Johnny Boy Would Love This
Well, okay then, he very probably would have loved this…I am not sure about the wisdom of calling a tribute album to John Martyn, Johnny Boy Would Love This, but fair enough, maybe he would. Or maybe he would have liked some, maybe not others. Or maybe he would have raved about it and shouted it from the rooftops. Anyway, the discussion is academic, because what the late musical genius who died in January 2009, at the age of 60 would make of it is, when it comes down to it, immaterial. No offence, guv.
In short, for anyone who recognises striking and bold contemporary music when it jumps up at them, this is a rich find indeed. It is in essence a carefully constructed labour of love, conducted under the stewardship of a genial American named Jim Snowden who knew John personally.
Come to think of it, Jim may well have tried to get this very project going when the man was alive. Richard Thompson, to take someone from a similar field of endeavour, had such a tribute album released years ago, called Beat the Retreat. It might have been nice if this record had been made when we could have actually discovered what John might have thought of other people’s versions.
On the other hand, he certainly got to hear three or four at least, Phil Collins’ vigorous take on Tearing and Breaking, of which more anon, Ultan Conlon’s Back to Stay, and Cheryl Wilson’s interpretation of You Can Discover. In fact, he definitely heard the latter version of his own song because that is the man himself playing guitar on it, once again, not long before his death, I’d guess. Oh, and that’s him too saying “my fault entirely” at the beginning of the track, as he fluffs the intro chordal sequence, even John Martyn’s fluffs were interesting. He mumbles some mild approval too when Cheryl, who has a wonderful voice, has stopped singing.
It’s entirely possible too that he heard Jim Tullio singing Road to Ruin, and damn good it is too, as rendered here, earthy and organic. Jim, a Chicago-based producer and arranger frequently worked with John Martyn. Gary Pollitt and Tullio, in fact, were the two men who supervised the delicate business of completing Martyn’s posthumous and very fine record, Heaven and Earth, which also appeared in recent months from Hole in the Rain records.
Somehow you feel the apprentice’s love for the master which all the artists concerned have for Martyn’s lengthy 40-year catalogue of glorious songs. These artists’ valiant, sure-footed and mostly successful efforts to rise with musical elegance and grace to the challenges concerned is profoundly touching. Here you have assembled not just great singers, but incredible musicianship.
The Cure’s Robert Smith adeptly handles one of the most difficult-to-get-right pieces on the record, Small Hours. Although, Smith’s version is busier and more complex than Martyn’s, it takes the necessary risk and finds a new brightness, a new effulgence, a new power in the song. Smith first heard Small Hours on The John Peel Show in 1977 and One World, the album from which it is taken, happens to be his favourite.
I felt beforehand, when I had heard one or two tracks in advance, that Judie Tzuke’s version of the lovelorn, love torn ballad that is Hurt in Your Heart would be the best thing on this double CD record. It’s all subjective of course, but this will probably in fact be the case for many fans.
Now a mature woman in her mid fifties, Judie was the shy young girl who had a hit with Stay With Me Till Dawn back in 1979. The singer brings a touching vulnerability to one of Martyn’s best songs. She makes the song almost entirely her own talk about a perfect fit.
But others will incline more to the husky, ghostly take on Couldn’t Love You More from Lisa Hannigan, accompanying herself solely on the zither. This is a spine-tingling and definite highlight, just give it a listen. Beck, a long time Martyn fan, brings definite added value and a lithe beauty to the song, Stormbringer!
Although in fact an original Martyn song, Phil Collins’ version of Tearing and Breaking already featured as an extra track on a Collins love songs compilation, released some years ago by EMI. I wonder if the version was now issued as a single would Collins have the hit he truly deserves with it? Martyn’s own version finally appeared on the recently-released posthumous Martyn album, Heaven and Earth, with curiously, Collins himself on backing vocals. Fair play, Phil.
On the other hand, it is truly invigorating to hear a lesser known act like The Blackships (featuring David McKellar) address a similarly lesser known song like Rope Soul’d. Soft, swaying and mantra like, Rope Soul’d was a subtle sketch, almost an afterthought on the album 1984 album Sapphire. In some 20 Martyn performances witnessed by this writer, I never once heard him perform Rope Soul’d, which is in fact one of his most interesting creations. The Blackships fill out that sketch of the song with admirable vitality, taking it into trippy, mild electronica. Vashti Bunyan’s rendering of Head and Heart makes it into something sacred – what Enya could really be like maybe if she tried harder. Or perhaps tried less.
Morcheeba (featuring Bradley Burgess) tamper little with the very early song Run, Honey, Run and skilfully flesh out its acoustic properties, without making it into something blandly rockist. Similarly, the band Oh My God stick close to the power horse that is John Wayne, but bring freshness too, as does Brendan Campbell on Anna. Walk to the Water enjoys an Afro Caribbean makeover from the recently deceased Syd Kitchen. The interpretation is delightful, showing real imagination on the producer’s part.
Snow Patrol bring something smart to May You Never, but it palls a little, it’s hard to be definitive, though, in judgment on this, as by the time John had passed on, many of us had heard that song perhaps too often for its appeal to be easily discerned. But when you hear it for the first time, that’s an entirely different story.
Swell Season (Glen Hansard and Marketa Inglova) do a highly creditable version of I Dont Want to Know. In a way though, like May you Never, it is one of the short straws. Being asked to sing this one is like being told you’re the one who has to do Voodoo Chile on a Hendrix tribute album, better that Woodstock version, now my son. Ditto for Paolo Nutini and One World and Skye Edwards, formerly of Morcheeba, and her singing of Solid Air. Clarence Fountain from the Blind Boys of Alabama (along with Sam Butler) disappoints a little with Glorious Fool. It should be said that the latter was often the strongest number in a latter day Martyn and band set. Very hard to better, in fact. More of the layered vocals that characterised The Blind Boys sound might have helped though.
Beth Orton, on the other hand does a richer version of Go Down Easy than John himself did when he rearranged it, unwisely I would argue, for his 2004 album On the Cobbles. David Gray’s version of Let the Good Things Come is perfectly fine, but somehow I can hear James Taylor doing it perhaps with equal empathy.
On the other hand, you get some of that vital black vocalising and layered vocals I referred to earlier on the vibrant Dancing, performed here by Sonia Dada. This is a new name to me, amongst a host of new names. Irish musician Ultan Conlon’s version of Back to Stay, the best song on John’s first album, London Conversation (released in 1968) is so touching it may summon your tears. John, I know would definitely love this one, no contest.
In accompanying notes, Jim Snowden suggests that he could easily have made two more discs of new Martyn versions. He hasn’t gathered cover versions done over the years, executed in other contexts, but they were of variable quality anyway. In my time, I have often fantasised about singers doing Martyn. I particularly want to hear Van Morrison’s take on Lookin’ On, if it could be arranged, Jim. Or the aforementioned Phil Collins having a go at Hold on My Heart, Massive Attack retreading Amsterdam, wow, could be incredible, Steve Winwood having a crack at Sweet Little Mystery, Beth Gibbons doing So Much in Love With You, say. Or if not one of the great black singers from this record doing Our Love from the Grace and Danger album.
The final package of this Martyn treasure trove will also include a 40 page booklet, a DVD featuring interviews with some of the artists concerned, performance videos, and even some rare John Martyn performances. All proceeds from the sale of the record will go to Martyn’s family and the record will be released on August 12. You can pre-order on iTunes from July 16.
RTE Ten website
5 July 2011