Saturday, 16 October 2021

John the Revelator! John Martyn - His 50 Greatest Tracks – Ranked!





by Stuart Penney

One day around 1971 I dropped into the Selmer guitar store in London’s Charing Cross Road, as I did regularly back then - they were the biggest UK Gibson agents and always had the best and most interesting new and second-hand instruments in stock – and there was John Martyn trying out a Gibson SG solid electric guitar.  

I stood watching him for a while in quiet disbelief.  I remember thinking how strange and out of character it seemed.  Here was one of the foremost acoustic folk blues guitarists in the land seemingly thinking of buying an electric instrument.  Of course, since adopting the Echoplex tape delay effect, which dominated his middle period albums, he’d started using a pick-up on his acoustic guitars (crudely fixed across the sound hole with duct tape, more often than not), but a solid body electric?  Nah, it’ll never happen, I mused.  Well, it didn’t happen right away, but sure enough a few years later there he was on TV performing in front of his own rock band, standing up on stage, no less, and playing the very same Gibson SG I'd seen him trying out in Selmer's, or one very much like it.  It was later replaced by a Fender Stratocaster and then an even weightier Gibson Les Paul came along (the guitar John flippantly claimed was directly responsible for causing the cyst in his knee, leading to septicemia and ultimately his leg amputation in 2006).  But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.


Like many record buyers in the 60s, the music of John Martyn first entered my life via the legendary Island records sampler LP You Can All Join In.  The track they included on YCAJI was “Dusty” from his 1968 second album The Tumbler and it emphatically ticked all the relevant boxes for me.  Firstly, the guitar playing was powerful and technically proficient in the acoustic folk blues style of Bert Jansch or Davey Graham.  Secondly, in an era when fey singer-songwriters were in vogue, Martyn’s vocals were strong, distinctive and undeniably soulful.  Finally, there was the unmistakable flute playing of Harold McNair, almost sounding louder than the vocal and everything else in the mix.  It was an intoxicating combination.

I was already familiar with McNair from the many Donovan records he’d played on and I’d long worshiped at the altar of Bert, Davey and John Renbourn, so “Dusty” made immediate and perfect sense to me.  I was hooked right away and felt compelled to investigate further.  Luckily, a girlfriend already owned a copy of The Tumbler, and I played it constantly during the summer of 1969.  Around the same time I found a cheap secondhand copy of Martyn’s 1967 first album London Conversation and that really sealed the deal.


I first saw John perform at the tiny Les Cousins folk club in Soho towards the end of 1969 [which I wrote about here:(Link)] and for the next 30 years or more I followed his progress closely, buying all the records and catching him in concert, with or without his sidekick and drinking buddy, bassist extraordinaire Danny Thompson, at every opportunity.

Concert ticket from 1975

At times it could be a bumpy ride.  Often, he’d veer off into uncharted musical territory leaving the fans who were hoping for another Solid Air or Bless the Weather perplexed.  But we’d tune in eventually and (usually) see where he was leading us. 


Few artists can boast a career as innovative and uncompromising as John Martyn’s.  Starting out as an acoustic folkie in the mid-60s, he moved seamlessly into the world of progressive rock, before embracing jazz/rock, funk, reggae, dub, ambient and much else besides.  He could do it all and he did it in his own unique style.


He died in 2009, his rock and roll lifestyle finally catching up with him after more than four decades of not only burning the candle at both ends but regularly taking a blow torch to the middle of it, too.  For most of that time Martyn was making records of the highest quality.  So here’s what I consider to be the best 50 tracks from the albums he recorded during his peak years 1967 to 1987.  It’s very much a personal list and your mileage will almost certainly differ.  But for today, at least, these are the John Martyn tracks I reach for first.


50: London Conversation (1967)

It could almost be a simple, stripped-down Bert Jansch tune, but the title track of Martyn’s debut album is not without charm and hinted at greater things to come. 

John seldom used standard tuning and this song was recorded with the guitar tuned to: DADDAD.


