John Martyn: "Glorious Fool" (WEA)
A PICTURE postcard of John Martyn for beginners: Bearded (but then, so is one of Heaven 171); Scottish (but so are Altered Images2); Over 30 (but so is David Bowie); A background in jazz (in such style conscious days this can be nothing but a boon). So I held my breath and dived in, emerging hours later (after a record stay beneath the waves) smiling. Come on in, the water's warm!
John Martyn is someone who has retained a lot of loyalty down the years, both in critical respect and involved listenership. The reason is simple, he's a songwriter who can amuse and move, never embarrass, a performer who understands the gift of economy and marries it to a sense of style, and he is not moved by the vagaries of fashion, nor is he made to look foolish by them. He is someone who approaches his music by the entrance marked Emotion And Intelligence, leaves by the exit marked TALENT. No glossy neon signs, just cries and whispers.
But although Martyn makes music of a different set of attitudes and values to most youth music, avoiding obsessions of newness and fashionable firsts, he might be amused to observe youth music coming round to him.
Much of Glorious Fool slips very easily into current modes of interest in jazz, funk and stylishness in general. Perfect Hustler, a gentle, funny, up-beat latin tinged dance could almost have slipped out of Kid Creole's suitcase. "The man who taught you how to dance he had a sense of style... The man who taught you how to dance he walked the Royal Mile / Uphill / On his knees!" sings John in a voice filled with admiration, encouraging you to adopt a similar method of transport, if not up Edinburgh's famous mile, then at least down a shady back lane where you won't feel so foolish.
But Glorious Fool is not a dancing album. When Martyn is funky it is a million miles removed from slab-hard British bass lines, it is more soft-focus Bootsy, the sort of rhythms that make your shoulder slip, lightly drunk on champagne. Gentleness is something that shows through almost all of this album, from the heart-swelling quiet sadness of Don't You Go to the drum-ridden longing of Hearts And Keys and the side-wise political stabs of Glorious Fool.
Much of the material on Glorious Fool is, apparently, old Martyn songs redone with better recording facilities ad a fine ensemble of musicians. The constantly excellent Phil Collins produces with sparkle and imagination and plays drums that move through skittering patterns light years away from the idea of drummer as rhythm machine. On Amsterdam, a hurting song of suicide and melodrama he adds drums shuddering with threat, filling perfect places in perfect time.
My one objection to the ensembles playing is that, having seen Martyn solo and acoustic once, I am left wondering whatever happened to his fine breathing guitar work? On this record it is drowned in washed effects or replaced by keyboards. But when one is offered the trumpet solo on Didn't Do That as a peace offering one can only accept with humble gratitude and promise not to complain any more.
The success of Grace Jones in the last year or so is based on a mixture of art-object status and the superb arrangements and playing of a band of session men led by Sly and Robbie. In many ways John Martyn fulfils a similar function without the somewhat doubtful art connotations. This music is music you can slip into, listening to its development and surprised by its additions. Like Sly and Robbie and friends, Martyn's ensemble is made up of session musicians who rise above their task because they play together often, and, in this case (one feels) out of love at least as much as [for the] money. And Martyn has one up on Jones – he can sing, and he's not afraid to show some emotion.
Glorious Fool I am told is Martyn's most commercial outing to date. I can believe it. It could slip into any modern collection without undue embarrassment, it will keep people who discovered Martyn long ago happy and it may even make it under the arm of a zoot-suit. Martyn as the softer but still salty Kid Creole of the British scene?
Hardly. He is after all, bearded, Scottish and over 30...
Neil Mc Cormick
1 British synth pop trio from Sheffield with roots in The Human League, started 1980.
2 Early eighties Glaswegian new wave band. Had a hit called Happy Birthday at the time.
Material provided by John Neil Munro