About Love: Solid Air by John Martyn

25 May 2009
Written by: 
Daryl Easlea

So, Solid Air, then.

The one they always come back to. The unavoidable one. The one with the classics on. In the year of Tubular Bells and The Dark Side Of The Moon, John Martyn released his most cherished album. And then, there's all the stuff that's been said about it: - "A much loved landmark album" - The Rough Guide To Rock; "Afterhours classic" - 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die; "An ocean of tension quivers beneath surface tranquility" - Mojo; "A quiveringly sexy folk record." - Q. It is for many, the very definition of John Martyn. It is Solid Air for which Martyn, when all has been said and done, will be most fondly remembered.

By the time of Solid Air, Martyn was established as the folk singer of choice for many. His early, naive work had been superseded by his pair of records -Stormbringer and Road To Ruin- with his wife Beverley; but it was his November 1971 album, Bless The Weather, that had struck the template for what was to be his very greatest run of albums.

Martyn's slurry vocals and sweet sentiment chimed with thousands of his aficionados in the UK. His relocation from Hampstead in North London to Hastings on the South coast of England embraced the full 'getting it together in the country' ethos. Solid Air courses with the sentiment of returning to the homestead, whether physically or spiritually. "Have you seen those speeded-up films of bees and wasps returning to their hives on which you can see their flight paths?" Martyn told Chris Salewicz at the NME in 1977. "Well, I felt you could do the same thing over any row of houses in London - this great zipping to and fro, I couldn't live in the city again." Yet Solid Air is not all good vibes. The title track, I'd Rather Be The Devil and Dreams By The Sea are hardly upbeat in their subject matter.

Recordings began for Solid Air in July 1972 but the bulk of the material was captured in December of that year. Recording at Sound Techniques in Chelsea and Island's Basing Street Studios in West London, Martyn was playing with friends and peers such as Dave Mattacks, Dave Pegg, Richard Thompson, John 'Rabbit' Bundrick and, of course, his right hand man, Pentangle bass player Danny Thompson. The team were focussed and determined to get a great end result. "We might have gone down the pub," Pegg told John Neil Munro, "but generally, it was all heads down. The end product was a great album. I still love Solid Air."

Producer John Wood got the best out of Martyn, and, for an album that seems to make time stop, it was recorded somewhat on the hoof. Most of the material was cut live with few overdubs in just over a week.

Martyn was experimenting further with sound. Brian Blevins captured the change of approach from Martyn in his note to the 1977 compilation, So Far So Good. "His vocals now were slurred and strangled to the point of effacement, becoming another part of the instrumental mix. It was still possible, in most instances, to decipher the lyrics (in any event, a lyric sheet was provided); but more important than the words themselves was the feeling in the way they were delivered." "As for my voice, I've always used it as another instrument, and I think it should be that," Martyn said in 1974. "It was always my conception of a vocal. I think from now on though, when the song requires it, I'll make a conscious effort to make the lyrics more intelligible."

Solid Air is a transitional record; it contains songs that could easily be seen as folk standards, but builds on the jazz, blues and funk elements that were to engulf his work as the decade progressed. The title track -known affectionately by Martyn and Thompson as 'Sausages'- was Martyn's finest moment; opaque and late-night, it is almost impossible to tire of. It was written for his friend, Nick Drake, who, by this time had delivered his final album, Pink Moon, to Island and was slowly buckling under the weight of the depression that was so sadly to claim him.

Martyn spoke of Drake to Mojo Magazine in 2008. "Nick was very ambitious because he was very good at everything," he told Mat Snow. "He was a very, very modest fellow, but used to being excellent - the fast runner at school, the highest jumper, the finest intellect, the nicest poet. He fully expected to be a star. He knew how good he was, and when he felt rejected, that freaked him out." Back in 1974, he was more oblique as the song's muse. "I really like the title track. It was done for a friend of mine, and it was done right with very clear motives, and I'm very pleased with it, for varying reasons. It's got a very simple message, but you'll have to work that one out for yourself." The plea for friendship in the song is powerful: "I know you, I love you, and I can be your friend, I could follow you anywhere, even through solid air." With Tony Coe's lilting sax drifting into the mix and Tristan Fry's lustrous vibes, it is one of the few records that sets its own space and time, a wholly successful exploration of sound and feeling.

Played by Martyn at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards in 2008 after being honoured with the Lifetime Achievement prize, Over The Hill is one of Martyn's sweetest outings. Autobiographical, it highlights Martyn's new life, returning home after the ravages of touring to his wife and young family over the South Downs. It was written on an early morning train from London to Hastings as he saw his house appear behind the town's east hill. With Richard Thompson on mandolin, Simon Nicol on autoharp and Sue Draheim on violin, its frankness and emotion make it one of Martyn's most durable outings.

The shimmering, shining Don't Want To Know was a chill-out classic at least 20 years before the phrase had ever been invented. The simplicity of the statement -eschewing greed, power and war- for the straightforward glory of love remains universal. Later covered by SuperPinkyMandy (Beth Orton's debut group with William Orbit), Richie Havens and Dr John, the chorus vocals and handclaps that close it seem celebratory, a victory shout for good over evil.

