John Martyn - The Island Years

Towering monument to a magnificent talent

It’s more than a little ironic that this sumptuous
box celebrating Martyn’s lengthy tenure at Island
should include the first official appearance of
the album that brought about the end of his
relationship with the company. The Apprentice was
delivered in 1987, but label boss Chris Blackwell
vetoed its release, feeling it wasn’t the right step
for Martyn’s career at the time.

After 20 years of being left to his own
devices, indicative of the label’s admirably
hands-off policy that allowed contemporaries
such as Fairport Convention, Richard Thompson
and Nick Drake to map their own creative paths,
Martyn saw the unexpected and unwanted
interference as a signal to move on, so opted
not to renew his Island contract. Quite what was
wrong with The Apprentice (a version of which
John released independently three years later,
funding new recordings himself) is baffling, as
it’s clearly cut from the same cloth as its
immediate predecessors: a stylish collection of
erudite songs awash with folk, jazz and soul
flourishes, albeit occasionally hamstrung by
overly synthetic production.

This isn’t the first time Martyn’s received the
box set treatment, but whereas 2009’s four-disc
Ain’t No Saint (which the singer himself was
involved with, and released just five months before
his death) cherry-picked the highlights of a 40-year
career, bolstered by a couple of dozen previously
unreleased tracks, these 17 discs comprise every
Island studio album, each with generous extras,
plus standalone discs of genuine historical worth.

Prominent among these is Live At The Hanging
Lamp, an extraordinary one-man show from 1972,
recorded at the long-established folk club based in
the crypt of a Richmond church. Intimate acoustic
takes on the likes of Bless The Weather and May
You Never, and a delicate reading of Dylan’s Don’t
Think Twice, It’s Alright, are followed by a fiery I’d
Rather Be The Devil, on which Martyn introduces
the Echoplex effects pedal that would soon
become a signature sound on his studio output.

Another previously unreleased live show,
recorded in Sydney in 1977 for broadcast on
Australian radio, finds Martyn in the form of his life,
rugged and bluesy on One Day Without You, tender
and persuasive on My Baby Girl. Studio outtakes
also play a part in the overall undeniable glory of
this set, not least a sprightly cover of the R&B
standard Hi-Heel Sneakers, dating from the 1980
sessions for Grace And Danger.

In the not-too distant days when record shops
were a familiar sight on high streets, Martyn’s
music could be found in the racks marked “folk”,
but that was always more of a convenient catchall
than a true description of the breath-taking
scope of styles John explored. From the tentative
strums of London Conversation and The Tumbler,
to the seminal Solid Air, the riches of Sunday’s
Child and Grace And Danger, here is a musician
whose innate curiosity and refusal to be
categorised is backed up by exemplary
craftsmanship coupled with the mind and heart
of a poet.
5 stars 5 stars 5 stars 5 stars 5 stars

Universal | cat no tbc (17CD+DVD)

Reviewed by Terry Staunton
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