Nick Drake, John Martyn and Richard Thompson. All born within a year of one another, all signed to arguably the greatest record label ever, Island Records, and all creators of the most beautiful music you’ll ever hear. These three, although, could not be more different in character.
Nick Drake: a sensitive young man born into an upper middle class family. Tall, elegant and with a speaking voice which made the Queen sound like Ray Winstone. But he was cursed. Nick Drake was born with a skin too few.
John Martyn: a man who wasn’t afraid to tell somebody where to shove it. He could look after himself and seemed to thrive on chaos. Full of grace and danger, a survivor. He spoke in an accent that was sometimes Glaswegian, sometimes middle England.
Richard Thompson: son of a policeman, born with a stutter, born with an incredible talent for songwriting. Writer of the darkest songs. Songs so dark – even Leonard Cohen and Kurt Cobain would sidestep for fear of their themes. All this from a man who, John Peel once remarked, resembles a postman.
There are two Nick Drake songs that the curious set of ears may have heard. The first is Riverman (back to that later), the second is, a track on his second record Bryter Layter, Northern Sky. Northern Sky is a love song that the NME remarked, has very few equals. “I never felt magic crazy as this. I never saw moons that knew the meaning of the sea. I never held emotion in the palm of my hand, or felt sweet breezes in the top of a tree. But now you’re here, brighten my northern sky.” Riverman, from the debut, Five Leaves Left, is 4 minutes 18 seconds being lost in a beautiful place. It is just an incredibly powerful song.
Words would not do Hazey Jane I justice – but here goes: nobody played/plays guitar that way; before or since. His ability to keep the rhythm going, while fingerpicking that complicated arrangement is mind-bending. Robert Kirby’s string arrangements are something else; conjuring up feelings akin to the euphoric comfort felt in melancholy. They echo the notes of the guitar while also going above and beyond of what is expected of a string arranger, creating wonderment.
Constantly told by friends and family, and those at Island Records, how special he was; Bryter Layter was to be his breakthrough. This optimism is in, At the Chime of a City Clock. “And at the beat of the city drum, see how your friends come in twos; or three’s or more.” This, being Nick Drake, darkness was never far away: “Stay indoors beneath the floors. Talk with neighbours only. The games you play make people say, you’re either weird or lonely”.
Nick Drake is seen as some sort of patron saint for the depressed, a pop psychologists wet dream. But that might be missing the point completely. His third and last album, Pink Moon, is a human being bleeding onto a record. It maybe the bravest album committed to tape. For a musician to lay himself that bare to the world – few would think of it, let alone do it. Not in search of a person/place, in search of a feeling, which might be one and the same.
His records never sold. Great art doesn’t always equate to great sales. As a result, he plunged into depression, which he never re-emerged from. On November 25, 1974, his mother found him dead in his bedroom. Nick Drake was twenty-six-years-old.
John Martyn was the first white act to be signed to Island Records. His debut album, London Conversation, was recorded for £158 in 1968. His music can be listened to at any time of the day because he’s a great writer – but his music takes off at night. He came into the consciousness of a new generation of music lovers for this very fact. Clubbers on the come down needed late night John, which brings us to Small Hours. Recorded at, the boss of Island Records, Chris Blackwell’s home. Near a lake, geese in the background, guitar chords violin in and echo around. It’s sublime.
“Some of us live like princes/Some of us live like queens/Most of us live just like me/We don’t know what it means …” The opening lines of One World. A commentary on 1977. Lyrics that could have been written today. They could be written in 30 years time – chances are they’d still resonate.
Unlike his friend, Nick Drake, John Martyn was born in a bulletproof shell – or so it seemed. For a man whose escapades verged on lunacy, he could create a song which would moisten the driest of eyes. Hurt In Your Heart tells of his armor being pierced. His marriage was falling about – you can feel his pain – it oozes out of the song. He doesn’t hide in his songs. He’s a human being with faults and contradictions. May You Never is his most well known song. It’s the one most likely heard on radio. A lovely song with a sweet sentiment. On the surface it seems like a classically constructed song – but the guitar playing proves otherwise.
