John Martyn – The Apprentice


Depending on when John Martyn’s music entered your life, that’s likely the period that means the most to you. With the various BBC music compilations that litter sundry TV stations nowadays, I’d say there’s a fair few that know him solely for Old Grey Whistle Test appearances, armed with echoplex and acoustic (sometimes Danny Thompson on double bass), blasting out what were already progressive folk classics. For me, it was the late ‘70s when they played ‘Dancing’ on Radio 1, for my mate Gary and I it foretold the life we perceived waiting for us on leaving school and pretending to be all grown-up.

As the years passed, catching his band playing Birmingham Odeon was a must. He’d moved into his jazz fusion phase, Alan Thomson on bass then, he and Martyn dancing like clockwork dolls about the stage as Max Middleton gorgeous keyboards added rich textures to a treasure trove of fantastic numbers.

Then, one lashing-it-down rainy weekend in 1982, at the Genesis reunion that was Six of the Best, held at Milton Keynes, I saw the John Martyn band for the last time. I was with that same old school friend, Gary, and so many things beyond the concert made it such a perfect day. But, I decided, I’d seen Martyn at his zenith by then, I needed a rest. My life had moved on considerably, good and bad, and the man’s songs sometimes reflected too many emotional similarities not to hurt upon hearing. With time having passed, I replayed his vinyl records, and the likes of ‘May You Never’ and ‘Couldn’t Love You More’ found favour with the woman who’d become my wife. We went to see him at Birmingham Town Hall, alongside Roy Harper – Both sets had them solo, voice and acoustic, no effects. My better-half enjoyed Martyn immensely, for me it was somewhat bitter-sweet but I was so glad I had gone.

This remastered CD and DVD collection features the man and his music following the period I had stopped listening to him. It’s an incredibly weird feeling, almost like stalking an old lover on Facebook and seeing the subtle changes since what last you met, or so I will assume.

The band featured on this remastered edition of The Apprentice is not the one I recall, save Alan Thomson on the live tracks. CD one features that vinyl album, plus bonus tracks, the second and third a live show in London, with guest appearances from Pink Floyd guitarist Dave Gilmore, and a DVD truncating a visual recording of that performance.

Let’s go back to front and discuss the DVD first: the film footage is a tad grainy, dating it; though not as much as the woolly jumper Martyn’s wearing. There’s not quite the bobbing and weaving interaction between guitarist and bassist that I recall, but it’s a joy to see the latter in action (now playing former Jethro Tull guitarist Martin Barre’s band, I believe). Even those who’re not six string afficionados will be able to look at Martyn and Gilmore on film and see they have a completely different approach to the guitar, the way they shape and move their hands across the fretboards more even than the sound they create. What you definitely can’t avoid is Miles Bould on percussion – Initially you’re looking round the screen wondering if there’s a drummer too, because of how rhythmically powerful and intense he is, but there’s not, and when you go back and play the live CD’s again, you’re noticing him more and more too.

Easing in with acoustic numbers it takes a wee while for it to all come together, the addition of full band, then guest artist etc. ‘May You Never’ feels too early in the set, and a little rushed, but big heavy numbers like ‘Dealer’, ‘Big Muff’, ‘Johnny Too Bad’ and even ‘John Wayne’ have an unexpected sense of presence about them that other listeners will hopefully find as rewarding as I did. Where, previously, the angry guttural howls of songs ‘Big Muff’ implied what they were about here I appreciate what the clearer words are actually about. Similarly, as the songs progress across the two records, the improvisations stretch out, with some evocative arrangements.

More so than live CD’s and DVD, what ties this whole collection together is the extensive sleeve notes booklet written by John Hillarby. He knows his subject well. Historical details are doled out, snippets from interviews gone by and anecdotes by others are present and correct.

What’s revealed is, that period where I felt Martyn and band had got as far as they could, and were likely to repeat themselves, was also pretty much where drink and drugs reached their highpoint for him. His long-term relationship with Island Records ended, a claim being they wanted him to be the next Chris Rea. Fortunately, he was forming a new emotional attachment, and his being in love, and on doctor’s orders detoxifying seemed to be a steady turning point in his life (at least for a while), and is reflected on The Apprentice, its title, at least in hindsight, was about learning how to adapt, be a man just at that point where the definition of such began to change.

Largely, the album is a close-bonded love suite, songs expressing these fresh feelings and some self-evaluation about the kind of thing he’d need to hold onto that love. It opens aptly with ‘Live On Love’, a joyous chug in feel good mode that pads and pours like a cat whose got the cream with a slush and sultry late 80’s nightclub groove. Manly in a big shoulder padded jacket manner, it’s like a gruff Go West, Hue & Cry or Deacon Blue with Martyn delivering a stronger and better vocal delivery than he had in preceding years where the timbre of his voice became more important than the words they expressed.

Here he tells us what he has to sing about; like a coyly played game, he is an excited man-child trying to rein in his enthusiasm. “Look at me now, I don’t need no money at all – I’m in love”, he tells as sleek guitar lines run through. Life is going well and the chorus bumps along in celebratory rejoice with a semi-tribal world music feel, but essentially it’s all a warm up for to next number.

The River’ snakes in sultrily, getting ever more sensual albeit in a dignified manner. Martyn tells us he works on the river, the sheer graft he discusses one perceives less the bargeman’s duties and as metaphor for life, in that he’s been undergoing self-improvement. It grooves in a jingle-jangle mode, again rejoicingly, the love he’s found making him strive to be a better man.

