Writer Chris Nickson talks about musician and singer-songwriter John Martyn...
John Martyn was the ultimate cult figure. For over four decades he was a musician’s musician, a superb guitarist, and a singer whose deliberately slurred delivery became a much-imitated trademark. He straddled the worlds of folk, jazz and rock, earning an OBE shortly before his untimely death in 2009 and being honoured with a Life Achievement by the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards.
Charming and garrulous, John’s music was lauded by people as disparate as Faithless’ Sister Bliss, Phil Collins and Bob Marley. He was a true innovator, using the Echoplex to create waves of guitar sounds back in the 1970s and constantly pushing the boundaries of his music.
His ‘70s discs remain classics (Solid Air was named one of the great chill out albums by Q magazine), cited by many in the generations that have followed. But they’re just part of the canon he left behind in a life that was always creative and sometimes turbulent.
John first came to prominence in the golden summer of 1967, releasing two solo discs before working with his then-wife, Beverley. But it was in the next decade that his career really took off, both as a live performer and in the studio.
The 1980s brought a chance of style, more slick and with hints of jazz, and with it came records that sold well, including an unexpected hit with a cover of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.” From being a solo artist he developed into a band leader, working closely with others, something that would serve him well for the rest of his life.
John revisited his old songs in this next context at the beginning on the 1990s, which brought a new lease of life to his career. Suddenly he was news again, and he built on that with lauded forays into trip hop and then a disc of covers that saw his critical reputation rise and rise.
But over the years John hadn’t been kind to his body. He’d been a drinker since his teens, and for much of that time a heavy drinker, in addition to taking various drugs. In time his body rebelled. He was hospitalised for different things, and developed a cyst on his knee. A car crash turned the problem into something dangerous, leading to the amputation of part of John’s leg.
Even that couldn’t slow him down completely. He returned with On the Cobbles, one of the best albums, and still toured regularly, even re-creating Solid Air onstage in 2007.
By the time John turned sixty, he’d become an emeritus figure, celebrated with awards and a lengthy box set of rare material. There were plans for a new record…but it wasn’t to be. John succumbed to pneumonia early in 2009.
What he left behind is a body of work that ranges from the beautifully intimate to the majestic and a life that moved between the raucous and the sublime, all detailed in Solid Air.
‘Solid Air – the Life of John Martyn’ by Chris Nickson published on July 24th.
Here's one of Creative Content’s favourite John Martyn songs: