John Martyn

Head And HeartBless The Weather
Solid AirSolid Air
Ways To CryInside Out
The Man In The StationLive At Leeds
You Can DiscoverSunday's Child
Certain SurpriseOne World
Hurt In Your HeartGrace And Danger
Couldn't Love You MoreGlorious Fool
Send Me One LineThe Apprentice



Contributor: Colin Duncan

How do you select 10 songs for Toppermost from a brilliant songwriter, great emotional singer, stunning guitar player, a musician with the ability to work with other leading musicians and musical innovator – the use of his voice as a musical instrument and his use of the echoplex to mention just two innovative developments – who made over thirty albums. He was able to perform solo, in a trio or in a band, all done with apparent ease. When working solo, his presence could fill the hall either by singing a song atmospherically or by producing a wall of sound all by himself, using an echoplex and fuzzbox. I’m not a musician so I wasn’t sure what was happening, I just sat back and enjoyed both listening to him live and at home.

Other highlights in a long career were his work with great bass players, Danny Thompson, John Giblin and Alan Thomson, and his move to working with bands with Foster Patterson or Spencer Cozens on keyboards.

John Martyn began working the folk clubs of Scotland as Hamish Imlach’s apprentice and although I saw Hamish a few times I don’t think I saw John, he having moved to London by the time I was a regular at folk gigs. The last concert I saw was at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall – John being wheeled on in the dark in a wheelchair, no fuss made – a brilliant evening which will stay with me forever.

I set myself certain criteria when choosing the list; ten tracks from ten different albums, all tracks written by John although some of his covers are stunning, and I selected tracks from a couple of live albums. The above listing is in chronological order. I feel guilty about tracks which I love which I have left out. I have interchanged Hurt In Your Heart and Sweet Little Mystery several times on the list and there was no place for John and Levon Helm’s duet on the Utah Phillips song, Rock, Salt And Nails, a firm favourite of mine. And no May You Never! If you haven’t got the above albums, go out and buy a couple.

I really enjoyed reading Some People Are Crazy by John Neil Munro and enjoy reading anything by John Hillarby on John Martyn, including sleeve notes and the John Martyn website, and appreciate the work of the person who runs the Big Muff: John Martyn Pages website.

Am I in good company? Rob Brydon, Ian Rankin, Jeremy Irons, Joe Simpson, Kristin Scott Thomas and Anthony Minghella all selected John Martyn tracks for Desert Island Discs and May You Never has well over one million hits on YouTube.

Head And Heart illustrates John’s fine singing (his parents were light opera singers) and the interplay of guitar with Danny Thompson’s peerless bass playing. Solid Air is about Nick Drake, John’s sensitive, depressed friend, who used to babysit for the Martyns. Ways To Cry comes from the experimental Inside Out, John’s voice becoming a slurring, jazzy instrument and the echoplex becoming more dominant, yet it is the soulful, haunting Ways To Cry I have selected.

Angeline and The Man In The Station are from live albums. Live At Leeds was self produced by John and sold from his home. It took me a long time to hear this album. You Can Discover is a wonderful song with a distorted guitar sound interweaving around the melody. The brilliant Certain Surprise has a trombone solo by Rico, but this has meant I have left out John, Danny Thompson and Steve Winwood playing Couldn’t Love You More. But I couldn’t leave out that outstanding fans-favourite track so I have selected it from the Glorious Fool album, a version which features Eric Clapton.

Last selected track, Send Me One Line, is an intelligent, brilliantly played song about the correspondence between a customer in New York and an owner of an antiquarian bookshop in Charing Cross Road, London.

I love these songs, but perhaps I have been unfair to the later albums, which I cherish and play regularly. I miss not being able to go and see John live – the last concerts were great. If you don’t know, or you’re just discovering, John Martyn, a good start would be the album, Solid Air.

