It was a severe winter and as February arrived it got even worse. Snow fell in the first week of the month and there it stayed, and stayed, and it was still there on Monday 24th February 1986, yet another freezing cold day. However, today it didn’t bother me in the slightest; I was making my way to the local record shop to collect John’s latest album Piece By Piece. The album had been announced a few weeks earlier and in eager anticipation I had booked a day’s holiday to listen to it, as I always did.
There is something almost ritualistic about the first listening of a new ‘JM’ album. My day was planned with military precision, the HiFi was switched on at breakfast to warm up, I would leave at 840am and travel to the record shop, I knew exactly where I would park the car and, all things remaining equal, I should be home by 930am depending on traffic. Album in hand I returned home, put the kettle on, made a coffee and unplugged the telephone. I carefully picked up my copy of Piece By Piece and hurriedly removed the cellophane, opening up the gatefold sleeve. What a superb format vinyl is, there is something special about a virgin vinyl record. I eased into my listening chair coffee in hand and sat back to enjoy John’s latest album; in every groove of every song John was about to share the latest chapter of his life.
There are songs that touch people’s lives, occasionally there are musicians that touch people’s lives, however John Martyn touched a whole generation with his heart on sleeve music, and he continues to do so. John and his fans share a journey; parallel paths that merge at certain points in our lives, each meeting feels like a warm, friendly conversation and makes the connection ever stronger. The “Access All Areas” John gave us to his life had a magical power and Piece By Piece was the latest chapter in John’s life.
John was celebrating his twentieth year as a performer and two weeks before the album was released, Island Records released Classic John Martyn on the then all new compact disc format to mark the anniversary. The five track CD single included Angeline (taken from Piece By Piece), a cover of Bob Dylan’s Tight Connection To My Heart from his Empire Burlesque album and three more familiar songs May You Never, Solid Air and Glistening Glyndebourne, all packaged in a fold out cardboard sleeve. This was not only the first time John’s music had been released on CD but notably it was also the world’s first commercially available CD single. Of course I’d made the same journey to the record shop, the only problem was I didn’t have a CD player! But all was not lost, I knew a man who did, my old friend Richard, who I had been slowly but persistently introducing to John’s music over the years – problem solved! And what an unforgettable love song Angeline is, a simple heart-rending arrangement and beseeching lyric written for wife Annie.
Oh Angeline, will you always be near me?
Angeline, will you always wear white?
Angeline, I don’t want to be lonely.
Oh Angeline, please stay here tonight.
The blend of vulnerability and warmth is in significant contrast to John’s upbeat robust cover of Dylan’s song.
Island continued their promotion and marketing attempting to make John a household name. To follow the CD single a 12” inch single was released in March with a slightly different song selection prompting Andy Gill to comment in The New Musical Express, “Few concepts can be as daft or as unnecessary as the 12″ single, but that of the Compact Disc single, I think it makes even the 12″ seem relatively sane. That John Martyn’s Angeline should be chosen for this dubious honour, however, is a good poke in the eye for all this New Age Music nonsense which would seem to be custom built for CDs. A delicate, dowey floatation of a love song on spindly heron legs of what sounds like a koto, make great virtue of simplicity and clarity, like oriental calligraphy. It’s accompanied by a confident, stylish re-working of Tight Connection To ‘Your’ Heart which brings out an appeal largely absent on Bob Dylan’s original.”
Ca Va Studios owner and sound engineer Brian Young recalls, “Chris Blackwell had been really pushing John to cover a Bob Dylan number, I think it was possibly an anniversary of Bob’s writing. John was not greatly into it and I remember him talking about meeting the Dylan entourage years back, Joni Mitchell etcetera and sadly there was no great love or affinity created that John could link into.”
Although John had recorded Tight Connection with the intention of it being a single it wasn’t released as such, instead it appeared on the 12” inch single and the CD single, but it wasn’t included on the album release. “The one time I ever tried to make a single is of a Bob Dylan song… we did that in a morning. So I can’t help thinking, if someone actually produced a song for you and said make this into a hit record, one could do it quite easily I suppose. It was the first time I have ever tried to do that, you know, very quickly and stuff. You get the words on Friday and Saturday morning, you are going to do it. It’s good fun. A good way to work.” To confuse matters there was a limited edition release of the album with bonus songs including Tight Connection along with Solid Air, One World and May You Never that was released in April as an attempt to promote John’s back catalogue and Angeline was subsequently released as a 7” inch single with, yes you’ve guessed, Tight Connection as the B side.
