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    The Best Version Of… John Martyn's Solid Air

     

     

    "I don’t want to know about evil, I only want to know about love"

    - John Martyn, “Don’t Want to Know” from Solid Air

     

    To write about John Martyn in 2021, more than a decade after his death at age 60, is to write about more than John Martyn’s music. In death as in life, Martyn is a complicated and polarizing figure.

     

    On the third track from Martyn’s most famous album, 1973’s Solid Air, Martyn insists that he won’t entertain evil, only love. According to some, Martyn lived up to this refrain. “He’s the biggest, softest teddy bear, a generous, warm, sensitive person and he spends a lot of the time covering it up,” Martyn’s close friend and musical collaborator, bassist Danny Thompson, told Q magazine in 1998.

     

    But not everyone agrees with that assessment.

     

    In her 2011 autobiography, Martyn’s ex-wife and sometime musical partner, Beverley, wrote about the abuse that accompanied John’s spiral into alcoholism and drug abuse in the ‘70s. (Perhaps fittingly, Beverley also says that she came up with the refrain for “Don’t Want to Know.”)

     

    Beverley and John’s three children confirmed their father’s violent tendencies to biographer Graeme Thomson. They also expressed ambivalence about how to describe Martyn. “He wasn’t all bad, and she wasn’t all good,” Wesley, Martyn’s adopted son from Beverley’s previous relationship, told Thomson. “It was a co-dependent relationship. She was an artist as well, and she had a crazy lifestyle, too.”

     

    There’s no simple accounting of Martyn as a human being. As another of his biographers, John Neil Munro, put it: “Some people loved him and talked fondly of a warm, generous and loving individual. Others genuinely loathed him and recalled tales of his violent temper, dark moods and drunken debacles.”

     

    Even just a few decades ago, most fans knew little about the personal lives of the artists they loved. But today, in the age of the internet and #MeToo, few musicians and entertainers can avoid the consequences of their bad behavior, however private.

     

    Beverley understandably judges Martyn by his private behavior, not his music. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a great artist or play the blues and make everybody cry,” she said in 2004. “It’s what you do as a human being that counts at the end of the day.”

     

    Does the same calculus apply for fans of Martyn’s music?

     

    The insistence that we can separate the art from the artist is, at best, an idealized understanding of what it means to be a fan and, at worst, a facile evasion of the fan’s responsibility to consider the effects of their consumption. Is purchasing an R. Kelly t-shirt or a Mark Kozelek concert ticket today really a morally neutral act?

     

    Things become more complicated when considering the fact that almost no album or song is the sole product of the artist whose name is on the cover. When you listen to “Don’t Want to Know,” you’re not just listening to John Martyn. You’re listening to John Wood (production and engineering), Danny Thompson (bass), Dave Mattacks (drums), and John “Rabbit” Bundrick (keyboards) — none of whom are responsible for the private actions of the headline artist.

     

    When the artist in question is no longer living, the moral calculus becomes a little simpler. The fan’s dollars are no longer facilitating bad behavior. Instead, by flowing to the artists’ heirs, they’re often benefitting its victims. In such cases, it’s up to each fan to decide how acknowledging an artists’ flaws impacts how we listen to their music. As Sonia Saraiya asked in a 2013 piece grappling with Miles Davis’s legacy:

     

    When I listen Kind Of Blue or Bitches Brew…I don’t know how much it matters to me that he abused his partners. I can’t help loving the music, even as his violence makes me recoil in horror. But I hope that the music was the humane side of Miles, his way of dealing with a rage that at times consumed him. He was an angry, terrible man at times — and there are reasons for that. Can I hold that in my mind, while listening to “All Blues”? Can both versions of Miles Davis exist side-by-side?

     

    In knowing everything I now know about Martyn, but still deciding to write this TBVO about his transcendently beautiful 1973 album, Solid Air, I’m trying to let both versions of Martyn exist side-by-side.

     

    Thomson put it well in the introduction to his 2020 biography of Martyn:

     

    Martyn lived his life the same way he made his music, improvising as he went, with no safety net, admirable in one sense and impossibly irresponsible in another. He tore through it, scattering brilliance and destruction in his wake. He blackened the eyes and broke the spirit of women he professed to love, abandoned at least one of his children and neglected others. He wore his volatility and rage as armor, perhaps, but it was volatility and rage just the same. Despite the murk of his life, the good heart of the music shines through. Whether it shines sufficiently brightly to penetrate the surrounding darkness is perhaps the wrong question: one would not exist without the other.

     

    Martyn was born as Iain David McGeachy in Surrey in 1948 to two opera singers. Just as Martyn would later, his Belgian-born Jewish mother and Scottish father adopted stage names. United by music and love, they formed a duo and performed across Scotland. However, the two divorced not long after Martyn was born, and he was raised by his father and grandmother in Scotland, seeing his mother in England only on summer breaks — a dual existence that allowed him to shift accents at will.

     

    In interviews, Martyn took pains to stress his “great” childhood and his love for his grandmother. “Well I had no mother, no mother figure,” he told Johnny Black in 2008. “Although my granny did the best fucking job with me possible. She had six kids before me, you know what I mean? She inherited me and she enjoyed it because it kept her sharp. She knew how to deal with children, having six of her own and picking me up. She’s done a fantastic job on me. Yeah and grannies are wonderful with the children, probably better than mums.”

     

    However, Munro suggests in his biography of Martyn that his father could be violent, and by Martyn’s own account, his grandmother was an alcoholic. On top of that, there was the lurking knowledge that his mother had sent him away, an experience that unquestionably shaped the outlook of another musician eight years Martyn’s senior, John Lennon.

     

    According to Martyn’s childhood friend Davie MacFarlane, “I felt John was obviously looking for love, from an early age when I knew him. It wasn’t from lack of love from his gran and his father. There was just this big hole where his mum should have been.”

     

    Even when he got to see his mother, who’d remarried when John was only three, he experienced another form of rejection. “I only got to see my mother for two months of the year,” he said in a 1974 interview, “and I never got to stay with her because my stepfather didn’t like me. So I stayed with her sister and her husband.” (According to Martyn, it was this uncle who got him drunk on cider at the age of nine.)

     

    “He never forgot the fact that he wasn’t brought up by his mother, that his grandmother and father brought him up in Scotland,” Beverley told Thomson:

     

    There was this intrinsic sadness that went right back to him being a small child and not seeing his mother — writing to her and never getting any reply. Many letters were found that his mother had kept: “Dear mummy, why don’t you write back to me? I love you so much, I miss you so much, when can I see you?” It was heartbreaking. There was a lot of lies and covering up, and he mistrusted women, which turned him into a misogynist.

     

    Thanks to his family, music surrounded Martyn growing up. But it was seeing Joan Baez perform “Silver Dagger” on BBC television in 1965 that sparked his interest in folk and in fingerpicked guitar. From there, his interests expanded to British and Scottish artists like Davey Graham, John Renbourn, and Bert Jansch, who made plausible the notion of a folk guitar hero.

     

    Martyn soon acquired his own guitar and began taking lessons with Scottish folk singer Hamish Imlach. His skills and reputation grew quickly, as he graduated from the Glasgow folk scene to the London circuit that surrounded Soho club Les Cousins, which served as a home to American exiles like Jackson C. Frank, Tom Paxton, and Paul Simon, as well as homegrown talent like Al Stewart, Roy Harper, and Ralph McTell.

     

    Even among such a gifted cast of characters, Martyn’s guitar playing, songwriting, and innovative tunings stood out, though his style wasn’t for everyone. “Johnny Martyn came down from Scotland. He was perky, full of vim, vigor and brash confidence for such a young man,” McTell recalled to Thomson:

     

    He was so much younger than we were, and when you are twenty-five or twenty-six, a nineteen-year-old is very much your junior. Five years beyond me were people like Davey Graham and Wizz Jones, and they seemed to be on another planet. Johnny dressed in his own style in blue jeans with bare feet or plimsolls with no socks. John had a very strong self-image; he was always just one step ahead of us….

     

    His lightning-fast guitar technique dazzled rather than moved you. The hotchpotch of stuff he was playing was enormously boyish and sexy. He made a great noise and had a great rhythmic punch to his playing that very few others did. He was totally charming and I loved watching him. John played a very cheap Yamaha guitar and made it sound like the most expensive instrument imaginable.

     

    Thanks to the recommendation of club owner Theo Johnson, Martyn was signed by Island Records in 1967. “I liked John, and really rated him,” Island’s founder Chris Blackwell told Thomson:

     

    First of all, he had a beautiful voice. He hadn’t developed that rough sound he developed later; it was just this pure, angelic voice. I didn’t see him so much as a folk artist, I felt that he was really a jazz artist. I always saw him that way, I was very clear about that. I’d been in New York spending a lot of time with jazz musicians, so at that time my life was jazz and Jamaican music. I had an ear for it. It was before he started all the echoplex stuff, but he was already somebody who didn’t follow the normal rules of music — four bars, eight bars, twelve bars. He would be playing seven, nine, eleven bars — it could be anything, you never knew where he was going. That’s why I signed him.

     

    By the time Martyn began recording Solid Air in November of 1972, he’d released five albums — three solo and two with Beverly, whom he met in 1968 — in the previous five years. None had met much commercial success on either side of the Atlantic and for the most part critical response had been mixed.

     

    But Martyn’s fifth album, 1971’s Bless the Weather, seemed like a turning point. While his previous releases — particularly his 1970 release with Beverley, Stormbringer!, which featured an all-star supporting cast that included Harvey Brooks and Levon Helm — weren’t without their strengths, Bless the Weather felt like the first fully formed Martyn album. Not unreasonably, Rolling Stone’s Stephen Holden called Bless the Weather “an impressive debut” in a rave review that observed, “Among the flood of primarily reflective albums released this past year I think that Bless The Weather is almost in a class with Joni Mitchell’s Blue and Jackson Browne, though it is vastly different from either.

     

    With the benefit of hindsight, it’s possible to trace a straight line from Bless the Weather to Solid Air and beyond. As Musician magazine’s Brian Cullman wrote in 1981, “Bless The Weather and Solid Air, released within a year of each other, started to establish John as more than a guitarist singer-songwriter; he was becoming a stylist, using the guitar for punctuation, building from rhythms in some of the same ways Van Morrison and Tim Buckley and his friend Nick Drake had, singing from the belly of the song, from deep inside.”

     

    Perhaps not coincidentally, Bless the Weather was the first Martyn album on which engineer John Wood assumed the role of co-producer, which according to Wood was his first production credit. It also was the first album Martyn on which bassist Danny Thompson, who’d played on one track on John and Beverley’s 1970 release Road to Ruin, assumed a substantial role.

