John Martyn

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John Martyn
Martyn in 1978
Background information
Birth nameIain David McGeachy
Born(1948-09-11)11 September 1948
New Malden, Surrey (now Greater London), England
Died29 January 2009(2009-01-29) (aged 60)
Kilkenny, Ireland
Genres Folk blues, progressive folk, folk-rock, folk jazz
Occupation(s)Musician, songwriter
Years active1967–2009
Labels Island, WEA
Associated acts Beverley Martyn

Iain David McGeachy OBE (11 September 1948 – 29 January 2009), known professionally as John Martyn, was a British singer-songwriter and guitarist. Over a 40-year career, he released 22 studio albums, and received frequent critical acclaim. Martyn began his career at age 17 as a key member of the British folk music scene, drawing inspiration from American blues and English traditional music, and signed with Island Records. By the 1970s he had begun incorporating jazz and rock into his sound on albums such as Solid Air (1973) and One World (1977), as well as experimenting with guitar effects and tape delay machines such as Echoplex. [1] He struggled with substance abuse and domestic problems throughout the 1970s and 1980s, though continued to release albums while collaborating with figures such as Phil Collins and Lee "Scratch" Perry. He remained active until his death in 2009. He was described by The Times as "an electrifying guitarist and singer whose music blurred the boundaries between folk, jazz, rock and blues". [2]

Folk music musical and poetic creativity of the people

Folk music includes traditional folk music and the genre that evolved from it during the 20th-century folk revival. Some types of folk music may be called world music. Traditional folk music has been defined in several ways: as music transmitted orally, music with unknown composers, or music performed by custom over a long period of time. It has been contrasted with commercial and classical styles. The term originated in the 19th century, but folk music extends beyond that.

Blues is a music genre and musical form which was originated in the Deep South of the United States around the 1870s by African Americans from roots in African musical traditions, African-American work songs, spirituals, and the folk music of white Americans of European heritage. Blues incorporated spirituals, work songs, field hollers, shouts, chants, and rhymed simple narrative ballads. The blues form, ubiquitous in jazz, rhythm and blues and rock and roll, is characterized by the call-and-response pattern, the blues scale and specific chord progressions, of which the twelve-bar blues is the most common. Blue notes, usually thirds or fifths flattened in pitch, are also an essential part of the sound. Blues shuffles or walking bass reinforce the trance-like rhythm and form a repetitive effect known as the groove.

Island Records British international record label of Jamaican origin; imprint of Island Records Ltd.

Island Records is a record label owned by Universal Music Group. It was founded in 1959 by Chris Blackwell, Graeme Goodall, and Leslie Kong in Jamaica, and was eventually sold to PolyGram in 1989. Island and A&M Records, another label recently acquired by PolyGram, were both at the time the largest independent record labels in history, with Island in particular having exerted a major influence on the progressive music scene in the United Kingdom in the early 1970s.


Early life

Martyn was born in Beechcroft Avenue, New Malden, London, England to an English mother and a Scottish father. [3] His parents, both opera singers, divorced when he was five and he spent his childhood alternating between Scotland and England. Much of this was spent in the care of his grandmother, as well as on his mother's houseboat. He attended Shawlands Academy in Glasgow. [2] At school, he was a keen rugby player. On leaving school he attended Art College in Glasgow, but left to pursue his musical aspirations.

New Malden Suburb of London

New Malden is a suburb of south-west London, England. It is located mainly within the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames, with a small part in the London Borough of Merton, and is 9.4 miles (15.1 km) from Charing Cross.

Shawlands Academy is a state secondary school in the Shawlands area of Glasgow, Scotland.

Late 1960s and collaborations with Beverley Martyn

Mentored by Hamish Imlach, Martyn began his professional musical career when he was 17, playing a fusion of blues and folk resulting in a distinctive style which made him a key figure in the British folk scene during the mid-1960s. [1] He signed to Chris Blackwell's Island Records in 1967 and released his first album, London Conversation , the same year [4] .

