REMEMBERING JOHN MARTYN, his sometime acquaintance from the 1960s folk scene, the Incredible Sting Band's Robin Williamson said: "He had a handsome fresh face which he later managed to destroy completely." A boyish 18 when he left Glasgow, Martyn didn't complete his Jekyll & Hyde switch from blond cherub to snarling, menacing, jazz-folk demon until the early 1970s, but these vinyl reissues of his first four records capture his determined efforts to lose his innocence.
Recorded within months of his arrival in the big city, 1967's callow London Conversation showcases Martyn's Davey Graham guitar skills and gigantic debt to the Incredible String Band, the sitar-spattered Rolling Home a cutesy dead giveaway. Jazz flautist Harold McNair decorated follow-up The Tumbler, but Martyn was still struggling to summon his own voice. Impish closer Seven Black Roses raises the stakes slightly, but he might have run out of chances to get it right had he not met Beverley Kutner.
A veteran of several singles, she was already signed to Joe Boyd's Witchseason productions when she married Martyn in April 1969 (a decision she would later come to regret). Sent to Woodstock to record what was initially meant to be her own record (with The Band's Levon Helm among the big bucks supporting cast), she and John returned with Stormbringer! - effectively a cut'n'shut of two solo records, with John taking six tracks to Beverley's four. Hers are tentative and quirky, his have a weather-eye for the Big Pink sound and -on Traffic-Light Lady and Would You Believe Me?- a certain rogue-ish charm.
The duo returned to London to make The Road To Ruin, a Brit-jazz supporting cast helping to darken the mood. Beverley's gaunt celebration of north London bohemia Primrose Hill is very much its signature tune, but if the Martyns sound like a couple on Give Us A Ring, John's lone wolf instincts pointed the way forward. His esses blur into zeds for the last time on the spindly intro to the title track, an echoey production job hinting at something dark and powerful to be unleashed.
So it proved. Beverley's career got trapped behind the pram in the hall, while John perfected his Echoplex guitar sound, his bromance with stand-up bassist Danny Thompson producing the visionary squall of Inside Out, Solid Air and One World,1 and signposting his own road to ruin. He died in 2009, aged 60, but given his alcoholism, drug use and knack for making enemies, the end might have come much sooner.
These records can only hint at what lay ahead for the curly-haired pup in double denim on the sleeve of London Conversation. They are pretty but guileless, prototypes abandoned on the way to Martyn's personal big bang. However naturally it came to him, beauty was never really his thing.
John & Beverly Martyn, whipping up a Storm... together in 1970.
1 A more logical choice would have been Bless The Weather, Solid Air and Inside Out.
Halfway through 2023, Proper Records rereleased the first four Island albums on heavyweight vinyl. There releases were official and produced in Poland.
This review was printed in the Filter Reissues section on page 94 of the October issue of Mojo.