Danny Thompson, part 3: Collaborations with John Martyn in the 1970s

The previous article in this series focused on Danny Thompson’s recording career in the early 1970s, covering Pentangle’s last three studio albums and recordings with Donovan, John Williams, Rod Stewart and many others.
We are still in the early 1970s and we come to one of the crown achievements in Danny Thompson’s career – his collaboration with John Martyn.
Memories differ on the subject of how the two met for the first time. Danny Thompson recalls, “I met John out in Newport Festival in Rhode Island when I was with Pentangle, and he said do you fancy getting together?” This would have been the Newport Folk Festival in July of 1969, a period when John and Beverley Martyn lived in Woodstock, NY, recording the album Stormbringer! John Martyn’s recollection travels back in time a little farther: “I think I might have met him at a place called the Three Horseshows in the very early days of Pentangle in Tottenham Court Road. I think I met him there once or twice and we liked each other. He was probably just high for the session and ever since then we just got on like a house on fire.” Martyn’s memory is likely from the Horseshoe Hotel in 1967 or 1968 when the members of Pentangle were forming even before they had a name. He went to see his hero Bert Jansch and found the man with whom he would make music magic in the 1970s. Whatever the date, Danny cherishes that faithful moment: “It is very rare in your life, whatever you do, that you get some kind of situation happening that you feel was meant to happen. Meeting John Martyn was one of those occasions.”

The first song Danny Thompson recorded with John Martyn was New Day from the 1970 album The Road to Ruin. This was a John and Beverly Martyn album, the second of two albums the husband and wife duo recorded for Island Records. The song also features the lovely flute playing of Lyn Dobson, the same year he participated in Soft Machine’s album Third. Here is New Day:

Poor album sales and starting a family pushed John Martyn into renewing his solo career, yielding an amazing streak of great albums in the 1970s, with Danny Thompson at the center of these albums.

The first is Bless the Weather, where Martyn honed his songwriting method: “Most of the songs on Bless the Weather were very quick. I’d been writing songs in the studio on the day they were recorded. It’s much nicer like that…to be spontaneous. There was no re-writing, it just came out very naturally.” A great example is the title track from the album, a wonderful song made even better with Danny Thompson’s perfect accompaniment:

The album was released in 1972, the year Pentangle came apart. Danny Thompson, now with more time on his hands, increased the number of guest appearances on albums by a variety of artists. That activity will be covered in the next article in the series, and it included sessions with Ralph McTell, Julie Felix, Tom Paxton and others. But none compares to the album he recorded at the end of that year with John Martyn, a classic to this day. Solid Air is hailed as a John Martyn masterpiece, and is a frequent entry in various Top and Best Of album lists. Amazingly, Danny Thompson’s participation in the album was serendipitous due to a chance injury, as a different group of musicians was originally booked for the sessions. Producer and sound engineer John Wood tells the story: “Sound Techniques [the recording studio] had a notorious staircase down to the studio from the loo. That first night I managed to trip two thirds of the way down it, landing in the studio with a very twisted ankle. Unable to work for a week we had to reschedule the sessions at Island’s Basing Street Studios and re-book musicians. With John original bass choice being unavailable Danny returned to the fold.”

In the notes that accompany the CD release of Solid Air John Wood singles out Danny Thompson’s role on the album: “It would be hard to overestimate the contribution of Danny Thompson on Solid Air, and his performance on the title track (Sausages, as he and John used to refer to it) is some of the greatest bass playing I ever recorded.”

Solid Air Front Cover

John Wood assembled a great cast of musicians in addition to Danny Thompson to play on the album. All of  them remember the week-long sessions clearly many years later:

Percussionist Tristan Fry, who collaborated with Danny Thompson on a number of recordings, including Nick Drake’s debut album closer ‘Saturday Sun’, recalls a malfunctioning vibraphone: “You couldn’t stop the notes sustaining. I had to work out how to hand damp the instrument which, as it happens, gave me more control of the phrasing.”

Drummer Dave Mattacks, travelling in a similar musical orbit as Danny Thompson in the early 1970s, recording with Shelagh McDonald, Bert Jansch, Harvey Andrews, Tom Paxton and others: “One of the nicest things was that it was the first time I had been asked to play a little bit free. I remember really enjoying it, and thinking, ‘Blimey, if this is the kind of stuff these folkies are up to, I’ll have some more of it!’”.

