Born on June 28, 1946, in Glasgow, Scotland; married and divorced Beverly Kutner (a folk singer). Addresses: Record company--Independiente Ltd., The Drill Hall, 3 Heathfield Terrace, London, W4 4JE, England. Website--John Martyn Official Website: http://www.johnmartyn.com.
Cult hero John Martyn's nearly 40-year career has encompassed diverse musical influences, numerous record labels, two painful divorces, and an infamous bout with alcoholism, all of which have been funneled into his emotionally raw, electrically tinged folk-rooted sound. One of the first musicians associated with the London folk scene, Martyn has more recently been incorporated into the trip-hop genre, with electronic folk artist Beth Orton covering one of his tunes and British dance band Sister Bliss collaborating with him on a single.
Martyn, whose parents divorced when he was five, grew up on a houseboat in his mother's native England and in his father's home of Scotland where he was exposed to the music of both the Presbyterian Church and the English music hall. He was only 17 when he began to make a name for himself on the burgeoning London folk scene of the mid-1960s by melding American blues and British folk influences into a singular sound.
Of his early models, Martyn told Zip Code's Kevin Ring, "In the beginning, right before I started playing, [American folk artist] Pete Seeger [influenced me]. I liked his politics, that was important to me. The wonderful Davy Graham, Earl Klugh, do you know him? Black American player. Joe Zawinul from [jazz fusion group] Weather Report. I love the tonality, his use of silence even. Fine players all."
Mix of Musical Styles Brought Attention
Martyn's unique hybrid of styles earned him the attention of Island Records' Chris Blackwell and in 1967 he became the first non-reggae artist signed to that label, which grew to include many other seminal British folk artists, such as Richard and Linda Thompson, Traffic, Free, and Fairport Convention. He released his acclaimed debut, London Conversation, on Island in 1968 and followed up with the jazz-fueled Tumbler. On 1970's Stormbringer! he debuted what was to become his signature--an acoustic guitar fed through various electronic processors, such as a fuzzbox, phase-shifter or Echoplex. While such effects have since become commonplace, this approach was considered revolutionary at the time.
Martyn explained his decision to enagage in this sonic experiment to Q's Mark Cooper: "When I started, it was the era of the singer-songwriter when people would say, 'Oh what a lovely line!' when they listened to songs. I still appreciate that in others, but for myself I prefer the noise." Stormbringer! was also noteworthy for including members of the Band on several tracks, as well as Martyn's then-wife, folk singer Beverly Kutner with whom he collaborated on the album. Kutner remained a colleague until just before the release of Martyn's most popular album, Solid Air, in 1973. The title track was written for close friend and fellow British folk artist Nick Drake, who committed suicide later that same year. Solid Air also contained the songs "May You Never," which was later popularized by Eric Clapton, and "Head and Heart," recorded by the rock group America.
Martyn released albums on the average of one or two a year for the rest of the decade. During this time he began his longstanding collaboration with bassist Danny Thompson and also started to incorporate world music influences. In 1976 he traveled to Jamaica where he worked with reggae artist Lee "Scratch" Perry and the group Burning Spear. The result of his island influences was 1977's One World, which features Traffic's Steve Winwood and a song, "Big Muff" cowritten with Perry.
Struggled with Alcoholism
During this time, Martyn's struggle with alcoholism also became more pronounced, often affecting his live performances. "He became an erratic and at times self-destructive performer," Brett Hartenbach wrote in All Music Guide, noting that Martyn would, on occasion, fall over drunk in front of a crowd. "He might perform an evening of electronic guitar experiments for a crowd of folkies or a set of traditional, acoustic ballads when playing to a rock audience."
However affected he may have been, Martyn's outspoken socialist political sentiments remained clearly in tact. "It's all too easy for sensitive people to prostitute themselves in this society but pandering to The Establishment is quite simply an evil choice," he told Ian MacDonald of New Musical Express (NME) in 1973, outlining a professional and artistic ethos he espouses to this day. "It's not good that someone like me should earn 250 a night when my father his to sweat his guts out for his 30 a week. But I'm not into bloody revolution. I'm interested in watching what's going on very carefully."
By the end of the decade, Martyn and Kutner had divorced, and Martyn chronicled his emotional state with such painful honesty on 1980's Grace and Danger that Blackwell delayed the album's release for a year, unable to grapple with the unbridled devastation contained within. Around this time, Martyn befriended then-Genesis frontman Phil Collins, who produced 1981's Glorious Fool and facilitated Martyn's move to a new label, WEA. With Collins playing drums and piano and contributing vocals to the album, which also featured Eric Clapton on guitar, Glorious Fool--whose title track reflected Martyn's view of newly elected American president Ronald Reagan--seemed poised to break through to the mainstream. It failed to do so, however. Martyn released a second album, Well Kept Secret, on WEA in 1982 and an independent, jazz-influence live record, Philentropy, which included scatted vocals in John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme." Martyn then returned to Island, where he remained until he was dropped from the label in 1988.
