Thanks to the Internets & to those more obsessive than myself I know that the first time I saw John Martyn play live was on the 19th of February 1972. Blimey, I was just a baby ! John’s wonderful LP “Bless The Weather” had been released in the previous November. Just a week after the gig Nick Drake’s 3rd & final record “Pink Moon” became available while Richard Thompson was in the same Sound Techniques studio used by the others recording “Henry the Human Fly”. Island Records, engineer/producer John Wood & scene-maker Joe Boyd were having it their way with this clear as country water modern British folk music.
It was a great concert, the audience sat cross-legged on the floor & don’t bogart that joint. I believe that, just this once, the word “vibe” is appropriate. There’s a touch of bliss about “Bless”, a lovely, languid beauty. John’s smoky rasp & confident picking style made good songs into better ones. It was, apparently, his habit to accept a spliff from the audience during his set. He smoked the whole thing & we were half impressed, half concerned. We knew that there was some quality gear around the college. So when he broke a string he could not really summon the necessary co-ordination to get things done. Not everyone in the audience was as stoned or were sympathetic. A little impatient heckling escalated into an exchange of obscenities &, y’know, it was all a bit of a downer man. “Glistening Glyndebourne” is the first track that Martyn used the Echoplex tape delay effect. It’s a shimmering indication of his future work but on this night it lacked sparkle. A perfunctory “Singing In The Rain” & he was gone, a pity because for 45 minutes there he had been as good as we had hoped he would be.
“Bless The Weather” was John’s first solo LP after 2 with his wife Beverley. He was ready to expand his palette, to add some jazz, blues & imagination to the folk music & he had the technique to carry it off. In 1973 there were 2 LPs then others in 75 & 77. From “Bless” to “One World” there are 5 records that were progressive but not “prog” & were difficult to categorise as anything other than John Martyn records.
Now that’s what I call a guitar hero ! “I Would Rather Be The Devil” is a Skip James song from the “Solid Air” LP. I’m not sure that I can do this record justice. All I can say is that it stands alongside Fairport’s “Liege & Leif”, Nick Drake’s “Bryter Layter” & your favourite Richard & Linda Thompson record as an outstanding achievement of British folk music. It is an essential record, the 67th best British record ever (Q magazine), often claimed to be a progenitor of “trip-hop” or chill out sounds but it is a whole lot more than that. In the UK he had a dedicated audience, a guitarist who chose to sit rather than strut & who’s mumbled, atmospheric vocals were another instrument played best in an intimate venue. There were tours in the US with his friend Eric Clapton & with Yes but he was not going to fill arenas by himself.
There are some sweet could-have-been hits on the records, gateway ballads such as “Sweet Little Mystery” & “May You Never” for those people who like a sensitive singer-songwriter. There are the sonic experiments, before recording “One World” John had been in Jamaica with dub master Lee “Scratch” Perry. Then there’s this interpretation of a Yorkshire folk song. “Sunday’s Child”, released in 1975, is an LP which is a little more song-based. “Spencer the Rover” still nails me as it did all those years ago & I get to pick the music round here.
It was on the “One World” tour that I got to see John Martyn play in concert again. Birmingham Town Hall is a striking Romanesque monument to Victorian provincial achievement, taste & rectitude. It is a great place to see a gig. It was also the occasion of my 25th birthday, Oo-Wee ! it had no option but to be a very good night out. John often toured with Danny Thompson, an virtuoso of the acoustic bass who shared a fancy for the blurring of any folk-jazz boundaries and an affinity for rather excessive alcohol consumption. Rapport does not really cover what happened between the pair when they played together. There was a degree of communion going on there I think & that night, in front of the hall’s magnificent pipe organ, they delivered a little piece of perfection.
Now I’m no great fan of British prog rock. The triple-albums, the space operas, the acceptance that “Lord of the Rings” has some literary merit. Technical expertise at the expense of emotion & melody never appealed & I found any intellectual aspirations to be unimaginative & mediocre. Pink Floyd without Syd Barrett…you get me ? “Dark Side Of the Moon”, the “kitsch masterpiece” (R. Christgau), was still a chart juggernaut in 1977 &, no accounting for taste, I just did not get it. John Martyn’s concert set took the best of his 5 great records & the quality just kept on coming. The expeditions of “One World”, “Dealer” & “Big Muff” swooped & soared around the hall. OK I was already flying high but this was just the method of transportation I required to keep me up & out there. I left the gig convinced that this adventurous, emotional, beautiful music should really be on the turntables of millions. You want to hear something “progressive” ? It’s right here.
John’s sensitive songwriter/hedonistic hard-drinker hit the wall after this. His marriage ended & there was a 3 year gap before any new music. I like “Grace & Danger”, there are good songs on this & on subsequent records. The added keyboards & the patronage of Phil Collins brought the music into the 80s & that is not always a good thing. I saw John perform with his band a couple of more times & always enjoyed the experience. However those records he made in the 1970s, I still listen to them a lot , l love that sound, it stands as a major contribution to British music. There are 5 of of these LPs, go on pick a disc, any disc.