Books & drugs & rock & roll
A complete legend has built up around Martin Stone, an enigmatic, almost Dickensian figure, famously described by his friend and fellow book collector John Baxter as “a very thin man in a black beret, with the air of a minor-league pickpocket,” stealing through the London streets at dawn only to disappear into the shadows of each dusty bookshop, yet magically appearing at exactly the right moment to seal a deal or popping up in the right place to unearth a money-spinning rarity.
As befits his mythical status among the movers and shakers of the book world, his musical career has also gained something of a cult following and his stints with The Action, Mighty Baby and Chilli Willi & the Red Hot Peppers have guaranteed knowing nods of approval in the rock world, while not exactly placing him among the elite of the guitar fraternity.
Born in Wokingham on 11th December 1946, the family later moved further east, where Stone attended the John Whitgift School for Boys in South Croydon and made full use of the healthy local folk and blues music scene, rubbing shoulders with Dave and Jo Ann Kelly, and studying guitarists like Davey Graham and Bert Jansch. He bought his first blues albums in the celebrated Swing Shop in Streatham and studiously learned every note played by Muddy Waters and BB King.
Stone played Shadows tunes with his first group, but was snubbed by his jazz-loving classmates at Whitgift school. He began hanging out at the local folk clubs studying John Renbourne and Davey Graham, but he could also be found every Monday night at the Locarno ballroom on the Streatham High Road for his weekly fix of Tamla Motown and blues. Stone bought a black Les Paul guitar for twenty five pounds in a Peckham junk shop and went to audition for an r&b band; however while standing in line he met a fellow enthusiast Phil Lithman and tired of waiting their turn, they left to form their own group, Junior’s Blues.
The music worlds gain turned out to be the Croydon Advertisers loss - Stone’s early interest in words and the printed page saw him join his local paper as a junior reporter, but he secretly hoped that his music career would take-off, as he told musicologist Brian Hinton, “I wanted to be Muddy Waters - instead I was covering the Women’s Institute donkey derby for seven quid a week!” Junior’s Blues were finding gigs hard to come by, but it was when he was offered the guitar spot in the Rockhouse Band with regular gigs in exotic places like far-flung Manchester, that he finally decided to quit the day job at the Advertiser. The Rockhouse Band also enabled Martin to back some of his American blues idols when they visited the UK.
Always a blues man at heart, Stone was invited to join Savoy Brown and then The Action, former mod favourites who were starting to change their musical style to match the times, or as drummer Roger Powell put it, “Martin joined us and we discovered drugs!” To go with this new musical direction, the band decided to change their name and in October 1968, Mighty Baby was born. Mixing influences from jazz, country and the West Coast American bands, Mighty Baby have often been called ‘Britain’s answer to the Grateful Dead’, largely thanks to Stone’s penchant for mixing psychedelia and country blues into his extended guitar workouts. A real musician’s musician, Stone was loved by the heads at ZigZag magazine and placed equal 7th alongside George Harrison in a Melody Maker axemen poll. “Better than Clapton”, enthused Brian Hinton.
As an example of just how highly his guitar-work was rated, when Brian Jones was fired from the Rolling Stones in 1969, they asked Alexis Korner to suggest replacements and Martin Stone was on the shortlist. The Evening Standard printed the names in the frame and a host of journalists besieged Martin’s parents house in Sanderstead, asking to talk to the prospective Stone. Martin later told Brian Hinton that his mother was horrified - “She thought it was the most shocking thing in the world, the most awful thing that had ever happened to me!” In the end, Martin didn’t attend the audition, (although he did get to jam with Brian Jones) and the job went to the young Mick Taylor.
In October 1971 the band released their second album ‘A Jug of Love’ produced by Mike Vernon for his Blue Horizon label, a mellower sound which coincided with half the band converting to the Muslim religion and investigating Indian musical forms. They are fondly remembered for a three hour night-time performance at the Glastonbury Fayre festival in June 1971, part of which was captured for posterity on the resulting triple album.
