John Martyn is a neglected tower of British rock, a man who’s made some of the most palpable, almost physically emotional music ever recorded, whose reward for having always pushed a little too far ahead of his time and against assumptions of what he is about has been perpetual commercial frustration. Next to the thick, heady, sonic bromide suspension of his best work, other singer/songwriters of his generation sound timidly anaemic, literally pale into insignificance.
To some extent, Martyn may have contributed to his own under-achievement. When he didn’t achieve the commercial success he deserved, he sank into a mire of drugs and alcohol (although when he did achieve a modicum of the commercial success he deserved, he also sank into a mire of drugs and alcohol). He and vital sidekick bassist Danny Thompson (now an abstemious Muslim) would embark on hilarious binges, one of which involved Martyn waking up discovering he’d been nailed to the floor under the carpet by Thompson.
For one gig, Martyn arrived late and the worse for wear, and during his first guitar solo, vomited abundantly into a bucket. On another occasion, he and the band removed a garment of clothing after each number, ending their set stark naked.
Such pecadilloes are part of the legend surrounding Martyn but have perhaps denied him the holy reverence conferred on, say, Nick Drake. It also doesn’t help that, unlike Drake, Martyn didn’t die young. In spite of one or two minor health scares in recent years and a continuing appetite for booze, Martyn has lived and gigged on, grown fatter as the piercing beauty of his music has inevitably dulled a little, a worldly and unmythologised old beardo. Yet Martyn deserves to be considered as at least the equal of Nick Drake and possibly his superior. Among the groups he’s influenced significantly, Beth Orton, Air, The Durutti Column and Portishead immediately spring to mind. He himself, though a folksie by musical birth, has been touched by a range of ancestors from bluesman Skip James to Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry to Debussy.
1973′s Solid Air is considered by many to be John Martyn’s apex. It was recorded in seven hasty days in late 1972 after he’d scrapped the original, rockier, four-square recordings in favour of something more idiosyncratic. It’s the album on which he finds his poignantly slurred voice and meltingly diverse musical style, after a series of albums commencing with 1968′s London Conversations, in which he’d gradually wriggled free from his acoustic folk origins, adding jazz and blues and his own dubby signature echoplex guitar styling into the mix. “All of my albums are autobiographical”, Martyn once plainly stated.
At the time of recording Solid Air, Martyn was provisionally happy, ensconced in domestic bliss down in Hastings, with wife Beverley (with whom he had previously recorded two albums) and kids. After a difficult start to his musical career which had seen him sleeping rough in Trafalgar Square before he managed to cadge gigs with The Incredible String Band, he now had a niche at Island and was able to look with confidence to the future. These sanguine feelings pump through songs here like “Over The Hill”, an effervescent hymn to the joys of returning home, inspired by the view of his village on the train to Hastings and driven by Richard Thompson’s rolling, bucolic mandolin. Or “Go Down Easy”, a sensual descent into bliss (“You curl around me/Like a fern in the spring . . .”), in which Martyn’s guitar and Danny Thompson’s mazy, hazy stand-up bass entwine almost conjugally. Or “May You Never”, a favourite among Martyn devotees, an avuncular/fraternal ballad of deep affection to an unknown friend. (“You’re just like a big strong brother of mine . . .”)
An entire album of songs like this would be a little too much to take – John Martyn has often been accused of verging on the maudlin and sentimental. He espoused his philosophy in an NME interview at the time. “I feel strongly that there’s a great dearth of heart everywhere right now. The drug culture has laid too heavy an emphasis on the expansion of the head.” The word “heart” is often bandied glibly in musical discourse but in Martyn’s case it had meaningful impact on his sound, whose jazzy inflections, blues and folk hankerings, avant-garde chord changes and sonic distortions all naturally simulate the throb and ache, the melting warmth, the push and pull of emotional flux and churn, play unerringly on the gut-strings. John Martyn’s music was druggy, was trippy but it reflected an overload in the heart, not the brain.
No more is this evident than on the darker tracks of Solid Air, such as the title track, full of palpable (and, unfortunately, accurate) foreboding. With its sweet, poignant fug of sound, you might say it does exactly what it says on the tin. Bedded in a dark swirl of vibes, unconsciously reminiscent (as Wire writer Rob Young has pointed out) of Pharaoh Sanders’ “Astral Travelling”, Thompson’s bass sending out seductive but de-energising eddy currents, Tony Coe’s sax registering little more than condensation patterns and Martyn himself singing in his now trademark, concussed style, it’s an undoubted precursor to trip-hop. Yet whereas trip-hop’s about creating a stoned and desensitised vibe, “Solid Air” has a much deeper emotional pull. It’s a cry of help to Martyn’s friend and contemporary Nick Drake, who in 1973 was crippled by a drugs habit and a despondent inability to come to terms with the world. “You’ve been painting it blue, you’ve been looking through solid air/You’ve been seeing it through/And you’ve been looking through/solid air.”. Physically, the track’s state of dis-solution, on the edge of this world and an outer darkness, reflects Drake’s state of disillusion with this life, perhaps more vividly than Drake’s own music did.
“Don’t Want To Know”, too, is a track which seems to flicker like a candle in the midst of a greater darkness. With its lonely electric keyboards and gloomy, rambling guitar, it’s an attempt to shrug off the false consolations of the material world. “Yes, it’s getting hard to listen/Hard for us to use our eyes/’Cause all around that gold is glistening/Making sure it keeps us hypnotised.” A lyric like this demonstrates the gulf of sensibilities between the counter-cultural seventies and the shopping counter present. No one would be so naive or brave to utter such sentiments nowadays. “I’d Rather Be The Devil”, by contrast, is a cover of a song by that most traumatised of bluesmen Skip James, wracked with purgatorial guilt at having stolen his best friend’s woman. Martyn wreaks every last self-excoriating ounce of energy from the song, before the band plunge into deep improvisation, a Styx of Echoplex, bass and electric keyboards, with the players intermingling and bubbling frantically beneath the surface. “Dreams By The Sea” with its scurrying and fretful keyboard line is uncannily similar to “Keep On Running”, from Stevie Wonder’s 1972 album Music Of My Mind, an album whose oscillation between despondency and blissfulness, whose dark, warm, electric bath of sound resembles Solid Air as a whole. “Dreaming that there’s a killer in your eyes/Dreaming that you’re a user/Dreaming that I’m a loser/Dreaming that there’s a killer in my eyes.”
If the album winds up on a slightly inconsequential note, with the jellyrolling parody of “The Easy Blues”, if the album seems to clock in a tad short at under 35 minutes, that hardly detracts from Solid Air’s giant achievement. He created an immense body of musical water here, one that was, unfortunately, allowed to remain stagnant and un-drawn from for almost 20 years. He followed up with the still more turbulent Inside Out and has spent the past 25 years in vain and glorious struggle for a sound commercial footing, but has always proven that bit too bolshie and too often too drunk to walk the straight line of expediency and old fart respectability. A shame for him, perhaps – but in Solid Air he at least gave us, not for the only time, an album which is inebriating in the most sublime sense of the word.