Solid Air: Classics Re-visited

23 Sep 2002
Written by: 
Joe Adair

Loudon Wainwright III once wrote a humorous song, 'Talking New Bob Dylan', in which he bracketed himself with a number of other would-be Dylans who picked up their acoustic guitar and got wordy back in the late '60s. John Martyn can safely be classed as one of those hopefuls, since he included a cover of El Zim's 'Don't Think Twice It's Alright' on his first album, London Conversation.

But just like his role model, he's never allowed himself to be pigeonholed or become stale and predictable. Changes have been rung, stylistic jumps made and trademarks established - for instance, the characteristic use of slapback echo on the acoustic guitar has become a building-block of the whole 'trip-hop' movement which entitle him to claim his career to date has been a musical voyage of discovery.

And it's one that continues today, both for John and his many fans. Okay, the numbers of said fans may register 'sizeable cult' rather than mass-market Wembley Arena, but that seems to suit everybody. An exception came with an invitation from the Verve to support them in front of 32,000 home-town followers back in the late '90s, just one indication of the respect in which he's held by fellow musicians: Eric Clapton and Dr John are among the artists who have covered him.

The selections here date from the early '90s, but it's a testament to both singer and songs that you'd be hard pressed to pin a date on them. Just to make life more complicated, all but the last five (which come from 1990's 'The Apprentice') appeared on a pair of albums from 1992 and 1993 in which John revisited two decades' worth of back catalogue in the company of such long-time pals as Phil Collins, Pink Floyd's Dave Gilmour and the Band's Levon Helm.

Fan reaction at the time as mixed: whether or not the person who writes the song should leave well alone, or has the right to re-record his work if and when it suits him, is down to personal taste - certainly the likes of late, great bluesman John Lee Hooker cut his classics so many times it's well-nigh impossible to pick out definitive versions. But one thing Martyn tried to do was improve on his original vocal. "For the last six years I've been working on becoming a better singer," he told Guitar magazine at the time, adding darkly: "I don't like singers who abuse the privilege."

There are those to whom that statement might provoke a smile, since John Martyn's distinctively slurred tones are almost the epitome of laziness. But listen again. He certainly knows how to use his voice as an instrument, and that is no mean feat. He's worked with the like of reggae super-producer Lee 'Scratch' Perry, another man who revels in shaping sound, and later in the '90s would enter the world of drum and bass with Chicago producer Stefon Taylor. He's never been content to rest on his laurels.

That said, some of the songs you can hear here are worthy of reflection. 'Bless The Weather' was title track of the 1971 album where he started bringing his road-tested improvising style into the studio, having just cut two albums with then-wife Beverley. 'I Don't Wanna Know' and 'May You Never' stem from Solid air, his 1973 release and probably the most celebrated album of his canon whose title track was dedicated to his friend, Nick Drake. By contrast, 'Sunday's Child' from two years later celebrated temporary domestic bliss in Hastings. The rhythmic 'Dealer' and 'Big Muff' were originally waxed for the One world collaboration with Lee Perry, while 'Sweet Little Mystery' and 'Couldn't Love You More' are key cuts from Grace and danger and Glorious fool, the Phil Collins-produced albums that started the '80s with Martyn recovering from divorce and at a low emotional ebb.

'Sapphire' gave its title track to a much-underrated 1984 album cut in the Bahamas with the help of Robert Palmer, which also contained 'Fisherman's Dream', while 'Angeline' -the first commercially available CD single, trivia buffs may note- was written for his new wife and was a standout of 1986's Piece by piece. A rare cover, 'Rock, Salt & Nails', has long been a live highlight and, on the recorded version, featured Levon Helm an a mesmerising version of the Steve Young song. (Martyn and Helm had first recorded together in the late '60s when John and Beverley had cut Stormbringer in Woodstock - another Dylan connection.)

The final five selections1 are highlights of The apprentice, an album that deserved far greater kudos than it received on original release. One reason for its low-profile arrival was that John had just left long-time label Island Records for the second and final time, the other that, curious as ever, he was venturing into studio technology and further away from his traditional style.

Listen to 'The Apprentice', inspired by a chance meeting with a man who worked at the Sellafield nuclear plant, or 'Send Me One Line'. which was written for inclusion in a film version of 84 Charing Cross Road, to know that Martyn's songwriting gifts have done much more than merely survive the passage of time. Ironically though 'Send Me One Line' didn't grace the film about a long-time correspondence between an American woman and a London bookshop owner - John wrote it, then forgot about it! - Martyn music would finally make the movies a decade later when commissioned for the soundtrack of The Talented Mr Ripley. In 1993, when John Martyn released some of the 'revisited' music here, he said: "I did this because the songs had changed so much from their original form. I like closing patterns in my life and starting again." Magnet magazine claimed the result proved that "It's still the singer, not the song, that matters most." I'm not sure I agree with that assessment -compositions like these cannot be dismissed so lightly- but listen to the talented Mr Martyn and make up your own mind.

Joe Adair

1 sitenote: Apparently the producer decided later on to put these tracks in the beginning.