129. JOHN & BEVERLEY MARTYN – STORMBRINGER! (1970)

Folk/ Folk-Rock, Greatest Records, Singer-Songwriter

I was three years old in 1970, so, unsurprisingly, I have little recollection of the time, although vividly etched in my memory are pictures of those Brazilian shirts from the Mexico World Cup which looked like they were about to burst into flames on our television screens. Perhaps the only other thing I remember watching on TV at the time is Mary Mungo & Midge, always at lunchtimes. But despite those tender memories, I usually think of 1970 as the bleakest of years. A more enduring image might be that of those beleaguered festival-goers trudging forlornly along the endless back roads of the Isle Of Wight, their mood darkening by the second. Most of all though I tend to think of long-haired yellow-fingered hippies rolling up on Astral Weeks album sleeves in gloomy bedsits, the curtains drawn tightly together. Perhaps that image has been perpetuated through repeated viewings of Bruce Robinson’s razor sharp study of the time Withnail & I (set in late ‘69), but there was certainly something more somber about the mood of 1970 – and the music often reflected that. The year would witness the disintegration of The Beatles, the emergence of doom-metal lords Black Sabbath, and the release of Bowie’s heaviest and most disturbing album, so that retrospectively, those twelve months feel like a solemn requiem for the optimism of the ‘60s. The Beatles’ split in April – though protracted and long expected – must in itself have procured an outpouring of national grief, soon to be compounded by Lennon hissing venomous derision upon their legacy, and upon the ‘60s as a whole.

All the same, 1970 yielded an abundance of terrific LPs, even if the mood was decidedly more despondent: Bryter Layter, After The Gold Rush, Fun House, Bitches Brew, Watertown, Loaded, The Madcap Laughs to name a few. But two of the very best albums of the year were made by Glasgow folkie John Martyn and his wife Beverley. By the end of the ‘60s Martyn’s reputation had been growing steadily, and his music evolving from traditional folk to incorporate a more distinctive jazzy experimental style. In ‘69 he got himself hitched to singer-songwriter Beverley Kutner and together the pair immediately relocated to Woodstock to begin recording the songs that would make up Stormbringer! and its follow up, the equally impressive Road To Ruin.

I’ve always found Stormbringer! a terribly sad record, riddled with an aching melancholia, a perfect mirror image of the painful comedown from the ‘60s. And while the Martyns would have yet been in the honeymoon period of their relationship, the songs struggle to communicate any marital bliss. One might have expected the first fruits of their creative partnership to be populated with odes to Eros and hymns to nature, but although the songs are richly textured, the lyrics betray their authors’ own fragility and uncertainty. A sign of things to come – there would be an intensity to their relationship which made it a tempestuous, at times even violent one, and the wheels would come off spectacularly, but grey clouds were already gathering at the beginning.

It is hard not to imagine Nick Drake being the subject of ‘Go Out And Get It’, the album’s blistering opening track. Martyn would later pen ‘Solid Air’ about his doomed friend, but the lyrics here (“I know a man, six feet tall…educated well / And he keeps his mind within a padded shell / Behind the curtain, upon the shelf / Lives a man living with himself / Behind his eyes, behind his smile / What is going on, nobody in the world can tell”) seem to tell Drake’s story equally well, and it certainly sets a solemn tone for the album. Musically however, it represents a huge leap forward, the fuller band sound bolstered by Mother of Invention Billy Mundi on the sticks with Martyn’s shrieking slide oscillating through the rhythm.

Back in Blighty, there had been tension between Martyn and Witchseason’s Joe Boyd (“he didn’t really like me, thought I was vulgar”, Martyn claimed), and Boyd sent the pair across the Atlantic where they teamed up with several seasoned players such as Levon Helm, Harvey Brooks and John Simon. It is unclear how much of the production credit should lie with Boyd or keyboard player Paul Harris. But whatever the case, the new album was a significantly different proposition from The Tumbler, Martyn’s preceding album from ‘68. The title track and the closer ‘Would You Believe’ offer the best illustration of that transformation, with newly expansive playing and exquisite embellishments, the former’s descending string sequence towards the end and the latter’s hypnotic shimmering reverb the equal of anything in Martyn’s canon, whilst pointing the way forward to his more celebrated mid-‘70s work. Despite the musical progression, ‘Stormbringer!’ (“She never looked around to see me / She never looked around at all / All I saw was shadows on the wall”) and ‘Would You Believe’ (“Would you believe me if I told you / That I didn’t want to lose you? / That’s why I had to bruise you so sadly…”) reflect the prevailing sense of unease. Under record company pressure, Martyn would soon be recording solo once again, but perhaps there was an inevitability about this development. There are some lighter moments – the pretty paean to ‘Woodstock’ for instance – but these are pushed aside by more sinister rumblings. Even the more explicitly romantic lyrics have a darker underbellly (“I’m John the Baptist and this is my friend Salome / And you can bet it’s my head she wants and not my heart only.”)

