Have you heard? … (2) John Martyn

Last night I was writing about John Martyn – the late and the great John Martyn. He died in 2009 after years of health problems.  He was a really distinctive singer – and guitar player. His roots were the folk scene, but at his peak, his music encompassed so much more.  I discovered him in 1977-8 with “One World”. Two other albums, a compilation called “So Far So Good”, also from 1977, and then “Grace and Danger” in 1980, had a big impact on me. The words below are what I wrote about these three albums last night.

“One World” was an extraordinary album. It was a real mix of influences.  It came out in late 1977, the height of excitement about punk, and yet the review in NME, about this moody, atmospheric album, mixing reggae sounds with jazz and folk traditions really appealed to me. I forked out for the album and wasn’t disappointed. It was different to anything else I had in my collection, and that made it one of my most played albums for a time. 

One of the most captivating features of the album was John Martyn’s voice. It was very distinctive –  somewhere between a slur and a growl, airier than say, Tom Waits, but just as indecipherable. But it was a voice that could sound as tender as anything when he sang a song like “Couldn’t Love You More”, one of the most beautiful on the album. With the unusual voice went a striking guitar sound.  It echoed and soared and shot fragments of noise into the air like a firework pouring out its effervescent light.  In “One World”, the guitar curled around Martyn’s voice like smoke in the cold night air, as a bass carved out a gentle passage below the main action. It was late night music, reverberating, soothing and entrancing.  “A Certain Surprise'” was softly jazzy and “Small Hours” conjured up the first signs of sunrise, with the guitar gently echoing and embracing the new dawn. A keyboard entered halfway through and sounded like the trickle of a stream through the forest.  John Martyn burbled a few words that didn’t mean much, but added to the atmosphere of tentative beginnings. A few of the songs, like “Dealer” and “Smiling Stranger” had an late night funkiness, blurry and atmospheric.  Perhaps best of all, after “One World” and “Couldn’t Love You More”, was “Big Muff” which was like a cross between cool funk and dub reggae, with all sorts of weird sounds shooting in and out and Martyn growling about getting away with powder puffs. It was album that was both perfect for chilling out, and intriguing in its use of sound, in echo and dub. There wasn’t actually any reggae on it, but it sounded like a dub album.  

I went to see the great man in concert in the early eighties, quite soon after I came down to London.  It was in one of the Victoria theatres, maybe the Apollo. I wanted most of all to hear tracks from “One World” and wasn’t disappointed.  He had a vast array of guitar pedals and wrenched all sorts of sounds from them.  Of all the other guitarists I liked, I felt he was closest to Robin Trower, his guitar like another voice. He was more fluid than Trower, his songs simpler, less assertive, which gave the guitar more room to glide rather than power through; but both made their guitars sing.

“One World’ was something of a bridge between his older folkier material and later jazzy work, which edged towards tasteful easy listening musically, although the Martyn voice usually managed to rough things up a bit.  I liked “One World” so much that I felt the need to find out more about his past music, and fortunately  there was a compilation called “So Far, So Good” which was ready to oblige.  You could hear where the atmospherics on “One World” came from when you listened to the wondrous “Solid Air” and there was a hint of “Big Muff” in “I’d Rather Be The Devil”. “May You Never” and “Bless The Weather” were up there with “Solid Air” as folk tunes with a laid back jazzy edge. The jaunty acoustic stomp of “Over The Hill” sounded like it could be on the second side of “Led Zeppelin III” and “Spencer The Rover” was a traditional folk song given the blurry Martyn treatment, and beautiful for it.  I’ve heard the song sung by a few artists since, but it’s John Martyn’s version that I remember best.

On the other side of the bridge was “Grace and Danger”, which came out in 1980.  Grace is a good word here: the album had a real grace.  It was a deeply heartfelt album, full of anguished songs about Martyn’s break up with his wife and one-time singing partner, Beverley. The music was less varied than on “One Love”, but it retained the tone and sophistication of a song like “Couldn’t Love You More”.  Except this time, the titles were “Baby, Please Come Home” and “Hurt In My Heart”.  Both those songs are so gorgeous musically, all flowing bass lines, and sweet, echoey keyboards… and so sad. John Martyn is almost weeping into the microphone. That slurring voice protects us from complete breakdown. “Sweet Little Mystery” is another lament that could be the happiest love song, until you realise it’s all about missing that mystery – that’s what makes him cry.

The jazz really gets going on “Lookin’ On”, an ambient jazz tune.  It’s perhaps no surprise that Martyn’s songs, often remixed, find their way on to all sorts of jazz/dance or chillout compilations. They have that late night-early morning feel. 

And “Johnny Too Bad” took a step on from “Big Muff” and wrapped a rasping guitar around a shaky reggae beat. It worked.  It had feeling. You wouldn’t have known that it was a cover of a song by a band called The Slickers, which featured on the classic reggae soundtrack album, “The Harder They Come”.  It was operating on a different planet.  It most definitely could have been a “One World” song.  It would have slotted right in. On “Grace And Danger” it was almost a bit of light relief.

Three albums that are right up there in my favorites.  All well worth a listen if you haven’t heard them before.

Couple of videos on You Tube below.  First is “Spencer the Rover” and second is “Dealer” from “One World”, which hints at how he was using effects.

About John S

I'm blogging about the things I love: music, sport, culture, London, with some photos to illustrate aspects of our wonderful city. I’ve written a novel called “The Decision”, a futuristic political thriller, and first of a trilogy. I’m also the author of a book on music since the 1970s called “ I Was There - A Musical Journey” and a volume of poetry about youth, “Growin’ Up - Snapshots/ Fragments”. All available on Amazon and Kindle.
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2 Responses to Have you heard? … (2) John Martyn

  1. Jonathan Earl says:

    Hey John – nice piece, and thanks for reviving memories of the late and great Mr. Martyn. I agree that Grace and Danger is a mighty album, though traditionally overlooked in favour of One World. It’s almost unbearable at times, as you say, with the rawness of his emotions.

    I saw the same gig at Victoria (with you?! – no, with Rogal, I think) and he was magnificent live. Could be a curmudgeonly old sod, though. The BBC screened a really poignant documentary about him when he’d lost his leg as a result of the booze. He spent most of the time raging about his life slipping away in just about every direction – drink, drugs, illness, break-ups, money, the works. But musically he remained a genius to the end.

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