JOHN MARTYN – Remembering John Martyn (Secret SECDDO54)

RememberingJohnMartynIn spite of the title suggesting a tribute by admiring friends, this is a worthy addition to the ever-growing archive releases complementing near two dozen albums solo, with his wife, and famous guests. Usually associated with Island Records, where he was the first white solo artist signed in ’67, he also featured on WEA (for surprisingly his first Top 30 listing), independents for further exploration (even trip-hop textures), and limited editions as one of the first DIYers: Live At Leeds and Philentropy (1983) were sold from his home. With a swathe of BBC releases (several songs were used for their films resulting in a Lifetime Achievement Award), an Island four-CD live/ studio selection in 2008, and even an 18 CD box last year, there are few musical legacies so well served.

Secret Records have added Remembering John Martyn (1948-2009) to their impressive wide catalogue. Two non-chronological CDs from the career-fulcrum Live At Leeds in 1975 to 1993 feature Danny Thompson or full-band alongside Paul Kossoff, Dave Gilmour, Gerry Conway and Phil Collins complementing his raw or plaintive voice, percussive finger-plucking counterpoised by echo drift that transports to a misty isle. Outspoken, uncompromising, unpredictable (mid-career he busked—by choice—in Moscow near Kilmarnock), the troubadour who lived music on a daily basis tells his life across the decades.

Misperceived as Scottish with an accent hard as a Glaswegian rivet, Iain McGeachy was in fact from New Malden, a now rather bleak London suburb split by a fly-over near Hampton Court, just a couple of miles down the road from where Sandy Denny and Mumford were born. After his opera-singer parents split-up he listened to his mother’s Debussy, jazz, and Scottish folk records in Kingston during school holidays from Glasgow, then joined the long line of musicians graduating from art college. Taking up the guitar mid-teens, he was mentored by the protest folk singer Hamish Imlach then influenced by Davey Graham’s east-meets-west style and Clive Palmer of the Incredible String Band who lived nearby in their Scottish retreat (Martyn fondly recalled sharing a shed in Cumbria with Palmer).

Moving south he signed to Island for the mono London Conversations (1967) but soon surprised with the jazz-inflected, Al Stewart-produced The Tumbler (1968), the result of a single afternoon session at 200 quid. By 1970 his acoustic was rigged up to a fuzz-box, phase shifter and echoplex, premiered on Stormbringer! (with The Band’s Levon Helm and Mundi from The Mothers of Invention, written during downtime at Woodstock) and over -produced The Road To Ruin with his then wife Beverley, met when he did a session with the singer. The new sound (“I wanted to imitate Pharoah Sanders’ records”) placed the pioneer in a wider sphere though he retained fondness for traditional folk clubs. A zenith saw 1973’s Solid Air—its title track written for his friend, label-mate and equally haunted Nick Drake who died a year later—recorded with Fairport Convention. In 1999, Q magazine voted it one of the best-ever relaxation (“chill-out”) albums. Martyn’s vocals became an equally distinctive instrument, as electrifying as his wired-up guitar, for folk, blues, jazz, reggae, funk and rock in a unique style.

Hunched as if seeking to defy gravity, the intensity recalls Kevin Coyne, early Medicine Head or even Spacemen Three as well as bluesmen’s tales of woe and fleeting joy. Talk of national treasures, legends and stars is simply lazy misuse of language; reputation and longevity consists of quality writing allied to original delivery, and this one-man band of emotion fits well in that class. His lyrics flow between the sensual and satiric (‘Glorious Fool’ mocked Reagan; ‘John Wayne’ was a dig at an ex-manager) as fluently as from love and joy to pain. An intoxicating transmission of personal demons (drink, drugs, gambling, marital break-up) led to Island blocking Grace And Danger but he won them over because “It’s what I’m about: direct communication of emotion”. Likening his songs to diaries, it was cathartic though whether therapeutic one can only hope.

Disc one kicks off with a jazzy full-band and Gilmour for ‘Big Muff’, ‘Lookin’ On’ (highlighting his vocal range) and ‘Couldn’t Love You More’. An atmospheric ‘Fine Lines’ lilts into a 12-piece band’s ‘Head And Heart’ which would be Cohen if the latter had the range. The classic ‘Johnny Too Bad’ stomps, an echoplex-driven live band version (1986) of the cover he made his own. Soul-drenched ‘The Moment’ is one of two live in his adopted Glasgow, the title-track ‘Bless The Weather’ metaphors hard times reworked with keys in ’93. Live tracks from that decade feature the sole co-write with Pentangle’s Danny Thompson (‘Mad Dog Days’) and the moving ‘Ways To Cry’ during a period revisiting a rich catalogue. What the band format may lose in power compared to the solo trance wig-outs, it adds a varied atmospheric space for vocal and guitar nuance.

Disc two’s dozen are mostly with his brother-like Danny Thompson or as a trio with percussion (and more foot-tap for us) apart from ‘My Baby Girl’, from the Live At Leeds bonus issue featuring Free’s Paul Kossoff, ill-fated to die the next year. A fine cross-section from Kendal’s Brewery Arts Centre via Leeds to Germany: ‘One Day Without You’ and astonishing 18-minute ‘Outside In’ is Martyn at his spaciest, smokiest best. Neat taping spins into Skip James’ ‘I’d Rather Be The Devil’; few could stretch this variant to the Solid Air bonus so hypnotically to eight minutes. Absence of solo work is made up for by this storming threesome. Solid Air is revisited (‘Over The Hill’; the jelly-rolling ‘Easy Blues’) while the closing popular traditionals ‘Spencer The Rover’ and ‘Black Man At Your Shoulder’ are a haunting return to his origins. No ‘May You Never’ or appropriately-titled ‘Glistening Glyndebourne’, but they’re often compiled anyway. With detailed track info and timings, this 135 minute visit to the rare and once-lost of one Beth Orton calls the Guv’nor is a must-have for fans as well as an excellent intro for the curious.

Brian R Banks

Label website:

John Martyn with Dave Gilmour – ‘One World’:

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