Keyboard player John ‘Rabbit’ Bundrick: “It was almost like a big jam session. Everybody would get to their instruments and he’d start playing, then we’d just all join in, until all of this stuff just started to gel. John didn’t ask anyone to play a certain thing. It was like there was already a spot for you to play in. He would smile every time he heard somebody do a lick that he liked.”

All musicians contributed magnificent parts to the songs on Solid Air. Pay attention to the open vibraphone notes, the sensitive brush work on the drums, the electric piano. And then, of course, to Danny Thompson’s bass notes, circling and bending around John Martyn’s guitar and voice. Amazingly, the song was cut with almost zero preparation. Danny: “There was very little rehearsal before recordings. Solid air – I came to the studio and I’d never heard it before. That was it, bang.”

It is common knowledge now that the song was written about Nick Drake, maybe a reason why both John Martyn’s and Danny Thompson’s parts on this piece are so emotional. Both had close ties to the gifted singer and guitar player. Danny remembers: “Nick was the kind of performer who would come on stage and stare at the floorboards during his whole set, then walk off without saying anything. Maybe Solid Air was meant as a kick up the bum for Nick, but it was very difficult. As John says in the song, there was a lot going on in Nick’s mind.” John Martyn’s lyrics add another dimension of insight into Drake’s tortured soul:

I don’t know what’s going on in your mind

But I know you don’t like what you find

When you’re moving through solid air

The song works musically so well that it would have been as stirring without the lyrics. The words are not easy to understand the way John Martyn sings them with his slurred vocal style. John Martyn: “I decided to get as different as I could, and I got pretty comfortable with it. I’d get criticism from managers and A&R men, they’d say I was slurring too much, they’d prefer it straight, with all the vocals carefully enunciated. But I liked fucking it about, and I think it loses its spirit if I don’t.”

Danny Thompson talked about the song Solid Air: “It is such a beautiful piece, there’s so much freedom for me on it. We always loved playing it live. People call it folk, or contemporary folk, or whatever. I understand the reasons people want to put boxes on it, but for me it’s music from the heart.” Author Ian Rankin, a John Martyn fan, said it well in a ‘Desert Island Discs’ episode on BBC Radio 4 when he played Solid Air and exposed his detective books protagonist’s soft side: “Detective John Rebus is a fan. Late at night with a glass of whiskey and a cigarette he will sit alone in his flat and listen to John Martyn and suddenly the world is slightly a more beautiful place.”

Solid Air Back Cover

Following the recording sessions for Solid Air, John Martyn toured the US as an opening solo act for Traffic and Free. Due to the large venues he focused on playing the electric guitar. His exposure to the musicians in Traffic plus the foray into enhanced amplified sound will become highlights of his next album. Coming back from the tour Martyn already knew who else he wanted to play on that album, as he said in an interview to NME: “I’m trying to get freer and less structured and Danny’s the only cat I’ve found so far who can follow. I tend to play lead and rhythm and bass all together because of my background of solo experience in folk clubs, and musicians seem to find that hard to get into. Danny does it like second nature and it’s been a gas to work with him.”

Martyn continued to tour as a solo act in the spring of 1973, playing both acoustic and electric guitars in smaller venues in the UK, US and Europe. He kept improving his technique on the guitar using effect pedals to enrich his sound. He was soaking influences from a wide variety of sources: “I first thought of the possibilities of electric guitar after hearing The Band’s Music From Big Pink. They used great textures on that. It was the first time I heard electric music using very soft textures, panels of sound, pastel sounds, rather than uumphh! I was intrigued by that because I think a lot of people just equated electric music with hard-rock, they didn’t think that you could be gentle with it if you wanted. That’s one of the reasons why I like Joe Zawinul of Weather Report so much, because he exploits the gentle side of electronics. Terry Riley too. I still much prefer gentle music than anything else.”

John Martyn, photograph: Michael Putland

Before we come to the next album, it is important to shed some light on a topic less discussed about John Martyn, and that is his love of jazz and free music. One of the first times he talked about it was in reference to Harold McNair, the brilliant flute and reeds player who played on Martyn’s second album Tumbler in 1968: “He was definitely the best flute player I’ve ever heard. Nobody swung like him. They called him Little Jesus… he was West Indian. He did a great deal for me in that he opened me up. I started to think ‘Wow. there are people who can really do it’. He did a lot for me just by example.” Danny Thompson played on a number of the flutist’s albums, covered in the previous article in this series.

