John and Beverley Martyn

What could have been? That’s the theme of Beverley Martyn’s (now Kutner) life. One time, a long time ago, John Martyn and her were destined to be the royalty of England’s neo-folk movement. I’ll pick up John’s story later but for now lets focus on Beverley. While other female folk singers like June Tabor, Vashti Bunyan, Anne Briggs, etc. have all been rediscovered and influenced modern folkies, her own work has completely been ignored. Working in tandem with her husband John, she’d help expedite his turn from pastoral jazz influenced folky, into the supremely inventive English folk mutator he became shortly thereafter. But what about her?

Beverley was born in Coventry, always the precocious young gal she fell in love with rock and folk music from a young age. At first, she thought her life was destined to be on stage in theater. Her good looks and vocal chops made her easily stand out. Instantly after fronting a folk jug band at the ripe age of 16, George Martin decided to sign her and try to mold her into being a pop idol similar to Cher. The Deram label took her under their wing (Cat Stevens and her were their first signees!) and attempted to make her a star.

Working in 1966 with the wonders of stereo, she sang a song written by Randy Newman and backed by this insane group of session musicians: Nicky Hopkins (future Rolling Stones/Kinks), Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones (future Led Zeppelin). What sticks out of the songs “Happy New Year” and “Where the Good Times Are” other the ahead for its time fuzzy pop rock is Beverley’s mid-range almost punkish vocals. Her voice wasn’t sweet but refreshingly “proud grown-ass woman-ly” and assertive I’d say. By 1967, after those singles went nowhere, Beverley was tired of this direction. Influenced by her then boyfriend Bert Jansch, she’d taken guitar lessons from him and was keen on continuing on a folk tip.

Beverley Kutner – 1968

By 1967, she met and briefly was Paul Simon’s girlfriend. Paul invited her to come to San Francisco and try her luck there. She was invited to roll with his crowd and even got to sing backup vocals (and speak in the spoken section) for the Simon and Garfunkle track “Fakin’ It” . Somehow, she was getting noticed by the music industry enough to actually get her a slot performing at the Monterrey Pop Festival. Regardless, of all this attention there wasn’t much movement in her own musical career. Running out of time, she was by then outstaying her visa, Paul Simon offered to marry her and get her a green card. Beverley refused as she was falling out of love with Paul.

At a time when her label mate Cat Steven’s career was taking off with Matthew and Son, Beverley was playing small folk venues to pay her rent. By then, she was a mother of a young child as well. Clearly, a change in direction was needed. Sometime in 1968, she met Jackson C. Frank who introduced her to young blue-eyed, long curly haired, lively singer called Iain David McGeachy who went by the stage name John Martyn. At that time, she was transfixed by this young man’s supremely gifted guitar playing and very seductive vocal delivery. Somehow, word of this relationship got into the graces of Joe Boyd.

Joe Boyd, had discovered the Incredible String Band, Pink Floyd, Nick Drake and was searching for some kind of direction to give his recent signee John Martyn to take. Joe wasn’t to keen on John Martyn, since he reckoned his earlier albums like London Conversation and The Tumbler showed promise but had too many influences that were already becoming passe to tackle creatively any more. Joe was more interested in Nick Drake’s and Beverley’s career than John’s, truth be told. Influenced by Bert Jansch, Jelly Roll Morton, Syd Barrett, Dylan and lots of jazz cats John had a hard time pinning down some kind of unique stamp on his music. His hardheadness and inability to cede control likewise didn’t help making it easy to work with him either. The Tumbler showed promise though. Songs like “Fly on Home”, “Seven Black Roses”, and “The River” seemed like songs his more welcomed label mate Nick Drake could have sold and John needed more focus to build on.

However, when Joe heard John and Beverley jam and sing together, Joe instantly thought that as a duo they should try their luck out. Beverley’s more strident vocals and lyrics complemented John’s more subdued, jazz folk vocal tone and guitar sound. In the summer of 1969, John and her would wed. Joe Boyd pitched to them the idea of staying in the US, near their home in Woodstock and record their first album together.

Stormbringer album cover.

