In Jamaica, Martyn scratched an itch with trip-hop classic
We have become so desensitized to the antics of Britney/Amy/Pete et al that we could be forgiven for thinking that music today is one long crack cocaine session, interrupted only by the inconvenience of having to release a record or stage a show. Yet, if you truly like your rock stars behaving badly, you still have to travel back to the good old bad old days of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when debauchery was allowed to flourish without the prying camera eyes of mobile phones and YouTube maniacs.
One of the best stories from those days concerns Island label boss Chris Blackwell and one of his more curious musical pairings. With Island, Blackwell had assembled a crack roster of reggae and dub musicians. But his true musical love was jazz, and he adored the work of John Martyn.
Quickly signing Martyn to his imprint, Blackwell had the idea of getting this folk-jazz singersongwriter to collaborate with the renowned dub producer Lee “Scratch” Perry. At the time, to put it mildly, John Martyn liked a drink and “Scratch” Perry was no stranger to drugs.
Nearly two decades after Blackwell sent Martyn to work with Perry in Jamaica, he still shuddered at the memories.
“I think putting Martyn together with ‘Scratch’ Perry was one of the most irresponsible things I have ever done,” he says. “There are lots of stories there. I wouldn’t know where to begin. Up until quite recently, in certain Jamaican recording studios the very mention of
John Martyn’s name would scare staff and locals.” The sessions led to the release of perhaps Martyn’s most underappreciated album, One World (1977). This weirdly experimental work is today credited as being the first “trip-hop” album.
Martyn is still best known still for the albums Solid Air (1973) and Grace and Danger (1980). The former’s title track was a tribute to Martyn’s friend Nick Drake, and is one of the best-ever fusions of jazz and folk. On Grace and Danger, the songs all reflect his recent divorce from singer Beverly Kutner. The album was almost never released because Blackwell found it too depressing. It took a number of increasingly desperate pleas from Martyn to get it into the shops.
You’ll get the chance to refamiliarise yourself with One World and the rest of Martyn’s stunning oeuvre over the next few months, when a whole bunch of remastered albums and previously unheard material is released.
Next week sees the release of an enthralling John Martyn box set. Archly titled Ain’t No Saint, the two CDs of live material are but a precursor to what the fans really want: two CDs of previously unreleased and demo work.
When it comes to these box set packages, the term “previously unreleased” is usually a code for “if these tracks had been any good they would have been released earlier but they’re not so we’re just sticking them on here in case some deluded fans are taken in”. However, in this case there are some real treasures, including an early jam version of Solid Air and Black Man at Your Shoulder, which was the first song Martyn recorded after his picaresque journey in Jamaica.
According to the people at Island/Universal, who spent yonks going through all the old reel-to-reel recordings, John Martyn fans really know their stuff and won’t be fobbed off by any old thrown-together compilation. They also say that the Martyn back catalogue are very steady sellers.
Meanwhile, a brand new Martyn studio album, Willing to Work, will be released at the end of October, with an Irish/UK tour to follow. email@example.com
Songs of grace and danger: folkjazzman John Martyn is getting the deluxe boxed-set treatment