     

    In the summer of 1972, more than a year after the recording of Bless the Weather, Martyn asked Wood — by then one of Britain’s top engineers, known for his work with Fairport Convention and Nick Drake — to serve the same role on what would become Solid Air. However, Martyn neglected to bring Thompson back, preferring instead to start with a fresh crop of musicians — a decision that doomed these early sessions, according to Wood. “When I got asked to do it, John had already decided who he wanted to use as musicians,” Wood told me in an interview:

     

    I said, “Okay, fine,” and we booked it into Sound Techniques. We started, and the musicians he had — I can’t remember if “Rabbit,” that’s [keyboardist] John Bundrick, was on the first on that session or not, but certainly the bass player and drummer were nobody I’d worked with before — I didn’t think they were very good. And I don’t know quite why John had decided to get them.... To me it didn’t gel.

     

    In a 1973 interview with NME’s Ian MacDonald, Martyn claimed that he made the decision to abandon these sessions. “What happened was I did a lot of sessions with some very heavy super-starry people and didn’t like it,” Martyn said. “I scrapped it, much to everyone’s dismay. Consequently, I left myself with about eight days in which to do the album — because the deal was that I had to have one to coincide with the American tour.”

     

    Whether or not Martyn later decided his initial attempt at recording Solid Air was substandard, Wood told me that an accident in the studio was the proximate cause of the change in direction. “In the course of the evening, I fell down the stairs at Sound Techniques,” Wood said:

     

    We had a very rickety, eccentric staircase. I caught my foot about two rungs down on the bottom, came down, sprained my ankle — [it] came out like a football — and I had to postpone. I think we got three nights booked, and we had to knock the next two out because I just couldn’t work. And luckily the bass player and drummer who we’d had were not available, because we had to postpone it for three weeks or something. [We] booked it into Basing Street because Sound Techniques next was booked. And [the original bass player and drummer] weren’t available. So I said, “All right, we’ll get Danny [Thompson] and Dave Mattacks,” which is what we did. Danny had also played, of course, on Bless the Weather, and I couldn’t understand why we hadn’t got Danny [originally], anyway. So we went into Basing Street One, which is the big room. It’s an enormous room — you could get a 60 piece orchestra in it probably. And we stuck them in the middle of the studio: [John] ‘Rabbit’ [Bundrick] on clav (I think he played clav most of the time that evening), Mattacks on drums, Danny playing double bass, and John playing guitar. That’s how we started. So, basically, if I hadn’t fallen down the stairs, and John had had his way, I expect we would have fallen out, and I’d never done the album because I don’t think I’d ever finish working with those [original] musicians.

     

    Ultimately, an unfortunate accident for Wood turned out to be an auspicious occurrence for Solid Air. This basic lineup — Martyn on guitar, Thompson on bass, Mattacks on drums, and Bundrick on keyboards — served as the foundation of Solid Air, allowing Martyn’s most arresting set of songs to date to come to full fruition.

     

    When he appeared on Solid Air, keyboardist John “Rabbit” Bundrick was near the beginning of a career that would include stints with Donovan, Joan Armatrading, Bob Marley, and Pete Townshend, among others. But Bundrick had already played with Martyn’s friend Paul Kossoff, guitarist for Free, and had appeared on former Fairport Convention singer Sandy Denny’s second solo release, which was also recorded with Wood at Sound Techniques.

     

    Drummer Dave Mattacks was another Fairport alum, who would also go on to work with Armatrading, as well as Cat Stevens, George Harrison, and XTC, among others. Notably, he had also appeared on Bryter Layter, the 1971 album by Martyn’s friend, Nick Drake.

     

    Perhaps the most crucial member of Solid Air’s band was upright bassist Danny Thompson, who would become Martyn’s de-facto musical partner though the mid-’70s. The son of a miner who died while fighting with the Royal Navy in WWII, Thompson’s first professional gig — landed while he was making ends meet as a truck driver — was serving as the electric bassist in Roy Orbison’s touring band. In 1964, Thompson returned to acoustic bass and replaced Jack Bruce in Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated. Four years later, he formed the British folk supergroup Pentangle with Terry Cox, Jacqui McShee, and two of Martyn’s childhood guitar idols: Jansch and Renbourn. Along the way, Thompson backed artists from Ronnie Scott to John Lee Hooker to Tim Buckley and appeared on Drake’s Five Leaves Left and Rod Stewart’s Every Picture Tells a Story.

     

    But from Solid Air through 1977, when Thompson suffered a heart attack, converted to Sufism, and (temporarily) retired from music, Thompson became Martyn close friend and musical partner. “When John and I got together, it was like love at first sight,” Thompson said in 2019:

     

    Bosh! Oh, do me! I was just coming out of Pentangle and I thought, “I’ve had enough of this, five years on the road, this is not what it’s all about.” It’s supposed to be like when we were 15, practicing in the garage with your mates. That’s what it was like with John. This handsome, curly-haired boy, 10 years younger than me. A totally beautiful man, with all that energy and honesty and attitude. We’d get together, he’d say, “This is the kind of stuff we’re going to do,” and then we’d just go in the studio. I don’t want to make out that it was very mumsy. We used to have serious fights as well. I’ve been nutted by him….

     

    Throughout the years, Martyn has credited Thompson with influencing the direction of his music. “If you’re prepared to sit down and blow, you inspire other people around you, like I’m inspired by Danny Thompson,” he told Guitar magazine in 1973. “He really helps me to play, because he’s so sympathetic, so empathetic. If you listen to other people before you play, you think ‘I respect that man’s playing.’ You know before you go in that man is going to inspire you. Your ears don’t lie to you.”

     

    “Danny is a perfect combination of technical ability and being natural,” Martyn gushed to Melody Maker in 1975.

     

    By 1986, with the benefit of hindsight, Martyn told Trevor Dann simply, “He influenced me greatly. He taught me more about music than probably anyone else I know.”

     

    Martyn and Thompson’s bond extended beyond music. Just as John Lennon and Paul McCartney bonded over the loss of their mothers, so too did shared childhood experiences pull Martyn and Thomson together. “It was a very intense relationship, much more than best friends,” Thompson told Mat Snow four years after Martyn’s death. “Maybe I looked on him as the younger brother I never had, and he looked on me like his dad. We were inseparable. On tour we’d share a room; we had a non-stop laugh. We’d turn up for a recording session then not bother, just go out for a drink. We’d rampage, have fun, do what we liked; and out of that came a creative energy. Because when it came to the music, we were deadly serious. That two hours on stage was intense, our time, a conversation. Who else could write something so beautiful as ‘You curl around me like a fern in the spring’ [from the Solid Air song ‘Go Down Easy’? I can’t, but I can respond to it.”

     

    The feeling was mutual for Martyn. “We were mistaken for brothers all the time, which made us laugh,” he told Mojo in 2006. “We had a great deal in common, the same insecurities: mine was my parents being divorced, his was being orphaned. He was brought up by wicked nuns in a convent and bore the scars all his life — and probably still does. Very big and very willful we were. We behaved as if the spotlight was on us all the time and we were the only people in the world. Danny would go into a place and [slapping down wad of imaginary cash] say, ‘This is for the damage.’ They’d say, ‘There is no damage.’ He’d say, ‘There fucking will be!’”

     

    While there’s no denying that their musical and personal bond ran deep, Martyn and Thompson’s influence on each other wasn’t uniformly positive, at least in the eyes of friends. “When the two of them were together, they were a loud, hard drinking force,” Richard Thompson told Graeme Thomson. “You got pinned to the walls when they entered the room, it was so high energy. They were so inebriated, full of aggression. During that era, I used to avoid the two of them because it was too much to handle.”

     

    As Martyn’s reference to “damage” suggests, the duo partied on the road in a manner more befitting hard rock act than a contemplative acoustic duo. “They were two huge personalities and two big egos,” according to Pentangle’s Jacqui McShee. “I remember coming to a venue a week after they had been, and we couldn’t use the dressing room because it was full of broken chairs.”

     

    But at the time of Solid Air’s recording, that questionable drinking and hijinks lay in the future. “I remember [Martyn] being fun to be around [during the Solid Air sessions], but he was pretty focused,” Mattacks told Thomson. “This was before substances and drink really became such a huge part of him and his music making.”

     

    Whatever Thompson’s eventual effect on Martyn’s substance use, his influence on Martyn’s music was undeniably positive. According to Martyn, Thompson allowed him to expand his sonic palette by moving in the jazzier direction that would be heard on Solid Air and subsequent albums. “I’m trying to get freer and less structured and Danny’s the only cat I’ve found so far who can follow,” he told MacDonald in 1973. “I tend to play lead and rhythm and bass all together because of my background of solo experience in folk clubs, and musicians seem to find that hard to get into. Danny does it like second nature, and it’s been a gas to work with him.”

     

    That Thompson nearly didn’t play on Solid Air, save for Wood’s serendipitous ankle injury, makes their relationship all the more remarkable. “You know, the whole thing with Danny and John [working together] went on from [Solid Air], really,” Wood remarked in our interview. “But it’s ironic that Danny nearly didn’t get on the album. So the partnership they formed afterwards was an enduring partnership, [which] I always find a slightly amusing.”

     

    According to Wood, the majority of Solid Air was recorded live in the studio. “All the [instrumental] tracks went down pretty much live,” Wood told Thomson. “The whole album took a couple of weeks. People would not believe how quickly records like that were made. Solid Air didn’t cost more than £7,500.”

     

    Wood’s task, which he executed with aplomb, was not only corralling superb performances from the freewheeling Martyn, but also crafting a cohesive sound from an album that had to be recorded at two different London studios — Wood’s own Sound Techniques in Chelsea and Island Record’s Basing Street in Notting Hill — thanks to the aforementioned scheduling conflicts. “We did it on 16 tracks. Both 16 track at Sound Techniques and 16 track at Basing Street,” Wood told me. “They had 3M machines. We had a Studor. So, some of the tracks were done at Basing Street; some of the tracks were done at Sound Techniques....”

     

    Located in the husk of a 19th-century dairy in Chelsea, Sound Techniques was founded in 1965 by Wood and Geoff Frost. Their goal was to create a more vibrant American sound than found in most British studios. Sound Technique’s single large room featured varying ceiling heights, which afforded Wood a diversity of sonic options within a relatively small space. The result, apparent in all Sound Techniques recordings, was an atmosphere that threaded the needle between the “live” sound of Motown and the “dead” sound of the Record Plant.

     

    Frost and Wood sprung for cutting-edge gear like an EMI limiter, Altec compressors, a variety of microphones, including Neumann 67s, KM56s, KM54s, AKG D19s, and an RCA ribbon. However, their tight budget meant that they constructed their own monitors, tape machines, and mixing desk. “The funds were so limited…most of what we had, we made,” Wood told me. Frost and Wood’s decision to build their own mixing desk created a new line of business for Sound Techniques, whose consoles became an in-demand piece of equipment, installed everywhere from Trident Studios in the U.K. to Sunset Sound and Elektra Studios in the U.S.

