The talented singer-songwriters Beverley Martyn and Linda Thompson faced an unfair hurdle in their careers: Though accomplished before meeting either of their husbands, they are best known for who they married and with whom they collaborated, John Martyn and Richard Thompson. They both continued recording and performing after the end of their marriages, yet still face that hurdle. Fiona McQuarrie examines the nearly parallel careers of these great artists for PKM.
It’s difficult to look at the careers of Beverley Martyn and Linda Thompson without confronting a conundrum. Both women are accomplished musicians in their own right, but their names are most familiar from their musical collaborations and tumultuous relationships with their former husbands. Focusing on the last albums each of them made with their respective spouses – John and Beverley Martyn’s Stormbringer! and Richard and Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out The Lights – may seem to be prioritizing the personal drama over the musical substance. Yet Beverley’s and Linda’s own talents are generally overlooked – partly because John Martyn and Richard Thompson both moved on to longer solo careers and built larger public identities, but also, perhaps, because the music business tends to downplay women’s contributions in general.
Beverley and Linda both came to the UK folk music scene in the mid-‘60s after brief forays into pop music. Beverley Kutner released two singles as “Beverley” – covers of Randy Newman’s “Happy New Year” in ’66 and Donovan’s “Museum” in ’67. The records show her to be a strong, distinctive singer, but she wasn’t the only female singer in that era to make great records that never went anywhere. Linda Peters, meanwhile, was working as a backing singer and as an anonymous performer, along with Elton John, on “copy” versions of pop hits that were sold on cut-price compilation albums.
Beverley [Kutner] – Happy New Year:
Pickettywich – That Same Old Feeling (Linda Peters on background vocals):
Beverley developed her songwriting and guitar-playing skills while dating Bert Jansch, and then had a brief relationship with Paul Simon, which led to her performing with Simon and Garfunkel at the ’67 Monterey Pop festival. John Martyn was signed to Island Records in ‘67, but producer/entrepreneur Joe Boyd, in his autobiography White Bicycles, claimed that, even after releasing two well-regarded albums by Martyn (London Conversation and The Tumbler), label head Chris Blackwell “didn’t know what to do with him” and “made me a present of [him]”. Boyd’s business partner, Tod Lloyd, had previously expressed interest in signing Beverley after hearing her pop singles, and eventually both John and Beverley were signed to Boyd and Lloyd’s Witchseason production company. Witchseason’s roster also included Nick Drake, the Incredible String Band, and Fairport Convention.
John Martyn told Zig Zag magazine in ’74 that he believed he was being hired to play as Beverley’s backup guitarist “for an album she was going to make in America” but “it eventually seemed obvious to go as John and Beverly Martyn and to make an album together”.
John and Beverley were both very young when they married – he was 20, she was 21 – and Beverley came into the marriage as the single parent of a small child. In separate interviews later in their lives, both described their initial emotional connection as immediate and deep. But John was a troubled soul. Beverley remembered that “he was wounded from the beginning. He mistrusted women because his mother had left him, and he treated them really badly, physically and mentally.”
And although he feared becoming an alcoholic because his father had been one, he was nevertheless developing a drinking problem. He later recalled, “I drank because I was nervous performing, then the lifestyle got hold of me.”
Shortly after the Martyns’ wedding, Boyd sent them to Woodstock, NY, to work with producer and arranger Paul Harris on their first collaborative album. Taking them away from their home might have been risky, but both Beverley and John enjoyed the experience of making Stormbringer!. They were charmed by rural Woodstock and its inhabitants – John recalled that “Dylan lived up the road and Jimi Hendrix virtually next door” – and Harris brought in drummer Levon Helm and bassist Harvey Brooks to play on the album, along with himself and John Simon on keyboards. While Boyd is credited as the album’s producer, most sources agree that Harris did the majority of the production and studio work.
Released in 1970, Stormbringer! is a stunning album that is rightly celebrated for its innovative sound. It was rare at that time for acoustic guitar-based music to be accompanied by drums, but Harris’ arrangements balanced Martyn’s guitars and Helm’s drums so that they complemented rather than overwhelmed each other. Martyn was also starting to experiment with tape delays and other effects that further expanded the scope of his already eclectic guitar playing. But Beverley’s significant contributions to the album are rarely acknowledged. She wrote four of its eight songs, sang on every track, and played guitar as well. And on the tracks where she provides backing vocals, her harmonies are so much more than patterning the lead vocal; she hits unconventional notes and rhythms that wind around and elaborate on the melody.
