Tag Archives: Island Records

Thoughts on John and Beverley Martyn

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve read Small Hours: The Long Night of John Martyn by Graeme Thompson and Beverley Martyn’s Sweet Honesty: The Beverley Martyn Story. Here are some thoughts. I’m not really going into the music in depth here. I’ve written about John Martyn elsewhere on this blog several times if you’re looking for that. I’ve not gone into specifics about John Martyn’s abuse of Beverley; nonetheless, CW.

In 2001, thanks to James McKean playing me Fine Lines in the house we shared in Lewisham, I became a John Martyn fan, and picked up his entire seventies discography over the next two or three years.

It wasn’t until I saw Johnny Too Bad on BBC4 in around 2004 that I realised Martyn was not a nice guy, that his mellow-old-soak routine could turn on a dime into hostility and physical aggression. You could still see it and sense it, but his edge had by then been blunted by his health conditions; during the course of the documentary, he has his leg amputated, and over the next few years, largely wheelchair bound, he would grow hugely overweight and progressively more frail. At that point, he was mainly a danger to himself.

In the 1970s and 1980s, though, he was a danger to anyone who looked at him in a way he didn’t like, including, more than anyone, his first wife, Beverley.

The two had met in the late 1960s, when they were both up-and-coming singer-songwriters in the London folk scene. At the time, Beverley Kutner was the bigger name of the two. She had been in a fairly successful jug band called the Levee Breakers, released some singles on Deram Records (also home at the time to the still-obscure David Bowie), been offered a contract by EMI, which her boyfriend Bert Jansch advised her to turn down out (she believes out of professional jealousy), and been in a relationship with a visiting Paul Simon, which is how she ended up performing at Monterey Pop as the guest of Simon and Garfunkel and travelling all over the States, making contacts and meeting the great and the good.

John Martyn had not been at Monterey, he had not been out with famous folk stars, whether homegrown or international, nor had he hung out with Peter Fonda and David Crosby in LA. Mentored by Scottish singer-songwriter Hamish Imlach, a Rabelasian figure whom Martyn would increasingly resemble physically as he aged, Martyn moved to London in his late teens, scoring a deal with Island. Despite label boss Chris Blackwell’s belief in Martyn and his music, his first two albums were not successful, and didn’t really deserve to be. Martyn, unlike Jansch (a rival with whom Martyn more than once came to blows) or Nick Drake (a friend who seemed to bring out Martyn’s gentler, best side), did not arrive fully formed.

But for all her early successes, neither did Kutner. When she and Martyn pitched up in Woodstock, NY, to record what would become Stormbringer! in 1969, both were – being generous – improving singer-songwriters. Originally slated by Joe Boyd, her mentor, as a Beverley Martyn (the couple were newlyweds) solo album, it became instead a duo record, with John writing six of the album’s ten songs, and his fingerprints more evident on the finished product than hers.

Boyd didn’t like John Martyn all that much, as a man or a writer. There was no outright hostility between them at this point, but their relationship was edgy. Boyd came round to Stormbringer! during the course of production, and ended up thinking it was a decent album despite John’s involvement, but he’s expressed regret many times at how Beverley’s career became intertwined with John’s, to its detriment.

Released in February 1970, Stormbringer! is a record that’s promising and intermittently great rather than consistently accomplished. The band that Paul Harris (pianist and musical director for the sessions) assembled was superb, with Harvey Brooks on bass and top-tier drumming talent in the shape of the Mothers’ Billy Mundi, The Band’s Levon Helm and session great Herbie Lovell. But only a few of the songs are worthy of the stellar backing they received.

One of them, the title track, is magisterial – John Martyn’s greatest early song, with beautifully empathetic support from Harris’s piano and Lovell’s drums. Rollicking opener Go Out and Get It works well, as does John the Baptist. Both songs suggest a pretty heavy influence from The Band. But Traffic Light Lady and Woodstock are twee and forgettable, and Would You Believe Me fails to nail the heavy, spooky mood it shoots for. Kutner’s songs are, on the whole, less successful still, with static melodies and blue notes that don’t quite work. Sweet Honesty, arranged (presumably by Martyn and Harris) in a similar style to John the Baptist and Go Out and Get It, works best by placing more emphasis on groove, reducing the importance of lyric and tune. But at eight minutes, it overstays its welcome.