     

    Apart from Martyn’s previous work there, by the time Solid Air was recorded, Sound Techniques had hosted sessions by Pink Floyd, the Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention, Sandy Denny, and Nick Drake, among others. “There is a distinctively rich, colorful sound and style that filters through…many other Sound Techniques recordings,” Sound on Sound’s Matt Frost noted in 2008, “to the extent that people have referred to it as the John Wood sound or the Sound Techniques sound.”

     

    Basing Street Studios was opened as Island Studios in 1969 by the label’s founder, Chris Blackwell. Built in an abandoned West London church at the corner of Lancaster Road and Basing Street, the studio became an in-demand location for the cream of ‘70s rock and pop, whether or not they were signed to Island Records. Among many other legendary early-’70s albums, Jethro Tull’s Aqualung, Harry Nilsson’s Nilsson Schmilsson, Black Sabbath’s Paranoid, Traffic’s John Barleycorn Must Die, Led Zeppelin’s IV, and The Wailers’ Burnin’ were recorded, either in whole or in part, at Basing Street.

     

    Like Sound Techniques, Island worked to differentiate Basing Street with the quality of its acoustic space and equipment. As managing director Muff Winwood told International Musician in 1975, “There are too many studios in this country now, and only two kinds are going to survive: the best and the cheapest, and I think we’re one of the best.”

     

    Basing Street was known for its custom Helios desk, known as the “Type 69,” was designed by Dick Swettenham. Swettenham, who’s sometimes credited with creating the first solid-state mixing console, was maintenance engineer at EMI’s Abbey Road Studios beginning in 1951, then technical director at Olympic Sound Studios beginning in 1958, then founded Helios Electronics in 1969.

     

    Basing Street’s desk was his first Helios-branded console. However, its wrap-around layout was influenced by Olympic engineer Keith Grant, who asked Swettenham to make that studio’s board more accessible. “The problem with that first ‘flat’ Dick Swettenham desk, and the problem with most desks to this day, is that if you want to do some things, you’ve got to stand up, go tweakle, tweakle, tweakle, and then sit down again,” Grant told Sound on Sound in 2012. “I’m basically sedentary, which is a posh word for being lazy! But if you’re adjusting an EQ, you want to adjust it from where you’re sitting. You don’t want to be standing up and moving four foot forward into the sound pitch while adjusting the EQ, because when you sit down it sounds different. So we designed the desk so everything was in your hands and you didn’t have to move your head more than necessary.”

     

    According to Universal Audio’s Will Shanks, As with all the best gear, the Helios sound is not transparent, but adds a distinctive tonal quality to the recording. Part of the Helios sound was made up of the flattering mic preamps with the Lustraphone transformers, but the mic pres were only part of the sound. The quirky EQ section of the Helios is where the design really shines.”

     

    Pinning down the specific recording dates for the earliest Solid Air is difficult. Moreover, just what counts as “official” Solid Air sessions is up for interpretation. According to biographer Graeme Thomson, the first date to feature Danny Thompson on bass took place on July 23, 1972, which means that the sessions ended by Wood’s ankle sprain came earlier in the year. Outtakes included on both the 2009 2CD “Deluxe Edition” of Solid Air and in The Island Years box set seem to back up this assertion. However, Martyn had a busy touring schedule throughout most of 1972, and he appears not to have returned to the studio until the fall. According the Deluxe Edition’s liner notes — which were written by John Hillarby (who also runs Martyn’s official site) — Martyn workshopped songs for Solid Air in September sessions with Island engineers John Burns and Rhett Davies.

     

    But apparently none of the aforementioned sessions made it onto the final record. Thomson writes that “everything on the album was recorded at Basing Street much later in the year, rushed through during gaps between shows in London and the North of England in late November and the first week of December, to be readied for release before Martyn’s first US tour early in 1973.” Hillarby’s liner notes seem to agree. He writes that recording for the album “started in earnest during the last week of November” with Wood at the helm. So, while some earlier recordings have made their way onto reissues of Solid Air, it’s fair to say that the proper recording sessions for the released album commenced in November of 1972.

     

    In a 2013 interview, Danny Thompson remembered his first session for Solid Air:

     

    I turn up at the studio — Basing Street — to do Solid Air, and I used to get there early to warm up, to get the oil working. I got the studio, I took the cover off the bass, and this bloke come in at the other end of the studio and started playing sort-of pseudo-bluesy piano.... So I got the bass and I walked right across the end of the studio, and I stood behind him and joined in -- you know just started having a play. He sort of went, “[Unintelligible Mick Jagger impression].” I went, “Eh?” And he looked [back at it]. It was only Mick Jagger, wasn’t it? I thought, “Oh god! [Puts head in hands.] He’s gonna think [I went across just to impress him].” If I had know it was him, I wouldn’t have even bothered! My heart sunk! Because I had this vision of me walking across the studio like, “Do I get the gig with the Rolling Stones?”

     

    When Martyn did show up, Thompson says he made clear that he had his own ideas about how his playing would fit with Martyn’s vision:

     

    He said, “Danny I don’t want you to play too much...”  I said, “I’m gonna piss all over it!” [Laughs] And that’s where you get the bit of spark, you know? It’s not like I’m going to go, “Okay, John.” [Imitates sparse bass playing] No! Good! [Imitates fast, busy bass] Because really the essential thing is you’re playing for yourself. You’re not playing to create some, “They’re gonna love me.” You know, if people like what you’re doing at the end, then okay. So be it. But the reason you do it is because you love it. And you and you’ll always find fault. You’ll never ever be happy playing music because you’ll always be going, “Oh....”

     

    Wood told me that he remembered Martyn having a challenging time teaching the songs to Thompson and the rest of the band:

     

    John a lot of the time couldn’t quite explain what he was playing to Danny and [the others], because he played in his own tunings. And I don’t think a lot of the time he knew quite what he was playing, if you see what I mean. And my memory, particularly of “Solid Air,” was Danny and “Rabbit” John Bundrick working out what John was doing so they could play along with him.

     

    Whether out of necessity or conviction, Martyn gave Thompson, Mattacks, and Bundrick nearly free rein in the studio. Throughout the years, all three musicians have underscored both how much they enjoyed this freedom and the key role that Wood played in facilitating this working method.

     

    “John’s sessions were like really long and extensive jams… then the engineer would put it all together,’ Bundrick told Thomson. “When I was in Free, we would learn the track before we would record. With John, everybody would get to their instruments and we’d start playing, we’d just all join in, until all this stuff just started to gel. He didn’t ask anyone to play a certain thing.”

     

    Mattacks’s recollection is similar. “I was still a bit of a deer in the headlights when it came to folk music, and I didn’t know anything about John,” he said in 2019:

     

    I was incredibly impressed with his guitar playing, his song writing and his singing. One of the nicest things was that it was the first time I had been asked to play a little bit free. I remember really enjoying it, and thinking, ‘Blimey, if this is the kind of stuff these folkies are up to, I’ll have some more of it!’…. John Wood was such a great engineer at capturing things like that. There was a certain separation on the drums, but as far as I can recall, all the stuff I did with him went down live. They were unbelievable players.

     

    According to both Wood and Danny Thompson, work began, fittingly, with the title track, which also opens the album. “I think ‘Solid Air’ was the first one we did. From the top, live, none of this dropping in,” Thompson remembered. “I was really tearing the backside out of it! We were totally free — all the musicians were. There was nobody sitting there saying, ‘No, no, no, not like that, more like this.’ We didn’t have all that. It was very trusting. John Wood was a beautiful engineer.”

     

    From its opening notes, “Solid Air” sets an otherworldly sonic mood that announces Solid Air will build upon Bless the Weather’s most searching moments — and take them further. As Musician’s Cullman put it in 1981 (before Martyn spent much of the rest of his life trying to complicate such simple stylistic summaries):

     

    [I]t was the song “Solid Air,” written for Nick Drake, that started to define the sound that still graces Martyn’s records: a sinuous, lightly slapped guitar line; Danny Thompson’s sliding acoustic bass skirting both the guitar and vocal, answering both; light, icy electric piano; understated percussion, sitting just behind the beat; and John’s vocals: slightly off-handed and casual, as if he had to finish a drink or a cigarette before the song could really begin, growing increasingly dark and smokey, until the words whisper and glide into each other, into pure sound, pure emotion.

     

    In the years since, the association of “Solid Air” with Drake has somewhat obscured the song’s intrinsic merits. In the decades following his death in 1974 at the age of 26, Drake has been posthumously transformed into a legendary figure. But at the time Martyn wrote and released the song, Drake was alive and virtually unknown.

     

    Drake, a fellow Island Records artist, was a regular visitor at John and Beverley Martyn’s house in Hamstead, which was just a half-mile from Drake’s flat. Family members and mutual friends say that Martyn was one of Drake’s closest friends. Drake’s father, Rodney, told writer T.J. McGrath that Nick was “very close” to the Martyn’s. “They knew each other very well,” he said, “and when Nick was up here [living at home], and was pretty bad [psychologically], we got John Martyn to come up. We’d never met him, and he came up here, and he was a very charming person.”

     

    With Drake, however, friendship was an elusive concept. “We were never that close,” Martyn told one interviewer. “Except, I was as close as anybody could be. He was an impossible man to get close to.”

     

    “Solid Air” is Martyn’s attempt to break through Drake’s depression — a plea for communication and expression of love. In its two-part chorus, Martyn repeats: “I don’t know what’s going on in your mind / But I know you don’t like what you find / When you’re moving through solid air / I know you, I love you / I will be your friend / I will follow you anywhere / Even through solid air.”

     

    It was a sentiment shared by many of Drake’s friends and acquaintances. “I tried everything to wake Nick up,” Danny Thompson told Graeme Thomson. “Being nasty to him, being kind to him, inviting him to my home in Suffolk. And John did the same.”

     

    However, none of Drake’s other friends went to the trouble to express their love for him in song. “John was different from other people in Glasgow. He was very free,” singer-songwriter Linda Thompson remembered. “He wasn’t at all uncomfortable or frightened of loving a man — not in a physical way — which was quite unusual in those days. Nick and John loved one another. It was quite Greek, without the sex.”

     

    Martyn wrote “Solid Air” following visit with Drake, who’d sunk into a deep depression after the commercial failure of his 1971 album, Bryter Layter (subject of a previous TBVO). “I remember him going to see Nick,” singer-songwriter Paul Wheeler told Thomson:

     

    The day he got back, he rang me and sang ‘Solid Air’ to me over the phone, unaccompanied…. I think “Solid Air” was written at an early stage of Nick’s withdrawal into disillusionment and depression…. At that stage, I think John Martyn took the line that friendship was a panacea. The “you” in “Solid Air” was a projection of how John would wish to be treated, as an extrovert who always wanted company. For an introvert like Nick, who valued solitude, I think it would be perceived as intrusive that somebody should “follow you anywhere”….