49: The Man In The Station (1973)

This Solid Air cut starts off acoustically before developing into a hard driving rock number with electric guitar and drums.  John “Rabbit” Bundrick excels on electric piano and most of the Fairport Convention Full House line-up are involved.


48: The Gardeners (1968)

Between his first and second albums John had immersed himself in the guitar techniques of Davey Graham, Bert Jansch and John Renbourn, the UK’s holy trinity of acoustic folk blues guitar, and The Tumbler clearly shows their influence.  Jazz flautist Harold McNair was also on board and this eastern-flavoured track combines the two styles perfectly.

For decades Martyn was credited as composer of “The Gardeners”, but in 2001 Scottish folk singer Ewan McVicar revealed he had introduced the song to John and it was, in fact, written by an American, Bill Lyons of Boston, Massachusetts. 

Guitar tuning: DDDDAD.


47: Smiling Stranger (1977)

Featuring a dense bed of sound with an uneasy, shifting tempo, this is perhaps the most complex track on One World.  Along with the obligatory Echoplex guitar, the instrumentation includes Steve Winwood on synths and bassist Neil Murray.  The great Harry Robinson (Nick Drake, Sandy Denny) provides the string arrangement over tabla, sax and drums.


 
46: Root Love (1975)

“A hotel room don’t make it, when I’m thinking about your face”.  Home thoughts from abroad?  The lyrics of this Sunday’s Child track would certainly suggest so.  Musically it’s a chaotic, pulsating, mélange of bass, synth and Echoplex which nonetheless works perfectly.


 
45: Rolling Home (1967)

Sitars were de rigueur in 1967 and the Indian instrument takes centre stage on this Donovan-influenced London Conversation ditty, with Martyn overdubbing it along with his acoustic guitar.  There also appears to be an uncredited flute or a similar wind instrument present on the track.


 
44: Singin’ In The Rain (1971)

This track is what today’s record buyers would probably call a “deep cut”.  At a shade under one and a half minutes, this blink-and-you’ll-miss-it gem is hidden away at the very end of Bless The Weather.  

The song started life in a 1929 Hollywood revue, before re-emerging most famously in the eponymous 1952 film starring Gene Kelly.  There have been countless cover versions over the years, but writers Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown could scarcely have imagined their song would one day end up on an acoustic folk album. 

Guitar tuning - Open C major: CGCGCE.


43: Angeline (1986)

Recorded in Glasgow in early 1986, the Piece by Piece LP marked the end of an era.  It proved to be Martyn’s last album for Island records, the label he’d called home (with a few short breaks) since 1967.  He’d go on to record nine further records for several different independent labels until his final album Heaven and Earth appeared posthumously in 2011, two years after his death. 

With a surfeit of keyboards and a fretless bass, Piece by Piece sounds a little too polished today, (John even played the briefly fashionable guitar synthesiser), but it sold reasonably well, becoming his sixth album in a row to make the UK charts, peaking at #28.  “Angeline” is undoubtedly the strongest track, sounding not unlike a slicker, overproduced version of “Sweet Little Mystery”.


42: Cocain (1967)

Despite the missing “e”, this is Martyn’s personal take on the traditional “Cocaine Blues” and has absolutely no connection with J.J. Cale or Eric Clapton.  Thought to have been popularised by the Reverend Gary Davis, who claims to have learned it in the early 1900s, the song became a folk blues staple, recorded (unofficially) by Bob Dylan in the 60s and countless others.

The version on London Conversation is noteworthy in that it uses the traditional lyrics over the chord sequence from Davey Graham’s “Angi” (which could explain that missing “e”, who knows?).  This track was reissued as a Record Store Day single b/w “London Conversation” in April 2015.


41: Dancing (1977)

One of the most commercial tracks on One World, this joyous, uplifting song features Fairport Convention’s Dave Pegg (bass) and Bruce Rowland (drums).