Recording sessions started at Ca Va Studios on 5th July 1985. John was assisted by Brian Young who, in autumn 1983, had mixed John’s self-released live album Philentropy and had also helped John to complete his 1984 album Sapphire. Brian had formed Ca Va in 1974 and began trading in the basement of his house, quickly establishing a reputation as an accomplished engineer before moving to a newly fitted out studio in the city centre’s St. Vincent Street. John eagerly embraced the latest technology and enjoyed working with Brian. “I’m very fussy in the studio. I like an engineer who’s quick and efficient, with a mind of his own. I like engineers to be musicians. There’s a very good guy at Island called Groucho, and Brian Young was the engineer on Piece by Piece. When I go into the studio now I use a harmoniser to fatten up the key boards and make them big. On all instruments and vocals I use a repeat echo and a regenerator very low. On the drums I use an ambient echo and reverb. This album uses completely digital equipment which is more accurate.” Recording and mixing was completed by 29th November and the album was mastered by 22nd December 1985 but fans had to wait until February the following year for its release, the album entered the charts on 8th March and stayed there for four weeks peaking at number 28.
I asked John about Piece By Piece, “It was great fun to make! I worked on it at home with Foss Paterson and then recorded in Glasgow. It was just the two of us although you wouldn’t really know from listening to it! Alan Thomson played on a couple of songs and Danny Cummings on percussion but basically it was just the two of us.” John likened Piece By Piece to his 1968 album The Tumbler, “it’ s also very much like some of the previous record stuff I did early in my career, like just about anything on The Tumbler. It’s very flippant, very youthful, sort of coltish almost.”
With the aim of securing more radio station air play Island produced a promotional boxed set which included two records of John in discussion with broadcaster Trevor Dann. “A conversation with John Martyn” was punctuated with songs from his career to date, John was very happy with the album, “…it’s my best LP so far… I like the songs on it, I like the songs on it very much. I like the melodies and I like the playing… it’s interesting, it’s a new… it’s a slightly new departure for me,” he added “basically it’s a duo album, myself and Foster Paterson, although it doesn’t sound like one. There’s string and fretless bass on two tracks from Alan Thomson. Danny Cummings plays percussion on six tracks and Colin Tully plays sax and flute.”
Edinburgh born keyboard player, arranger and composer, “the peerless” Foster Paterson, wrote the title track and went on to tour extensively with John as both a duo and as part of his band, contributing to John’s next album The Apprentice on which he penned Patterns In The Rain. Foster also played with Any Trouble and David Knopfler before working extensively with ex-Marillion frontman Fish on his solo albums and tours. Bassist Alan Thomson was now a constant in John’s band. Alan was born in Glasgow in 1960, his father and grandfather were jazz musicians and his mother a pianist and singer. Alan played violin and piano before taking up the guitar at thirteen years old. Accompanied by bass player Neil Fairweather, drummer Tim Brittain, and guitarist David Roy, he formed The Arthur Trout Band in 1976, playing clubs in the Glasgow area. David and John were cousins and John was an occasional visitor to rehearsals. John needed a bass player for his forthcoming Grace And Danger tour, Alan auditioned and got the job. He became an integral part of John’s band for the next 30 years, playing keyboards, guitar and bass at various times through the years as well as co-writing three songs with John on his Sapphire album.
Saxophonist and pianist Colin Tully first met John whilst playing in the street in Glasgow at the tender age of four, little did he know that thirty years later he would be playing in John’s band! Colin was a member of rock band Cado Belle in the 70s and subsequently gained widespread recognition for composing the music to the Bill Forsyth written and directed rom-com Gregory’s Girl. Brian Young told me, “When John asked about adding a sax player, Colin was the only one I could recommend that could not only play fine sax but could adapt to working in The Life of John.”
John had selected accomplished musicians and a first class production team to work on the album, it was an all Scottish line up, the only ‘interloper’ being Yorkshire born percussionist Danny Cummings who has worked with a host of top names including Dire Straits, George Michael, Elton John and Talk Talk. Brian recalls, “Danny came up for a long weekend and we setup lots of mikes around all his percussion on the studio floor and let him go raj as he did to great effect. A real musician adding real instruments gloriously brought some of the tracks to life.”
The stormy and promiscuous Nightline opens the album and is followed by the sweet optimistic sax driven Lonely Love that was released as a single in March. “Lonely Love is really a little pop song. I think that’s the only one on the album,” John added, “What I’ve tried to do is sing more than play and push myself in a certain direction… I worked a little longer on drum programmes and digital mixes. It’s very refined. I was very particular on this album to get everything right. I spent a couple of days just recording Piece by Piece itself.”
Angeline is beautifully fragile, you can feel the desire and aching love in John’s voice and One Step Too Far has a wonderful, sensuous soul filled vocal. Reconciliation is on John’s mind in Piece By Piece as he sings of attempting to repair, renew and refresh a relationship. Serendipity, a fortunate coincidence or accidental discovery, has a fabulous vocal, “A gambler’s song. I’m a great believer in it. No matter how long you go, there’s always something that’ll turn up. I’m a fairly good card player, I love playing cards, although I don’t bet on the horses or anything like that. I suppose it comes from being an optimist. I’ve noticed that no matter how low I’ve sunk at any given point in time, something has always popped up. I bet you it gets better – and it always does.”
Whatever you do, she runs the game
At the tip of a wink, the drop of a hat
At the turning of the card
Serendipity told me, she’d be there
At the spin of a coin, the drop of the bead
At the rolling of the dice
Serendipity told me, she’d be there.
