The Genius Of… Solid Air by John Martyn

John Martyn’s 1973 album Solid Air is an undisputed classic. As guitarists, why should we care about it?

People fall deeply in love with it…

As it closes in on its 50th year, John Martyn’s masterpiece Solid Air continues to seduce new audiences and leave countless starry-eyed lovers in its wake, enduring as a soundtrack to late-night listening sessions and breathing in ever-more rarefied air on Greatest Albums Of All Time lists.

But why this record and not, say, its predecessor, Bless The Weather – which combined many of the same ingredients? Or indeed any of Martyn’s later offerings, most of which showed glimpses of the same effortless genius, but none of which have aged with anything like the grace (or danger) of this sprawling, genre-melding adventure?

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One huge factor has to be the quality of the collaboration on the Solid Air sessions. Throughout, the album is founded on the telepathic musical interplay and intense bond between Martyn and ex-Pentangle bassist Danny Thompson, who recently told Uncut: “We’d get together, he’d say, ‘This is the kind of stuff we’re going to do,’ and then we’d just go in the studio. I don’t want to make out that it was very mumsy. We used to have serious fights as well. I’ve been nutted by him…” Thompson would later get his revenge by nailing Martyn under the carpet of a hotel room, among other pranks.

Virtually the whole album was recorded live at Island’s Basing Street Studios in London, with overdubs at Sound Techniques. The freedom afforded them was a new experience for many of the musicians. Fairport Convention drummer Dave Mattacks recalls of the title track: “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 could have been a very different record…

This joyous improvisation is Solid Air’s gift that keeps on giving. As you listen to Martyn melding his guitar with Thompson, the drums of Dave Mattack, the vibraphone of Tristan Fry and the otherworldly electric piano of John ‘Rabbit’ Bundrick, you could be forgiven for thinking that they’d lived inside these songs for months. Nope – it seems they just made it all up on the spot.

And yet these fortuitous music-making conditions may not have come into being at all. After the record was complete, Martyn revealed to the NME that he’d originally had sessions with a different set of “very heavy super-starry people,” but scrapped the results. He was left with only around eight days to finish the album to promote his upcoming US tour, so producer/engineer John Wood drafted in a trusted cast of “fast and intuitive” replacements.

In the same interview, Martyn distanced himself from the idea of his role as that of a bandleader: “If you come out front when you’re playing with good musicians, you’re making an ego statement. My idea is that everyone, providing they’re strong enough people, should impress their personality on the final sound.”

John Martyn
John Martyn playing in Island Records’ Basing Street Studios on 4 July 1973 in London. Image: Brian Cooke / Getty Images

It’s full of expressive guitar skills…

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Despite the strength of Martyn’s musical synergy with the musicians who he deferred to at just the right moments throughout Solid Air’s slender 32-minute runtime, this is still a guitar record (or perhaps a guitar-and-double-bass record). The plucks, picks, snaps, stabs, slaps and strums Martyn cajoles from his acoustic – often presented stark and unadorned – are a masterclass in the sheer expressiveness of the humble instrument.

All this is before anyone even thought to plug the Echoplex in. Live, Martyn had been perfecting his forays into the soundscaping possibilities of combining Maestro’s tape delay with his Yamaha FG or Martin D-28 (via a DeArmond soundhole pickup and a contact pickup), a wah and a Big Muff. On Bless The Weather, the instrumental Glistening Glyndebourne showed the promise of the setup; on Solid Air, Martyn showed how far it was possible to take it.

The styles in it are incredibly varied…

Over the course of Solid Air’s nine tracks, Martyn uses a different tuning for almost every song, ranging from Cm11 (low to high) CGE♭FB♭D (the title track) to DADGAD with a capo (The Man In The Station).

His playing spans a virtually unprecedented range of styles: jazzy, rhythmically sophisticated question-and-answer embellishments on the title track; straightforward capo’d folk accompaniment (Over The Hill); menacing funk-rock lines and dreamy Echoplex arpeggios (Rather Be The Devil… and Dreams By The Sea); note-perfect rhythm, lead and melody arrangements (Don’t Want To Know, May You Never); Gilmour-ish electric playing (The Man In The Station)… always conjuring emotion, every approach shows a different facet of its creator’s kinetic personality.

John Martyn
John Martyn playing in Island Records’ Basing Street Studios on 4 July 1973 in London. Image: Brian Cooke / Getty Images

From the guitarists’ perspective, he saves the best till last, too: album closer The Easy Blues may seem like a casual afterthought, but its fiendish picked motif is a bluesey party piece that’s nigh-on impossible to play.

This fearless display of emotional range is matched by John Wood’s production. The outtakes and his live shows at the time show that Martyn’s versatility as a musician made him capable of completely reinventing his songs on a whim. Wood not only fostered an atmosphere where this could all take place and be captured, but also moulded the results with incredible clarity: rarely has a record had such severe mood swings, yet still been so welcome at the comedown party.

It’s a reminder to reach out and collaborate…

Recorded in 1972 but released in February 1973, Solid Air was recognised as a major progression for Martyn, despite being eclipsed a month later, as was everything else, by Floyd’s all-conquering The Dark Side Of The Moon.

However, the mythos of Nick Drake has cast the longest shadow over the album. Martyn famously wrote the album’s title track for his severely troubled friend, who died the following year; Martyn would rarely speak about him in interviews, other than to express his frustration at the many futile interventions he’d made.

Nowadays, it could be argued that the lowered barrier-to-entry to DIY music production and the financial realities of running a band have increasingly led to today’s musicians going it alone and essentially creating music in a roomful of mirrors, a state of affairs obviously made worse by our current period of enforced isolation. With this in mind, Solid Air is way more than just a classic record – it stands as an important reminder of the synergies of collaboration, the elusive magic of in-the-moment connection between musicians.

John Martyn
John Martyn (1948 – 2009) performing at the Rainbow Theatre, London, 1973. He is supporting rock group Traffic. Image: Michael Putland / Getty Images

Infobox

John Martyn, Solid Air (Island Records, 1973)

Credits

  • John Martyn (guitar, vocals, synth)
  • John Bundrick (piano, organ, clarinet)
  • Tony Coe (tenor sax)
  • Richard Thompson (mandolin)
  • Sue Draheim (violin)
  • Simon Nicol (autoharp)
  • Neemoi Acquaye (percussion)
  • Tristan Fry (vibraphone)
  • Danny Thompson (double bass)
  • Dave Pegg (bass)
  • John Wood (engineer, producer)

Standout guitar moment

The Easy Blues

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