40: Winding Boy (1968)

There are many recordings of this traditional blues with various title spellings: “Winin’ Boy Blues”, “Whinin’ Boy” and “Winding Boy” to name just three.  Folklorist Alan Lomax first recorded Jelly Roll Morton performing it in 1939 and that seems to be the one Martyn based his, considerably faster, version on.  The guitar technique is straight out of the John Renbourn playbook.  Find it on The Tumbler.


39: Tight Connection To My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love) (1986)

Almost two decades after he covered “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” on his London Conversation debut, Martyn tackled a second Bob Dylan song.  This time it was the relatively recent “Tight Connection To My Heart” from Dylan’s 1985 album Empire Burlesque.  It originally featured as the B-side to John’s 1986 single “Angeline” but later turned up as a bonus track on the Piece by Piece CD.  The song was also included on the five track EP Classic John Martyn which is claimed to be the world’s first CD single.  

It seemed like a strange choice, but despite the Prince-style falsetto, a veritable wall of synths and a relentless disco beat, it all turned out rather well.  Which only goes to show, you can’t keep a good song down.


38: Fine Lines (1973)

Arriving barely six months after the successful (and accessible) Solid Air, the follow-up Inside Out was probably Martyn’s most experimental album to date and many found it a difficult listen.  There were several high points however such as this lilting opening track.  John plays electric guitar here, probably the 1965 Gibson SG he bought from Selmer’s in Charing Cross Road in the early 70s.

Guitar tuning: DADGAD.


37: Ways To Cry (1973)

His slurred vocal technique had mutated into an exotic new instrument by the time of Inside Out, nowhere more so than on this percussion-led track.  Barely a word of the lyric is intelligible but that matters little when the groove is right in the pocket and the melody is so strong.


36: Traffic-Light Lady (1970)

This is textbook early John Martyn: a great melody, dexterous solo acoustic fingerpicking and some fine close harmonies with Beverley on the choruses.  Find it on Stormbringer!

Guitar tuning: DADDAD


35: Hello Train (1968)

Another lovely tune with a great vocal.  Although still very much in acoustic mode, the backwards guitar on this track from The Tumbler hinted at bigger things to come.




34: Outside In (1973)

Picking up where “I’d Rather Be The Devil” left off, this eight minute Echoplex extravaganza from Inside Out starts off fast, before dissolving into an ambient soundscape toward the end.  It’s mostly instrumental with random animalistic vocal sounds from John.  And, direct from the Rolling Stones, please welcome Bobby Keyes blowing sax on the long ending. 


33: Lay It All Down (1975)

At a shade under two minutes, this short but oh-so-sweet melodic track would not have sounded out of place on Solid Air.  As it was, it fitted Sunday’s Child perfectly.


32: The River (1968)

Another delightful song from The Tumbler with double-tracked finger-picking guitar and an irresistible tune.  It could be said that Harold McNair’s flute is placed a little too high in the mix by today’s standards as it almost overpowers the vocal, but nobody much cared about that at the time.  Not to be confused with a song of the same name from Martyn’s 1990 album The Apprentice.


31: John the Baptist (1970)

Recorded in Woodstock with The Band’s Levon Helm on drums, this was perhaps the strongest and most commercial track on Stormbringer! the first John and Beverley duo album.  It was originally intended to be a solo project for Bev but, as was his habit, John muscled in, eventually writing six of the 10 tracks.  Island clearly had high hopes for “John the Baptist” as it was issued as his very first single in January 1970, with Beverley’s “The Ocean” as the B-side. Nice try, but it didn’t trouble the charts. 

Guitar tuning - Open D Major: DADF#AD.


30: The Easy Blues – Live (1972)

Taken at a frantic pace with some rousing acoustic guitar, this swaggering blues was loosely based on Lonnie Johnson’s “Jelly Roll Baker”, which John probably first heard on the 1966 Davey Graham album Midnight Man.  It was a staple of Martyn’s folk club set back in the Les Cousins days and while a BBC recording exists from 1968, he didn’t record a studio version until Solid Air in 1973.  It worked best onstage however and this killer 1972 performance recorded at the Hanging Lamp in Richmond is as good as it gets.  Find it on The Island Years box set or the 2013 limited edition LP release Live At The Hanging Lamp.


