Thursday, 29 January 2009

John Martyn (1948 - 2009)

I think I was about 13 when I first discovered John Martyn. Back in the days when there were only three television channels in the UK, and the concept of music television was little more than a weak joke, I'd regularly try and sweet-talk my parents into letting me stay up late to watch The Old Grey Whistle Test, which was broadcast at an ungodly hour on BBC2. Most of the time, they'd say no, but on one of the occasions they relented, John Martyn was amongst the performers. I didn't have much of an idea who he was, although I'd seen his name mentioned in NME, Melody Maker or Sounds from time to time. I remember he did two songs, the first of which might have been Solid Air, although I couldn't be certain. What I'm certain I do remember was his version of Skip James' I'd Rather Be The Devil, because I'd never heard anything like it - clouds of Echoplexed wah-wah guitar, tinged with feedback and a slurring, whisky-drenched, sandpaper growl over the top of it. From then on, I made a point of saving my pleas to watch OGWT so's they'd coincide with his appearances on the show.

John Martyn belonged to another age, one when musicians seemed to take a more pluralist approach to their craft than perhaps they do now. I remember him mentioning people like Lester Young in interviews, which although a little unexpected from someone who was, to my ears, ostensibly a folk musician, still sent me scurrying to my dad's record collection for further enlightenment. His sense of adventurousness, which led him to work with people as diverse as Lee Perry, Phil Collins and Sister Bliss of Faithless, seemed to characterise the broader approach of his generation. He and many of his peers, such as Pentangle (home of his one-time sparring partner Danny Thompson) would think nothing of working the jazz, folk and blues forms they grew up with into something modern and original, occasionally throwing a curve ball by applying a more free-form, experimental approach, which in Martyn's case led to some pioneering excursions into dub and what later became ambient music.

He also wrote many beautiful songs, a few of which I've posted below. Solid Air was written as a tribute to his friend and label-mate Nick Drake, and I once remember a Saturday morning kids' TV show where I was gobsmacked to hear Marti Pellow and another member of Wet Wet Wet do a lovingly faithful take on May You Never (they later got into trouble for hoisting a big chunk of Martyn's Sweet Little Mystery without permission, but that's another story).

I'm a bit pissed off at myself that the first thing proper I get around to writing for this blog in 2009 should turn out to be an obit for a musician whose work has given me pleasure for almost as long as I've been seriously listening to music, but that's how it goes sometimes. We're now at a point in time where many of the true greats and genuine mavericks of modern popular music are leaving us at an alarming rate. In John Martyn's case, there's left a hole that's unlikely to be filled anytime soon. I shall miss him, and I won't be the only one.

Solid Air (Solid Air, 1973)

May You Never (Solid Air, 1973)

Bless The Weather (Bless The Weather, 1971)

Small Hours (One World, 1977)

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