Gary Miller, with Keith Armstrong, Iain Petrie & Friends – Mad Martins

written by David Kidman 27 December, 2017

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.



I am glad to have twinned with this shapely town,
the bureaucrat who chose it was inspired,
picking through the rail lines and autobahns to seek it out,
linking it with my fleeting life.
I have travelled here a score of times and watched
my features change
with the seasons
in a twin town’s mirror.
I have made and carelessly lost friends,
renewed the flagging feel of tenderness,
groped in the darkness for a kiss gone missing,
licked over nooks and crannies.

With local wine glinting in my starry eyes,
I have lost all tracks of time
in the cool of bowing trees;
rejoiced in the pounding of church bells,
singing in my head.
I have dived in the shadows seeking famous sons,
slid in gutters with the down and outs.

This town has a brain of a University
and the guts of a stray-dog.
I have flogged it to death.

It was in this bar, at this table, in this corner,
that I looked into a girl called Karin’s eyes;
and it was at that moment, for that rich moment,
that our eyes twinned and I couldn’t wait to jet home,
write a glowing report on her glowing face
for our International Exchange Officer to file safely
under ‘Twinning Affairs’
or ‘Affairs, Twinning, New Year’.

Yes, I am glad
to have twinned with this shapely town,
by Karin’s eyes.





Ever since the sixth form,
when I found you, 
a kindred Novocastrian
in a library book,
I seem to have followed in your steps,
stumbled after you 
in rain soaked lanes,
knocked on doors
in search of your stories.
For over forty years,
I have tracked
the movement of your pen
in streets you walked
and on cross country trains
from your own Newcastle
to Warrington
Newport Pagnell,
and back again.
I have given talks about you,
supped in your pubs,
strode along your paragraphs 
and river paths
to try to find
that urge in you
to write 
out of your veins
what you thought of things,
what made you tick
and your loved ones 
laugh and cry.
I tried to reach you in a thesis,
to see you as a lad in Heaton,
but I could never catch your breath
because I didn’t get to meet you
face to face,
could only guess
that you were like me:
a kind of kindly 
socialist writer
in a world
too cruel for words.


Peter Common Well said Keith!

Dear kindly socialist writer - this is great - thanks a lot for sending it






my ruined BERLIN,
where else have we been ruined as in BERLIN,
yet your ruins, BERLIN, embrace more future
than all Duesseldorf’s insurance buildings put together.
I love your mocking grin, BERLIN,
the bare facade,
all the heaped-up futility in your features,
your rage,
the exhaustion in your faces.’

(Reimar Lenz)

Bruno Winkler
has offered to ship us up river
to sniff the rust of decrepit regimes,
to smell the painted faces of fresh errors.
I run my fingers through this infected water
and taste it on my questing lips.
We slip quietly
through the back of history,
our boat creaking in the winter breeze,
cresting through despair.
There are museums and palaces of great culture,
socialist pimps and capitalist tarts.
Wash it all down
with bottles of beer from the East,
soak it in the perfume of money.
Bash through the Gates,
under the monuments of false dawns.

We must hope I suppose,
anchor our dreams
in the dust.

Please Bert,
don’t stare at us so.
We are simply doing our best.

Making the same mistakes again.
Numbing the pain
of the Spree.





In the oven of a Berlin heatwave,
this crumbling block bakes
and all the bullet holed walls
Tenements skinned bare,
they burn with anxiety, death wishes,
frustrated hopes.

From a cracked and peeling courtyard window,
a Beach Boys' track
clashes against an old woman’s ears
as she carries a bagful of bruises home.
In this rundown, sunful flat,
I am tuned in to the B.B.C. World Service –
a cricket season just beginning
and East Berlin sizzling
in a panful of history.

Senefelderstrasse 19, crawling with flies.
On top of the wardrobe, some volumes of Lenin slump,
there is dust everywhere, dust.
And all we are saying in all the sweltering
is ‘Give me a piece of the Wall.’
just ‘Give me a piece of the Wall.’