Stormbringer, presents some kind of newlywed spirit. It isn’t that great by any stretch of the imagination. What it shows is the influence of Americana and their neighbors (Dylan and the Band), some of like Levon Helm from the Band who play on the opening track, married with their English folk background. This first release showed promise but a lot of figuring it outness. John sounded alright affecting an Americana guitar influence and Beverley singing it, but they shown best when they dipped into an English sound. That’s something you can clearly hear in the title track, full of that airy lightly weighted John Martyn sound coupled with tasteful classical string arrangements, and the Beverly-backed “Traffic-Light Lady” serving as spiritual brethren to Five Leaves Left’s best tracks. Then you have the Beverley’s “The Ocean”, a track later covered by Francoise Hardy, and “Sweet Honesty” which features her unique orchestral smoldering chanteuse-like delivery. It was more of those types of tunes that Joe wanted their direction to take in their next release.

Stormbringer back cover.

When they left the States, and went to live back in London they experienced a brief time of idyllic couplehood. It was during this time, they’d befriended a lot of Joe Boyd’s Witchseason Production signees. One in particular, Nick Drake, took to being a dear, albeit very shy and quiet, friend of theirs. He’d frequently show up unannounced to have dinner with them or to just enjoy their company. John in particular felt very brotherly with him, Beverley would let him babysit and serve him tea (nevermind that Nick would take his tea and stare at the sea for hours).

It was around this again, that they’d started to come out with new songs to record. Frequently, they’d start out a song by John playing guitar and Beverley adding melodies to it. By 1970, they had enough to start recording, somehow Beverley’s contributions becoming even more inspired. Hearing firsthand a lot of Nick’s Bryter Layter recordings, Joe and the duo decided to take nearly all of the same crew and use them to complement their The Road to Ruin recording.

When you hear the urbane opener “Primrose Hill” penned and sung by Beverley with obvious nods to the Bryter Layter-sound then you get a deceptive taste of what’s coming. Feeding off the confident sound of Beverley, John treats you to the new sound he was exploring. “Parcels” the wonderfully spacey seductive neo-folk which sounds light years ahead of his early sound.

The crazy thing, is that in spite of John’s massive new sound, the following track “Annie the Aviator” by Beverley, blows it out of the water. Too far ahead for its time, the dream folk-rock sound which marries the chanteuse-like quality of Beverley’s vocals with John’s future experimentation, still boggles the mind. As Beverley asks John to fly with her and plug in his acoustic guitar into an Echoplex looper, somewhere around the 3:30 minute mark, that’s when you’re hearing another bit of English folk history being made. This is the sound that John would chase down, through all its wild and beautiful permutations in the future.

Finishing out this monumental A-side of the LP, is the majestic John sung but Beverley-backed “New Day”, the half-child to any track on Bryter Layter; its a track so wonderfully gorgeous, romantic and uplifting, that it speaks more to the equal give and take both of these partners were doing during this recording.

The Road to Ruin back cover.

The second half of the album, starts off with “Give Us a Ring” which they dedicate to their friend Nick Drake. Its another one of those future John Martyn-type songs filled with melancholic uplift and ambiance. Sadly, the next time John would dedicate a song for him it would be for a different feeling. Of note, after that are the songs “Tree Green”, a delicate solo slightly warbly nifty acoustic track, another too ahead for its time SOHO-lilting soul workout by Beverley “Say What You Can” (somewhere Chrissie Hynde must have taken notes…), and the final track “The Road to Ruin” fully showing you the shift that John would take in his important new direction. Can you hear all those atmospheric guitar lines and Echoplex overdubs? much less his wonderfully drawn out vocals? John Martyn the solo singer, as we know him, starts here before the funky jazz outro.

John and Beverley – 1972

Sadly, this album didn’t do well and Island Records convinced John to strike out as a solo artist again. By this time around, John was fully convinced of his brilliance, a little too quick if someone asked Beverley, forcing her to stay at home raising her kids while he forged ahead solo and forced her to deal with all of its repercussions. At least now we can hear the great promise of what could have been if they stuck around together as a musical duo. Sadly, Beverley’s main story, in the grand scheme of the English neo-folk thing I’m covering, ends here, but somehow her influence and John’s story won’t, but that’s something I’ll get to shortly. For now, get ready for more of something else tomorrow…

Recommend Listening:
The Tumbler (1968)
Stormbringer (1970)
The Road to Ruin (1970)*

* Essential listening

Bonus track time, the gorgeous Nick Drake and Beverley penned “Reckless Jane” from the Phoenix and the Turtle (her recent comeback album) which Robert Kirby contributed arrangements to: