Tag Archives: folk rock gets funky

Stormbringer – John & Beverley Martin

A repost of a piece I wrote three years ago, about a record I think is very special indeed. I listened to it today on my way home from work with my hood pulled up and the rain beating down on me, and it really did take me somewhere else.

In July 1969, John Martyn was a folkie who’d put out two records on Island – London Conversations and The Tumbler – neither of which were anything remarkable in an era where Fairport Convention and Bert Jansch had already done much of their best work, redefining the forms that British folk music was capable of taking in the process (some of The Tumbler is actively embarrassing compared to, say, Fairport’s Genesis Hall).

Beverley Martyn (nee Kutner), meanwhile, had fronted a jug band called the Levee Breakers, and put out a single written by Randy Newman (and featuring John Paul Jones, Jimmy Page, Nicky Hopkins and Andy White), with a Cat Stevens B-side. She’d played at Monterey Pop and been invited to the Bookends sessions by Paul Simon, where she contributed the immortal (spoken) words “Good morning, Mr Leitch, have you had a busy day?” to Fakin’ It. She was, in short, more of a “name” than her new husband and probably expected no more than yeoman musical support from John when they began work on what would become Stormbringer! in Woodstock in the summer of 1969 with engineer John Wood, drummers Levon Helm, Herbie Lovelle and Billy Mundi, bass player Harvey Brooks and pianist Paul Harris.

Somehow or other – and opinions and recollections vary – the project morphed into a duo record, with John’s songs as well as Beverley’s being recorded. In no time, by sheer force of personality and pushiness, John’s voice became the dominant one; he wrote and sang six of the album’s ten tracks, and the album, when it came out, was credited to John and Beverley Martyn.

It’s hard not to feel sympathy with Beverley for having been elbowed aside by her husband in this way, and the record’s producer, Joe Boyd, probably viewed the path that the record took with some regret, too; he seems not massively enamoured with John Martyn as a person, and not terribly impressed with him as a musician – “When John started living with Beverley Kutner, I was stuck with him”, he recalled in his 2006 memoir, White Bicycles. But by any reasonable assessment, John was much the greater talent (at least at that time – we can’t know what Beverley might have been capable of later in her career had she continued with it into the seventies), and Stormbringer! is a far greater record than a Beverley Martyn solo album with a bit of John’s guitar would have been.

When I first heard this album, I was hugely excited to hear the coming-together of two of my very favourite players: Levon Helm, drummer/singer with the Band, and John Martyn himself, whose guitar playing I can honestly call life-changing. Yet Levon, magisterial as he is on John the Baptist, does not play on the album’s most indelible track, on which John’s guitar takes a backseat to the piano of Paul Harris, the sessions’ musical director.

Stormbringer, the title track, features New York jazz player Herbie Lovelle on drums (who also played on another favourite of mine: Dylan’s version of Corrina Corrina from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan), and Lovelle could easily double for Helm here: same swinging semi-quaver bass drum, same easy but authoritative tom fills, same woody depth of sound.

But Harris’s piano owns the song. His 16-bar solo, sounding like a more pastoral Richard Wright, may be the most beautiful passage on any John Martyn record; playing this graceful and empathetic is rare in any form of music. John Martyn would build a remarkable understanding with double bassist Danny Thompson over the course of half a dozen albums and many live gigs – and anyone who’s heard Fine Lines or Head and Heart knows what Thompson and Martyn could do together – but listening to Stormbringer, you can’t help but think wistfully of what Martyn and Harris might have done in a longer partnership, with perhaps Brooks and Lovelle as their permanent rhythm section. Any songwriter would kill to have a musician with them who so understands their songs that they can play with that kind of empathy.

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People Like Us – The Mamas & the Papas

In 1971, maybe running out of money, maybe growing bored by the excesses of their Laurel Canyon lifestyles (drugs and ill-considered romantic entanglements) and still owing an album to their label to complete their contract, the Mamas & the Papas reconvened for a comeback album. It’s been rubbished by most of the band members since, it was slammed in the press at the time, and it is seriously patchy – but for this song at least, the effort was a worthwhile.

Bodies of work don’t come much whiter than the Mamas’, but People Like Us is surprisingly soulful and black-sounding. For this, credit has to go to John Phillips, who produced the album in place of their producer and mentor from the sixties, Lou Adler, and assembled an unlikely team including drummers Earl Palmer and Ed Green, bassist Tony Newton and an electric sitar player. (It seems somehow to typify early-seventies soul, the electric sitar. I don’t know where it got used first in that context – Band of Gold, maybe, from 1970? – but I associate it most with the Chi-Lites’ Have You Seen Her, from June 1971, to which this might have been a very quick response.) But beyond the touches contributed by the rhythm section, the album’s whole cast of players is seriously impressive: as well as Palmer and Green, present on the record are Bobbye Hall, Louis Shelton, Clarence McDonald – stellar, enormously talented musicians who (with the exception of Jim Horn on saxophone, who has a real off-day and plays nothing but clichés on Pacific Coast Highway) are sympathetic and tasteful throughout.

It might seem a strange thing to say but the thing that often worked least well for me about the Mamas was the enormous voice of Cass Elliot – it was great on its own, but it was simply too big to be contained by a four-piece singing group. Some voices are like that – they need to be heard on their own so they can become what they really are. Michelle Phillips once said that while she was no great singer herself, her big contribution to the band was to keep Cass from over-singing and drowning her out entirely. That was probably true. But Cass Elliot hardly appears on this whole album – possibly due to illness, possibly to drug problems, possibly due to illness due to drug problems – forcing Michelle Phillips to up her game. And her soft-voiced cooing sits very well with Denny Doherty’s lead tenor, giving the music a more sensual feeling than it had in their mid-sixties heyday.

I’m no contrarian. California Dreaming is a masterpiece, and of course I recognise that the Mamas made several other great pop singles in the sixties. But People Like Us is my favourite Mamas song, however uncharacteristic it might be.

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People like them – The Mamas & the Papas, 1971. Clockwise from top left: John Phillips, Michelle Phillips, Denny Doherty and Cass Elliot