"IT was done for a friend of mine, and it was done right, with very clear motives," John Martyn later recalled of the title track from his 1973 classic, Solid Air. The album's best-known song might be the gently swinging May You Never –covered by everyone from Eric Clapton to Wet Wet Wet– but it's the smoked-out six-minute opener that truly maps Martyn's evolution from talented Scottish folkie to genre-busting maverick.
Written in the summer of 1972, Solid Air is a mesmerising murmur of empathy, frustration and foreboding aimed at Martyn's friend and Island labelmate, Nick Drake. Drake would babysit for Martyn and his wife Beverley when they were living in Hampstead, and when the family moved to Hastings he would still visit occasionally. The song divines not only Drake's quietly devastating emptiness, but the impossibility of reaching him.
"I don't know what's going on in your mind / But I know you don't like what you find / When you're moving through solid air," sings Martyn. "I know you, I love you / I will be your friend / I will follow you anywhere." After Drake's death in November 1974, it became a kind of requiem.
Recorded live at Island's Basing Street studio, with overdubs at John Wood's Sound Techniques in Chelsea, Solid Air is a work of almost casual brilliance. Session saxophonist Tony Coe tells Uncut he has no recollection of even being there. The recording of Tristan Fry's glorious vibes was beset by technical problems. The finished track is a fragile, floating thing, almost unanchored. At its heart is the intuitive interplay between Martyn and the man who would become his regular foil and playmate throughout the 1970s, former Pentangle double bassist Danny Thompson. "We'd get together, have a few drinks and play in the front room, like two naughty boys enjoying ourselves," says Thompson. "He'd run through the song, then I'd play and I'd say, 'Something like that then, John?' He'd say, ‘No, exactly like that!' We were young, and we didn't have a rulebook."
The 10th anniversary of Martyn's death falls on January 29. It will be marked with a celebratory concert in Glasgow, headlined by Paul Weller, and Danny Thompson will be heavily involved. For the bass player, the hazy magnificence of Solid Air is one of the high-water marks in an extraordinarily intense musical love story. "If John Martyn had been the only person I had ever done music with, it would have satisfied all of my musical ambition," he says. "That would have done me. What else is there to say?"
JOHN WOOD [engineer/ co-producer]:
At the end of the two albums John did with Beverley, for some contractual reason Joe Boyd asked if I could produce a solo record with John – and do it for £2,000, I seem to remember! That's how Bless The Weather came to be made. It was pretty lucky that John built this solid relationship with Danny Thompson.
DAVE MATTACKS: He [Martyn] and Danny really were joined at the hip, it was a wonderful relationship.
DANNY THOMPSON: When John and I got together, it was love at first sight. Bosh! Oh, do me! I was just coming out of Pentangle and I thought, 'I've had enough of this, five years on the road, this is not what it's all about.' It's supposed to be like when we were 15, practising in the garage with your mates. That's what it was like with John. This handsome, curly-haired boy, 10 years younger than me. A totally beautiful man, with all that energy and honesty and attitude. We'd get together, he'd say, "This is the kind of stuff we're going to do," and then we'd just go in the studio. I don't want to make out that it was very mumsy. We used to have serious fights as well. I've been nutted by him…
WOOD: For Solid Air, John had wanted to hire a completely different set of musos. We did one or two sessions [with them], then I fell down some steps and hurt my ankle, and we had to call it off for two weeks. The bass player we had hired was not available, so we got Danny Thompson back. I set the cast list, that's for sure. Danny, [Dave] Mattacks, Rabbit [Bundrick] – people I had worked with. Because of their musicality, they put John on his mettle.
MATTACKS: I was still a bit of a deer in the headlights when it came to folk music, and I didn't know anything about John. I was incredibly impressed with his guitar playing, his song writing and his singing. One of the nicest things was that it was the first time I had been asked to play a little bit free. I remember really enjoying it, and thinking, 'Blimey, if this is the kind of stuff these folkies are up to, I'll have some more of it!'
THOMPSON: I think Solid Air was the first one we did. From the top, live, none of this dropping in. I was really tearing the backside out of it! We were totally free; all the musicians were. There was nobody sitting there saying, "No, no, no, not like that, more like this." We didn't have all that. It was very trusting. John Wood was a beautiful engineer.
MATTACKS: John Wood was such a great engineer at capturing things like that. There was a certain separation on the drums, but as far as I can recall, all the stuff I did with him went down live. They were unbelievable players.
WOOD: All the tracks went down pretty much live. The whole album took a couple of weeks. People would not believe how quickly records like that were made. Solid Air didn't cost more than £7,500.
JOHN 'RABBIT' BUNDRICK: It was almost like a big jam session. Everybody would get to their instruments and he'd start playing, then we'd just all join in, until all of this stuff just started to gel. John didn't ask anyone to play a certain thing. It was like there was already a spot for you to play in. He would smile every time he heard somebody do a lick that he liked. It was just a great, serious group of guys putting their creativity into what John was emitting. It just gelled. It was absolutely fabulous.
THOMPSON: Solid Air has an association with Nick Drake. Nick was a bit of a fragile lad. Very talented. Great finger-style guitar player, great songwriter. John liked him a lot. I don't think it was a protective thing, or the big brother thing. He just realised what a remarkable musician and songwriter he was.
MATTACKS: John and Nick were so different. Nick was so, so shy, hiding underneath the covers, and John was Mr Gregarious and outgoing. I think they had a good effect on each other.
