JOHN MARTYN 1948 - 2009


I once read a small item in the NME in which various people were asked what record they would save if their house was burning down. Danny Baker (a writer for the magazine at the time) said he would save Solid Air by John Martyn whose death has been announced at the age of 60.

Baker's reason was that when you work in the music industry you tend to be a bit pragmatic about what you listen to, but John Martyn's music was beyond the "business". He was implying it was something to immerse yourself into; and a record which makes you remember why you love music so; for it's ability to move you and take you on a journey.

He made music from the late sixties and was still working until he passed away. He never had the commercial success that came to the many people he influenced; but was aware that his music would probably not have been as interesting if he had.

He also played a large part in the lives of both Nick Drake and Paul Kossoff, which was in some ways more important than his influence on Phil Collins or Eric Clapton. I remember an interview with John in the eighties when he said the money thing was not impossible as he always guaranteed a full house in a venue if he played a solo gig to pay the rent.

He may not have had massive exposure but his fans were dedicated !

For me I know the exact date first time heard John Martyn (thanks to the DVD John Martyn at the BBC) It was 17 th Jan 1975. I was mesmerised both by his voice and guitar playing. It was straight to the record shop the next day. The only album they had was Solid Air which was not a bad place to start. I was completely hooked a couple of years later at the Festival Hall. John was supported by Rico who played haunting ambient reggae over backing tracks on a cassette played in a ghetto blaster, miked through the PA. John came on with his electronic box of tricks and a guitar. He was also equipped with a bottle of wine and a seemingly endless supply of spliff's (if memory serves); and made the place feel like his living room. His between-song banter was in strange contrast to the beauty and intensity of the tunes.

After that it was pretty much every London gig for me for many years. Whether solo or with varying band sizes and personnel. A lot of the same faces would be in every crowd - to the point there was much nodding of 'hello' between a bunch of people who always seemed to bump into each other at John's gigs. It was a family business to those of us who understood.

He was the first first white act signed to Island Records, Chris Blackwell having the foresight to let him develop his talent and style - as the man said himself "the first few albums never sold a lot, but then they were cheap to make". In fact John spent time in Jamaica where he lived with Lee Perry with whom he wrote and while there did a few sessions including playing the guitar on Burning Spear's "Man from the Hills" album - check it out!

Indeed it seemed that as I got older I categorised the people I met into two separate groups; those who understood what it was about, and those who thought he was a miserable bastard !  

I associate different albums with friends I have introduced to his music. This seems to be the reason I cannot pin down a single album as my favourite, as each seems to represent a different time of my life and people who were important to me at that time.

I cannot say which is my favourite album, it changes with the times. It normally includes the wonderful Bless the Weather, with it's jazzy improvisation, first real use the echo plex and delays on the guitar which would characterise the rest of his work and wonderfully sublime songs. Solid Air just because for me it was first and hold so many memories. Perhaps my favourite tune is the one you can hear playing now "So much in love with you" from the Inside Out album, inspired by the Pharoah Saunders Karma album (and the odd spliff or three). It is maybe the most obviously jazz based with deep loose sound. On One World there is a tune recorded with Lee Scratch Perry who he worked with in Jamaica and the sublime Small Hours, recorded at three in the morning outside Chris Blackwell's country pile, beside a lake - listen for the geese that flew across during the take. For sheer intensity there is not much better than Grace and Danger a documentary of a broken relationship, don't listen to side two if you have just lost the one you love. To my mind the only bit of Phil Collins I ever want to listen too - it is notable that his biggest solo breakthrough the Face Values LP was greatly modelled on John's style and sold by the bucket load.Somewhat akin to the fact that at one time John made more money from Clapton's cover of May You Never than the whole of his Solid Air album - there seems little justice really but in truth it never seemed to bother the man himself.

That this is not much of an obituary, or the straight facts of the man's life do not really matter. The whole point of John Martyn for me is that the music that has been a soundtrack to my life; takes me away from the shit that is reality and brings me in touch with the people who mean the most.

Check the links below for the obituaries/remeberance and John Hillarby's excellent site.

We should not mourn a death but celebrate a life


Love to all those he touched.







Bob Baines




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