JOHN MARTYN is one of the great, but lamentably underrated stylists of British music. Originally a folk musician, in the early Seventies Martyn underwent a Pauline conversion to electric guitar, began experimenting with various amplifications and distortion devices and set off on an inimitable and highly distinctive musical tangent. Indifferent to the vagaries of fashion, yet always receptive to new ideas, Martyn has subsequently developed a blazingly original style in which the lines between rock, jazz and avant garde music have blurred into indistinction.
He works at an erratic pace. His new album is his first in three years, and he performs infrequently. But absence appears only to have sharpened his talent. At the Apollo, backed by a superb quartet which included Phil Collins on drums Martyn played for almost two and a half hours in a performance which demonstrated a rare combination of emotional depth, intelligence and technical brilliance.
As a writer, Martyn has never lost the elegant simplicity and candour of folk and blues lyrics, nor a talent for writing deceptively simple yet beguiling melodies: indeed, the pop charts would be a better place for the presence of one of his new songs, Sweet Little Mystery. But his principal drive these days is towards a highly atmospheric musical impressionism, in which Martyn's rich, slurred vocals help create intriguing and hypnotic sound sculptures rather than songs in the conventional sense.
It is quite literally spellbinding although Martyn himself is much too down to earth and engaging a performer to imbue the performance with any sort of grand pretension. On the contrary, the evening unfolded with an air of almost shambolic informality, Martyn seemingly reducing the theatre to the dimensions of a front room in a way which made his music all the more extraordinary and affecting.
This review was printed in The Guardian of Tuesday 4 November 1980.