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Johnny Boy Would Love This

October 2, 2011

There's a photo of John Martyn on Island UK's site, a brief bio and not much else.

I was listening to my online radio station, Radio Paradise, in September and heard a song by Beck I didn’t recognize.

But I should have.

He was performing a cover of “Stormbringer” by the late British folk rocker John Martyn from a new tribute album called Johnny Boy Would Love This. It includes artists such as David Gray, Beth Orton, Snow Patrol, Robert Smith of the Cure, Paolo Nutini, as well as others with whom I’m less familiar.

I had been a big fan of Martyn when I was a teen during the 1980s, probably the only one in my hometown who’d even heard of him.

Never a fan of ’80s poodle metal, cock rock or drippy English synth pop, I listened to bands like Little Feat or singers like Rickie Lee Jones. I was also a prog rock nerd. I loved Phil Collins’ drumming on old Genesis albums (Duke and before; not the dreck that followed) and his fusion band Brand X, as well as his studio work.

This was how I first came across John Martyn; Collins played on a couple of his records. Because of Martyn, I also stumbled upon the name of his friend Nick Drake, who, at that time, was even more obscure than Martyn. (I never ran across any of Drake’s albums in those days.)

I searched out Martyn’s old records in second-hand stores and found newer releases in cassette bins, and I was able to hear enough of him to trace a career arch during the 1970s and early ’80s to appreciate what a fine songwriter, singer and guitar player he was.

His older records like Bless the Weather are more acoustic, though he often used guitar effects pedals, which gave the music another dimension.

Drake accused him of trying to be more commercial, while Martyn said he wanted his records to be heard and not drop into any abyss as Drake’s had. Martyn later responded with the chilling title track from his 1973 album, Solid Air, with the lyrics: “Don’t know what’s going wrong in your mind,/ And I can tell you don’t like what you find,/ When you’re moving through/ Solid air.”

Drake’s mental fragility and anti-depressant overdose (or possible suicide) in 1974 are now the stuff of legend. His three albums have come back into print and he was already gaining a following by the time Volkswagen drove by and gave his song “Pink Moon” a lift in one of its commercials.

Meanwhile, Martyn lived on and continued to produce a wide range of music, incorporating jazz, rock, blues, reggae, even electronic during the 1980s. He never became a household name, and his biggest royalty cheque is said to have come from Eric Clapton’s 1977 cover of the song “May You Never.”

Some have called Martyn the father of trip-hop because of his 1978 album, One World. The heavy, funky bass and drum beats, trippy guitars, tablas, seductive strings with hints of Indian music support this argument, as does his collaboration with reggae producer Lee “Scratch” Perry on the song, “Big Muff.” Maybe it’s no surprise then that Martyn covered trip-hop giant Portishead’s song, “Glory Box,” on a more recent album of his.

While there were musical similarities between Drake and Martyn, Martyn perhaps never quite reached the perfection his friend did. But then he was built for the long haul, or at least the longer haul. With Drake, it’s clear by the time of his unpolished gem, the Pink Moon album, that he was not meant to live in an imperfect world for very long.

Martyn was meant to, in spite of his struggles. He died in early 2009 at the age of 60, after battling demons, alcohol and drugs. He continued recording and playing live, even though his best years and songs were behind him. His weight ballooned, and a burst cyst forced the amputation of part of his right leg, but still he played on, sitting in chair onstage.

Like life itself, Martyn was imperfect. His records — even his masterpiece Solid Air — don’t give you that feeling that you wouldn’t dare change anything on them, as was the case with Drake’s three albums. A few were brilliant though, and many others were simply damned good.

He outlived his friend by 35 years, experimented with far more things musically and ultimately wrote more good material, and that’s not something to be ignored.

He was the first white solo artist to sign to Island Records, yet there’s only a trace of him on the label’s UK website (Solid Air seems to be the only old record still in the catalogue) and none at all on its US site.

I haven’t heard anything else from Johnny Boy Would Love This, so I can’t say how it measures up to the man’s own work, but, if nothing else, it might give Martyn some long overdue exposure – a chance to hear him again or for the very first time – and that, I’m sure, is something that Johnny Boy would love.

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From → Essays, Uncategorized

One Comment
  1. Barbara Chouinsrd permalink

    You never cease to amaze me at how much you know about music. I learned a lot from this article and have all sorts of plans to look into Martyn.
    Thanks,
    Barbara

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