THOMPSON: Nick was the kind of performer who would come on stage and stare at the floorboards during his whole set, then walk off without saying anything. John was completely opposite. I tried everything to wake Nick up: being nasty to him, being kind to him, inviting him to my home in Suffolk and all that – and John did the same. Maybe Solid Air was meant as a kick up the bum for Nick, but it was very difficult. As John says in the song, there was a lot going on in Nick's mind.
WOOD: Nick was very compartmentalised in his life. I was well aware John and Nick knew each other, but I don't ever really remember seeing him near a Nick Drake session, and I wasn't aware that he was around when we were doing [Drake's third and final album] Pink Moon, either.
THOMPSON: I've no idea if Nick was [aware that Solid Air was about him], and John would not be the kind of person to phone up Nick and say, "I've written this about you!" But the song allows the listener the freedom to hear how he feels about it. It's very astute and tender. All John's stuff is very personal. He didn't make up fanciful stories, it was from the heart.
BUNDRICK: He never discussed the emotions. Everybody just got the emotion when he started playing, nobody questioned it. I think John's whole problem was that he must have been very sensitive. His voice was so beautiful. He would smooth in his entries like a saxophone. It was almost like an actor's voice, like he was copying not lead guitars, but a sax.
WOOD: We spent two pretty difficult evenings doing vocals on the album, because John was quite uptight about the way he sang. He didn't like the vocals much. We worked on them quite a lot, and he needed quite a lot of encouragement and support. I remember that. Working with John was hard work. I saw my role as a sort of facilitator. You are trying to get the best performance from the best people you can put around them, but every now and then you do pull them up sharp and let them know when they are being their own worst enemy. I probably had to do that more with John than with anybody else. Sometimes he would respond, sometimes he wouldn't.
MATTACKS: I remember him being fun to be around, but he was pretty focused. This was before substances and drink really became such a huge part of him and his music making.
WOOD: The sax player, Tony Coe, was red-hot at the time. John didn't know people like that at all. I got Tony in, and Tristan Fry, for Solid Air. I've always seen that as part of the more unique contributions I made to the song.
MATTACKS: I remember Tristan Fry. I was aware of his reputation as a freelance studio musician. He was way, way up there, crossing over between the classical and jazz fields. I was as much in awe of him as I was of Danny, John and John Wood.
TRISTAN FRY: I remember the session well. I was overdubbing at Sound Techniques, and I had a bit of trouble with the vibraphone. The pedal on the vibraphone is like a sustain pedal on the piano – and it was broken, which meant I either had to have it open all the time, so that everything rang out, or else have nothing ring out. I couldn't go between the two. For Solid Air I needed it to ring –the part on the song kind of sings out– so I had to do a thing called 'finger-damping'. You play one note, let it ring off, then when you play the next note you have to stop the previous note with your hand, otherwise it rings in. It was quite complicated. Then at the same time I was turning the wheel, because the motor wasn't working either. I needed about four hands. It was quite a memorable engagement!
WOOD: Neither during the making of Bless The Weather or Solid Air did I see or communicate with anybody from Island Records.
THOMPSON: Chris Blackwell, bless his heart, used to let his artists develop through their formative period. I know for a fact Blackwell was not seeing his money recouped from his investment in people like John, and many others in Island Records. Later he was rewarded for loving these people so much. He allowed them to breathe and to become successful. You don't see that any more.
FRY: There's a nice postscript to my involvement. Years later [in 1979], I had joined Sky and we did a headlining job at Glastonbury. We were on last, and there was a curfew. John Martyn was on before us, and they had a bit of trouble getting him to stop playing. He was actually doing Solid Air on stage at Glastonbury. I was watching, waiting to go on, and he had no idea that I was the guy who had played on the record. It was quite bizarre.
MATTACKS: It was one of the very special sessions from that period of my career.
THOMPSON: Solid Air is such a beautiful piece, there's so much freedom for me on it. We always loved playing it live. People call it folk, or contemporary folk, or whatever. I understand the reasons people want to put boxes on it, but for me it's music from the heart. People hear all these different stories and say, "What was John really like?" If you really want to know what he was like, listen to his songs. That tells you everything about the man.
Grace And Danger: A Celebration Of John Martyn is at the Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, January 27, 2019
1967: 18-year-old Glasgow folk singer Iain McGeachy moves to London. He changes his name to John Martyn and signs to Island Records
1970: Martyn releases two records with his wife, Beverley Martyn: Stormbringer! and The Road To Ruin May
1971: Martyn works with Danny Thompson for the first time, recording his third solo record, Bless The Weather
Autumn 1972: Work begins on Solid Air at Sound Techniques. John Wood injures his ankle and the sessions are put on hold, moving to Basing Street in November/ December 1972, where the album is completed
February 1, 1973: Solid Air is released, opening with the title track
November 25, 1974: Nick Drake dies aged 26
Martyn with Danny Thompson at the 'London Rock Proms', a three-day festival at Olympia in July 1974
John Martyn returns to Basing St Studios to record Inside Out, July 4, 1973
This article appeared in Uncut #261, 1st February 2019, on page 82-84. On the cover was New Order. It was not the first time Uncut chose John's landmark album to write about; December 2000, David Stubbs revisited the classic album in a piece called Emotional Rescue (Uncut #43).
I sort of recreated the printed pages but left out two copyrighted pictures, one of John in the studio and one of John and Danny on stage.