Stormbringer! is, then, almost certainly a better record as John and Beverley Martyn album than it would have been as a Beverley solo release. But knowing that Martyn elbowed his way into the picture then took over his wife’s artistic project is always there in the background, making listening to the record uncomfortable, as it appears this was an early manisfestation of the controlling and abusive behaviour he would exhibit for the rest of their marriage. Indeed, Beverley Martyn writes that it was during their time in Woodstock that Martyn was first violent towards her, after a party at which they met Bob Dylan.

The Road to Ruin was recorded and released in 1970, marking a busy 12 months for the Martyns. This time, they recorded at home base for many of the artists signed to Island and/or Joe Boyd’s Witchseason production company, Sound Techniques in Chelsea, with a band once again led by Harris and featuring Fairport’s Dave Pegg, Mike Kowalski, Alan Spenner and saxophonists Ray Warleigh and Dudu Pukwana.

It’s decidedly less of a rock album than Stormbringer! The drums are mixed lower, and the vibe generally – enhanced by the presence of saxophonists on the songs – is more jazzy, but Auntie Aviator at least (co-credited to John and Beverley, but claimed by Beverley as mainly her work) recreates the Stormbringer! template of pensive piano, woodily downtuned acoustic guitar and rock rhythm section.

In the end, the album’s most crucial tracks in John Martyn’s career were the acoustic Parcels (in which he sang low in his range, with a backing of his guitar, Harris’s piano and congas) and New Day, which features on double bass Danny Thompson, who would go on to be Martyn’s great musical partner throughout the seventies. Beverley, meanwhile, contributed her finest original song – Primrose Hill, a lovely evocation of early-seventies bohemian north London, which has been sampled by Norman Cook for North West Three, a track from 2004 Fatboy Slim album Palookaville. (Auntie Aviator, meanwhile, has been sampled by Bristolian hip-hop group Aspects.)

After The Road to Ruin, the Martyns largely stopped recording and gigging together, not that they’d ever done a lot of that. A full-band launch gig for Stormbringer! with Nick Drake in support at the Queen Elizabeth Hall had gone so badly, in John’s view at least, that he called it the most humiliating moment of his career, and blamed it on the lack of interplay between himself and other musicians.

The inescapable conclusion is that he was never much interested in being in a duo with his wife as any kind of permanent arrangement. Perhaps he muscled in simply not wanting to be overshadowed by Beverley or miss out on any opportunities Joe Boyd offered her. Once it became clear that it wasn’t going to give him what he wanted, he moved on. Coincidentally or not, it was then that he found the relationship with Danny Thompson and the improvisatory style melding jazz, folk and rock that would power his albums from Bless the Weather through to Live at Leeds, after which he would record One World and largely leave folk guitar picking behind*.

As ever with John Martyn, we have to somehow reconcile the often extraordinary music he made with his terrible personal behaviour. Reading Beverley Martyn’s book, or even Graeme Thompson’s Small Hours, is often harrowing. Martyn’s physical abuse of Beverley steadily escalated until she left him in 1979. Even after that, the abuse continued in the form of bare-legal-minimum maintenance payments that left her and their children broke in a dilapidated house in Heathfield, sometimes depending on charity from friends, including a visiting Art Garfunkel. Perhaps related to her treatment by John, Beverley Martyn has been through periods where she’s struggled with her mental health.

Some will, no doubt, use that as a means to dismiss her testimony regarding Martyn’s abuses. For me, the central charges all stick – Graeme Thompson includes them in his book without questioning their veracity, with more than enough corroborating witnesses who saw their relationship at close hand.

Which brings us circling back round again to this question that keeps coming up these days – what to do, as a longtime fan of Martyn’s work, about the fact that he behaved in ways that were both criminal and appalling?

Artistic legacies are not value neutral. Who gets remembered, whose work is preserved and made available for future generations, is not merely about whose work is the best, or the most morally pure, even. It is mediated by commerce: does it make financial sense to continue to preserve this digital archive?