     

    It’s not clear whether Martyn ever told Drake that he wrote “Solid Air” for him. “I’ve no idea if Nick was [aware],” Danny Thompson said in 2019, “and John would not be the kind of person to phone up Nick and say, ‘I’ve written this about you!’ But the song allows the listener the freedom to hear how he feels about it. It’s very astute and tender. All John’s stuff is very personal. He didn’t make up fanciful stories, it was from the heart.”

     

    For years after Drake’s death, Martyn refused to talk to the press about his friendship with Drake or the meaning of “Solid Air.” In early interviews about the song, Martyn never specified who the song was about. As he told ZigZag’s Andy Childs in 1974:

     

    Now Solid Air.... I really like the title track. It was done for a friend of mine, and it was done right with very clear motives, and I’m very pleased with it, for varying reasons. It’s got a very simple message, but you’ll have to work that one out for yourself. As for my voice, I’ve always used it as another instrument, and I think it should be that. It was always my conception of a vocal. I think from now on though, when the song requires it, I’ll make a conscious effort to make the lyrics more intelligible.

     

    It’s not clear when or how Martyn made it known that “Solid Air” was about Drake. Journalist Nick Kent tried to interview Martyn for his 1975 NME article about Drake following Drake’s death. “I met Martyn,” Kent told Drake’s biographer Patrick Humphries, “and he was very emotional about the whole thing — you know he wrote that song ‘Solid Air’ — and I tried to get him to sit down and talk on the tape about it, but he was very close to tears whenever the subject was brought up.”

     

    One of the first interviews I could find where Martyn discusses the song’s inspiration is a 1998 interview with Chris Smith. “That was for Nick Drake, who was deeply depressed, and I wanted him to know that he was actually very much loved…,” Martyn told Smith. “Just sat down and wrote it! I honestly don’t think — it’s not a conscious thing. I’m not saying it’s water off a duck’s back. I’m not being glib. It’s just, the magic goes away if you talk about it, you know what I mean?”

     

    But as Drake’s legend grew, Martyn became increasingly frustrated with public’s interest in Drake’s death, calling it “pretty ghoulish” in a 2004 interview with Mary Braid. “It wasn’t just that I loved the man,” Martyn said. “The business crushed him. Had it paid more attention to his talent he would be around today producing beautiful music. It’s way too late now.”

     

    “The worst thing was that what killed him was dreadful depression, manic depression,” Martyn elaborated in 2008 interview with Johnny Black, “which is a terrible thing, to watch someone like him go down and you can do nothing for it.”

     

    While the song’s ties to Nick Drake have become part of the story of “Solid Air,” Beverley advanced another theory about the song’s meaning after John’s death. “At the time, I had mental health problems and was on anti-depressants,” Beverley told Mojo’s Mat Snow in 2013. “Make of that what you will.”

     

    Ultimately, not knowing the specific inspiration for “Solid Air” does nothing to diminish the track’s exquisite power. After all, listeners in 1973 had no idea who the song was written for (or that Drake would meet a tragic fate a year later).

     

    With Martyn’s plucked acoustic guitar and Thompson’s gliding bass, the opening of “Solid Air” recalls nothing so much as the intro to Bless the Weather’s standout title track. The entry of Mattacks’s insistent brushed drums and Tristan Fry’s vibraphone immediately signal that Solid Air isn’t merely a recapitulation of Bless the Weather’s sparse, folky sound. Should any confusion linger, Martyn’s vocals make clear that he’s breaking new ground. Gone is the crisp, keening voice he used on “Bless the Weather.” The Martyn of “Solid Air” growls and intentionally slurs the lyrics, his voice just another instrument. Tony Coe’s languid saxophone, which slides in at the three-minute mark, betrays Martyn’s growing infatuation with free jazz.

     

    “My tastes have changed completely in the last two years,” Martyn explained to Guitar’s Dave Dyke in 1973. “Now I listen to about five people: Joe Zawinul, Alice Coltrane, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea. That’s about it. And Danny Thompson of course. A bit of Carlos Santana, a bit of John McLaughlin. I listen to almost nothing but jazz. As a singer Leon Thomas is par excellence, he is ‘the man.’”

     

    While an eclectic array of jazz influences can be heard in the musical directional Martyn charted on Solid Air and after, that last name was particularly key for Martyn’s new vocal style.

     

    Thomas provided vocals on saxophonist Pharoah Sanders’s legendary 1969 album Karma, with its 33-minute opus “The Creator Has a Master Plan.” The album as a whole and Thomas’s inimitable singing, in particular, had an enormous effect on Martyn.

     

    Even thirty years later, when asked to pick the single album that changed his life by Mojo magazine, Martyn selected Karma. “My parents were big classical music fans obsessed with that bel canto, operatic sustain, regardless of the cost to the lungs or the ears,” he said:

     

    With Sanders it was different; beautiful, long notes but with breath and gurgling in between. His tone blew my mind, and he gave me a glimpse through a keyhole that I didn’t even know existed.

     

    I first heard it in a village called Chilham in Kent. Chilham was appropriate, ‘cos we were all blasted. I’d be about 20…. Something in me just went “Pop!” It was like being hit by a bolt of lightning.

     

    Up until then I’d listened to folk music and R&B stuff like Sonny Boy Williamson, but I hadn’t got into jazz at all. I’m basically Buddhist in belief and the record struck a chord there too. I’ve never met Sanders, so for all I know he could be a right arsehole. I’d never heard someone play so emotionally, though, with that sense of humanity. It’s an enormously spiritual record, and you have to remember that it was recorded in the days of black activism. My impression is that Sanders and Thomas shared a certain philosophy, and that they were part of that hip élite who drew a lot of their inspiration from Coltrane. At the time I was your archetypal, sandal-wearing hippie, so all of that stuff appealed.

     

    I’m 51 now, so it’s about 30 years since I first heard the record. I used to play it constantly, but until today I hadn’t played it in twelve years. I love the fact that, while all the bebop saxophonists were obsessed with speed…he was the first musician to convince me that you didn’t have to show off to be good….

     

    Do I recognize the person I was when I first heard Karma? Yeah, I was very innocent and unformed when I first heard this, and I see young musicians with the same ideals everywhere. For me, hearing Pharoah condensed four or five years of adulthood into a few minutes.

     

    As Graeme Thomson writes in his biography of Martyn:

     

    Post exposure to Karma, his interest turned to polyrhythms and modal music, with tight harmonic frequencies, travelling back and forth in dizzying patterns within relatively narrow apertures. His approach to his voice and his lyrics also changed perceptibly…. The slurred vowels, the elision of words, the swoops from sweet high alto to breathy bass — all are testament to the fact that Martyn began to think of his voice as an instrument rather than simply a conventional tool for communicating melody and meaning…. In time, the relationship became symbiotic: voice and music fed on each other, one almost becoming the other, with words deployed as simply one more texture as Martyn strove to pare down his lyric writing.

     

    While Thomas’s vocals were the obvious point of influence, Martyn also tried to use his voice to imitate Sanders’s horn phrasing. “[Sanders’s] sax playing also influenced my vocal phrasing,” he explained to Mojo. As he elaborated to the Daily Telegraph in 2006, “There’s a space between words and music and my voice lives right there.”

     

    “His voice was almost like a horn,” Solid Air keyboardist “Rabbit” Bundrick told Thomson. “He would smooth in his entries like a saxophone. It was almost like an actor’s voice.”

     

    Despite his emphasis on live-in-the-studio freedom and improvisation when laying down instrumental tracks, Martyn overdubbed his vocals and agonized over the process. “None of the vocals were live,” Wood explained to me. “John was very insecure about his singing. It took quite something to get him into doing the vocals. I remember we ended up in Basing Street 2 one night very late doing vocals. I think one of them’s even triple tracked — without getting the tapes I’d never know these days, but I’m pretty sure we did triple track one.”

     

    “We spent two pretty difficult evenings doing vocals on the album, because John was quite uptight about the way he sang,” Wood told Thomson. “He didn’t like the vocals much. We worked on them quite a lot, and he needed quite a lot of encouragement and support. I remember that. Working with John was hard work. I saw my role as a sort of facilitator…. I probably had to do that more with John than with anybody else. Sometimes he would respond, sometimes he wouldn’t.”

     

    While cutting the vocals separately may have reduced their spontaneity, it also reduced microphone bleed and made for greater separation in the final mix, imbuing Solid Air with clean, pinpoint-precise imaging.

     

    Even granting the exceptional number of audiophile-worthy albums that John Wood produced or engineered, Solid Air must rank at or near the top of the list on the strength of the title track alone. Wood’s mix places Martyn’s guitar in the center of the soundstage and relatively deep, given its status as the foundational instrument. However, Martyn’s string slaps sound like they’re coming from the right channel, creating an accentuated sense of space and propulsion. Mattacks’s drums are placed far away from the listener spread left and right. His light brushwork on the snare rim gently support Martyn’s rhythmic guitar playing. Thomson’s bass is set deep in the mix, too, yet still somehow attracts the listener’s focus. By matching Martyn’s percussive acrobatics and adding his own amalgamation of harmonic plucks, silky runs, and rattling open notes, Thompson’s playing constantly captivates the ear. (Whether on headphones or speakers, it seems at times as if certain thumps from Thompson’s standup bass are coming from behind the listener.) Martyn’s vocals float above the fray, wrapped in a wash of natural reverb, and mixed lower than most vocals on Martyn’s previous releases — thereby emphasizing his voice’s new status as merely another instrument.

     

    The two most distinctive elements in “Solid Air” — Fry’s vibes and Coe’s sax — were the result of Wood’s connections. “The sax player, Tony Coe, was red-hot at the time,” Wood said in 2019. “John didn’t know people like that at all. I got Tony in, and Tristan Fry, for ‘Solid Air.’ I’ve always seen that as part of the more unique contributions I made to the song.”

     

    Fry’s vibes sit in the far-left channel and are balanced on the far right by Coe’s sax. Both are shallow in the mix, which — when combined with the depth of Martyn’s guitar and Thompson’s bass in the center — generates a wraparound effect. Coe’s beautifully recorded smoky saxophone, which enters near the three-minute mark, lends an additional layer of harmonic complexity to the arrangement; while Fry’s vibes, which weave in and out throughout the cut, create a slightly otherworldly swirl.

     

    I remember the session well,” Fry told Graeme Thomson:

     

    I was overdubbing at Sound Techniques, and I had a bit of trouble with the vibraphone. The pedal on the vibraphone is like a sustain pedal on the piano, and it was broken, which meant I either had to have it open all the time, so that everything rang out, or else have nothing ring out. I couldn’t go between the two. For “Solid Air” I needed it to ring — the part on the song kind of sings out — so I had to do a thing called “finger-damping.” You play one note, let it ring off, then when you play the next note you have to stop the previous note with your hand, otherwise it rings in. It was quite complicated. Then at the same time I was turning the wheel, because the motor wasn’t working either. I needed about four hands. It was quite a memorable engagement.

