About twenty years ago I asked a few of my friends to compile a cassette which they could call “The Best Songs Ever”. They made for very interesting listening and it was nice to get feedback about my own choices. My favourite feedback was when Paddy wrote about the lovely guitar introduction to a song he didn’t recognise until the vocals kicked in at which point he wrote “Fucking hell it’s Dire Straits – Fast Forward!” To this day, whenever I hear a Dire Straits song, that phrase springs to mind. On the other hand I will defend “Romeo and Juliette” as a lovely song (although it wouldn’t make my current Best Songs Ever). I suppose I regarded Dire Straits as a guilty pleasure.
A guilty pleasure is defined as something, such as a film, television programme, or piece of music, that one enjoys despite feeling that it is not generally held in high regard. I have a Spotify playlist called Guilty pleasures and it includes “Minuetto Allegretto” by The Wombles, “Love Me For A Reason” by The Osmonds, “Kung-Fu Fighting” by Karl Douglas and “In The Air Tonight” by Phil Collins.
In 1997, Phil Collins said he would leave the country if Labour got elected. Whether he did this as a threat or an incentive isn’t clear. Maybe he wanted Labour to win and he thought that lots of music lovers would be more inclined to vote for Tony Blair if he promised to leave the country. I never really liked Phil Collins’ solo work and I hated “You Can’t Hurry Love” but for some reason, I love “In The Air Tonight”. Actually, I think I know the reason why – it’s the way his drums are recorded. There was an advert for Cadbury’s chocolate a few years ago which demonstrated the impact the introduction of his drumming had on that song.
Phil Collins’ drumming is used extensively on “Grace And Danger” by John Martyn. When John Martyn died in 2010, Phil Collins paid this tribute: “John’s passing is terribly, terribly sad. I had worked with and known him since the late 1970s and he was a great friend. He was uncompromising, which made him infuriating to some people, but he was unique and we’ll never see the likes of him again. I loved him dearly and will miss him very much.”
In the Seventies, I saw many gigs by John Martyn and they were astonishing. The virtuosity that he showed on his guitar was only ever matched by Richard Thompson. Danny Thompson, formerly of Pentangle, often played upright bass with John Martyn. Between songs, they would swear at each other, jokingly but aggressively. Once their ninety seconds of banter was finished they would launch into the most beautiful soothing music you could possibly wish to hear.
John Martyn cited this album as his personal favourite. “Probably the most specific piece of autobiography I’ve written. Some people keep diaries, I make records.” “Grace And Danger” was written in the aftermath of the breakdown of his marriage with Beverley Martyn. She is quoted as saying “Over the years, I received a broken nose, a fractured inner ear and hairline fractures of the skull. One night, he smashed a chair over me and my arm was damaged when I put it up to protect my head from the force of the blow. He wouldn’t let me even call a doctor, let alone go to the hospital.” John Martyn’s manager once explained that it was the two broken ribs that he had suffered as the reason why he wouldn’t work with John Martyn any more.
A significant question is this: should we still continue to listen to music by artists who were abusive to women. Suzanne Moore wrote an article about this in The Guardian in 2018. Ironically, it is titled “Guilty Pleasures – For Women, That’s Most Of Our Culture”.
I’m going to plough on and write about this terrific album. Whether that makes me a bad person, I’m not sure.
“Some People Are Crazy” is the opening song on side one and sets the tone for the sound that permeates every one of the nine songs on the album. John Giblin’s bass guitar is very much to the fore. He has played with literally everyone – well, not literally but he’s played with Eric Clapton, Sting, Mark Knopfler, Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel, David Sylvian, Chris de Burgh, Kate Bush, Joan Armatrading, Annie Lennox, John Lennon, Roberta Flack, Paul McCartney, The Everley Brothers, Gerry Rafferty and Simple Minds. So pretty much everyone. Tommy Eyre makes a brilliant sound with a synthesiser. He has played with Alex Harvey, Greg Lake, Gary Moore and Wham! Two examples of session musicians who may not be able to write their own material but who are completely brilliant musicians. Anyway, it’s a lovely gentle opening song.