Clearly, it will continue to be profitable to preserve John Martyn’s music. The fact that his songs have been covered by other, bigger-name, artists (most notably, Clapton’s version of May You Never) means that there will always be a stream of people coming to Martyn’s music through that connection. Others will hear of him having first become fans of Nick Drake, or perhaps Fairport Convention.

Martyn’s music will live on. He will not, no matter what some of his more neanderthal fans say, be cancelled by woke warriors and SJWs. They – we, if you want to hang those labels on me – don’t have that power. Never have, never will.

One could, in the truest sense of the word, cancel him (that is, one could choose to exclude his work from one’s personal canon, not listen to it, and endeavour not to give him brain space either – to live as though he never existed), but his work will be preserved by the industry for others to listen to. And others will, and they will be influenced by and copy what they hear; his Solid Air-era acoustic guitar style, that percussive slap on the strings, is already part of guitarist’s lexicon, as it’s such a useful halfway house between picking and strumming.

For me, my reaction to Martyn and his music is in a state of flux. I find myself thinking again and again of the wise conclusion from Ann Powers’s essay, What it’s Like Listening to Michael Jackson Now, written shortly after Leaving Neverland aired:

As I write now, my critic’s impulse to draw neat conclusions nearly overcomes me: I want to provide closure for you, the reader, and maybe even more so for myself. But if I’m going to genuinely represent what it’s like to listen to Michael Jackson after Leaving Neverland, I have to ask you to stay with me in an uncomfortable place. In some way, this is what criticism, what engaging with culture as a thinking person, always strives to do. Yet it’s so easy to stop short. To revel in the boldly stated conclusion. To indulge in the flush of strong positive feelings. To rest in the perceived authority of the self-appointed jurist and turn away from the role that a deeper engagement with culture, in all its imperfections and even moral shortcomings, can offer: the chance to be a trustworthy witness. If culture builds itself through revelations, explorations, secrets and lies, any response that doesn’t claim the contradictions gets it wrong.

https://www.npr.org/2019/05/11/722198385/before-and-after-listening-to-michael-jackson-and-accusers?t=1613551586694

As Powers says elsewhere in her essay, the challenge is to stay present while listening, if listening is what we choose to do. And, as I argued a couple of weeks ago in re Phil Spector, not to delude yourself into thinking that the art absolves the artist in any way. It can’t and it doesn’t. We must hold on to the fact that the artist’s art and his crimes are both irreduceable, ineradicable. They don’t separate neatly, and they are equal facets of the person. You can play death-of-the-author mind tricks with yourself if you want, but the simple fact is that John Martyn’s career depended on his wife’s support and domestic labour. His art – itself often domestic in scale and subject – resists any attempt to prise it free of the circumstances of its making. Listening to it is uncomfortable, even – perhaps especially – when it’s the art that he and Beverley created together.

*Interestingly, Beverley claims she wrote the hook of one of his greatest songs, Don’t Wanna Know from Solid Air, for which she never recieved credit or royalties. My tendency when reading her book is always to trust her testimony, but I struggle with this one a little, because in both tune and sentiment it seems so typical of John’s style. But if true, it was disgraceful behaviour by him.

Double Live Gonzos, part 4: Live at Leeds – John Martyn

John Martyn died on 29 January 2009 – 10 years ago today.

Like much else about its creator, Live at Leeds isn’t what it seems. It’s purportedly a straightforward recording from 13 February 1975 of John Martyn, Danny Thompson and John Stevens playing live in the students’ refectory at Leeds University. Actually, Live at Leeds was, according to Martyn expert John Hillarby’s sleevenotes of the most recent re-release, put together from various live shows across the country from the same tour.

This is not an uncommon practice in the world of live albums. Many is the live record that has received in-studio touch-ups or includes a track or two from a different gig to the one the album documents. I have even heard one producer explain how he and a band (he didn’t say who) recorded the audio for the group’s live DVD in the studio due to a malfunction with the equipment on the night of the gig. Using the audio from a handheld camera used for audience shots to guide them, the players replayed their performances, punching in bar by bar to recreate the feel, tempos and articulations of the live show. Compared to that, Live at Leeds is a paragon of honesty.