Meanwhile Beverley’s compositions possess an almost purgatorial character – elusive almost painful melodies, always on the verge of some ecstatic moment, the euphoria stifled by sone maudlin huskily delivered line or a slightly off-kilter note on the piano. On ‘Can’t Get The One I Want’ she laments “I can’t get the one I want to love / So I’m just biding my time / Drunk is drunk / The wine is just fine”. In contrast she comes over like a narcoticized Julie Driscoll on ‘Sweet Honesty’ – its seven minutes of sultry funk perhaps outstays its welcome a little; but it does feature some strong harmonica playing. Beverley’s songs are the equal of John’s throughout and one regrets their collaboration wasn’t to stretch beyond the end of the year. But that makes the music even more evocative of time and place.

The further removed we become from a particular moment in time, the more we allow our consciousness – our memories, our imagination – to bottle it like a commodity to be recalled and, once savoured, returned – untainted – to the shelf of history. The filtering of memories can be a peculiar thing, but often with hindsight we seem somehow better able to understand the past, and our own place in it. Stormbringer! – despite its almost timeless production – makes me think 1970 in a way no other record does. It’s the sort of record that is best appreciated during an intense bout of nostalgia, but that’s what makes it so special. And tonight, as I observe grey clouds gathering outside, it may just be the time to draw those curtains once again. (JJ)

Advertisements

90. MARY MARGARET O’HARA – MISS AMERICA (1988)

Greatest Records, Singer-Songwriter

  

The Agony & The Ecstasy

It is an album whose incubation is shrouded in mystery. Throughout its shifting moods and styles, one savours that voice: one moment floating upon starsailing crescendos, the next a crumbling interior avalanche, buckling breathlessly beneath a stream of consciousness deluge of jagged emotion. If the vocal performances sound raw and spontaneous, the instrumental arrangements by contrast, suggest a creative process of painstaking precision: clearly envisioned, perfectly measured.

Recorded in 1983-84, but not released until 1988, one might imagine Miss America to have drained Toronto’s Mary Margaret O’Hara both emotionally and physically. Certainly, the album had a complicated evolution. After being signed by Virgin, O’Hara was given creative carte blanche, but from the very beginning the problems mounted up. Andy Partridge of XTC had been tasked with its production, but it soon became clear that the pair could not work together. Partridge, unable to fit in with her modus operandi, reputedly lasted one day. Enter the formidable figure of Joe Boyd, producer of more classic folk roots albums than it is possible to count. Almost all of the songs you hear on the album date from the sessions he oversaw at Rockfield Studios in South Wales in 1984, but remarkably, by the time the album finally saw the light of day, Boyd was uncredited on the sleeve. He has spoken very candidly about this elsewhere (http://www.joeboyd.co.uk/rentree-letter)

Eventually, the production credits would go to Michael Brook, who had already worked with Eno, David Sylvian and the late Pakistani superstar, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, a devotional singer of such strength and singularity who could attain similarly feverish trancelike states. However, a more obvious touchstone would be Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. In their mutual search for spiritual ecstasy, the parallels between O’Hara and Morrison are obvious. Compare “the loves to love the love’s to love the love that loves…” of Morrison’s ‘Madame George’ to O’Hara’s “Joy is aim-eh, joy is the aim-eh, joy…” from ‘Year In Song’, the oldest tune here, written on the cusp of the 1980s. Or again with virtually all of the incomparable ‘Body’s In Trouble’, where an inscrutably awkward carnal tangle is enlightened by the most sublime fadeout. Just as well perhaps, as O’Hara sounds like she’s being recorded having a psychological breakdown live in the studio. Graeme Thomson wrote that Miss America contains “an aura of exorcism. She has talked about inner and outer voices and believes in unseen powers” and a mystical web weaves itself through the album’s rich tapestry.

From the aching Patsy Cline inspired C&W of ‘Dear Darling’, through the angelic (go on, listen, it is not a lazy adjective) lounge jazz of ‘Keeping You In Mind’, to the gulping funk hiccup of ‘Not Be Alright’, it is clear we are hearing something quite extraordinary.“When your heart is sick with wonder/at a long and lonely way/walk in brightness/cause its anew day”, she purrs effortlessly as if she were a hundred years old on the masterfully crafted gladsome swing of ‘Anew Day’, which must have had the likes of Nanci Griffith weeping with envy. The most perfectly executed performance of all is on ‘Help Me Lift You Up’ where that voice surreptitiously reaches acrophobic heights over a languid rhythm redolent of Tim Buckley’s godlike ‘Morning Glory’. And with only double bass for accompaniment, she closes out with the most fragile finale imaginable – virtually singing herself to sleep on ‘You Will Be Loved Again’

Morrissey adored it, prompting him to requisition her services for ‘November Spawned A Monster’, but 28 years on from its release, O’Hara remains something of a recluse, defiantly at odds with… well… with the way things ought to be. “Just because I have an idea, I don’t have to make something of it” she quipped some time later with characteristic contrariety. Frustratingly, she has barely exercised her tonsils since, contributing only sporadically to others’ music, whilst producing virtually nothing of her own: a Christmas EP in 1991 and the soundtrack to the film Apartment Hunting a decade later (although tantalisingly, one new song emerged earlier this year). And so, she remains a puzzling enigma. The songs presented to Virgin for her second album we very well may never hear. The label apparently found them too obtuse. Like those critics at the time who labelled her ditsy and kooky or those who heard only a coffee table companion, the public failed to appreciate O’Hara’s unconventional, blessed genius, or recognise a soul possessed by strange angels. (JJ)