Mad Martins: The Story of the Martin Brothers
Whippet Records – 2017
Mad Martins is an ambitious, and rather special, project. Essentially the brainchild of Tyneside poet and cultural historian Keith Armstrong, it depicts the lives (and, by extension, the times) of the three Martin brothers – William, Jonathan and John – who were born in the late18th century (in 1772, 1782 and 1789 respectively) in the South Tyne area of Northumberland. Each of the brothers was a visionary who nevertheless achieved a degree of notoriety (in Jonathan’s case also embracing a certain status of madness) during his lifetime. William, “The Lion Of Wallsend”, self-styled “Philosophical Conqueror of All Nations”, was an engraver and inventor; Jonathan, a religious fanatic, was “the notorious incendiary” of York Minster; and John was both a town planner and an acclaimed painter of epic scenes of cataclysmic Biblical events.
The project tellingly brings together songs, poems, narration, music and art. Thus, in order to appreciate its scope and splendour, you definitely need to experience the whole package – a set of three CDs housed within a deluxe hardback book. A useful adjunct in the form of a complementary (fourth) disc presents all the instrumental backing tracks to the various spoken-word pieces on the main triple-CD set, together with the orchestral backing track to the song In My Hands. And there are plans for a full-blown 2½-hour theatrical performance of Mad Martins in 2018…
Mad Martins’ musical director and coordinator is songwriter Gary Miller, whose principal claim to fame is the founding, in 1985, with his twin brother Glenn, of cult folk-rock legends The Whisky Priests. The band lasted through until 2002, shortly after which Gary was approached by Keith to update and develop his own original concept (poetry and music with accompanying slideshow) for a new audience. Quickly enthused, and armed with a wealth of research material supplied by Keith, Gary proceeded to pen (in the space of about a fortnight!) around a dozen songs to add to the poems Keith had previously written for the project, making up a 90-minute set list of material for presentation to a live audience. This was premièred in October 2002 as part of the Northumberland Traditional Music Festival, featuring performances by Keith and Gary accompanied by Glenn on accordion and Chris Ormston on Northumbrian pipes. A handful of further minor revivals followed (albeit with a long hiatus due to various personal circumstances); Gary was then inspired to conduct further research into the Martin Brothers and to write an additional batch of songs.
Finally, at the beginning of 2013, Gary decided it was time, at last, to accord the project what he felt was its rightful due, and began recording sessions for the Mad Martins album with his friend and former collaborator Iain Petrie producing. These sessions continued sporadically well into 2014, with additional contributors Glenn Miller, Mick Tyas, Richard Doran and Ann Sessoms coming on board. By which time, the initial plan to release the project as a single CD had expanded to a full three-act enterprise necessitating a triple CD with an accompanying book, for which acclaimed artist Helen Temperley was commissioned to provide the design. The high production values of the visual package are mirrored in the engineering, which sports fabulously detailed sound (expansively widescreen where necessary) that nowhere fails to make an impact, chiming closely with Keith’s artistic vision and Gary’s musicianship in ensuring the listener is kept engaged throughout.
The portraits of the three Martins, involving a broad gamut of emotional situations, naturally afford ample opportunity for the exercising of Gary’s proven songwriting skills. Gary has a real flair for conjuring imagery from the past with a gritty reality. He possesses an inbuilt and empathic understanding of social history, which is voiced in direct tell-it-like-it-is language (not lacking in literacy or lyrical expression, however), boosted by a keen sense of melodic invention, manifested in canny tunes and often seriously catchy choruses. There’s also a strong regional (north-east) folk sensibility within Gary’s songwriting that’s key to the memorability of his songs. Yet while he utilises basic elements of traditional instrumentation (acoustic guitar, mandolin, accordion, dulcimer, bouzouki) to provide a feisty bedrock, he’s also not afraid to stir things up imaginatively with the judicious incorporation of extra instruments (here, individual guest musicians playing occasional fiddle, trumpet and bodhrán as well as some “improvised percussion”, a horn combo and an orchestral ensemble, and Iain himself supplying a whole array of less-traditional textures including rhythm section, electric guitar, keyboards and a modicum of programming). All of course effectively tailored to the mood and character of each episode of the protagonists’ life-histories.
