A booze-hound… and John Martyn
A national treasure whose importance and influence has never been reflected in sales, Martyn's exhaustive back catalogue is brimful of genuinely pioneering approaches to folk and jazz. A singer-songwriter of extraordinary vision and intelligence, even a standard box set of his previously-released best work would give cause for celebration - but this is arguably even better.
Martyn classics such as Solid Air or Grace & Danger are, like each of his studio albums -even the lesser-known or celebrated- represented by just one track apiece, although many favourite tunes crop up in altered form on the two live discs. It's a welcome and hugely successful ploy, delivering intriguing new perspectives on some already fine music.
There's still room for a dozen outtakes and demos, like a bluegrass-tinged meander through the standard Glory Of Love, or the racially sensitive satire of Black Man On Your Shoulder, making the box a perfect introduction to new fans and an Aladdin's cave of shiny booty for anyone who's been along for the ride for years.
Was it your idea to restrict the box to one track from each of your 22 studio albums?
No, that was the compiler John Hillarby. He's a solicitor by day, but he's been looking after my website for about 10 years. I've not been too involved in the selection process, as I tend to stay away from back catalogue stuff. I like to focus my energies on what I'm doing now and in the future.
The live discs mostly approach the songs from fresh angles, offering the listener new perspectives on the material.
I try very hard not to copy the records when I do gigs; it defeats the purpose of the songs. I want them to be flexible and to change a little each time I play them. It makes it more fun for me and the punters. I don't like to over-rehearse either, so as long as everyone on stage hits the chord changes at the right time, everything else is up for grabs.
It's surprising that some of the previously unreleased tracks, 1976's Black Man On Your Shoulder for instance, weren't included on the albums of the time.
That was (Island Records boss) Chris Blackwell's decision. He thought it was politically incorrect. It was meant to be funny, though: an ironic comment on political activists like Angela Davis, who were in the news a lot back then. It's a song about both black and white paranoia, but Chris felt it might have been misunderstood.
What are you future plans?
I've got 17 tracks recorded for probably the next two albums. I also want to do a record at some point with the sax player Pharoah Sanders, who's my all-time favourite musician. I think he's better than Ornette Coleman or Charlie Parker. We'd best get on with it before one of us dies, though. He's 74 now, and I don't feel too well myself!
As told to Terry Staunton
This review was published in the November 2008 edition of Record Collector, on page 93.