Sweet Little Mystery: The Essential John Martyn

‘SOME OF THE happiest moments of my playing life were on stage with John… He was unique and he had a big heart. He was one of a kind.’ That was friend, occasional producer, and fan, Phil Collins, remembering John Martyn who died in 2009.

For 40 years John Martyn carved a distinctive, solitary furrow across the landscape of the UK music scene – but his was a voice and a style that you could never pin down. Signed to Island Records in 1967, while still a teenager, John Martyn was quickly type cast as a folkie – well, he did play acoustic guitar! But over the years Martyn developed into someone who could effortlessly embrace blues, jazz, soul, reggae, electronica – and even hip-hop!

Sweet Little Mystery: The Essential John MartynBack at the beginning – alongside label mates Nick Drake, Fairport Convention, Richard Thompson and the Incredible String Band – John helped prove just how far ‘folk’ music could go. In 1970, John and his then wife Beverley released Stormbringer!, which they had recorded in Woodstock with members of The Band. By then Martyn’s mastery of the acoustic guitar was sublimely assured, and his name was frequently mentioned in the same hallowed breath as guitar legends like Bert Jansch and John Renbourn. Listen here to John’s acoustic fluency on ‘Goin’ Down To Memphis’, from his second album, The Tumbler. But it was hearing and developing electric music that drove Martyn to new heights and new territories – and by the early 1970s he was incorporating an echoplex and all manner of electronic devices into his live performances and recordings. In concert, John Martyn could be both breathtaking and audacious, but he never quite reached the wider audience he merited. Despite heavyweight commendations, and touring America – where he opened for stadium acts like Yes, Traffic and Free, John Martyn remained a cult figure – though a much loved one. (On hearing of his death, Danny Baker devoted his entire two hour BBC radio show to the music of John Martyn).

For all his meandering sidetracks and diversions, folk music drew John Martyn back again and again; there was something compelling about that timeless tradition of songs, passed down from generation to generation – sung, spoken, overheard – which he found endlessly fascinating. Included here, as an example of that passion, is ‘Spencer The Rover’ which Martyn originally recorded for his 1975 album Sunday’s Child. Also among the songs on this new collection is one that became an instrumental highlight of his live shows. ‘Glistening Glyndebourne’ was written about the opera festival – a longstanding feature of the Social Season – which took place each year near Martyn’s Sussex home. ‘Hundreds of people in evening jackets and dinner gowns,’ Martyn remembered. ‘It was so formal, and I think music should be informal. So I wanted something very loose that could change every time I played it.’

‘Couldn’t Love You More’ (from 1977’s OneWorld) was another song Martyn returned to again and again on stage – a ragged, blistering, heartfelt moment, displaying Martyn at his most vulnerable; while ‘Johnny Too Bad’ displays to great effect Martyn’s fondness for the rhythms of reggae…

Over the years, John Martyn found fans and friends in all the right places. ‘May You Never’ (probably his best-known song, and the one that opens this collection) was covered by Eric Clapton on his 1977 album, Slowhand; Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry recorded him in Jamaica; Al Stewart produced his second album; while Steve Winwood, Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones, Free’s Paul Kossoff and Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour all regularly joined him on stage. In the days following John’s death, the testimonies were clearly heartfelt: Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records (‘I just really rated him’); The Cure’s Robert Smith (‘John Martyn was a genius, his voice and guitar playing were totally unique’); Ralph McTell (‘He was one of those artists who could articulate what we suspect is this darkness we feel in ourselves.’)

In time, a whole new generation – including Paul Weller, Beth Orton and Sister Bliss from Faithless – became converts to Martyn’s music; and in 1999, his 1973 album Solid Air was voted one of the best Chill-Out albums of all time. Although his final years were dogged by ill health, in 2008 John Martyn was awarded a Lifetime Achievement award at the Radio 2 Folk Awards, and that same year he was made an OBE. And now, the full breadth of his musical legacy is being celebrated with a definitive 300 track/18 CD John Martyn box-set entitled The Island Years, which will stand as a fitting testament to his lifetime’s work.

The final track on this collection, ‘Small Hours’ is taken from a 1978 session for John Peel (another Martyn fan). The eerie, spectral original appeared on John’s One World album, and was one of his own favourites. But the last word should go to Chris Blackwell, who signed John Martyn as one of the first acts on his Island label, way back in the 1960s. Blackwell, who was also the producer of OneWorld, recalled the song being ‘recorded on a little farm, not far from Reading, surrounded by a lake… It was lovely, it just floats… We recorded it in the middle of the night and the whole experience was pure magic… He felt he’d captured this fleeting magic.’ And, to me, that seems as good a way as any to describe the delicate, haunting music of John Martyn: ‘fleeting magic…’

Patrick Humphries