A single album, containing just six tracks, Live at Leeds had been assembled with Island Records’ help (they supplied the mobile recording truck), but in the end they decided not to release it, feeling the project had limited commercial viability. Anticipating the developments in punk rock by a couple of years, Martyn decided simply to press it up himself and sell 10,000 copies by mail order from his house in Sussex. As well as artist and producer, he and his then wife Beverley became record company and distributor. While his judgement was correct in terms of the artistic worth of the record and his fans’ eagerness to hear it, the strain of doing all that work himself led him to require several months off afterwards, during which he went to Jamaica, befriending and collaborating with several local musicians, including Lee “Scratch” Perry.

Live at Leeds begins with a majestic 18-minute reading of Outside In that takes up almost the whole of the first side. They’re different beasts, but this version is the equal of the studio take. Which is to say, it’s up among the best recordings Martyn ever made. I miss the astonishing power of Remi Kabaka’s explosions on the tom-toms (if you don’t know it, check it out to hear what I mean), but John Stevens is a master of creating atmosphere with cymbals and toms. The studio take is warm, molten; the Live at Leeds Outside In is music of vast cosmic spaces.

The listener unfamiliar with Martyn’s work and his technique with the Echoplex will be likely be confounded by how much sound is coming from just three players*. By this stage, Martyn was an Echoplex master, probably the greatest exponent the machine ever had. His searing, distorted lead guitar (played, remember, on a Martin acoustic) more than compensates for the absence of Bobby Keyes’ lyrical saxophone on the original. I do wish I knew what he was singing, though.*

Solid Air, one of Martyn’s most beloved songs, is a thing of aching beauty. Solid Air the album was where Martyn truly honed his instantly recognisable vocal style: slurred, husky, imitative of a tenor saxophone in both timbre and approach to phrasing. After a long opening track that’s all but instrumental, hearing Martyn slide into the opening line of Solid Air is a shivers-down-the-spine moment.

The performance is a stunner. Tristan Fry’s vibraphone, so crucial on the studio recording, is hardly missed; this version is about John Martyn’s voice and the way Danny Thompson supports it with his bass. Stevens keeps to a supporting role, patiently keeping time on the hats, with few flourishes. He was wise enough not to break a delicate spell.

“I tell you what, this is a good’un,” says Martyn before launching into Make No Mistake, another highlight from Inside Out. Make No Mistake is a vehicle for some of the album’s best improvisation between Martyn and Danny Thompson. After about three minutes of relatively contained playing (though Thompson is nimble and lively throughout), the pair of them just take off, with Martyn playing fast, scalar raga-like lines as Thompson uses the bow to reinforce the Indian feel. The musical chemistry between the pair was something very special indeed.

It segues into Bless the Weather, which the audience recognises from its first two chords. Taken at a brisker tempo than the familiar studio recording, with Stephens playing pattering 16ths, this is a very free version, informed by how far Martyn’s explorations in jazz had taken him in the four short years since Bless the Weather‘s release. “Bless the weather that brought you to me,” Martyn sings, “curse the man that takes you home” – the substitution of “man” for the original lyric “storm” making plain perhaps what lay behind the metaphor all along.

A little over three minutes in, the players abruptly shift into a slower, more shuffle-based feel, as if reprising Make No Mistake. Stephens dispenses with his hi-hat 16ths to converse with his snare and toms, and the group end the song with a strong major-chord resolution. “Nice one, Danno!” Martyn calls out over the audience’s applause.

A brief Man in the Station follows, with Stephens’ most rock-influenced playing of the set, while Thompson’s kinetic bass playing fills in all the gaps left by the lack of a lead guitar.

The song is followed by the album’s only sustained section of on-stage banter (to use a word I really dislike; there is no other word for it though). Martyn, in cockney-geezer mode** advances the opinion that Ravel’s Balero was written as, how to put it, a soundtrack for intercourse. (The strong language that follows explains the parental advisory sticker that accompanies recent editions of the record – Martyn drops an f-bomb and a c-bomb) The jokes don’t stand up massively well to repeat listening, but I do think they’re a worthwhile inclusion, as they give a flavour of what a John Martyn gig was actually like. He and Thompson did spar, verbally and physically***, and there was an aggressive edge to it at times; a live record that excluded that element of the John Martyn live experience would lose something fundamental.

