Now Playing: John Martyn – Rock Goes To College October 20, 1978 – It’s One World, Like It Or Not

by | Apr 1, 2020 | 0 comments

Flickering on the flat screen in the ‘rock room’ today is a
wonderful audio visual document featuring John Martyn playing on the BBC series
Rock Goes to College. Played and
broadcast from Reading University on October 20, 1978, the performance features
a 40 minute solo show by Martyn in support of his 1977 LP One World. The entire performance was been released officially in 2006 on the DVD John Martyn at the BBC.

The college crowd is raucous and it is a testament to
Martyn’s power, ‘grace and danger’ that he brings the assembled crowd to
complete silence during a number of his songs. Only the man and his guitar is
spotlighted in this performance.The broadcast opens with an already in progress, ‘May You
Never’ (a song also covered by Eric Clapton for his Slowhand album). The song is one of Martyn’s most beloved and well
known tracks and here it is given a percussive and swinging acoustic groove by
Martyn’s snappy strumming patterns. Following a round of applause for the
familiar number and the MC’s introduction, Martyn gathers his electric Gibson
SG guitar.
In a spectacular contrast Martyn chooses to play ‘One World’
next, the title track from his most recent LP release. Contextually and lyrically, a simple
request, ‘One World’  is a gentle
reminder that regardless of personal beliefs we are all together on this
spinning blue ball like it or not. While the studio recording is an atmospheric bird-eye view of the earth, here in live performance everything is played and morphed by Martyn and his electric guitar and
his series of pedals.
Martyn begins the song with a streaking stratospheric drone.
What makes it even more powerful is the accompanying video which allows us to
witness the sonic wizardry. Martyn slurs our the delicately airy melody which
hangs motionless like white linens during a still evening. Martyn sets the
tempo with an unseen astral metronome. Each note is an eternity, each sonic swell a mysterious wave swirling toward shore. Eyes closed Martyn sings each line carefully, each drawn out vocal a universe unto itself. Midway through the song a soaring
distortion creates a more aggressive bed for Martyn to scat, ‘One World’ over
the top of. Martyn clenches his eyes before slashing a dark ray of feedback
from his guitar, he tugs at the neck of his SG stretching the note. This leads to a towering series of licks that grow before dissipating into molecule. The song
swings like a transparent pendulum surrounded by sonic doves and life giving water. I can assure you that this performance is unique unto itself, like a UFO or unknown sea creature, a beautiful mystery.
The song draws puzzled but honest applause from the crowd
who must realize they have witnessed something special. A slightly jittery
Martyn introduces the next song followed by a big sleeve swipe across his nose.
Martyn’s acoustic comes back out for ‘One Day without You’ a track from Martyn’s
1976 LP Sunday’s Child. What a
stunning rendition of this underrated track from Martyn’s catalog. Aggressive
thumbed percussion keeps Martyn’s unique love song pumping like a love sick
heart. Martyn’s lyrics elicit the sadness Martyn feels when his partner is not
around and how everything is slightly less resplendent when she is gone. His
vocals are long and smooth and stretch over the percussive strings as verbal
taffy, virginal and sticky sweet.
Martyn lets out an unintelligible yelp following the
priceless reading of ‘One Day Without You’, before introducing ‘Dealer’, which
John dedicates to ‘most of his friends’. Martyn quickly pounds the remainder of
his beer, tunes up his acoustic and illustrates the wonders of his Echoplex
working in conjunction with his acoustic. Creating his own rhythm track by
thumping out a riff on his hollow body, Martyn joins by laying another melodic
coat of paint over the base. Martyn loses himself in the song, rocking to the created
rhythm by adding glittering licks that reverberate in time with the original
tape delay. The meter of his verses in conjunction with the rolling groove
illustrate the eagerness of the songs protagonist. The song brings the listener to hypnosis with only Martyn’s gritty vocals breaking the spell.
Following a quick tune up and thank you to the crowd, Martyn
introduces the next song as, ‘roses in the teeth time’, and says that ‘this is
the closest we will get to true romance all night’.  Another song from One World follows with ‘Certain Surprise’ which quietly sneaks up
on the listener through jazzy changes and fragile singing by Martyn.
Beautifully delicate in its construction, the street corner busker melody is
earnest and gentle and echoes in the distance as lovers touch hands across a
candlelit table.
Martyn stays on acoustic but again institutes the Echoplex
for “Big Muff” which he humorously introduces as another ‘love song’. Also from
the One World album, ‘Big Muff’ was a
collaboration with famed dub producer Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry when Martyn visited
Jamaica with Chris Blackwell from Island Records. The song is a wonderful blend
of humor, musical magic and Jamaican weed. In this rendition Martyn sets the
tempo with plucks on his bass strings similarly to ‘Dealer’. He then dresses
the song with a funky central lick and croons with a free flowing rock and roll slur. 
The performance concludes with a rare ‘In Search of Anna’ to
which Martyn again reaches for his Gibson SG. ‘Anna’ had its musical roots in the One World soundscape ‘Small Hours’ which
used natural sounds and manipulated guitar to create a starry beg of sound. ‘In
Search of Anna’ was released as a single in 1978 only in Australia for the soundtrack
to the film, In Search of Anna. The
song was co-written with Michael Norton who set lyrics to Martyn’s music. In
this footage Martyn develops the song proper by pumping on his wah-wah and
playing well timed harmonics on his guitar. Martyn sums up the feeling of this
song by placing his hand over his eyes simulating that he is watching something
in the distance. A storm of distortion disassembles the placid soundscape which
reveal Martyn singing the verses.
The credits begin to roll as Martyn sings a combination of the lyrics
over the silvery topography of song. Martyn is at the directive of the muse as
he free forms the lyrics and improvises the song constantly looking for Anna
along the horizon. Unfortunately, like the opening song, the closing song is truncated
before reaching its conclusion. What a way to conclude the performance with an
mostly unheard song, disseminated like a quilt of night sky draped over a full
house of college students.
Typical for John Martyn, this 1978 performance includes
wonderful songwriting, experimental improvisation and soulful performing. There
is a hearty knotted thread of melody for the audience to hang onto and a large
dose of inprov to keep Martyn interested. In the ‘rock room’s’ humble opinion
this performance can be considered a high water mark for John Martyn. While
Martyn had much more music to be be heard, there is something special about
this concert, prior to the health and addiction issues Martyn would still face.
For John Martyn fans in the know his performance on October
20, 1978 is not to be missed and captures the artist at work during one of
his many peaks as a musician. For those just learning about John Martyn (unbelievably
there are many) this performance is a glimpse into his substantial catalog and
a taste of the multiple flavors of his music ranging from, folk, rock, jazz and
experimental songs that express the multiple aspects of Martyn’s personality
and in turn our own.

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