John Martyn

The Young John Martyn, circa 1968

John Martyn is an overdue entry in the FirstFoot Good Scottish Pop annals. But Scottish Pop as a description, does an injustice to a man who, in 1964 at the tender age of 16, was taken under the wing of Hamish Imlach, a legendary figure in the world of Scottish folk music. In the intervening four decades Martyn's music has absorbed and reflected a range of genres including Celtic folk, jazz, reggae and, more recently, trip-hop.

Born in England to musical parents, a Scottish father and an English mother, Martyn was brought up in Glasgow. There is a depressing regularity about the amount of talent that exists in Scotland that has to go to London to be "discovered". John Martyn was no different and by the time he was 18 was living and playing on the London folk scene.

It's odd to think that John Martyn released his first album almost thirty five years ago. It's even odder that the album in question London Conversation, was released on the Island label.
Who's a pretty boy then? - John Martyn Grace and Danger photography
Who's a pretty boy then? - John Martyn Grace and Danger photography

In 1967, Island Records was, as the name suggests, focused on island music, specifically the reggae output of the island of Jamaica. What attracted Chris Blackwell, the owner of Island, to the 19 year old John Martyn, a Scottish folk musician, is open to conjecture. But Martyn became the first white artist on Island and so began a long and fruitful musical relationship. A relationship that probably taxed Blackwell's patience on numerous occasions.

It is impossible to write about John Martyn without drugs and alcohol entering the story. They are a constant undercurrent which run through Martyn's life. Creative catalysts; they have cost him many relationships, his first marriage, and possibly the widespread commercial acceptance that a man of his talent deserves.

Helter Skelter rather than rollercoaster, Martyn has been there, seen it, done it. He was at Woodstock (as a spectator), he was pals with Jimi Hendrix. He did the American mega-stadium trip with Yes, Traffic and Free. He has hung out with Phil Collins and Eric Clapton. He has played on Burning Spear reggae albums, Neil Ardley jazz albums, Phil Collins crap albums, and released more than twenty albums of his own compositions.
Who's not a pretty boy then? - John Martyn in concert 1998
Who's not a pretty boy then? - John Martyn in concert 1998

If you are new to John Martyn, FirstFoot would recommend Grace and Danger. It is pure, raw emotion and was written when Martyn's first marriage was crumbling. Chris Blackwell held the release back for a year because the content was so painfully personal. Sweet Little Mystery is as beautiful as song as you will hear for many a long day.

Alternatively, an Island anthology, a 2 CD set, Sweet Little Mysteries, covers most of Martyn's output between the years of 1967 and 1993. It includes tracks from Solid Air, an album many think contains his best work. But as an introduction to the quality and scope of his work it makes an excellent starting point.

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