A Tribute to John Martyn

Yes­ter­day saw the death of one of Britain’s lead­ing folk musi­cians, John Mar­tyn. As a result we are devot­ing the day’s pro­gram­ming to the work of this remark­able musi­cian, who has been a sig­nif­i­cant influ­ence on artists as diverse as Por­tishead, U2 and Eric Clap­ton. The pro­gramme is pre­sent­ed by Soliel Snook.

Mar­tyn was born in New Malden, Sur­rey, Eng­land. His 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.

He became a sig­nif­i­cant fig­ure in the Lon­don folk scene in the 60s, and in 1967 Chris Black­well signed him to Island Records – becom­ing one of the first non-Caribbean acts to be signed to the label. His first album, Lon­don Con­ver­sa­tions, was released in 1968.

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 also appeared on The Road to Ruin in 1970.

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.

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”. 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.

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 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).

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.

He died in Ire­land on 29 Jan­u­ary 2009.

Infor­ma­tion and pho­tos (top: 1978; bot­tom: 2008 at the Bar­bi­can) from Wikipedia.

Thank you, John, for all you have giv­en us. We will all miss you.

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