     

    The next track on Solid Air, “Over the Hill,” is an “effervescent hymn to the joys of returning home, inspired by the view of his village on the train to Hastings,” as Mojo’s David Stubbs put it in 2000. Musically, “Over the Hill” is driven by Martyn’s acoustic (played with a cardboard pick) in the right channel and Richard Thompson’s jaunty mandolin in the left. Both are mixed up front.

     

    Like Danny Thompson, Dave Mattacks, and “Rabbit” Bundrick, Richard Thompson praised John Wood’s ability to commit the best sonic picture to tape. “John trained in classical music, and he was really good at mic’ing acoustic instruments, particularly,” Thompson told Graeme Thomson. “Somehow, he’d always get a better sound than another engineer. He knew the position in the room, the right mikes to use; just a great, great engineer. He did not like bullshit, he did not suffer fools. If something wasn’t right, he’d let you know, but he was fair, and his approach led to some fantastic results.”

     

    Fitting the simpler arrangement of “Over the Hill,” Wood cut Martyn’s voice drier and placed it more forward than on the title track. Meanwhile, violinist Sue Draheim‘s fiddle is buried deep in the center of the mix, creating a sense of depth and intrigue to an otherwise deceptively simple tune.

     

    Lyrically, “Over the Hill” sees Martyn grappling with his divided existence — folkie family man versus touring libertine:

     

    I’m going away to leave you
    Going to leave you in disgrace
    Nothing in my favor
    Got the wind in my face
    I’m going home
    Hey, hey, hey, over the hill
    Over the hill
    Hey, hey, hey, over the hill.

     

    Can’t get enough of sweet cocaine
    Get enough of Mary Jane
    Going back to where I came from
    Going rolling back home again
    Over the hill
    Hey, hey, hey, over the hill
    Over the hill
    Hey, hey, hey, over the hill.

     

    I’ve been worried about my babies
    Been worried about my wife
    just one place for a man to be
    When he’s worried about his life
    I’m going home
    Hey, hey, hey, over the hill
    Over the hill.
    Hey, hey, hey, over the hill

     

    Singer-songwriter Claire Hamill, who told Graeme Thomson that she’d had an affair with Martyn on the tour that preceded Solid Air, reflected:

     

    I never thought that John was conflicted. I think he definitely [recognized] his family responsibilities. He cared about his family deeply, but John was a very complex character. He had different compartments of his life. Being away from home, being away from his family, it must have hurt him, but I never saw that part of him. He was just in the moment. He was all about the gig, and the music. He was obviously a hedonist. No doubt about it. The sexual part of him was part of that, as well.

     

    Following “Over the Hill,” Solid Air downshifts with the hypnotic “Don’t Want to Know.” The track opens with one of Martyn’s intricate-yet-rhythmic acoustic patterns fingerpicked in the left channel and Bundrick’s gentle, tremolo-laden Wurlitzer in the right. In the center, Martyn’s voice, with light echo, repeats the couplet “I don’t want to know about evil / Only want to know about love,” which composes more than half of the track’s lyrics.

     

    According to Beverley, she contributed this line in one of the couple’s living room jam sessions. “We were both writing, often together,” she told Mojo’s Mat Snow in 2013. “We wrote ‘Don’t Want to Know’ that living room overlooking the sea. He’d get me playing, and he’d write down the lyrics as I was playing. But I’m not credited.”

     

    Halfway through its three minutes, “Don’t Want to Know” picks up steam. Mattacks enters with a clever, hesitating kick/hi-hat rhythm that nonetheless propels the song forward. Bundrick dials down the tremolo on his electric piano, and (with Danny Thompson’s self-imposed limitation to acoustic bass) Fairport Convention’s Dave Pegg brings some low-end thump with his electric bass.

     

    “It all happened very quickly,” Pegg said of his involvement in Solid Air. “John would play the song live in the studio and off you’d go, more or less off the top of your head with no demos or rehearsals. That’s how we did it back then in the folk-rock genre. They were happy-go-lucky sessions. Although we all liked a drink, there was never any over-use of stimulants or alcohol. Slurred singing was his very original style — he was never over-refreshed. It was a working atmosphere.”

     

    With the band in full swing, Martyn laments, “It’s getting hard to listen / Hard for us to use our eyes Cause all around that gold is glistening / Making sure it keeps us hypnotized.” (For good reason, biographer Thomson calls “Don’t Want to Know” “a prayer for the dawn of a loving new world which nonetheless wishes to see the old one, with its obsession with money, materialism and mendacity, violently razed to the ground.”) As the song enters in final minute, Martyn sings against himself in a bevy of overdubs. Reverberant Motown-esque handclaps pushed deep in the mix drive “Don’t Want to Know” through the fadeout.   

     

    Next is the only cover on the album: “I’d Rather Be the Devil” — Martyn’s take on Skip James’s “Devil Got My Woman.” The bluesman recorded the cut several times over the course of his career, including most poignantly as the title track on his final studio album, released in 1968. However, beyond the refrain “I’d rather be the devil, than I would be my woman’s man,” one would be hard-pressed to recognize much more than the rough outline of James’s song in Martyn’s cover. In James’s hands, “Devil” is an unhurried fingerpicked blues sung in a delicate falsetto. In Martyn’s rendering, it’s a thundering freakout.

     

    “I’d Rather Be the Devil” opens with Martyn’s jittery, heavily-delayed electric guitar careening out of the left channel before the band — Mattacks on drums, Pegg on bass, Bundrick on clav, and Neemoi “Speedy” Acquaye on congas — come crashing in.

     

    As several music journalists have noted in the years since, it’s impossible not to hear the echoes (pun intended) of Martyn’s “I’d Rather Be the Devil” in the guitar sound deployed by U2’s guitarist, The Edge, a decade later. However, like his vocal contortions, Martyn’s experiments with the Echoplex were inspired by Sanders’s Karma. In searching for Sanders’s sustain, Martyn initially attempted to learn the saxophone, before deciding that a simpler path would be the manipulation of his voice and guitar. “The only reason I bought the Echoplex was to try and imitate Sanders’ sustain on my guitar,” Martyn told Mojo. “The other stuff I did with the Echoplex came later, by accident.”

     

    “Once I started renting the effects pedals and stuff, it became a different thing,” he told Johnny Black in 2008. “I was influenced by the jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, and I really wanted to be able to sustain my guitar to at least six or seven seconds and put a lot of registers in there.”

     

    Martyn attempted to explain how he deployed the echoplex to Childs in 1974:

     

    With my electric music, what happens is that the note comes out of the pick-up on the guitar and goes into the fuzz box, which I use now and again, and then it goes into a combination of volume and wah-wah pedal, which I use a fair bit. It comes out of that and goes into an Echoplex which repeats the note so you chop in between rhythms, and you can choose your own timings because it’s completely elastic. And you can set the number of repeats. I just like the idea of making a machine human in that way, and I like impressing the humanness of yourself onto a machine rather than the other way ‘round, which is what happens in a lot of cases. I got into that because I really wanted to play an instrument that had sustained. I tried to play the horn. I can play the horn, but I wasn’t as good as I wanted to be, and it needs at least a year to get your chops in.

     

    Somewhat more clearly, journalist Tony Bacon — known for his writing in Guitar and Sound on Sound, among other outlets — explained the Echoplex and Martyn’s use of it in 1983:

     

    The Echoplex achieves its sounds by feeding the guitar pickup’s signal to a continuous loop of recording tape which is run past several recording and playback heads, the position of one of which can be manually varied to manipulate echoes. But the machine’s ability to record “sound-on-sound,” where nothing is erased from the loop of tape and the player can build up layer upon layer of sounds, became the principal attraction to Martyn. He gradually came to find that the Echoplex could be used most effectively in this latter mode, and he changed the emphasis of the machine from his original intention of increasing sustain to a new function where, as he had described it, “you can chop rhythms in between beats.”

     

    Martyn had first committed his Echoplex adventures to tape on Bless the Weather’s “Glistening Glyndebourne.” However, whereas Martyn’s feeding his acoustic through the Echoplex felt somewhat tentative and experimental on that freeform instrumental, by trading his acoustic for an electric and using the Echoplex to embellish and deconstruct James’s “Devil,” Martyn showed how such effects could be used to open up new musical possibilities.

     

    “It was like each effect had its own color,” Bundrick told Thomson. “It was like watching a rainbow of sound floating around his head. It was brilliant; things were bouncing off of everywhere. He did a lot of double hitting on the strings, tapping them twice, setting off delays to double himself. It was fucking awesome.”

     

    Wood’s mix of “Devil” helps impose order on what otherwise might be a chaotic mess. Sounds and instruments drop in and out, allowing each to inhabit its own sonic space. Martyn’s Echoplex-processed electric begins the track on the left, while Bundrick’s wah- and delay-filtered Wurlitzer inhabits the left.

     

    “John influenced me in the experimental state,” Bundrick told Thomson. “I started doing things on my keyboard like he was doing on his guitar and using some of those effects myself. He influenced me to use the wah-wah pedal on [The Wailers’] Catch A Fire. I heard how his blend of effects was working.”

     

    When the rest of the band enters, Pegg’s funk-inflected bass is mixed deep in the center,

    while Acquaye’s congas are mixed center-right. The congas keep time for the first half of “Devil,” allowing Mattacks — whom Martyn told “just think free-form Elvin [Jones]” — to add rolling, crashing embellishments.

     

    I didn’t need to play strict time because John had that covered,” Mattacks told Snow. “So I could play around it, and when it went into the free section I did my best impersonation of a jazz drummer.”

     

    Mattacks’s drums are spread across the soundstage by Wood, and both his kit and Acquaye’s congas are captured with natural room reverberation, providing a depth and realism.

     

    Near the 2:30 mark, the track switches gears. Mattacks works his hi-hat while an overdubbed fuzz guitar from Martyn, mixed deep center-left, enters. This instrumental interlude devolves to near-silence at the 3:20 mark, where Pegg’s electric bass is replaced by Thompson’s acoustic. As Wood explained to me, “the two sections were recorded separately and then skillfully edited to  make into one whole piece.”

     

    For a moment, only Martyn’s Echoplexed electric (left), Thompson’s acoustic bass (center), and Bundrick’s processed Wurlitzer (right) remain. Soon, an overdubbed bowed bass from Thompson and an additional organ from Bundrick enter on the right before just as quickly dropping away.