Hamish Imlach was a Scottish folk singer. He was born in Calcutta to Scottish parents but claimed to have been conceived in Glasgow, Scotland. Although his commercial success was limited, he influenced many other artists, including most notably John Martyn, Billy Connolly, and Christy Moore. In Central and Northern Europe Imlach enjoyed a strong reputation as a vivid live artist. Particularly in Denmark and Germany his live performances were much cherished.

Christopher Percy Gordon Blackwell is an English businessman and former record producer, and the founder of Island Records, which has been called "one of Britain's great independent labels". According to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, to which Blackwell was inducted in 2001, he is “the single person most responsible for turning the world on to reggae music."

<i>London Conversation</i> 1967 studio album by John Martyn

London Conversation is the first album by John Martyn released on Island Records in 1967. Largely self-penned, the album is much more folk oriented than the Blues/Jazz tinged later releases. The album reputedly cost £158 to record. The cover photo was taken on the roof of Island Records boss Chris Blackwell's Cromwell Road flat.

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 was written and performed by Martyn and his then-wife Beverley, who had previously recorded solo as Beverley Kutner. Her second album with Martyn was The Road to Ruin , also released in 1970. 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 continued to make appearances as a background singer as well as continuing as a solo artist herself. [2]

<i>The Tumbler</i> 1968 studio album by John Martyn

The Tumbler was John Martyn's second album released on Island Records in 1968. The album shows a progression from his previous solo folk offering to a more expansive sound including significant contributions from jazz flautist Harold McNair.

Jazz is a music genre that originated in the African-American communities of New Orleans, United States, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and developed from roots in blues and ragtime. Jazz is seen by many as "America's classical music". Since the 1920s Jazz Age, jazz has become recognized as a major form of musical expression. It then emerged in the form of independent traditional and popular musical styles, all linked by the common bonds of African-American and European-American musical parentage with a performance orientation. Jazz is characterized by swing and blue notes, call and response vocals, polyrhythms and improvisation. Jazz has roots in West African cultural and musical expression, and in African-American music traditions including blues and ragtime, as well as European military band music. Intellectuals around the world have hailed jazz as "one of America's original art forms".

Distortion (music) form of audio signal processing giving "fuzzy" sound

Distortion and overdrive are forms of audio signal processing used to alter the sound of amplified electric musical instruments, usually by increasing their gain, producing a "fuzzy", "growling", or "gritty" tone. Distortion is most commonly used with the electric guitar, but may also be used with other electric instruments such as bass guitar, electric piano, and Hammond organ. Guitarists playing electric blues originally obtained an overdriven sound by turning up their vacuum tube-powered guitar amplifiers to high volumes, which caused the signal to distort. While overdriven tube amps are still used to obtain overdrive in the 2010s, especially in genres like blues and rockabilly, a number of other ways to produce distortion have been developed since the 1960s, such as distortion effect pedals. The growling tone of distorted electric guitar is a key part of many genres, including blues and many rock music genres, notably hard rock, punk rock, hardcore punk, acid rock, and heavy metal music.


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 died in 1974 from an overdose of antidepressants. In 2009, a double CD Deluxe edition of Solid Air was released featuring unreleased songs and out-takes, and sleeve notes by Record Collector's Daryl Easlea. On Solid Air, as with the one that preceded it, Bless the Weather , Martyn collaborated with jazz bassist Danny Thompson, with whom he proceeded to have a musical partnership which continued until his death.

<i>Solid Air</i> 1973 studio album by John Martyn

Solid Air is the fourth studio album by British folk singer-songwriter John Martyn, released in February 1973 by Island Records.

Nick Drake British singer-songwriter

Nicholas Rodney Drake was an English singer-songwriter and musician known for his acoustic guitar-based songs. He failed to find a wide audience during his lifetime, but his work has since achieved wider recognition.

<i>Bless the Weather</i> 1971 studio album by John Martyn

Bless the Weather is a 1971 album by John Martyn and marks his return as a solo artist having released two albums with his wife Beverley Martyn. When it was released it garnered his best reviews to date, and remains a firm favourite among fans, featuring such standards as "Head and Heart" and the title track. The album is predominantly acoustic, although it does feature Martyn's first real 'echoplex' track in "Glistening Glyndebourne".

