If one were going to create a hierarchy of British folk guitar players, Davy Graham would have to be at the top, closely followed by Bert Jansch and Nick Drake, the former bluesy and jagged, the latter jazzy and flowing, both mysterious, elusive, romantic figures.
John Renbourn and Martin Carthy would follow hard on their heels, Renbourn always slightly in Jansch’s shadow because he didn’t write Needle of Death, Carthy always slightly undervalued, having not gained a younger following of rock and indie kids the way Drake and Jansch have.
John Martyn might be considered something else again, a capricious folkie who went to the bad, abandoning his jazzy, freewheeling, alcohol-fuelled collaboration with the peerless double bassist Danny Thompson to make albums with Phil Collins or in the mode of Collins’s ballads, all tinkling electric pianos and fretless bass. Certainly Sweet Little Mystery seems a long way off, and somewhat improbable, as you listen to his earnest take on Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright from debut album London Conversation.
Well, I love Nick Drake and Bert Jansch. Perhaps no other guitarist has had such an influence on the way I play music, write music and think about music as Drake. Jansch blew my mind when I heard Anji for the first time, and blew it again when I saw him play Blackwaterside live at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, seeming determined to reshape the song entirely, or pull it apart in the attempt.
But John Martyn’s musical imagination, his ability to absorb and incorporate influences from outside the traditions he grew up in, his obvious love for all this music, his refusal to let himself get stuck – for all of this, no one beats John Martyn in my book. His musical imagination dwarfed Bert’s, it even dwarfed Nick’s. Would either of them have been able to throw themselves into playing reggae sessions in Jamaica and make themselves useful? Would either of them even have wanted to?
The ultimate testament to Martyn’s protean musical talents is to be found on One World, from 1977, an album produced by Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, recorded by Phill Brown (whose CV is staggering but to pick just a few names: Jimi Hendrix, Rolling Stones, Bob Marley, Pink Floyd, Joni Mitchell, Led Zeppelin, Little Feat, Talk Talk), and featuring Danny Thompson and Dave Pegg on bass, John Stevens and Andy Newmark on drums, Steve Winwood on everything (but most notably on synth), Rico on trombone, and Lord Rockingham himself, Harry Robinson, arranging strings.
(Harry Robinson was behind Hoots Mon. Harry Robinson arranged River Man. Harry Robinson is therefore a very good thing indeed.)
If One World were any ordinary album that started with Dealer and took in Big Muff (a Lee Perry co-write), Couldn’t Love You More and the title track, it’d be an album from which it’s hard to pick a highlight. But One World isn’t an ordinary album. One World finished with Small Hours, and Small Hours can bend time and distort space.
Picture a house almost entirely surrounded by water, a house on the edge of a disused gravel pit which had been flooded to become a lake. This was Chris Blackwell’s house, where One World was recorded. One of Phill Brown’s recording techniques for the album – at Blackwell’s suggestion – involved installing a large PA system outdoors and setting the monitor stacks up on the far side of the stables, pointing out across the lake, then using two microphones on the opposite side of the house, to mike up the outdoor PA sound coming back off the lake, and two more close to the water’s edge, to pick up the water lapping at the shore, as well as the distant, extremely ambient guitar sound coming from the PA.
It was this set-up that captured the otherworldly Small Hours, live vocals and all, early one morning in July 1977. Wave after gentle wave of Martyn’s Echoplex guitar lap at your speakers as a faint rhythm from a drum machine keeps time (turn it up, though, and feel what happens to the bass drum sound), until, three minutes in, Martyn’s tenor-saxophone voice slides in.
In a career filled with highlights (Fine Lines, Solid Air, Don’t Want To Know, Spencer the Rover, Angeline, So Much In Love With You, Head and Heart, so many more), Small Hours might just be his masterpiece. Ornery, aggressive and self-indulgent though he could be, no amount of praise and adulation from his fans and peers will ever be enough to do justice to the man and his extraordinary musical journey.
Can I trouble you to listen to my new EP, Last Swallow?