John Martyn – Grace and Danger (1980)

This album was recorded in 1979 but initially held back by Island records. Label boss Chris Blackwell thought it was too painful, too loaded with personal emotion. I mention the year to try to give some idea of how quickly Martyn had moved to playing with a full band, embracing current fashions and largely eschewing the acoustic guitar.

Blackwell was right about the emotions. He knew full well that the music recorded for this album was Martyn’s response to a divorce that he seems to have not seen coming and which hurt him badly. Martyn confirmed this. More than a few “break up” albums are disowned as such by the artist, but in this case Martyn was completely forthcoming and open – despite his hurt.

Blackwell had known Martyn and his wife Beverley for years and had been generous in his handling of Martyn’s career – never forcing him into a more obviously commercial musical expression. Few labels were as supportive and as uncontrolling as Island in the 70s. Blackwell’s unease seems to have been genuine, but Martyn was right on insisting that the album be released as it was and in it’s entirety.

The other shock to the system when this album was released might have been how far Martyn had moved from his original primarily acoustic sound. He’d emerged from the Glasgow folk scene, but was never strictly speaking a folk artist. As with his idol Davy Graham folk and the acoustic guitar were just a departure point for further explorations. Indeed he signalled his interest in a bigger sound on some of his best loved albums – using drummers and keyboard players on record whilst he was also touring as a famous (and infamous) nominally acoustic duo with bass player Danny Thompson. Old fans were not amused when Martyn made an album with Phil Collins on drums and with very little acoustic guitar on it, and  his live shows in the early 80s were often punctuated by protests from those who thought he’d sold out. It wasn’t quite Dylan goes electric, but there was considerable confusion and frustration amongst the fans. And new fans too who embraced the updated sound.

And it is a very fine sounding record. Martyn and producer Martin Levan contrived a seductive, alluring and very contemporary sound. The shimmering keyboards that were hinted at on earlier albums are fully realised here. Martyn’s heavily processed electric guitar is often intriguing and sometimes kept back in the mix to add detail rather than be the focus, and he’s now operating as a soul singer – and a very good one. But it’s not the gruff soul style he adopted later – here he’s in a sweeter mode that recalls Otis Redding or Marvin Gaye. This record sounds really good on headphones, by the way.

If you didn’t know the story about the album, you might still conclude that something was up. The opening “Some People Are Crazy” is all about ambiguity, about being different things to different people. Given Martyn’s reputation as a Jekyll and Hyde character it seems rather self-knowing in the first verse (Some people are crazy about him / Some people can’t stand his face) before he starts looking outwards at other folks and the way they’ve made up their mind about him (Some people got a window to watch / Some people draw conclusions like curtains / Ah, don’t they draw them tight).

Emotionally the album is not so much a roller coaster as a storm. There’s a deluge of different emotions that speak of a man who is trying to make sense of a rather substantial shock to his system. He is boastful on “Save Some For Me”. On “Hurt in Your Heart” he seems to know only that his ex has some internal pains but there’s no indication that he thinks he had anything to do with it. He’s still in love on “Sweet Little Mystery”. He pleads on “Baby Please Come Home” and “Our Love”. He’s disdainfully angry on the title track.

In the swaggering fourth cut, a butt-kicking cover of an old ska hit “Johnny Too Bad” he changes the lyrics to turn the original song’s machismo upside down. Now Johnny isn’t the feared but stylish thug, but he’s “Walking down the road / With no blade in your hand“. Martyn reduces the macho swagger of his namesake before delivering lines that he added: “One of these days / You’re going to make your woman cry“.

This is a key track on the album and one of the strongest. With a band behind him on every track he largely eschews the echo effects that had been such a sonic signature of his, but here he uses them in a somewhat different way to lay down a noisy, thudding rhythm guitar part (on this track the keyboards are very low key) under a trademark slurred vocal. The effect is potent and engaging, and he tops it off with a short but very effective guitar solo that is very electric in tone and is full of toe-curling, ringing notes.

So the album is quite a ride, but also a heck of a performance too. And its luscious, seductive sound, emotional directness and Martyn’s strong vocal performance helped make it his best seller up to that time.

The guitar is downplayed on some tracks – one of the most cited grievances about his changed sound. But it’s not like he’s lost his chops, and when he does step out he’s very good. But this is the major difference: The mode in which he plays. The effects are nothing new, but here he plays almost exclusively electric guitar and he does so in a more conventional setting – laying down solos over backing from a band.

The band includes Phil Collins on drums. That Phil Collins. The guy who had just taken Genesis down a poppier, more commercially successful path and who would soon become a star name in his own right with a massively successful album that alienated many old fans and which had several songs that spoke of troubled or failed relationships. Does some of that sound familiar?

Martyn and Collins were a perhaps unexpected mutual admiration society and Collins doesn’t seek to dominate here despite the strong musical personality that was already starting to emerge. He’s a fine drummer and gives Martyn excellent musical support. I presume it was Collins who got bass player John Giblin involved. Giblin played in Collins’s side project Brand X, a funky jazz fusion band. His fretless bass is a key component of this record’s lush sound.

Grace and Danger is a key John Martyn album, and, many say, the last great John Martyn album. It marks his transition to an electric guitar playing band leader. He’d remain vital and restless and increasingly gave the impression that he was not so much a guitarist as a musician who just happened to operate a guitar, concerned with sound and the way he could use it to present his songs.  His vocals – which I feel are under regarded – also developed considerably, and he makes a key step forward here. It’s not exactly Solid Air or Bless The Weather (though perhaps it was hinted at by some tracks on those albums) but don’t be a stick in the mud – embrace it for the excellent album that it is and consider that in terms of the emotional honesty and directness Martyn said was always his real goal it may be one of his most successful albums.

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