Act One (William) opens with a scene-setting introductory Prophecy, jauntily done in the manner of a street-corner broadside-ballad; The Leaping Swordsman is replete with swashbuckling derring-do; God And Air is a full-on anthemic declaration; In Dreamtime is a tender vision of inspiration; The Dandy Horse (an early “travelling machine”) trots forth with pompous tread; Medals takes a cheeky Johnny Cash riff and a punk charge in its portrayal of William as a figure of ridicule proudly wearing his inventions on his chest; and finale-summation William, You Were Really Something is an almost jolly, affectionate singalong-pop-style tribute to the man’s enterprise. The seven sung tableaux are interspersed with complementary spoken-word narrations expounding different aspects of William’s interest-base, involving idiosyncratic observations on other disparate matters such as libraries and a cure for cholera. Together these items provide an entertaining and well-rounded portrait of William Martin, a complex character with many facets and concerns who’s been (perhaps unfairly) dismissed or widely ridiculed.
Act Two (Jonathan) presents a less overtly lovable eccentric, a religious fanatic of an altogether more self-destructive bent. Individual episodes in his decidedly picaresque life are vigorously presented here. Jonathan’s early experience In The Navy is done as a rollicking heave-ho shanty-hornpipe; “Shoot The Bishop!” recounts Jonathan’s failed attempt to assassinate the Bishop Of Oxford; Four Bare Walls sees his committal to an asylum; Escape gallops away with the whip-crack of a spaghetti western; My “Life” apes the style of a Joe Meek story-song (complete with cheesy Tornados organ solo!); the Dylanesque Blood, Fire And Smoke is the epic Ballad Of An Incendiary that loudly curses and denounces; Maria’s Testimony (with guest vocal by Maria Tucker) is a lyrical Irish-folksong-style character portrait; the a cappella At The Assizes sets Jonathan’s defiant pre-indictment “Bring it on!” speech, which is further developed by his self-assessment Madhouse Martin; and A Painting For Charles voices Jonathan’s vindication (to Charles Dickens) of his actions in setting fire to York Minster – on the instruction of a vision. Once again the passages of spoken-word narration inform the principal biographical narrative, and the whole is a satisfying sequence that presents the story of this potentially unsympathetic man with insight and sympathy.
Act Three (John) differs from its predecessors in that it depicts a personality who (at least for a time) achieved a healthy measure of recognition for his good works and successful accomplishments. Searching For The Waters Of Oblivion conveys the humility of John’s awe-struck artistic inspiration; The Paint And The Pain, with its strutting Pete-Townshend-style guitar riffing, well conveys the proud yet tortured artisan; the folksy The Thin Veneer (a duet with Karen Ross) takes its cue from rueful reflection on later penury brought on by providing financial assistance to bail out his brothers’ misfortunes; and Pandemonium explores the much more recent resurgence of interest in John’s apocalyptic paintings. These are some of the strongest songs in the project, the downside of which is that this third portrait seems, by comparison, less consistent and more uneven in its invention as a result. Weaker songs don’t entirely convince – the swaggering Picture The Scriptures may be an honest self-assessment, but its throwaway setting has a slightly hollow ring to it, and the would-be-epic big-production number In My Hands is set to a mock-baroque sinfonia and feels a touch too pompous, underplaying John’s humility in his moment of triumph.
So there we have it. Mad Martins is a concept album, yes, in the grand tradition – but largely without the more unfortunate excesses and trappings of that (sometimes deservedly maligned) genre. Aside, that is, from a small degree of over-indulgence, in places, in vérité sound effects (exploding fireworks, bubbling sewage etc), which to my mind undermines and needlessly clutters the listening experience. Importantly, Mad Martins sports a splendid package that fully befits its major-project status and the epic scope of its subject. It’s housed in a sturdy, lavishly illustrated 104-page book that includes full lyrics for songs, poems and linking text, also a valuable, and admirably comprehensive, “select” bibliography for further reading, all set attractively amongst relevant artwork, period illustrations (all listed and fully credited) and sundry ephemera. In particular, those listeners who are not familiar with John Martin’s paintings will find the reproductions a revelation – even if their full magnificence and splendour is not revealed in monochrome (but hey, I can well appreciate that the extra cost of colour reproduction would have been prohibitive). I might say that if fRoots magazine was still offering an Award Category for Best-Packaged Albums Of The Year, then Mad Martins would be a very strong contender indeed, if not an outright winner.
Mad Martins is no one-dimensional portrayal hastily cobbled together to cash in on some spurious anniversary, but a genuinely stimulating cultural artefact, born of an inspired collaboration of like-minded creative artists. The device of integrated narrative backed by traditional tunes provides a highly effective unity and consistency. For, out of the energising catalyst of Keith’s poetry and narration, Gary and Iain have together produced an extraordinary work, an educational experience that both informs and (royally) entertains (now where have we heard that dictum before?). It also happens to contain some great music and songwriting that bears both specific relevance to its subject and a definite resonance for our times.