29: Sunday’s Child (1975)

By 1975 Martyn’s music was becoming decidedly jazzier and the sensual, meandering title track of his eighth album was a perfect example of his new direction.

The house where Martyn's debut LP was recorded

28: Fairy Tale Lullaby (1967)

As debut albums go, London Conversation was an unassuming affair, yet Martyn’s potential was already writ large for all to see.  Opening track “Fairy Tale Lullaby” is very much of its time, with confident, Bert Jansch-inspired acoustic guitar and florid, childlike lyrics worthy of Donovan.  Even at this early stage, the vocals were strong, the tune memorable and the performance captivating.  

Reportedly recorded for just £158 at Tony Pike’s home studio at 31 Dryburgh Road in the leafy London suburb of Putney, this strictly acoustic first LP is still a delight 54 years later.  The front and back cover photos show John amid the chimney pots on the roof of Island records’ boss Chris Blackwell’s house located in fashionable Cromwell Road in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. 

Guitar tuning: Open D Major: DADF#AD


27: Some People Are Crazy (1980)

As the opening track on Grace and Danger, this sets the scene for much of Martyn’s 80s output: a heady mix of jazz rock/funk, with a healthy side order of soul and reggae.  The guitars were in short supply, but there were plenty of synths and John Giblin played a blinder on bass guitar.

It’s said that although he liked the album, Island boss Chris Blackwell delayed the release by more than a year because he found the songs “too depressing”.  We can only imagine John Martyn’s response to this.


26: Road To Ruin (1970)

The two albums John recorded with wife Beverley were somewhat schizophrenic affairs.  The couple tended to alternate tracks, John and Yoko style, and while Beverley’s contributions were certainly enjoyable enough (most were co-written with John), they just weren’t in the same league as Martyn’s own efforts.  The result was not a success and Island quickly talked John into resuming his solo career.  

One of the stronger cuts on the album, the title track starts out as a hypnotic melodic ballad before shifting gear at 1:50 into an extended instrumental jam featuring Dudu Pukwana from Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood Of Breath on sax, plus Alan Spenner, borrowed from the Grease Band, on bass.  

This track was probably the first time John used the Echoplex on record and The Road To Ruin also marks the debut appearance of Danny Thompson on a John Martyn album.  He played double bass on the track “New Day”.

Guitar tuning: DADDAD.


25: Sing A Song Of Summer (1968)

The opening track to The Tumbler was another generous slice of Donovan-style whimsy, this time taken at breakneck speed.  With a great tune and lyrics dealing with “little pink sugar mice” and assorted Alice in Wonderland references it was bordering on twee, but it still holds up today as a marvel of acoustic fingerpicking.  

Guitar tuning: DADDAD


24: The Glory of Love – Live (1972)

This song dates back to 1936 when Benny Goodman and his Orchestra took it to #1 on the US pop charts.  In the 50s it became an easy listening and doo wop favourite, recorded by the Platters and several other vocal groups.  It was Big Bill Broonzy who brought the song into the folk blues world however with his landmark 1957 acoustic guitar recording.  

Martyn recorded it several times, including an unlikely falsetto performance on the Inside Out album.  But I’m going for a live version recorded in 1972 at the Hanging Lamp in Richmond and hidden away on The Island Years mammoth box set.  Sung in his normal register with some great Broonzy-style acoustic guitar playing, it holds up far better today than the somewhat eccentric studio version.


