John Martyn (Danny Thompson in the back)

If John’s fans thought that he had gone out there for Solid Air, imagine the look on their faces the first time they heard Inside Out. Now trekking further beyond what any artist was doing at that time, John amped up his experimental side until it broke from its seams. If you hear “Outside In” you’re hearing the sound of his Echoplex finding all these ruptures and mending them with other sonic fabrics. Driven by his acoustic guitar, he’d plug all sorts of effects into it, overdub massively, and use his voice as an instrument. So far gone from his early sound, little did people know that John was ushering in a sonic shift in English neo-folk music.

Inside Out album cover.

Island Records hearing the widespread support that “May You Never“, the most “conventional”-sounding track from Solid Air got thought they finally had a way to break John into the American market. John had different ideas. Rather than rest on his laurels, he thought that record was a bit too overproduced and refined. What he wanted to do is create a record that was much heavier, freer, and less structured. To achieve this he needed to produce his own record.

Once again, he commandeered his close friend Danny Thompson to play bass. Unfortunately, when Danny showed up to play, he realized his friend was all bluster. Suffering a bit of writer’s block he didn’t know to even start heading in the right direction. They headed out to have a drink and came back to give it another go. Danny suggested they combine a bit from “Solid Air“, something from “Fine Lines” (what later became the opening track of the album), something from “Man in the Station”, and improvise over all of it. This improvisation, which mimicked Teo Macero’s cut-and-paste work with Miles, became the positively electric delay exploration “Outside In”. This track’s groundbreaking use of experimentation freed John to apply the same techniques to the rest of the album.

Take a listen to the heartfelt ballads like “Fine Lines” or “Ways to Cry”, as outwardly simple as they are can you hear the subtle experimentation which draws out their sublime emotions. “Fine Lines”, gets a stretched out bowed bass and seagull-like guitar to compliment John’s muted vocal phrasing. “Ways to Cry”, has what sounds like a reversed drum and acoustic track which acts like a siren drawing all those beautiful bass plucks from Danny. There’s just something so wonderfully different about all these tracks. Always threatening to unhinge, but never doing so, the sad disposition of the song (and the album itself) permeates through the ways it finds extremely unique sounds to hold all the pieces together.

Inside Out back cover.

Featuring the session work of Traffic members Steve Winwood, Chris Wood, and afro-funk percussionist Remi Kabaka, John and Danny corralled a great unified ensemble that allowed them to have fun with arrangements and experiment freely without ever having to worry whether everyone could keep up. When they were free to forget their folk underpinnings, they’d unwittingly create songs like “Eibhli Ghail Chiuin Ni Chearbhail” with its highly effects-treated droning acoustic melody, that evoked something of it. Songs like “Beverley” dedicated to his wife, although they have more in common with Jazz than folk, retain a certain pastoral quality to them that recall the hills of Scotland. At a time, when folk music was spelling out its influences, this is the shade of Impressionistic sound that would endure far longer than the 4/4-rocked out traditionals other folkies were mining.

To this day, most people don’t realize how special this album was. I can hear it myself, because it points to the future without succumbing to the machine. John was never a Luddite and that’s something hear quite plainly hear and for now he laid down the gauntlet that other people had to go beyond. Like John said: “I just wanted to say something very simple and very direct. But a lot of people said it was very complicated. I don’t know if I’ll make an album like that again.” Well, John was half-right, some other artists (including himself way later) would find a way to reach that mantle. However, the further they went the further they keep pushing neo-folk roots underground. More of that tomorrow though…

Bonus track, a performance by John and Danny of “Make No Mistake” at the Old Grey Whistle Test:

Listen to Inside Out at Grooveshark.