Sweet Certain Surprise (expanded)

15 Oct 2001
Written by: 
John Hillarby

"You have to be prepared for a certain amount of looseness, ya dig man? There's not going to be a great deal of leaping about in lamé suits and that kind of thing!" quips John.
Humour, intelligence and an excellent repartee with the audience are features of any John Martyn gig. With a voice that is capable of expressing emotion like no other, John has established himself as one of the all time great live performers since he started playing on the club circuit in the 1960s.

Sweet Certain Surprise was originally 'released' as a commercial bootleg, allegedly limited to only 500 copies. As with any bootleg recording the artist receives no royalties and the sound quality is often poor. Rest assured that with this release the sound quality is better than the bootleg, there are two bonus songs and John will benefit this time!

John had a string of successful albums in the 70s and live dates were always sold out. In 1975 John toured extensively accompanied by Danny Thompson on double bass and John Stevens on drums. John invited Paul Kossoff (the ex Free guitarist) to join him for the tour and he would join John on stage for the last few songs of each gig. On 13th February 1975 John played at Leeds University. This magical and atmospheric performance was recorded, however Island Records expressed little, if any, interest in releasing it. John decided to release it himself simply entitled Live At Leeds. Due to Kossoff's poor health, his playing was erratic and had to be cut from the album. Live At Leeds was a limited release of only 10,000 copies. John produced, designed and sold the album by mail order as well as from the front door of his Hastings home in 1976. Over 20 years later Live At Leeds was re-released by Voiceprint on CD with five additional tracks featuring Paul Kossoff - a must have for all John Martyn and Paul Kossoff fans. (One World OW107CD)

September and November 1975 saw John touring again and by the end of the year he was totally exhausted. He decided to take a sabbatical and using all his savings he visited Jamaica for four months where he met Lee 'Scratch' Perry. Encouraged by Perry, he soon started playing again in sessions and appeared on Burning Spears' Man In The Hills. The sabbatical continued through 1976 and into 1977. John said, "I honestly believe I would have gone completely round the bend had I not gone and done that."

In early 1977 the reinvigorated John Martyn started performing live again. "The adrenaline buzz you get on stage is quite amazing. I didn't realise how much I'd missed it." This recording is of John's second gig in the USA after his sabbatical. The set opens with John singing Head and Heart, a song about his belief in the power of love to overcome all things. Man In The Station is then segued with a joy filled rendition of My Baby Girl and John is clearly enjoying himself, engaging in lively banter with the audience. John's voice is then full of resentment as he sings,

"Bless the weather that brought you to me,
Curse the man that takes you away,
Bless the weather that brought you to me,
Curse the storm that drags you away."

We are then treated to an incredible instrumental of Seven Black Roses, which demonstrates John's dexterity as a guitar virtuoso. John describes this as his 'visual guitar solo', which he first performed in clubs in the 1960s. Passion and joy are next on the menu with a brace of love songs: Certain Surprise segued with Couldn't love You More. A very early performance of both songs that were not released until November 1977 on the album One World. Certain Surprise appears to be in the process of being written with different lyrics to the final album version. This 1977 set closes with a poignant and moving performance of Solid Air. John's voice is full of sadness and overwhelming despair as he sings about his friend and fellow musician Nick Drake.

The next two songs are bonus tracks that do not appear on the bootleg. The Easy Blues and One Day Without You were both recorded in 1977 and are a valuable addition to this release which gives an insight to John's early solo acoustic performances.

The last four songs were recorded at the Dominion Theatre, London in May 1981. By this time John had become bored with the limitations of the acoustic guitar and had started to concentrate on electric guitar and a full band setting for his music. We join John performing Big Muff, a song that he wrote with Lee 'Scratch' Perry whilst in Jamaica. The reggae and dub influences are clear with a heavy bassline combined with the more familiar echoplex giving an entirely different sound. John delivers the menacing lyrics with venom -

"Big Muff get away with your powder puff
Lord knows you're killing me
Big Muff muff muff sweet muff
Get away with your terrible stuff
Lord knows you're killing me".

The set draws to a close with John playing May You Never, perhaps his most well known song and a "rave from the grave" Spencer The Rover.

A legendary maverick of progressive rock, John is a uniquely talented musician. Sit back, listen and enjoy vintage John Martyn!

John Hillarby