It may be misleading to project what might have been happening in the Martyns’ personal lives into the songs they brought to the album. But it’s almost impossible, for example, not to hear the title track as reflecting John’s struggle with abandonment, or not to see the gathering storm clouds on the cover as a visual metaphor for the troubles in the couple’s relationship.
“Sweet Honesty” (written by Beverley Martyn), from the Stormbringer! album:
The title track from Stormbringer! (written by John Martyn):
Boyd decided the Martyns’ next album should be made in London, at the Sound Techniques studio in Chelsea that was one of his favorite recording facilities. The Road to Ruin, released in 1971, was an unsatisfying experience for all involved, and after its release, Witchseason was dissolved and the Martyns’ contract was assigned back to Island Records. According to John, “Joe Boyd decided it was policy for Beverley to record a solo album and for me to record a solo album, and then for both of us to record an album together. And when we went to Island, we went on the premise that we would both record a solo album, and mine was the only one that they ended up recording.”
However, some observed that John seemed a little too eager to continue as a solo performer, and that Beverley’s retirement from recording was more for John’s convenience rather than because of her own preference.
The Martyn family moved out of London to a succession of homes in rural villages. John’s career and reputation grew, starting with his 1973 solo album Bless the Weather. But while Beverley made sporadic appearances at shows and on records, but largely stayed at home and cared for their three children. “My career was over,” she has said.
Worse, as one biographer notes, “[John] Martyn’s behaviour became more extreme and unpredictable, exacerbated by alcoholism and hard drugs. He was not just an unfaithful and largely absent husband; he was also an abusive one.” John was also intensely jealous, and the only man allowed to visit Beverley while John was away was their good friend Nick Drake.
The start of Linda and Richard Thompson’s professional partnership overlaps with the end of the Martyns’ joint career. Linda grew up in the same Glasgow neighborhood as John, and when she moved to London she became acquainted with Richard and the other members of Fairport Convention through her friend in late ’69. In mid-‘70 she performed on the “Witchseason” demos: a series of recordings put together by Boyd’s production company to interest other artists in the work of Witchseason’s songwriters.
Linda Peters and Elton John – You Get Brighter (Witchseason demo of Mike Heron song):
In 1971, to the shock of many in the music industry, Richard left Fairport Convention for a solo career. Linda, meanwhile, was dating Boyd, and followed him to Los Angeles where he had taken a job with Elektra Records. She and Boyd became engaged, but Linda decided she did not like LA and returned to the UK, where she became romantically involved with Richard.
John was also intensely jealous, and the only man allowed to visit Beverley while John was away was their good friend Nick Drake.
Richard’s first solo album, Henry the Human Fly (1971), was less successful than he had hoped – as of 1996, according to biographer Patrick Humphries, it was “the lowest-selling record to be released by any arm of the mighty Warner Brothers empire”. Not long after its failure, Richard married Linda and started rebuilding his career by playing folk clubs with her; his sister remarked that “he seemed pretty lost – sort of a wandering minstrel – until Linda married him and put his feet on the ground.” It was also notable that Linda was dynamic and outgoing, and faced the vagaries of the music industry with a sense of humor, while Richard, in Linda’s words, was held in high esteem by his musical peers but also “very madly eccentric”.
The album I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight (1974) started the couple’s joint recording career. During its recording, both were introduced to the Sufi faith. Linda recalled, “[since] men are supposed to be the dominant force in Islam, I thought it was good for Richard, it made him come out of himself a lot. I thought it won’t do me any harm to play a subservient role, but in fact it did.” Richard and Linda moved out of the flat they owned and, with their baby daughter, moved into an Islamic commune based in a squat. After the albums Hokey Pokey and Pour Down Like Silver, both released in 1975, the couple largely withdrew from live performances and recording to pursue their spiritual journey, although Linda continued to do session work and vocals on commercials to bring in some income.
Their gradual return to music in 1977 coincided with their leaving communal life, which was Richard’s decision, although he continued to be an adherent of the faith. It turned out that Linda had secretly kept the ownership of their flat, so they were able to move back in and find some stability there. The influence of Islamic music was apparent on some of the songs on First Light (1978), which both Richard and Linda have subsequently expressed dissatisfaction with; Sunnyvista (1979) felt unfocused, and the Thompsons’ career was clearly in trouble when, as a result of Sunnyvista’s poor sales, their record label declined to renew their contract.
“he seemed pretty lost – sort of a wandering minstrel – until Linda married him and put his feet on the ground.”
