There is usually a degree of collective agreement as regards an artist’s best works. When someone had a career spanning decades and consisting of tens of albums, there will typically be one or two which are regarded as their ‘must have’ albums. Maybe three if the artist in question was either especially prolific or just very, very good.
For the most part, that received wisdom tends not to be a bad guide. I would rather listen to Blonde on Blonde or Blood on the Tracks than Slow Train Coming or Empire Burlesque. And for years I’d been put off Neil Young because my introduction to him was via my Mum’s copy of Harvest Moon. Which was rubbish. The place to start really should have been Harvest or After the Goldrush (although I would argue that Zuma is actually his best). There are bands about which I’m something of a fan-boy where I might pick one of their more obscure records .I reckon REM’s Murmur is as good as, if not better than, Automatic for the People. And there are others where perhaps my favourite record is one that is not typical of their work because I’m not that interested in their usual sound – so for me U2’s Bowie-influenced Zooropa is a far more interesting record than their multi-million selling Joshua Tree.
But sometimes this received wisdom can send you off in the wrong direction. It’s not that I don’t like Solid Air but it’s not my go-to John Martyn album. If I had to save one from the fire, it would have to be 1977’s One World. Though this should perhaps come with the warning that I’m much more taken by his proggy echoplex and his running of his acoustic guitar through various FX pedals than I am in his more conventionally folk blues output.
It was, however, the John Martyn album I went to first. I can’t remember quite when I bought it – I’m guessing it must have been cheap in Fopp and I’d seen Solid Air appear on enough different lists of people’s favourite records that I thought it was something I really ought to own myself (this being the time before Youtube made it easy to find out what something sounded like and I was much more reliant on the recommendations of magazines like Uncut. Hope-taping didn’t kill music, but home-streaming might have done for the music press. It’s possible, too, given that I was working my way through the Rebus novels at the time, that Ian Rankin might have played a part. Certainly, Inspector Rebus, a man of a certain age who liked a drink or ten, strikes me as someone who would have connected with John Martyn’s music.
It begins with the title track, a mellow melancholy track that sets the mood for the album as a whole. Fiona observed that Martyn has something of a Marmite singing voice, and I wouldn’t dispute that, but I like it, albeit with certain reservations. He sings in a sort of slurred tenor suggestive of someone under the influence of strong sedatives. Or perhaps just a lot of booze. Martyn, by all accounts, was a drinker. And I think I preferred what could be described as his mellow-drunk singing voice rather more than the barking angry drunk who appears on Rather be the Devil.
I can imagine that this record might have been enormously popular in its day with the kind of person who had a very extensive vinyl collection and had spent good money on the kind of hi-fi system that gets the best out of it. It’s the sort of mix of jazz, blues and folk-rock that I can imagine appealing to audio-nerds, so perhaps what I really should have done to get fully immersed in this record would have been to hook it up to the venerable Sansui amplifier that sits in my living room, which my Dad bought when he first moved out of home in the early 1970s and which I’m sure brought out all the production tricks in the likes of Mike Oldfield.
Listening to it now, I think I might be hearing a kind of proto-trip-hop. That might sound ridiculous, but while this is a very ‘organic’ record, with not a synthesizer or a sample to be found, the mood it evokes is really not a million miles away from Tricky, Massive Attack or Portishead. It’s 3am come-down music. Actually, as it happens, John Martyn later covered Glory Box and did rather a good job of it. Later, in the 80s, he would experiment extensively with keyboards, drum machines and synthesizers, with, um, mixed results. (It was only much later that I realised that Solid Air was not the first John Martyn record I heard – that was 1985’s Piece by Piece, which was part of the background soundtrack of my pre-teen years, a regular choice in the car’s cassette player for a while. Have a listen to Nightline if the idea of an electronic John Martyn intrigues, but be warned that if his voice is Marmite, then this is Bovril…
It might be me, or it might be what I think what best plays to Martyn’s vocal strengths, but the more breezy, upbeat songs on the record don’t work quite as well for me. Easy Blues and Over the Hill are perfectly pleasant, but they feel a bit slight. Mere musical interludes. The highlights for me are the songs that are in a conventional folk-rock idiom: May You Never does sound like a busker or pub band’s favourite, but it’s no worse for that. And Man in the Station is a worthy addition to the vast cornucopia of songs about trains and railways.
It was pleasant enough to go back to this record, but after a few days, I rather felt I’d exhausted my reacquaintance with it. That I wasn’t going to get much more out of it than I had first time around, when it was a part of the soundtrack to my immediate post-university days and the feeling of limbo and waiting for something to start that I associate with that time. At the risk of saying something that would get me in Pseud’s Corner if Pseud’s Corner accepted entries from obscure blogs that nobody reads, I think that very often a record is something that you can mine only until you have exhausted it, and when you’re done, there is nothing more to be found from further listening. In the end, everything ends up being mere background easy listening.
Incidentally, his final studio album, Out on the Cobbles, made when he was clearly in failing health and knew that he was not long for this world (the album cover features the sun setting over what appears to be a cemetery), was a return of sorts to the sound of Solid Air. And the strange thing is, while on an objective level, I don’t think the songwriting is anything like as good as it is on Solid Air, it’s nonetheless a record that I find myself going back to rather more often. And maybe it’s because Solid Air just feels like a demonstration of technical prowess, while Out on the Cobbles, with songs like is actually about something. The sound of a man looking back on a life in which he left a great trail of wreckage in his wake, but finding a sort of peace at the end.
Highlights: Solid Air, Don’t Want to Know, May You Never, Man in the Station