The greatest literature is all about a person – it’s the same with the great songs. This musician had an incredible gift of turning what his heart was feeling, into song. A musician with very few equals. His music draws you into relatable situations, and illuminates and poetically heightens them. You Can Discover chronicles the darkness and light of a relationship, with its capacity to bring joy, but also inflict hurt. “Sometimes our story’s just too beautiful to tell/Like the bells on a Sunday, blues on a Monday, go together well.”
John Martyn’s music evolved and evolved. From acoustic troubadour, singing of rambling and love, to slurred vocals, the echoplex and everything in-between. But he wrote great songs straight off the bat. Back To Stay off his debut, London Conversation. Most would travel to the Crossroads and sell their soul to the devil to have written that. He was 19. His next album, a year later, contained Fly On By and Seven Black Roses. The guitar work on the latter has to be heard to be believed.
John Martyn had to have his right leg amputated below the knee after a cyst burst in 2003. He still performed live with the aid of a wheelchair until his death in 2009, at the age of 60.
Out of the three, it might be fair to say that – Richard Thompson may be the most acquired listen. You have to give to his music. What you do give – is paid back in spades. Early on, as songwriter/guitarist with Fairport Convention, his songs were blessed with the singing of Sandy Denny, arguably the greatest British female executioner of song.
Richard Thompson is quintessentially British. If a little green man popped down off his spaceship, and was handed an iPod with a shuffled playlist and a Thompson song came on, he’d say, “This guy is British.” His first solo album (the poorest selling in Warner Bros Records history), Henry The Human Fly, contains a lovely song called The Poor Ditching Boy.
The records he made with his then wife, Linda Thompson, contain songs that cement his genius. Walking On A Wire, from Shoot Out The Lights, is remarkable on many levels. A man falling out of love with his wife – writing about it: “Where’s the justice and where’s the sense, when all the pain is on my side of the fence? I’m walking on a wire, I’m walking on a wire and I’m falling.” The final minute of the song, where both sing or rather bleed the songs title, and then the guitar solo, is spine tingling.
There have been many songs written about Elvis Presley. Richard Thompson has written one. It’s called Galway To Graceland. It’s the greatest song – ever – about Elvis. The uniqueness of the song is that Elvis plays a bit-part role – but it’s the biggest bit-part role. A fanatical female fan, with questionable sanity, is the lead. A love song with a barbed ending.
Richard and Linda Thompson welcome a new child into their lives. Time for celebration? Not quite! RT writes, End Of The Rainbow. It’s not a song played at many Christenings/Baptisms. “Life seems so rosy in the cradle. But I’ll be a friend. I’ll tell you what’s in store. There’s nothing at the end of the rainbow. There’s nothing to grow up for anymore.” That verse reads more like a suicide note.
It’s difficult to put into words, the influence these three have had over not only Britain’s musical landscape, but also America’s. Thanks to his production work on albums made by Drake, Martyn and Thompson, Joe Boyd was sought out by R.E.M. to produce their third album, Fables Of The Reconstruction. The Georgian natives even set up camp in rainy London to record with Boyd. A Richard Thompson tribute album, entitled Beat The Retreat, came out in the early ‘90s. It featured more American acts than British. The John Martyn tribute album, released last year, even featured the talents of Beck.
Back in Britain. it may or may not be difficult to spot the influence these three had on the music of The Smiths – but they influenced their guitarist. Johnny Marr told me his favourite recordings: “Stormbringer for production and musicians, and One World for the same reasons but different. Pink Moon for the songs and stark realism that suits the words. What We Did On Our Holidays for the playing and songs.”
You’ll rarely see a review of the latest up and coming singer songwriter without a reference to one of the Island Records Three. A listen to their work reveals the reason.