Look At The Girl’ gives soul-jazzed slow nightclub chills with a saxophone winding its way throughout, a pre-coital mood piece. Just as we’re getting in the mood, we’re momentarily diverted by the live audience reaction to ‘Income Town’, surely this features Thomson, I query as a bustling bass comes to the fore. The applause does seem extremely loud, and for a new number I further question if it was turned up in the mix. A gruff shuffle, the percussion totally felt, the atmosphere of the track flows naturally within the body of the album as a whole, while there’s some impressive wriggly-wrangled guitar lead work featured under which the bass slaps and pulls: guitar is kept to a minimum on this record, mind you, Colin Tully and Andy Sheppard’s saxophones are where musical expression are most felt over the course of the studio work.

So, saying, gentle keyboards pad out warming the way for ‘Send Me One Line’. With lyrics like: “I keep a watch and I keep waiting,” this is one of those Martyn numbers where the most simplest of lines are earnest, true to the moment, the intent to blanket all from being hurt. A tender passion sung with manly voice but as if a lullaby to a child. It is a tender ballad, saxes blowing throughout again alongside the gentle chink of electric guitars and backing harmonies come on like Phil Collins. Who the song is directed to is unclear – the new found love? Possibly, through the lyrics don’t quite fit. Though I doubt it, perhaps it’s an undefined allegory for God, the Samaritans, or Alcoholics Anonymous. Whatever, the result is quite beautiful.

Deny This Love’ features more tribal rhythms with a big-ended funk and new wave disco elements, and whereas Martyn’s voice and lyrics are more direct here, the song almost show the softer side of the narrator in the classic ‘Dealer’, rocking up like a beefy Go West towards the end.

The songs can tend to be a little repetitive within themselves, mantras with a groove, ‘Hold Me’ being one, as instruments and sound effects spill in and out gently. Here Martyn takes a rare guitar solo, the style somewhat classic in style despite being played on an electric. Once more the song is a promise, one that nobody else is needed but this new love and the life he now leads. Livening things up with jazzy Latino dance rhythms is ‘Upo’, Martyn’s voice ranging across the breadth of keen crooning, heavy reverberated intonations and scatting.

The Apprentice’ title track is more in keeping with vintage John Martyn; a double bass, chilled keyboards, the upbeat sounds and voice retreating back to quieter sections where the foundations of roots rock ruminate, the great roar of his voice like a caged animal now freed, in his desire to become a better person. There’s also a bonus live rendition, that’s quite different.

If ‘The Apprentice’ concerns itself with alchemical change in the individual, ‘The Moment’ ceases the day like an early morning stirring, where birds are ready to chirp at sunrise as you take your first crunching step outside, imprinting on it as life resounds – Guitars again come across as classical in approach but cling towards the background as he serenades in near spiritual tones to this love of the moment. Gently, ‘Patterns In The Rain’ follows, Martyn trying to make sense of languished events in thoughtful mood, and there the original album ended in contemplation.

The other bonus track is a single remix of ‘Deny This Love’ and it comes across as from a completely different album: up tempo, brash, shrugging its shoulders with chunky guitar and deep throated intonations. If the powers-that-be had been trying to mould him into a Chris Rea, this track suggests a greater affinity with Michael McDonald.

On the whole, you cannot deny the mature pop rock of the time is apparent throughout. Technology, a shrinking world and appreciation of its wider, or diverging, values, the business side of the music scene pulling in ever larger profits. Simply Red, Sade, they’re all sideroads to where ‘The Apprentice’ was leading, cul-de-sacs perhaps, and the road ahead Phil Collins had paved perhaps at least worth a visit. It is very much a dance groove album, his voice on excellent form; sharing his lust for life in new love, and marking the past as a place to be warily revisited.

Capturing a time and place in Jon Martyn’s life and career, it’s a valuable reminder of the changes we all go through, though hardly notice at the time. Together, with the live CD’s and DVD acting as a greatest hits package, this is not a bad place for the novice to begin their discovery of his work, and for those of us who lost touch, to realise just what we missed.

Track list:

Disc One: The Apprentice – Remastered

  1. Live On Love
  2. The River
  3. Look At The Girl
  4. Income Town
  5. Send Me One Line
  6. Deny This Love
  7. Hold Me
  8. Upo
  9. The Apprentice
  10. The Moment
  11. Patterns In The Rain

Bonus Tracks:

  1. Deny This Love (Single Mix)
  2. The Apprentice (Live Version)

Disc Two: Live at The Shaw Theatre 31st March 1990

  1. Easy Blues
  2. May You Never
  3. Dealer
  4. Outside In
  5. Never Let Me Go
  6. Sapphire
  7. Could Not Love You More
  8. Deny This Love
  9. Fisherman’s Dream
  10. Big Muff
  11. Angeline
  12. Sweet Little Mystery


Disc Three: Live at The Shaw Theatre 31st March 1990

  1. The River
  2. Income Town
  3. The Apprentice
  4. John Wayne
  5. Look at That Girl
  6. Looking On
  7. Johnny Too Bad
  8. One World


DVD: The Apprentice In Concert The Shaw Theatre, London 31st March 1990

  1. Easy Blues
  2. May You Never
  3. Dealer
  4. Outside In
  5. Never Let Me Go
  6. Sapphire
  7. Deny This Love
  8. Sweet Little Mystery
  9. The River
  10. The Apprentice
  11. John Wayne
  12. Look At The Girl
  13. One World