I sometimes get the feeling that my ears have become the final receptacle in a long and involved waste disposal system. This system, known to outsiders as the record industry, seems determined to channel a never-ending stream of waste towards me, and although I regularly pick through the effluent and detritus, to remove some pristine example of genuine creativity, this does nothing to stem the flow. This month, I panned through the silt and uncovered Well Kept Secret (Warners), a precious nugget of an album from John Martyn, and one whose title I am determined shall be inappropriate. But this whole operation begs the question, why is there so much waste?
John Martyn (above), and Steve Winwood (right), giving us creativity… and comfort.
Ironically, it's because the one thing record companies don't want to waste these days is money - and there's cash in flash 'n' fashion. Money makes the turntables go round and, in the current recession, many record companies insist that groups clock up a couple of money-making hit singles before they allow them to make an album or tour the country. The contracts for many new groups extend for just two singles - if those are hits, the group will then be allowed to make an LP, and possibly do some concerts to promote it. But if they don't make the charts, the record company will simply cut their losses and ditch the group. In those dim and distant days of economic health and wealth, groups 'paid their dues' by playing around the country and building up both a reputation and a repertoire - then they'd make an album, from which one or two tracks might be released as singles. Now, that whole process has been reversed; recording, touring and promotions costs are so high that, before they'll invest any time or money in a group, many record companies will insist on instant commercial success. Which, of course, simply encourages attempts at instant, commercial music. In an effort to save waste, they produce... wasted effort.
The effect on artists like John Martyn is that they're in danger of wasting away. A resolutely unfashionable man with twinkling eyes and a beard, John built up his reputation in the late 'Sixties as a folk guitarist. His music gradually became electric as he fed his acoustic guitar through devices which echoed and repeated his notes and built up a throbbing wall of sound behind his solo performances. Then, after a series of solo albums for Island Records, culminating in the superb Grace And Danger, he re-emerged on a new label with a complete backing band behind him.
John's music is now a combination of electricity and simplicity. As that earlier album title suggests, his songs are both graceful and dangerous - they have the lilting, melodic beauty of folk music, but a strong, sometimes harsh electric edge. And his music reconciles other opposites, too; he combines a warm sound with a cool tempo, and within one album he can go from the passionate to the peaceful, from lively to laid-back.
This is the sort of quality music you should be listening to - never mind the singing and dancing, the sighs and thighs of Top of the Pops. The album, Well Kept Secret, is carefully crafted, and not just a collection of possible hit singles; it's a rich, warm and thoroughly entertaining companion.
Now, pay attention, and you'll hear something to your avantage. John is embarking on a twenty-seven date, nationwide tour. He's in Scotland during the last week of September, and then travelling south via half a dozen universities, with major dates at Birmingham Odeon (1st Oct), Sheffield City Hall (8th), and Bristol Colston Hall (17th). There are local concerts on almost every night in between, until he arrives at London's Hammersmith Odeon on 22nd October. Few, if any, members of the audiences will have bizarrely cut clothes, or excessively dodgy haircuts.
In the current commercial climate, it's almost impossible for new artists to begin a career playing this kind of unfashionably fine music - and accomplished but unassuming musicians simply don't claim the acclaim they deserve. This kind of music, which doesn't go along with the glitter and glamour of the singles charts, is in danger of being swamped by the waste, and is having to struggle to survive. But if that means that we can still hear music of the calibre of John Martyn's, then say not the struggle naught availeth.
Other featuring reviews on the same page are Monochrome Set – Eligible Bachelors; Magazine – After The Fact; Steve Winwood – Talking Back To The Night; Beethoven – Diabelli Variations; and Au Pairs – Sense And Sensuality.
The publishing date was reconstructed being later than 2nd August 1982 and well before 24th September 1982.
Material kindly provided by Richard Hannan.