Johnny Too Bad

Johnny Too Bad

When I was six I wanted to be like my dad.  I wanted to saw wood and knock six inch nails in things with three bangs of a hammer.  That Christmas I got a toolkit.  When I was nine I wanted to be Dr Who and travel in time and space.  When I was 11, I wanted to be that bloke from Longton Working Men’s Club, the one with the BSA belt buckle.  He also wore broad fitting leather soled shoes.  That August my mum took me to Brassingtons shoe shop and got me a pair for my first term at high school.  A gang of bitchy girls took the piss

John Martyn c. 1984

out of my shoes and I didn’t want to wear them anymore.  When I was 14, I wanted to be Eric Clapton.  I acquired a waistcoat, cowboy boots and a cheap strat copy.  By the time I was 16, I was completely confused about who or what I wanted to be.  I’d been to see John Martyn do a two-hand set with Foster Patterson at Keele University Student’s Union.  Clapton was not God.  After the Keele gig I wasn’t even convinced he was much of a guitar player.

I’d listened to John Martyn a lot, I liked him, but up to that point I hadn’t felt an especial affinity for his music.  When he was roistering about the place with Danny Thompson in the 70’s, I was wanting to be Dr Who, so I didn’t share the view that his best work was behind him and that playing electric was a sell-out.  What I encountered in that Union bar at Keele appeared to be a bear in a suit who was able to make the very air around me swirl and spiral out of control, then put it back where it was supposed to be with a pull at the strings of a Gibson SG, before scaring the shit out of everybody with a blast of sound like a dam bursting.  Then there was the voice.  I suppose I thought that his voice was only like that on records, that it was at least in part a product of the studio.  He opened the set with I don’t want to know and I don’t have to try hard to remember the physical sensation of hearing his voice live for the first time.  It was like being hit in the stomach, but from the inside, with something wide and soft and soaked in scotch.  In a fug of ganja smoke, I found myself in thrall to this bloke who was slugging out of a bottle of Jack Daniels and accepting spliffs from members of the audience.  I was intrigued by the way he held a lighted joint in his right hand as he played and guiltily impressed by the way he relit it at the end of a number and chuffed away on it like he just didn’t give a shit.  Which he didn’t.  This was immensely cool.  If only I’d not given a shit about the girls who took the piss out of my shoes.  If only I could be that confident, that arrogant.  What must it feel like to be that easy in your own skin?

Our Karen bought me my first guitar for Christmas when I was 12.  It was unasked for and unexpected.  I learned a few chords from the teach yourself book that came with it and by the time I was due back in school I could strum my way through Mull of Kintyre.  I was taken with it and had ideas of being like Jeff Lynne, but had it not been for Neil Coburn it might’ve ended up on top of the wardrobe.

Neil was a lad from Fenton who I’d fallen in with at school.  We weren’t on the face of it likely companions.  He was keen on football, had a bit of the cheeky chappie about him and was generally quite popular, characteristics I didn’t have.  I seem to remember we were put together when I moved classes and we discovered we had some music in common.  Coey, as everyone knew him, also played the guitar.  When I got back to school that January I told him about my Christmas guitar.  He said, “Bring it in, I’ll show you the blues”.

So for the next few days during lunch breaks  Coey taught me a 12-bar blues riff in E and the guitar came to life.  This, I decided, was something I really wanted to be good at.

Over the next few months I fumbled my way through the teach yourself book.  At weekends I walked up to Hanley and looked at guitars through the window of Chatfield’s music shop.  There were Les Pauls and Strats at dizzying prices.  There was also sheet music.  I bought Chuck Berry Easy Guitar on the basis of the story of the first encounter Bev Bevan and Jeff Lynne had with a new potential bass player, the aristocratic Mike D’Albuquerque.  According to the ELO Story, the Brummie boys asked him, sceptically, “Ever heard of Chuck Berry?” ”Ha ha!  Course I have chaps” was his reply.  I’d only heard My Ding-aling, which wasn’t in the book, but Roll Over Beethoven was, and I knew ELO’s version back to front.  My first six months of twanging culminated with the garden fete performance and the buzz you only get from applause.

