The Plastic Hippo

January 29, 2013

One day without you

Filed under: Music — theplastichippo @ 7:00 pm

Image via - Paul Reid

Image via – Paul Reid

Four years ago today, Iain David McGeachy OBE died. Better known as John Martyn, he successfully divided the human race into two distinct groups; those that have never heard of him and those that adore his music.

Way back in 1973, he made an appearance on the Old Grey Whistle Test which was in those far off days the only television programme to air an alternative to The Sweet, Mud, The Osmonds and Dawn featuring Tony Orlando. Saving up the money from a Saturday job, I went to an independent record shop and bought the Solid Air album on vinyl and then played it to death. Fingers and a heart bled as I tried to emulate the hammer-on, pull-off percussive guitar style and 40 years later the technique has still to be mastered. It was only with the coming of the internet that I realised that the bastard was playing the stuff in DADGAD tuning which remains a black art to players like me who lack the imagination to progress beyond standard tuning and the ubiquitous three chord trick. That`s 25 years of trying to work out May You Never in standard tuning that I will never get back.

I first saw him live at a student union gig a few years later. I wasn`t quite a teenage girl screaming at a Bay City Rollers concert, but it was close. Back in a grotty student flat after the gig, the cheap acoustic came very close to being hurled out of the window. It was the same every time I saw him over the years in York, London, Bristol, Hull, Newcastle and Glasgow. How could anyone play so well and sing with a voice that could melt steel? For this unashamed devotee, his career seemed to have three distinct stages. First was the beautiful boy singer-songwriter breaking hearts with raw emotion. Then the rock star with sharp Armani suite and shades, hanging out with Clapton, Phil Collins and David Gilmour blowing people away with overdrive, Echoplex and swell pedal and then, sadly, a decline. In saw him at the Robin 2 in Bilston in 2006 and a few months later at the Fairport`s Cropredy festival. Overweight, unwell, looking very old and unfortunately missing a leg, his voice had deepened and his guitar occasionally out of time. It looked like the start of a long goodbye but that did not stop us worshipping the ground he now hopped on. I last saw him at Symphony Hall in Birmingham a year later on his Solid Air revival tour which now seems like an insurance policy for his wife and kids.

Living a life of grace and danger he was, by all accounts, “difficult” at times. As is so often the case, outward aggression seems to have been a defence of inward sensitivity. There is a lovely story of a fan persuading his heavy metal buddies to go to a John Martyn gig. Utterly converted, the youths headed for the stage door in the hope of an autograph. Taking a chance, the missionary asked for a photograph of himself and the great man. As John Wayne left the building, the reply to the request was typically brusque. The fan, far from being humiliated achieved glory. “You lucky bastard”, said one of his mates. “You`ve just been told to f**k off by John Martyn.”

John Martyn was grumpy, bad tempered and sometimes nasty. He also wrote and performed some of the most moving songs we are ever likely to hear. After four years, I still love the bad old bugger.

This from 1975 and Sunday`s Child:



  1. Well said, Hippo.

    John was grumpy, irascible, often irrational and was frequently gruff with fans and audiences.

    He also made some of the greatest music of my lifetime – Bless the Weather, London Conversation and Solid Air never go long without being played. I’ve leaned on all three in times of joy, sadness or crisis.

    John may have been mad, bad and dangerous to know.

    He also made some of the loveliest, most tender and beautiful music I’ve ever heard.

    He’s sadly missed here


    Comment by BrownhillsBob — January 29, 2013 @ 7:09 pm | Reply

  2. I’ve just realized that the only gig I can remember from being at Manchester University some 40 years ago was by John Martyn. His music echoed around the room and my mind, and then softened my heart.

    Comment by hapdaniel — January 29, 2013 @ 11:36 pm | Reply

  3. I took little with me musically when I left the UK for Africa, but I did take John Martyn. These are not my words but I endorse them – “and then there was an angel, who spoke of many things. Dreams and stories that would be true, and were real, his name was unknown to many, but known to the devoted few. And when he was gone, they carried on, listening to his words of wisdom, hoping one day, he would appear”.

    Comment by Expat in Accra — February 1, 2013 @ 11:49 am | Reply

  4. Speaking from a position of slight experience, the man was a nightmare to please.

    Not surprising really.In his position, doing his stuff, there was no reason to be cheerful.

    He did world music before the term was coined. Like the Echoplex, perpetually stressed and stretched.

    As St. Cecilia should have said ‘Blessed are the thrummers, for they will surely inherit the rhythm of life’

    The Realist

    Comment by The Realist — February 2, 2013 @ 11:33 pm | Reply

  5. Saw him twice in australia- once in the state theatre all by himself but he did introduce us to his version of a beat box which pulsed away in a wonderful drumming groove as he made us all believe about 400 musos were on stage- he drank cans of beer hurled up from an appreciative audience and wiped his foamy hands on the stage curtains! A great mix of acoustic and live at Leeds style dementia . Another time saw him as a power trio, hiss on the tape rock groove style still nice but that first gig was sooo good!

    Comment by Graeme evans — September 4, 2014 @ 9:57 am | Reply

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