All right, I'll come clean, never heard London Conversation. But, I remember when summer seemed primal and pagan and hearing John Martyn spinning out a thread of gently-crackpot whimsey called Sing A Song Of Summer from the album The Tumbler on Johnny 'Guru' Peel's show1 way back sometime then and snaffling a copy of that artifact with all due schoolboy speed. 'Tumbler' was freshwater acoustic shot through with the late Harold McNair's fluttering flute, some blues, a sprinkle of off-centre daftness, a handful of watercolour ballads of deep sensitivity, and a faint aura of gothick dementia, particularly the opium-crazy The Gardeners. Even now, the elpee fills the air with autumn leaves in Kent and flashes of Brighton Pavilion, country-garden kharma. One hooked kid: Me.
But, even then, John was nibbling worriedly at the hard-arteries border that the sixties beards-in-the-cellar mob had thrown round voice/ guitar music (which they called 'folk'). With a gesture out of the Zimmerman blues, John split to Amerika to record Stormbringer with new mama Beverley handling alternate vocals and the celt stepped out of suburban hiding, the title track showing off John's elemental root-love powers for the first time, although Bev's contributions eventually proved an albatross to the record's aura, as on the next-up, The Road To Ruin, recorded partially back in old London under Joe Boyd's Witchseason Productions logo (the prestige imprint for the dope-fiend-folk axis) with a transatlantic session-crew including Wells Kelly, later to warm the drumstool for Orleans, and Pentangle bass base Danny Thompson -John's eternal and inspiring foil- on one track. Not much of 'Ruin' gets under the.mental skin, only Bev's Auntie Aviator, a piece of typically lightheaded Brit-folkrock pipedream; so very cosy, John had to go within.
And '71's Bless The Weather went diving deep and made the celtic connection, John riding the weather trails face to the rain with Danny permanently over the shoulder and some small assistance from Britain's other finest spirit-music resource, Richard Thompson. John and Richard have been locked in a twostep dance of personal world-view since then; Richard's despairingly stiff-jawed backstreet realism and morbidly gleeful humours -sometimes viciously damning, 'there's nothing at the end of the rainbow, there's nothing to grow up for any more'- are earth-antidotes to the air and water of John's domestic-nirvana psychedelic monogamy (my lady's term for the path of hearth and family). And vice versa, naturally, for balance and symmetry.
On 'Weather', John had a new way for a new day, stretching and sax-blowing his voice into cirrus-cloud trails of pure scatological sound, subject and means of expression driving each other on and out and high. And, between Back Down The River and a cakewalk through Singing In The Rain (both of which could go into hiding on The Tumbler) John discovered, fanfare, the Echoplex, made technology flash on Glistening Glyndebourne, seven and one half minutes of heat-shimmering instrumental and, yes, Virginia, acoustic guitars can go to the stars too. Freaked a lot of people. He's mumbling, tumbling stoned, kilowatt krazy. Oh no, a masterstroke. His eyes on the cover are wizardly wise.
Solid Air followed, same mix, electric experiments shelved until the world cleared its senses and raised its thumbs, a definite edge of pent-up and held-over restraint colours the elpee, although the title cut just gotta be the man's most bliss-kissed song, a freebird floater which gets its respected due live on any town's stage. But, make no mistake (it's love...), there were higher and deeper strata to claim, wilder country to penetrate. '73's Inside Out had lightning on the sleeve and thunder rolling within, each track seemingly chopped out of a soundtrack to the circle song of seasons and rushing thunderhead cloud, sunset sleaze-jazz on So Much In Love With You (blowin' spray in a dolphin's smile...), devotional high-hills music on Eibhli Ghail Chuin Ni Chearbhaill (trad celt multitrack purple-dusk hymn), exorcism of livid love-scars on Ways To Cry, and the transcendant wild-night howl of Outside In. Jazz, rock, folk, what? Root love rock, 'difficult' music, Martyn's mountains.
And then comes Sunday's Child, the '74 album, 11 tracks yet, lots of dancing strands of Martyn myth-mastery, from the spat venom of Clutches (followed by the gentle blueprint for a satisfied mind, The Message) to the resonantly beautiful traditional fable of rambling and return, Spencer The Rover, and the lapping of the tiny waves of Neptune's breathing on a far ancient seacoast as Call Me Crazy fades away into starry midnight and the end grooves of side 2, 'Child' is John's most coherent extended statement of simple values and kharmic peace, stirring inherited remembrances of harvest and unbroken chain. Sunday's child, wherever you are, go home, wherever you conceive it to be... (And together you can rock'n'roll 'til the cows come home...).