People are often disappointed with the photographs they’ve taken, especially when they were given an Ansel Adams calendar for Christmas and the pictures they took on their holiday in Yosemite National Park in July don’t match up.  This is a misapprehension born of the idea that photography is a mechanical process and can therefore churn out the same results over and over again, regardless of the photographer or the equipment.  As long as a lens is pointed at a thing, then the thing will always look the same regardless of any other factors.  But of course, it doesn’t.  Some people might go further.  They might study Adams and his work, his methods, the zone system of exposure and printing.  If they could afford to, they might set themselves up with similar kit and go out into the American wilderness and try to reproduce the images.  But really, what would be the point?  Ansel Adams has already been there and done that.  You just bought the calendar.

In my early guitar playing days I had an idea in my head of leading a band that looked and sounded like the Electric Light Orchestra.  I wanted a beard like Jeff Lynne.  I remember being irritated that the hair round my bollocks was growing so much faster than that on my chin.  A couple of years later, when I was getting reasonably proficient on the guitar, I had an idea that I could, with the addition of cowboy boots, be like Clapton.  I would grind out versions of Let it Grow and Wonderful Tonight, which in my mind were so close to the originals as to be indistinguishable from them.  What I began to realise in the sweaty, hash scented space of Keele University Students Union that night in 1984 was that the trick was to sound like yourself, to be yourself, with your own voice and style.  That was the real creative struggle.  So as a 16-year-old, I set about trying to sound like John Martyn.

10,000 years ago, the Scandinavian ice sheets retreated in a north-westerly direction smoothing out the pre-existing landscape of the islands of Orkney.  On the hilly island of Hoy, local glaciers remained and eventually carved out the valley of Rackwick.  As the glacier gouged its way towards the bay it deposited debris behind it, huge lumps of old Devonian red sandstone, igneous rocks from Oslo and chalk flints from the middle of the North Sea.  Five thousand years later, an unknown Neolithic Orcadian picked up some of these flints and igneous rocks and used them as tools to carve one of the massive sandstone erratics.  In this remote, boggy, midge infested valley, our man banged and chipped away at the 380 million year old rock until he’d hollowed out an entrance a meter square to a passage over two meters long.  To the right and left of the passage he carved out two chambers, about 1×2 meters square.  The right hand chamber has a kind of pillow of uncut stone at the inner end.  Given the materials and equipment available to him and the inhospitable nature of his workplace, he did a pretty smart job.  Estimates of how long the task would have taken vary from ### to ###.  When he was done we must assume that he put whatever it was he wanted to put in there and the entrance was stoppered up with another bloody big rock.

The Dwarfie Stane, Hoy, Orkney

It would be another thousand years or so before the pharaoh Khufu would order the building of the Great Pyramid at Giza, 3,000 years before Vespasian would have the Colosseum built in Rome, that being a piddling 500 years after the Parthenon was built.

Sometime before the 16th Century-300 years, a thousand, three thousand?-no one knows, somebody broke into the chambers of the rock in Rackwick Valley through the top, removed its contents and pushed out the stopper stone from the inside.

4, 850 years after it had been carved, give or take several decades, a chap called Major W. Mounsey camped by what was now known to Victorian travellers and sightseers as the Dwarfie Stane, or Dwarf Stone and as others before and since have done, left some carved graffiti on the stone.  Mounsey was a British spy, an adventurer and scholar.  Presumably he was also a bit of a smart arse because he left his graffiti message in Persian Sanskrit, upside down and back to front, with a bit of Latin thrown in too.  Once translated it reads “I have sat two nights and so learned patience”.  Not as patient as the bloke who hollowed the thing out in the first place though, I suspect.

I have played the guitar for 30 years.  For perhaps two of those, during my late teens, I tried to sound like John Martyn.  For most of the rest, I’ve tried to sound like myself.  But after probably one in three gigs I play, someone will come up to me and say that it reminded them of John Martyn.

All human endeavour is ultimately pointless in the face of geology.  One day, Rackwick Valley will be glacial again and the Dwarfie Stane itself will be picked up by the flow of ice and moved somewhere else, or be crushed under the weight along the manmade fault lines of the chambers.  The smart-arsed Major’s graffiti will have weathered away by then.  And everything we know today – power stations, the Mona Lisa, tyres, punch bowls, fridges, wellingtons, Labradors, aeroplanes, ELO records and my son’s nappies – will be part of the fossil record.

