Martyn was always a restless soul even as a lad. His English mother and Scottish father divorced when he was very young and his grandmother mostly brought him up. At least he inherited some parental traits -they were both opera singers - but the young Martyn came under the wing of the maverick folk artist Hamish Imlach while at Art School in Glasgow and was soon brushing shoulders with Billy Connolly and Christy Moore who gave him a taste for the high life and the low life in equal measure. Martyn's debut disc, London Conversation was fairly straightforward but even so he tackles standards and makes them sound fresh. The remastered version includes his take on 'She Moved Through The Fair', as well as his splendid attempt at Bob Dylan's 'Don't Think Twice It's Alright' and the lovely 'Sandy Grey'.
1968's The Tumbler moved all the goal posts thanks to his teaming up with the flautist Harold McNair, the revered guitar player Paul Wheeler and double bass player David Moses. Recorded in Regent Sound on Denmark Street (aka Tin Pan Alley) this record was produced by Al Stewart who encouraged Martyn to find his own voice and construct his own lyrics, which he did to startling effect.
By 1970 Martyn was spending time in New York and he made his third album, the classic Stormbringer with his wife Beverley in Woodstock, supervised now by Joe Boyd and aided by none other than Levon Helm, John Simon, Paul Harris and other alumni from that particular freak zone of talented musicians. By now John was starting to push beyond the norm, as can be heard on stand out cuts like John the Baptist and Traffic-Light Lady where he begins to stretch out in the manner of Tim Buckley. After returning to London and Chelsea's Sound Techniques Studio the Martyn's concocted The Road To Ruin with various friends from the Pentangle and Fairport Convention ensembles (Danny Thompson and Dave Pegg), Beach Boys session man drummer Mike Kowalski and the sax player Dudu Pukwana who introduced John to a large pool of African sounds and rhythms. Even so, 1971's Bless The Weather was largely a return to acoustic styling though it does include his first use of the Echoplex guitar effect on Glistening Glyndebourne. Based on elemental themes this disc includes Martyn fan favourites like 'Sugar Lump' and 'Back Down the River'.Â The reissue is suitably improved by the addition of the single 'May You Never'.
Now working with producer John Wood, Martyn cemented a relationship of peers with the English folk singer songwriter Nick Drake, a fellow Island artist. Apart from shared tastes in side-men, the two fellows enjoyed talking about their passion for writing and Martyn's 1973 disc, Solid Air, took its title track inspiration from Drake's ability to fill space with the deftest vocal touch. Solid Air is now considered a solid gold masterpiece. It's often called the first great chill-out record, and it's easy to understand the impact it had when one listens again to such delights as 'I'd Rather Be The Devil', 'Go Down Easy' and the magnificently ornate title song. If his talent had been air born before it now seems stratospheric. Eric Clapton said of Martyn that he was so far ahead of everything else, it was inconceivable and Ol' Slowhand tackled 'May You Never' as a fitting tribute in 1977. In 2006 John played Solid Air in its entirety at the All Tomorrow's Parties event Don't Look Back and the album was given special mention when he received his BBC Folk Award for Lifetime Achievement from Phil Collins two years later. Again recording with Fairport stalwarts (including Richard Thompson) it's safe to say this album sets a standard few have matched since. Real Desert Island Discs stuff. That same year the artist was on such a contact high that he made the experimental Inside Out in a matter of weeks. Now entering total jazz realms Martyn was assisted by Traffic's Steve Winwood and Chris Wood who thought the sessions a defining moment.
Sunday's Child brought John back to a more reflective mood although the atmospheric guitar work he had now made his signature sound is all over 'The Message', 'Root Love' and 'Call Me Crazy'. He then issued the Live at Leeds (1976) album independently, the initial run of 10,000 selling out in a week. Not surprising considering that Free's Paul Kossoff was on hand to trade licks. The Deluxe edition includes rehearsals and a much-expanded set.<
Ever more daring now Martyn recorded chunks of One World outdoors at Woolwich Green Farm with guests including Lee 'Scratch' Perry on Big Muff and Winwood again on keyboards and Moog synthesiser. By now it seemed there were no places that John's voice couldn't go to but he underwent a period of personal upheaval before returning to the fray with 1980s' Grace and Danger disc, which comes with many remastered rarities, some live BBC recordings and a heavy dub batch of extras. This was John's favourite and most autobiographical album.
