A Tribute to John Martyn

in Daily Programme

by Elrik Merlin on Friday, 30 January, 2009

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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