Born in Glasgow in 1948, John Martyn has now ploughed a determinedly individualistic path as a constantly evolving artist for over forty years. As a teenager he began playing on the local folk scene, strongly influenced by the traditional singer Hamish Imlach, but also by great bluesmen like Robert Johnson and Skip James, already forging his own style with laidback vocals complementing his precocious mastery of the guitar.
He moved to London in 1967 and quickly became a regular at Les Cousins, the venue which also nurtured the careers of contemporaries like Bert Jansch, Ralph McTell and Al Stewart. Spotted by Island Records boss Chris Blackwell there, he became the fledgling, reggae based label’s first white act and released two albums in the next year, London Conversation and The Tumbler, the latter adventurously featuring the jazz flautist Harold McNair. In 1969 he attended the Woodstock festival with his new wife, the singer Beverley Kutner, and they worked together there on a new album, Stormbringer, along with the Band’s Levon Helm. Back in London they made The Road To Ruin, significantly beginning a long relationship with Pentangle bassist Danny Thompson, as Martyn’s own style was developing particularly through the use of what became his trade mark echoplex, which allowed him to incorporate atmospheric tape loops into his sound.
This collection opens with a version of the title track of his 1971 album Bless The Weather, now without Kutner but again with Danny Thompson and also the unrelated Richard Thompson. By now a highly respected performer both on the UK college circuit and also abroad, he supported Traffic and Free in San Francisco for instance, 1973 saw the release of Solid Air, with a rhythm section of Fairport Convention’s Dave Pegg and Dave Mattacks. The title track was written for close friend Nick Drake and May You Never was later covered by Eric Clapton, while the same year’s follow up Inside Out featured Traffic’s Steve Winwood and Chris Wood. This ‘echoplex heavy’ album was experimental in form, often veering towards jazz and highlighted by compositions such as Outside In and the hypnotic Make No Mistake, both included here. After the more mellow and accessible Sunday’s Child in 1975 Martyn took a break, exhausted by touring and dogged by the alcoholism which produced unpredictable performances alternating between the shambolic and the inspired. He travelled to Jamaica, where he worked with the eccentric master of dub Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, became naturally fascinated by new sonic possibilities, and incorporated elements of these spaced out sounds into 1977’s mesmerising One World. Produced by Chris Blackwell, with Steve Winwood contributing prominently, it included the first four songs which open CD2 here, with the electric Perry inspired Big Muff contrasting with the meditative Couldn’t Love You More. Although Martyn was never to achieve the commercial success his many admirers felt he deserved, this album sold very respectably.
1980’s Grace And Danger was a harrowing chronicle of the breakup of his marriage, recorded with the help of friend Phil Collins and containing some of his most intensely dark song writing. It may also have been somewhat cathartic, as his next two albums did achieve a degree of wider recognition in the album charts with a more upbeat, rock influenced feel on 1981’s Glorious Fool produced by Collins and the following year’s Well Kept Secret featuring Pete Wingfield. 1986 found Martyn newly remarried and releasing the celebratory Piece By Piece, including our selection, the delicate love song Angeline which was the first ever CD single. Personal demons returned however and Island dropped him after a second contract in 1988, before he reappeared two years later on Permanent Records, producing himself and recruiting talented saxophonist Andy Sheppard for The Apprentice. Martyn performs the title track here, as he does on the follow up Cooltide and that jazz influenced album’s chosen single Jack The Lad. The early ’90s were spent touring, becoming a regular at London’s annual Fleadh festival of Celtic based music, and releasing live material and new versions of concert staples, with one such album featuring an all-star line-up with Phil Collins, Levon Helm and Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour. 1996’s critically acclaimed And entered the charts at No.23 and included Carmine, the closing track on CD1, and his restless eclecticism led him to cover work by such diverse artists as Portishead, Billie Holiday and the Reverend Gary Davis on 1998’s The Church With One Bell.
This mercurial figure has continued to tour and record, now with one leg amputated, but still accorded enormous respect as testified by the presence of Paul Weller and Mavis Staples on 2004’s On The Cobbles.