Another installment of deep cuts, this time we take a look at an ISC patron saint, the enigmatic and genre-defying ~ John Martyn.
Before what some consider a late-career decline, John Martyn was one of the most innovative figures in the British folk-rock firmament. Beginning with traditional folk balladry, the artist developed his own unique blend of the genre. With the help of his now-iconic use of the Maestro Echoplex tape delay, Martyn fused the singer-songwriter style with jazz elements and improvisation to create a series of hypnotic, beautiful, and downright mystifying recordings.
Constantly reinventing himself while still holding on to his Brit-folk foundation, Martyn ventured into a range of styles throughout his 40 year career — from traveling to Kingston to study reggae and dub with Lee “Scratch” Perry himself to composing Balearic ‘80s synth-pop. The guitarist reached his final destination exploring the realm of ‘90s psychedelic downtempo.
Avoiding the timelessSolid Air and One World, below is a list of some of our favorite “deep” cuts from one of ISC’s most celebrated artists.
Tree Green – 1970
The Road to Ruin marks a pivotal stepping stone in Martyn’s multi-faceted career. Not only was it the last collaboration with his then-wife, vocalist and songwriter Beverley Martyn, it was also the first album to show signs of Martyn’s defining sound, the heavy jazz and effect driven folk of his later records. Andy Childs of cult brit-rock magazine Zigzag wrote in 1974, “The Road To Ruin stands apart from other John Martyn albums… it enjoys distinctly jazz instrumentation in what is basically a rock format.”
John later recalled this transitional shapeshifting period, saying, “By the time Beverley and I recorded our second album my ears were opening a little and I was listening to a lot more music. I’d been to a lot more gigs and was hanging out with other musicians non-stop. I was exposed to more music every day through other people’s record collections, gigs they took me to and gigs I went to on my own.” The whole album is peak John Martyn. Many listeners are familiar with “Auntie Aviator,” but one of our favorite songs from this one is the lovely, restrained tune “Tree Green.”
Couldn’t Love You More – 1981
This updated version of “Couldn’t Love You More” appears on 1981’s Glorious Fool. Martyn revisits his longtime live fixture and one of the most intimate songs to appear on his staple One World LP, this time in his newly forming pop identity. Instead of a stripped down acoustic track, Martyn renders it into a textural full-band affair with contributions from Eric Clapton on guitar and Phil Collins on drums and back-up vocals. This reexamination of one of our all time favorites may not surpass the first recording, but it has an amazingly lush laid-back groove to it and still contains the familiar transcendence of the original.
You Know – 1984
Martyn recorded Sapphire with the intention of completely retiring his acoustic/folk approach and to establish a new career with a more synth-pop sound. Recorded at Compass Point Studios, Nassau, Bahamas and CaVa Sound Workshops, Glasgow, Scotland, the album was originally released on LP by Island in 1984, with photography by Anton Corbijn and a cover illustration by Cathie Felstead. Martyn’s first proper jump into high gloss production and ‘80s sophisti-pop is a hit-and-miss full-length, but two great balearic standouts are the title track and the often-overlooked third track “You Know.”
Love of Mine – 1986
Piece by Piece is full of classic Balearic-era John Martyn tracks, the two biggest being “Love of Mine” and “One Step Too Far.” The album follows up his 1984 release Sapphire, a record recorded with intention to end his acoustic sound once and for all. Here he continues to embrace crystalline, glossy ‘80’s production and record music that would most aptly fall into the sophisti-pop variety.
John said that Piece By Piece was “a bit more mature and sophisticated, what do you expect from a 37 year old man? It’s not going to be raucous and punkish, hardly going to have the U2 feel about it. What I’ve tried to do is sing more than play, and have fun with some new sounds, like the strangled duck.” On “John Wayne,” Martyn came up with a new vocal effect where he would indulge a large quantity of “liquids” and do his vocal track in a single take. John continues, “I’ve been trying to sing better for the last few years and push myself in a certain direction. I always find the vocals more difficult to get right in the studio, they’re better live, generally. To get the effect I wanted on the track John Wayne I had to go out and get totally rat-arsed, and then I did it in one take. Great effect.” All in all, the album is hit and miss but these two standouts are always in our rotation.
She’s a Lover – 1997
Snooo…. was originally only available from the merch stand during John’s summer 1995 solo tour. In order to get the CD you had to buy a Snooo…. t-shirt. The EP is four demo songs that subsequently appeared on the 1996 album And, albeit in finished form. In 1997, Voiceprint gave the EP a legitimate release on its Blueprint imprint. It features original photography by Robert Laugier, who had given copies of the photo some years earlier to Permanent Records. These “demos,” weirdly, feel like Dilla beats, with their break and MPC like percussion, cascading Rhodes pianos and sampled saxophones — but with layered John Martyn vocals. It also appears to be his first foray into a 90s trip-hop sound. Highlights include the opener “She’s a Lover,” and the EP’s closer, “A Little Strange.”
Sunshine’s Better (Talvin Singh Remix) – 1996
Though not necessarily a deep cut (the song is in his top 10 on streaming services) but this 1996 12” remix can definitely be overlooked by those who haven’t strayed from his enduring classic albums. A Jose Padilla sunset staple, and released on Manifesto in collaboration with Cafe Del Mar (featured on vol.4), Talvin Singh’s remix will forever be a blissed out chill-out masterpiece.
Dancing (Alternate Take #2) – 2013
There’s a lot to dive into on the Island Years box set that Island released in 2013. For a definitive “B-sides and rarities” collection, especially focused on Martyn’s classic era, this is essential. It’s a 17-CD anthology that includes each of his Island albums, accompanied by nearly as many discs for alternative takes, demos, dub versions, extended mixes, remixes, and live recordings.
Heaven and Earth – 2011
Released posthumously, 2011’s Heaven and Earth is Martyn’s last hurrah: his last recordings and his final proper album. Even in these recordings you can hear Martyn is struggling healthwise, his vocals are a bit mumbly, sometimes delivered in a noticeable weakness. Yet, sonically, the record resembles a lot of his earlier work and in the process results in a striking “full circle” LP. A wonderful farewell, the album is chock full of hallmark John Martyn: His undeniable charm and wit is on full display, as are a slew of sublime Martyn-esque moments, our favorite being the blissful seven minute title track.
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