Look down onto the street –
the cobbles still stare,
the cracks in the pavement leer.
And, like every day, Frau Flugge traipses gamely along,
trying hard not to trip,
shabbily overdressed and hanging on
to the shrapnel of her past affections,
to the snapshots of her dreams.

From corner bars,
the gossip
snatches from doorways at passers by.
Inside, it is dark
and the money changes hands
burning holes in the shabby pockets
of the dour Prenzlauer Berg folk:

‘The People are strong.’
‘They can’t sit more than 4 to a table here.’
‘THEY say it’s illegal.’
‘Let’s sing!’

Amongst the clenched blossom of Ernst Thallmann Park,
‘a Workers' Paradise’,
this glassy Planetarium gleams
under an ancient East German sky;
shining huge shell of a dome,
it traps stars and opens up planets:
it is far reaching, transcending walls.
It can stir the imaginings of all the world’s children.
It is the light at the end of Senefelderstrasse.
It beckons,

And Me?
I am walking in blistered hours,
sick of the sight of money
and what it does
to all the people I love.
‘A tip for your trip!
Instead of a brick from the Wall to take home,
bring back a Bertolt Brecht poem’:

‘And I always thought; the very simplest words
Must be enough. When I say what things are like,
Everyone’s heart must be torn to shreds.
That you’ll go down if you don’t stand up for yourself.
Surely you see that.’

Through the letterbox of Senefelderstrasse 19,
I push this poem.
And, for the last time, leave
through Checkpoint Charlie.
‘Goodbye Frau Flugge, Herr Brecht,
the trams.
My friends, I wish you
sunny days.’

Keith Armstrong
Berlin 1990
As published in 'Culture Mattters' 2016

'True Berlin poetry thanks.'  (Dured Freitag) 

photos by stan gamester




Oh, how soon
Beauty and form disappear.
You shine with your cheeks
Just like milk and purple shine.
Alas, the roses are withering.
(Wilhelm Hauff)

An aging, independent scholar disturbed my musings - a dessicated, lonely and embittered bachelor known as ‘Skullhead’. For years he has been living all alone. He injected his bitter mockery into the elegy I had just begun and walked around those paths with me for a whole hour, talking and grumbling. It was a strange thing to watch: he couldn't help making bitter and angry jokes, yet he needed so badly to talk about himself and be sociable that he thrust himself upon me in a manner I found almost moving.
(Hermann Hesse, letter from Tuebingen 2/10/1898)

I clocked him
a long and lonely Sunday,
falling out of the Boulanger
with the moon in his top pocket.
He’d had a schnapps too many
and it showed
on his slobbering tongue.
He was hanging round 
nooks and crannies,
last year’s stubble
on his crazed cranium.
He could have been Hermann Hesse
but he found himself 
in a rut,
got his heart broke too often,
got his bones frozen
too many times,
brittle as old crumbs.
But his eyes
with knowledge
and foreboding,
his wiseness
bothered people
in their aimlessness:
folk growing kids
to make themselves feel useful.
Skullhead knew different,
he knew that the Neckar
was full of piss,
that the trees on the Platanenallee
had brains
and feelings,
that the sky screamed
and churches were awash 
with shit.
Young girls and boys
basking by the Cafe Piccolo Sole d’Oro,
eyes playing
with sunlight,
when they saw him.
They might just end up like him,
brilliant and unloved,
stuck in a town called Tuebingen,
shoelaces trailing 
down Hafengasse,
branches creaking,
river murmuring,
footsteps in the memory,
fallen leaves.
and the dull thud 
of spiritless music
no God,
no hope.
Only Skullhead
to remind us
that we’re going nowhere
but the graveyard,
like Hoelderlin
without the poetry.



Try to understand me,
where I come from, where I’m going;
I’m drifting and I need you
to save my hopes from ruin.

You’ll need to know what splits me,
my need for roots and dreams;
it’s not the earth that hurts me,
it’s the tyrants and their schemes.

