We take at look at the 1973 masterpiece that fused rock, folk, blues and pioneering use of guitar effects.
John Martyn, still only 25 years old, released his sixth album Solid Air in 1973. With an English mother and Scottish father, both opera singers, he was raised mainly in Scotland by his Grandmother. Encouraged musically by his parents, the prodigious Martyn was taught guitar by the folk legend Hamish Imlach. After becoming a stalwart of the London folk Scene, he was signed to Island records at the tender age of 17. Debut release London Conversation was a jazz infused folk record that stood out from the pack but Martyn was to hone his own individual sound over the next four albums. In a reversal to most recording artists, his decent into alcoholism only seemed to fuel his creativity. 1971’s Bless the Weather saw him carve a truly distinct sound. Martyn had refined his gentle, sweet and soulful voice, which was at odds with the rough hewn appearance of this hard drinking Scotsman, almost into an instrument of its own. He had also begun to marry his pioneering use of Echoplex tape effects with his intricate guitar picking and the addition of ex Pentangle double bassist Danny Thompson tied the sound together like an aural triptych.
“A truly great album of our time. Every note and every lyric of this record is perfectly placed and perfectly produced. Yet still feels like Martyn knocked this out in-between drinking sessions.”
However, it was his follow up Solid Air which Martyn, who passed away in 2009 at the age of 60 will be best remembered. Despite not being a particularly popular release at the time, it has grown to be regarded as one of the great albums of all time. Sometimes hailed as one of the original chill out albums, that tag really does not do it justice. Its innovative, its bold, its haunting, its exciting and its just as much an album to road trip to, to drink to, to celebrate to as it is to unwind to.
The opening title track Solid Air was written about Martyn’s close friend, Nick Drake who would tragically die 18 months after the release of this record before the world had awoken to his talent. Martyn’s genial guitar is backed by atmospheric saxophone and Thompson’s bowed bass. All ensconced by that unmistakable honeyed, gravely voice. Over the Hill returns to a more traditional sprightly folk sound, backed by mandolin and a vocal that relays to us Martyn’s fondness of narcotics. The tempo slows again for I Don’t Wanna Know but gradually builds up steam along with the vocal to an energetic blues number.
I’d Rather Be the Devil is a cover of a Skip James number but the Delta Bluesman’s song is reworked with innovative use of the Echoplex. It would be easy to believe this recording was done with complex layering of instruments and I remember being nothing short of awestruck when first seeing it performed live by only two men. Go Down Easy once again shows us the seamless way in which his voice melts around the guitar into a seamless auditory delicacy.
Dreams by the Sea returns to the use of Echoplex effects and a Rockier sound and while the vocal achieves a force that most can only dream of rivaling, you feel however that John Martyn still only dialed it up to a 6. May You Never is a delightful eulogy to fraternity that’s a return to his folk roots and is a tour de force of Martyn’s trademark backslap guitar. This track was co-produced by Eric Clapton who said the Scotsman was ‘So far ahead of anything else, its almost inconceivable’. It became a staple of live performances and earned the continuing respect of Clapton, who covered the track on his 1977 album Slowhand. Man at the Station is a moving and sensual piece of personal songwriting that takes into the closing Jelly Roll Blues/Gentle Blues to round off a truly great album of our time. Every note and every lyric of this record is perfectly placed and perfectly produced. Yet still feels like Martyn knocked this out in-between drinking sessions. Its truly inconceivable this was recorded over the course of eight days to become one of the true Great British Albums and should be a cornerstone of anybody’s record collection.