The Official John Martyn Website

Big Muff – The John Martyn Pages

John Martyn biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #60


  1. Peter Viney
    Sep 3, 2013

    Listening to John & Beverley Martyn’s “Stormbringer.” today (1970) Yet another one I was inspired to buy by Island’s “Bumpers” compilation. That featured Go Out & Get It, and all the publicity said Levon Helm played on the album, and the drumming was incredible … but it’s actually Billy Mundi (ex-Mothers) on that track. Levon played on Sweet Honesty and John The Baptist. John Martyn started right at the top … Joe Boyd production, John Martyn on guitar, Harvey Brooks on bass, Levon Helm or Billy Mundi on drums, Paul Harris on piano, John Simon on harpsichord. All recorded in Woodstock. Sweet Honesty is my favourite track with that exceptional rhythm section, but it’s composed and sung by Beverley Martyn.
    The short, solo “Woodstock” which is NOT the Joni Mitchell song is almost Incredible String Band in style. The John & Beverley combination reminds of Richard and Linda Thompson, but John at that point had a sweeter, less-affected singing voice than RT. For Beverley Martyn check out the first ever record on the Deram label, Happy New Year by “Beverley”, three years before they married. Written by Randy Newman, backed by Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, Nicky Hopkins and Andy White.
    Only two albums? Stormbringer and The Road To Ruin. Are John & Beverley Martyn worth a separate Toppermost?

  2. Hans van den Berk
    Sep 3, 2013

    Nice write-up and courageous attempt 😮 I approached the question from the opposite direction for obvious reasons on The John Martyn Pages

    There are also incredible live versions of songs that make matters of choice even more complicated. Bless The Weather from the Rockpalast concert; Big Muff from the Live From London DVD; Cooltide and Don’t Want To Know/ My Creator from the 2004 Mark Radcliffe radio show; Rather Be The Devil from the French Chorus concert (January 1979). Etcetera. Etcetera.

    I think you get the picture.

  3. Colin Duncan
    Sep 4, 2013

    Ten best recordings of John and Beverley Martyn songs might be worth considering, Peter. Beverley played the Edinburgh Festival this year, but I was away on holiday at the time. As you say, her recording career began first and she also introduced John to new music, but she stayed home and looked after the family, while John played solo gigs and Island focused on his career. John would have made it to the top whatever his circumstances – being such an outstanding musician. John certainly did not like Joe Boyd.
    (I’ll take a Top 6 J&BM for toppermost if you like. Ed.)

  4. Colin Duncan
    Sep 4, 2013

    Thanks for the reply, Hans. I appreciate all you do on the Big Muff website and really enjoy reading it. If toppermost visitors are interested in developing knowledge of John Martyn, then Big Muff: The John Martyn pages website is a must (see link above). How do you choose 10 songs from a musical icon who had a near fifty year career? Perhaps I have not illustrated John’s use of the echoplex enough?

    • Hans van den Berk
      Sep 8, 2013

      Colin, it all depends. One can focus on the quality of the song, or on the singing, or the guitar playing, or the use of echoplex, or the live rendition. The man was absolutely unique and will remain so, I’m afraid.

  5. Colin Duncan
    Sep 9, 2013

    You are correct, Hans. You could use all five criteria to produce five lists – fifty songs. Unique is a great adjective to describe John. There’s a slight frustration in me that he should have been even more valued and famous. However many of us did understand his uniqueness – there were very good turnouts at the last three concerts I saw at Ayr and Glasgow Concert Hall twice. Also, part of the uniqueness was not to conform to the wishes of the record companies. Always changing, always challenging, always fresh. Thanks for keeping his name alive.

  6. Keith Shackleton
    Nov 1, 2013

    Great songs and a great list. One I would find impossible to miss out is Small Hours from One World, with the ambient outdoors, the ticking drum machine, the weird low frequencies, the geese, the lake … and the man, of course. Amazing.

  7. Andrew Shields
    Jan 22, 2014

    Great list, but, to my mind, songs like ‘May You Never’, ‘Sweet Little Mystery’ and ‘Spencer the Rover’ (know it is a cover but it is a definitive one and is one of Martyn’s greatest performances) belong in any top ten list…

  8. Colin Duncan
    Jan 24, 2014

    I can’t disagree with you, Andrew. Three tremendous songs. I left out ‘May You Never’ and ‘Spencer The Rover’ because I set criteria of only one song from an album and that the songs had to be written by John Martyn. But ‘Spencer The Rover’ is really great. Thanks for comment.

  9. Peter Viney
    May 8, 2014

    Just bought Beverley Martyn’s new one, “The Phoenix & The Turtle” – her record label is called Les Cousins, which British folkies will recognize. Great! Trust me and get it. We should have a Beverley / John & Beverley Toppermost.

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