My father sailed the world before me,
to Rio and to Spain;
his father taught him shells and ships
and how to smile in pain.

Mother stayed at home and nursed,
came from a quiet place;
she ran the river and the green,
grew strong, with a gentle face.

I split my tongue in the early days,
shook off asthma as I grew,
fell into school and struggled out,
just clutching what I knew.

I was bred for something ‘better’,
for an office on fifth floor,
away from sea spray and stray sheep,
with my name upon the door.

My mother and my father
scraped and saved for me,
bruised each other in the process,
gave up smoking and the sea.

Try to understand me,
why I’ve come back to earth;
it’s because I need to know myself
and the landscape of my birth.




FRIENDS OF THE GRAVES (for the Birtley Belgians)


‘Never forget that you are a Birtley Belgian.’
(Ida ‘Anderland’ Dergent)

This is the story of the Birtley Belgians,
the shellers from hell,
the wandering men
and the women they wed.
You can say goodbye to your friends.

These are the remnants of Elisabethville,
the shattered relics of battered soldiers,
the shards of savagery,
the empty shells of discarded folk.

This is what’s left of the carnage,
the last of the war effort,
the smiles of the children
and the severed limbs.
This is the story of the Birtley Belgians.

From Flanders and Wallonia they came
leaving beloved roots behind
to do their bit for the ritual slaughter,
to bring up well their sons and daughters
to dance and sing
under the hails of bullets.

Fishing for sunshine in the Ijzer brook,
kicking stones on the Rue de Charleroi,
the Birtley Belgians
planted their seed on Durham ground
and made do
and made explosive dreams.
What more can we tell?
‘Home is made for coming from,
for dreams of going to
which with any luck
will never come true.’

Sweating in uniform
on assembly lines,
pulverising their brains
to keep the powers that be in power,
they were strong
and at the same time weak
and screamed and cried
like anyone.
This is the story of the Birtley Belgians.

They’re gone now,
blown to dust
in the festering fields,
memories strewn over the way
to fertilise another day
with the same weary mistakes
and thrusts of love.

I can see the boys in the Villa de Bruges
slaking their frustrated fantasies
to drown the horror
and the girls
seductive behind the huts
in between
the grind of daily production.

Let me take you
up the Boulevard Queen Mary,
along the Rue de Louvain,
knock on the door of number D2
and blood will pour
and the ground will open up,
‘mud will take you prisoner’
and devour all those years.
This is the story of the Birtley Belgians.

You can hear their singing on the North Sea wind,
hear them in Chester le Street and Liege,
the brass band and orchestra
drowning out the distant pounding.
In and out of trouble,
we will always dance.

An accordion wails across the little streets,
the Three Tuns welcomes the living.
And at the crack of dawn
and in the battlefields of evening clouds
we will remember them,
in the words of the Walloon poet Camille Fabry proclaim:
‘Our thoughts fly like arrows back to the land of our birth.’

This is the story of the loss of lives
for causes we scarcely understand
but for love and grandeur too
and for the little Belgian children
and the joyous games they play.
This is the story of the Birtley Belgians.


The Birtley Belgians emigrated from Belgium to Birtley, County Durham during World War 1 to build an armaments factory and lived in their own specially created village.  
Named after the Queen of the Belgians, Elisabethville itself became Little Belgium - a colony of 6,000 people, of boules and of boulevards.

It had its own hospital, cemetery, school, church, nunnery and Co-op; only Flemish and Walloon were spoken.

The Birtley factory was to the north of the town, British built but entirely Belgian run. By 1916 it gave work to 3,500 men, 85 per cent disabled in some way, with 2,500 family members also housed in the adjacent iron fenced village. 

The poem was commissioned by the Birtley Belgians Euro-Network in 2015 in association with Borsolino and Berline Belgian Drama Groups.

What a good job you've made of it!  Like you, I find these nooks and crannies of the 20th century totally fascinating. (John Mapplebeck, Bewick Films).

the jingling geordie

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whitley bay, tyne and wear, United Kingdom
poet and raconteur