     

    Near the 4:15 mark, “Devil” shifts yet again. Thompson’s plucked bass remains in the center and his bowed bass on the right. Martyn intertwines delayed acoustic and electric guitars on the left, while and Mattacks’s outré drums reenter, this time mixed even deeper and with an added layer of reverb. Over two final instrumental minutes, “Devil” conjures the image of early Pink Floyd, but with jazz chops.

     

    The intro to the next track, “Go Down Easy,” provides a solo showcase for some of Danny Thompson’s most delicate and affecting playing on the record. The track opens with a fingerpicked acoustic sequence from Martyn that initially vaguely recalls Neil Young’s “Old Man.”Lyrically, “Go Down Easy” is a subtly melancholy love song that sees Martyn implore, “I won’t be fancy / But I will be free / You know I love you / And you can really talk to me.”

     

    But it was the song’s opening line that got to Thompson. “Who else could write something so beautiful as ‘You curl around me like a fern in the spring’ [from the Solid Air song Go Down Easy’?” Thompson asked Mojo’s Mat Snow. “I can’t, but I can respond to it.”

     

    With no other instrumentation beyond his bass and Martyn’s acoustic, “Go Down Easy” provides Thompson with ample opportunity to respond, and his bass playing elevates the otherwise slight opening to Solid Air’s second side.

     

    Following the mellow “Go Down Easy,” Solid Air changes pace again with the funky “Dreams by the Sea,” which suggests that Martyn had imbibed the seminal Blaxploitation soundtracks by Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield released in ‘71 and ’72, respectively.

     

    “Easy” opens with a mesmerizing, wah-inflected riff on Martyn’s electric in the left channel. Soon, Pegg enters with an electric bassline that channels Joseph “Lucky” Scott’s work on Super Fly. Mattacks’s jittery hi-hat, Bundrick’s menacing keyboards, and Acquaye’s driving congas complete the slick-yet-eerie sonic bed over which Martyn pleads and groans:

     

    No, no, no, no, it can’t be true
    No, no, no, no, it isn’t you
    No, no, no, no, it’s not the way you are
    No, no, no, no, it isn’t you
    No, no, no, no, it can’t be true
    No, no, no, no, it’s not the way you are.

     

    Biographers and other writers have alternately argued that the paranoid “Dreams by the Sea” depicts drug withdrawal or infidelity. Whatever the case, it’s an instrumental standout. Bundrick’s cloyingly discordant Wurlitzer figure under the chorus (“Bad dreams for me / Bad dreams by the sea”) may be his most compelling contribution on an album full of highlights. Likewise, Coe’s sax solo at the 1:20 mark, which manages to be simultaneously chill and acrobatic, elevates “Dreams” to another level. Like “Devil,” “Dreams” devolves as instruments drop out, at first leaving Coe and Bundrick, before only Bundrick’s soporific keyboard flourishes remain.

     

    The next track on Solid Air is perhaps Martyn’s most famous. The solo acoustic “May You Never,” which sports one of Martyn’s most memorable melodies, opens with the benediction:

     

    And may you never lay your head down

    Without a hand to hold

    May you never make your bed out in the cold

     

    Just whom Martyn is offering his hopeful advice remains debated. According some accounts, Martyn wrote the song for his adopted son Wesley. According to others, he wrote it for Andy “the Greek” Matheou, who ran Les Cousins folk club. Still other sources say “May You Never” was written for Jeff Dexter, who’s advanced that interpretation personally. “We were in a pub in Hastings one night, and this guy said to him, ‘Man, I love your wife, she’s really beautiful,’” Dexter told Thomson. “John flew into a rage and was going to kill him, but I told him he had to control his temper.” According to Dexter, Martyn woke him in the middle of the night a few days later: “He said, ‘I’ve written this song about you.’ Then he dragged me downstairs and played ‘May You Never’ for me. You know that line about, ‘May you never lose your temper if you get in a bar-room fight’? That’s where it came from.”

     

    In interviews, Martyn tended to agree with all possibilities. When asked by Johnny Black in 2008 whether “May You Never” was about Dexter, Martyn replied, “Well, yeah, that works for two people, it was for him and for Andy Matthews who used to run a club called Les Cousins in Soho. It was a combination of him and Andy, yeah.”

     

    The “you” in the song defies interpretation, with Martyn alternately referring to the recipient as “just like a great strong brother of mine” and “just like a good close sister to me.” More poignantly, it’s hard not to imagine Martyn singing to himself when he implores in the song’s final verses:

     

    Oh please won’t you, please won’t you
    Bear it in mind
    Love is a lesson to learn in our time
    And please won’t you, please won’t you
    Bear it in mind for me

     

    May you never lose your temper
    If you get in a bar room fight
    May you never lose your woman overnight
    May you never lay your head down
    Without a hand to hold
    May you never make your bed out in the cold

     

    May you never lose your temper
    If you get in a bar room fight
    May you never lose your woman overnight
    May you never lose your woman overnight
    May you never lose your woman overnight

     

    Martyn’s friend Paul Wheeler insists that the genesis of “May You Never” was rather more prosaic. “As I remember, he wrote it very much as a signature song,” he told Thomson. “It was a very calculated thing.”

     

    When asked by Black for the story of how he wrote “May You Never,” Martyn responded:

     

    I just sat down and played it, man, it was one of those. Some songs just pop out…. From start to finish it took about six or seven minutes. The whole thing! But it’s not you doing it. There’s a power, there’s a power in music which I’m sure is divine and just zaps you. It’s not me that’s fucking good, it’s the power of music!

     

    Regardless, it’s one of Martyn’s most moving songs. Childs called it “probably the warmest, purest, and most genuine song I’ve ever heard.” While Richard Thompson — himself the writer of several standards — told Thomson, “You could put it into a hymn book. It’s a beautiful song.”

     

    It’s likely that most rock fans know “May You Never” from Eric Clapton’s country-inflected cover on his 1977 bestseller Slowhand. Clapton’s labored version can’t hold a candle to Martyn’s original, but it allegedly netted Martyn more in royalties than all of his other albums combined.

     

    Despite its effortless sound, Martyn himself struggled to nail “May You Never.” He first recorded the song in 1971 with his friend, Free guitarist Paul Kossoff, as well as Free bassist Tetsu Yamauchi and drummer Simon Kirke. Martyn unbelievably released this plodding full-band rendition — with its double-tracked vocals, shaker, accordion, and saccharine sax kitchen sink arrangement — as single later that year. It unsurprisingly went nowhere, freeing Martyn to rerecord it for Solid Air.

     

    Martyn continued to wrestle with “May You Never” in his 1972 sessions with Wood right up until their final day mixing the album. As Wood told me in our interview:

     

    We mixed the album at Sound Techniques…. We were we were mixing the night before I was getting on the plane to go [to New York to master the album]! We get to “May You Never,” and... I don’t know how many versions [John] had done of it. I think maybe we’re going to use one that he’d already done. I can’t remember. All I remember was, him sort of going on and moaning about it and saying, “Oh, I’m not sure...” And in the end, I just said, “For fuck’s sake, just go and get your guitar out in the studio and go and do it.” And that’s the version that’s on the record!

     

    The second-to-last cut on Solid Air, “The Man in the Station,” is easy to overlook, but it’s one of the album’s treasures.

     

    Lyrically, “Station” serves continues the conversations begun by “Over the Hill” and “Don’t Want to Know.” Here, Martyn longs to flee from the hate and greed of the world he sang about in the latter, only to conclude that the home he sang about in the former is the only escape:

     

    There’s got to be a way for a lazy face
    To get off and start loving the human race
    There’s just got to be a way for a crazy face
    Get out from under this paper chase
    But it’s alright, I’m catching the next train home
    The next train home.

     

    Musically, “Station” features a lineup of Martyn on both acoustic and electric guitars, Pegg on electric bass, Fry on vibes, Bundrick on keys, and Mattacks on drums. The arrangement put together by this complement is one of the most dynamic on an album full of sonic surprises.

     

    “The Man in the Station” begins with Martyn playing a mellow figure on his acoustic mixed in the center. Less than ten seconds into the track, Martyn enters on the right playing a bluesy electric lick, which is accompanied by Bundrick on heavily tremolo’d Wurlitzer on the right. Soon, Martyn’s electric drops out, leaving room for his vocals, which are delivered in a mumbly near-whisper. As Martyn begins singing, Pegg and Mattacks join softly. The former delivers one of his most evocative basslines, while the latter gently keeps time with a rim click and the hi-hat. But the mood of the song changes, if only briefly, after Martyn delivers “the next train home” refrain. His electric guitar enters again, this time fuzzed-up. Bundrick mirrors this change by dropping the tremolo from his keyboard and dialing in a harder-edged sound. Mattacks punctuates this instrumental conversation with snare-crashing fills before leading the band back to tranquility. This loud-soft dynamic repeats with the next verse, leading to an instrumental bridge that gives Bundrick room to stretch out and allows Martyn to showcase his electric chops. After another verse and chorus, the track ends with one final cacophony on the fadeout.

     

    The closing track on Solid Air is “The Easy Blues,” Martyn’s rewrite of Lonnie Johnson’s 1955 tune “He’s a Jelly-Roll Baker.” It opens with some of Martyn’s most acrobatic and captivating acoustic work, backed by Thomson’s gnarly bass. Even more so than with his transformative cover of James’s “Devil Got My Woman,” Martyn twists Johnson’s “Baker” into a nearly unrecognizable form, save for the lyrics in the first verse:

     

    Mister jelly roll baker
    Can I please be your slave
    When Gabriel blows his horn
    I’m going to rise from my grave
    For your sweet jelly roll
    You bake the best jelly roll in town

     

    For two minutes, Martyn and Thompson tear through “Easy Blues” with a force that would shame Led Zeppelin. At the 2:10 mark, the song fades, then transitions to “Gentle Blues,” a short, jaunty altogether different tune featuring the full band, plus Martyn on overdubbed synthesizer. The effect of the transition from “Easy” to “Gentle” is a little like Abbey Road finishing on a slight, but pleasant, note with “Her Majesty.”

     

    As noted above, Wood mixed Solid Air with Martyn in late-December, just before Wood was scheduled to fly to New York to supervise the album’s mastering. The producer/engineer had convinced Island’s Chris Blackwell that Solid Air was worthy of the best mastering possible. “We mixed the album at Sound Techniques,” Wood told me:

     

    Because of my background in mastering, I never felt there was anywhere in the UK that was really as good as Sterling [Sound] in New York, which is where I’d mastered a few times. And Island let me go to New York to cut the lacquers…. I think the plane flew out on a Saturday morning… [we mastered] on the Monday, and I flew back on the Tuesday or Wednesday with the lacquers…. I supervised the mastering on just about every album I ever made, if I could. I wouldn’t walk away from a job before it was committed to bloody vinyl. Or, later, to digits…. Because it’s the last chance [to shape the sound], you know. In those days, people really didn’t take much notice about mastering. People were only beginning to realize it, but it’s the last chance you have before it hits the public. So the last the last thing you want is some idiot to mess it up!