While a lot of people, critics and ordinary punters alike, tend to cite Solid Air as Martyn’s finest hour, I have always preferred One World.  Depending on my state of mind however, I sometimes say Inside Out.  But I have bought, given away, lent-and-never-got-back more copies of One World than anything else.  In fact, it’s probably the only record I’ve done that with.  I’ve had a few different copies of Solid Air, but One World has been the one that’s been most in and out of my collection.  My first ever copy disappeared among the rest of my John Martyn records at the hands of my former RE teacher.  At least three girlfriends left my life with as many copies.  My first CD copy ended up with a local hash dealer called Amir and I bought Liz a copy early in my attempts at courtship.  Didn’t hurt.  We gave her dad a copy as a Christmas present in our first year together.  It did seem incongruous sometime later as we sat down to eat one evening at father-in-law’s house to the sounds of an album I associated with pot smoking, left-leaning arty types.  But he seemed to have assimilated Big Muff just as well as he dealt with his partner’s son’s homosexuality.  So long as I didn’t cut up a line of coke for him on the kitchen table he and I could listen to One World together.

Most albums, no matter how much you like them, have one duff track.  One World has Dancing.  The title track juxtaposes the personal and the political simply and to great effect against a subtle blend of echoplex, fuzz box, double bass and understated percussion.  Big Muff, the collaborative effort with Lee Scratch Perry, pre-dates the British mainstream Dub scene by at least four years, while the epic Small Hours and to a lesser extent Smiling Stranger give Martyn a perfect right to the title of godfather of trip hop.  Certain Surprise is witty, a bit silly and relieves some of the emotional tension of the album.  Couldn’t Love You More is the most perfect love song ever written.  Dancing, though, is a bit crap.  At first my issues with it were that it was about dancing.  Songs about dancing are not songs for me.  Dancing Queen?  No thank you, your majesty.  My Baby just Loves to Dance?  Well, let him get on with it and have a pint, love.  Blame it on the Boogie?  Blame it on whatever you like, mate, this is Longton and we don’t do Boogie here on health and safety grounds.  Here, have a bingo card and a go on the meat raffle.

Then there are some really terrible lyrics to contend with.  John assures us that “…there’s been no romancing, there’s been no fancy pantsing…” No fancy pantsing?  This from the man who gave us “You curl around me, like a fern in the spring”.  But worse still is “Oh, darlin’, I wanted to leave but I had to stay, boys would’ve laughed if I’d run away…” Here is the fundamental difference between me and John Martyn.  It’s not just that he was a naturally gifted guitar play and song writer, blessed with a good voice.  It’s that he clearly had no nuns.  To commit to record the assertion that he couldn’t help himself from staying out, getting arseholed and shagging around because his mates would’ve taken the piss if he didn’t isn’t the attitude of a man who’s much in touch with the remonstrations of his super ego.  Then again, he probably didn’t care what people said about his shoes.

With all that said, I have never omitted Dancing from One World.  I can’t think of many albums where every track is a winner.  State of the Tenor by Joe Henderson might be one and Kind of Blue is a contender.  But most have a minger.  Apart from Pink Moon, which might be perfect, Nick Drake’s output was full of bummers.  Led Zeppelin III is a masterpiece but for Tangerine.  Who allowed When I’m 64 on Sergeant Pepper or Octopus’s Garden on Abbey Road?  But I would never exclude any of these when listening to the album, any more than I would skip a chapter of a book or only look at part of a painting.  If an artist puts together an album of songs in a particular order, then that’s how it should be listened to.  It is not an accident that one song follows another, a choice was made for it to be that way.  I know Stock, Hausen and Walkman released an album that was meant to be played on random.  I know people like to have a variety of their favourite tunes on their ipods.  But I still cleave to the idea that an album is a conceived work of art, that its running order has meaning and however imperfect I might find some of the material personally, I’ve no business messing it around without the express permission of the maker.  You wouldn’t swap the order of a Shakespeare play about, or stanzas of John Donne.  You wouldn’t leave out an aria from an opera or the woodwind parts from a symphony because you didn’t like them as much as the other bits.  So why is it okay to skip Octopus’s Garden when you’re listening to Abbey Road?  The fact that it’s infantile tripe is not a good enough reason.  True, the Irish poet Nahum Tate re-wrote the ending of King Lear in a version that was performed for 150 years where Lear and Cordelia both survive and are reunited.  But who would dream of doing that with an Alan Ayckbourn play now?   Tate probably had Blood on the Tracks on ye olde shuffle, too.

