I can’t let the passing of John Martyn going without some form of tribute to this great musician.
John Martyn had his spiritual roots in Glasgow although he was born in England. He emerged onto the British folk scene in the late 1960s and was signed to the great Island record label by Chris Blackwell. Almost as soon as his career was launched though his eclectic influences and diverse style began to move from folk to include elements of Jazz and Rock. In the early 70s he developed a unique style of guitar playing using an old Martin acoustic fitted with a pickup that he fed through various effects including an echoplex echo unit to create a looping chaotic sound.
Solid Air was released in 1973 and is one of the defining albums of the 70s. By now Martyn was working with the great bass player Danny Thompson and also his vocal style was developing into the utterly unique Martyn drawl that so defined much of his work. To me he used the voice not simply to convey the story of the song through the lyrics but as much as a timbre instrument adding colour to the whole piece. This slurring style also for me is the hook that draws me into Martyn’s world and into the intense emotion that he often portrayed in his music.
At the turn of the decade into the 1980s John’s long term marriage to Beverley broke up. In the emotional turmoil of that time he crafted what to me is his greatest album – Grace and Danger. Just listen to “Hurt in Your Heart” and tell me that isn’t one of the most intensely emotional pieces of music ever recorded. I saw a clip on YouTube of him playing that song 30 years after it was written and it still brought Martyn to tears. On this album he collaborated with Phil Collins who was also going through marriage difficulties I believe. Whatever the jazz/rock feel of that album was for me where Martyn was at his very best. Island actually sat on the final recording for sometime very disturbed as to whether releasing such emotion publicly was the right thing to do. It was, it is an amazing work with an emotional intensity rarely if ever seen in popular music elsewhere.
The followup Glorious Fool included Phil Collins again and a guest appearance by Eric Clapton. I know Clapton regarded Martyn very highly. It looked at this time as if Martyn would head for super stardom. He moved labels to WEA and recorded Well Kept Secret. For some reason though that album may have been more successful than others but still wasn’t the mainstream breakthrough and for Sapphire only 2 years later he was back with Island. Sapphire contains another gem I’d recommend of Martyns work, his cover of Somewhere Over the Rainbow. A re-working that almost makes you wonder if he wrote the thing in the first place. His sound headed in a slightly more electra direction for the next release – Piece by Piece. This also contained the first commercially available CD single released in the UK – Angeline. It was on the tour for that album in 1986 that I luckily saw John perform live at the Marlowe theatre in Canterbury. He was a performer who really let the music talk and poured himself into the music and into you as a result, he had a great crowd report via his Scottish lilting voice often bringing the band in with comments like “Come on ladies!” etc.
In the 1990s his output slowed and he headed more jazz at times in particular Cooltide which got close to his dream of “singing with Weather Report”. After the turn of the millennium he produced On the Cobbles his last album and a very good one. Another eclectic mix of folk, blues, jazz and rock and just very Martyn. I was glad he was back to his best and it is now a very fitting epitaph to him.
His health had suffered though and John had to have his right leg amputated below the knee due to a burst cyst. I’m sure I heard him blame using a Les Paul on stage for years for this. In the last few months he has been recognised as the great inspiration he has been, first with an OBE in the New Year’s honours and also last year with the Radio 2 Folk Awards lifetime achievement award.
Farewell John – there will never be another like you.
If you want to sample John I’d recommend listening to the whole of Solid Air and Grace and Danger as your starting points.