Hamish Imlach, Martyn began his professional musical career when he was
seventeen, playing a blend of blues and folk that resulted in a unique style
that made him a key figure in the London folk scene during the mid-1960s. He
Island Records in 1967 and released his first album,
London Conversation, the following year.
This first album was soon followed by
The Tumbler, which was moving towards
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 was also jointly credited on
The Road to Ruin, their next album in 1970. However, 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 Martyn continued to make
appearances as a background singer
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
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
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. In 1974, he followed this with
Sunday's Child. In September of the next year he released a live album,
Live at Leeds—Martyn had been unable to convince Island to release the
record, and resorted to selling individually signed copies by mail from his
home. Live at Leeds features Danny Thompson and drummer
John Stevens, and is notable not only for the performances given, but the
recording quality and incredibly quiet audience for a live recording. After
releasing Live at Leeds, Martyn took a sabbatical, including a visit to
Jamaica, spending time with famous reggae producer
Lee "Scratch" Perry.
In 1977, he released
One World, which led some commentators to describe Martyn as the "Father of
Trip-Hop". It included tracks such as "Small Hours" and "Big Muff", a
collaboration with Lee "Scratch" Perry.
One World is notable for having been recorded outside, the album's lush
soundscapes are partly the result of microphones picking up ambient sounds, such
as water from a nearby lake
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" (although
other biographers, including The Times obituary writer, attribute the break-up
of his marriage to his already being addicted to drink and drugs). 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.
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."
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 left Island records in 1981, and recorded
Glorious Fool and
Well Kept Secret for WEA, the label clearly aiming to bring him mainstream
success, and achieving his first Top 30 album.
Glorious Fool was a sharp departure from Martyn's 70s sound and at the time
was regarded as something of a sell-out by his die-hard fans, but time has
revealed it to be a much stronger album than it seemed at the time, with some
fine songwriting and vocals.
Well Kept Secret (1982) was less successful. Martyn released a live album,
Philentropy, in 1983.
Returning to Island records, Martyn recorded
Piece by Piece (1986) and the live
Foundations (1987) before being dropped by Island in 1988.
The Apprentice in 1990 and
Cooltide in 1991 for Permanent Records, and then rerecorded many of his
"classic" songs for
No Little Boy (1993). 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 endlessly recycled
on many releases. Permanent Records also released a live 2 CD set called "Live"
(1996) came out on Go!Discs and saw Martyn draw heavily on hip-hop textures
while blending a sound still distinctively Martyn, a direction which saw more
complete expression on 2000's
Glasgow Walker ;
The Church with One Bell (1998) is a covers album taking in material from
In 2001 Martyn appeared on the track Deliver Me by
Faithless keyboard player and DJ
In July 2006 the documentary Johnny Too Bad was screened by the
The programme documented the period surrounding the operation to amputate
Martyn's right leg below the knee (the result of a burst
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.
He continued to write and collaborate with various artists up until his
death, dividing his time between Glasgow and
Kilkenny in Ireland. He recorded a ballad entitled "Really Gone" with Irish
group Ultan John which was released in November 2006.
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 a career-spanning 4CD boxed
Ain't No Saint on 1 September 2008. 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.
Martyn's death was announced on his website on 29 January 2009