But here I need to ‘fess up.  On my original copy of One World the first track on side one was Couldn’t Love You More and the last track was Small Hours.  Couldn’t Love You More is the mainstay of my Desert Island playlist.  I love the moment before it starts.  There is a different kind of silence in the world in the nanosecond before John’s guitar comes in -Duh-duh-durm- followed by the thump in the region just under the bottom of your rib cage that spreads through your chest and down to your bowels as the vocal kicks in.  It is the perfect way to start an album.  It’s a short song, but it sets the tone for the rest of the album and if it’s the first time you’ve heard it, the tone for the rest of your life.  Small Hours finishes the side.  Recorded at night, across a lake in the English countryside, it’s the kind of thing some people will criticise as unstructured noodling.  With a barely perceptible heartbeat percussion keeping time throughout, John squeezes his guitar through an echoplex and volume pedal, swirling the air around him while Steve Winwood jams along, dropping in deft keyboard contributions.  The local wildlife also puts in, Canada geese audible, as does the milk train heading for London.  About half way through John decides it must be time to sing something and puts out some of the most poignant and simple lines of his career:

Gonna get on up and fly away
Move on out for another day
A new days dawn, gonna carry on

You’re very, very lovely gonna take you home
You say it’ll be my ruin but I just don’t care
Cos I love you so, I just love you so

Keep on loving while your love is strong
Keep on loving till your love has gone
All the way

The whole thing is the most perfect evocation of lying in bed with your lover, with the dark of the night and the lights of the city outside your window, as you contemplate the world around you, your future, the next day, your mistakes and your chances.

OK, I accept that there is a certain amount of romantic noodling about it, but I don’t care. It is the most perfect end to an album.  Except it isn’t.  It’s just the end of side one.  A lot of people have smoked a lot of pot while listening to One World and I have put in as much effort as the next person in that respect. You want to be stoned listening to Small Hours.  You want to drift off into that soundscape and be immersed in it.  There’s some stuff it is terrifying to be caught up in when you’re off your tits.  I remember a mushroom fuelled night at Jake’s place where the over enthusiastic panning of the stereo image on the PIL track This is What You Want, This is What You Get, had me thinking, for a brief while, that I’d buggered my brain for good and would be a vegetable come the morning.  But Small Hours just isn’t like that.  The small hours of Small Hours are the small hours of the best day of your life, when absolutely everything you did went right.  When the food was great, the sky was blue, or the snow was deep or you sheltered under your coat from the rain with the woman you’d marry.  The only edge to Small Hours is that tomorrow might not be as perfect.  So as the last chords fade at the end of the song, you don’t really want to get up, turn the record over and be launched into John Martyn’s contractual issues with his suppliers of non-prescribed remedies and chemical enhancements.

Dealer, which opens side two, plunges into the broader global, political concerns that were to be more characteristic of John Martyn’s later work, Grace and Danger aside.  It’s a great side of songs and it finishes up with Big Muff, co-written with Lee Scratch Perry.

The problem is of course that Big Muff is the end of the record and here is my big, guilty secret.  I took to playing the sides the wrong around.  If I did it on my own, no one need know.  It was certainly true that Couldn’t Love You More lost a tiny bit of its impact as a result but it was somehow a price worth paying to end the night with Small Hours.

Then, sometime around 1988, after the RE teacher-related loss of my original copy of One World, I replaced it with a new copy.  At the first play I was confused, doing that thing that you do with vinyl, holding it by the edges and flipping it one side to the other to read the label.  It’s a trick no one has ever taught you to do, like blowing on the partly lit gas jet of a grill to get all of it going or the acquired (ineffectual) technique of holding the vacuum cleaner over the same spot in order to pick up a stubbornly immobile bit of foil.  I flipped it once, then again. Then frowned.  Then flipped it again.  Side one, according to the label, now began with Dealer and ended with Big Muff, while side two began with Couldn’t Love You More and ended with Small Hours.  In other words, it now ran in the way I had taken to playing it, rather than the way it had originally been released.  The album artwork however, had not changed.  It gave the track listing where Couldn’t Love You More came first and Big Muff last.  When the CD format came out it too began with Dealer and ended with Small Hours while the artwork remained the same.