The tender dreamy Who Believes In Angels, has an undercurrent of rejection and loneliness and Love Of Mine is cautionary advice to a friend about an unfaithful lover. John’s anger and frustration explode in the psychotic masterpiece John Wayne that closes the album with volcanic guitar and crashing synthesisers. The song was written for an ex-manager, John explains, “I had this terrible feeling of chagrin, not to mention rage, with an acquaintance of mine. I very rarely feel righteously indignant, it’s one of those things, because I’m not often right, you see, so I can’t be! So I am righteously indignant. I really did feel hard done by, so I was sitting down, writing this song, thrashing away with a fuzz box, making these dreadful angry noises… Chickety ching, chickety wang! Whizzle! Halfway through all these sort of dreadful threatening lyrics, like I am coming to get you, I’m breathing down your neck, I’ll get you, you swine… I suddenly saw the funny side of it and thought, wait a second, you sound like Rooster Cockburn being John Wayne. And once that idea got through to me, it was like… No, it’s a kind of satire of John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, and all that sort of nonsense. All the flag-waving, apple pie and turkey stuff. Turkey being the operative word there.” The song highlighted John’s extraordinary vocal range. “What I tried to do is sing more than play, and have fun with some new sounds, like the strangled duck… I always find the vocals more difficult to get right in the studio, they’re better live, generally. To get the effect I wanted on the track John Wayne I had to go out and get completely rat-arsed, and then I did it on one take. Great effect.”
Brian Young has enjoyable memories about working with John on the song, “John Wayne features John with the Martinos on spaced out backing vocals. Basically, John’s voice was sampled and played back in at different pitches and styles. My favourites were John at 100% up and his singing at that octave was identical to that of the mighty Aretha, and an octave down was the devil himself… can you hear the tables turning, can you hear the earth begin to move!”
Album reviews were very positive, Len Brown wrote in The New Musical Express, “Lonely Love, the title track Piece By Piece, and Love Of Mine seduced me, while Angeline, the single, swoons closest to his romantic best” and from HiFi Sounds “Martyn endows the music with all the benefits of a crystalline production technique and Piece By Piece showcases Martyn’s ability to blend his personality and voice with the rigours of jazz instrumentation.” Sounds was similarly impressed, Glyn Brown expounding, “Serendipity, romantic hogwash about the Right One, nevertheless ranks with the best pieces here (all on the second side), blending a new and clean jazziness and allowing the voice the growling and rolling and roaring room it deserves; Who Believes In Angels tiptoes new territory, a tender soul swoon and lingering loop of lullaby even this cynic could sway to. “Look at me, the dizziest dreamer.” John, you sometimes convince me it’s worth the candle.”
John started an extensive tour in February in the UK and also performed in Ireland, Denmark, The Netherlands, Italy and Germany, and was courted by British television making appearances on BBC2 Saturday Review and even a Yorkshire Television Kids Show – No 73. Invitations followed to perform at Glastonbury in June and the Montreux Jazz Festival in July. Colin Tully has happy memories of the tour “When we were on tour promoting Piece by Piece John told us his shirt ironing story. Apparently he had decided his shirt needed smoothing out before a performance. He recalled having seen his mother testing whether the iron was hot enough by spitting on it. If it was properly hot the spit would sizzle. John was, of course, stoned at the time. He decided to take his mother’s idea a bit further. Rather than spitting on the iron he licked with his tongue!”
With or without a burnt tongue John performed at Fabrik in Hamburg on 23rd April 1986 and included no less than seven songs from Piece By Piece which are released for the first time here. Fabrik (or Factory in English) is a former machine parts factory and now a cultural centre in Ottensen on the river Elbe, one of the quarters of Hamburg. The building consists of a large central hall with wooden girders, overlooked by running galleries on the two upper floors with an old crane over the entrance as a memorial to the building’s industrial past. John gives a powerful and charismatic performance accompanied by Foster Paterson on keyboards, Arran Ahmun on drums and Alan Thomson on bass. All are in superb form, with some outstanding guitar playing from John particularly on the raw and rocky Nightline and the eight minute plus John Wayne that rages with malicious energy. John closes with a rare live performance of Tight Connection To My Heart with some fierce guitar and an aggressive vocal.
John shared his weaknesses and his strengths, his loves and his losses with us. Often raw, always honest and authentic he conjured songs from his experiences and surroundings, everything around him was an inspiration and his willingness to share his feelings created a wonderful collection of autobiographical stories. He crafted musical literature, encapsulating the full range of human emotion, touching lives and creating a lifelong affiliation with his fans. Outwardly he was the quintessential tough guy, an extrovert with an overwhelming desire to experience everything that life had to offer, but he bared his heart and soul with enchanted eloquence in his songs. The omnipresent message flowing through his music is that the world is a lonely and hostile place without love and compassion.
John was everything that is good about music, ever evolving, ever inspiring, ever heartfelt; a visionary.