So Far So Good
Looking music, it is back over the past ten years of John Martyn’s career in difficult to imagine him as an artist recording for any other label but Both Island. record company and musician have shared a solid streak of a quality which can only be described as ‘maverick.’ Spontaneity and an aptitude for taking risks have the keystones of Martyn’s character.
When he first signed with Island back in 1965, the company was then only three years old and was riding the crest of the ska/Bluebeat era of Jamaican music. So that, apart from a number of rather faceless albums of rugby songs, Martyn was the first white artist to sign to a label predominantly versed in black music. For Martyn, a Celtic folkie (or so he was labelled at the time) the move to sign with a company with virtually no experience in dealing with the market where his potential most readily lay may have seemed somewhat odd, reflecting very early the artist’s penchant for the unexpected. It was not for long after, however, that Island signed bands such as the Spencer Davis Group, Jethro Tull and Free and emerged as the leading independent record company and the industry leader in what came to be known as progressive rock in the late Sixties. So Martyn was soon to be in good company indeed.
For his part, Martyn was thankful for the opportunity to record, and although his first album, London Conversation, was hardly a commercial blockbuster, it gave him considerably more presence on the club circuit and opened up such important venues as Cousins for the fledgling performer. Martyn’s affair with the guitar came at age 16 (in 1964) when he encountered Hamish Imlach, a singer and guitarist up in Martyn’s home town of Glasgow. Imlach tutored Martyn for some eight months, then introduced him to his various audiences by giving his protege a guest set in the middle of his performances. Martyn made such an impression that several clubowners asked him back in subsequent weeks to do his own show. Soon after, Martyn began making occasional forays down to London. His recording contract resulted when he was discovered playing at The Folk Barge, a rather decrepit club moored on the Thames River at Kingston, a suburb to the southwest of London.
His second album, The Tumbler, introduced a trace of jazz with the incorporation of flute lines from Harold McNair, and the next album, Stormbringer! took on even more instrumentation to the point where Martyn was playing in a full group context. By this time he had met Beverley, a solo artist with two singles to her credit, and became her first accompanist and then her husband. They went to Woodstock in upper New York State for the recording of Stormbringer! in the summer of 1969. The Road to Ruin, recorded in London, continued the flow of subtle improvisation with an even greater ethnic feeling, incorporating percussion and the work of three woodwind musicians. Also on hand was acoustic bassist Danny Thompson, at the time a member of Pentangle, who has worked with John on every album since.
At this point, Beverley dropped out of professional music with the onset of motherhood. For his part, John went on with Bless the Weather, in retrospect a real breakthrough album for him. It was altogether a much simpler album in terms of instrumentation and outlook, and much warmer in its emotional stance. Perhaps Martyn returned to a smaller group setting as a result of greater confidence in his own instrumental ability, but whatever the reason there was one track in particular on this album which showed his creative power at full throttle. It was Glistening Glyndebourne, 6.5 minutes of controlled brilliance and an instrumental piece with an inbuilt dramatic structure which almost seems to tell a story. It remains today a constant partof Martyn’s stage repertoire and a continual favourite of his audiences both here and in America. Glistening Glyndebourne along with two other cuts from Bless the Weather, Head and Heart and the title track, are to be found on the album at hand. When Martyn first moved down to Hastings on England’s channel coast from London in 1971, the change of the environment inspired a number of new songs. As Hastings was a resort and fishing centre, its economy was ruled by the elements more so than any place Martyn had lived previously; hence the song Bless the Weather. Martyn remembers little about the genesis of Head and Heart, save for the fact that the opening bar was adopted from a triplet in a piece by guitarist John McLaughlin.
A full year elapsed from the release of Bless the Weather to Martyn’s next recording session in November 1973, a recording date which produced what has come to be regarded as one of his finest albums. It was Solid Air, and the strength of the set is manifested by the four tracks drawn from it for this present hall of fame collection. Solid Air revealed a new twist in Martyn’s style and direction. For his vocals now were slurred and strangled to the point of effacement, becoming another part of the instrumental mix. It was still possible, in most instances, to decipher the lyrics (in any event, a lyric sheet was provided); but more important than the words themselves was the feeling in the way they were delivered.
It was hardly a new technique. It summoned up the growls of the early blues singers as well as the jazz tradition of Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday. Martyn has often cited the importance he placed on the American blues singers on the first half of this century, and one in particular with whom he identified was Skip James, whose I’d Rather Be the Devil was included in Solid Air and appears again here. Martyn used to play the song in his earlier acoustic sets; this version grew out of his first experiments with echoplex. Over the Hill is another Hastings song; the last train from London down to Hastings arrives at the break of dawn, and from its windows Martyn was able to see his own house just over the East Hill. May You Never, beautiful in its classic simplicity, was written for a friend. Solid Air was written for another of Martyn’s friends, although he doesn’t remember any of the circumstances under which composition took place. It’s basically a 12 bar blues pattern, altered to 16 bar and charged with harmonic density.
Solid Air, along with the two succeeding albums Inside Out and Sunday’s Child were all rushed in their execution. Although Martyn swears that he is against recording to deadline, on the evidence of these records he is one artist who thrives on the adrenalin rush of working at a considerable clip. From Bless the Weather onwards, Martyn has taken to producing his own albums, and sessions usually go on for days on end without stop; Martyn pushes on at fever pitch, never knowing whether it is day or night. Spencer the Rover and One Day Without You both show that Martyn had not lost the sight of the pastoral, even traditional, side of his music. Both come from Sunday’s Child, his most recent Island album, which also included material such as Root Love, carrying on in the direction of his harder, more complex instrumental thunderbolts. The two selections may be quiet in orientation, yet their performance is taut and completely without flab of false sentiment. Spencer the Rover is a traditional song which John picked up from Robin Dransfield, then put through his own arrangements.
For the past year John has taken a sabbatical, laying off the touring and recording treadmill and visiting such regenerative musical locales as Jamaica and working with reggae producers Lee Perry and Jack Ruby with the intent of exploration rather than making vinyl commodities. Both of these producers are known as kings of the dub technique in Jamaican music, the intentional warping and bending of conventional sound through the studio control board, a technique not unaligned to some of Martyn’s own practices. Now back to work, Martyn feels his music will become even more polarized than before; “I’d like the nasty bits to get nastier and the gentle bits to get more gentle,” he says. It also seems that the electric guitar will become even greater in its dominance over his acoustic work. Concert presentations will likely adopt quadraphonic sound systems so that his music will have an even greater spaciality in its physical presence. But, as we discussed at the beginning of this appreciation, spontaneity is Martyn’s calling card. He is completely unpredictable, and that’s just the way he wants to keep it.