John Martyn went farther into freer territories with his influences, one of them reed player Pharoah Sanders, a John Coltrane disciple. Around  the release of Stormbringer in 1970 he listened to the album Karma and the long improvisations on the piece The Creator Has a Master Plan. His boundaries of music language increased exponentially: “This album opens your head up to a different thing. It taught me the value of sustain. My parents were big classical music fans obsessed with that belcanto, operatic sustain, regardless of the cost to the lungs or the ears. With Sanders it was different; beautiful, long notes but with breath and gurgling in between. His tone blew my mind and he gave me a glimpse through a keyhole that I didn’t even know existed. Something in me just went Pop! It was like being hit by a bolt of lightning.”

Pharoah Sanders, Karma

Pharoah Sanders’ influence, along with the keyboard textures of Joe Zawinul and the loop techniques of Terry Riley all contributed to John Martyn’s approach to the electric guitar: “I got into that because I really wanted to play an instrument that had sustain. I tried to play the horn. I can play the horn, but I wasn’t as good as I wanted to be, and it needs at least a year to get your chops in. It’s like getting blisters on your fingers before you can play the guitar properly. I just don’t have the time, so I thought ‘Fuck it, I’ll just stick a few gadgets on the old whatsit, and play that like a horn’.”

When John Martyn entered the studio in July 1973, everything converged to create a perfect storm of experimental mood that took over the recording room. Martyn was joined by members of Traffic’s lineup at the time, including Stevie Winwood on bass and keyboards, Chris Wood on flute and reeds, and Remi Kabaka on percussion. Also participating you found Bobby Keyes on saxophone, at the time touring with The Rolling Stones, Chris Stewart on bass and Keshav Sathe on tabla. And of course Danny Thompson, whose versatility and free-form bass lines suited perfectly what John Martyn was looking for. Listen to the track Outside In start to finish to appreciate the musical experimentation on that recording:

Years later John Martyn reflected about the album: “I don’t think I would have done some of the stuff on Inside Out if I hadn’t heard Karma. The only reason I bought the echoplex was to try and imitate Sanders’ sustain on my guitar. The other stuff I did with the echoplex came later, by accident. Years back, his saxplaying also influenced my vocal phrasing, but not so much now.”

Danny Thompson recalls vividly the circumstances surrounding the album’s first day of recording: “John called me up to say he was booked into Island studios in Basing Street for two weeks. He didn’t say what songs we’d be recording. I can see him now sitting in a chair in the middle of the studio with his Martin guitar, saying, ‘I haven’t got anything.’ You haven’t got anything? I said. ‘Nothing.’ Not a song? ‘Nothing!’”

What are two lads to do in such a predicament but imbibe a few pints: “So we went and had a drink, came back, and I said ‘You know the first shape, the chord, you play on Solid Air? Play that. Play the second chord of Fine Lines, play the second chord of Man In The Station. Right, now play each chord, leave a space and have a little twiddle, then the next, and so on.’ That became this massive piece which everyone talks about, Outside In. It was very spontaneous, just something to start him off. I didn’t want any rights, just top fee for doing the album. That was the deal. I saw myself as serving his songs.”

Inside Out front cover

Summarizing his fond memories from making that album, Danny Thompson said: “When you got a musician like Stevie Winwood in to play on the session, you don’t tell him what to do. We were like big kids enjoying ourselves. We’d lose track of time. After hours in the studio making Inside Out we knocked off for a drink. We knocked on the door of the pub [the Apollo in All Saints Road] and ordered pints. ‘Do you know what time it is?’ the landlady said. Yes, eight o’clock. ‘Eight o’clock in the morning!”

Before the next tour started, Martyn singled out Danny Thompson as a long term musical partner: “I think I’ll always use Danny Thompson because he’s got real feel for my music and I’ve got real feel for his.” In one interview he expressed his wish to perform in a trio format: “I definitely want to try and get a trio together. I’ve got Danny Thompson, so I’d like to find a drummer. I’ve got great thoughts of Danny Richmond who plays with Danny Thompson a lot.” Richmond was a fantastic drummer with a rich history of sessions with Charles Mingus. He played many jazz gigs with Danny Thompson, who invited the drummer to play with Bert Jansch on the album Moonshine. More on that in the next article. That trio plan did not happen, but John Martyn did eventually enlist John Stevens, another free jazz drummer, to join him on his UK  tours.