Martin Stone’s next musical enterprise saw him reunite with Phil Lithman in Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers, a country/western swing outfit who became one of the most popular bands on the London pub-rock circuit who toured extensively supporting T-Rex and as part of the Naughty Rhythms tour alongside Doctor Feelgood and Kokomo. Their second album, the wonderfully-titled ‘Bongos Over Balham’ was produced by Mike Nesmith and the gigs poured in after they promoted their roadie Jake Riviera to tour manager; as Martin put it “we played every pub in Britain a million times and the music press loved us!” After the Willie's split up, Martin briefly joined the Pink Fairies and played even more briefly with the 101er’s, just prior to Joe Strummer forming The Clash. At this point, Stone turned to the other love of his life, book dealing - “a compulsive occupation, just like playing the guitar.”
John Baxter, an Australian writer and film maker has written an engaging book on his life as an obsessive book collector and ‘A Pound of Paper - Confessions of a Book Addict’ is dedicated to Martin Stone. The pair first met in a London flea market in 1978, where Stone spotted Baxter purchasing a rare Graham Greene volume and immediately offered to buy it from him. Baxter declined, but by the end of their brief conversation, Stone had sold him two other books by the same author - Baxter became a dedicated collector from that moment on!
Baxter’s book highlights the changes and consequent fall in the traditional book trade; now all the major wheeling and dealing is done via the internet and those dusty back street shops, so beloved of the antiquarian trade are gradually disappearing into history. Yet talk to their owners and they will all have undoubtedly had a visit from the mysterious Martin Stone. In a rare combination of his past life and present career, Stone once helped to feed the occult obsession of Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page by selling him a copy of the ‘I-Ching’ that was once owned by Aleister Crowley and unearthed obscure copies of ‘A Clockwork Orange’ for Elvis Costello!
Married twice, Martin’s erratic lifestyle was not suited to the stabilities of family life or to running a business - Stone ran his own shop near Kings Cross for a short time, but this was never going to work. According to fellow dealer Iain Sinclair, the shop “opened only in the middle of the night, so that he (Stone) could call in and exchange suitcases.” Sinclair turned from book dealer to author, publishing his first novel ‘White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings’ in 1987. The book merges his own experiences alongside runners and dealers like Stone and Driff Field - Martin is the template for the character Nicholas Lane - into a dark London mystery combining the search for a rare tome with the Whitechapel murders.
In 1983, Stone left London in something of a hurry and moved to Paris, reputedly to stay “one step ahead of a scandal in which cocaine played a large part”, according to John Baxter. Or as Stone himself told Brian Hinton, “I went to France to escape illness. Let’s just say I ended up with a busted book business, half a stomach, half a nose and an imperfect memory.” The bohemian Paris lifestyle suited Stone, but did nothing to curb his wild partying. The next time Baxter ran into him, Martin was on crutches; during the French bicentennial celebrations, Stone had climbed onto a plinth in the Place de la Bastille and jumped off during the fireworks display - shattering the bones in both heels. While still in France, Martin was put in touch with Wreckless Eric and the pair started to work together, gradually dragging Stone back into the music business, albeit on an occasional basis.
Martin’s work with Mighty Baby can now be appreciated once again as the band are enjoying something of a recent renaissance through the release of their two studio albums on CD plus two collections of live performances. The eponymous debut from 1969 is available on Big Beat UK Records, while Sunbeam Records have put out the follow-up ‘Jug of Love’ (1971), ‘Live in the Attic’ recorded in 1970 and have now released ‘Tasting the Life: Live 1971.’ This contains an almost complete live set by the band, recorded at Malvern Winter Gardens, plus two tracks from their celebrated appearance at Glastonbury later the same year. All are well worth checking out on www.sunbeamrecords.co.uk
The elusive Martin Stone can still be seen trawling through bookshops and stalls or playing the occasional gig, including a Mighty Baby reunion in 2005, but tracking him down, even for friends like Baxter, is a virtual impossibility. As Baxter noted, “he has never owned a house, or learned to drive, hates bank accounts, won’t write letters and scorns computers.” One thing remains certain; if you have a rare book for sale, Martin Stone will undoubtedly find you.
© Chris Groom
Martin Stone, 1969 London - Formed from the ashes of mod band The Action, Keith Morris took all the photos for Mighty Baby’s first, eponymously titled album, including very different individual poses of each of its members. And here, guitarist Stone displays an early sign of his taste for unusual hats and faraway thoughts.
© 2008 the Estate of Keith Morris (incorporating Keith Morris Photo and Keith Morris Photography) all rights reserved. This image must not be copied, reproduced or otherwise used without the express written agreement of Keith Morris Photography.