A teenage greenhorn lays the foundation of Island’s folk-rock village. By Jim Irvin.
Debut albums can be a mixed blessing, perhaps a tentative wave hello, a flood of suppressed creative outpourings, or a clearing house for childish guff. They’re most fascinating when they wrong-foot posterity. Who could have extrapolated Radiohead’s In Rainbows from Pablo Honey or Tom Waits’ Mule Variations from Closing Time? Solidly in that subset lies John Martyn’s London Conversation, now back on vinyl (Universal ***). ILP 952, issued in October 1967, was the first release on the new pink Island label, marking the company’s shift from its reggae origins. It’s a jejeune thing – cut, so they say, in a couple of evenings for £158 – that bears almost no resemblance to his mature work, not in the sound or swing of the playing, the tone of his voice or the acuity of the writing. And the whiff of childish guff is strong on opening song Fairy Tale Lullaby where Martyn assures his listener he will “take you where the goblins are all good.” Utilising just his voice – Scottish accent discernible, prime tone still being sought, folksy inflections being leant on – and solo acoustic finger-style guitar, (apart from Rolling Home where he plunks a sitar and blows a recorder), London Conversation’s tiny budget is audible, though probably essential for the nascent label.
The 19-year-old Martyn had only been playing and writing for a few months. His style feels similar to contemporaries such as Bert Jansch, though he credited his main influences as: “Les Brown, who is completely unknown and has never recorded…he plays a kind of American Doc Watson guitar. Lovely voice. Also a friend of mine called Paul Wheeler who featured on the second album.”
This modest, dated but still engaging record seems more significant in hindsight than its negligible impact at the time would suggest. It lit the way for Island’s future singer-songwriter endeavours – you can sense Nick Drake and Cat Stevens warming up in the background, though their debuts for the label are years in the future – and the coming of folk-rock. Talking of which, also returning on vinyl this month, Fairport Convention’s rural-electric keystone, Liege & Lief (****), a record I’ve always thought rather over-regarded when compared to its brave, if less tightly focused, predecessor Unhalfbricking. Also out again: Sandy Denny’s subsequent, flawed, but occasionally breathtaking solo debut, The North Star Grassman And The Ravens (***), overseen by Fairport colleague Richard Thompson and Richard and Linda Thompson’s bow as a couple, I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight (****), a terrifically assured work that’s surely in the ‘flood of creative outpouring’ category of debuts. By the time that arrived, in 1974, Martyn had already sailed into outer space.
29 July 2014