Wednesday, February 25, 2004

TOP 50 ALBUMS OF ALL TIME: # 47

JOHN MARTYN - Inside Out LP
This list needs a few curveballs thrown in the mix just to keep myself interested. I'm not saying that I'd list an apparent anomaly like John Martyn just to surprise or taunt people; it's here for good reason: I LOVE this album. I can stick more of the predictable stuff in later on (and anyone who knows me is all to aware of what they are), but for now, let's talk about Inside Out.

Prior to, if my memory isn't too off (I can't be bothered rummaging through piles of magazines to confirm the exact date), early 1997, I'd absolutely never heard of John Martyn. I was working in a warehouse for a music distributor at the time and came into work one morning with the new issue of The Wire. My English ex-pat workmate, who was a good 10 years older than me and a guy I personally liked and admired immensely, jumped out of his chair when I put the new issue down at my workbench: "That's John Martyn on the cover! He's a right bloody legend, he is!". Huh? I'd never heard of the guy, and was simply wondering why on Earth The Wire put some bearded old geezer on the cover who looked more suited to MOJO magazine.

Anyway, my friend promptly gave me The John Martyn Story (it turned out that back in England he was friends with Martyn's daughter), the Essential Purchases list and those to avoid and, well, within a week I had about half a dozen of his albums at home on the shelf (his stuff was, and likely still is, pretty easy to find on 2nd hand vinyl) and was entranced.

Musically, Martyn is a tough guy to pin down. As a Scottish folkie, he got swept up in the "folk boom" of the '60s and signed to Island to release a couple of LPs with his wife, Beverley. At the dawn of the '70s she dropped out to take up motherhood full-time and John's music became more and more obtuse. Coming under the spell of Indian ragas, free jazz and Jamaican dub, he recorded a series of brilliant albums such as Bless the Weather, Solid Air, Sunday's Child, Live at Leeds and Inside Out ('73), and explored darker and more grim lyrical themes as the decade progressed. By the early '80s, suffering alcoholic and psychological problems, he dropped out for a few years but was later "revived" by none other than long-time fan PHIL FUGGIN' COLLINS, fer chrissakes! Recording and marketing him as some lame-beyond-belief Adult Contemporary artist, he then unfortunately went on to record a series of dross with Mr. S-S-Sudio before personal problems took him off the radar yet again. In the last 10 years, Martyn has apparently gotten himself together yet again and released a couple of stripped-back albums on various indies that hark back to his glory days. I ain't heard 'em, but before I die, I undoubtedly will.

What's Martyn sound like? For reference, think of that great early '70s Island roster: Richard Thompson, Eno, Nick Drake, Nico, John Cale. Or imagine a Celt-folkie version of Tim Buckley ca. Blue Afternoon or Lorca. Martyn has an amazingly gruff, bluesy voice that can howl in bitterness then turn beautifully tender the next instant, his lyrics so personal and full of pain that his stuff can seriously be too heavy for a sensitive lad like myself if I'm not in the right mood. As far as personal anguish goes, Inside Out is his pinnacle.

The cover tells the story: on the front there's a silhouette of his head with storm clouds and lightning superimposed on his face; on the back is the same image with a serene sun instead. You get an even clearer picture of his headspace by the first song: a piano/guitar-led tune, "Fine Lines", which appears to detail his sense of desertion from his friends. Inside Out has a strong thematic core of relationships (and life in general) slipping off the rails, though the mixture of musical styles gives it an almost schizophrenic edge: the distorted, fuzzed-out guitar instrumental, "Eibhli Ghail Chiuin ni Chearbahaill" (a traditional Celtic tune revamped), the Pharaoh Sanders-inspired "Outside In" (with screaming howls, roaring sax and thunderous drums, this is Martyn getting real weird), the raw funkiness of "Look In" and the droning acoustics of "Beverley". This, dear readers, is one brave disc, and yet one that sadly eludes just about every music-obsessive I know. The music of John Martyn, whether I like it or not, seems to be my own private little treasure.

Pros: Along with Nick Drake and Richard Thompson, Martyn is part of the Holy Trinity of UK '70s Singer-Songwriter Tortured Artists.
Cons: Ummm... those Phil Collins-produced albums I told you about. 'Nuff said!
Related Releases: The best place to start is actually the token Best Of, So Far So Good, from '77. It has, without doubt, the ugliest and just plain most unappealing cover you will ever see, though every track's a winner, and features his best ever song, "Spencer the Rover", though, curiously, contains nothing from Inside Out.




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