The final song in the set is an 8-minute version of Skip James’s I’d Rather Be the Devil, which Martyn had recorded brilliantly for Solid Air. Unfortunately, this version doesn’t get to the same territory as the studio recording. Partly this is down to having fewer instruments, and partly it’s that Stephens isn’t quite the right drummer for the job. Fairport Convention’s Dave Mattacks, who played on the original, is maybe not the first player who comes to mind when thinking about powerful rock drummers, but he invests those tom fills with plenty of thump, and breaks them up with snare flams, cymbal crashes and hi-hat fills. Stephens has a lighter touch, plays with brushes and sticks mainly to the toms, which lack the low end of Mattacks’. Consequently, the song has a lighter, hoppedy-skippedy kind of feel, at odds with the claustrophic paranoia of Martyn’s vocal.

Disappointing it may be that the gig ends on an unsatisfying note, but Live at Leeds is still absolutely essential for the John Martyn fan, whether casual or deep. The best of it (essentially the first four songs) are incandescently brilliant, the relationship between Thompson and Martyn seemingly telepathic. Martyn’s run of records in the seventies (Bless the Weather, Solid Air, Inside Out, Sunday’s Child, Live at Leeds, One World and Grace and Danger) is as good a sequence as anyone else’s in popular music, and Live at Leeds is a vital part of it; I’d recommend it ahead of Sunday’s Child, Bless the Weather and even Grace and Danger.

john martyn

*I’ve got the “precious babies” bit, but what’s the first thing he says? It sounds like “Fillet o’ fish”.

**One of the odd things about Martyn was that he had, essentially, two accents. Sometimes he spoke in gruff Glaswegian, at other times, like a working-class Londoner (despite having been born in New Malden, Surrey). He’d adapt his voice depending on the audience and his location, seldom acknowledging the oddness of the habit.

***The album was originally going to be called Ringside Seat, and a photo shoot was arranged in which Martyn and Thompson were in a boxing ring, in gloves and shorts. Inevitably, they started hitting each other for real.

Inside Out – John Martyn

There can be no mistake there
Can be no mistake there can
Be no mistake
It
Must
Must
Must
Be love

Outside In

In late 2001, my friend, former housemate and long-time musical collaborator James McKean played me John Martyn for the first time. We’d known each other for a year by this point and he’d already introduced me to the music of Fred Neil and Big Star. Over the years there’d be much more to come. But John Martyn was a big moment.

We lived in a large household — six housemates plus the girlfriend of one of the actual tenants — but James and I often seemed to be the first home, giving us the run of the house for an hour or so. We’d put CDs on the DVD player in the front room, using the TV for speakers, and hang out. I imagine it sounded terrible, but I don’t remember that being a problem. What I do remember is hearing Fine Lines and being close to bursting out laughing. I’d never heard anyone sing that way, and I’d heard a lot of people sing a lot of ways. Fine Lines is the first song on Inside Out, the album where Martyn really developed and explored the outer reaches of this vocal style. The title track of Solid Air had seen him slurring his delivery in a way that initially sounds drunken but that you soon realise is imitative of a saxophone and allows him to bend his phrasing and delivery to get inside the lyric and explore its potential for musical and verbal meaning. But Inside Out was something else again. My incredulity soon gave way to fascination. Fine Lines was beautiful, and unlike anything I’d heard before. But the rest took some more work. By the next year, when we’d moved from our big rambling Lewisham house to a smaller one on an estate in Stepney (behind the George, then run down and on the point of closing), we were listening to Inside Out and Solid Air, which I’d purchased, regularly, and it was then that I began to get a handle on this singular pair of records.

To this day they still seem like two sides of the same coin to me: Solid Air is the focused, concise and accessible heads; Inside Out is the digressive, rambling and exploratory tails. While Solid Air has wonderful songs (the title track, Don’t Want to Know, Over the Hill, May You Never), Inside Out marries killer songwriting (Fine Lines, Make No Mistake, So Much in Love With You, Ain’t No Saint) to jazz improvisation and sonic experimentation, containing both Martyn’s definitive Echoplex track (Outside In) and mutant arrangements of traditional melodies (Eibhli Ghail Chiuin Ni Chearbhaill).