John Martyn performing with Danny Thompson at the 1974 Rock Proms at Olympia London on July 5 1974 (Photo by Brian Cooke)

Meanwhile, the two went on a tour to promote Inside Out in October 1973, the month the album was released. A few days into the tour they visited BBC studios for an episode of The Old Grey Whistle Test. Presenter Bob Harris was quite pleased with what they had to offer. Here is a performance of Outside In, giving us a glimpse into what that tour has been like for audiences seeing this in 1973. This is no less intense and rich in a duo format from the studio version.

On Bob Harris’ website, he explains the origin of that program’s name. It is derived from a Tin Pan Alley phrase of olden days. After the first pressing of a record it would be played to people they called the “old greys” – doormen in grey suits. Any song they could remember and whistle, having heard it just once or twice, had passed the old grey whistle test.

Chance are the old greys would probably not be able to whistle this, but in my book it definitely passes the test:

The live performances that followed, and more so the shenanigans that took place between them, are now the stuff of legend. If you are familiar with these stories, you are probably expecting them now. However during the few hours I spent talking to Danny Thompson they never came up. We talked about the experience of playing music. At some point Danny told me “A journalist said ‘what can you tell us about John Martyn?’ and I said ‘If John Martyn had been the only person that I worked with, it would have given me everything out of music that I could ever want.’ So the journalist says ‘Can you give us a few funny stories?’ I thought ‘What do you want me to say? I just told you that he was the most important person I played with.’ All he wanted was a funny story.” So no wild road stories here, sorry.

Ok, ok. One, and that’s it. And the reason I tell it is because it may be the only ‘funny story’ that has a picture to go with it. This brings us to the album Live at Leeds, recorded in February 1975. The original name for the album was Ringside Seat, and appropriately the two staged a photo shoot for the album cover at Thomas à Becket gym in London’s Old Kent Road. They donned boxing gear and stepped inside a ring ready to fake a real boxing match for the camera. If you read the first article in this series, you know that in his early years Danny Thompson was a serious boxer, so if I was in John Martyn’s shoes I would keep this match a fake one. Danny tells the story: “An idea for a cover was for us to get in a ring. A back of a gym was booked by a friend of mine. These two lunatics come in. We quickly change into silky boxing shorts, right? for POSING. For a COVER. In the middle there is a ref guy, classic. I said ‘right, John, lets pose’. So he hits me. I said ‘John, why did you hit me? DON’T hit me. Just pose.’ The ref is trying to show him a classic boxing pose. So he hits me again. I said ‘If you hit me again I’m going to whack you.’ So of course, bang, and than its all off. Hits coming in, knees coming up. The boxers at the gym are looking at us. We are really fighting now.”

Danny Thompson and John Martyn boxing, for real

Live at Leeds featured a slightly expanded lineup, during a tour in which drummer John Stevens joined John Martyn and Danny Thompson, and guitarist Paul Kossoff of Free came up on stage for a few numbers towards the end of the show. The live album performance took place at the refectory at Leeds University, a canteen at daytime turned into a concert hall at night. The same venue where The Who recorded their Live at Leeds album in 1970.

Time to discuss John Martyn’s innovative use of guitar pedals and equipment, a critical component of his music at the time. Using his Martin acoustic guitar he added, in his words, “Just the average stuff, Gibson Boomer pedal, an Electro Harmonix Big Muff, Fender amp, Echoplex and a phase shifter. Nothing exotic really.” For readers who are not guitar rig buffs, the Boomer pedal is a volume and Wah effect pedal, The Big Muff is a Fuzz / Distortion / Sustain pedal and the Echoplex is a tape delay effect. Martyn expanded to describe how it all works: “With my electric music, what happens is that the note comes out of the pick up on the guitar and goes into the fuzz box which I use now and again, and then it goes into a combination of volume and wah-wah pedal which I use a fair bit. It comes out of that and goes into an echoplex which repeats the note so you chop in between rhythms, and you can choose your own timings because it’s completely elastic. And you can set the number of repeats.”

I asked Danny how did John Martyn’s use of the Echoplex change his part in this musical duo: “It fired me up, such a fantastic energy. The incredible thing about the Echoplex is I started to use one later and it only had a 16 second delay. The technology now is you can have a year’s delay. He was a real innovator, I did not know how he did it. It was an incredible thing how he built all these layers up. It wasn’t just for effect, it was composition as well. If you hear all his parts, they are all polyrhythmic, polyphonic. I’d Rather Be The Devil from Live In Leeds is a great example.”