     

    Wood’s care in ensuring that the best version of Solid Air was pressed to vinyl before it hit stores in February of 1973 is all the more reason to seek out the best digital version of Solid Air today.

     

    There are four digital versions of Solid Air.

     

    The first CD of Solid Air, released in 1987 as CID 9226 features no mastering credits.1 This mastering has been reissued several times, sometimes with different catalog numbers, sometimes with “The Easy Blues” split into two tracks, as well as part of as part of a 1992 “Island Twinset” with Martyn’s 1977 album One World. It’s also available to stream on Qobuz as release 0004228425542.

     

    The second digital release of Solid Air didn’t come until 2000, when it was released with a bonus live cut of “I’d Rather be the Devil.” This CD’s remastering was done by Simon Heyworth and supervised by John Wood. The liner notes also explain that, as a “Super Bit Mapping“ CD, “the analog to digital conversion was done by sampling the original master at 176k and 24bit giving effectively a dynamic range of more than 120db. The audio was then ‘noise shaped’ to 16bit and decimated from 176k down to 44.1k for CD release.” This version is available to stream on Qobuz as release 0073145481472.

     

    The third digital release of Solid Air came in 2009 with the 2CD “Deluxe Edition.” This release included the original album on the first CD and a bevy of alternate, demo, and live versions on disc two. Its credits list “24-bit digital mastering by Paschal Byrne at the Audio Archiving Company, London.” It, too, is available on Qobuz. Oddly, this version (sans bonus tracks) was included as the digital download with the 2016 half-speed mastering vinyl release of Solid Air, despite the fact that the source for Miles Showell’s vinyl master was “a high-resolution digital transfer from the ¼-inch analogue masters.”

     

    The fourth and, to this point, final digital version of Solid Air is included on the beautiful 2013 box set, The Island Years, which includes 17 CDs and one DVD. The set includes the officially released Solid Air along with nine outtakes. The liner notes for box read, “Mixing and mastering by Jared Hawkes at Universal Mastering, London; Additional mastering by Pascal Byrne and Ben Wiseman at The Audio Archiving Company, London.”

     

    The fact that two of the four versions of Solid Air credit Byrne suggests that there’s possibly some overlap in the masterings. As we’ll see, that’s the case. However, that doesn’t mean they’re identical.

     

    First, let’s take a look at dynamic range of each version, measured by both R128 dynamic range and crest factor DR score: 2

     

     

    TBVO – Solid Air – Dynamic Range Table.png

     

    While the 1987 CD has the highest values by both measures, we see a remarkable consistency in the R128 scores across versions. Taken together, the DR scores and R128 values suggest that, while some versions of Solid Air have more compression and/or limiting (hence the variation in DR values), none is extremely “brickwalled.”

     

    In order to get a better picture of the differences in dynamics between the versions, I decided to compare a few tracks (“Solid Air” and “Dreams by the Sea”) from the 1987 CD (blue), which is the most dynamic version according to the numbers, and the 2000 “Deluxe” CD (red), which is the least dynamic version according to the numbers.

     

     

    TBVO - Solid Air - 1987 vs 2000 Waveform.gif

     

     

    Unsurprisingly, the waveforms from the “Deluxe” CD are louder and have some peak limiting. However, the compression isn’t so extreme that I’d reject the “Deluxe” version based on that alone. Thus, all of the digital versions of Solid Air pass the dynamic range bar.

     

    Next, let’s start taking a look at the frequency balance of each version. For these comparisons, I’ve selected five songs (“Solid Air,” “Don’t Want to Know,” “I’d Rather Be the Devil,” “Dreams by the Sea,” and “May You Never”) from each release in Har-Bal using the softwares average power graphs. 3

     

    Given that Wood went to great pains to make sure the Sterling Sound mastering of Solid Air was superb, I thought it would be a good benchmark against which to measure the tonal balance of the digital masterings. To make that happen, I located a hi-resolution digital rip of the original 1973 U.K. vinyl pressing (ILPS 9226 A -1U GO STERLING 2H 2 1). The transfer I found is clean and quiet, but the normal limitations of vinyl rips apply. Specifically, the energy bump below 40 Hz can be ignored. That aside, putting each of the digital versions up against this vinyl rip provides what I feel is a subjectively correct representation of their respective tonalities.

     

    First, let’s compare the vinyl (grey) against the 1987 CD (blue):

     

    TBVO - Solid Air - Vinyl vs 87 GIF.gif

     

     

    The consistent pattern is that the vinyl consistently has a little more energy in the bass and low mids (80 to 500 Hz) than the ‘87 CD, while the CD has much more energy from the upper mids through the “presence” region and “brilliance” regions of the high end (2 to 20 kHz).

     

    Turning to the 2000 SBM CD (yellow) mastered by Heyworth and Wood, there’s a clear resemblance between it and Wood’s original vinyl mastering:

     

    TBVO - Solid Air - Vinyl vs 2000 GIF.gif

     

     

    The vinyl has just a touch more bass in the 100 to 200 Hz region, and the 2000 CD usually has somewhat more energy above 3 kHz, but overall the two track each other closely. Even on “Don’t Want to Know,” where the 2000 CD has quite a bit more high end, it’s still less bright than the 1987 CD.

     

    Moving on to the “Deluxe” edition (red) mastered by Byrne, the tonal balance is remarkably similar to the 2000 CD’s:

     

    TBVO - Solid Air - Vinyl vs Deluxe GIF.gif

     

     

    Because of this close resemblance, relative to the vinyl, it’s worth comparing the 2000 SBM CD (yellow) and the “Deluxe” CD (red) against each other directly:

     

    TBVO - Solid Air - Deluxe vs 2000 GIF.gif

     

     

    It’s hard to summarize the differences between the 2000 mastering and the “Deluxe” edition’s mastering, since they’re incredibly similar and the differences, which tend to be found in the low and high end, don’t move in a consistent direction across the sampled tracks. Overall, though, they’re startlingly alike, and the differences in tonal balance are minute.

     

    The Island Years box’s version of Solid Air (green) is the final one in our analysis. So let’s see how it stacks up against the original vinyl:

     

    TBVO - Solid Air - Vinyl vs Box GIF.gif

     

     

    Once again, we have a version that looks very similar to both the 2000 CD and, especially, the “Deluxe” CD. Like those two, it tracks the vinyl closely, except it has ever so slightly less bass and a little but more high end.

     

    Since the “Deluxe” edition credits Byrne and The Island Years box also references Byrne (without making clear whether he, Hawkes, or Wiseman did the included Solid Air mastering), I thought it would be worth it to compare the “Deluxe” mastering (red) directly against The Island Years mastering (green):

     

    TBVO - Solid Air - Deluxe vs Box GIF.gif

     

     

    Now this is interesting. It looks like the “Deluxe” CD’s mastering and The Island Years box’s mastering are identical, except that the former has more energy below 40 Hz.

     

    Turning to subjective analysis, the differences are (somewhat) clearer.4 To make comparing these masterings easier, I lined up the level-adjusted versions of each in Audacity and used its solo function for instantaneous switching.

     

    I began my comparison with the title track. My first A/B was between the vinyl rip and the 1987 CD. Immediately, it was clear that the CD sounded much thinner than the vinyl. This reduced the throaty growl of Martyn’s vocals, creating a more front-of-the-mouth sound. Likewise, it moved the center of sonic gravity on both Martyn’s guitar and Thompson’s bass from the body to the strings. Finally, the character of the studio ambiance changed, too. The reduced low end on the echo evident on the ‘87 CD tended to flatten the soundstage. All-in-all, this didn’t add up to a favorable showing for the CD.

     

    Comparing the vinyl rip of “Solid Air” against the 2000 CD, the original ‘87 CD’s flaws were clear. As the graphs suggest, the 2000 “SBM” CD mastered by Heyworth and Wood possesses a tonality that’s much closer to the original vinyl’s and that, independent of the vinyl benchmark, simply sounds more realistic than the ‘87 CD.

     

    While some other songs evinced greater differences, the 2000 CD and the vinyl rip sounded shockingly similar on the title track. Upon close listening, the CD sounded somewhat drier than the vinyl rip, despite the fact that the graphs show somewhat more treble energy on the CD.


    Regardless of how many songs I ran through, the ‘87 CD’s weakness relative to the 2000 CD was inescapable. The former just sounds thin and flat, making it an easy first cut.

     

    Before pitting the “Deluxe” and Island Years versions against the 2000 CD, I decided to investigate the sonic differences between the “Deluxe” and box set masterings further, given that the graphs show them to be near-identical.

     

    On most tracks I compared, the “Deluxe” and Island Years versions sounded nearly identical. At times, I thought I detected that the “Deluxe” version had a little less “air” than the box set version, but it wasn’t a difference I thought I could discern with confidence. Moreover, each track stayed perfectly in-sync across the versions, and the left/right stereo balance (measured with Audacity’s “Contrast” tool) matched, making it clear that both versions came from the same digital source.

     

    However, when I arrived at “I’d Rather be the Devil,” I finally came across a clear difference between the two versions. On this louder song, the added limiting of the “Deluxe” version (red) versus The Island Years box version (green) was readily apparent in the waveforms:

     

    TBVO - Solid Air - Devil - Deluxe vs Box Waveform.png

     

     

    The same “flat top” peak limiting can be seen on “Dreams by the Sea” in the GIF above, though it isn’t quite as dramatic.

     

    Nonetheless, given that these two versions were otherwise the same, I saw no reason to keep the “Deluxe” version in the mix. So it’s our second cut.

     

    This means that the contest is now between the 2000 CD and The Island Years box.

     

    Returning to the title track, I immediately noted that these are both superb masterings. Trying to parse any small differences, I noted that when Martyn intentionally slurs “solid” into “zzzolid” around the one minute mark, I could hear his voice echo across the soundstage more on The Island Years mastering, a small difference that’s nonetheless truer to the original vinyl’s sound. Otherwise, the 2000 CD and the box set CD sound excellent. Both, for example, beautifully render Coe’s sax solo.

     

    Moving on to my favorite track on the album, “Don’t Want to Know,” I was struck again by how similar the 2000 CD and The Island Box sound. Putting the vinyl’s surface noise aside, this also was the first track where it was clear the digital versions had improved on the original album’s tonal balance. When the band kicks in near the 1:30 mark, the vinyl sounds a little muddy and muffled, whereas both the 2000 and Island Years CDs clearly delineate each instrument. This same section of the song also helped me to discern the small differences between the 2000 CD and the box set. Overall, “Don’t Want to Know” sounds slightly drier on the 2000 CD than on the box set, despite the fact that the graphs seem to suggest that it would be the other way around. While it’s subtle, the box set’s mastering lets a little more reverb and room sound shine through. That superior high-end fidelity is particularly evident at the aforementioned 1:30 mark. When Mattacks enters with his intricate hi-hat/snare work, it simply sounds more realistic on The Island Years. Likewise, when Mattacks hits the crash cymbal near the 1:40 mark, both its initial impulse and decay sound more lifelike on the box. Is the difference small? Yes. But it’s there.

