John Martyn – The Apprentice : Album Review

Expanded version of the end of Island’s love affair with Martyn, studio, live and with added Dave Gilmour.

Release date: 9th December 2022

Label: Esoteric (Cherry Red)

Format: CD

I was always told to treat John Martyn’s middle years with caution, die-hard aficionados warning me his 80’s were difficult, and he was no longer a tousle-haired crooner with an echoplex to die for. I supposed, having, as did everyone in those days, a copy of Solid Air, it being a compulsory purchase, that information to be in my self-interest, and took it in good faith. The fact that he had become also earlier tainted by the spectre of Phil Collins also seemed to add to the prejudice, again, not quite understanding how the perfectly decent Genesis drummer, who also had a part in revitalising the career of another of his old chums, Eric Clapton, should take the blame, but it was what it was, and we did as the inkies said, back then. I then grew older and returned to the singer, bemused, bedevilled and blooming uplifted by his new image, a growly purveyor of a jazzy trip-hop mash I found delightful, the Glasgow Walker years, remaining more or less on board until his untimely death. So I missed out on the Apprentice.

As nearly did we all, with Island trashing the tapes made first for them, in 1988, ceremonially dumping him, no less, a second time, to underline the point. Bruised by this experience, Martyn took himself off to Glasgow’s CaVa studios and redid the whole set, at his own expense, then releasing them on his manager’s own Permanent Records (as PERM CD1) a couple of years later, to a better reception than perhaps Island would have liked. This expanded set includes the original release, buffed up with a new remastering, inclusive also of a rare single from the same sessions. This initail disc includes a live version of the title track, with a further two CDs of live performances, culled from his run at the Shaw Theatre, in the Spring of 1991, together with a DVD version of the same, in an edited form.

The first thing to comment upon, as I popped in the first disc to play, is quite the reasoning behind Island’s rejection. It seems they had high hopes for cross-over, seeking to manufacture a worldwide star from this never more idiosyncratic performer. (Chris Rea being their template!) Given stardom usually necessitates conformity and standardisation, I can certainly see how that may have sat with Martyn. Now I haven’t, maybe I should, listened to the Island tapes, given they are available via the 2013 UA release of The Island Years, but these songs, as presented here, seem astonishingly commercial. That is, in the 1980s sense of the word, full of the tropes of the era, gated drums, shimmery synthesisers and lots of echo, and, of all people, the sound feels most akin to Stevie Winwood’s work of a similar vintage, when perhaps Island were seeking a star of him, then duly delivered.

Live On Love starts with coconut drums and chunky stabs of synth, Martyn’s voice strong enough to cut through the gloss, the typical drawl just about present and correct. To my ears, attuned to Martyn early and late, it is initially a shock, but he carries it off convincingly. I guess it helps I am that oddity,in that I love the production room hyperbole of the era. It sounds a smash to me, even if it clearly wasn’t. The River follows, introducing the sax of Colin Tully, over some bass lines that could almost be Scritti Politti. The voice is now a little more representative of the singer, and it is a good song. Tully seems, dare I say it, a little underused, but the meandering tributaries of the tune, as it closes, allows some hint of the diversions available. But, so far, so good, if unrepresentative of expectation. Look At That Girl is the first to nail the blurred smudge of style that I associate with him, and, with Andy Sheppard now on sax, he gets a much better chance to show his chops, echoing emphatically in the breeze. Hard to believe this current veteran of the UK jazz firmament was then but a fresh-faced teen. Houston, we’re on safe ground.

Income Town opens to the sound of applause, and an almost Lionel Richie opening. Almost, Martyn swiftly extinguishing such treason, even if I can’t quite lose the sight of Martyn, doing a shimmy in a gold lam√© suit, especially as the cheesy is it guitar or is it synth solo unfolds. If it were by anyone else it would possible be dire, but one forgives. (Incidentally, the track isn’t live, the applause and the venue both added, Toronto’s Green Banana club a recurring Martyn affectation.) Send Me One Line is a ballad that then really does evoke the Collins’ boogie man, and now has me imagining rolled up jacket sleeves. It also carries a hint, lyrically, of John Cale’s I Keep A Close Watch. And, should anyone accuse me of being snide, I come here to praise; who, hand on heart, does not have No Jacket Required on their shelves? This should, in my parallel universe, have been a top 10 smoochy single. Deny This Love should not, the one track I was earlier aware of. Almost universally reviled, perhaps for the ghastly acapella opening, it isn’t so bad, as it gets going, but is the sort of song folk like me get embarrassed to be caught listening to. (I know, says more etc. etc).A good Hall and Oates sax solo, Sheppard, seems to suggest where it could be filed, Hall and Oates having lost my love as they necessitated the same trick to lift their material.

