The brilliant John Martyn performing on BBC from 1973. RIP
A new book explores a musical friendship entailing joy, anger, ‘mountains of drugs’ … and tragedy. In this extract, the pair’s friends examine a complex rivalry
In 1967, Robin Frederick, a singer-songwriter originally from Florida, returned to London from studying in Aix-en-Provence, where she had met a young, beautiful, meandering and tantalisingly unattainable young Englishman called Nick Drake. Frederick “spent the summer in London with John Martyn, listening to Sgt Pepper and the Incredible String Band, watching John learn to play sitar in about 10 minutes, living on toast and tea”.
She wrote the beautiful Sandy Grey about Drake, which cast him “in the role of wandering, rootless, fatherless boy”. Martyn recorded the song on his debut album, London Conversation. At the time, he didn’t know it was about Drake, or indeed even who Drake was. Perhaps he saw something of himself in it.
Introduced by their mutual friend Paul Wheeler, Martyn and Drake met for the first time in 1968, a year before the release of Drake’s debut album, Five Leaves Left. “Nick laughed a lot at John’s perceptive and witty comments,” Wheeler says. “Those were qualities which John used to win over live audiences … I think John was impressed by Nick’s ‘cool’.”
By 1969 and 1970, the social circle at the basement flat on Denning Road which Martyn shared with his wife Beverley and her young son, Wesley, was drawn largely from the Witchseason production and management company, and the Island label. It offered a familial, nurturing camaraderie. Nick Drake often dropped in; he, Martyn, and Richard Thompson would play in each other’s company, but almost always individually rather than interacting with one another. “I never remember them jamming together,” says Linda Thompson. “They were all brilliant guitarists, very different and stylised, so you couldn’t just jump in. They were careful not to tread on each other’s toes. It’s a dick thing; they all wanted to be better than each other.”
The HOBBLEDEHOY recently came upon this excellent overview of the history of British Folk Rock written by Hugh Fielder.
Folk’s music’s not all “hey nonny nonny” y’know. In the 70s, it sneaked its way into the heaviest of rock’s repertoire. We look at the groups that spearheaded the genre
Led Zeppelin’s folk-rock credentials may not be uppermost in any assessment of the heavy metal behemoths, but the haunting presence of Fairport Convention singer Sandy Denny on Battle Of Evermore from Led Zeppelin IV as she echoes Robert Plant’s vocals is perhaps the starkest example of folk rock’s impact on British rock music in the 70s.
Indeed, beneath the metal bombast, Zeppelin had flirted with folk from the start. Jimmy Page has acknowledged the influence of 60s folkie Bert Jansch and you only have to compare the instrumental Black Mountain Side from Led Zeppelin 1 with Jansch’s Black Water Side to hear precisely what he means. And Gallows Pole from Led Zeppelin III is a rock’n’roll version of a traditional folk song. Er, folk rock in fact.
And Led Zeppelin weren’t the only big name to dabble in folk rock. When Traffic regrouped in 1970 after Steve Winwood’s Blind Faith adventure, they cut a version of the traditional ballad John Barleycorn and called the resulting album John Barleycorn Must Die.
Folk was a fertile field for aspiring rock musicians of the late 60s to graze in because the whole scene had been revitalised at the start of that decade by a bunch of young turks – chief among them Martin Carthy, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn and Davey Graham – who brought their own distinctive guitar styles to traditional folk songs and added their own flavours.
This revival created a thriving folk club circuit around the country and something of a scene in London where clubs such as the Troubadour and Cousins became fashionable haunts. The reputation of the British folk scene even spread to America and lured up-and-coming American folkies such as Bob Dylan and Paul Simon over to check it out. Which is how Bob Dylan came to appropriate Martin Carthy’s arrangement of Lord Franklin for Bob Dylan’s Dream and Paul Simon nicked his arrangement of Scarborough Fair (for which Carthy only formally forgave him recently).
Simon also learnt Davey Graham’s innovative modal guitar tuning that conveyed more than a tinge of Eastern promise. It was that tinge that Bert Jansch picked up on for Black Water Side. Which Jimmy Page… you get the picture.
The first young folk singer to break cover and cross over to the pop charts was Donovan, who landed a series of spots on ITV’s ground-breaking Ready Steady Go programme early in 1965, despite the fact he wasn’t even signed to a record label.
Indeed he wasn’t even in the front line of folk singers and his demos were more pop than folk. This would explain why his first single, Catch The Wind (muddily ‘enhanced’ by the London Philharmonic string section) did better in the pop charts, reaching No. 4, than the folk clubs where the hip young things looked down their noses.Continue reading
By the time the mercurial, volatile singer-songwriter John Martyn heard that he had been awarded an OBE for his contribution to British music, he was in a wheelchair, having lost a leg to septicaemia compounded by a lifetime of substance abuse. He died weeks later, before he could accept the honour.
Musicians often embody a garble of contradictions, but the English-born “Scots Belgian Jew” known to his family as Iain McGeachy was a more troubled – and troubling – figure than many from the late-60s. A trailblazing guitarist, he began his artistic life in the crucible of the folk revival that also produced Fairport Convention and Nick Drake. Solid Air, one of Martyn’s most magnificent outings, was written about Drake.
But Martyn took many of his extemporising cues from jazz and he went on to embrace nascent electronics, most particularly the early, spacious effect known as echoplex. U2 guitarist the Edge may not formally concur, but Martyn fans know the Irishman’s signature guitar sound was cribbed from Martyn. John Lydon and Bob Marley were admirers, as were Portishead. (In later life, Martyn did a sterling cover of Portishead’s Glory Box.)
By the end, Martyn had been impaled on a fence post and run into a cow with his car; artistically, he was yesterday’s man, having spent the 80s making slicker, more suffocatingly produced commercial rock music, often in the company of Phil Collins. There were periods when this leading light of the maverick fringe went dark, presumably to avoid the disreputable characters with whom he surrounded himself. The searching artistry of this caustic musician’s musician went hand in glove with dissolution and damage.
To his credit, journalist and biographer Graeme Thomson, author of previous well-regarded works on Kate Bush, George Harrison and Phil Lynott, dives straight into the awfulness of the man in the preface. “He blackened the eyes and broke the spirit of women he professed to love, abandoned at least one of his children and neglected others.”
Martyn’s parents separated when he was young, with his mother remarrying; the young Martyn felt the enforced distance from his mother, Betty, keenly. “He mistrusted women, which turned him into a misogynist,” states the folk singer Beverley Martyn, who suffered his violent alcoholic rages. Her own career did not survive their two-disc partnership; she eventually essayed albums of her own again much later in life, most recently in 2014. When the marriage broke up, Martyn left her, their two biological children and Beverley’s eldest child penniless; they lived off benefits while Martyn fuelled a coke habit. He started another family, forsook them too.
Somehow, this man had the gall to sing about love. Perhaps his best-known early song, May You Never, is an open-hearted blessing: “may you never lay your head down without a hand to hold”.Continue reading
Davy Graham is one of the most influential figures in the 1960s British folk revival. His finger picking inspired Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Martin Carthy, John Martyn, and Jimmy Page.
Graham is probably best known for his acoustic instrumental composition, “Anji.” Bert Jansch recorded this song on his first self titled album in 1965. John Renbourn also recorded it, as did Paul Simon, on the Simon & Garfunkel album Sounds of Silence.