Archive for 1998

Monday, October 26th, 1998

John Martyn – Solid Air

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.

Monday, June 15th, 1998

Rock Festivals

(This piece first appeared in a festivals supplement in The Guardian Guide in 1998. Someday I will blog about my various Glastonbury experiences)

It used to be just the three – Glastonbury, Reading, and, for those bringing up the rear on the evolutionary scale, the metalfest at Donnington. Now, to cope with the sludge-like, eclectic spread of indie culture, there seem to be festivals every weekend during the Summer months in Britain – from T In The Park to Phoenix to Fleadh. Every weekend, under leaden skies between June and late August, some ferret-faced, saucer-eyed little Shed Seven fan will be turning green at his first tote on a spliff, some bleary, denim clad fat bloke will be sinking into the horizontal slime, clutching a half-empty can of Guiness and bellowing “Blleaaooorraagggghhhh!!” at anyone who will listen, some hapless bassist from a declining Britpop band will be dodging handfuls of mud at 1.20 in the afternoon on Second Stage. Once upon a time, the music industry practically took the Summer off – now it seems like the busiest time of the year.

Rock festivals are predicated on idyllic notions. They foster the idea that there is such a thing as a rock community, a “we”, a counter-culture, who periodically gather together in a field to show “our” strength in numbers. They represent a slight, ecologically friendly return to a halcyon age before the poisonous sprawl of the City stamped out the peasantry of Merrie England, their fiddlers, their troubadours and their stilt walkers in jester’s hats. Glastonbury especially hints at this, with its fieldfuls of herbalists, tree-worshippers and near-naked 50 year old hippies whittling sticks and so forth. The suggestion is that England was a happy land of tye’n’die, lentil stews and jugglers before the horrors of the machine age.

Bull-shit. Rock festivals are actively the reverse of all of this. Counter-culture? A generation ago there was cynicism about that phrase. Today’s hard-bitten adolescents are no more aware of the existence of the phrase counter-culture than they are familiar with the details of the Profumo affair. “We” has given way to “I”. I wanna get stoned, pissed, shagged, up the front , out of the house for the weekend. Holding hands and forming a human daisy chain of peace, love and understanding is about as high on the list of priorities of today’s festygoer as remembering to pack a cummerbund.

If this spirit of hippie brotherhood ever existed, it probably died after punk. Back in 1978, Steve Hillage, formerly of Gong, joined Sham 69’s Jimmy Pursey onstage for a rendition of “If The Kids Are United”. The cross-generational symbolism should have been obvious. However, as they reached the last chorus of “They will nevah – be divid-ed!” an enormous punk skinhead bounded on stage and bellowed into the mic, “And if the hippies don’t like that they can fuck off!”

Ecologically sound? I think not. With their lethal combination of electricity generators, queues of second-hand cars with dodgy exhaust pipes, discarded condoms and cracked plastic beakers and veggieburger-induced flatulence, all slowly marinating in the rising, acrid stench of unwashed crusty, festivals are as ecologically sound as a rusty ex-nuclear sub washed up in Hackney Marshes. The only thing that’s recycled at festivals are the riffs. Seen from above, the vast, filthy, unkempt sprawl that constitutes a festival gathering can be witnessed for what it is – an indelible, embarrassing skidmark on the underpants of Nature. You suspect that Mother Nature is sending out a strong hint of Her own in that, even when droughts and hose-pipe bans prevail elsewhere in the country, She always ensures that festivals are entrenched in unfeasible amounts of mud. All it ever seems to take, for instance, is a light shower in February to ensure that Glastonbury’s fields are reduced to the consistency of quicksand come June.

Far from representing some bucolic idyll, festivals are a grim, apocalyptic hint at the shambles society would fall into if we were ever to be damnfool enough to give up the bourgeois, man-made benefits civilisation has bestowed upon us. Who wants to live in the 13th century? Take the toilets. One doesn’t wish to come on like Private Godfrey but – well, last year, rows of pleasantly antiseptic-looking blue tardis-type kiosks were provided at most festivals. Step inside and you realised that among the luxuries they provided, drainage was not one of them. As one urinated, one was forced to stare down a metallic hole to a river collective waste akin to the Styx. The toilet chain also provided hung there with deadpan irony. And this was backstage. I ventured out among the poor wretches lying prostrate in their own body fluids out front and couldn’t find any facilities whatsoever. I’m told they’re there somewhere but evidently I wasn’t hiring the right firm of private detectives.

The notion of festivals as a great leveller is also false. A class system as rigid as that observed circa World War 1 prevails. Up on the hills, you have the folk in the big, fuck off caravans with picket fences and propane accessories. Further down the valleys you have the wretches, cannon fodder for the moshpits, subsisting as best they can in flimsy tents at the mercy of roaming thugs, drunks, bikers, drug-dealers and TV crews looking for “atmosphere”. There’s backstage, where we, the journalists quaff, chatter and occasionally venture out from the marquees to stare out in horror at the wretched civilians being kept at bay from us by burly stewards, marvelling at the sheer frightfulness of it all. Then there are the bands, who no longer deign even to appear backstage any more but buzz down by helicopter, bound onstage and bond fraudulently with the throng, affecting to be just ordinary la’s like them, before helicoptering straight off again to the nearest four star hotel where they’re on the phone to reception if there’s no mint on their pillow.

Of course, there are things to see and do at festivals. You can buy things. If ever you feel the urge to buy a flowing, tassled, purple scarf, for instance, festivals are your place. There’s food. If you fancy a portion of chips arranged in those cone containers which ensure that only the first seven chips are properly salted and vinegared then, hey nonny nonny, get thee hence to the rock festival. You can see bands. This is an experience that can easily be simulated at home, however. To recreate the sight, place an album sleeve of your favourite combo at the bottom of your garden and marvel that those faraway little figures are actually your heroes. As for the sound, insert the CD and attach your sound system to a garden swing, pushing violently back and forth to get that unique, what-a-band-sounds-like-at-a-festival event.

You’re better off watching it all on TV – indeed, with this in mind, festival organisers have actually been considerate enough in recent years to provide television sets backstage. Not that I’m suggesting that music journalists would dream of reviewing bands from the comfort of the beer tent rather than join their comrades, the kids, out in the mud – that would be a libel on an overworked and under-regarded body of men and women. However, it’s nice to know they’re there.

After all this, there may be a handful of you who will turn up regardless at Glasters, Reading, Phoenix and the rest. You may, perhaps, be young, naive, prepared to rough it, suffused with a zest for life and a wide-eyed curiosity for new experiences and unorthodox types – and above all, desperate for a shag. In which case, there’s no talking to you . .