It took longer to get but it hit me harder, and I still come back to it, most recently this week. It’s an incredible, utterly idiosyncratic, piece of work. I’ve still never heard anyone else make music that sounds like Ain’t No Saint and Look In. They just crackle with tension and clenched-jawed, barely restrained aggression, yet the rhythm section on both tracks eschew the traditional rock drum kit, instead featuring Nigerian drummer Remi Kabaka and Indian tabla player Keshav Sathe (from John Mayer’s — not that John Mayer — Indo Jazz Fusions). Outside In, meanwhile, is just astonishing, eight and a half minutes long, in two distinct sections: the first is a full-band Echoplex jam in the vein of Glistening Glyndebourne and I’d Rather Be the Devil. Two and half minutes in, though, it collapses into a freeform dialogue between Bobby Keyes’ unusually tender and lyrical saxophone and Danny Thompson’s bass, with Steve Winwood adding atmospheric keyboards and Kabaka punctuating the track with outbursts of astonishing power on the drums. Then out of nowhere, six minutes in, Martyn – off-mic but getting closer – roars ‘Love!’ and the track’s vocal passage reveals the song as what it is: an 8-minute exploration of the idea of love, the conceptual and musical centrepiece of a record that takes love as its very subject. It’s quite a moment. The 18-minute version that opens his Live at Leeds album from 1977 is, if it’s possible, even more astonishing.

Make No Mistake and So Much in Love With You continue the theme. If So Much presages the cocktail-jazz sound that Martyn would adopt for Grace and Danger in the late 1970s, it cuts deeper than the bulk of that album (strong though much of it is) by retaining its rough edges and including an edge-of-the-moment solo from Martyn. He’s such an underrated guitarist: not only a great acoustic picker and a trailblazing experimenter with loops and delays, but a highly effective electric lead player too. Tell Jack Donaghy the news: John Martyn’s work on electric guitar is a real-life third heat.

Make No Mistake, meanwhile, is the album’s third showstopper. It’s always dangerous to assume a performer’s work is reflective of their own lived experience, but in light of his well-documented problems with alcohol (and other substances), it’s safe to assume Martyn knew whereof he sang on this song: “Do you know how it feels / To be dead drunk on the floor / To get up and ask for more? / To be lying in the dark crying?” The song fades out, and back in again, and out again, as the band embark on another jam, the snatches we hear every bit as compelling as those elsewhere on the record. It’s a spine-chilling moment.

Wilfully eclectic and free-ranging, Inside Out only feels coherent as an album when you get to know it. Its unity is in concept and attitude, not in the sonics or the arrangements from track to track. But when you do come to know it well, few albums are as rewarding.

I should admit that hearing Martyn’s “classic trilogy” of albums backwards has surely impacted the esteem I hold them in; I’m sure I’d have got far more out of Bless the Weather if I’d heard it first (veteran Martyn fans reading this will note that I didn’t mention Bless the Weather above when I described Solid Air and Inside Out as two sides of the same coin). As it was, instead of having my mind blown by Glistening Glyndebourne, I heard it as a slightly weak-brew warm-up for Outside In from two years later. A record containing songs as good as Bless the Weather and Head and Heart deserves better from me, but it’s really a tribute to the power of those later records. If you’re a Martyn newbie, do yourself a favour and listen to Bless the Weather, Solid Air and Inside Out in chronological order. But remember when you’re listening to I Don’t Want to Know that, hard as it may be to credit, the best stuff is yet to come.

John-Martyn-770-2
John Martyn, early 1970s

The Poor Boy is Taken Away – Richard & Linda Thompson

Fairport Convention’s history is famously one of constant reorganisation, replacement and redefinition, initially forced on them in the most terrible of circumstances when their first drummer, Martin Lamble, was killed in motorway van crash after a gig. But even in the glow of the success of Liege & Lief, Fairport Convention swiftly reconstituted itself again. Sandy Denny was more interested in furthering her development as a songwriter than interpreting old British ballads, and not without justification since she had written Who Knows Where the Time Goes before even joining Fairport. Meanwhile bassist Ashley Hutchings cared little for anyone’s original material, no matter how good it was; he had taken up more or less permanent residence in Cecil Sharp House, the headquarters of The English Folk Dance and Song Society.

