Head and Heart: the music of Richard Thompson and John Martyn

As well as talking about my own songs, I want to use this blog to explore the artists that have inspired me to express myself through song. But these two gentlemen, Richard Thompson and John Martyn, go back even further; they’re the musicians who delivered those very first ‘eureka’ moments when I was discovering how transformative, how inspiring, how vital to life good music truly is.

john-martyn

I feel close enough to the music of Richard and John that I can’t bring myself to address them formally as Thompson and Martyn. We’re on first name terms, even if they don’t get a say in it.

richardthompson

Head and Heart is one of John’s, from seminal album Bless the Weather. I love the simplicity of the conga accompaniment, but that’s by the by – it makes a great blog title too. Both these artists are equally important to me, but in the most reductive sense, Richard appeals to the head, and John to the heart.

I say reductive because the claim falsely suggests that Richard’s music somehow doesn’t connect emotionally, or that John’s doesn’t have depth and intelligence. Which is, of course, nonsense.

But I think it’s fair to say they have tremendously different (yet equally valid) approaches to songwriting, and here’s where the analogy holds more water. Richard’s songs have a sense of craftsmanship to them, a sense of being worked at and worked out. Like Nick Cave, Richard is a songwriter with an office, who puts the hours in. He has a vast catalogue of songs – I’d wager at probably triple that of John’s – and when you’ve written that many it inevitably becomes a more considered, methodical process. I can imagine Richard’s approach to a song is a bit like putting together a beautiful piece of furniture (although it’s not a very rock and roll comparison) – every part inspected, mulled over, even discarded and replaced if it doesn’t fit the whole.

John’s songs, on the other hand, are pure emotion. Richard might write a song because a certain situation or piece of imagery offers an interesting hook to hang a song from. But almost every one of John’s songs feel like visceral reactions to something that has happened to him, something he was feeling. Where Richard might square away such feelings (stiff upper lip and all), unpick them, find a way to frame them, remove them a little from himself, you get the impression John created an immediate torrent of song the moment his heart broke, or soared. Both men went through difficult divorces. Whilst in interviews Richard has insisted the songs on his ‘break-up’ album Shoot Out The Lights were not written in reference to his disintegrating marriage (I listen to Walking on a Wire and struggle to believe it), there’s no equivocation at all in John’s Baby Please Come Home or Hurt in your Heart from the album Grace and Danger. So raw is the emotion on display that label boss Chris Blackwell was famously reluctant to release the album, claiming it was ‘too depressing’.

I have the feeling that if Richard never discovered the guitar he could have made an engaging Dickensian author (with a hearty side helping of sexual misanthropy). The same can’t really be said of John, whose vocal delivery often disfigures and obscures the lyrics he’s singing. At times it verges on one of Vic Reeves’ jazz singer parodies in Shooting Stars, but as ever, there’s no laughing at the uncloaked honesty that John expresses with his voice. If I remember correctly, he himself claimed the words held little importance, that the delivery communicated all that was needed.

The ambiguity that comes from his singing often serves the song better. Is he singing “make no mistake it’s love” or “make no mistakes in love”? A compelling message, either way.

One of my earliest musical memories is my Dad teaching me to sing Richard’s Gypsy Love Songs* with him whilst probably still in primary school. My appreciation of John took a little longer – there was an age when electric guitar pyrotechnics was integral to me liking a song. John’s guitar skills are just as fiery when you think about it, but burn more like a lovely campfire compared to Richard’s screaming skyrockets and crackling explosions. Eventually though, the warmth seeped in. One particularly potent memory is from my student days, sitting on a rickety mini-bus as it rattled through the Syrian countryside, listening to a cassette tape of the Island anthology Sweet Little Mysteries and realising how in love I was with John’s songs.

My singing voice gets compared to Richard’s an awful lot. And despite being a big fan, it’s not something I’m very happy about. It’s certainly not a conscious impersonation, but perhaps not so surprising, especially considering the Gypsy Love Songs anecdote above. I’ve been singing Richard’s songs ever since I’ve been singing songs. I’d much prefer it if I played guitar more like Richard, and maybe sang a bit more like Sam Cooke or Marvin Gaye, but that’s the hand I was dealt. At the end of the day, you have to sing with your own voice. Mine naturally wants to resemble one of my idols. There’s not much I can do but accept it.

But such minor cross-bearing aside, I can only be thankful that my musically inclined parents had a record collection worthy of exploration. When I was young my contemporaries were listening to Take That and the Spice Girls. I got to listen to stuff like this:

Further reading:

http://louderthanwar.com/the-island-records-3-nick-drake-john-martyn-richard-thompson-celebrated/

https://songsfromsodeep.wordpress.com/2014/09/13/inside-out-john-martyn/

*Amnesia, one of my favourite RT albums contains Gypsy Love Songs and a host of other brilliant cuts. It was released in 1988, so I must have been at least seven.

Quang Tri, Vietnam

October 2015

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Head and Heart: the music of Richard Thompson and John Martyn

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