John Martyn In Vision 1973-81

John Martyn started his career as a highly accomplished young folkie on the Glasgow circuit. Elements of this background can be seen in his own sophisticated and somewhat wistful love songs May You Never and One Day Without You while John admits he discovered the haunting Spencer the Rover thanks to colleague Barry Dransfield. On his earlier albums, too, Martyn often used Dransfield, Richard Thompson, and other luminaries from the electric folk rock circuit.

In retrospect it is clear that the folk cloak hung rather uneasily on Martyn’s shoulders: there were further treasures to be unearthed. He found them in late 1971 with the release of Bless the Weather, the title track is included in this set, and enriched the trove in 1973 with the classic album Solid Air. Messing about with tape echo units and an acoustic guitar one day, Martyn discovered the possibilities of building up endless layers of deep watery sound, and immediately latched on to its potential. The first cut on this video, the Skip James song I’d Rather Be The Devil, originally released on Solid Air, is a matchless example of this intriguing technique: an impeccable combination of outrageous sound and video overlays.

By 1973 John Martyn had earned his laurels. Concert audiences were stunned by the way he filled theatres with gallons of sound with just his acoustic guitar, a motley collection of foot pedals and a tape echo unit, all self operated. But while Solid Air consolidated his reputation, his next album Inside Out was deliberately left field, heavily jazz influenced, and perhaps, as John himself now feels, a bit overstretched. Nonetheless, the title track is a bouncy springboard for some fine improvisation, and Make no Mistake is included too, for good measure. Dating also from 1973 is the Scottish air Eibhli Ghail Chiuin ni Chearbhaill (utterly unpronounceable unless you have a combined degree in Gaelic and Calculus), but arranged in its 1981 version for additional keyboards and military like drum.

The critically acclaimed One World, which is arguably the ace in the John Martyn pack, was released in late 1977: Certain Surprise, Dealer with John playing like a hyped-up gypsy, and Couldn’t Love You More evolve from here, as does the astonishing Small Hours, its highly evocative simple chords echoing endlessly into the blue beyond. The alternative, more soulful version of Couldn’t Love You More was reworked by John four years later, and the comparison is a fascinating one.

The final tracks on this tape reflect John’s recent work, with most songs taken from the album Grace and Danger. The sharp eye will immediately spot Phil Collins on drums and backup vocals on Sweet Little Mystery, and the perfect match of voices is admirably demonstrated by the closing unaccompanied duet on this number. Collins has since produced John’s more recent album Glorious Fool. Martyn’s strong interest in Jamaican music is reflected in the heavy reggae rhythms of Johnny Too Bad.

Watching John Martyn is both bewildering and enchanting. From his pre-Raphaelite fallen angel looks of 1973 to the more mellowed, self composed performer of 1981, the emotional intensity of his work is captivating. He plays his often highly personal songs with eyes closed, body gently rocking, all soul and spirit. He’s also a natty dresser: note the parade of three piece suits which John has always worn on stage since he met the now dead flautist, Harold McNair, on his second album The Tumbler. He is mesmeric with an audience, constantly joking with them and refusing to take himself too seriously: note the raised eyebrow at the end of the first version of Couldn’t Love You More.

John Martyn is, in short, astonishing. He recalls his earliest musical memory being his mother playing Debussy’s La Cathedrale Engloutie: the submerged cathedral. In an interview once I put it to him that his music sounds as if you are hearing it at the bottom of the ocean, waves of thick sound swirling above your head. “Yes,” he said, “it sounds like that to me too.” Then, with a characteristic Martyn grin, “So who’s your psychiatrist?!”

Mike Sparrow