The Island Years

Fracking Cults

An 18-disc-high monument to a unique artist. Could you love him £160 more? Asks Mat Snow.

John Martyn is an artist who fully deserves a monument. This box set looks like a monument. It weighs in at a monumental 17 CDs plus a very long live DVD. And it carries a monumental price tag to match, around £160.

So how could a box containing so many hours of beautiful, moving music still amount to a bodge?

Seldom has there been a more musically benign relationship between label and artist than Island and John Martyn, who it signed as their first white artist in 1967. For years John was enabled to record what he wanted, and in return for nurturing genius Island were provided with a sequence of acclaimed albums which have sold solidly for decades, adding lustre to its reputation as the artist’s label par excellence.

But with founder Chris Blackwell’s disengagement from the label, now owned by Universal, Island is in the business of fracking its cult artist catalogue to mine deep into the pockets of diehard fans. By my calculation, any fan committed enough to purchase this box will already own seven full-length CDs’ worth of its material.

Nor is that all. The Island Years supersedes neither the existing Deluxe and other bonus-tracked re-releases of the classic albums nor 2008’s Ain’t No Saint 4-CD box. We are treated to a whole new bunch of alternate takes and live performances on top of those we already own, which, of course, are on top of the original album tracks re-released here. One suspects there is even more unheard material in the vaults awaiting release in Super deluxe editions of those original albums after a decent interval. On top of everything else, John Martyn fans will need to put up a new shelf.

It doesn’t have to be this way. John Martyn’s early idol Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Series of deep cuts from the vault runs without overlaps in parallel with the remastered re-releases of the original classics, and — save for the grotesque, punitive and insultingly exploitative pricing of the Deluxe as distinct from the standard edition — is a model of how to respect both the artist and the fans.

Back to The Island Years: what’s new for your money?

First, those alternate takes. How many studio takes of the One World song Couldn’t Love You More do you need? For a song as intensely beautiful as that, how many have you got? Adding two more to the one you already own plus the live account found on the 2004 Deluxe re-release, we now have four versions, which I guarantee fans will listen to with rapt fascination rather than merely gloat over in the miserly satisfaction of a completist’s job well done.

If the downside of a classic album is that over familiarity can dull appreciation through repetition, an outtake with even the tiniest differences to the version you know, love, and no longer really listen to, can defamiliarise the song and make you hear it afresh, almost as if new born.

With John Martyn’s new songs usually road-tested before hitting the studio, there is seldom a radical difference between one take and another, the “sweet cocaine” of the canonical version of Over The Hill rather than the rejected “dry champagne” being one notable exception. Another is an alternate take of an outtake of a song which never made the final cut of 1977’s One World: familiar from the Deluxe edition at six minutes, Black Man At The Shoulder looms within this box as an unearthed monument in its own right, 17 minutes of mesmerising, mind-blowing, dub-trip bliss that rivals the 19-minute live Outside In, with bassist Danny Thompson and drummer John Stevens, restored from the original 1975 Live At Leeds album, as John Martyn’s psychedelic masterpiece, his Dark Star.

The Island Years - John Martyn Box SetWhat made John so personally self-destructive is what also made him such a great artist: he was never less than full-on. Lack of commitment in his performance is never the reason a take wouldn’t make the cut. Couldn’t Love You More’s two studio outtakes here are among many rejects perhaps decided on the toss of a coin. There are scores more here that re-impress upon you the essence of John Martyn’s artistry: an intensity of emotional expression possessed by only the greats, whether Lennon or Hendrix, Otis or Nina.

So is The Island Years a whole-career survey? No. From his fledgling years as a highly proficient Rainbow-Chasing Sid Rumpo, through the patchily excellent albums recorded with his wife Beverley, to his talent’s full flowering from 1971’s Bless The Weather and 1980’s ‘divorce’ album Grace And Danger, the sequence of greatness is unbroken. And if 1975’s Sunday’s Child is clearly less great than 1973’s Solid Air, that is only because he was easing off rather than had mislaid his mojo.

From 1981 Martyn recorded for other labels, but the three studio albums he made upon his return to Island exemplify the common syndrome of a baby-boom artist losing his way in the yuppie era of digital recording and emollient, synth-rich, jazz-rock-lite. Of the three-hour-25-mins live DVD, the half that documents performances for BBC TV up to 1981 is riveting; in the 1986 show which comprises the second half, John Martyn the singer never lets us down, but his new songs seldom reach the heights, and the band lacks soul.

Had The Island Years ended in 1981, it would have gained vastly in consistent pleasure and lost little of value in a project which, for want of material licensed from other labels, falls far short of completeness anyway. However, if one can bear the canonical duplicates, the seldom played discs, and, above all, the cost, this is a box no John Martyn fan can do without.

• Black Man At Your Shoulder (Alternate take 2)
• Couldn’t Love You More (Alternate take)
• Couldn’t Love You More (Alternate take 2)
• Outside In (Live At Leeds)

BACK STORY: Grace And Danger
Phil Collins: “I received a call from producer Martin Levan asking me to come to a studio in Holborn where John Martyn was about to start a new album. Though One World was already a favourite I hadn’t met him yet. I arrived at the studio to find my BrandX partner John Giblin on bass, and the late, great Tommy Eyre on keyboards. John and I were both going through painful divorces and had every reason to bond. He’d come to stay at my house near Guildford and we’d drink, make tearful phone calls, get hung up on, drink some more… The Grace And Danger line up also went on tour, playing colleges, clubs, even The Old Grey Whistle Test. A fantastic band, and some of the happiest moments of my playing life.”

Mat Snow
1 November 2013