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Effing and blinding with John Martyn

September 2, 2013

UnknownYou would  have to really love the late British singer-songwriter John Martyn to buy the latest collection of his works, due out at the end of September. It’s not just a matter of the £169  (roughly $260) price – “John Martyn: The Island Years” comprises 17 CDs, 1 DVD and a 120-page hardcover book. 

Plenty of people do really love Martyn, of course. Slightly too popular to be classified as a cult figure, he was nonetheless a man for aficionados, mixing folk with sometimes stunning jazzy-bluesy guitar work. The effect could be at once romantic and gutsy, ballady and rock-‘n-rolly. 

Martyn’s 1973 album “Solid Air” is variously described as a “masterpiece”, “seminal” and “classic”. It appears in this compilation  along with albums with his ex-wife Beverley Martyn, live performances at Leeds (1975) and Sydney (1977) and others all the way through to the unreleased 1987 recording “The Apprentice”.

Among the CDs is Martyn’s “Sunday’s Child” from 1975. It is this album that turned me on to him and led to one of the strangest concerts I have ever been to. It is a magical recording, jumping from the near-straight folk of “Spencer the Rover” via the experimental “Root Love” to the fearsomely emotional “One Day Without You”.

With the latter in mind I headed to a university gig that year for a bit of mellow Marytn. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, we got mellow  in spades – while he was singing. In between,though, we were treated to a drunken barrage of incoherent four-letter wordage (the kind in retrospect you might have expected from The Sex Pistols two or three years later). I can take as much effing and blinding as any of my fellow  pint-swilling Brits. But this was weird – it was Beauty and The Beast.

We have all learnt since then, of course, that Martyn , who died in 2009, had major drug and drink problems around that era. As it did on that evening of mine, though, his music transcended it.

I’m still not likely to fork out for this compilation. But the betting is there are plenty who will.

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