Recently, when reading a music magazine, I noticed that a John Martyn tribute album has been released, with thirty artists interpreting some of John’s best known, and best loved songs. As a long standing fan of John’s music, I had a listen to some of the tracks on the album. Straight away, I noticed that there were two tracks from one of my favorite John Martyn album’s One World. This lead me to dig out my copy of One World, and have a listen to it. Immediately, this brought memories flooding back, to about twenty years ago, when I was lucky to see John in concert at a small venue in Edinburgh. Instead of the bigger venues he played, this was much more intimate, you were really close to John and the band. That night, he played some of his best known tracks, including a couple from One World.  He was on great form that night, and at the interval, stood and chatted to everyone as he enjoyed a refreshment. Having seen many concerts, that was the first time I’d ever seen an artist so at ease with the fans. Usually, it’s quite the opposite. Twice I’ve been to concerts and the artist hasn’t even said a word, not evening good evening or good night. So this was really refreshing. Having listened to One World a couple of times, I thought that it was time I wrote an article about another of John Martyn’s classic albums. Previously, I’ve written a couple of articles about John, one about the brilliant Solid Air, the other about his underestimated album The Apprentice. In this article, I’ll reevaluate John’s classic album One World, released in November 1977, on Island Records.

One World was John’s first studio album since Sunday’s Child released in January 1975. The only other album he’d released was Live At Leeds in September 1975. After the release of Sunday’s Child, John decided to take a sabbatical from the music business. He decided to head to Jamaica, where he spent time with Lee Perry, the legendary reggae producer. Once he’d returned from Jamaica, he decided to record a new album. However, this album wouldn’t be like anything that preceded it.

Unlike previous albums, One World is a much more experimental sounding album. It draws its influences from reggae, folk, jazz and rock music. The tracks on the album are like a series of soundscapes, recorded in unorthodox ways, featuring a series of ambient noises. Whilst recording the album, John collaborated with Steve Winwood and legendary reggae artist Lee Perry. Both made vital contributions to the album. Some of the album was recorded outside, late at night, deep in the English countryside. This resulted is some of the ambient sounds on the album. Even the landscape contributed towards the sound on the album. One of the tracks, Small Hours, was recorded outside, late one night, and a nearby lake provided reverb naturally, as well as various ambient noises. 

On the album’s release, critics loved the album. Although it was critically acclaimed,  the album wasn’t a commercial success. It only reached number fifty-four in the UK album charts on its release. Since then, One World is seen as one of John’s best albums, and is regarded as a classic album. However, just how good an album is One World? 

One World opens with Dealer, a track with a full sounding introduction where Moog synth, rhythm section and guitars combine, before John sings. Straight away, when John sings, his voice is different, it has a roughness, yet is clear as he sings above the arrangement. The tempo is reasonably quick as the track drives along, the synth, drums and guitars prominent in the track. Andy Newark’s drumming and Steve Winwood on synth and bass play a big part in the track’s sound. John voice meanwhile, is full of character, as he forcefully delivers the lyrics with a touch of cynicism. A combination of John’s vocal, good lyrics and a fuller sounding arrangement that flows along full of melodies and rhythms.

The title track One World, is one of my favorite songs from the album, and one of the album’s highlights. Throughout the track, there’s a sense of sadness and melancholia present. It begins with guitar, bass, drums and flute playing before John sings the lyrics. Here, his voice is very different, it has a lovely lived in sounds, he runs the words together with that slurred style he made famous. In doing so, he almost turns his voice into another instrument. Behind him, a beautiful arrangement is unfolding. An acoustic guitar and flute play. Then and a bass is plucked slowly and thoughtfully. Later, a guitar plays, reverb transforming its sound, feedback making its present felt. This leads to layers of atmospheric music that wash over you. All of this, and John’s contemplative voice combine masterfully, to produce a beautiful track. It’s one with a spiritual sound and feel, that like all good music, has a timeless quality.

Smiling Stranger is best described as an exotic, symphonic and fulsome sounding soundscape. During the track, a multitude of traditional, exotic and modern instruments are used. This ranges from tabla, saxophone, drums and a Moog synth, which was then, a new and innovative instrument. The track opens with drums, tabla, bass and Moog synth combining to produce what is an unusual, broody, yet somewhat exotic sound. It meanders menacingly along, until John sings. When he does, his voice veers between a strained reverberating sound, to a stronger, louder and growling vocal. Together with the arrangement, they combine to produce a much different sound to the melancholic sounding One World. Later, strings sweep in, giving the track a symphonic sound and feel, in contrast to the darkness accompanying it. Towards the end of the track, a saxophone rasps, adding another dimension and sound, to an already crowded and intriguing track. Unlike the previous track, the arrangement here is much fuller, almost crowded. A multitude of sounds emerge, assailing your senses, but regardless of how hard you listen, you’ll never be privy to all the subtleties and nuances hidden within this powerful, intriguing track.

