Vinyl Frontier: Solid Air by John Martyn

TODAY the hand passing along the old record collection rests on an album that has been with me since its release in 1973. It will also see me out, as my wife says that May You Never will be played at my funeral.

Some albums live with you, and I have certainly swallowed a few vinyl atoms from Solid Air. The album was recorded over eight days with double bassist Danny Thompson and members of Fairport Convention, including Richard Thompson, who played mandolin on Over The Hill.

The nine tracks have an immediacy granted by the short studio time: Solid Air was recorded in eight days. The opening title track, with its jazzy drift, is a song for a troubled friend, later revealed as the singer-songwriter Nick Drake, who died of an antidepressant overdose a year-and-a-half after the album’s release.

The song sounds as mysterious now as it did then: the aural equivalent of looking at someone trapped beneath the ice. An undyingly lovely piece of music. Over The Hill is more of a straight folk song, but with emotional heft (Martyn was good at emotional heft).

All but one of the songs are by Martyn, the exception being I’d Rather Be The Devil, by the blues singer Skip James. The Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin is a Martyn fan (as is his character, Rebus), and he used the title for one of his recent books.

All the songs here are good: Don’t Want To Know, Go Down Easy, The Man In The Station and The Easy Blues. But one song came to define John Martyn, May You Never, his three-and-a-half minute bluesy hymn to brotherhood…

You’re just like a great strong brother of mine
You know that I love you true
And you never talk dirty behind my back
And I know that there’s those that do…

It’s a great song, with a flurry of finger-picking blues notes chasing each other to a rousing finish. And it’ll be my rousing finish, too.

Eric Clapton, one of many to have covered the song, paid Martyn the ultimate tribute, saying he was “so far ahead of everything else it was inconceivable” and adding that he had influenced “everyone who ever heard him”.

Partly this was down to his experiments with the Echoplex tape looper, a pre-digital effect that let Martyn accompany himself, creating swirling layers of notes.

John Martyn died in January 2009, aged 60, and it still makes me sad to write that down. In his youth he was a beautiful young man, wild-haired and mischievous. He followed a self-destructive path, eventually losing a leg late in life. But he had a resurgence with On The Cobbles, an album released in 2004.

I saw him three times. Once at Salford University at about the time Sold Air was released, then twice in York: at Fibbers and then at the Grand Opera House. He played May You Never at the Opera House and he wasn’t in great shape, but the song still was. After the last notes died he said something about that not being easy. But he always made it sound easy.

An album for ever and beyond.

Martyn recorded for 40 years, with the best albums coming out in the 1970s: Bless The Weather, Inside Out and One World. All worthy of mention in this vinyl chapter, except that I only have them on CD. And that would be cheating.

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