Following the commercial success of Solid Air, Martyn quickly recorded and released the experimental Inside Out , an album with emphasis placed on feel and improvisation rather than song structure. In 1975, he followed this with Sunday's Child , a more song-based collection "My Baby Girl", "Spencer the Rover", with several references to his young family. Martyn subsequently described this period as 'very happy'. In September 1975 he released a live album, Live at Leeds — Martyn had been unable to persuade Island to release the record, and resorted to selling individually signed copies by mail from home. Live at Leeds features Danny Thompson and drummer John Stevens. In 2010 a 2CD Deluxe version of Live at Leeds was released, and it was discovered that not all of the songs on the original album were from the Leeds concert. After releasing Live at Leeds, Martyn took a sabbatical, including a visit to Jamaica, spending time with reggae producer Lee "Scratch" Perry.

<i>Inside Out</i> (John Martyn album) album by John Martyn

Inside Out is an album released in 1973 by British singer-songwriter John Martyn. His fifth solo album, it was also his most experimental, and his jazziest release to date. The album features two that are favourites with his fans, "Fine Lines" and "Make No Mistake", as well as two songs that he enjoyed playing live as jazz epics, "Outside In" and "Look In".

<i>Sundays Child</i> album by John Martyn

Sunday's Child is a John Martyn album released in 1975. John Martyn's follow-up to 1973's Inside Out is a more song-oriented, less experimental album. His eighth record, including two with his wife Beverley Martyn, shows the many facets of Martyn's playing, from his effects-driven electric guitar to his acoustic work. This album contains a collection of original songs along with a pair of covers: the traditional British ballad "Spencer the Rover", and the country standard "Satisfied Mind". The song "The Message" features a pair of verses written by Martyn sung in his typical style, alternating with a pair of verses from the Scottish folk ballad "Mairi's Wedding" sung with a Scottish lilt.

<i>Live at Leeds</i> (John Martyn album) 1976 live album by John Martyn

Live at Leeds is a live album by John Martyn. He independently released this album himself in an initial run of 10,000 that were numbered and signed, after a disagreement with Island about its commercial viability. The working title was "Ringside Seat"; photos of Martyn and bassist Danny Thompson in a boxing ring were taken for a prospective cover, though never used. It was recorded on 13 February 1975, at Leeds University, at the same venue that The Who recorded their Live At Leeds in 1970.

In 1977, he released One World , which led some commentators to describe Martyn as the "Father of Trip-Hop". [5] It included tracks such as "Small Hours" and "Big Muff", a collaboration with Lee "Scratch" Perry. Small Hours was recorded outside; the microphones picked up ambient sounds, such as geese from a nearby lake. [3] In 1978 he played guitar on the album Harmony of the Spheres by Neil Ardley.

1980s and marriage breakup

Martyn's marriage broke down at the end of the 1970s and "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). [2] In her autobiography, Beverley also alleges protracted domestic violence. [6] Out of this period, described by Martyn as "a very dark period in my life", [7] came the album Grace and Danger . Released in October 1980, the album had been held up for a year by 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." [7]

In the late 1980s Martyn cited 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." [7] 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 achieving his first Top 30 album. [2] Martyn released a live album, Philentropy , in 1983. Returning to Island records, he recorded Sapphire (1984), Piece by Piece (1986) and the live Foundations (1987) before leaving the label in 1988.

1990s and 2000s

John Martyn performs at the Barbican Centre, London 2008. John-Martyn-at-the-Barbican-Centre.JPG
John Martyn performs at the Barbican Centre, London 2008.

Martyn released The Apprentice in 1990 and Cooltide in 1991 for Permanent Records, and reunited with Phil Collins for No Little Boy (1993) which featured rerecorded versions of some of his classic tracks. 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 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 trip-hop textures, a direction which saw more complete expression on 2000s Glasgow Walker ; The Church with One Bell (1998) is a covers album which draws on songs by Portishead and Ben Harper. In 2001, Martyn appeared on the track Deliver Me by Faithless keyboard player and DJ Sister Bliss. [ citation needed ]

Martyn in 2006 JohnMartyn.jpg
Martyn in 2006

In July 2006 the documentary Johnny Too Bad was screened by the BBC. [8] 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. Martyn's last concerts were in November 2008 reprising Grace and Danger. [ citation needed ]