John cowrote Big Muff with Lee Perry, and when you listen to, or read the lyrics they lead you to wonder aloud what exactly they’re about. I’ve always thought they were about drugs, specifically cocaine, and trying not to take them. The man upstairs in the lyrics is God, and the man downstairs, the Devil. This song is about good and evil, and temptation, specifically, trying to resist the temptation to take drugs. Lee Perry’s influence is apparent as the track begins. A bass drenched in reverb, and drums combine to produce a dub influenced sound. Then, when John’s vocal enters, it occasionally, is drenched in reverb and echo. Here, he is giving one of his best vocals on the album. His vocal is atmospheric, full of character, and for much of the time much softer and restrained. The arrangement is really good, a combination of very few instruments. It’s jus guitar, drums, bass and percussion that feature here. Together with John’s vocal, they produce an atmospheric soundscape which masterfully mixes, reggae rock and jazz. Quite simply a great track, and one of John’s favorite tracks when he played live.

Another of my favorite tracks from One World is Couldn’t Love You More. This is a track John rerecorded several times, and the version on the Classics compilation is my favorite version. It has a really dramatic, rocky sound. This version is a lovely acoustic version, with John playing the lead on his acoustic guitar. Danny Thompson accompanies him on bass, with Steve Winwood on organ. The arrangement has a lovely understated quality, which allow John’s voice and his lyrics to take centre-stage. It’s a lovely love song, with some beautiful lyrics, and is one of the finest love songs John wrote. 

Certain Surprise is another much more laid back track. It begins with a lovely acoustic guitar solo, before John sings. As he sings, his voice is full of character, taking on that trademark slurred quality. Behind him, the rhythm section and a piano plays in the background, strings sweep in and out of the track, giving it a lush sound. Later, a trombone plays drenching the track in its beautiful sound. Like Couldn’t Love You More, Certain Surprise is another love song, one with some clever and romantic lyrics. Between a beautiful, subtle, arrangement, good lyrics and John’s atmospheric vocal, Certain Surprise is another lovely love song, full of melodies and hooks.

The introduction to Dancing starts way in the distance, and is a combination of drums, bass and guitar. Together, the manage to produce an impressive, fuller sound. When John sings, he sings about life with a musician, and what’s expected of him, the life he leads and how this affects his relationship. In the lyrics he reveals a sense of insecurity, as he’s scared his partner will have an affair with another man. As he sings, the arrangement moves along, the bass throbbing at the bottom of the mix, drums filling out the sound and John managing to make his guitar sound like a number of instruments. The arrangement is catchy, John’s vocal good, but the lyrics are the highlight of the song, as they give an insight into John’s life as a musician and his fears.

One World closes with Small Hours, one of the tracks that lead to John being christened the father of trip hop. Both Small Hours and Big Muff are tracks that influenced the trip hop pioneers. Small Hours was recorded outside, at night, and during the track, you can hear all sorts of ambient sounds, and the nearby lake acted as a natural reverb. Guitar and Moog synth open the track, with reverb transforming the guitars sound. Water can be heard, background noise too. Drums thud gently in the background, like a heartbeat. Birds can be heard, as waves of reverb laden guitars unfold, rippling like the water in the nearby lake. Occasionally, an organ makes an appearance. John sings, his voice soft and gentle, totally in keeping with the soundscape evolving. Mostly, it’s just John, his guitar and lashings of reverb. Sometimes, he’ll play a short solo, adding another dimension to a quiet beautiful epic track. Regardless of what he does, the result is exquisite. For nearly nine minutes, one of the most soothing, ambient sounding tracks unfolds around you, emerging with grace and beauty from your speakers. It’s totally different from any of the preceding tracks, but is a fantastic way to end a great album.

Before I listened to One World the other night, it had been a while since I last listened to it. As soon as I started listening to it, I remembered just how good an album it was. It may only have eight tracks on it, but they’re eight great tracks, crossing various genres. Jazz, reggae, rock, folk and ambient music are all present on One World. The sabbatical John took, certainly helped. He came back with new ideas, wanting to record a totally different type of album. With the help of Lee Perry and Steve Winwood, he certainly succeeded in producing a very different album to his previous ones. Although critically acclaimed on its release, it wasn’t a huge commercial success. Since then, the album has proved to be one of John’s most influential and innovative albums. Now, One World is recognised as a classic album.  Both One World and Solid Air are two of John’s albums that are now seen as classics. These albums are two must have albums for anyone interested in John’s music. They show John at his best, his most creative and innovative. It you’re one of the people that have never heard his music, both One World and Solid Air are albums that are well worth buying. Should you just want a compilation of his music, Classics released on Artful Records in 2000 is the one I’d recommend. Over two discs, you’ll hear some of John’s best know and best loved music.  Standout Tracks: One World, Big Muff, Couldn’t Love You More and Small Hours.


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