It took John just three years to get round to cutting another studio record and, although he's always toured constantly with the energy of a whole basketball team, it even took the best part of two cycles of seasons before Live At Leeds (no accident, that Who cop) was up for grabs, a semi-official album (with an Island catalogue reference, too) you'll remember John selling mail-order from his Hastings home-base. (Prockter tells me his copy is No.666, to which John has appended 'very cosmic'...).2 Copies are now as hard to find as butterflies in the Albert Hall, and if you don't possess it you're that bit poorer, 'cause 'Live' is, perversely, perhaps John's finest two-thirds hour, the first side holding the edge with a long and winding Outside In framed by the midnight moonlight millpond-sea motif from Call Me Crazy and Solid Air done like a cool glidepath aircurrent, nature's way. And four more cuts, too, including a heartfelt restatement of Bless The Weather, one of the ultimate songs of the ever-spiralling circle cycle of life (Gene Clark's Full Circle Song is another). Not to mention some ribald foolery about Ravel's Bolero, typical of a guy who just closes his eyes tight and lets the force flow out of him onstage, the songs speak for his heart, in between he's just Honest Joe, beer-swilling brother with a wide range of ridiculous voices, stances and warped, jokey one-liners.
So it was that anticipation was running at feverpitch pre-Christmas with One World due out any-moment now, and when it came it was like a rush of some organic and healthful junk-substitute, six weeks later it's still spinning its aurora of tone-colour and spiritual light from the deck. In some ways the anarchic, man-alone stand of the previous albums has been absorbed and softscented by rounded clear crystal sound of it all. John Martyn has left all his building blocks far behind (and becomes a rock singer by default). And so what, just labels.
One World is one of the towering albums of this year past from anywhere at all, Terrapin, Future Games and Spectres notwithstanding, and this is what happens within: Dealer, Winwood on elastic spun-silver bass and moog, a song of barricades and communication breakdown; One World, flowing, tidal song of brotherhood and how belonging shuts out the 'cold and lonely world'; Smiling Stranger, rock'n'roll self-definition, no message and no messin'; Big Muff, some call it Martyn-dub reggae, but, whatever, basically either a deadpan joke with some ambiguously sexual base or a deadpan joke about Island, big-wheel-in-a-bicycle-factory, Muff Winwood (contains the word 'caterempously' which no-one can convince me exists). That's side the first.
Two is Couldn't Love You More and Certain Surprise together, two lovesongs of clear soul affection, Dancing - swirling mists of textured guitars, very Spirit, a song to swirl in the head, a musician promising to be faithful to his woman in spite of 'leading the life of a music man'. And almost nine minutes of Small Hours, sheets of wafting Echoplex melody set to heartbeat and whitenoise, lyrics bubble up midway through like a dream (it seems intended), subliminal solid air.
One World looks like a work of importance and beauty, sounds even better and there's no finer place to start to develop an addiction for the man who may be England's brightest light in the musical starfield, nobody else comes near to John's coherence in expressing the flux of spirit and the voice of emotion, he's simply the guv'nor. One guitar and voice talking to you, crafted with loving care by his friends, expressway to the deep heart. Root love.
1 This must have been the broadcast of July 10 1968.
2 I don't know if this is true but it could be in contradiction with John's claim that he 'sold them all'.
Dark Star was a bimonthly low budget magazine (35p for this copy with The Byrds on the cover) published in Northolt, Middlesex. The John Martyn article went with the promo photograph also used on the cover of BBC Radio 1 Live in concert. One typical quote as a message from a lost civilisation:
"And how many of you sat through an hour of Die Fledermaus waiting to see the 1977 Whistle Test compilation, in the hope of seeing Jackson or Emmylou again - or even Stevie Nicks belting out 'Rhiannon'. And did the BBC tell us that Die Fledermaus was going on for another hour? No they bloody didn't. They didn't even have the courtesy to flash up a caption at an appropiate moment. So the programme was postponed and when it was eventually shown, we got a truncated version. Now if you cast your minds back to just over a year ago, December 1976, you may remember seeing Jackson Browne playing live in concert on the Whistle Test. You may also remember how the programme faded out halfway through 'The Pretender', when no programme was following - just a silly poem. The powers that be in the corridors of power at Television Centre have proved what double standards they operate and how little they care for rock music." (Nick Ralph)
(Photocopies kindly provided by David Hume)