The Island Years

The Island Years

To whom do you recommend, with a straight face, an 18-disc box set? “Everyone”. Okay, thanks, that was easy.

Seriously, though, the truly-beyond-brilliant Mr lain McGeachy has historically gotten the short end of the stick when people speak of the British Folk Boom of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Nick Drake casts a very long shadow, and not just because of his imposing height. Martyn, were he here, would suggest that that is fair and just. I say no. I idolise Drake, yet I cannot think of him without thinking of John Martyn, and vice versa, even though their individual styles were very different.

The Island Years Box SetFirst, there’s that voice. It travels from sonorous troubadour to impossibly thick, virtually indecipherable drawl in a couple of seconds. At the end of the journey it sounds so heartbreakingly ravaged that you just want it to stop; and then, suddenly, it soars joyfully up into the air and you’re left wondering how one human being can possibly make such a sound. Then, there’s the guitar playing. Equally versed in virtuoso finger-picked folk tradition and oddly dissonant, deconstructed jazz voicings. And, as if that wasn’t enough, he then uses a brace of electronic foot-pedals to literally invent a new language for the acoustic guitar. Virtually all ground breaking guitarists these days have been touched in one way or another by John Martyrs, whether they know it or not.

He effortlessly fused folk, jazz, blues, and singer-songwriter styles – like Bert Jansch and Pentangle – but was quite different. He spent most of his career on Island Records and this set contains every note he ever recorded for the label, and then some. It includes, much like Neil Young’s Archive, a couple of complete live albums that were never issued. The dozens of alternate takes and BBC performances are all worth hearing and owning. Another very nice thing: the beautiful booklet and long essay do not conveniently ignore Martyn’s non-Island work, even though the tracks are of course not included here. The essay includes a critical description of each album, in order, even during The Phil Collins Years. Hats off for that.

The 18th disc – yes, ha, the 18th disc – is a DVD consisting of a compendium of live video from BBC and other sources, recorded between 1973 and ’86, and features 30, count ’em, 30, songs.

Well, if you’ve never heard John Martyn, you probably want to knock on a friend’s door and listen to Solid Air, Bless The Weather or Sunday’s Child before you take a chance on this. Preferably in a darkened room made of rough-hewn wood, in front of a roaring fire. There’s a fair chance you’ll be asleep before the music’s over – and, while that would normally be a rather insulting thing to say, in this case it’s a compliment to the chef.

Mike Fornatale
Shindig Magazine
1 November 2013