Listening to this clip you realize just how good and accoplished this musical partnership worked on stage. There is no studio wizardry here, it sounds as rich as the studio version. Danny Thompson: “That’s how it should be. You shouldn’t do albums that you can’t play live, that’s how I think. When you walk on stage, people expect that. You can’t walk on stage and say ‘well, we had a machine in the studio.’”

As spontanous as the studio sessions were, you can hear in the live takes parts that were not planned or discussed, they just happen in real time as the music depelops. This is nothing unique when discussing jazz, but in the folk circles that John Martyn was associated with in the 1970s it was a rarity. Pentangle comes to mind with similar levels of experimentation and improvisation. Danny Thompson talked about this aspect of playing with John Martyn: “It reaches incredible highs because of its uniqueness and because it’s spontanous. It’s this exploration and when it happens it tops anything that anybody can do. You can’t write that, you put these elements together and you let it develop but you can’t plan that.”

Live at Leeds was recorded during the UK tour to promote John Martyn’s latest album at the time, Sunday’s Child. The album is decidedly a more conventional set of songs compared to Inside Out but a very satisfying listening experience nonetheless. The standout track for me is the album closer Call Me Crazy, a beautiful meditative track:

After the hectic touring schedule of 1975, John Martyn slowed down in 1976, visited Jamaica and reduced the amount of live performances. He did not record an album that year. In 1977 he came back to the studio for the recording of the album One World. Danny Thompson participated in the recording of two songs on that album, one of them is Couldn’t Love You More. Later that year the two performed the song at another set taped for BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test:

This was one of the last times the two would play together in the 1970s. Things have changed for both musicians and circumstences have put a wedge between their careers in the late 1970s. Danny Thompson recalls: “I got in a bit of a state. John was taken over by management, they were trying to make him into a new Bob Dylan. They did not understand the duo thing. They thought ‘these two bad boys together. If we get rid of one bad boy and we just have John then we can make him into a solo artist with a band.’ I bought three horses and got drunk a lot. These are normal phases to go through.”

Looking back at his work with John Martyn, Danny Thompson, who played with some of the most talented musicians across many genres of music, gave him the highest compliment he could give: “If John Martyn had been the only person I had ever done music with, it would have satisfied all of my musical ambition. That would have done me. What else is there to say?”

Before I end this article, one more memory that Danny shared with me. For this one we fast forward to 1998 and the Transatlantic Sessions, the musical production that brought together folk, bluegrass and country musicians from both sides of the pond. This was the second run of that series and Danny was part of the house band. He remembers: “This was during a time when John and I were not talking together. We argued about something and we had not spoken for a long time. They got him a guest spot on that series and the director said ‘We got John Martyn and would you like to play some stuff with him?’ I said ‘This is not like me as a bass player backing one of the guest musicians. John Martyn and myself is something different. You have to ask him if he wants me around.’ John turns up in the studio and he says ‘we’ll do Solid Air’”.

What ensued occupies a special place in Danny Thompson’s heart, a lasting memory of his friendship with John Martyn: “This was the first time we played after two years. That performance of Solid Air tells you everything about John Martyn and me. We played that song many many times, but this was different. What brings it home to me is the end of the clip. We are in the control room being filmed listening back to the track. I made a joke and he touches me on the shoulder, laughing. I can still feel him touching me, that affection. We were never affectionate with each other, but it was deeper than that. Real friendship.” We close with that clip from the Transatlantic Sessions, a song that will forever remind us of the music John Martyn and Danny Thompson created together:


A casual talk with Danny Thompson, November 2021

John Martyn’s excellent website: https://johnmartyn.com/

Booklet from John Martyn – The Island Years Box Set

Read the previous two articles in the Danny Thompson series:

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5 replies »

  1. Just loving this series! Many thanks! Came across Martyn when I invited an English exchange student to my college radio show in1978 to try to impress her. It was she who impressed me by turning me on to “Sunday’s Child”.

  2. I relish anything and everything that Danny Thompson has played on over the– gulp– decades! He is a monster player, who adds incredible resonance to music such as Martyn’s. The duo really was a powerhouse, which is surprising, given that much of the music they made was so stripped down and acoustic (albeit with effects). I feel fortunate to have seen Danny alongside Richard Thompson a few times– and there too Danny adds so much to those amazing songs too. Thanks so much for the article and isolated clips/vids. I really enjoyed your exploration.

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