John Martyn, now label-mate with Portishead, has been checking out the Chicago house scene, and revising his wardrobe. Mark Cooper salutes his return to eccentricity.
AND Go! Discs
• Martyn's debut for Go! Discs, home of Paul Weller, Portishead and Gabrielle.
ONE OF THE GREAT maverick stylists of British music, John Martyn has been out on a limb in recent years, marooned first by some increasingly safe albums for Island in the mid '80s and then by a deal with Permanent, who appeared to hide everything he recorded. Latterly, he seemed doomed to play out his middle age on an endless circuit of Britain's town halls and arts centres, raging at his long-suffering fans and churning out increasingly perfunctory readings of the likes of May You Never. Fortunately, Martyn's finally been picked up by a label which fosters home-grown talent, and promptly returned his best work in many a moon.
Go! Discs seems an appropriate home for a man whose '70s work anticipated the sparse, spacey funk of the trip hop genre by a mere two decades. Although he started out in the late '60s folk scene, Martyn's love affair with black music stretches beyond country blues and there's traces of ska, dub, Coltrane, Stevie Wonder and hip hop all over And, with the sparse beat of the latter bringing Martyn's profoundly individual style instantly up to date.
Although Martyn's renowned as a guitarist, precious little sounds like a guitar here as keyboards float and swoon, the beats drift in and out of the gorgeously languid opener, Sunshine's Better, and Jerry Underwood's sax dances around those slurred, blue-eyed vocals. Martyn's in gorgeous and untamed voice throughout -impossibly plaintive on Suzanne as Phil Collins echoes him on the chorus, kicking up a storm on the funky Step It Up. The fresh rhythmic approach also seems to have invigorated Martyn's songwriting, which stretches for one of his most considered pieces in years, Downward Pull Of Human Nature. All that prevents And from being an instant classic are a couple of insubstantial songs and a sense that, occasionally, he's pulled back from the brink and employed his admittedly unique '80s AOR style rather than go all the way with the new beats.
Minor reservations aside, And is a timely reminder that Martyn is a stubbornly individual talent, still restlessly ploughing his own particular field, that he still sounds like no-one else and that, yes, he deserves to be both honoured and cherished.
Are you glad to be off Permanent and signed to Go! Discs?
Permanent did me nothing but disfavours. I spent two years in the wilderness, feeling as though I'd been discarded. Go! Discs seem to have the same attitude that Island had when I was starting out; the youth and enthusiasm is a trip and I actually like all their artists, especially Gabrielle!
When did Phil Collins last play on one of your albums?
This is probably the first time we've played together since he produced Glorious Fool in 1981 but we've stayed in touch. With the advent of the ADAT, we don't have to bother each other. I send him a tape and it comes back -it's a bit like postal chess.
Did you consciously draw on hip hop for this album?
I don't make conscious decisions when it comes to music; I just follow my heart. I went to Chicago to play with Buddy Guy and on the way I bumped into all this hip hop shit. Funnily enough, the next album I'm planning is acoustic again.
You've had your folkie phase and the suits period, what's the vibe right now?
I've always gone in phases, I had my Mod period when I rode around on scooters, my English suburbia thing for The Tumbler... I'm into my Thelonious Monk period right now, silk suits, berets... In fact, my vibe is to be somewhat outré. A kid walked up to me the other day and asked me, 'Was I a Druid?' I was almost offended.
muffnote: This issue of Mojo had R.E.M. on the cover and originally cost £ 2.75. The JM stuff featured prominently in the 'Albums' section.