Then a helping hand came from an unlikely source. Gerry Rafferty, a longtime admirer, had unexpectedly become wealthy thanks to his 1978 hit single “Baker Street”, and hired the Thompsons as the opening act to his 1980 UK tour. Rafferty then offered to finance the recording of a new album, which the Thompsons could then use to get a new record deal. In late 1980, Rafferty and the Thompsons went into the studio to record Shoot Out The Lights, but despite everyone’s best intentions, Rafferty’s detailed perfectionism clashed with Richard’s relaxed approach, to the point where Richard and Rafferty were not speaking to each other by the end of the sessions. The record was completed, but when “Rafferty’s Folly” was shopped around, no labels were interested in its glossy, commercial sound.
Richard and Linda Thompson – For Shame of Doing Wrong (Rafferty’s Folly version):
It wasn’t until two years later, after Joe Boyd facilitated a re-recording of the songs with more stripped-down arrangements, that Shoot Out The Lights was finally released – although it does speak to Rafferty’s contributions that the sequencing of songs on the official version of the album is identical to that of the earlier version, as are some of the arrangements. Patrick Humphries points out that it’s easy to view Shoot Out The Lights as “the great autobiographical marriage breakup record” except that all of its tracks were written and recorded in 1980 “well before either Richard or Linda realised they had a problem with their marriage”. Nevertheless, it’s impossible not to listen to Shoot Out The Lights and hear the pain, uncertainty, and loneliness of a troubled relationship; even with the album’s moments of beauty, it can be an unsettling listen.
Richard and Linda Thompson – “Walking on a Wire”:
Linda was pregnant with the couple’s third child when Richard went to the US in early 1982 for a brief solo tour prior to a planned joint tour. However, according to Linda, after he returned and four days after their daughter was born, he told her, “I’ve got to go and do some music in Florida”, but actually went off on holiday with a woman he had previously met. The Thompsons’ manager was insistent that, despite this marital turmoil, the couple should go through with the tour because of the success of Shoot Out The Lights in the US market.
Not surprisingly, a newly separated husband and wife on the same stage performing songs of betrayal and anger was a volatile situation. The “Tour from Hell” became legendary not for its great performances – critics lauded the dynamic energy of some of the shows – but because of the conflicts between its two headliners, made worse by Linda being told it was a two-week tour and then discovering once she arrived in the US that it was actually four weeks long. The extended stress caused Linda to miss several shows towards the end of the tour, and credits Linda Ronstadt for taking her in for several weeks afterward for her being able to recover from the whole terrible experience.
In 1980, John Martyn released Grace and Danger, which was called his break-up album. The year before, Beverley had had enough. She was terrified for herself and for her and John’s three children as John’s drug use, drinking, and paranoia increased. She described his behaviour as “Luciferian”. He told her, “’You’ll never get away from me. I will hunt you down and kill you and whoever you are with.” One night, she finally “slipped my feet into my son’s boots and ran to the police station.” Beverley and her children lived on welfare while she tried to rebuild her music career; she released a solo album in 2007, but also struggled with her own health and with her younger son’s substance abuse problems.
John continued to record and tour, his musical reputation enhanced by Eric Clapton covering ‘May You Never’, but ran into significant financial and health troubles, exacerbated by his drinking. An infection led to one of his legs being amputated in 2003, and a bout of pneumonia ended his life in 2009.
Not surprisingly, a newly separated husband and wife on the same stage performing songs of betrayal and anger was a volatile situation.
Linda Thompson also went through professional challenges after she and Richard broke up. She completed a solo album in 1985, and remarried that same year. But recurring voice problems forced her to retire from recording and performing until 2002, when a treatment was found that allowed her to start singing again. Since releasing the cheekily-named Fashionably Late in 2002, she has participated in several musical projects – including some with Richard and their extended families.
Stormbringer! and Shoot Out The Lights are still recognized as milestones in the work of their creators, and both albums have continued to inspire new generations of musicians; Beck was so taken with the feel of Stormbringer! that he modeled its sound for his own breakup album, Sea Change. But the most recent work by Beverley Martyn and Linda Thompson reminds us why they should be regarded as much more than “the former wife of”, and why their musical talents should not be overshadowed by the public drama they went through in their earlier lives.
Beverley Martyn released another album, The Phoenix and the Turtle, in 2014. Among its standout tracks is ‘Reckless Jane’, a previously unrecorded song that she wrote with Nick Drake during their friendship.
Beverley Martyn – Reckless Jane:
In 2015, under the guidance of Richard and Linda’s son Teddy, eleven members of the extended Thompson clan collaborated on the album Family. Linda contributed the wistful ballad ‘Bonny Boys’.
Linda Thompson & Family – “Bonny Boys”:
A new biography of John Martyn, Small Hours: The Long Night of John Martyn, by Graeme Thomson is being published later this year. Thomson has previously written well-regarded books on Kate Bush and George Harrison.