Hold Me could come straight from Solid Air, at least in basic construction, a typically musing song of what if, and it fascinating to see what has been done to it. Perhaps the only song with much overt evidence thereof, Martyn gets to play some wonderfully apt guitar in the middle eight, the style inescapably his. Upo is an upbeat bit of bossa nova that I should probably loathe, but, you know, it sort of works, and so it’s a yes from me, the sax, from Tully, a delight. Just don’t say Lionel Richie again.

At last, some stand up bass! The title track is almost a throwback here, or, possibly as well, a portent for future directions, feeling a little out of place with all the hypergroomed songs either side it. OK, enough studio trickery gets shoe hormed in along the way, but it is an immediate standout. As is The Moment, excluded from the earliest releases for reasons of space, a yearning ballad that shouts, again, hit to my addled ears. More lovely guitar, the bass still double, and the keyboards less OTT than arguably elsewhere. I am now fully picturing an alternate whole trajectory for Martyn, gold discs and universal acclaim. What possibly could have gone wrong? Patterns In The Rain, written by keyboards man, Foss Paterson, which, depending on your mood, can be either delightfully maudlin or needlessly mawkish. Let’s go with the former. With the single remix of Deny This Love, losing the hideous intro, and a live The Apprentice, this largely engaging album closes. Those naysayers of my yore were wrong, I feel, and this is certainly a worthwhile listen. Up with his best? Well, maybe not, but still worth the investigation and the what if.

The two live discs offer a somewhat different mirror to this material, together with a lot of older favourites, his band a mix of the new, to him, at least then, and the old, the ever-reliable Alan Thomson on fretless bass. Starting with solo acoustic play, Martyn is on top form on this last day in March 1991, rattling through Easy Blues and an incandescent May You Never. This could be my favourite version. Martyn is sparkling, babbling his usual nonsense between songs. The Dealer than introduces some echoplex, the percussionist, Miles Bould, on fire, seguing into Outside In, which allows the entry of Dave Lewis on sax and Spencer Cozens on keys, later to become stalwarts until the end of his life. And so it goes, a veritable greatest hits, nothing from the Apprentice until the eighth song. And when it comes, Deny This Love is transformed, a seismic rendition that manages to merge old Martyn and that 80s polish, losing a few coats of varnish along the way. Suddenly it’s a cracker, much down to Thomson’s bubbling bass and Lewis’s effervescent parping. OK, Johnny boy cracks a neat bit of guitar, too.

Fisherman’s Dream and Big Muff bring us back down to earth, the former proving Martyn has one of the voices, a unique instrument to rival another great icon of these islands, a certain Mr Morrison, who was then tackling similar material. That mood is again exuded by Angeline and again by a gorgeous Sweet Little Mystery. A trio of songs from the Apprentice follow, The River, Income Town and the title track. If also benefitting from the more sympathetic setting, it also shows the relative weakness of the material, with The River, ironically, actually sounding like Chris Rea! Income Town is triter than even the original, leaving only The Apprentice to lift the memory of the album, jaded by the comparisons, and it is a corker.

There’s some freak on stage“, exclaims Martyn, cueing some free-form noodling and the presence of Gilmour. (I think he was still Dave in 1991, wasn’t he?) Playing for five songs, the first is the oddity John Wayne, with a prolonged intro, perhaps for all to find their places. Middle eastern weirdness aplenty, with little flourishes of guitar. I guess you had to be there.But eventually, it ends, and the version of Look At The Girl, dedicated here, as was the song, to his Mhairi, present in the audience, is a wonderful version. Gilmour throws out some of his trademark prolonged peals, and it is lovely. Looking On might have been another beneficiary of the extended line-up, but also loses itself a little. A funky Johnny Too Bad takes us to the close, before the final flourish, as encore, of One World, Gilmour still present and purposeful. I have often wondered what would be the best introduction to John Martyn might be. And, do you know, it might just be these two live discs, or the abridged version, on the DVD. Writing this on Black Friday, with Christmas coming and all that?

Here is that live Look At The Girl:

Praise again, finally, for Cherry Red, in their loving dedication to unearthing and collating material such as this, the presentation as integral as the content. The essay, by John Hillarby, is certainly well worth a read. Long may they exhume!

John Martyn’s website.

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