John 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. The Times described him as "an electrifying guitarist and singer whose music blurred the boundaries between folk, jazz, rock and blues".[1]

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
GenresFolk blues, progressive folk, folk-rock, folk jazz
Occupation(s)Musician, songwriter
Years active1967–2009
LabelsIsland, WEA
Associated actsBeverley Martyn

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.[2] 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.

Early life

Martyn was born in Beechcroft Avenue, New Malden, Surrey, England, to a Belgian Jewish mother and a Scottish father.[3][4] His parents, both opera singers, divorced when he was five and he spent his childhood alternating between Scotland and England. Much of this time was spent in the care of his grandmother, as well as on his mother's houseboat. He attended Shawlands Academy in Glasgow.[1] At school, he was a keen rugby player. On leaving school he attended Glasgow School of Art, but left to pursue his musical aspirations.[5]

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.[2] He signed to Chris Blackwell's Island Records in 1967 and released his first album, London Conversation, the same year[6].

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 backing singer as well as continuing as a solo artist herself.[1]


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.

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.

In 1977, he released One World, which led some commentators to describe Martyn as the "Father of Trip-Hop".[7] 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.[4] 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).[1] In her autobiography, Beverley also alleges protracted domestic violence.[8] Out of this period, described by Martyn as "a very dark period in my life",[9] 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."[9]

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."[9] 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.[1] 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

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.

In July 2006 the documentary Johnny Too Bad was screened by the BBC.[10] 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.[11]

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."[12]

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.[13]


Martyn died on 29 January 2009, in hospital in Thomastown, County Kilkenny, Ireland,[14] due to acute respiratory distress syndrome. Martyn's health was affected by his life-long abuse of drugs and alcohol. He was survived by his partner, Teresa Walsh, and his children, Mhairi and Spencer McGeachy.[15]

Following Martyn's death, Rolling Stone lauded his "progressive folk invention and improvising sorcery".[16] Friend and collaborator Phil Collins paid tribute to him, saying, "John's passing is terribly, terribly sad. I had worked with and known him since the late 1970s and he was a great friend. He was uncompromising, which made him infuriating to some people, but he was unique and we'll never see the likes of him again. I loved him dearly and will miss him very much."[17]

Mike 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.[18][19]


Studio albums


  • Live at Leeds (September 1975)
  • So Far So Good (March 1977)
  • The Electric John Martyn (October 1982)
  • Philentropy (November 1983) (live)
  • Foundations (October 1987)
  • BBC Radio 1 Live in Concert (May 1992)
  • No Little Boy (July 1993)
  • Sweet Little Mysteries: The Island Anthology (June 1994)
  • Live (July 1995)
  • Serendipity — An Introduction To John Martyn (1998)
  • Another World; Collectors Series Vol 1 (1998)
  • Germany 1986 (July 2001; with Danny Thompson)
  • The Brewery Arts Centre, Kendal 1986 (August 2001) (with Danny Thompson)
  • Live at the Town & Country Club, 1986; Collectors Series 2 (August 2001)
  • Sweet Certain Surprise (live in New York, 1977) (October 2001)
  • Live at the Bottom Line, New York, 1983; Collectors Series 3 (November 2001)
  • Live in Milan, 1979; Collectors Series 4 (May 2002)
  • Solid Air — Classics Re-visited (2002) (compilation of previously released tracks)
  • Live in Concert at the Cambridge Folk Festival BBC 1985 (2003)
  • And Live (recorded 1996) (2003)
  • Late Night John (2004)
  • Classics Live (2004)[20]
  • In Session (live) (2006) (BBC sessions, recorded for John Peel and Bob Harris, between 1973 and 1978)
  • BBC Live in Concert (2007)
  • The Battle of Medway: 17 July 1973 (live) (2007)
  • Anthology (2007)
  • The Simmer Dim (2008)
  • The July Wakes (2008)
  • Ain't No Saint (2008) 40-year anthology
  • May You Never — The Very Best Of (2009)
  • The Island Years (September 2013) 18 disc box set
  • May You Never: The Essential John Martyn (2013) 3 Disc Compilation


