It all began with a copy of my friend’s DVD boxset of OGWT (The Old Grey Whistle Test) which contained some brilliant performances by such artists as Rory Gallagher, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Bill Withers, to name a few, but the one I got stuck on was a song called “May I Never” by a guy called John Martyn. I had never heard this guy before and was stunned that very few people I knew had ever heard of him either. So, always the dutiful fan, I was determined to hear more. I went out and bought the album the song was on “Solid Air” which contains other equally brilliant tracks such as “Over The Hill” and “Go Down Easy”. Also flicking through YouTube finding what I could brilliant covers of Bob Dylan and Portishead to name a few but, the track I’m showing here is the one that has stuck on me probably more than my discovery on OGWT.
The song is called “Sweet Little Mystery” and comes from his 1980 album “Grace and Danger” which pretty much documents the demise of his marriage to his wife Beverley. Chris Blackwell the boss at Island records held the release back a year as he found the album too close to the bone to release but after John Martyns insistence it got its release. In John’s own words “I was in a dreadful emotional state over that record…I was hardly in control of my own actions. The reason they finally released it was because I freaked: Please get it out! I don’t give a damn about how sad it makes you feel – it’s what I’m about: direct communication of emotion.” It’s that last part which I feel best describes why I think the live version of “Sweet Little Mystery” sums up the whole album in one track and isn’t hindered by production. In this version you get the full emotion of the track and what John was maybe going through.
In film, theatre, music or any performing medium there is an unspoken contract between the performer and audience. The performer is trying to communicate or convey what they were going through at that moment and time. This 1987 rendition is in theory Seven years on from his divorce but to listen to it you get the impression that it happened only yesterday to him. This is what I mean by the contract and what John means when he talks of “direct communication”. The song can mean anything to anybody without prior knowledge of the songs meaning in short, you don’t have to be depressed to enjoy this track, lyrics like “My friends all tell me I look so sad, they don’t need to ask me why”, are hardly un-relatable. I can enjoy this track both when I feel the need to relax, or when I feel I’ve had a rough day.
The album “Grace and Danger” was recently remastered in 2007 and includes as well as the remastered original album a second disc with other takes on the tracks including a live version of “Sweet Little Mystery” on OGWT. The personnel on the track include Phil Collins on drums and John Giblin both great musicians in their own right, and long time friends and collaborators of John Martyn. Martyn himself passed away on the 29th of January 2009 at 60 years old. He had just been awarded and OBE in the New Years Honours List.