Written by: Kev Rowland
One of the sheer joys of writing about music for so many years has been the opportunity to discover bands that would otherwise have passed me by, and that is very much the case with The Whisky Priests. I can’t remember how I first got in touch with Gary and Glenn Miller, the twin forces behind this amazing act, but often featured them in Feedback and was lucky enough to also see them live (seeing Glenn strip his accordion down mid-set is a sight I will never forget). Formed in 1985, the band released numerous albums, and were renowned for their frantic and energetic live shows, but by 2004 had called it a day. Fairly early in their career, Gary had become friends with North East of England poet Keith Armstrong, which resulted in the wonderful ‘Bleeding Sketches album in 1995 (which I seem to recall I made a cover picture back in the day). The concept behind ‘Mad Martins’ stemmed from this relationship, and in 2002 Gary and Keith started working together again on a project initially conceived by Keith about the notorious Martin brothers of 18th Century Tynedale, Northumberland; William (the self-styled “philosophical conqueror of all nations”), Jonathan (“the notorious incendiary” of York Minster), and John (internationally renowned painter). Keith contributed poems while Gary wrote a song cycle about the three brothers. It was premiered at Northumberland Traditional Music Festival, Queens Hall Arts Centre, Hexham, in October 2002 with a 90-minute performance featuring poems and narrative read by Keith interspersed with a selection of songs performed by Gary accompanied by his twin brother Glenn on accordion and Northumbrian piper Chris Ormston.
Fast forward to 2017, and a recorded version of the project has finally seen the light of day. To be honest I am quite at a loss as to how to describe this, as “concept” doesn’t seem to do it justice, as this feels far more like a doctorate thesis in the way the subject matter has been approached and then delivered to the audience. Musically there are three CDs, with a total running time of more than 140 minutes, which have been performed by Gary Miller (Lead & Backing Vocals, Acoustic Guitar, standard & octave Mandolins, occasional Electric Guitar, Bouzouki, assorted traditional & invented Percussion) and Iain Petrie (numerous Electric & Acoustic Guitars, Piano, Keyboards, Ukeleles, Glockenspiel, Bass, Drums, assorted traditional & invented Percussion, Backing Vocals, Harmonies, Programming, Orchestral Arrangements, etc.) plus guests including Gary’s twin Glenn on accordion, and fellow ex-Whisky Priest Mick Tyas among others. Keith Armstrong also provides both narration and poems, and there are other collaborators. As well as the music, the package comes in a long form 102 page glossy book designed by Helen Temperley containing lyrics to all the songs, poems and spoken word pieces, with additional inter-linking text and many beautiful images, including paintings, engravings, sketches, illustrations, and original artwork, further enhancing the story. As if this wasn’t enough, as well as full details of who performed on what, there is a bibliography providing further reading and references for anyone who wishes to discover more about the three brothers William, John and Jonathan Martin. I knew that Gary has always been interested in history, it has been demonstrated time and again with The Whisky Priests, but this has taken it to a whole new level. My sister-in-law was over from the UK last week, and knowing that she is incredibly interested in history (and a retired teacher to boot), I gave her the package and asked her to have a look at it, without even playing any of the music. She was just blown away, and told me that when she returned home she was going to do some more digging as she had not come across the story of the Martin brothers before this and was amazed at the amount of work that had been put into this and wanted to find out more.
To say that this is a masterpiece is still an understatement. This has made me want to find out more about the people being sung and spoken about. This is the first time I had come across the Martins brothers, but they all had an important part to play in English history, in one way or another, and shouldn’t be forgotten. Musically this is a combination of folk and folk rock, played very much in the Northumbrian style favoured by Gary and Glenn, and I love it. I can’t even comprehend how much this has cost financially to put together, and can’t imagine that Gary will ever recoup the outlay (Whippet Records is an independent label), but what he has produced is incredibly important in every respect. To find out more about an amazing project, then please visit http://www.mad-martins.co.uk. If only a fraction of those who followed the latest trend would support artists and projects like this, then the world would be a much richer place and we would all be the better for it.
Three Mad Martins (Prophecy) // On My Place Of Birth // The Leaping Swordsman // God And Air // William Martin’s Dream // In Dreamtime // Inventions // The Dandy Horse // On Libraries // Just An Inoffensive Wife // Cure For Cholera // Medals // A Description Of William Martin // William, You Were Really Something // Reflections // On My Childhood And Youth // In The Navy (Jonathan’s Chantey & Hornpipe) // “Shoot The Bishop!” // Musings On The Madhouse // Four Bare Walls // Escape // The Life Of Jonathan Martin // My ‘Life’ // A Special Instrument (Charles Dickens on Jonathan Martin, Part 1) // Blood, Fire And Smoke (Ballad Of The Incendiary) // Jonathan’s Departure From Maria // Maria’s Testimony // A Description Of Jonathan Martin // At The Assizes // Madhouse Martin // A Painting For Charles // On A Visit To Bedlam (Charles Dickens on Jonathan Martin, Part 2) // John’s Song // Picture The Scriptures // The Plains Of Heaven // Lightning Strikes // Searching For The Waters Of Oblivion // That’s Me! // I Saw The Signs // In My Hands // The Paint And The Pain // Drainage Scheme // Facing-Both-Ways // A Thin Veneer // A Letter From John Martin // Wicked Old World // The Most Original Genius Of His Age (Edward Bulwer-Lytton on John Martin) // Pandemonium // Three Mad Martins (Epitaph) // At Anchor