May You Never: John Martyn’s Solid Air Turns 50

The Scottish troubadour fused funk, jazz and more into his tender, trippy psych-folk stew

John Martyn Solid Air, Island Records 1973

A handful of great artists’ oeuvres include a completely unassailable streak during which they are golden, peaking and untouchable. 

Mid-’70s Martin Scorsese, mid-’60s Bob Dylan and 1830s Charles Dickens are good examples of this phenomenon. So is John Martyn’s 1971-’73 run, in which Solid Air sits right at the center. 

The brace of albums Martyn made with his wife Beverley before that are U.K. folk-rock classics in their own right. But by the time he lit out on his own again (he’d begun his recording career with two relatively straight solo folk albums in the late ‘60s), John Martyn—still only in his early twenties—was coming into the full flowering of his artistry. 

When you break it down, there’s not actually an enormous difference between the sonic settings of 1970’s The Road to Ruin (the last John and Beverley album) and 1971’s solo John record Bless the Weather. But the songwriting is more evolved, and some experimental touches are beginning to emerge. 

By the time Martyn made 1973’s Solid Air, though, the butterfly was all the way out of the cocoon. It’s a record where folk, jazz, rock, and blues influences intertwine to create an impressionistic amalgam unto itself. To be fair, Martyn’s confederates Nick Drake, Roy Harper and Michael Chapman, as well as Americans like Tim Buckley and Terry Callier, had been exploring related blends, but Martyn fashioned a world all his own. 

Back cover of Solid Air (Image: Discogs)

The title track was actually written for Drake, who would experience a fatal overdose a year and a half after the album’s release. It sets up the almost preternatural dynamic between Martyn’s acoustic guitar and Danny Thompson’s upright bass, which slip and slide around each other in an elegant, unpredictable dance. And it’s immediately apparent that Martyn’s vocal style has become significantly more fluid and jazzy, doing some slipping and sliding of its own as he delivers lyrics about a friend struggling with inner turmoil.

On “Don’t Want to Know,” future Sky co-founder Tristan Fry’s vibraphone adds shimmering atmosphere behind Martyn’s punchy, percussive acoustic riffs. Martyn’s vocals achieve an incantatory quality as he denounces evil in favor of love, the whole thing coming off more like a candlelit late-night hippie mass than anything else.

“I’d Rather Be the Devil” and “Dreams by the Sea” are the biggest breath takers, though. On both acoustic and electric guitars, Martyn and company employ delay loops and wah-wah to achieve a sound that’s simultaneously hard-grooving and heavily spaced out. The former track is a stoner sci-fi adaptation of Skip James’ “Devil Got My Woman” while the latter is a trippy, smoldering original. But the backing by Fairport Convention underlines the rather surprising fact that the British folk-rock pioneers could lay down some serious funk grooves as the moment demanded. It sounds like the band was spending some quality time with the Shaft and Super Fly soundtracks prior to the session.

For all the psychedelic swirling and late-night lava lamp vibes Solid Air summons, though, the moments where Martyn is simply laying down straight-ahead tunes in a no-frills setting are just as impactful. Especially if we’re talking about the heartwarming ballad “May You Never,” a well-wishing voice-and-guitar track devoid of sentimentality but bound to bring a tear to your eye. It’s easy to see why it’s been covered by everybody from Snow Patrol to The Bellamy Brothers over the years. 

Martyn would get into some even more outside-the-box sounds on the head-spinning Inside Out, which came out later the same year. But nothing in his estimable catalog hits the balance between the heady and the heartful with quite the same amount of gusto as Solid Air. 


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