     

    On “I’d Rather be the Devil,” the slightly drier sound of the 2000 CD meant that both Martyn’s vocals and Acquaye’s congas, among other sonic elements, tended to cascade across the soundstage less. This fact was one piece of why the percussion again sounded a tad more realistic on The Island Years.

     

    As I ran through more tracks, the differences continued to be small, with The Island Years retaining a slight edge.

     

    In order to ferret out any other points of departure, I looked at tracks outside of the sample used for the above graphs and considered specific attributes like tape noise, channel balance, and speed. The original tapes were encoded with Dolby A noise reduction, and the tape hiss on both versions is mild. However, the 2000 CD and The Island Years CD differed in both channel balance and speed on some tracks. The speed differences tended to be insignificant. Likewise, while the two versions’ channel balance differed slightly, on most tracks the differences were minor, and neither the 2000 CD nor box set consistently matched the vinyl’s balance.   

     

    One song that displayed somewhat more notable differences was “Over the Hill.” On the vinyl rip, the right channel was 1.5 dB louder. On the 2000 CD, the right channel was 4 dB louder. On The Island Years CD, the right channel was 1.8 dB louder. Clearly, the latter version is closer to the vinyl’s balance. Subjectively, the box set places Martyn’s voice closer to the center of the soundstage, whereas the 2000 CD pulls it slightly to the right of center.

     

    Beyond the channel balance, “Over the Hill” also served as an excellent track for distinguishing the differences between the two CDs. Throughout the track, the string articulation on Richard Thompson’s mandolin was more apparent on The Island Years’ mastering. This was particularly conspicuous during his solo, which begins near the 1:15 mark.

     

    Another element of “Over the Hill” also caused me to think that the differences between the 2000 CD and The Island Years CD might be a simple question of resolution, perhaps attributable to a decade’s worth of advances in analog-to-digital conversion. Draheim’s violin is mixed low on “Over the Hill” but is a unique and crucial addition to the sonic mix. However, it’s much easier to pick out in The Island Years mastering than on the 2000 CD. Indeed, it almost sounds as if Draheim enters earlier on the former given its ability to resolve her subtle entry into the track.

     

    While the 2000 CD and The Island Years box’s CD are both excellent masterings, the edge goes to the latter, making it the TBVO pick for Solid Air.

     

    However, hearing The Island Years’ mastering means either streaming it on Qobuz or buying the now out-of-print and pricey 18-CD box. The box is one of the best sets I’ve seen, and it’s a must for any Martyn fan. However, it’s unlikely that more casual listeners seeking a physical copy of Solid Air will want to shell out the money for it. The 2CD “Deluxe” edition is likewise out of print and now goes for $50 or more new. Plus, as noted above, it features an inferior version of the mastering found on The Island Years. While also out-of-print, the 2000 CD can still be had new for $15 to $25. Therefore, for those who want a physical copy of Solid Air and don’t want to splurge for The Island Years box, the 2000 CD is the way to go.

     

    When Solid Air was released in February of 1973, it sold better than any of Martyn’s previous albums, largely on the strength of positive reviews in the music press. However, it was far from a hit in the U.K. or the States.

     

    Instead, Solid Air’s reputation expanded in the decades following its release, as both fans and fellow musicians began to regard it as an overlooked gem. Today, it’s regularly included in myriad “best albums” lists and mentioned in the same breath as more commercial and well-known classics. As singer-songwriter Beth Orton told the Sunday Times in 2011, “It just changed your whole idea of what music should be. The first time I heard Martyn’s Solid Air was like the first time I heard Joni Mitchell’s Blue. Albums like that just open up a new world for you.”

     

    Martyn’s own relationship with what came to be his best-known album was more complicated. Rarely content to stay in one place sonically, Martyn moved away from the acoustic guitar and further into free jazz following Solid Air, before eventually drifting into dub and trip-hop in the ‘80s and after. As his music evolved, he resented that Solid Air had typecast him as folkie.

     

    “He actively hated it,” Hamish’s son (and Martyn’s friend) Jim Imlach told Thomson. “I could tell you a dozen times where he said he hated that album, hated the songs. I think it was because of ‘May You Never.’ He hated the whole acoustic thing. It was part of his journey, but he didn’t want it to define him. He wanted to be innovative. He was a stubborn sod.”

     

    Wood agrees: “John always moaned about Solid Air. He never gave me the impression he liked the record much.”

     

    Martyn expressed as much publicly. “I’m not as pleased with it as I have been with previous ones,” Martyn told Ian MacDonald only a few months after the album’s release, “although vocally it was a step forward. I’ve never sung as good as on that record. But at the time I made it I was capable of singing even better — and playing better. It was all too rushed.”

     

    But as the years passed and Solid Air came to be seen as a classic, Martyn vacillated between making clear that it wasn’t his best work and chastising the world for taking so long to recognize its virtues. “At the time nobody cared about Solid Air,” Martyn “spit” to the Sunday Herald’s David Keenan in 2000. “Nobody gave a fuck, but they’ve caught up at last. I’ve no idea why.”

     

    Six years later, Martyn told the Manchester Evening News’s Paul Weller:

     

    Solid Air was slightly ahead of its time. I don’t think it was that special, but different periods provide different experiences. It sounds like it comes from that time and sums that time up. It’s like the smell of toffee apples reminding you of your childhood. I prefer [1980 album] Grace And Danger.

     

    Those who worked on the album hold it in higher esteem.

     

    “It was one of the very special sessions from that period of my career,” Mattacks told Uncut in 2019.

     

    Danny Thompson agrees. “Solid Air is such a beautiful piece, there’s so much freedom for me on it,” he told Thomson. “We always loved playing it live. People call it folk, or contemporary folk, or whatever. I understand the reasons people want to put boxes on it, but for me it’s music from the heart.” He also argues that for fans who don’t know what to make of Martyn in light of his less-than-admirable personal behavior, the music is what matters. “People hear all these different stories and say, ‘What was John really like?’” Thompson continued. “If you really want to know what he was like, listen to his songs. That tells you everything about the man.”

     

    Solid Air is an album of superlative beauty — beauty brought into the world not by Martyn alone, but by Thompson, Wood, and all of its other contributors. Lyrically, it’s concerned above all else with love. As fans, we must let unpleasant realities of Martyn the person exist side-by-side with the allure of his music.

     

    As journalist Mark Cooper wrote in his 1994 book, Love is the Drug:

     

    Love was now militant in John’s music, and while he frequently behaved like a drunken stevedore on stage, his music was naked male emotionalism…. The beauty of John Martyn’s music is that he doesn’t seem to protect himself very much or censor his emotions. He’s probably a monster to live with, but his heart and soul is in every note he plays. I don’t know the man and, frankly, I don’t wish to, but I guess I know his soul pretty well through the music.

     

     

     

     

     

     

    1. While Discogs credits Paschal Byrne as the mastering engineer for the “Island Twinset,” there’s nothing on the Twinset’s artwork to indicate this.

    2. I’m excluding “The Easy Blues” from this table since some releases split it into two tracks.

    3. When necessary, Har-Bal’s loudness matching option, which doesn’t affect the frequency response, was used to create clearer graphs.

    4. For the subjective analyses, all CD editions were ripped with XLD and played with Audirvana. The main DAC used was a Berkeley Audio Reference Series Alpha DAC with the most recent firmware. I also mixed in a Crane Song Solaris DAC and the Matrix Sabre Pro. Amplification came from a Bryston 4B Cubed power amplifier and a Benchmark HPA4 preamp/headphone headphone amplifier. Most listening was done on KEF Reference 1 speakers with an SVS SB-13 Ultra subwoofer and a diverse set of headphones, including Focal Utopia, ZMF Vérité Closed, and Audio-Technica ATH-ADX500.

     

     

     

     

     

    About the Author

    jm.pngJosh Mound has been an audiophile since age 14, when his father played Spirit's "Natures Way" through his Boston Acoustics floorstanders and told Josh to listen closely. Since then, Josh has listened to lots of music, owned lots of gear, and done lots of book learnin'. He's written about music for publications like Filter and Under the Radar and about politics for publications like New Republic, Jacobin, and Dissent. Josh is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Virginia, where he teaches classes on modern U.S. politics and the history of popular music. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife and two cats.

     

     

     

     

     




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    It's going to take others a little while to comment because this masterpiece is lengthy. In these days of short attention spans and abbreviated everything, I applaud @JoshM for writing in-depth like this and creating a true reference piece of work. This is amazing. 

     

    I'm a big fan of John Martyn's work, including Solid Air and other albums such as Grace & Danger, and Live At Leeds (DR 14). 

     

    Now, to track down the Island Years box!

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    51 minutes ago, The Computer Audiophile said:

    It's going to take others a little while to comment because this masterpiece is lengthy. In these days of short attention spans and abbreviated everything, I applaud @JoshM for writing in-depth like this and creating a true reference piece of work. This is amazing. 

     

    I'm a big fan of John Martyn's work, including Solid Air and other albums such as Grace & Danger, and Live At Leeds (DR 14). 

     

    Now, to track down the Island Years box!


    Thanks, Chris. If you want a new, physical copy of the box, this is the best place I’ve found to get it.

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    I like The Church with One Bell, which is probably not very characteristic of John Martyn, also because it's a covers album.

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    11 minutes ago, AnotherSpin said:

    I like The Church with One Bell, which is probably not very characteristic of John Martyn, also because it's a covers album.

    Listening to it now. Thanks!

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    In addition to "Grace and Danger," I really like "Inside Out" and "One World," too. Really, he has albums throughout his career that are worthy, even if some are very uneven.

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    1 hour ago, FabMan said:

    To be honest, I just signed up only to be able to comment on this stunning article. Being a moderate fan of John Martyn‘s music, I find it particularly special every time I got time and chance to listen to it. Your expertise and passion to deliver a profound contribution of this artistsˋ single album really leads me to invest some time to deepen my experiences with his music.

     

    Kudos for the time and efforts you put into this, it is really appreciated. I miss more of this masterclass-worthy works to really getting into a particular topic like an absolutely in-depth analysis of an old but rather still relevant artists’ work. For me the article is well balanced between explaining personal circumstances, Zeitgeist and valuation of technical as well as quality implications of different published versions. What a bliss over ‚reviewing’ with a 30-lines compressed print of ‚just another remastering of just another dude‘ - just to have it covered, too, compared to the competition.

     

    And by the way, Nothing beats the original pressings - normally.


    Thank you so much for the kind words!

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