23: Dusty (1968)

Produced by Al Stewart and featuring the great Harold McNair on flute, Martyn’s second album The Tumbler, while still resolutely acoustic, was a big step forward from his debut.  Released in December 1968, all songs except “Winding Boy” (and, as it was subsequently revealed, “The Gardeners”) were Martyn originals.  Due to its inclusion on the legendary Island sampler LP You Can All Join In, the lilting ballad “Dusty” received wide exposure and it was many people’s introduction to the world of John Martyn.  

The Tumbler was recorded in just one day, July 11, 1968, at the famous Regent Sound Studio in London’s Denmark Street.  Despite being labelled “stereo” on the Island LP sleeves, the album was recorded in mono and remains so today.


22: Bless The Weather (1971)

Much as I love the early Martyn albums, critically and commercially speaking his career really began to take off with his fifth LP Bless the Weather released in November 1971.  John and Bev had recently moved from London to Hastings and the change was reflected in his song writing style, nowhere more than on the rustic title track.  Bev also played on the album, as did the Thompson twins – Richard and Danny.  Also present were Colosseum bassist Tony Reeves, plus Ian Whiteman (piano) and Roger Powell (drums) from Mighty Baby.

Guitar tuning: DADGAD.


21: One World (1977)

The One World album was next level Martyn, and the dreamily ambient title track is an ethereal Echoplex-soaked delight.


20: Over The Hill (1973)

Backed by several Fairport Convention members plus American fiddle player Sue Draheim, who recorded with many UK folk musicians, this Solid Air track was a throwback to Martyn’s earlier work: charmingly simple yet infuriatingly catchy and apparently played with a piece of cardboard in lieu of a guitar plectrum!  Written as John caught sight of his house while returning home from tour on the train from London to Hastings. 

Island released “Over The Hill” as a single b/w “Head and Heart” in 1977.  Needless to say, chart action was not forthcoming. 

In 2006 the song was covered by Chris and Rich Robinson from the Black Crowes on their album Brothers of a Feather: Live At The Roxy

Guitar tuning: CGEbFBbD.


19: Dealer (1977)

One World was a clear indication that Martyn had well and truly left the folk world behind.  The Echoplex and rhythm box were still very much in evidence, but the album was far more accessible than some of his recent work, incorporating touches of pop, rock, jazz fusion and even (it was claimed) trip-hop rubbing shoulders with the dub influence of Lee “Scratch” Perry who Martyn had met and worked with in Jamaica.  

Produced by Island boss Chris Blackwell and featuring an array of big-name sidemen, including Steve Winwood on synth and bass, this hard driving opening track sets the scene for the delights to come.  Well received by fans and critics alike, it was John’s first album to trouble the UK charts, reaching #54 in early 1978.

The Maestro Echoplex

 

18: Eibhli Ghail Chiun Chearbhail (1973)

This multi tracked fuzz guitar instrumental is a highlight of Inside Out.  The Gaelic title loosely translates as “The Fair and Charming Eileen O’Carroll” and the tune is not a million miles away from “The Skye Boat Song”.


17: Solid Air (1973)

Written for his friend Nick Drake who would sadly pass away 18 months later, the hypnotic title track of Martyn’s sixth album is considered by some to be his finest moment.  

Solid Air was the album where John started to employ his slurred vocal technique in earnest.  It would become considerably more exaggerated in later years, but in 1973 it suited the material of his biggest selling album perfectly.  Jazz session man Tony Coe and Sky percussionist Tristan Fry turned in wonderfully atmospheric performances on tenor sax and vibraphone respectively.

Guitar tuning: CGEbFBbD


16: I’d Rather Be The Devil (1973)

The Echoplex is working overtime here as Martyn reinterprets the 1931 Skip James song “Devil Got My Woman”.  The track goes off at a tangent toward the end and the song dissolves into a jam of epic proportions.  

This Solid Air cut became a live favourite, featuring in John’s set for many years.


 

15: Couldn’t Love You More (1977)

A gorgeous love song with a tremendous Martyn vocal and a tasteful Yamaha organ part courtesy of Steve Winwood.  It was re-recorded in 1981 for the Glorious Fool album with an Eric Clapton guitar solo and Phil Collins on drums and backing vocals, but I’m going for the original One World version here.