There wouldn’t have been room in any group for two members pulling in such different directions, but inevitably neither of them would stick with the band for very much longer; Hutchings began Steeleye Span as a vehicle for further experiments with the Child ballads, while Denny formed her own band, Fotheringay. Richard Thompson, Fairport’s baby-faced lead-guitar prodigy, did stay, but he would stick it out for only one more record before departing to pursue his own solo career. After just one coolly received album, though, Henry the Human Fly, he began making duo records with his new wife Linda.

Linda Thompson is a wondrous singer who is somewhat overshadowed in the history of Brit-folk by Denny. And Sandy was, in any dispassionate assessment, in a class by herself, with what Clive James characterised as a “lavish delicacy of sound” and a stylistic and emotional versatility that is close to miraculous. But it would be extremely unfair to damn Linda Thompson for not quite living up to that. Few singers in any generation can. What she did share with Denny was versatility, in feeling and in genre: her voice is cosmopolitan in a way that can make the hewn-from-the-soil Norma Waterson and Shirley Collins sound like untutored bumpkins, and earthy enough to make the trilling, precise Jacqui McShee sound prissy and piercing. Steeleye Span’s Maddy Prior has some similar vocal qualities to Thompson, yet was often saddled with a lumpen band and the production talent of Mike Batt (since inflicted on us via Katie Melua), a choice of collaborator that rather suggests a shallow emotional response to music. Neither Thompson would have given the time of day to a hack like Batt.

Richard Thompson may have done more than any other musician to weld British traditional song to electric rock and roll, but his guitar playing is in the final analysis more American than British; three parts Chuck Berry to one part Billy Pigg. Indeed it’s little remarked upon that few British guitarists can interpret country songs as well as Richard Thompson, which he manages to do without sounding callow or pretentious or fake, and frankly without hitting you over the head with the fact that he’s playing country either. On songs like the devastating The Poor Boy is Taken Away, he taps into the emotion of country music without duplicating its standard riffs, licks and clichés. Like his Fairport bandmate Sandy Denny, who cut the definitive version of Silver Threads and Golden Needles with Fotheringay, and like his former wife and musical partner Linda who sings it so beautifully, he’s able to inhabit and interpret American music without burlesquing it.

richard-thompson-linda_

Summer Breeze – The Isley Brothers

I’m going to begin this with a statistic that I find genuinely incredible: the Isley Brothers scored Billboard Top 40 singles with new material in the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s. In that time they’d been an R&B party band, a Motown production-line group, folky protesters, funky balladeers, psychedelic Hendrix disciples, New Jack Swingers, even hookmen for gangsta rappers.

In the 1970s, they became one of the biggest groups in the world. The original trio of Ronald, O’Kelly and Rudy Isley had long been backed up by guitarist Ernie Isley, bassist Marvin Isley and their cousin Chris Jasper on keyboards but the younger kids were now asked to join the band for real and they put out an album called 3+3 to commemorate the formalising of this established collaboration. It was an immediate smash. For a few years prior, they had been working in rock and roll as much as soul music, reinterpreting white rock songs and hippie protest songs with a gospel fervour. Appropriately so, as they were the originators and popularisers of both Shout and Twist and Shout, so they already held a key position in the history of rock and roll music. But 3+3’s funk was based on songs by Carole King, the Doobie Brothers, even James Taylor. Not to mention Seals & Crofts, authors and original performers of Summer Breeze. It really doesn’t get any whiter than that. The Isleys’ success was to cross over from the R&B world to mainstream pop radio, which you can only do by broadening your fanbase. The Isley’s did it as well as anyone ever has, and few groups have been so beloved of both black and white audiences.

The album’s secret weapon (if anything so prominent could be described as secret), was Ernie Isley’s Fender Stratocaster. The band were fortunate to have in midst possibly the heaviest guitarist in R&B at the time, both in tone and in style (Eddie Hazel being the other contender). Ernie was a friend of Jimi Hendrix and owed Jimi a huge musical debt; Hendrix had played with the Isleys when Ernie was still a child and the influence he had on the kid was soul deep. The 1970s was the era of guitar hero (exhibit A: one of the ways Chris Blackwell decided to sell Bob Marley and Wailers to a rock audience was by adding guitar solos when they re-recorded their Jamaican material), but Ernie Isley cut through the high-speed babble of slurred sextuplets by virtue of an instantly recognisable tone – fat, sustained, compressed, loud – as well as a sensual, fluid approach to lead playing. He also played the drums on the Isleys’ records, and had an endearing way of speeding up pretty much all their records. His contributions made an Isleys record identifiable before Ronald even opened his mouth. Their records were organic – homemade, almost – in an era of increasingly slick productions and the group chose their material with a sure touch. A well-compiled Isleys best-of is an essential purchase.

