John Martyn – 1977

Talk about a meeting of worlds. At the intersection of Echo and Delay, in 1977 met John Martyn and Lee “Scratch” Perry. By then, they had treated listeners from both of their traditions to mind expanding sounds that stretched and blurred the lines of roots music. In England, John’s treatment of folk music via the Echoplex effect reimagined a new breed of English folk music that could integrate jazz and improvisation into songs that echoed his more experimental brand of singer-songwriter music. In Jamaica, Mr. Perry would use the studio as an instrument, using reverb and delay as building blocks to stretch out, reconfigure, and space out all sorts of traditional Jamaican roots music like ska, and reggae into something distinct but evolutionary such as dub. What you hear in One World is the brilliant idea that these two new folk styles can meet and circle back into an own new something.

1976 was a weird time for John. Coming off the heralded Live at Leeds recording he had just completed and released himself in 1975, the year presented steady amounts of obstacles that were incrementally building a well of anger in John psyche. Touring itself, in support of that album, had lead to bouts of infighting with his frequent cohort Danny Thompson. Paul Kossoff of Free, although welcomed into his touring band, was in the throes of drug and alcohol addiction culminating in his death in 1976.

Just two years removed from his good friend Nick Drake’s death, now he was gobsmacked saying goodbye to another. Couple this occurring with the general machinations of the music industry demanding more from John, all of this added up to time that wasn’t afforded for him to recover from such things. For an artist who had somehow been perceived outwardly as a bit of a fey musician, to finally show more than a few glimpses of the dark side hovering around him, a new reality was threatening to tear him apart. If, only the world knew how much inner turmoil he was going through, in various self-destructive ways, they would know that he was no saint.

Chris Blackwell, head of Islands Records, rather than let John languish in some mire, invited him to spend time at his home in the Spanish Town area of Kingston. There in Jamaica, John would rekindle his love for music.

For the next seven or so weeks, he’d absorb a lot of the massive dub influence that Jamaica was going through at that moment. By some fortuitous chance Chris invited John to visit Lee at his Black Ark compound. In Lee, John saw a mutual friend that was using the same kind of effects, rhythm machines and the like to experiment with sound. From then on, Lee took John under his auspices and introduced him to other Jamaican greats like Max Romeo, Burning Spear, and other Upsetter members. As evidenced by a few works that came out later, John would go on to contribute phased out, delayed guitars to tracks by Burning Spear and Bree Daniel.

Rather than serve as a musical tourist, John was willing to commune with his Jamaican brethren. John would learn how to expand and swing his folk music like never before, by receiving a thorough schooling on a new form of echoed music, while Jamaican artists were captivated and moved by John’s use of phase effects which transformed the guitar into a jet of sound. Reinvigorated by his brief sojourn in Kingston, John headed back to his English home in Hastings. There in a small studio he built, accompanied by two drum machines he laid down demos for what would become most of his One World album.

When Chris received these demos he knew he had something special. Unlike John’s prior work, this material just swung and danced. Rhythmically and musically he had to flesh out John’s new vision in a manner different than before. Chris decided to let John complete the recording at his Woolwich Green Farm House. This setting would prove brilliant.

Crossed by one driveway and surrounded by water, this farm house had more the feeling and environment of a small island. Choosing to use the isolation of this setting to their advantage, producer Phill Brown developed an intricate outdoor recording system. Its a sound people had heard glimpses of in tracks by Robert Palmer, but not in a folk artist’s work yet.

One World album cover.

In the summer of ’77, John and his cohorts transformed a small 12×15 foot stable at the end of a horse barn into the main studio. The whole expanse (lake included) was wired whether by mics or PA system, to be rolled into one singular sound recording. In order to avoid capturing air and ground traffic they had to do most of their recordings in the evenings, most of the times starting in the midnight hours. In such a relaxed pastoral environment John was able to flow new ideas. Some like, enhancing the originally laid out drum machines with overdubbed acoustic drums added muscle to his sound. Others like using dub techniques on backing accompaniment by the likes of Danny Thompson, or Steve Winwood were just way ahead of its time.

Choosing to merge into his sound contributions by the likes of Harry Robinson (of Curtis Mayfield fame) who would contribute soul string arrangements in tracks like “Smiling Stranger“, or Lee Perry who came by the barn to man the knobs in “Big Muff” where he takes John’s echoplex guitar into some new dub realms no other artist had gone to, thats when you start to hear the makings of a “One World” sound. On songs so desperately romantic like the latin groove of “A Certain Surprise” or “Dancing” (my favorite) with its sparkling multi-layered guitar sway, you start to hear how in the hands of brilliant musicians modern technology and foreign musical influences shouldn’t be feared by folk singers.

In an album full of mercury-like favorites, the one that might hold its form the highest is the majestic ambient capper “Small Hours”. Recorded around 3 a.m., it was during this hour that John took his acoustic and a drum machine, and went outside to a pier on the farm. Flanked by two guitar amps floating on pads on a lake surrounded by Canadian geese preparing for daylight, he played this magnificent ode to the the beautiful English environment slowly waking up around him. Faint sounds of geese flapping and waves lapping, shore up alongside echoplexed guitar and delicately played modern accompaniment. This is the sound that Mark Hollis from Talk Talk wanted to rekindle when he hired Phill Brown to oversee Spirit of Eden.

In a year that saw Bowie release Low and punk bust into the mainstream, here was John releasing an album that should have been as influential. Extremely heralded by critis and other musicians in its era, but besieged with meager sales, it was somehow forgotten by time. No matter, even though time seems to forget the importance of such trailblazers like John, we’ll start to sense how other musicians drew from his work to find a new place to take English neo-folk forward.

Listen to One World at Grooveshark.

Bonus track, check out John in his own environment, playing a live version of “Big Muff” outside on a beach near his home in Hastings…