Whatever there was in the water at Cousins -heart of 60s London's folk music happenings- it was potent stuff that helped spawn a scene. Bert Jansch, Ralph McTell and Al Stewart all got their start there but possibly its most prodigious discovery was singer-songwriter and guitarist extraordinaire, John Martyn.
A case of 'have Echoplex will travel', Martyn revolutionised acoustic-guitar playing with the aid of a series of electric gizmos that were as innovative as Hendrix's adventures with his Stratocaster. Sixty years old in September, 2008 also marks Martyn's fortieth anniversary as a recording artist and, in celebration of these events, Universal/ Island release a fabulous four-disc boxed set (two sides 'studio', two 'in concert'), Ain't No Saint, that traces the arc of Martyn's career in all its sonic glory. Impressive in its scope and depth, it provides a superb overview of an artist who seriously pushed the envelope, far harder than many of his contemporaries who enjoy much higher profiles.
The first solo white artist to join the then-reggae-based Island label, Martyn's debut, 1968's London Conversation was pretty much a standard folk record but its follow-up, The Tumbler, featuring jazz reedman Harold McNair and Martyn's own jazzy vocals, opened the door through which the singer-songwriter was to venture with such unique and trailblazing effect. In performance Martyn's use of the Echoplex allowed him to expand the scope of his electrified acoustic guitar by playing tape loops that surrounded him with sound over which he could add lead.
Into this heady brew Martyn stirred elements of folk, jazz, blues, South American, Jamaican and Middle Eastern music to produce a stream of classic albums beginning with 1971's Bless The Weather, followed by 1973's Solid Air and peaking later in 1973 with the brilliant Inside Out. Sadly, from this point on, Martyn vigorously pressed the self-destruct button as alcoholism seriously infected both his personal and professional life.
A label change to WEA and a 'featuring famous buddies' (Phil Collins, Eric Clapton) album - 1981's 'career high' Glorious Fool failed to produce the anticipated mainstream success and so Martyn's dalliance with the bottle continued. Ain't No Saint's breath-taking overview reveals that, alongside his unique talent, Martyn is also a survivor, overcoming overwhelming physical and emotional odds to deliver amazing records and performances (check out the two tracks here from 1975's Live At Leeds).
The studio craftsmanship of discs one and two is astonishing but it is on the 'live' sides, three and four, where the real magic happens as Martyn launches into some of the most enthralling and musical journeys imaginable.
This review was published in Rock 'n' Reel vol 2 #12 (November/ December 2008), in the singer-songwriter section on page 92. The same issue features a career interview which must have been one of the last before John's passing.
This advert was published in the same issue of the magazine, opposite to the interview.