John Martyn - Head And Heart: The Acoustic John Martyn album review

Late folk giant unplugged and kicking

John Martyn - Head And Heart: The Acoustic John Martyn album artwork

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Always acknowledged as one of the UK’s true sonic innovators, John Martyn is too often remembered as the scarily volatile drunken genius unleashing the startling echoplex excursions he started exploring when he couldn’t afford an expensive guitar. But at heart Martyn was always a modern folk singer and guitarist, blessed with an edgy intensity and distinctive voice. It elevated his music, from the opening bars of Fairy Tale Lullaby, the first track on his 1967 debut album London Conversation, and which also opens this superlative set that strives to highlight the core talent under the effects and jazz impulses.

Rather than present a selection of known album tracks, compiler Joe Black has mined various vaults for the priceless selection of demos, alternative versions, TV and radio broadcasts that join astutely picked highlights from Martyn’s first 10 years at Island Records. These start with three demos recorded at Denmark St.’s fabled Regent Sound for 1968’s The Tumbler, found gathering dust in a storage cupboard, including sizzling slide outing Goin’ Down To Memphis.

While some alternative versions have appeared on expanded reissues, there’s a stunning Bless The Weather recorded for The Old Grey Whistle Test in January 1972 and assorted BBC radio sessions, including a riveting conjoining of Beverley and Make No Mistake from an October 1973 Bob Harris show that swaps the electricity that swathed the versions on that year’s Inside Out in favour of long-time accompanist Danny Thompson’s bowed double bass.

Several delights from the Peel session archive include Spencer The Rover from 1975 and a bared soul mating of Certain Surprise and Couldn’t Love You More, stripped down from 1977’s jazzily atmospheric One World. That’s the last album represented on this set, although final track Patterns In The Rain hails from Island Records’ 1987 birthday bash, with Martyn roaring behind a piano.

With enthralling liner notes by Mick Houghton, this marvellous set is a masterclass in presenting a worthwhile alternative career retrospective.

Kris Needs

Kris Needs is a British journalist and author, known for writings on music from the 1970s onwards. Previously secretary of the Mott The Hoople fan club, he became editor of ZigZag in 1977 and has written biographies of stars including Primal Scream, Joe Strummer and Keith Richards. He's also written for MOJO, Record Collector, Classic Rock, Prog, Electronic Sound, Vive Le Rock and Shindig!