Monday, October 14, 2013

Deep In The Motherlode: John Martyn - The Island Years

The Greatest Hits collection: for some, the perfect Christmas gift. To others, the ideal introduction to a grander canon. And to another category - let's call them The Suits - an opportunity to plunder a back catalogue.

But what if there were no Top 40 singles, and barely any meaningful flickering of attention beyond a faithful cognoscenti? What justification, then, the release of a compilation of 'hits'?

Logic, presumably, doesn't even enter the equation when considering John Martyn - The Island Years, a truly lavish package weighing in at a chunky couple of kilos, and containing 17 CDs, a DVD, 120 rarities, four songs never even heard before, a press kit from 1973, and a lovingly curated book by longtime biographer John Hillarby.

No one is expecting anyone other than the deepest fan to part company with close to £150 for such a weighty tome, especially one containing a lot of material the fan might already possess. But that is part of the tragedy of John Martyn and, oddly, his appeal.

It's singularly impossible to imagine that 40 years hence Justin Bieber will be regarded with the same reverence for the heart-stripping depths to which he would descend with his songwriting, his utterly unique guitar virtuosity, and even the depravity to which his tour jinks would reach. Because, quite frankly, they don't make 'em like Martyn any more, and that's what makes The Island Years more than just a fan's treasure trove.

It charts Martyn's most formidable period, when Chris Blackwell made him Island's first white signing in 1967, taking him from Surrey-born, Glasgow-raised gauche exponent of finger-in-ear bucolic folk to ethereal classics like Solid Air and the beautiful woozefest of Go Down Easy (with its opening line "You curl around me like a fern in the spring" and the intonation of "...eazzzy" that perfectly harmonises Martyn's voice and Danny Thompson's upright bass).

Picture: Island Records

There will be no shortage of people, I'm sure (and I'm not going to put this to the test, either) who will say that What Would David Bowie Do? bangs on a tad too much about Martyn. But like so many - and there are many - who love his work, we all share the same adoration and the same frustration. Adoration for a body of work that gouged open the human condition and frustration at the way Martyn's talents were largely ignored by the mainstream and came close to being wasted by Martyn himself.
Picture: Island Records

The former Iain David McGeachy, born on September 11, 1948 in a street in New Malden, Surrey, not far from the one I arrived in 19 years later, was often regarded as "a musician's musician". This is a term I always consider to be the musical equivalent of patronisingly describing someone not blessed with much beauty as having a great personality.

Martyn, however, was - and remains, posthumously - a musician whom those who know their music, and especially their singer-songwriters, will hold considerable reverence for. True, I wouldn't be able to throw any hit singles at you for reference, but to a certain generation, Solid Air remains a stoner's choice.

Clapton's cover of May You Never kept Martyn in Guinness during a career whose critical success was rarely matched by commercial success. Eclectic collaborations with David Gilmour, Phil Collins and Sister Bliss, plus the collection of artists like Beck, The Cure's Robert Smith, Paolo Nutini, Morcheeba, Beth Orton, Joe Bonamassa, Lisa Hannigan, David Gray, Snow Patrol and Collins (again) who contributed to the 2011 tribute album Johnny Boy Would Love This were the tip of the iceberg as far as Martyn's standing in the business was concerned.

"I'd never heard anything like him," Orton recently recalled. "Like all good music, it scared me a little, but it was so tender as well, wise and mysterious. He opened a door to another world of beauty and sensuality that until that moment I knew little of. To this day I still love the tenderness of his words and delivery."

Picture: Island Records
When he died, in January 2009, aged 60 and just after being awarded an OBE in the New Year's Honour's List, the tributes came from right across the industry. He was one of music's loveable rogues, a once whip-thin folkie with an angelic voice who ended his life a vast bear of a man, with a whiskey-soured Gorbals rasp, one leg missing below the knee, and the sort of history a rascally old cove in a dockside pub might retell.

That he survived his sixth decade was a surprise to some, but a blessing to all who continued to enjoy new material right up until his death. The Island Years comes to represent Martyn at his most creatively fertile and his most technically inventive in the studio (and out of it - One World's wigout Small Hours was recorded at three in the morning next to a Berkshire lake, just to capture ambient sounds like a flight of geese taking to the air).

The package includes all 12 studio albums recorded for Island and although most - and especially Bless The Weather, Solid Air, Inside OutOne World and Grace And Danger should be nailed-on fixtures of any existing Martyn collection - the additional CDs containing outtakes and complete live recordings (such as one from Richmond-upon-Thames' Hanging Lamp, as well as the Live From Leeds album) provide more than just a completist's satisfaction.

Picture: Island Records
The inclusion of a DVD featuring Martyn's various TV appearances - including seminal performances with partner-in-crime Danny Thompson on The Old Grey Whistle Test - chart his evolution from genius of a folk, rock, blues and even reggae hybrid with an acoustic guitar and EchoPlex delay, to besuited electric guitarist trying to fit the mid-80s effete with over-produced AOR gloss that seemed intended to turn Martyn into the next Chris De Burgh.

But even there, amid echoey sax solos and the battered Martin acoustic replaced by Stratocasters and Les Pauls, the essence of John Martyn can be seen for all its fragility, the raw, heart-on-sleeve (in fact heart as sleeve) emotion. Even a cover version of Somewhere Over The Rainbow turns into a song of wrought honesty only Martyn could have made.

The Island Years is a sumptuous Aladdin's Cave of John Martyn's music. The stuff you know too well bear repeated listening; the stuff you've heard in different forms will provide a fascinating glimpse of the creative process of a consummate innovator; and the absolute rarities - the demos, the previously unreleased, the obscure BBC sessions, even a cover version of Hi-Heel Sneakers by (the first record Martyn ever bought) - conspire to put one of the most event-filled, colourful and tragic careers into one mighty, postman-challenging box of never ending delight.

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