Sunday, May 05, 2013

Sunday's child

In any record collection worth its salt there should be a range of music to suit every mood.

Things to listen to when heading out on a Saturday night, and things to listen to on your return. Albums for good times and bad. Break-up records and make-up records, music to get you in the mood, music to keep the relationship going.

Everyone should also have a Sunday morning record. Something to soothe you into the laziest day of the week. There are Steely Dan records that do the job nicely, tracks by the late Gil-Scott Heron and the very recently departed Richie Havens, and even the obvious choice of The Commodores' Easy Like Sunday Morning.

But for me, there is only one Sunday morning accompaniment: John Martyn's Solid Air, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. Released in February 1973, Solid Air was Martyn's sixth album, and brought the New Malden, Surrey-born, Glasgow-raised singer-songwriter to a new level of creativity.

Today it is regarded as the ultimate chill-out album - arguably the genre's genesis - and hailed by Paul Weller, Beth Orton, Beck, The Cure's Robert Smith and many more for its woozy fusion of acoustic blues, folk, and jazz.

For the sore of head, or those in need of continued stimulation, Solid Air's title track blissfully sets the level, dreamily blending currents of warmth and cool over a spacey intro of Danny Thompson's fluid basslines, Martyn's Martin acoustic guitar and electric piano, before the singer himself semi-slurs the opening lines:

"You've been taking your time, you've been living on solid air/You've been walking the line, you've been living on solid air/Don't know what's going wrong inside/and I can tell you that it's hard to hide when you're living on solid air."

The song is is a tribute Nick Drake, Martyn's friend, whom he would later refer to as "someone who had problems in his nut", and who was, at the time causing Martyn great concern. A year later Drake would overdose on sleeping tablets.

"I loved his music," Martyn told Rock'n'Reel's Johnny Black in 2008, shortly before Martyn himself died of pneumonia complications. "[Nick] was a well-mannered, decent man, gleeful, never said a bad word about anybody," adding that the Drake's "dreadful depression" was a terrible thing to witness. "To watch him go down and you can do nothing for it. You can try but they won't have it. He's the one person I've known that's had that and it can actually kill you."

If Solid Air reflects Drake's decline, the album represented something of a zenith for Martyn, as well as the platform for his own battles. For much of his career, drugs and booze played a playful but destructive role.

In Thompson, he had a sparring partner, big brother and surrogate father rolled into one. Of all Martyn's collaborators, the bass player was his closest. Their fights were legendary (Martyn once woke up in a hotel room to discover he'd been nailed under a carpet by Thompson, who was sitting at the table above him eating breakfast).

But through the booze-drenched excess, Martyn and Thompson produced one of the most unusually symbiotic relationships ever created between two musicians.

Nowhere on Solid Air is this more evident than on Go Down Easy, which opens with one of the most beautiful opening lines ever committed to song: "You curl around me like a fern in the spring". Go Down Easy is classic chillout Martyn: his trademark vocal, acoustic guitar set to some exotic tuning, and Thompson's upright bass woven into the song's sparseness with uncanny instinct.

Some of Martyn's best live performances featured just himself and Thompson, demonstrating how much two musicians, with a single music instrument each, could fill a soundstage. A lot of this came from Martyn's experimentation with the Echoplex. This early tape-based delay device allowed him to create polyphonics from just an acoustic guitar by slapping its bottom string for rhythm while having the Echoplex repeat phrases played on the other five strings.

On Solid Air, this technique transforms bluesman Skip James' Devil Got My Woman into I'd Rather Be The Devil, whose pure blues roots are completely obscured by a studio wigout of jazz bass lines, energetic drumming from Fairport Convention's Dave Mattacks, and Martyn vibing his guitar through the rudimentary but profoundly effective box.

Solid Air isn't, however, just a splifftastic woozefest: May You Never, written as moral support for a male friend who'd found himself involved in a pub punch-up is a gently bucolic folk number, later covered by Eric Clapton on his Slowhand album.

Jellyroll Blues is just that, a sped-up traditional blues, with the bottleneck slide technique of a Beale Street busker replaced by Martyn's remarkable finger-picking style (he was - out of all other things written about him - a truly brilliant guitar player).

Over The Hill, the album's sophomore track, is a delightfully jaunty traditional number, lifted by Richard Thompson's mandolin, and expressing the joys of returning home, being inspired by Martyn seeing his house on the horizon as he neared the coast on a train journey from London to Hastings.

Over The Hill does, however, reveal some of the dark side that was emerging in Martyn's life. "Can't get enough of sweet cocaine/Get enough of Mary Jane/Going back to where I came from/Going rolling back home again/Over the hill", let slip some of the temptations Martyn was falling prey to, and how Hastings became a brittle bolthole.

Homelife was a curious muse in Martyn's career. His 'classic' period - from 1971's Bless The Weather, through Solid Air, Inside OutSunday's ChildOne World and Grace And Danger in 1980 were strongly influenced by the ups and downs of his marriage to Beverley (the latter album his particularly raw-to-the-bone divorce album), and by his children.

Martyn was never afraid of wearing his heart on his sleeve. There were times when his heart was his sleeve: "Very few people are trying to reach the heart these days," he told the NME in 1973. "I feel strongly that there's a great dearth of the heart everywhere right now."

Beverley Martyn would later say, after they'd separated, that John put so much emotion into his music that there was scant left for her. "Music, makes my heart go, makes me tick," John once said himself. "The money doesn't really matter. If it didn't come in I would still go on playing, singing away. That's me."

And thus he did. When he died in January 2009, Martyn - on a third marriage and minus his right leg (amputated below the knee following a burst cyst), just one of many afflictions he'd dealt with in his life, including being shot twice - was still writing and recording. 

His final sessions appeared posthumously as the album Heaven And Earth. The voice had slowed to a whisky-stewed soup but the spacious jazz of his hero Pharoah Sanders, which liberally found its way onto Solid Air, was still present, along with his penchant for refreshingly emotional transparency.

Solid Air was released in another extraordinary year for music. Just a month before, Pink Floyd had released Dark Side Of The Moon (recently revisited by WWDBD? in Over The Moon), and the year also gave forth The Who's Quadrophenia, Bowie's Aladdin SaneGoodbye Yellow Brick Road by Elton John, and debuts from Mike Oldfield (Tubular Bells), Steely Dan (Countdown To Ecstasy) and Bruce Springsteen (Greetings From Asbury Park), and Stevie Wonder's Innervisions and Marvin Gaye's Let's Get It On.

In and amongst these behemoths of the age, Solid Air can easily be lost. John Martyn is, today, still admired by many in the know but unknown to the masses. A tragedy.

Despite outliving most people's expectations for his life expectancy - and certainly surviving long past those of immediate friends and collaborators like Drake and Free's Paul Kossoff, Martyn left behind a vast discography.

Some of it is so-so (his '80s 'electric' period went a little too far), but in classics like Solid Air, he covered - over just 35 short minutes - the most mellifluous of records. Or, to quote Beth Orton: "Solid Air is the musical equivalent of a reassuring hug." Yep, says it all.

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