In collaboration with his keyboard player Spenser Cozens, Martyn wrote and performed the score for Strangebrew (Robert Wallace 2007) winning the Fortean Times Award at the London Short Film Festival in the same year. The film concept being a strong influence of the album design of Martyn's Heaven and Earth (2011). On 4 February 2008, Martyn received the lifetime achievement award at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. The award was presented by his friend 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." [9]

To mark Martyn's 60th birthday, Island released a 4CD boxed set, Ain't No Saint on 1 September 2008. The set includes unreleased studio material and rare live recordings.

Martyn was appointed OBE in the 2009 New Year Honours. [10]


Martyn abused drugs and alcohol throughout his life. On the brink of major success he was derailed by his passion for musical exploration and by an appetite for excess that bordered on self-destruction. Martyn slid into alcoholism, his live performances punctuated by moments of incoherent drunkenness. [11]

Martyn died on 29 January 2009, in hospital in Thomastown, County Kilkenny, Ireland, [12] due to acute respiratory distress syndrome. He was survived by his partner, Teresa Walsh, and his children, Mhairi and Spencer McGeachy. [13]

Following Martyn's death, Rolling Stone lauded his "progressive folk invention and improvising sorcery". [14] Singer and musician Phil Collins paid tribute to him [15] and 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." [16]

Harding introduced an hour-long tribute to Martyn in his Radio 2 programme on 25 February 2009. A tribute album, Johnny Boy Would Love This, was released on 15 August 2011, comprising cover versions of his songs by various artists. [17] [18]


Studio albums




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  1. 1 2 Hartenbach, Brett. "John Martyn: Biography & History". AllMusic . Retrieved 2 March 2017.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 Obituary: "John Martyn: guitarist and singer", The Times, 30 January 2009, pg. 75.
  3. 1 2 John Neil Munro, Some People Are Crazy — the John Martyn Story; ISBN   978-1-84697-058-0, Polygon, 2007 p.125
  4. "London Conversation (1967)". The Official John Martyn Website. 2013-04-04. Retrieved 2019-02-24.
  5. His obituary in The Times states that "The record's dubby, echoing soundscapes have been claimed as the forerunner of the 'trip-hop' style that emerged in the 1990s."
  6. Beverley Martyn, Jacki Dacosta, Sweet Honesty - The Beverley Martyn Story; ISBN   978-1-90721-188-1, Grosvenor, 2011
  7. 1 2 3 "''John's Diary 1980s'' — Martyn's biography on his website". Retrieved 24 August 2012.
  8. "Johnny Too Bad". 1 January 1970. Retrieved 24 August 2012.
  9. "Folk Awards 2008 - Winners and Nominees". Retrieved 13 December 2018.
  10. "No. 58929". The London Gazette (Supplement). 31 December 2008. p. 11.
  11. "Singer-songwriter who played with and influenced a generation of musicians". Telegraph. 29 January 2009. Retrieved 12 December 2016.
  12. "John Martyn's last appearance in Kytelers". 6 February 2009. Retrieved 16 August 2015.
  13. "UK | Scotland | Glasgow, Lanarkshire and West | Songwriter Martyn dies, aged 60". BBC News. 29 January 2009. Retrieved 16 August 2015.
  14. Fricke, David. "Fricke's Picks: Remembering Singer-Guitarist John Martyn". Rolling Stone. Retrieved 2 March 2017.
  15. Shaw, Vicky (29 January 2009). "Singer John Martyn dies aged 60". The Independent. London, UK.
  16. "Guitar legend Martyn dies". Retrieved 15 April 2012.
  17. "John Martyn: Pioneering singer-songwriter who blended folk with jazz and played with Eric Clapton and Dave Gilmour - Obituaries - News". The Independent. 30 January 2009. Retrieved 16 August 2015.
  18. Beaudoin, Jedd (30 October 2011). "Various Artists: Johnny Boy Would Love This… A Tribute to John Martyn". PopMatters. Retrieved 16 August 2018.
  19. Angeline was the world's first ever CD single, released in 1986

Further reading