Late Night John
Although nominally a ‘folk’ artist, to pigeonhole John Martyn is virtually impossible; echoes of rock, pop, jazz, reggae, soul, even chamber music, course through his predominantly acoustic songs. Martyn is one of the sweetest voices in British music; in turn sugar sweet and gravel rough, his phrasing and style at times dissolves into transcendent rapture. He is one of the UK’s most innovative acoustic and electric guitar players and most affecting lyricists. His brace of albums from 1971 to 1979 can all, without hyperbole, be deemed masterpieces. Whereas his friend, Nick Drake, who died in 1974, has been canonised and mythologised, John Martyn struggles today to be heard.
Born Iain David McGeachy on 11th September 1948 in New Malden, Surrey, Martyn, after growing up mainly in Scotland, cut his teeth in the folk and jazz clubs of London. Signing to Chris Blackwell’s Island Records in 1967, his albums from London Conversation onwards, although indebted to his friend Hamish Imlach and Bert Jansch, added new dimensions to the folk form. The Ballad of An Elder Woman from his debut record, displays this perfectly.
Fly On Home from The Tumbler adds a little of Harold McNair’s flute magic into the equation. Martyn went on to make two much loved albums with his then wife, Beverley Kutner. Parcels is from The Road To Ruin and the title track from Stormbringer! displays an artist evolving, developing his craft. Stormbringer saw Martyn ‘go electric’ and was recorded in Woodstock at the request of his American record company, guest appearances by The Band’s Levon Helm add to the overall ‘getting our heads together in the country’ feel of the album. And Road To Ruin, complete with its Max Ernst painting on the cover, introduced a figure who would have a tremendous influence on Martyn’s sound, Pentangle bassist Danny Thompson.
However, it was Bless The Weather from 1971 that was to strike the definitive Martyn template. Working with Thompson, whose fluid style complemented Martyn’s burr and picked acoustic, swathed in echoplex, Martyn created warm sound washes for his increasingly eco-cosmic, lyrical preoccupations. The title track with its haunting repetition and the minor key bluesiness of Head And Heart pointed the way to the possibilities that would be achieved on the high water mark of his next five albums.
It was 1973’s Solid Air for which Martyn will be most fondly remembered. The title track is a tribute to his friend Nick Drake; and the shimmering, shining Don’t Want To Know was a chillout classic at least 20 years before the phrase had ever been invented. His album from late 1973, Inside Out provides the hazy, autumnal So [Much] In Love With You, and You Can Discover (also known as Discover The Lover) from 1975’s Sunday’s Child is a stunning discourse, and was the highlight of the closing night of London’s Rainbow Theatre in 1975.
One World, from late 1977, may well be seen as John Martyn’s masterpiece. Written partially in Jamaica under the tutelage of Lee Perry, its lazy, dub influenced mellowness was as far ahead of its time as it could possibly be. Small Hours, offers you a blissful fusion of ambient soul across eight seemingly endless minutes before drifting away into the ether. The geese noises and atmospherics work either on the latest night or earliest morning. The album’s title track is an incredibly wistful rumination on the state of the planet.
By the 1979 Phil Collins produced album Grace And Danger, the unravelling of Martyn’s marriage to Beverley provided a most angst full undertone to his work. Lookin’ On, with its jazzy figures, is a portrait of this relationship in crisis. In turn deft and aggressive, but always measured. Hurt In Your Heart is similar in structure to Collins’ later If Leaving Me Is Easy, dressing heartbreak up in the shiny veneers of a soul ballad.
We fast forward to Angeline from 1986’s Piece By Piece album. Although the production links it indelibly to its era, it is one of his sweetest touches. And, lest we forget, almost gave him a chart hit, being one of the first ever CD singles. Time is not always kind to survivors; and John Martyn has yet to be rehabilitated; no one has really sprung to his defence critically or commercially. But his work from the late 60s to mid 80s is still there, purring away, providing a never ending cornucopia of entertainment for those who know and love it, from the early naïveté of the acoustic albums, the laid back vibe of the Beverley albums to the trippy, spacey folk plus of his later Island work.
Late Night John is not all mellow, but there is a tremendous consistency in its smoky, lazy, late night quality. It’s for those glorious impromptu evenings where you sit up with friends as night blurs into a fresh summer dawn. It’s John Martyn as he’s meant to be heard.