  • "John The Baptist" / "The Ocean" (Island WIP 6076, January 1970)
  • "Anni Part 1" / "Anni Part 2" (with John Stevens' Away) (Vertigo 6059 140, 1976)
  • "Over The Hill" / "Head And Heart" (Island WIP 6385, February 1977)
  • "Dancing" / "Dealer" (version) (Island WIP 6414, January 1978)
  • "In Search of Anna" / "Certain Surprise" (Island K7450, 1979)
  • "Johnny Too Bad" / "Johnny Too Bad" (version) Island WIP 6547, October 1980)
  • "Johnny Too Bad" (extended dub version) / "Big Muff" (extended remix) (Island IPR 2047, March 1981)
  • "Sweet Little Mystery" / "Johnny Too Bad" (Island WIP 6718, June 1981)
  • "Please Fall in Love With Me" / "Don't You Go" (WEA K 79243, August 1981)
  • "Hiss on the Tape" / "Livin' Alone" (WEA K 79336, October 1982)
  • "Gun Money" (U.S. remix) / "Hiss on the Tape" (live) (WEA 259987-7, November 1982)
  • "Over The Rainbow" / "Rope Soul'd" (Island IS 209, October 1984)
  • "Angeline" / "Tight Connection to My Heart" (Island IS 265, February 1986)[21]
  • "Classic John Martyn" (Island CID 265, February 1986)
  • "Angeline" / "Tight Connection to My Heart" / "May You Never" / "Certain Surprise" / "One Day Without You" (Island 12 IS 265, February 1986)
  • "Lonely Love" / "Sweet Little Mystery" (live) (Island IS 272, October 1986)
  • "Send Me One Line" / "Patterns in the Rain" (Hypertension HYS 100 102, May 1990)
  • "Deny This Love" (remix) / "The Apprentice" (live) (Permanent S12, August 1990, 7-inch vinyl)
  • "Deny This Love" (remix) / "The Apprentice" (live) / "Deny This Love" (album version) (Permanent CD Perm 1, August 1990)
  • "Jack The Lad" / "Annie Sez" / "The Cure" / "Jack Sez" (Permanent CD Perm 3, April 1992)
  • "Sweet Little Mystery" / "Head and Heart" (Permanent, Perm 6, September 1982)
  • "Lonely Love" / "May You Never" (Permanent, Perm 8, December 1992)
  • "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" (Voiceprint, JMCD001, 1998)
  • "Excuse Me Mister" / "God Song" (live) / "Rock, Salt & Nails" (live) / "John Wayne" (live) (Independiente, ISOM14MS CD, May 1998)
  • "Deliver Me" (with Sister Bliss) (Multiply Records, CDMULTY72, March 2001)


  • Live in Concert (John Martyn & Band at Camden Palace Theatre, London, 23 November 1984) (2001) re-issued Live at the Camden Palace Theatre London 1984 (2004) & Live from the Camden Palace (2012)
  • Live in Dublin (with Danny Thompson at Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, for RTE TV, Ireland, June 1986) (2005)
  • John Martyn at the BBC (various 1973 - 1982) (2006)
  • The Apprentice in Concert (John Martyn & Band with Dave Gilmour at Shaw Theatre, London, 31 March 1990) (2006)
  • Empty Ceiling (John Martyn & Band recorded for Ohne Filter, German TV, April 1986) (2007)
  • The Man Upstairs (John Martyn (solo) recorded for Rockpalast, German TV, 17 March 1978) (2008)
  • Solid Air Live at the Roundhouse (John Martyn & Band in London, 3 February 2007) (2007)
  • One World One John (John Martyn & Band recorded mostly at Vicar Street, Dublin in 1999, 2000 & 2003) (2012)


  1. Obituary: "John Martyn: guitarist and singer", The Times, 30 January 2009, pg. 75.
  2. Hartenbach, Brett. "John Martyn: Biography & History". AllMusic. Retrieved 2 March 2017.
  3. "Feeling Gravity's Pull - The Official John Martyn Website". Since his birth in 1949, to an English mother and Scottish father, he's forever been shuttling the length ... In fact she wasn't she was Jewish Belgian. ... Exit Ms Frederick stage left, rapidly, but the song remains: Sandy Grey turns up the following ...
  4. John Neil Munro, Some People Are Crazy — the John Martyn Story; ISBN 978-1-84697-058-0, Polygon, 2007 p.125
  5. "Glasgow Walker | Big Muff".
  6. "London Conversation (1967)". The Official John Martyn Website. 4 April 2013. Retrieved 24 February 2019.
  7. 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."
  8. Beverley Martyn, Jacki Dacosta, Sweet Honesty - The Beverley Martyn Story; ISBN 978-1-90721-188-1, Grosvenor, 2011
  9. "''John's Diary 1980s'' — Martyn's biography on his website". Retrieved 24 August 2012.
  10. "Johnny Too Bad". 1 January 1970. Retrieved 24 August 2012.
  11. Hillarby, John. "Biography Part 7". Retrieved 4 December 2019.
  12. "Folk Awards 2008 - Winners and Nominees". Retrieved 13 December 2018.
  13. "No. 58929". The London Gazette (Supplement). 31 December 2008. p. 11.
  14. "John Martyn's last appearance in Kytelers". 6 February 2009. Retrieved 16 August 2015.
  15. "UK | Scotland | Glasgow, Lanarkshire and West | Songwriter Martyn dies, aged 60". BBC News. 29 January 2009. Retrieved 16 August 2015.
  16. Fricke, David. "Fricke's Picks: Remembering Singer-Guitarist John Martyn". Rolling Stone. Retrieved 2 March 2017.
  17. Leonard, Michael (29 January 2009). "Phil Collins pays tribute to John Martyn". MusicRadar.
  18. "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.
  19. Beaudoin, Jedd (30 October 2011). "Various Artists: Johnny Boy Would Love This… A Tribute to John Martyn". PopMatters. Retrieved 16 August 2018.
  20. "Classics Live (2004)". 26 April 2013.
  21. Angeline was the world's first ever CD single, released in 1986

Further reading

  • John Neil Munro, Some People Are Crazy: The John Martyn Story (2007), 2011: foreword by Ian Rankin, ISBN 9781846971655
  • Chris Nickson, Solid Air: The Life of John Martyn (2011), ISBN 978-0-615-53485-5
  • Mat Snow, John Martyn In Person (2011)
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