Tag Archives: John Martyn

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 (The Last Waltz among them) 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 became (with his then wife Beverley) 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 (have I told you how much I love Inside Out? For heaven’s sake, go and listen to it now if you’ve never heard it. It’s strange and so wonderful). 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 “storm” for “man” 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 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 (conventional boom-tssch, two-and-four stuff that even simpletons like me can manage), 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 only sustained bit of on-stage banter (to use a word I’d really rather not have to; 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 explains the parental advisory sticker that accompanies recent editions of the record.) The jokes don’t stand up massively well to repeat listening, but I do think they’re a worthwhile inclusion; this is what seeing Martyn play 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.

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*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.

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Beast Epic – Iron & Wine

This will probably be my last post for a couple of weeks. I’m off to New York and Boston on Sunday, and will be away from home for nine days. See you soon!

For years I avoided Iron & Wine. Plenty of people told me I’d like Sam Beam’s music, but I’m a stubborn little so and so, and so the more I was told I’d like him – the more I was told my own music sounded like his – the more determined I became not to give him a fair shake.

I listened to a couple of songs long enough to confirm that he sounded exactly like I thought he would (hushed, almost whispered vocals; delicately picked acoustic guitar; brushed drums), and then put him in a box where I didn’t have to revise my preconceptions. Derivative. A revivalist. Fine, but not necessary in a world where I could listen to the originators of this stuff. Who needs another bearded singer-songwriter? Not me, and I’m a bearded singer-songwriter myself.

To be fair to pig-headed 25-year-old me, there was more than mere stubbornness to this. I’ve always been concerned with not being tediously derivative in my own songs. When you’re a guitar-playing singer-songwriter, you have to do everything you can to cultivate your own voice, or what the hell is the point of you? I felt I should widen my listening as much as possible, inviting influences to seep in from everywhere else, to stop me becoming a pale facsimile of the music I love most. This didn’t preclude listening to singer-songwriters, but it did mean not actively studying them, and it made me especially fearful of artists who wore their own 1960s and ’70s influences too obviously, lest I just become a copy of a copy.*

And so, 10 years or so after first hearing of him, I actually sit down and listen to the new Iron & Wine album all the way only to find it’s absolutely lovely and I’ve been missing out on a guy who does great work. Sure, Beast Epic owes a heavy debt to Nick Drake – Song in Stone sounds like a Pink Moon outtake being played by the band Drake had for Bryter Layter – but the songs are strong enough that Beam gets away with evoking his heroes.

The songs, in fact, are great. They’re built on mostly simple, comfortingly familiar chord progressions, are played with delicate assurance by Beam and his excellent band, and are full of solid, subtly hooky melodies. Helpfully, his soft voice has acquired depth and warmth in the last 10 years. He’s a proper singer now, not a hushed, Elliott Smith-style whisperer. Even better, the record sounds good too: warm, earthy and woody. I can’t overstate how important this is to doing this kind of music well.

My favourites so far include Call It Dreaming, which has a glorious change to the relative minor in the chorus that induces an instant rush of nostalgic warmth in me (I’m not able to place what it’s nostalgia for, yet), the aforementioned Song in Stone, and Right for Sky, in which Beam’s melody winds its way through the well-chosen chords of the chorus, observing the piquant change to the parallel minor. Only Last Night, with its pizzicato strings and plinky percussion (like a much gentler, much more rustic Tom Waits) differs markedly from the album’s sonic template, and it’s initially a bit of a surprise, but the clever arrangement works as it takes the textures that are present in the other songs anyway, and just uses them a bit differently.

That said, it’s very early days for me with this album, and it wouldn’t surprise me if I ended up preferring other songs to the ones I’m most drawn to now. Anyhow, I love it when that happens; it shows an album has depth. I think I’m going to be listening to it a lot in the weeks and months ahead.

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*25-year-old me was also scarred by 20-year-old me’s brief Ryan Adams fixation. I heard his stuff before I really properly listened to Dylan, Gram Parsons, Neil Young and Van Morrison, and once I knew the originals, it was hard to be impressed by Adams as anything other than a talented mimic. A very talented mimic, to be sure, but self-evidently not as talented as the people he was mimicking.

Stormbringer – John & Beverley Martin

A repost of a piece I wrote three years ago, about a record I think is very special indeed. I listened to it today on my way home from work with my hood pulled up and the rain beating down on me, and it really did take me somewhere else.

In July 1969, John Martyn was a folkie who’d put out two records on Island – London Conversations and The Tumbler – neither of which were anything remarkable in an era where Fairport Convention and Bert Jansch had already done much of their best work, redefining the forms that British folk music was capable of taking in the process (some of The Tumbler is actively embarrassing compared to, say, Fairport’s Genesis Hall).

