The late John Martyn never enjoyed the mass acclaim that his immense talent deserved. Nonetheless, he delivered a string of great records in the 1970s and early 1980s. He started as a folk artist, emerging in the late 1960s alongside Nick Drake and Richard Thompson. By the early 1970s, Martyn had created his own unique sound; influenced by jazz, employing echoplex effects on his guitar, and delivered with a soulful and slurred voice. By the late 1970s few vestiges of his early folk style remained.
Born Iain David McGeachy, Martyn was an underrated guitar virtuoso and a restless explorer. He recorded an impressive body of work, despite a premature death at the age of 60. I’m not familiar with his work after the early 1980s, although his cover of Portishead‘s ‘Glory Box’ is one of his most popular tunes on Spotify.
Here are ten of my favourite Martyn songs.
10 Best John Martyn Songs
#10 Just Now
from Bless The Weather, 1971
Martyn’s first four albums – two as a teenager and the two with wife Beverly Martyn – feel like an apprenticeship in hindsight. His solo career started in earnest with 1971’s Bless The Weather, with its gorgeous and atmospheric folk music. ‘Just Now’ serves as an excellent microcosm for Bless the Weather, with Martyn’s vocal tenderly navigating the pretty tune.
#9 Please Fall In Love With Me
from Glorious Fool, 1981
Martyn’s work after 1980’s Grace & Danger is generally regarded as inconsistent, but ‘Please Fall In Love With Me’ is a gem. The 1980s soundscape works for Martyn, with the reverbed drums and jazzy fretless bass providing an appropriate backdrop for his gritty and emotive voice. The closing lines, delivered in a capella (“I want to fall in love with the world/I want the world to fall in love”) are heartwrenching.
#8 May You Never
from Solid Air, 1973
Martyn’s best-known song is ‘May You Never’, thanks to Eric Clapton’s cover on 1977’s Slowhand. Clapton later described Martyn as “so far ahead of everything else it was inconceivable”. ‘May You Never’ is a gentle acoustic folk song, but there’s an undercurrent of darkness about it as well.
#7 Small Hours
from One World, 1977
Martyn liked to end his albums with a lengthy echoplex workout, and ‘Small Hours’ from One World is my favourite of these. As the title implies, ‘Small Hours’ was recorded outside in the early hours of the morning at Chris Blackwell’s farm. Ambient sounds from the farm, like a flock of geese and a train, make their way into the recording, while Steve Winwood plays Moog.
#6 The Man in the Station
from Solid Air, 1973
‘The Man in the Station’ is another Martyn tune with a pronounced jazz feel, with keyboards from John “Rabbit” Bundrick. Bundrick appeared on many Island Records albums, including Bob Marley. Solid Air is one of Martyn’s most beloved records – Q Magazine later said that “The Guv’nor achieved the impossible: he made a quiveringly sexy folk record.”
#5 Sweet Little Mystery
from Grace and Danger, 1980
Grace and Danger is Martyn’s divorce album – Island Records refused to release it for a year as it was too personal. Phil Collins, also going through a divorce at the time, plays drums. ‘Sweet Little Mystery’ veers close to adult-contemporary, but it’s gorgeous, with Martyn’s soulful voice creaking through lines like “It’s not the letters that you just don’t write/It’s not the arms of some new friend”.
#4 Spencer The Rover
from Sunday’s Child, 1975
While Martyn started his career as a folk singer, he didn’t play many traditional songs – all of the other songs on this list are originals. ‘Spencer The Rover’ is a cover of a traditional folk song and it’s glorious. He learned the song from folk singer Robyn Dransfield, who later said: “not being an English folkie, he simply looked at it like any other song, Martynised it, and the result was simply wonderful.”
#3 Solid Air
from Solid Air, 1973
‘Solid Air’ was written for Martyn’s close friend Nick Drake, who was withdrawing and taking antidepressants. While posterity’s rendered Drake more famous than Martyn, at the time he’d released three glorious albums for little recognition. According to Martyn, ‘Solid Air’ was “done for a friend of mine, and it was done right, with very clear motives”. It’s much closer to jazz than folk, with Danny Thompson’s acoustic bass and the spare electric piano behind Martyn.
#2 Couldn’t Love You More
from One World, 1977
Martyn’s rarely as straightforward as ‘Couldn’t Love You More’, with its uncomplicated sentiment and emotive vocal. I’ve chosen the version from 1977’s One World, but Martyn revisited the tune on 1981’s Glorious Fool, with Eric Clapton providing lead guitar that sounds suspiciously like Glenn Frey’s solos on ‘I Can’t Tell You Why’.
from One World, 1977
For my money, One World is Martyn’s best album, taking in influences from dub as well as contemporary rock and pop. It opens with the snarling ‘Dealer’, where Martyn declares “I cannot be your lover and I will not be your friend”. Martyn’s backed by the rhythm section of Steve Winwood and Andy Newmark, but it’s his echoplex loops that are the main attraction.
