John Martyn. Couldn’t ever really be doing with him. He seemed to belong to an era chock full of talented musicians and committed songwriters who conspired to create intricate, sincere and, not least, dreadfully dull music. I swiftly locked him in a draw with Jackson Browne and James Taylor, and only unlocked it the swifter to chuck in Tracy Chapman some years later.
Decades further down the road I was squeezing my money’s worth out of a music mag by reading absolutely everything therein and came across, in a career retrospective of John Martyn, the following intriguing statement: “You were that curious of beasts, the folky mod.” Coming, as I do, from a family with not only a history of cheesecloth and flares but also containing one bona fide Lambretta owner and an extra from the film “Tommy”, this was a genre that begged to be investigated.
So how was Martyn going to combine these two seemingly conflicting styles? Folk: traditional, rural, gentle, academic. Made for enjoying in a half-timbered pub whilst wearing a hand knitted Arran sweater with some half-timbered weirdy beardy friends. Mod: clean-shaven, progressive, urban, confrontational and working class. Made to be enjoyed in a chrome and Formica coffee bar with some mohair friends. Anticipating my question, the man born Iain David McGeachy kicks off 1970’s splendid “Stormbringer” with “Go Out And Get It”, 3:07 of cynical lysergic pub funk which more than anything The Who have written would perfectly soundtrack the opening/closing scene of Quadrophenia as Jimmy the mod walks back from the brink of Beachy Head.
“I believe in minute for every man when he must take notice of the clock and all its hands” . The clock and all its hands? We’re a long way from All-Around-My-Hat territory here Toto. The mods of John Martyn’s world sound like they’re sitting by the campfire, passing round the mead and experiencing a particularly wobbly Dali trip. But still managing to dance a bit. Not in a way that would set the average northern soul allnighter alight, but dancing nevertheless. A little further in to the album and Beverley Martyn treats us to the admirably trancey “Sweet Honesty”. Lyrically a little more obviously folk but if you squint, not massively different from “I Can See For Miles”. Although on the debit side she does tend to step on the classic folk landmine of singing in a west country accent, despite being born and raised in Coventry.
To be brutally honest with you, I’ve not bothered listening to anything else by John Martyn. “Stormbringer” sits so perfectly at the cusp of sixties experimentalism and seventies excess that I long ago decided it’s the only thing by him that I need. Just don’t, for the love of Elvis and all the saints, go confusing it with the Deep Purple album of the same name.
Two people who bizarrely could be confused with Deep Purple are Carlos Lyra and Vinicius de Moraes. In 1962 the pair composed a mod-sharp bossa nova classic called “Maria Moita”, later to be recorded by Astrid Gilberto as “Maria Quiet”. Online music conpiracists have long suspected plagiarism on the part of one R. Blackmore esq, stodgy rock behemoth of this parish, for obvious reasons. I frequently delight in the way songs can be appropriated by other artists and be made to fit a different genre, but the leap of imagination that took this gossamer frail slice of Brazilian sophistication and turned it into “Smoke On The Water” is as admirable as it is macabre.
The discovery of the source material first has you staring open mouthed at the stereo, then cackling hideously and finally curling up in the foetal position. The whole experience was rather like Charlton Heston finding the statue of liberty at the end of Planet Of The Apes and realising that the nightmarish dystopia he has survived is merely a corrupt palimpsest of the home he loved.
And if I’ve just spoilt the ending for you, get this: Kevin Spacey WAS Keyser Soze and Hayley Joel Osment was trying to tell Bruce Willis that he’d been dead all along!
Meanwhile, any folky mods who had sold their bossa nova and Modern Jazz Quartet albums, and traded them in for some Roland Kirk, were having their tastes catered to by the quite extraordinary Pentangle.
Coming of age, as I have mentioned before, during the aftermath of punk, I developed what I still regard as a healthy suspicion of “great musicians”. The dirty rock’n’roll that first tempted me away from table tennis tournaments and boys brigade meetings was created by artists heavy on ideas and frequently low on polish and technical competence. “Great musicians” belonged to the rest of the decade before punk’s year zero.
Pentangle though, display an almost punk rock disregard for their virtuosity, electing to play as a group and not just using music as a coathanger for endlessly noodling solos. Most songs come in under the four minute barrier and leave you breathless as Messrs Jansch, Renbourn, Thompson and Cox duel away like amphetamine soaked be-boppers leaving you free to wonder how, once again, singer Jacqui McShee acquired her Somerset accent growing up in South London.
This is what “great musicians” should be doing – listening to each other, filling in the gaps, creating an irresistable wall of sound that demands, demands you dance. And one look at star player Bert Jansch tells you that like the mods who preceded him, this is a man accustomed to giving his Hush Puppies a thorough workout.
To continue the cinematic theme, listening to Pentangle is like going on an existential scooter run to Summerisle in an attempt to rescue Edward Woodward (Why has Edward Woodward got four D’s in his name? Because otherwise he’d be called E-War Woo-War) from The Wicker Man. And if you haven’t seen it I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the end.
So what have we learned today? Did folk-mod exist? Well, maybe if we accept that mod is broader than just “My Generation” and “Guns Of Navarone”. Maybe if folk is a bit more than “Froggy Went-A-Courtin'” and “Hallelujah, I’m A Bum”. Maybe if we allow our treasured favourites to be corrupted by unfamiliar sounds, because without cross-pollination we just end up with the musical equivalent of walls around Mexico. Bad.