I first met John Martyn in New York while engineering the sessions for Stormbringer. Joe Boyd's Witchseason label had originally signed Beverley as a solo artist before her marriage to John; after working on the subsequent John and Beverley album Road to Ruin Joe's parting gift to me on leaving Britain and returning to the States in 1971, was to produce a solo John Martyn album. The album, to cost less than £ 2,000, was intended to fulfil John and Beverley's contractual obligations.
In retrospect Bless the weather released in November 1971 indicated that maybe John and Beverley as a duo had not been that artistically compatible. John now firmly in the driving seat began to evolve the style of his next two albums. Recorded over three or four days, with much of the material written on the sessions, most tracks were recorded live with few overdubs. This spontaneous feel allied to his previous flirtations with jazz and blues cast the mould for the next two albums.
Over the four albums I worked with John, both as engineer and producer, I never got the impression he was particularly satisfied with any of them, and so was surprised when in Autumn 1972 John called me about working with him again. In the intervening year he had recorded a single version of May You Never and been working in the studio with several line-ups attempting to make his next album.
To record what would become Solid air we took a week in Sound Techniques, and John, keen to use fresh faces, booked a few players, including a bass player he was very enthusiastic about. After the extraordinary rapport John had previously enjoyed with Danny Thompson I was puzzled by his choice and during the first nights recording felt that he might have made a mistake. Fate then took a hand, Sound Techniques had a notorious staircase down to the studio from the loo and kitchen above, that first night I managed to trip two thirds of the way down it, landing in the studio with a very twisted ankle. Unable to work for a week or so we had to re-schedule the sessions at Island's Basing Street Studios and re-book musicians, with John's original bass choice being unavailable Danny returned to the fold.
As with Bless the weather tracks were recorded live with few overdubs, in around eight days. Many artists I have worked with since find it difficult to believe that an album of this musical stature and integration could have been made so quickly. Fortunately John was working with musicians who quickly understood the shape and form of his songs, not easy when you realise that John's guitar would be in his own tunings which Rabbit and Danny then would have to transpose for their normal concert tunings.
It would be hard to overestimate the contribution of Danny Thompson to Solid air, and his performance on the title track ('Sausages' as he and John used to refer to it) is some of the greatest bass playing I ever recorded. The rapport between John and Danny on this album precipitated their legendary live concert appearances.
The often undervalued keyboard work of John 'Rabbit' Bundrick set up much of the mood and texture on the album. Rabbit, a Texan who arrived in Britain by way of being a sideman for Johnny Nash, along with Bob Marley was the perfect foil for the more traditional acoustic background of the other players.
No song took more than three or four takes, and John always insecure about his vocal performances, seemed to be much happier with these than on previous records. We were on a very tight time line, as the album release had to tie in with a US tour. Within a couple of weeks we were back at Sound Techniques for the mixing sessions, prior to me taking the finished mixes to New York to master the album.
Throughout the sessions one title had eluded us. John had never been happy with the version of May You Never he had already recorded, finally with the album mixed John was still swithering about this previous version. At around 2.00 a.m. as a last resort, I suggested he go down into the studio with a guitar and just do it. He sat down at the back of the studio, recording it in one take, just a few hours before I was due to leave for New York.
For most people Solid air is the benchmark John Martyn album, but I think John has always been ambivalent about it, and over the last twenty five years he has re-recorded most of the songs. So far he has never topped this, the 24 carat original.
21 July 2000, John Wood.