As befits an artist of his stature Martyn has been lavishly chronicled. There are excellent compilations, May You Never - The Best of, the handy introductory The Electric John Martyn, and the lavish career-spanning Ain't No Saint, released on the eve of John's 60thbirthday and gazing back in wonder at 40 years of sheer brilliance. Certainly his passing was a sad event although he maintained a remarkable outlook on his life and leaves us with much to be thankful for. He was a fine man and a master musician. Everyone needs some John Martyn in their life.
For all things folk, be sure to check out We Are Folk...
Solid Air (whose title track was written for John Martyn's friend, songwriter Nick Drake) is one of the defining moments in British folk, in the same league as Fairport Convention's Liege & Lief, Richard & Linda Thompson's Shoot Out the Lights, and Michael Chapman's Rainmaker. Martyn stepped out of his comfort zone to record and produce it, including not only jazz and blues but rock and plenty of sound effects, and featuring Rhodes piano on some of its tracks, dismaying some fans while winning a ton more for its genre-blurring presentation. A number of its cuts -- such as the title track, "Over the Hill," "I'd Rather Be the Devil," and "May You Never" -- remained staples in his live sets until the end of his life.
Words - Thom Jurek
Because Island Records didn't feel it was the right time for a live album, Martyn independently released this record from his home. The initial release was a limited edition of 10,000 (which Island did manufacture, though not distribute or promote) that was numbered and signed. Though the album shares its title with the famous Who live collection of the same name, the working title was "Ringside Seat" and photos of Martyn and bassist Danny Thompson in a boxing ring were even taken for a prospective cover, though never used. Recorded February 13, 1975 (the sleeve incorrectly states October), at Leeds University in the U.K., this is John Martyn at a peak in his career.
In Thompson, he'd found a perfect foil for his increasingly jazzy textures and their bass and guitar interaction is a particular highlight. Having mastered the echoplex, which was capable of producing waves of echoed and distorted sound, Martyn was doing things with an acoustic guitar that no one had ever done (or has done since). "Outside In" (all 18:57 of it!) is a tour de force showcasing the otherwordly sounds he could coax from this device, and is worth the price of the album alone. The re-released version on Voiceprint/One World includes five bonus tracks ("My Baby Girl," "You Can Discover," "So Much in Love With You," "Clutches," "Mailman") from the show, including the ones Paul Kossoff of Free guested on.
Words - Rob Caldwell
Following a short layoff, John Martyn returned with his 12th record (including two with wife Beverley and a best-of collection), Grace &a Danger. The album, which finds Martyn fronting a tight quartet featuring Phil Collins on drums and backing vocals, paints a stark, painful portrait of Martyn and Beverley's crumbling marriage. Close friend and Island Records president Chris Blackwell reportedly found the songs so personal and unsettling that he delayed its release for a year. Martyn sets a somber feel right from the start with the seductive opener "Some People Are Crazy" and carries it, for the most part, throughout the record. The hushed, tormented blues of "Hurt in Your Heart," the beautiful "Sweet Little Mystery," and the heartbreaking closer "Our Love" are a few of the highlights. With some of his clearest, strongest singing in years and a collection of terse, honest originals, as well as a cover of the Slickers' reggae classic "Johnny Too Bad," Grace &a Danger shows John Martyn at the top of his game.
Words - Brett Hartenbach
For Stormbringer!, John and Beverley Martyn went to Woodstock, NY, and recorded with several local musicians, including session hands Paul Harris and Harvey Brooks, as well as the Band's Levon Helm. Very much in the mold of the electric Fairport Convention of this period, Stormbringer! sizzles with acoustic interplay and an almost jazzy feel. Highlights include "Woodstock" (not the Joni Mitchell tune) and the title track.
