By the early seventies, John Martyn had already begun to showcase his remarkable fusion of electronic and acoustic instrumentation, alongside captivating folk-rock songwriting. But it was his 1973 album Solid Air, which truly showcased the singular sound he had created, bringing together some of the best musicians of the British folk-rock scene to create an album unlike any other.
John Martyn was born Ian David McGeachy on September 11, 1949 in New Maiden, Surrey, England. His parents, Betty and Thomas Paterson McGeachy, were both light opera singers. Their divorce when he was a very young child, meant that he spent his childhood traveling between Scotland and England (although most of it was spent with his father and grandmother in Glasgow).
He began playing the guitar at age 15, and attended the Glasgow School of Art for a time. He ultimately left school at age 17, to pursue his musical aspirations, first entering music through the local folk scene, under the mentorship of Hamish Imlach. In addition to Imlach’s influence, Martyn’s musical background was eclectic, from hearing his parents perform musical theatre from a young age, and listening to classical music like the French late-Romantic composer Claude Debussy. It is perhaps this eclecticism that infused Martyn’s consciousness in a way that helped him create a sonic world throughout his career that was so different from those around him.
He signed with Island records and released his debut album, London Conversation, in October of 1967. In 1969, he married Beverly Kutner. They met when Martyn was hired to play guitar for her recording sessions and the pair would then release several albums together including their 1970 album Stormbringer!
As a young musician in the folk scene, Martyn created his own signature sound by playing an acoustic guitar through a phase shifter and Echoplex. You can hear this sound on his 1970 Stormbringer! Album. Martyn credited the use of the Echoplex to the inspiration of saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders saying: “The only reason I bought the echoplex was to try and imitate Sanders’ sustain on my guitar.”
In 1971, Island records decided to focus their attention on Martyn as a solo artist rather than a duo with Beverly, and this brought about his third solo album, Bless the Weather, which really showcases Martyn’s echoplex sound on the track “Glistening Glyndebourne” This album brough Martyn increased attention and positive reviews. Zig Zag magazine wrote in 1974: ‘Without elaborating on Bless The Weather too much, let me say that it is a fabulous album, quite definitely one of the very best of 1971, and one which you should spare no amount of trouble over to possess.” In late 1972, Martyn was back in the studio working on what would become one of his most remarkable and timeless albums — Solid Air
The title track of Solid Air was written for singer-songwriter Nick Drake, who was a good friend of Martyn. Drake tragically died 15 months later from an overdose of antidepressents. Martyn, and others who worked on the album, have confirmed this connection. Martin recalled of the song:
“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 has got a very simple message, but you’ll have to work that one out for yourself.”
And listening to the lyrics, you can hear the words of comfort that Martyn was sharing with his friend.
“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.”
Martyn’s voice is soothing, and, in retrospect, quite haunting. The song also showcases the prominent role of Danny Thompson’ bass playing. Thompson recalled the ease of putting the track together:
I think “Solid Air” was the first one we did. From the top, live, none of this dropping in. 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.” Thompson’s bass is forward in the mix – in this and many of the tracks on the album – giving this album such an interesting, singular sound. Tristan Fry’s vibraphone and Tony Coe’s saxophone perfectly match Martyn’s expressive vocals, creating the song’s haunting edge.
Other incredible and long-lasting tracks from the album include “Over the Hill,” “I’d rather be the Devil” and “May You Never” – all songs that remained staples of his live shows for the rest of his career. “May You Never” is perhaps, Martyn’s most well-known track. It was famously covered by Eric Clapton in 1977, among many other cover versions for several decades after Martyn’s initial release. The song was originally recorded and released as a single in 1971, but Martyn wanted to re-record it for inclusion on Solid Air. The lyrics sound like a blessing. It begins:
And may you never lay your head down
Without a hand to hold
May you never make your bed out in the cold
Interestingly, these lyrics, which act as recurring chorus for most of the song, change at the end. This shift in meaning seems much more specific and personal:
May you never lose your temper
If you get in a bar room fight
May you never lose your woman overnight
Martyn’s percussive playing on the acoustic guitar drives the song’s addictive energy.
Solid Air was recorded in Studio one at Island’s Basing Street studios in London in November and December of 1972. Additional work was done at Sound Techniques, in Chelsea, London. In addition to his phenomenal vocals, Martyn plays acoustic and electric guitar on the album and keyboard on the song “The Easy Blues.” He also self-produced the album.
Engineer John Wood recalls that the cast of musicians changed early on in the process but the final line-up really can be credited with inspiring and creating such a phenomenal and unique album:
“For Solid Air, John had wanted to hire a completely different set of musos. We did one or two sessions [with them], then I fell down some steps and hurt my ankle, and we had to call it off for two weeks. The bass player we had hired was not available, so we got Danny Thompson back. I set the cast list, that’s for sure. Danny, [Dave] Mattacks, Rabbit [Bundrick] – people I had worked with. Because of their musicality, they put John on his mettle.”
The core musicians on the album include Danny Thompson on double bass, Dave Pegg on bass, Johnny “Rabbit” Bundrick on keyboard, Dave Mattacks on drums, and Neemoi “Speedy” Acquaye on congas.
The song “Over the Hill” features Simon Nicol on autoharp, Richard Thompson on mandolin and Sue Draheim on violin. Draheim was an American violinist who had discovered Irish folk music while living in Oakland in the late sixties and spent most of the seventies in the UK playing British folk-rock. Nicol and Thompson were both founding members of Fairport Convention, although they were not currently in the band while working on Solid Air. They also weren’t the only Fairport convention members to be a part of Martyn’s album. Dave Mattacks (who provides the incredible drum parts on Solid Air) had played in Fairport Convention from 1969-1972.
Many of the musicians recall the experience of creating the album fondly. Bundrick explained: “It was almost like a big jam session. Everybody would get to their instruments and he’d start playing, then we’d just all join in, until all of this stuff just started to gel. John didn’t ask anyone to play a certain thing. It was like there was already a spot for you to play in. He would smile every time he heard somebody do a lick that he liked. It was just a great, serious group of guys putting their creativity into what John was emitting. It just gelled. It was absolutely fabulous.” The album has also been described as recorded live, with the musicians playing the songs without a lot of fixes or edits. Wood explained: “All the tracks went down pretty much live. 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.”
Solid Air was released in February of 1973 to positive reviews. A contemporary review in Sounds magazine described the album saying “it flows beautifully” and “shows the entire spectrum of music that John Martyn has at his fingertips” It concluded by calling Martyn “one of the most important innovators” of his time. In the decades since its release it has remained an iconic album in the British folk-rock scene of the seventies. AllMusic more recently declared that “audacious, hypnotic and groundbreaking only begins to describe Martyn’s still unique combination of folk, jazz, blues and space rock, wrapped around riveting, unforgettable melodies.” Q magazine named it the 67th best British album ever. Its singular sound has captivated music lovers for decades and it remains one of British folk-rock’s most important albums of all time.
Written by Caitlin Vaughn Carlos
Watch the video below to learn more about John Martyn and Solid Air!