Guitar tuning: CFCCGD.


14: Go Easy (1971)

Back as a solo artist after two patchy albums with the missus, John scored a spectacular home run with his fifth record Bless The Weather.  Featuring solo acoustic guitar with double-tracked vocals and a beautiful, languid melody, “Go Easy” is peak early John Martyn. 

Guitar tuning - Open C major: CGCGCE.


13: Johnny Too Bad (1980)

It’s likely most people first heard this song performed by Jamaican reggae outfit The Slickers on the 1972 Jimmy Cliff soundtrack The Harder They Come.  Taj Mahal recorded a version in 1974 before Martyn covered it on Grace and Danger.  John’s version was a high octane Echoplex extravaganza in the style of “Big Muff”.  It also appeared as a 12” single in 1981 and there are many live versions scattered throughout his CD catalogue.  Johnny Too Bad was also the title of a 2006 BBC documentary covering Martyn's life and the period up to his leg amputation. 

12: Certain Surprise (1977)

Possibly the most tuneful and accessible track on One World, this samba-like pop song is a delight in every way.  Harry Robinson (Nick Drake, Sandy Denny etc) arranged the strings, Bruce Rowland (Fairport Convention) played drums and Rico Rodrigeuz provided trombone some years before he worked with the Specials. 

Guitar tuning: CFCCGD.

11: One Day Without You (1975)

1975’s Sunday’s Child saw a little less Echoplex and a return to more structured songs.  The opening track became a live favourite which John would often introduce with a cheeky rhyming slang reference: “This song is dedicated to the Berkeley Hunt, or the National Front”. 


10: Small Hours (1977)

Reviewing the deluxe CD reissue of One World, Uncut magazine described this mesmerising eight-and-a-half-minute track as “possibly Martyn’s finest hour”.  It was produced by Chris Blackwell at his Berkshire farm and recorded outdoors beside a lake in the early morning with the sound of geese clearly audible in the background.  The Island boss has always declared this spellbinding ambient masterpiece to be his favourite track on the album. 

With added lyrics by Michael Norton, Martyn later incorporated part of "Small Hours" into the track "In Search Of Anna" for the soundtrack of a 1978 Australian film of the same name.  It was released as an Australian-only 7” single and is now exceedingly rare in that form.  Luckily it later cropped up on The Island Years box set. 

9: Big Muff (1977)

The title comes from a guitar distortion pedal dating back to the late 60s, of course, but Lee “Scratch” Perry presumably had more lascivious things on his mind when he co-wrote “Big Muff” with Martyn.  It’s been described as “jazz dub” but whatever you choose to call it, this strange, pulsating, reverb-drenched track was a major highlight of One World and it soon became an onstage favourite.


8: Glistening Glyndebourne (1971)

In which we first hear major evidence of the Echoplex, soon to become ubiquitous in John’s music.  Marketed in the early 60s, the Echoplex was one of the earliest (and some say the best) tape delay effects ever made. 

This Bless The Weather track was inspired by the annual opera festival held at Glyndebourne near Lewes in East Sussex, just 30 miles from Martyn’s home in Hastings.  He found the event stuffy and the people overly formal and so came up with a piece of music so loose it could change every time it was performed.  “Glistening Glyndebourne” has been described as “six and a half minutes of heat shimmering instrumental” which sums it up perfectly.  

After his trusty Echoplex was stolen in 2000, John switched to a similar device made by US company Alesis.


7: Sweet Little Mystery (1980)

It seemed an unlikely partnership, but the Grace and Danger album saw John team up with Phil Collins who, apart from drums and backing vocals, contributed some much-needed tea and sympathy.  Both men were going through painful divorces at that time (John from Beverley and Phil from his first wife Andrea Bertorelli) and they formed a close personal relationship during both the Grace and Danger sessions and the recording of Collins’ own Face Value album, which was released a few months later.  Phil’s record won the sales figures race comprehensively, but he would never match Martyn’s critical acclaim.  