Words - James Chrispell
Bless the Weather, the first release following two records with his wife Beverley, is a transitional effort for John Martyn. The Glasgow-born singer-songwriter's third solo album emphasizes a darker, smokier sound built around his increasingly jazzy vocals, plus sometimes aggressive, sometimes gentle acoustic guitar work, and Danny Thompson's double bass, which skirts in and out around Martyn's voice and guitar. It also contains the extended instrumental "Glistening Glyndebourne," which highlights his early experimentation with the Echoplex, a sound that would become a major part of his work in the coming years. Bless the Weather, with songs such as the title cut and "Head and Heart," stands as a fine representation of Martyn's early work.
Words - Brett Hartenbach
A 17 track album which provides a solid overview for the new fan or casual listener prior to exploring the full back catalogue.
After Sunday's Child, John Martyn took an extended break from studio recording. By late 1975, feeling he was close to going "completely round the bend," he had also stopped touring. To put some distance between himself and the pressures of the business and to recoup his creative energies, he went to Jamaica. There, after meeting dub producer Lee "Scratch" Perry, Martyn sat in on sessions by other artists and contributed to Burning Spear's Man in the Hills. Martyn returned to the U.K. reinvigorated and began recording One World in summer 1977. Produced by Island boss Chris Blackwell and featuring Dave Pegg, Morris Pert, John Stevens, Danny Thompson, and Steve Winwood, among others, One World combines the experimental tendencies of 1973's Inside Out and the more conventional song structures of Sunday's Child.
While tracks like "Couldn't Love You More," "Smiling Stranger," and "Certain Surprise" display some continuity with the rootsy, jazzy folk-rock of Martyn's previous albums, this record has a stronger commercial feel than his earlier work, crossing over into pop territory. Especially memorable in that regard is the electrified swagger of "Big Muff," a number co-written by Perry that would become one of Martyn's live staples. But One World's understated explorations of mood are even more compelling; the experimental nature of dub -- of which Perry was a legendary exponent -- clearly resonated with Martyn. Since the early '70s, he had displayed a keen ear for sonic manipulation, using effects like Echoplex and a phase shifter to craft drifting, hypnotic textures. Here, the lazy title track and the synth-pulsing "Small Hours" exemplify Martyn's knack for mesmerizing, smoky grooves. Those looser, atmospheric numbers notwithstanding, most of One World signals the more slick pop direction John Martyn would take in the '80s starting with Grace & Danger (and with increasingly mixed results). Island released a Deluxe Edition of One World that included five live tracks and 10 alternate versions of songs from the initial release.
Words - Wilson Neate
Following an inauspicious first release for Island, John Martyn's unique brand of acoustic music began to take some sort of shape with the Al Stewart-produced The Tumbler. Martyn, whose debut was a solo acoustic offering, here employs a second guitar, bass and, most notably, jazz flautist Harold McNair to create his blend of folk, blues and jazz. While his songs show only marginal development from London Conversation, it's his arrangements and, especially, vocals which are the real differences, each becoming increasingly more idiosyncratic. Although nowhere near the caliber of his later recordings, The Tumbler is an important step in Martyn's varied career.
Words - Brett Hartenbach
Much more of a collaboration here than on their previous effort, John and Beverley Martyn continue on their way through the British folk-jazz of the '70s. Flowing with a subtle improvisation that incorporated a greater ethnic feeling, Road to Ruin makes for enjoyable listening indeed. Good singing and playing make this a great album to sit back and reflect upon.
Words - James Chrispell
These are the complete sessions that John Martyn recorded for two BBC disc jockeys between 1973 and 1978, and though a few have seen release elsewhere before, the majority are new to CD and a welcome addition to the Martyn canon. There's plenty of electric improvisation here, including "Devil Got My Woman" (really "I'd Rather Be the Devil") and "Inside" (better known as "Inside Out"), which get extensive workouts, and there's a 1978 take on "Small Hours" that ends the disc on a lovely, aching note. In between there's plenty of acoustic music (four tracks with a barely audible Danny Thompson on bass) that trawls through Martyn's work on three classic albums from his golden period. He pulls out some excellent performances, his fingers wonderfully agile, and his voice as deep as the bottom of a bottle of Scotch. This is good enough to be more than a footnote; for Martyn fans it's essential.
Words - Chris Nickson