I shouldn’t need to explain about Gary Miller but for our younger readers: Gary was lead songwriter with The Whisky Priests, a very fine (and rather tough looking) post-punk folk-rock band from the north-east. After a while away from the front line he returned in 2010 with the excellent album, Reflections On War. The first of two projects emerging this year, Mad Martins is a three-CD box set housed in a lavish hard-back book and will later be a stage presentation.
I didn’t know much about the three Martin brothers, although I have seen at least one of John’s paintings – an enormous apocalyptic Biblical scene, probably The Day Of His Wrath. More of John later. Each of the three CDs is dedicated to one of the brothers and will be one act of the stage play, so we begin with William, the eldest brother. He aspired to be a renaissance man, sorry THE Renaissance Man, and if you want evidence of his madness, just listen to ‘William Martin’s Dream’. He had been a soldier and a ropemaker, became an inventor and pamphleteer and the world’s greatest natural philosopher – at least in his own mind.
Now you might think that this is an odd subject for a major project but Gary’s skill as a songwriter and his construction of the piece is sufficient to draw you in from the start. His style is earthy and robust and his borrowing of traditional tunes adds an extra authenticity. He handles most of the lead vocals and about half of the instruments, most of the rest being played by producer Iain Petrie. Keith Armstrong leads the important spoken word sections – Gary’s accent is perhaps a little too strong – with an ensemble including Richard Doran, Mick Tyas, Ann Sessoms and Gary’s brother Glenn. There is a separate album, Fair Flowers Among Them All, featuring these instrumental sections.
Next we come to Jonathan Martin: now he was mad! A strange child, by all accounts, he was first a shepherd, then press-ganged into the navy. His naval adventures are quite remarkable if his own accounts are to be believed but it allows Gary to compose a shanty and a hornpipe. Next he became a tanner and then a preacher with a remarkably anti-authoritarian take on religion. He was committed for plotting to assassinate the Bishop of Oxford. ‘Shoot The Bishop’ recounts the circumstances that brought this about. Remarkably, he escaped the asylum twice and his next plan was to burn down York Minster. He set the fire and escaped but was captured and committed to Bedlam where he died.
Again, Gary blends original songs with Jonathan’s own words with two extracts from writings by Charles Dickens and traditional tunes. The whole disc rocks along and you almost feel some sympathy for Jonathan by the end.
John Martin probably wasn’t mad but he heard the Word of God. He’s probably the most famous and the most enduring of the Martin brothers as his monumental biblical paintings attest. Like William, John was something of a polymath; one of his projects was a sewage system for London, related in earthy relish in ‘Drainage Scheme’. His ideas inspired John Bazalgette who designed the system that is still in use. On this final disc, Gary looks to Keith Armstrong for many of the spoken word sections.
As a painter, John was a friend to royalty and Gary’s music has an appropriately bombastic tone which is where the orchestration of The Albert Ness Ensemble and The Lick Spittals’ horns come into their own. Despite his success, John fell into poverty and the later songs have rather simpler accompaniments but he fought back beginning with The Coronation Of Queen Victoria before died peacefully in1855.
Mad Martins is a magnificent piece of work, transcending both the traditional ideas of folk-rock as represented by The Whisky Priests and the established view of what a singer-songwriter should be. It isn’t inexpensive, as you might imagine, but it’s worth every penny that you spend on it.