The recent release of the collection Johnny Boy Would Love This ... A Tribute to John Martyn has me once again obsessing over him. This isn't at all unusual. I'll use just about any excuse to toss everything aside and focus my attention solely on his music. In my opinion, the late John Martyn is the most interesting, accomplished, unique and challenging singer-songwriter to emerge from the British folk-rock boom of the late 1960s. Nick Drake and Sandy Denny may be more mythological, but neither one explored sound-as-emotion with as much sweaty recklessness as their old pal.
The evolution Martyn underwent between 1970 and the early 1980s was profoundly radical. In that time he challenged the popular conception of the singer-songwriter more intensely than even Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell. His early albums, often recorded with then-wife Beverley, are fairly straightforward acoustic affairs. By 1974, however, he had begun to experiment with tape-delay effects, as well as ideas imported from fusion, soul, funk and dub. The albums Solid Air, Inside Out, Sunday's Child, One World and (my personal fave) Grace & Danger all released consecutively are wildly progressive. Imagine Astral Weeks meets On the Corner meets Inspiration Information, and you're more or less there. Each one contains stretches that feel as if they could've been recorded only yesterday. Little did Martyn know, he was helping lay the groundwork for the future: electronica, post-rock, trip-hop and most recently, hypnagogic pop and chillwave.
What made Martyn such a powerful artist was his ability to sidestep the "man-machine" myth (see Kraftwerk) that informed pop music throughout the '70s. He loved working with new gear, yet he never relinquished his belief that music was all about what he called the "direct communication of emotion." In other words, he was a die-hard humanist who used technology to investigate the deepest depths of his inner realm, not replace them with circuit boards.