“Grace And Danger” is next and is more up-tempo featuring some outstanding guitar work from John Martyn. This is a very slight diversion from the gentle sound of most of the rest of the album.
“Looking On” starts with bass and keyboards creating a slightly menacing mood which is accentuated by a falsetto-voiced John Martyn singing a bitter song about the unhappiness caused by a lost love. “What kind of love would try behind a silent cry to come stealing in, with an innocent grin to leave you staring at the empty ceiling, feeling nothing” The keyboards and drums (Phil Collins) make a more jazz based sound here.
“Johnny Too Bad” is more funky with a heavily treated guitar setting up a riff over which John Martyn sings a song about “Johnny Too Bad”. This could be a confessional song, describing how “Johnny” is walking down a road with a switchblade in his hand threatening that “one of these days you’re going to make your woman cry.” Mmmm. Doesn’t sound good does it? Actually it’s a brilliant heavy song but anyone reading this, not knowing anything about the beauty of John Martyn’s music, would be appalled, I’m sure.
If anything, side two is even better than side one. “Sweet Little Mystery” is one of his better known songs. It’s got a lovely melody, John Martyn sings it beautifully, the keyboards are delightful and the drumming offers great punctuation. He has lost his love and is yearning for her mystery – the mystery in her heart. He is suffering; crying in the dead of night, waiting for her to send him letters, thinking of her with someone else. It’s a very pretty song, borne of heartache.
My favourite song on the album is “Hurt In Your Heart”. It starts with a swirling keyboard and John Martyn begging for his ex lover to give him a call when the hurt in her heart has gone. There’s some very sympathetic, understated bass in the first verse which becomes more pronounced in the second verse. It’s a bass line that evokes deep sadness. A lovely electric guitar solo and some more pretty tinkling piano lead into the next verse where suddenly, Phil Collins drums come crashing in to add drama to the sound. By now, the sadness is overwhelming and devastating. The last verse is quieter and the song comes to an awe-inspiring end that always leaves me feeling wrung out. It’s incredible.
The sound of the last song continues with “Baby Please Come Home”. Although not quite as dramatic as the last song, the feelings are the same. He is so upset that “I’ll try to put the things we’ve done back where they belong and that’s in the past. I need our love to last.” Those of us that love John Martyn’s music feel very sorry for him. Those of us who know that Beverley Martin suffered terrible physical abuse from him thinks he’s getting all he deserved. Those of us that know both of the above are confused.
“Save Some (For Me)” is more jaunty and has a jazz tinged feel to it. Not my favourite song.
“Our Love” is the last song on the record and it’s more heartache. He is recalling how their love was “sweeter than the April rain” but now he has to beg to get her “to even say my name”. The vocals are more urgent and desperate on this song as his voice cracks with emotion. Again, the bass playing is phenomenal, the keyboards are sensational and even the back-up vocals by Phil Collins are excellent.
More Scottish music today but quite a confusing story here. Beautiful music made by a very troubled man.
4 thoughts on “Grace And Danger by John Martyn”
Lovely. Motown for folkies?
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Listening to John Martyn reminds me of the image on the old Tate & Lyle Golden Syrup tin: a dead lion surrounded by a swarm of bees. Underneath, there’s a quote from the Bible where in the Book of Judges, Chapter 14, Verse 14, the strong man Samson was said to have killed a lion and then returned to the scene to find that some bees had formed a comb of honey within the creature’s rotting corpse. The sight of this resulted in Samson’s comment: “…out of the strong came forth sweetness”. Though maybe in John Martyn’s case it should read “… out of the cruel and abusive came forth sweetness.’ Nothing excuses the way he behaved in his private life, but like a lot of similarly flawed artists, it’s hard to resist the beauty and brilliance of a lot of his work.
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Listening to JM for years and years and years but this track carries all of him, for me. Great choice WS. Thanks for that memory!