John Martyn

When you hear the first percussive taps of John Martyn’s acoustic on “Solid Air”, you know this is something special. Written about and dedicated to his friend Nick Drake, it represented something even more beguiling, a fork in the road. His friend was in the throes of depression, to the point that any slight aggravation, real or imagined, affected his psyche deeply. John could only comprehend part of Nick’s depression but he didn’t know the kind of deep sentimental fog swirling around that airspace. This song became both an elegy to a style Nick shared with him, then went beyond, and an opus to a new sound that John was taking huge risks in reinventing. Before he created this album, he was at a junction. Could he was dare himself to create something grander? Something joining spirit and experimentation in one expression…you know, abstraction that goes down easy, even if it cost him his fame? well, for John, that’s another way of going up, I think…

Raving all night and traveling all day, John, after the release of 1971’s Bless the Weather had been living a fast and loose life. Partaking in the adulation, drugs, and hard drinking that few other musicians could tolerate let alone survive, he’d use the stage as a meditation of sorts. On stage, with songs like “Go Easy” and “Bless the Weather” he could show a sensitive side to the volatile side he displayed outside of it. He’d frequently play songs like “Just Now” and “Head and Heart” which would leave fans bawling with emotion only to quickly follow them up with a saucy joke or sardonic laugh. At the end of every concert, he would try to play his cover of “Singin’ in the Rain” as a hopeful tone for his zestful love of life. Somehow, despite plundering such depths of emotion John was always trying to distance himself from the baggage of such feelings.

On stage, to both cajole and console him, was his good friend bassist Danny Thompson from Pentangle. Almost like an older brother to him, together they would partake in fraternal misdeeds all day but commune peacefully when it came time to hear or play music. John believed that the only other musician who could understand, let alone play along with, what he was trying to do was Danny. Danny himself, saw in John an intense young man who always brought creativity and seriousness to his music, regardless of everything else. As they started to be introduced to the music of artists like Pharoah Sanders, John Coltrane and the Weather Report it became harder and harder to justify traveling the well worn roads other folk artists were going through. Bless the Weather’s Glistening Glyndebourne” was their first nascent crack at looking for a different path. At this time, John was using a Watkins Copicat to get a repeated delay sound on his acoustic. Mixed with a modal piano and Danny’s shifting basslines, that track grooved like no other folk song before it, but it didn’t quite capture the sound he was aiming for. His idol, Pharoah Sanders, had a sustaining, almost cavernous tone, that allowed emotions to linger in your brain long after a note has been played. John’s tracks and sound, so swift and quick, at the moment just sprinted forward, looking for a purpose.

Solid Air album cover. Schlieren photography at its best.

In 1972, he discovered something that changed his career. When his Copicat echo delay stopped working, he tried out and bought a Maestro Echoplex unit that allowed him to not only layer loops, but also play with volume and sustain. This was massive. Now he had the ability to stretch out melodies, and play with phrasings on his acoustic. Now, no longer tied to the regular sustain and decay of his acoustic guitar, he could make folk music that could flow, twist, and bend. This influence, also applied to his vocals. Now he would match his vocals to the more spacey and free-floating sound being put to audio tape. What people were mistaking as drunken slurring was driven by his attempt to capture the same flowing vocals Leon Thomas used in Pharoah’s Karma. Its such a glorious sound, because his “folk” music was looking clearly at the future and using all its muscle to expand from within. If you play “Astral Traveling” and “Solid Air” one after the other, now you can hear his communion in spirit start to take shape. When you leave space open, your listener can sense the ghost notes and add something of themselves to the song.

Solid Air was and is a justifiable milestone in England’s neo-folk music, one that solidifies clearly when you hear his cover of Skip James’ “I’d Rather Be the Devil”. Now joining all sorts of old traditions into one massive reflection, it contains his expansive view of how his acoustic guitar can use modern tools and effects to remain as much a living instrument as any electric machine. Rather than remain feal to some kind of arcane past, he’d take steps to understand his present. It first starts out as a fiery seance using the blues as a gateway, then shifts into this amorphous spectral ambient sound plucking all sorts of spirits from the Echoplex. My favorite track though is “Go Down Easy.” Unfurling so uniquely, John stretches and contracts his voice, matched with bass and guitar, like Pharoah would have his horn. This is the communion of spirit and experimentation other English groups were missing by venerating the past too much. In a way, he finally found a way to join his spirit with the songs. I’ll leave you to listen and discover the rest of the album, but can you sense the shift happening with English neo-folk music? John has another great go at it tomorrow though…

Bonus tracks, a mesmerizing rendition of “I’d Rather Be the Devil” at the Old Grey Whistle Test…

and from the same session the romantic, surprise hit, “May You Never”…

Listen to Solid Air at Grooveshark.