Beverley Martyn (nee Kutner), meanwhile, had fronted a jug band called the Levee Breakers, and put out a single written by Randy Newman (and featuring John Paul Jones, Jimmy Page, Nicky Hopkins and Andy White), with a Cat Stevens B-side. She’d played at Monterey Pop and been invited to the Bookends sessions by Paul Simon, where she contributed the immortal (spoken) words “Good morning, Mr Leitch, have you had a busy day?” to Fakin’ It. She was, in short, more of a “name” than her new husband and probably expected no more than yeoman musical support from John when they began work on what would become Stormbringer! in Woodstock in the summer of 1969 with engineer John Wood, drummers Levon Helm, Herbie Lovelle and Billy Mundi, bass player Harvey Brooks and pianist Paul Harris.

Somehow or other – and opinions and recollections vary – the project morphed into a duo record, with John’s songs as well as Beverley’s being recorded. In no time, by sheer force of personality and pushiness, John’s voice became the dominant one; he wrote and sang six of the album’s ten tracks, and the album, when it came out, was credited to John and Beverley Martyn.

It’s hard not to feel sympathy with Beverley for having been elbowed aside by her husband in this way, and the record’s producer, Joe Boyd, probably viewed the path that the record took with some regret, too; he seems not massively enamoured with John Martyn as a person, and not terribly impressed with him as a musician – “When John started living with Beverley Kutner, I was stuck with him”, he recalled in his 2006 memoir, White Bicycles. But by any reasonable assessment, John was much the greater talent (at least at that time – we can’t know what Beverley might have been capable of later in her career had she continued with it into the seventies), and Stormbringer! is a far greater record than a Beverley Martyn solo album with a bit of John’s guitar would have been.

When I first heard this album, I was hugely excited to hear the coming-together of two of my very favourite players: Levon Helm, drummer/singer with the Band, and John Martyn himself, whose guitar playing I can honestly call life-changing. Yet Levon, magisterial as he is on John the Baptist, does not play on the album’s most indelible track, on which John’s guitar takes a backseat to the piano of Paul Harris, the sessions’ musical director.

Stormbringer, the title track, features New York jazz player Herbie Lovelle on drums (who also played on another favourite of mine: Dylan’s version of Corrina Corrina from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan), and Lovelle could easily double for Helm here: same swinging semi-quaver bass drum, same easy but authoritative tom fills, same woody depth of sound.

But Harris’s piano owns the song. His 16-bar solo, sounding like a more pastoral Richard Wright, may be the most beautiful passage on any John Martyn record; playing this graceful and empathetic is rare in any form of music. John Martyn would build a remarkable understanding with double bassist Danny Thompson over the course of half a dozen albums and many live gigs – and anyone who’s heard Fine Lines or Head and Heart knows what Thompson and Martyn could do together – but listening to Stormbringer, you can’t help but think wistfully of what Martyn and Harris might have done in a longer partnership, with perhaps Brooks and Lovelle as their permanent rhythm section. Any songwriter would kill to have a musician with them who so understands their songs that they can play with that kind of empathy.

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Monty Got a Raw Deal – R.E.M.

I was listening to Natalie Merchant’s River earlier, a song that is still absolutely killing me whenever I hear it, when I started thinking about R.E.M.’s Monty Got a Raw Deal, from Automatic for the People – another song lamenting the fall of a Hollywood icon, albeit one that’s more of a meditation than a heartbroken outburst of personal grief like River.

Automatic is of course a death-obsessed record, so much so that many critics, hearing the songs and noting Michael Stipe’s gaunt appearance, assumed he was ill or dying. For whatever reason, Stipe was in a somber mood in 1992 and his lyrics were less playful than they’d been on any previous record, with only The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite sounding like the work of a man who’d written Stand, Shiny Happy People and It’s the End of the World as We Know It.

But while Automatic is Stipe mainly in a monochrome mode, he is on superb lyrical form throughout, and Monty Got a Raw Deal, a tribute of sorts to Montgomery Clift, 25 years dead by the time Stipe wrote about him, is, in its cryptic way, Stipe at his best: humane, empathetic, poetic and provocative.

The music, too, has always hit me hard. As a neophyte guitarist, I collected songbooks for the albums I knew best, and Monty Got a Raw Deal was as a result the first song I ever learned that required me to substantially retune my guitar.Now, my acoustic guitar has almost never been up at concert pitch in the last 15 years, so to say that learning how to play this song was a big deal for me would be the understatement indeed. It was a gateway into an entirely different way of thinking about the instrument. Peter Buck is a guitarist I grew out of fairly early – once I’d been playing a couple of years, I’d learned pretty much all I could from him – but you have to give the credit where it’s due, and I learned about alternate tunings from Buck, not Nick Drake, Bert Jansch or John Martyn.