The shape taken by organic things is not easily explained by classical science.  The genetic information in, say, a Labrador is the same throughout the organism.  Its legs, eyes, heart, tail and so on contain the same information.  If you put a Labrador through a mincer, you wouldn’t be able to tell which bit was which from its genetic code.  So what makes its tail its tail or its bollocks its bollocks?  Since the 1920’s, biologists have adopted the idea that that bollocks become bollocks and tails, tails by organisation, through a kind of invisible blueprint for the form of a growing organism. The idea goes that these blueprints are fields, like magnetic fields and other fields that can be observed in nature.  They are known as morphogenetic fields.  In 1981 Rupert Sheldrake argued that these organising fields applied not only to the mechanics of physical growth and development but also to mental activity and behaviour.  He called these Morphic Fields. This was an idea which in its self put Sheldrake at risk of being ostracised by his fellow scientists but where his hypothesis becomes really controversial is in the notion that these morphic fields also have memory.  The more often a pattern of behaviour is repeated the further it will spread, both over time and through space, by a process Sheldrake calls Morphic Resonance.  He cites the anecdotal example of cattle on American ranches that have learned not to attempt to walk across cattle grids.  Ranchers found that cattle were equally unwilling to walk across two dimensional cattle grids painted on the ground.  That is easily explained by behaviourism.  The cattle just associate back and white parallel lines with real grids and steer clear.  But here’s the thing.  Cattle who have never encountered a real cattle grid also display the same behaviour towards the fake grids.  He gives other examples drawn from more controlled experiments, but here’s my offering.  I am confident that I was not the only pothead in the world listening to One World the wrong way around.  Is it that so many people wanted to loose themselves in Small Hours at the end of the record that a new habit was formed and that through Morphic Resonance the people at Island Records decided to put out later editions of One World with that running order?  Maybe.  Or maybe it’s all Labrador bollocks.

Sometimes it seems that anyone who has ever listened to John Martyn has a story to tell about him.  Sometimes it seems that anyone who has lived in Glasgow has one.  People who have flown over Scotland and people who have been to Hastings seem to have a story about John Martyn too.  I’ve got stories about him.  But I’m not going to regurgitate them here.  Between that Keele gig in ’84 and his death in 2009 I saw him play live at least 20 times.  If I put my mind to it I could be more precise.  If I really put my mind to it I could be exact.  There are details I remember from every gig.  For example, I can tell you that he played a Tokai strat at the Victoria Hall in Hanley in 1986 or that at the Wheatsheaf in Stoke in ’88 he dedicated Solid Air to a couple called Paul and Gretchen.  When he played the Lowry in Salford in 2002 he threatened to take a member of the audience outside and ‘give him a twatting’.  But at that point of course he was still bipedal.  It might be that I choose to believe that the best set I saw him play was at the Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal a year before he died because some of the ones I saw beforehand were so dreadful.  The Solid Air revisited gig at the Lowry was gruesome.  Who, I wondered was making him do this?  His reunion tour with Danny Thompson in 2003 when I saw him at the Bridgewater Hall was little better.  Was nice to have seen him with Danny though.  But I remember he was blistering at the Free Trade Hall in ’87 and his gig at one of the Internationals in Manchester in 1990 when he was touring Cooltide with Fingerbone guitars, being Jack the Lad, left me convinced that I must have seen the best of him, regardless of anything anyone dressed head to foot in denim and reeking of petuli oil might have had to say about Cambridge in 1976.

The point is, I don’t believe half the stories I’ve heard about John Martyn.  Most of them are tales told by people with a fraction of the talent and even less understanding of being a maker and all of the impact that that has on a person.  The critics who after his death reprinted stories of their encounters with him and those who bathed in the reflected rock ‘n’ roll misdemeanours during his lifetime are probably just twats who couldn’t cope with having the piss taken out of their shoes.

4 thoughts on “Johnny Too Bad

  1. Excellent! Please, get it finished, find a publisher and let’s have it in book form. Ok, all I’ve ever done is ‘ponce around with a camera’, so I’m no authority on the world of publishing; however, I’d wager my last that it would sell and sell.

  2. Fancypantsing makes me smile! (as did the non JM classic Sally the Sole) this has bought back lots of happy memories. I last saw Johm Martyn at Birmingham town hall few months before he died, I always loved Grace and Danger. Your writing is very eloquent,

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