Of all of Martyn's echoplex experiments, one he revisited frequently and thought of fondly was his version of Mississippi blues man Skip James' Devil Got My Woman, I'd Rather Be The Devil. Ironically, as a song that he used to perform acoustically in the clubs, it resolutely thumbs its nose to those who wished to keep Martyn in some form of folk pigeonhole. After three minutes worth of band growl and attack, it dissolves into an otherworldly jam with Martyn playing through his echo unit over Thompson's bass and Dave Mattacks' cymbals. It takes the listener to a completely different place. This continues for three minutes getting ever sparser, so that in the end it is left for Thompson to finish alone.

After the drama of I'd Rather Be The Devil, we return to the late-night mellowness of Go Down Easy, the album's often overlooked gem. It is [an] unbelievably beautiful, fragile number with Martyn courting his lover in song, again espousing the values of the era - "I won't be fancy/ But I will be free/ You know I love you, And you can really talk to me." With its simple guitar and double bass arrangement, it shares the improvisational feel of a lot of the material.

Dreams By The Sea maps out the jazz-rock groove-based direction that Martyn was later wholly to subscribe to. A nod to Isaac Hayes' Shaft in the guitar line, the song builds into a scratchy jam before dissolving to Bundrick's keyboards.

Martyn will forever be remembered for the album's next tune. Originally titled 'Close Brother', May You Never remains his 'greatest hit' and was written at the end of the Bless The Weather sessions. Possibly written for Cousins' folk club owner, Andy Matthews, it is a song of sweet fraternal love and one of the rare attempts to capture male platonic affection on record. It had actually been recorded as a single in November 1971, with his friend Paul Kossoff overdubbing guitar.

Martyn had never been delighted with it, and so John Wood re-recorded it, almost as a one-take throw-away, just Martyn, his voice and guitar captured at 2am in the morning. It's arguably his most intimate recording. Its sweet, joyous repetition was picked up by Eric Clapton on his Slowhand album, earning Martyn some proper money in the process.

The Man In The Station continues the mid-paced groove of the record, an affecting bossa-nova influenced track. Although it's Thompson's playing that lodges firmly in the memory, it is Texan 'Rabbit' Bundrick's electric piano that adds to this song's (and the album's) distinctiveness. As with most of his work for Island Records at that time, his solos sound as if they are being poured from a bottle.

The album closes on a buoyant note, one that harks back to his earliest work on London Conversation. The Easy Blues is a showcase for Martyn's acoustic work, and it came from him attempting to master some new guitar parts. He adapted the traditional Jelly Roll Baker song that he used to perform in the clubs. And then when it is nearly over, out pops the album's sweet coda, the Gentle Blues - with its mantra "Never gonna lose those gentle blues," and keening synthesiser finish.

Solid Air was released on 1st February 1973 on Island Records ILPS 9226, in a Fabio-Nicoli designed gatefold sleeve and with a simple message from John - "Love - Nuff Said". Sounds said that it was a "great album... as a single overall expression Solid Air flows beautifully and shows the entire spectrum of music that John Martyn has at his fingertips." Although it didn't chart, it was another underground success for the curly-haired troubadour. The shows he played to support the album saw him move from smaller venues to the concert hall circuit, using the techniques he'd perfected on his tour of the US supporting Free and Traffic earlier in the year.

Martyn toured the UK in March and in summer found himself in unusual company performing a solo set at the West Wycombe festival in Buckinghamshire, UK, in aid of the New Chilterns Samaritan Centre - on a bill with Roy Wood and Wizzard, Neil Sedaka and hosted by Noel Edmonds. In October of that year, NME reviewed his Shaw Theatre London show with the simple conclusion: "Catch John Martyn live before he burns himself out, and breathe some zzzolid air. He's at his peak".

Solid Air will always be the one. It has gone on to sell in the hundreds of thousands. Here in its expanded edition with alternate takes, it offers the most complete view of those eight days near Christmas in 1972. It is Martyn finding his voice and his direction. Solid Air is the album that unites the casual and the committed, the trendsetter and the naysayer. Martyn played the album in its entirety in 2006 around the UK, initially as part of the All Tomorrow's Parties curated Don't Look Back series.

"John Martyn himself didn't have an awful lot to say about Solid Air" Andy Childs wrote in Zigzag in 1974. "It's just one of those records, like Tim Buckley's Happy Sad and Terry Reid's River that you have to listen to and wallow in." Now we can wallow again with this release, part of Island's 50th anniversary celebrations. It comes as an epitaph to the man who was due to take the stage on the label's 'Pink Island Night' at London's Shepherd's Bush Empire with Paul Weller on May 29th 2009. As years go by, Martyn will revert in every mind and photograph to the 24 year-old minstrel captured within the original slender 34 minute 11 seconds of this album.

Solid Air will be the one people will come back to first.

Daryl Easlea