Since Buck’s riff is intricate, Bill Berry and Mike Mills make the smart decision to go the other way: Berry plays big smacking quarters on his hat and two and four on kick and snare, with big tom build-ups going back into each verse. Mills plays quarters too, a little stepwise line that keeps the track, dominated by Buck’s almost mandolin-sounding guitar part*, firmly anchored. The whole thing has a loose, spontaneous feel and provides an important contrasting flavour in an otherwise very controlled, carefully thought-out album. As such Monty Got a Raw Deal – not a famous song, not particularly a fan favourite, not a track that was frequently played live by the band – has always felt like a key track on Automatic for the People to me.

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*The guitar is capoed at the third fret so the track sounds a minor third higher, in G minor.

 

River – Natalie Merchant

Last week I took my mum to see Natalie Merchant at the Royal Albert Hall as a birthday present for her. Mum’s a bit of a Merchant fan, whereas I knew very little about her (other than her connections to artists of whom I’m a fan).

As is sometimes the way of these things, I was just hoping I enjoyed it enough that my mum’s own enjoyment of the show wasn’t affected by a lack of enthusiasm from me.

Instead I was enthralled, pretty much all the way through the show. Merchant is touring behind an album called Paradise is There: The New Tigerlily Recordings. Tigerlily, released in 1995, was Merchant’s first solo album – her biggest commercial success and still her fans’ favourite. She’s re-recorded the whole album with new arrangements and is performing the whole of the album on this tour, using the new arrangements put together for Paradise is There. The band she had at the Albert Hall (drummer, double bassist, pianist, guitarist and string quartet) sounded wonderful and those new arrangements – based heavily around the strings – are gorgeous.

Merchant was the singer in a 1980s college rock band called 10,000 Maniacs, a New York-based chimey-jangle guitar group with a pronounced R.E.M. influence. After leaving the band, Merchant’s music became more layered, downplaying the rock and incorporating influences from jazz, soul, folk and classical music. Even as her music moved away from straight indie, though, Michael Stipe (a close friend of Merchant’s) remained a key influence on her writing, and particularly her vocal phrasing.*

River was the song that hit me hardest at the gig, not that I knew what it was called or what it was about. I was first hooked by the line “Let the youth of America mourn” (such a striking statement, especially when my lack of familiarity with the song left me unsure why they should be mourning), but was left reeling by the grain of Merchant’s voice as it rose to meet the line “And it’s nothing but a tragedy”. It’s a powerful moment on the recording; in the auditorium it was just devastating.

The history of rock artists re-recording their old material is a chequered one. Most often, it’s been for cheap cash-in compilations to avoid licencing costs, or to allow the artist to profit more highly from recordings made under an unfavourable contract. Other times artists have re-recorded works because they can’t leave well enough alone (David Sylvian, John Martyn) and aren’t really aware of what it is their fans liked about their recordings in the first place. Sometimes it’s been to show how much the artist’s voice or style has changed (Joni Mitchell, for instance, who insisted that she’d become a more interesting singer as her voice became a cigarette-coarsened husk of its former self). There’s a little bit of the last two at play in Merchant’s new version of Tigerlily, but in this case it succeeds for two reasons: the new arrangements are beautiful, and Merchant’s mature voice is a hell of a vessel for communicating emotion.

The young Merchant was a fine singer, with an appealing voice and an emotionally open vocal persona. On the original recording, Merchant sings the whole of that pivotal second verse in the same high register: indignant, but questioning and unsure of anything but her sadness. On the new version, she withholds that high register, instead building to that final line, emphasising the asymmetry of the lines, hitting some words hard and underplaying others, before finally letting go with a cry from the soul. Her vocal is fiercer, wiser; compassion for the departed balanced by contempt for those who speak and judge without understanding.

The sadness, and the contempt, was well earned. The subject of River is, of course, the late actor River Phoenix, whom Merchant knew; when Merchant sings simple, “With candles, with flowers, he was one of ours”, she is not singing of an imagined connection. Phoenix died in 1993 outside the Viper Room from a drug overdose, while Jonny Depp’s band, P (which featured Phoenix’s friends Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Butthole Surfers’ Gibby Haynes) were on stage. The song that they were playing at the moment Phoenix’s heart gave out was called, by cruel irony, “Michael Stipe”. He was 23.

