John Martyn | Solid Air

25 May 2009
Written by: 
John Hillarby

Thirty six years later and it's still perfect!

Emotionally intense and hauntingly beautiful Solid Air encapsulates almost every musical genre with ease and accomplishment. The songs are beautifully crafted fusions of blues, country, folk, jazz and rock with dazzlingly innovative guitar and dreamy evocative vocals from John in a seascape of exquisite flowing musicianship.

You can't improve on perfection however we've tried to provide an insight to the musical creation of John's most widely known and loved album. It's not been the easiest task deciding what to include on this Deluxe Edition but it's certainly been an enjoyable one! The earliest recording sessions for Solid Air took place in July 1972, at Sound Techniques in Chelsea with producer John Wood, and on 23rd July 1972 John worked on Go Down Easy recording thirteen different takes of this sublime and greatly cherished song. During September 1972 John further developed I'd Rather Be The Devil and the song Solid Air working with engineers John Burns and Rhett Davies. Solid Air itself had its origins a year earlier in September 1971 in a jam session that resulted from aborted attempts by John to record May You Never with a band including Free guitarist Paul Kossoff.

Recording started in earnest during the last week of November and producer John Wood was assisted by Richard Reeve, Howard Kilgour and Rhett Davies during the sessions at Basing Street Studios. Musicians included Danny Thompson on double bass, John 'Rabbit' Bundrick on keyboards, Dave Mattacks on drums, Dave Pegg on bass, and Neemoi Acquaye on congas. Tristan Fry played vibes on Solid Air, Tony Coe saxophone on both Solid Air and Dreams By The Sea. Richard Thompson played mandolin, Simon Nicol autoharp and Sue Draheim violin on Over The Hill. The recording of Solid Air was completed by 9th December 1972, much more quickly than John would have liked, so that its release coincided with his extensive tour of the USA with Free and Traffic during January and February 1973. John played thirty minute sets of predominantly electric songs to full stadiums gaining him such popularity that he soon returned on his own to play the club circuit.

In mid December John and John Wood returned to Sound Techniques to mix the album before John Wood mastered it in New York. Interestingly, whilst John was pleased with the album to the present day he feels that the rhythm section could have been improved though I have to say I'm not sure how!

Disc One of this release is as the original album and Disc Two is outtakes and live material presented in the same running order and comprises;
Solid Air and Over The Hill recorded on 7th Dec 1972 by John Wood assisted by Howard Kilgour.
Don't Want To Know, recorded on 9th Dec 1972 by John Wood assisted by Rhett Davies.
I'd Rather Be The Devil, recorded on 7th Dec 1972 by John Wood assisted by Howard Kilgour.
Go Down Easy recorded on 23rd July 1972 by John Wood.
Dreams By The Sea, recorded on 3rd Dec 1972 by John Wood assisted by Richard Reeve.
An instrumental of May You Never recorded on 30th Sept 1971 by John Burns and Phil Ault.
An instrumental of The Man In The Station recorded on 26th Nov 1972 by John Wood and Richard Reeve.
The Easy Blues and Gentle Blues recorded on 9th Dec 1972 by John Wood assisted by Rhett Davies.
Keep On, recorded on 13th Sept 1972.
Never Say Never, recorded on 20th Oct 1972 by John Wood assisted by Rhett Davies.
In The Evening was recorded on 12th Feb 1972 by John Wood assisted by Richard Reeve and Phil Ault.
Our final studio song, the band version of May You Never, was first released as a single in Nov 1971.

I asked John for his thoughts about including Keep On, the captivating Never Say Never and delightful In The Evening on this Deluxe version and ever the perfectionist John divulged that he had never finished the songs. In the session on 20th October 1972 John is not comfortable with his singing of Never Say Never saying, "Can't see me settling down to this at all actually, somehow, but there you go." John starts to play again but then stops and asks, "Is that the note you don't like Bev?" I played Never Say Never to John and asked him about it referring to it in my ignorance as When It's Dark. John instantly recognised the song and told me that the working title was Never Say Never. The following week John phoned and said, "It's not finished man, I don't think you should include it, I was never really happy with it." I said I thought it was a lovely song and people would want to hear it; John paused and then said, "If you think it's OK that's fine with me." The conversation finished with John singing down the phone, "Never want to hurt you, never want to see you cry, I just want to be there..." So here it is!

John originally recorded May You Never with a band and this was released as a single in November 1971. John told me, "John 'Rabbit' Bundrick played keyboards and Kossie played guitar..." Paul Kossoff certainly played in a number of recording sessions in September 1971 however it's not known if he actually plays on the single. At the time John didn't like the way the recording was progressing and in one session told the band, "Let's just leave it and come back to it, its not quite cohesive." One year later in December 1972 John was still unhappy, producer John Wood recalls, "Throughout the sessions one title had eluded us. John had never been happy with the version of May You Never he had already recorded, finally with the album mixed, John was still swithering about this previous version. At around 2.00 a.m. as a last resort, I suggested he go down into the studio with a guitar and just do it. He sat down at the back of the studio, recording it in one take, just a few hours before I was due to leave for New York."

The last three songs The Easy Blues, May You Never and I'd Rather Be The Devil were recorded at The Olympia, Boulevard des Capucines, Paris on 25th March 1974 by engineer Brian Pickering assisted by Brian Humphries on the Island Mobile Unit. John gave two performances that evening and our songs are taken from the second show, John also played Outside In and Sugar Lump.

After a more recent concert in Ireland in 2007 John and I were enjoying a drink when an enthusiastic young man confidently approached him and asked, "What is Solid Air?" John hesitated, only momentarily, although I suspect that having plucked up the courage to ask the question, those few moments seemed endless for our young friend! John smiled and without saying anything reached behind me, put his hand on my shoulder and said, "I should have thought it was obvious dear boy." Seemingly satisfied, but the perplexed expression on his face indicating otherwise, he moved away and we raised our glasses... I know you, I love you, I will be your friend, I could follow you anywhere, even through Solid Air.

An incredibly intelligent man John is a chaotic character who enjoys life to the full, charismatic, uncompromising and charming, but he doesn't suffer fools gladly, make no mistake about that! The essence of John is love, simple and pure; absolutely nothing is forced, his music is an extension of who he is. There is an intense vulnerability deep inside John that feeds his music. Solid Air is a lusciously subtle and intoxicating album that exudes uplifting, blissful introspection and contemplation of times past, present and future. A heart that has not been broken is a heart that never loved, that never gave. John's effortless voice and guitar playing floats beautifully around you and overwhelms you with an ambience all of its own.

Always remaining true to himself the pot of gold has never been of interest or relevance to John, making music is of the utmost importance, it's the 'cool bit' as he once said.

As I try to come to terms with the unbearable loss of my dear friend I make no apology for the conflicting tenses in these notes. The incredible outpouring of emotion at his passing shows the love and admiration that people feel for 'Our John.' We can take solace in his music and the knowledge that he is in a place of peace and complete understanding.

Be still, be still inside your heart
Try forever, just try...
Be sweet forever
Forget me never
You know the Lord is true
Forget me never
Try to be truthful
I didn't give you wings 'cause you ain't in heaven
You ain't in heaven yet
You are not in heaven yet
He said
Come and join me in a sweet celebration
Come and join me, come while you can
Come and join me in a sweet, sweet vision
Come and join me, come if you can.

In the months and years to come, much will be written about John, most of it by those who never knew him and a large amount of it inaccurate. If you want to know the real John Martyn listen to his music.
Compassion, love and wisdom beyond conception, Solid Air is John's philosophy on life.

John Hillarby