Solid Air – Island ILPS 9226

12 Feb 2024
Far Out Magazine
Poppy Burton


John Martyn - Solid Air
Poppy Burton

There's an old video floating around online of John Martyn performing in Germany that neatly encapsulates the brilliance of his 1973 album with only a rendition of its title track.1 In it, he swigs a beer, boisterously breaks a string and riffs with the crowd: "Couldn't ask for something nice and simple, could ya?" A couple of minutes and a few jokes at B.B. King's expense go by, and the quips suddenly stop. He slips effortlessly into Solid Air, and it's devastating. His voice is gruff but pleading: "I know you, I love you. I will be your friend." Written as an ode to his friend Nick Drake, who committed suicide just 18 months after the project's release, it's haunting and resigned to the inevitable.

That video specifically speaks to the emotional whiplash of Solid Air. You can bounce between pure folk, flashes of rock and blues, and be bathed in Echoplex tape delay effect only a few songs in. The husk of Martyn's voice and his unrestrained approach to writing about love and loss –"You know I love you like I should / You hold no blade to stab me in my back / You know that there's some of them that would"– make it one of the most profound offerings of British folk.

But it always seemed like Martyn couldn't bear the seriousness of it all. When pressed on its themes, he only said: "It has got a very simple message, but you'll have to work that one out for yourself." There was synth and sax and moments of silence, but never simplicity. Every song on Solid Air is textured and laced with Martyn's evocative writing, barring a rogue Skip James cover. Martyn took Devil Got My Woman and injected it with warped delay until it arrived as the spaced out I'd Rather Be The Devil.

Recorded live, the album sessions wrapped up in only eight days. Tony Coe, who provided saxophone on Dreams By The Sea and Solid Air once admitted in an interview he didn't even remember being there. Although it was the defining project of Martyn's career, you get the sense he probably felt the same. If his warning that fans needed to figure out its core message were anything to go by, he wanted to excise his worries about Drake and leave them in the studio in one blacked-out haze.

The album also featured Martyn's longtime collaborator, Danny Thompson, whose double bass waves in and out of focus as an unmistakable presence. In the liner notes to the Solid Air CD, it's noted that Thompson and Martyn used to call the heavy title track 'Sausages', in yet another example of Martyn's compulsive need to find light relief on what was a viscerally gutting work.

Thompson so casually moulded his bass around the timbre of Martyn's voice; those same liner notes have to reiterate how seismic his contribution actually was. Every musician that appeared on the album, from John 'Rabbit' Bundrick to Sue Draheim, played with such clarity and focus that it sounded like second nature to all of them, and it's almost easy to overlook quite how miraculous their collective sound is.

While Solid Air and its dedication to Drake later became a prelude to tragedy, it could be as uplifting as it was emotionally ruinous. "I don't want to know 'bout evil," he sings on Don't Want To Know. "Only want to know 'bout love". In essence, the entire album is a love letter. While it's often deeply introspective, you feel the depth of his love for his folk roots, Drake, distortion, and dreams, which are translated with the same emotive force. You couldn't place it to a specific year or genre if you tried. It is a totally timeless record, and as the years go on, hitting timely annual anniversaries of Drake and Martyn's deaths, you realise just how ahead of his time Martyn was.

1 This is the Rockpalast tape, commercially available on The Man Upstairs DVD.

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