In Session

Although he had originally begun his career as one of a wave of new British, mostly Scottish, folk singers in the late ’60s, John Martyn was quick to test the boundaries of his chosen genre. A period spent working in Woodstock with such as The Band’s drummer Levon Helm opened the young folkie’s ears to the possibilities of folk-rock, and an interest in the work of John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders led him towards introducing jazz elements into his own work.

By 1973, when the first of this compilation’s sessions was being recorded for Whispering Bob Harris’s radio show, Martyn had crystallised all these influences into what has become instantly recognisable as the John Martyn ‘sound’. With his acoustic guitar routed through an Echoplex delay, Martyn’s nimble fingerpicking set up hypnotic waves of rhythm -effectively his own equivalent of the ‘thump’n’pluck’ bass style of The Family Stone’s Larry Graham- over which he was able to trail curling wah-wah lead guitar lines. “I was still very ambitious, and I didn’t want to go the traditional way,” he explained to me recently. “I couldn’t afford a band, so I had to find a way of making it more interesting on my own. At that point, it didn’t sound like anyone else; and people have been doing it ever since, really. Having been stuck in front of the telly for a year with the leg business (Martyn had a leg amputated in 2004), I’ve noticed the number of tracks that use that technique, in between the adverts.”

The Bob Harris session captures Martyn midway between the two albums he released that year, Solid Air and Inside Out. Devil Get My Woman is basically a retitled version of the former’s I’d Rather Be The Devil, the breakthrough piece on which his distinctive style reached its first fruition, with glistening guitar lines floating up and dispersing, like mist in sunlight, through the expansive middle section, before the hypnotic rhythms piled back in for the conclusion. Built on much the same rhythmic motif, Inside is an early version of the following album’s Outside In, with Martyn essaying a heavily reverbed, drawn out vocal reminiscent of Tim Buckley’s Star Sailor, over a shimmering sheen of thrumming guitar. Exhibiting peerless technique, he manages to keep the lead lines teetering on the edge of feedback without ever suggesting he has surrendered control.

Those two albums would furnish Martyn not just with a sound, but also with a clutch of wonderful songs to which he could return again and again over subsequent decades. Chief among these is the lovely May You Never, which has as great a claim to being his signature song as anything in his repertoire. It’s featured here in two versions, the first for Bob Harris in 1973, the second for a John Peel session four years later, by which time Martyn must have been one of the few hippy era artists not swept aside in Peel’s enthusiasm for all things punk. Certainly, with its affectionate, solicitous tone, ‘May you never lay your head down without a hand to hold/ May you never make your bed out in the cold’,  the song was by then running well against the grain of the angrier, more cynical attitudes becoming prevalent in rock. But listening to it today, three decades on, it’s undeniable how successfully its appeal has sustained. From the same solo session, Over The Hill revisits another Solid Air standard in ebullient, perky manner, Martyn cheerfully acknowledging his itch to wander, over a simple but springy fingerstyle guitar figure.

Martyn’s second 1973 session for Bob Harris drew largely on material from Inside Out, and featured typically brilliant double bass work from his long time friend, drinking buddy and collaborator Danny Thompson. Like many a magical musical alliance, theirs was built on instinct and fellowship rather than any stated musical aims. “I certainly dragged the best out of Danny, and he got the best out of me,” reckons Martyn. “He was so far ahead of me, because he had a classical background. He knew what key we were in! I still don’t know what key I’m in. Honestly! I have to look at the top string and count up the frets! But he seemed to be freer when he played with me than when he played with other people, of which I’m rather proud. But we never talked about it, we never mentioned music, really.” Thompson’s loping bassline anchors the jaunty spring of Fine Lines, and his bowed bass parts lend a burring depth and gravity to both Martyn’s exploratory arpeggiations on Beverley and his hot wire lead lines on the solemn, fuzz guitar rendering of the traditional Celtic air Eibhli Ghail Chiuin Ni Chearbhail.

They may not have discussed music much, but the chums’ shared interests are evident in the subject matter of some of the songs in this session. ‘Do you know how it feels to be dead drunk on the floor/ To get up and ask for more?’ enquires Martyn in Make No Mistake, later maintaining, in Fine Lines, ‘Take it from me, there’s no disgrace in having yourself a time’. It was probably no coincidence, either, that Martyn’s singing style had by now virtually deconstructed itself into a slurred mumble which, at its best, had an oozing, sensuous quality quite unlike any other vocalist in rock, folk or jazz. It was as if his diction had collapsed inwards, into a treacly, slurred croon that went way beyond mere drunken drooling, dissolving at times into a wordless, disembodied moan. Lines would elide languorously into one another, as Martyn imposed his own sense of time on a song, in the manner of the great extemporising bluesmen like Lightnin’ Hopkins and John Lee Hooker, his murmured ululations sometimes little more than hints and gestures towards lyrical meaning.

“That was actually conscious,” claims Martyn of his slurred vocal style. “I decided to get as different as I could, and I got pretty comfortable with it. It’s important to be comfortable in what you do, I’d get criticism from managers and A&R men, they’d say I was slurring too much, they’d prefer it straight, with all the vocals carefully enunciated, and four here, four there, and so on. But I liked fucking it about, and I think it loses its spirit if I don’t. As long as you make the major changes, and people can follow the tune, that’s all right.”

It certainly seemed to work for Martyn, whose gentle, sensuous music became the preferred boudoir soundtrack of many a long-haired lover in the ’70s. By 1975, when he recorded a session for John Peel, he had built a formidable reputation as a mainstay of the college circuit, and had graduated effortlessly from club gigs to concert halls. The Peel session was comprised entirely of material from that year’s Sunday’s Child album, which represented a slight return to a more straightforward, song based approach after the open ended experimentation of Solid Air and Inside Out. Martyn’s folk roots were evident in the understated version of the traditional love tragedy Spencer The Rover, and his integration of another Celtic air into the refrain of The Message, whilst his romantic leanings were well served by Discover The Lover (‘Darling, you can discover the lover in me, and I can discover the lover in you’), the ambiguous My Baby Girl, and One Day (Without You), where the briefest separation has quickly unmanned him: ‘One day without you, and I feel just like I am somebody else’.

Two years later, Martyn’s next Peel session revisited One Day (Without You), this time preceded by sardonic, self deprecating growls of ‘Hey! Boogie!’. Unlike the previous session, this one doesn’t showcase his latest album, offering instead a few old favourites like May You Never and Over The Hill alongside a sole, albeit sublime, duet of Certain Surprise/ Couldn’t Love You More from One World. Compensation would come the following year when Martyn’s January 1978 Peel session was entirely devoted to a single 8 1/2 minute long version of that album’s Small Hours. Built on a simple drum machine pulse, its shimmering curtain of glinting guitar tones establishes a peaceful sunset ambience, before his lead lines scrawl eerily across the reverberant textures in the opened-out central section. It makes the perfect conclusion to a compilation which captures John Martyn at the height of his ’70s powers, a time when he was always striving to push back the artificial boundaries that separated genres, when each version of a song was likely to sprout in fascinating new directions.

Andy Gill
London
July 2006