Sheffield’s own Tommy Eyre (an early member of Joe Cocker’s Grease Band) supplies tremendous keyboard work throughout Grace and Danger, and his synth dominates this lilting, melodic track.  In 1980 John performed a memorable live version of the song on BBC TV’s The Old Grey Whistle Test with Phil Collins on drums and harmony vocals.  It may have been the first time we saw Martyn performing standing up and playing a solid electric guitar.


6: Over The Rainbow (1984)

In 2001 “Over The Rainbow” was voted the greatest song of the 20th Century by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), just ahead of Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas”.  Written for the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, where it was sung by Judy Garland, the song has traversed the generations with ease, never falling out of favour in more than 80 years.  

Martyn treats the venerated tune with the respect it deserves, utilising a sympathetic wash of synth loops behind a simply remarkable vocal performance.  Find it on Sapphire.

5: Head and Heart (1971)

“Exquisite” is probably not too strong a word to describe this Bless the Weather track.  With his double bass mixed up almost as loud as the acoustic guitar, Wing Commander Danny Thompson (as John often introduced him onstage) does much of the heavy lifting here.  It’s been claimed that Martyn adapted the opening guitar figure from a piece by John McLaughlin.  

Guitar tuning: BADGAD.


4: Fisherman’s Dream (1984)

After two albums for WEA, John was back with Island for Sapphire, a slickly produced pop/rock affair retaining not a trace of his early acoustic work.  But there were several high points, notably this track.  Sure, it’s awash with LinnDrums and synths (this was 1984, after all), but it’s a mighty song for all that.  And I’ll stick my neck out here and say this surely ranks as one of the all-time great vocal performances of Martyn’s career.  

3: Just Now (1971)

There are many remarkable performances on Bless the Weather but “Just Now” may just be the best of them.  Taken at a dreamy, unhurried tempo with an exquisite melody, this track is as good as anything in the Martyn catalogue.  

Guitar tuning - Open C major: CGCGCE. 


2: May You Never (1973)

In another time and place this might have been number one in our list. With more than 20 cover versions and counting, this is Martyn’s best-known song from his biggest selling album Solid Air and it’s easy to see why.  The tune is timeless, the acoustic guitar playing is incendiary and the lyrics resonate with people of all generations.  It’s been covered by everyone from Eric Clapton and Ralph McTell to Wet, Wet, Wet and Aussie AOR legend John Farnham.

Martyn recorded the song several times and an early band version with double-tracked vocals appeared as a 1971 Island single b/w “Just Now”.  That recording was added to the Bless The Weather CD as a bonus track in 2005. The 1973 album version was also released as a Record Store Day 7" single in 2014.

Guitar tuning - Dropped D: DADGBE.


1: Spencer the Rover – Live (1977)

Although there are many versions from the 50s, 60s and early 70s by contemporary folk artists such as The Copper Family, Shirley Collins, Peter Bellamy, Muckram Wakes (with John Tams) etc, Martyn probably learned the traditional “Spencer the Rover” from Robin Dransfield, who was performing it as early as 1966 (Dransfield later recorded his own excellent version with the White Shield Brass Ensemble on his 1980 album Tidewave).

Starting with the Sunday’s Child album cut in 1975, John recorded several versions, all of them worthwhile, yet each one noticeably different in some way.  But to top this titanic list I’m going for an exquisite and hypnotic live solo version recorded in December 1977 for the BBC TV show Sight and Sound in Concert.  Armed with just an acoustic guitar, this is John Martyn at the absolute peak of his powers.  Find it on The Island Years box set.

Guitar tuning: DADGAD.


John the Revelator! John Martyn - His 50 Greatest Tracks – Ranked!

by Stuart Penney One day around 1971 I dropped into the Selmer guitar store in London’s Charing Cross Road, as I did regularly back then - t...