Well Kept Secret

John Martyn; Well Kept Secret
‘ELLO JOHN, GOT A NEW ALBUM?

I live with the constant nagging worry that my house will soon burn down.

Everytime I shut the front door I’m convinced that I shall return to find nothing but a smoking charcoal frame between numbers 88 and 90 with the front door standing free and theatrical. Oblivious at first, I thrust the key into my “thief-proof” mortice lock whereupon the door fails backwards with a sad groan leaving me staring blankly through the smoke clear into Rotherhithe New Road. Out comes a neighbour who says, “Here’s your milk, we took it in. Your sister called round. We salvaged these three LPs. ”

Now for a moment let us forget the ludicrousness of the foregoing statements. (My sister never calls round without phoning first.) What three LPs would I wish to see? And let’s confine ourselves to rock. First off and without doubt there’s Earth Wind & Fire’s I Am – then again I always keep around 60 copies of this in the house so the law of averages says one of them must’ve survived. Then I think, there’s A Wizard A True Star by Todd Rundgren.
The third one, he said just about to link up the review, would be a John Martyn record. Solid Air or Inside Out.

John Martyn records are the type that get thrown on just before you take your shoes off immediately after the statement “I’ve had a poxy day”. For anyone that’s bought them over the years they become warm and familiar. They fit. The LPs have a heart and integrity that offer revitalising strength rather than a bland pipe-and-slippers reassurance. As soon as Martyn’s unique voice slurs in, well… well I nearly said “It’s that Condor moment” but that’s not what I mean. It’s just, that writing about records has become a duty to me over the last couple of years, however much I’ve gone barmy over this or renounced the whole of that, John Martyn records have never been part of it. They belong to that odd division of music that I play off duty, for real. They don’t count as records in the wretched dog-eat-dog chase of rock writing. They’re home base, and while not some precious sacred cow, certainly beyond style.

The last few records have seen Martyn coasting. The sound that was once picked, open and atmospheric is now more obvious and complete. Was a time when you’d start a John Martyn track with absolutely no idea how it would turn out. (John Martyn himself appeared to be in an identical position most of the time.) Now you don’t have to listen half so attentively, the Fender Rhodes gives the song away completely after a few bars.

The songs are warm and intelligent nonetheless, still John Martyn, and a majority of Well Kept Secret is pacier and, well, louder than he’s ever been on one album before. But it’s still the slower tracks that sucker me in. Could’ve Been Me and Hung Up hold the most for me and even though all of side two is filled with busy punching good records, the cosy old sentimentalist in me would’ve traded it all for a few cooing throbs from Danny Thompson’s upright bass of old. But let the man breathe Dan I say to myself.

It’s a good record, a class record, by an artist I’ve always wanted to write about… but now feel like it’s probably pointless – too much like work. And another thing. In 1975 when they relea… hang on… do you smell burning?

Danny Baker
New Musical Express
4 September 1982