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John Martyn - The Battle of Medway

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Artist: John Martyn

Album: The Battle of Medway

Label: Hux

Review date: Jan. 21, 2008

There’s weird, and then there’s really weird. Glasgow-born John Martyn is really weird. What else can you say about a guy who got Eric Clapton and Phil Collins to help him make a record that sounds like a Michael McDonald baby-making album, only to take the stage roaring drunk and plunk feedback-laden, synth-throbbing versions of “Johnny Too Bad” into the middle of his quiet storm sets?

You can say that the weirdness didn’t begin or end there. Martyn’s been through quite a few phases, and I can’t comment on the more recent ones (he went trip-hop phase about 10 years ago, no joke) because those synth-soaked quiet storm efforts seemed way too sincere; at any rate, they scared me off. But that’s certainly not where he started. Martyn’s first records in the ’60s got him pegged him as a Scottish Dylan wannabe. They were followed by a couple of Band-inspired, hippy love-nest records with his then-wife Beverly, one of which had its cover ripped off by Mr. Wooden Wand .

Then came his peak, an amazing period during the 70s when he went from terrorizing English folk clubs with an Echoplex to leading a band with Paul Kossof (ex-Free), Danny Thompson (ex-Pentangle), and John Stevens (Spontaneous Music Ensemble ), and wound up hiding out in Jamaica. Who the hell seeks out Lee Perry to get their head together?

The Battle Of Medway comes from the tail end of Martyn’s solo folk club phase. It was recorded “in ambient stereo,” which is a nice way of saying it’s a decent audience-quality tape that no one back in the ’70s would have considered putting out on account of the moments when feedback, distortion, and the club telephone intrude upon the music. Now we know that they’re really part of the music. The album, which was recorded in July 1973, begins and ends with dizzying echo excursions. With its slapped out rhythms and swells of sensuously impure sound, “Outside In” feels more like an alien transmission than one guy with an acoustic guitar. (In fact, it’s both.) “I’d Rather Be The Devil,” on the other hand, purges the Skip James tune of evil and replaces it with athletic ardor and psychedelic disorientation; he might complain about his woman, but you know what they’ll be doing later, and they won’t be doing it straight.

Martyn’s other takes on the blues are less spaced out, but not much straighter; he sounds like Fred Neil doing Muddy Waters on “Sugar Cube,” or like a Davey Graham acolyte too restless to get it just right on”Mr. Jelly Roll Baker.” Martyn proves his mettle at Celtic fingerpicking on “Seven Black Roses, and trots out a few songs from “Sunday’s Child” and “Solid Air” that sound like his old mate Nick Drake might if Drake had been a hedonistic, extroverted Getz-Gilberto fan instead of a repressed, depressed recluse.

The stage patter is priceless as the music; at one point he laments Lionel Blair’s and Gary Glitter’s lack of bollocks compared to Gene Kelly, then launches into an utterly un-ironic and gloriously joyous rendition of “Singing In The Rain.” Weird, yes, but wonderful, too.

By Bill Meyer

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