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The Man Who Cannot See Tomorrow’s Sunshine – Claire Hamill

Another rainy autumn day, so wet I decided not to go for a run this morning, but to put it off till the afternoon instead. Giving me the time to write about of Island lesser-known folk revival-era artists

The cover of Claire Hamill’s debut album, One House Left Standing, shows the 17-year-old singer sitting on the wheel of some machine or other, while behind her stand dozens of cranes, which, far away though they may be, are plainly enormous. Heavy clouds hang threateningly overhead. It’s a striking image, contemporary and monochrome, the individual and the social context, far removed from the sort of thing one normally would expect to see on the cover of an Island Records folk album from the early 1970s. Island weren’t hugely big on making prominent social statements in their album covers back then.

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Hamill, as we have discussed, was very young when her first record was released. Precocious and talented, but callow (callowness is a bit of a recurring theme with British folk-revival artists). She wore her influences on here sleeves, most obviously Joni Mitchell. She covered Urge for Going, backed by Terry Reid, Simon Kirke from Free, Tetsu Yamauchi and Rabbit Bundrick, on her first album. The Man Who Cannot See Tomorrow’s Sunshine is a dead ringer for Clouds-era Joni  (being particularly reminiscent of the atmospheric medievalisms of Tin Angel). Her reading of Urge for Going, commendably ambitious though it is, is hamstrung by her inability to control her voice in its lower registers.

The Man Who Cannot See Tomorrow’s Sunshine is much more successful. Once again, it sees Hamill backed by some heavy-duty talent: John Martyn on guitar and Paul Buckmaster (the arranger most famous for his work with Elton John) on cello. That’s the benefit of having Chris Blackwell produce your album: the access to, and money to hire, the best musicians. As well as Reid, Kirke, Martyn, Rabbit and Buckminster, the album saw contributions from saxophonist Ray Warleigh, who had illuminated Nick Drake’s At the Chime of a City Clock the year before, and David Lindley, Kaleidoscope leader and longtime guitarist for Jackson Browne. Seldom will you find an album as full of great instrumental performances as Claire Hamill’s debut.

Tomorrow’s Sunshine is a strong-enough song and performance to justify the input of such stellar musicians. It was not the way of Drake, Martyn, Sandy Denny, Mike Heron or Robin Williamson to include contemporary details in their songs. Probably they were aiming at a timelessness they didn’t feel could be achieved with too many references to what was going on outside their own headspaces. Perhaps they couldn’t see outside themselves, or just weren’t interested, for reasons temperamental, emotional or chemical. The young Hamill did, and while the piling on in The Man Who Cannot See Tomorrow’s Sunshine is a little overdone (she was only seventeen, remember!), there’s a bracing streak of social-realism to a verse like this:

When he goes out on a Thursday
That’s the only day he leaves
For his unemployment benefit
And his weekly groceries
And he will never say a word
And if he does he’s never heard

And he’s the man who cannot see tomorrow’s sunshine

Hamill never became a big star, or even an enduring cult on the level of Martyn or Reid. Instead she has a solid reputation among fans of this sort of early-seventies singer-songwriter music, but also among fans of the twin-guitar UK prog band Wishbone Ash, whom she joined as backing vocalist in the early 1980s (around the time recent recruit John Wetton, ex-King Crimson, left the band to form the chart-topping horror show Asia), and devotees of new age music (1986’s Voices was composed of layers of her voice, many of which had been sampled and heavily processed – it sounds like Enya sitting in on a Cocteau Twins b-side). She’s a minor figure compared with Denny, Martyn, Drake, Richard Thompson et al., but worth checking out for the curious.

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Claire Hamill, One House Left Standing, 1971

Small Hours – John Martyn

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.

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John Martyn, 1973ish?

Can I trouble you to listen to my new EP, Last Swallow?