followed this with Sunday's Child. In September of the next year he released a live album, Live at Leeds—Martyn had been unable to convince Island to release the record, and resorted to selling individually signed copies by mail from his home. Live at Leeds features Danny Thompson and drummer John Stevens, and is notable not only for the performances given, but the recording quality and incredibly quiet audience for a live recording. After releasing Live at Leeds, Martyn took a sabbatical, including a visit to Jamaica, spending time with famous reggae producer Lee "Scratch" Perry.
In 1977, he released One World, which led some commentators to describe Martyn as the "Father of Trip-Hop". It included tracks such as "Small Hours" and "Big Muff", a collaboration with Lee "Scratch" Perry. One World is notable for having been recorded outside, the album's lush soundscapes are partly the result of microphones picking up ambient sounds, such as water from a nearby lake.
Martyn's marriage to Beverley finally broke down at the end of the 1970s and, according to his official website, "John hit the self destruct button" (although other biographers, including The Times obituary writer, attribute the break-up of his marriage to his already being addicted to drink and drugs). Out of this period, described by Martyn as "a very dark period in my life", came the album Grace and Danger.
Released in October 1980, the album had been held up for a year by Island boss Chris Blackwell. He was a close friend of John and Beverley, and found the album too openly disturbing to release. Only after intense and sustained pressure from Martyn did Blackwell agree to release the album.
Commenting on that period, Martyn said, "I was in a dreadful emotional state over that record. I was hardly in control of my own actions. The reason they finally released it was because I freaked: Please get it out! I don't give a damn about how sad it makes you feel—it's what I'm about: the direct communication of emotion. Grace and Danger was very cathartic, and it really hurt."
In the late 1980s Martyn would cite Grace and Danger as his favourite album, and said that it was "probably the most specific piece of autobiography I've written. Some people keep diaries, I make records." The album has since become one of his highest-regarded, prompting a deluxe double-disc issue in 2007, containing the original album remastered.
Phil Collins played drums and sang backing vocals on Grace and Danger and subsequently played drums on and produced Martyn's next album, Glorious Fool, in 1981.
Martyn left Island records in 1981, and recorded Glorious Fool and Well Kept Secret for WEA, the label clearly aiming to bring him mainstream success, and achieving his first Top 30 album. Glorious Fool was a sharp departure from Martyn's 70s sound and at the time was regarded as something of a sell-out by his die-hard fans, but time has revealed it to be a much stronger album than it seemed at the time, with some fine songwriting and vocals. Well Kept Secret (1982) was less successful. Martyn released a live album, Philentropy, in 1983.
Returning to Island records, Martyn recorded Sapphire (1984), Piece by Piece (1986) and the live Foundations (1987) before being dropped by Island in 1988.
Martyn released The Apprentice in 1990 and Cooltide in 1991 for Permanent Records, and then rerecorded many of his "classic" songs for No Little Boy (1993). The similar 1992 release Couldn't Love You More was unauthorised by and disowned by Martyn. Material from these recordings and his two Permanent albums has been endlessly recycled on many releases. Permanent Records also released a live 2 CD set called "Live" in 1994.
And (1996) came out on Go!Discs and saw Martyn draw heavily on hip-hop textures while blending a sound still distinctively Martyn, a direction which saw more complete expression on 2000's Glasgow Walker ; The Church with One Bell (1998) is a covers album taking in material from Portishead to Ben Harper.
In 2001 Martyn appeared on the track Deliver Me by Faithless keyboard player and DJ Sister Bliss.
In July 2006 the documentary Johnny Too Bad was screened by the BBC. The programme documented the period surrounding the operation to amputate Martyn's right leg below the knee (the result of a burst cyst) and the writing and recording of On the Cobbles (2004), an album described by Peter Marsh on the BBC Music website as "the strongest, most consistent set he's come up with in years." Much of Cobbles was a revisiting of his acoustic-based sound.
He continued to write and collaborate with various artists up until his death, dividing his time between Glasgow and Kilkenny in Ireland. He recorded a ballad entitled "Really Gone" with Irish group Ultan John which was released in November 2006.
On 4 February 2008, Martyn received the lifetime achievement award at the BBC Radio 2 Folk awards. The award was presented by Phil Collins. The BBC website says of Martyn, "his heartfelt performances have either suggested or fully demonstrated an idiosyncratic genius." Eric Clapton was quoted as saying that Martyn was, "so far ahead of everything, it's almost inconceivable." Martyn performed "Over the Hill" and "May You Never" at the ceremony, with John Paul Jones accompanying on mandolin.
To mark Martyn's 60th birthday Island released on 1 September 2008 a career-spanning 4CD boxed set, Ain't No Saint. The acclaimed set includes many live recordings and unreleased studio material, researched and compiled by his close friend John Hillarby who also runs the official Martyn website.
Martyn was appointed OBE in the 2009 New Year Honours.
Martyn died in Ireland on 29 January 2009. Folk musician Richard Thompson declined to sing a John Martyn song requested by a member of the audience at the end of his Birmingham (UK) concert that evening, on the grounds that he hadn't had time to prepare one - he would do so at the next day's concert in Bristol, though he did note his sadness. English rock band Keane sang a Martyn song , as did Scottish singer songwriter James Grant, who played a version of "May You Never" at his Glasgow show that night.
Paying tribute to Martyn, BBC Radio 2's folk presenter Mike Harding said: "John Martyn was a true original, one of the giants of the folk scene. He could write and sing classics like 'May You Never' and 'Fairy Tale Lullaby' like nobody else, and he could sing traditional songs like Spencer The Rover in a way that made them seem new minted."
|Last Updated on Friday, 22 June 2012 07:55|