Martyn bounced between several labels after his second departure from Island. He became embroiled in a business dispute over the release of rerecorded versions of his older tunes in 1992. The Permanent label released the album, without Martyn's signoff, under the title Couldn't Love You More, and Martyn responded by releasing his own version of the tracks, calling the album No Little Boy. Permanent then released an album by the same title, adding three extra songs.
Martyn explained his decision to take control of the album to the Wire's Rob Young: "If you're 19, you can get shoved around by those motherf***ers as much as you like. When you're 50, you can turn around and go [adopts a menacing Scots accent], 'Who're ye talking tae, pal?'"
Artistically, the vision was straightforward. "I thought the style had changed so much and I wanted to say goodbye to those songs," Martyn told Simon P. Ward of dotmusic online. "So I re-recorded people's favourites in a slightly more ornate and lush fashion because they were mostly fairly primitive, those early versions. I don't have any regrets about doing that." A host of all-stars joined Martyn on the album, including Collins, David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, and Levon Helm of the Band.
Experimented with Dance Sounds in 1990s
In the late 1990s Martyn began to experiment with electronic dance sounds, such as trip-hop and funk, as evidenced on The Church with One Bell, released in 1998, a collection of covers from a diverse roster of artists--Billie Holiday, Portishead, Randy Newman, and Dead Can Dance. Proceeds from the album went toward the purchase of an abandoned church in Martyn's small Scottish village, which the artist then converted into a home and studio.
In 2000 Martyn released the critically acclaimed Glasgow Walker and, the following year, entered rehab. While he has not quit drinking entirely, he told Scotland on Sunday's Adam Lee Potter he has cleaned up his act, admitting that his doctors said continuing to drink would probably kill him. "I still drink but I'm much more moderate with it," he told Potter. "And hardly at all before a gig. I'm more likely to sip a good old mug of Lapsang [tea]."
While Glasgow Walker's title conjures echoes of Martyn's debut release, he has remarked that the album is in no way a coda to his career. "[I]t's not meant to represent coming full circle," he said in the Zip Code interview. "I've still got a way to go before I retire and go fishing." As if to support this sentiment, Martyn's appeal has been growing among a new generation of artists, including the electronic-folk artist Beth Orton, who has covered a Martyn track, and dance band Sister Bliss, who feature Martyn on their single "Deliver Me."
As for the whole of his tumultuous career, Martyn has consistently maintained that he holds no regrets. As he told Potter, "So why haven't I had the vast success I deserve? Why am I not Eric Clapton or Phil Collins? I wouldn't want to be. Don't get me wrong. I wouldn't mind a yacht, a mansion, maid servants. But I don't care enough. I just love to play, to perform. The adulation. Let's be honest--I'm 53 years old. What could I spend it all on anyway?"
Even the drinking and emotional upheaval has had its place, he told Q's Cooper: "[I]f I could control myself more, I think the music would be much less interesting. I'd probably be a great deal richer but I'd have had far less fun and I'd be making really dull music."
by Kristin Palm
John Martyn's Career
Released first album, London Conversation, at the age of 19, 1968; debuted signature sound, an acoustic guitar augmented by various electronic effects, on Stormbringer!, 1970; output has remained steady over the following three decades and into the 2000s, with albums including Solid Air, 1973; One World, 1977; Grace & Danger, 1980; Glorious Fool, 1981; Well Kept Secret, 1982; Philentropy (live), 1983; Sapphire, 1984; Piece by Piece, 1986; Couldn't Love You More, 1992; No Little Boy, 1992; The Church with One Bell, 1998; and Glasgow Walker, 2002.
- Selected discography
- London Conversation , Island, 1968.
- Road to Ruin , Island, 1968.
- Tumbler , Island, 1968.
- Stormbringer! , Warner Bros., 1970.
- Bless the Weather , Island, 1971.
- Solid Air , Island, 1973.
- Inside Out , Island, 1973.
- Sunday's Child , Island, 1974.
- Live at Leeds , One World, 1976.
- One World , Island, 1977.
- Grace & Danger , Island, 1980.
- Glorious Fool , WEA, 1981.
- Electric , Island, 1982.
- Well Kept Secret , WEA, 1982.
- Philentropy (live), Blueprint, 1983.
- Sapphire , Island, 1984.
- Piece by Piece , Island, 1986.
- Apprentice , Off-Beat, 1990.
- Cooltide , Permanent, 1991.
- Couldn't Love You More , One World, 1992.
- No Little Boy , Mesa, 1992.
- And , Go! Discs, 1996.
- The Church with One Bell , Thirsty Ear, 1998.
- Glasgow Walker , Independiente, 2002.
- Interview, September 13, 1981.
- New Musical Express, July 21, 1973; October 10, 1981.
- Q, May 1990.
- Scotland on Sunday, September 8, 2000.
- Wire, June 1998.
- Zip Code, March 1990.
- "John Martyn," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusicguide.com (July 3, 2003).
- "John Martyn" RollingStone.com, http://www.rollingstone.com/artists/bio.asp?oid=869&cf=869 (July 3, 2003).
- "John Martyn Interview" dotmusic, http://www.dotmusic.co.uk/interviews/February2001/interviews18118.asp (July 3, 2003).