What are your favourite Martyn tunes?
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Wanted to ‘like’ this article but the button didn’t load! Dunno why… Anyway, good to see #9, #7 and #5 in there. As for not getting ‘mass acclaim’, I’m pretty sure he liked it that way.
I switched to self-hosted WordPress, which doesn’t support the Like button as well. From what I read, he would have enjoyed a bit more financial success – it’s weird that his highest charting album was Well Kept Secret from 1982. He definitely suited being an experimental, ahead of his time kind of guy.
My first exposure to John Martyn was on the island Records sampler You Can All Join In and the song Dusty is still one of my favourites of his. Also One Day Without You, from Sunday’s Child. Dead easy to play on acoustic guitar and it rocks a bit, so it has been an occasional feature of my set ever since. Saw him once at UEA in Norwich, in 1973 I think, with Danny Thompson on bass, and he was a master of the effects pedals, notably the Watkins Copicat and a sort of fuzzy thing called Big Muff. And when he finished a song and you clapped he would go “I theng yaw” a la Max Miller.
One Day Without You was the last song I dropped from this list – it’s always been a favourite but I couldn’t fit it. That whole Sunday’s Child album is a bit underrated – it’s lightweight, but still very good. I read that he could flip between a posh British accent and a working class Scottish accent, since he grew up in both places.
I read this last night…I’m not too familiar with him but I’ve been listening to him at work today. I really like Spencer the Rover and The Man in the Station…I’m going to listen to more today…Good stuff Graham.
Thanks for listening! He’s very good, especially given that he’s far from a household name. He evolved his sound a lot through the 1970s too.
He is good. I’m surprised I’ve missed him for the most part.
I only know him because a guitarist in church band lent me One World. He is bigger in the UK – he’s featured in 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.
When I heard the first song… it sounded modern… I’ve been checking him out.
Yup, he was ahead of his time. You can hear his influence on stuff like Portishead and Talk Talk.
Am not familiar with John Martyn, so making a point to listen to your playlist.
Thanks for listening – hope you enjoy. He seems unfairly obscure, particularly in the states.
Now listening, and I’m liking his songs. His vocals are really emotive and lovely.
Just know the songs from 5 and 6. Just finding the time for more is the trick.
So Solid Air and Grace & Danger? He has at least five more really good records – everything from 1971 to 1981.
Yes those two. I had them on the spin list a while ago. So much music Aph i felt I did pretty good to get into them. I will make time for the others. I will keep those years in mind. Thanks
Yup, tons of music out there for sure. Much better than complaining about how all new music sucks.
No kidding. Waste of time on your last comment. All about choices Aph. Like a big smorgasbord, take what you like, leave the rest.
I think we both have a lot of love, time and respect for John Martyn and I saw him many times – the most variable live act ever, ranging from the technically brilliant through blissed out approximations of the songs to violently angry / verging on unlistenable….. and you never knew what sort of evening it was going to be.
Unlike with say Natalie Merchant (where I agree fully with all your album marks and text but none of your top ten songs – note to self, I must revisit asap), I don’t fully agree with the album marks which is rare. To me, because of its perfect overall feel as a listening experience, Solid Air is a 10 for me and I’ve always thought One World overpraised. It does contain some good stuff and Small Hours is a remarkable proto ambient piece but I don’t actually like Dealer, which doesn’t help…….
So here goes
10 Make No Mistake
9 John The Baptist (ok technically John and Beverly but really just JM)
8 The Man In The Station
7 My Creator (On The Cobbles)
6 Spencer The Rover
5 Sapphire (great hypnotic song but a pretty shoddy album)
4 Don’t Want To Know
3 Head And Heart
2 Solid Air
1 Bless The Weather
It is painful to leave out the seduction song Go Down easy, fun of Clutches, moody tormented Sunday’s Child and great cover of Glory Box. My Mrs wanted Outside In but the best versions were live performances – well, that’s what I think anyway. Have seen him mangle May You Never too many times (presumably out of boredom?) to like it now.
And on another matter entirely, have you thought of Sandy Denny songs? She was arguably the greatest and a brilliant interpreter of others’ material but wrote some great stuff too in addition to Who Knows Where The Time Goes, such as Stranger To Himself, John The Gun etc etc What do you think?
It’s cool you got to see him – I never did, apart from seeing him on Later With Jools Holland. Thanks for sending your list – I’m not sure why Solid Air doesn’t appeal to me as much as One World – I know a lot of people regard it as his best.
Sandy Denny’s solo stuff + Fotheringay has been on my to-do list for years. Normally I just write about whatever I feel like doing next, so it doesn’t feel like too much of a chore.