17 CDs recorded for Island records and a DVD featuring a concert at the Town and Country Club from 1986 are the heart of this new and rather lavish Martyn matter. There are additional curiosities, including a lengthy biographical essay, tons of photographs, and tributes from old friends like Richard Thompson, Lee `Scratch' Perry and the late Levon Helm.
It is difficult to say who the product is for, as most John Martyn fans presumably already have the key Island albums, some of which have already appeared in de-luxe editions, with alternate takes and hitherto unreleased tracks. How badly do you want the alternate takes and hitherto unreleased tracks, incidentally? They have not increased this writer’s appreciation one whit of the genius of the man who died in January 2009. As is presumably the case with most artists, what the producer decision in terms of definitive take and final track listing is usually the wisest. More to the point, you wonder too how some tracks sneak through at all. Martyn's Love Up - not on an Island recording - always seemed reasonably vile to me. Yet Taj Mahal later improved it as a cover. There's just no knowing.
It should be said too that some very fine Martyn stuff appeared on other labels, when he had parted company with Island. One thinks especially of beautiful, lasting songs like Hold on My Heart, Get Back Home, Hung Up, Heaven and Earth, Could have Told You Before I Met You, Wildflower, Under My Wing and My Creator.
Nevertheless, Island was where it all started with the London Conversation album back in 1967, thanks to label boss Chris Blackwell. God bless Blackwell for spotting a real talent, a highly original singer, guitarist and lyricist who built a veritable temple of astonishing music on the bare bones of those early, heartfelt solo recordings. (Both London Conversation and its follow-up The Tumbler feature on one CD here, which is neat.)
John Hillarby’s essay provides a vivid picture of a questing, restless spirit at work. The ebullient Scotsman had no interest in churning out the same thing, album after album. Recorded at Blackwell’s Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas, Sapphire, released in 1984, was a case in point. The album marked John's return to Island after a number of albums made for Warner Music.
Sapphire's trajectory is fascinating. Rum was four dollars a bottle in Nassau, but John got down to business, working initially with hot shot producer Wally Badarou who had produced Mick Jagger and Grace Jones. However, John questioned the the man's suitability to produce the album and Badarou left before recording had even started.
Badarou was duly replaced by Barry Reynolds who had produced Marianne Faithfull’s Broken English. More disagreement and heated exchanges ensued, until Martyn called in an old pal, the singer Robert Palmer of Addicted to Love fame.
Palmer would be duly credited with rescuing the record on the notes accompanying the album. But that was before it was mixed a total of three times - in May by Harvey Goldberg, in June by Andy Lyden, and in August by Brian Young. John was, one assumes, finally satisfied. The elaborately percussive Sapphire appeared in Autumn 1984, all subtle, sensual brilliance, and not a sign of musical sturm und drang in its Carribean shimmer. Must have been the rum.