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* My mother, it’s fair to say, is unclear as to what I find appealing about Stipe’s singing voice, and initially seemed to dismiss my comments about the musical similarity. It’s as clear as day, though, especially on River. She said to me when the first song of the second set was over that, now I’d pointed it out, the Stipe influence was plainly audible.

Their Back Pages

So it seems we’ve slid out of talking about harmonies and back to regular programming. Sorry about that, if you were enjoying the series. When doing those 10-part series, I rely a lot on momentum to keep me thinking about music from whatever specific angle it happens to be. It’s been busy enough that I haven’t been able to post that regularly and I’m afraid I couldn’t keep my mind on that one long enough to crank out the usual 10 posts. My apologies.

What I have been thinking about, once again, is David Bowie. And other artists of his stature and with his breadth of work.

In the Times, Caitlin Moran asked readers to imagine Bowie without a past, that Bowie was a Beckenham primary school teacher who’d recorded Earthling in his shed. “Do we really believe that record companies would eagerly sign up a 50-year-old man with no new ideas, wonky eyes, manky hair, LA teeth and a tartan suit, who talks like an animatronic statue in Picadilly’s Rock Circus?

From Chris O’Leary’s piece on Little Wonder at Pushing Ahead of the Dame

I liked Caitlin Moran as a music writer, but I confess to not remembering the piece that Chris O’Leary is quoting from. The answer to Moran’s question is fairly obvious (of course they wouldn’t!) and not hugely interesting unless considered in a larger context. I’m sure Moran was asking the question rhetorically, on the way to telling us why that question wasn’t relevant.

But we’ll return to Mr Bowie in a second. Let’s talk about fans instead.

Let’s assume there’s two extreme versions of the extreme music fan. On the one hand, consider the Deadhead, shelves collapsing under the weight of box sets that document every show on every tour the band ever played, waiting for Deadnet to send out the new 30 Trips Around the Sun 80-disc box set, whose life is dedicated to the elliptical paths taken by Jerry and the guys. On the other, the blogger who keeps abreast of every new development in every micro trend, who considers marginal commercial forces like Grimes lost to the mainstream, who’s always in search of the latest thing, never stopping to look back. Who has a track or two by tens of thousands of artists on a series of groaning hard drives.

These are the extreme figures. Most of us are somewhere along the continuum between the two. At various times I’ve felt a bit like both. Ultimately, though, I have my favourites – those artists I come back to again and again. I wouldn’t call myself a completist fan of anyone, but there are people whose every record I’ve heard, and whose artistic failures are just as fascinating to me as their masterpieces, in terms of what they add to the overall story.

Bowie is the kind of artist who rewards that kind of listening. Much of Earthling was, as O’Leary put it, dated the second it was released – the last time Bowie would try hard to stay abreast of contemporary underground pop music and bend it to his purposes. No one has been talking about what a seminal moment Earthling was in Bowie’s career this last week, but the record remains, for what it says about Bowie-the-songwriter and Bowie-the-pop-star, a fascinating partial failure.

Let’s talk about some other records that would never have got their authors signed by a record company but which are as compelling in their weird and various ways as the ones that did.

Joni Mitchell’s Dog Eat Dog, a record bringing together the diverse and thirterto uncombined talents of Rod Steiger, Thomas Dolby and Wayne Shorter, is similarly compelling, in a slightly more car-crash fashion. What was going on here? Boredom with tried-and-trusted methods of composition? A desperate attempt to stay au courant?*

John Martyn’s Sunday’s Child is 40 very pleasant minutes of Martyn spinning his wheels, unable to push himself anywhere close to the peaks of his classic trilogy (Bless the Weather, Solid Air, Inside Out), and not yet finding his way to the dub- and soul-inflected work of his suit-wearing years. His readings of Spencer the Rover and Satisfied Mind – that is, the songs he didn’t write – are easily the best things on the album. I’d not be without them.

Neil Young’s Hawks & Doves is a “better” album than, say, Old Ways. But there’s nothing on it you’ve not heard him do better on After the Gold Rush or Zuma. Old Ways – a straightforward countrypolitan record – is a headscratcher from first note till last, even more so given it came hard on the heels of rockabilly-reviving Everybody’s Rockin’ and the Tron-isms of Trans. I love Trans. I think it has some of Young’s very best writing on it, but even when the writing isn’t there, it’s a brave record and I hear him pushing himself hard.

In fact, Young’s Geffen period, with each record being such an extreme reaction to the one before it, is kind of an Exhibit A in how rewarding it can be to spend time with the minor records in a major artist’s discography. Not one of those albums is close to being as strong a set of songs as After the Gold Rush, On the Beach or Everybody Knows this is Nowhere (insert your own favourite Neil Young record here). But, to travesty Rudyard Kipling**, what do they know of classic Neil Young who only classic Neil Young know?

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This is classic Neil Young. I promise.

*A phenomenon I’ve referred to elsewhere as dropping the pilot and charming that snake. **Who deserves no better.

Saturday Sun – Nick Drake

Nick Drake is at this point the most famous, the most listened-to, the most influential and the most widely beloved of all the British folk-rock acts of the 1960s and 1970s.

Why Drake? Why not Richard Thompson, Sandy Denny, Martin Carthy, John Martyn or Bert Jansch? All were (or are) talented, versatile and charismatic performers and writers, all with a wider and more varied body of work than Drake.

It would be crass and reductive to say, “Because Drake was good looking and died young, and didn’t get old, fat, bald, irrelevant or conservative.” This is undoubtedly part of his appeal, as it is of Hendrix’s, Cobain’s, Joplin’s or Morrison’s (OK, so he got fat, but he didn’t get old or bald). The doomed-romantic-hero thing is always powerful and attractive, and it can apply equally to musicians, athletes, actors, writers, political revolutionaries, tyrants, criminals, anyone – we can all think of someone whose glittering legacy is at least partly dependent on their early death.

But it’s very far from the whole story.

In the last twenty years, since the cult of Nick Drake really took off*, the hundreds of thousands of people who have become Nick Drake fans have done so because of the man’s idiosyncratic, beguiling music.

There’s the guitar playing for one thing. Even within an era blessed with an extraordinary crop of guitarists – Martyn, Jansch, Renbourn, Carthy and Graham – Drake stands out. Drake’s technique I won’t go into in great detail here (it’s all available out there if you want it – tunings, picking patterns, chord shapes and so on), except to note his powerful right-hand thumb (listen to Pink Moon‘s Road to hear him play a crisply articulated syncopated melody with his thumb against a repeated pattern played with his fingers), and his tunings, which he used to create hugely expansive chords.**

And then there are the songs. River Man, Saturday Sun, Three Hours, Cello Song, Hazey Janes I and II, At the Chime of a City Clock, Northern Sky, Pink Moon, Place to Be, Things Behind the Sun, From the Morning. All these from just three albums.

Brit-folk songwriters of that era were notable for their willingness to explore other music, to collaborate with musicians from outside their own fields and create new blends, whether those outside influences came from the classical world, rock or jazz, India or North Africa. Drake was no different, though he’s not often spoken of in precisely those terms. I guess if I had to summarise Drake’s albums for a newcomer to his music, I’d say that his debut, Five Leaves Left, is the one most coloured by jazz (with Danny Thompson, Tristan Fry and Rocky Dzidzornu all contributing) and Bryter Layter is the one most touched by Fairport-style folk rock (Richard Thompson, plus Pegg and Mattacks), while Pink Moon is the outlier, the skeletal one, just Drake alone with his guitar.***

Pink Moon, for many reasons (some of them personal and sentimental), remains my favourite, and I understand why many feel Bryter Layter is the most rounded and satisfying. My relationship with FLL is more complicate – while its best songs are all classics, there are also some very twee moments, and Robert Kirby’s string arrangements (on Way to Blue and Fruit Tree) sound pretty callow next to the magisterial work of Harry Robinson on River Man.

Nevertheless, when playing individual Nick Drake songs for the uninitiated, it’s often best to turn to Five Leaves Left for a song or two. Saturday Sun is a great choice precisely because it doesn’t feature Drake’s guitar playing – you can hear it and divorce the quality of the song from the quality of the guitar playing (difficult with some of Drake’s other work), gaining the clearest insight into exactly how good a writer he was. That said, along with its exquisite late-summer-turns-to-autumn melancholy, it does feature Danny Thompson on double bass and Tristan Fry on drums and vibes, so there’s plenty of chops on display if chops are your thing.

Drake

*Launched by the use of Pink Moon in a Volkswagen ad of all things.

**He’d do things such as tune his guitar CGCGCE, for example, play D, A and D on the bottom three strings and that voicing, with a 7th and a 9th in it, would be his standard D minor voicing. It’s that sort of harmonic ambiguity that attracts guitarists to alternate tunings, and Drake, for many, is the gateway drug.

***It has been said by some that the outside musicians were producer Joe Boyd’s idea, and that if Drake had been listened to by Boyd his records would have been much sparer. Quite how this accords with Drake’s willing collaboration with John Cale on Northern Sky, and his use of his friend Robert Kirby’s string arrangements all over Five Leaves Left, I’m not entirely sure.