FORTY YEARS AGO JOHN MARTYN RELEASED GRACE AND DANGER.

Forty Years Ago John Martyn Released Grace and Danger.

In November 1977, John Martyn released what’s was undoubtably one the finest albums of his career, One World. It was an atmospheric, experimental and genre-defying album where everything from folk, jazz, reggae and rock melted together during eight tracks. When it was released, it was to overwhelming critical acclaim, and One World was hailed a classic album. This was the second classic album of John Martyn’s ten year recording career.

The first came four years earlier, in February 1973, when he released Solid Air to widespread critical acclaim. Solid Air critics realised, was without doubt, the finest album of John Martyn’s career. It was also the album that saw the Glasgow born troubadour make a commercial breakthrough. This should’ve been the start of the rise and rise of John Martyn.

For his eighth album, Sunday’s Child which was released in January 1975, he reigned in his experimental sound. However, it was a much more eclectic album with John Martyn flitting between country, folk and rock. The result was an eclectic and critically acclaimed album. However, controversy wasn’t far away for John Martyn.

In 1975 Island Records refused to release his  Live At Leeds he resorted to selling signed copies by mail from his home. After the release of Live At Leeds in 1977, John Martyn headed to Jamaica on holiday.

What started out as a holiday, ended up with him collaborating with reggae producer Lee “Scratch” Perry on what eventually became  One World. Nowadays it’s regarded as the first ever trip hop album and John Martyn is perceived as the genre’s founding father. One World a John Martyn classic and was one of the finest of his career. However,  after One World, he didn’t release an album for three years. There was a reason for this.

By the end of the seventies, John Martyn’s marriage had broken down and this led to him pressing “the self destruct button” as he described it. he became addicted to alcohol and drugs and he later said this was a very dark period in his life. Grace and Danger which was released in October 1980, was the album that came out of this period and was the start of a turbulent time for John Martyn, both personally and professionally.

Grace and Danger was an autobiographical album that described what he was going through at that time. His marriage had broken down and divorce proceedings were underway. This makes the music on Grace and Danger very personal. It’s akin to a snapshot to the pain, hurt and regret he was experiencing and this shines through on Grace and Danger.

Eight of the nine tracks that became Grace and Danger, were written by John Martyn. They describe what he was going through emotionally. The only track he didn’t pen was Johnny Too Bad, which was written by Slickers. These nine tracks were recorded by a tight, but talented band.

For Grace and Danger, John Martyn played guitars and added vocals while his friend Phil Collins played drums and sung backing vocals. Tommy Eyre played synths and keyboards and John Giblin played bass. These three musicians and producer Martin Levan were responsible for John Martyn’s soul-baring album Grace and Danger.

Once Grace and Danger was completed, John delivered the album to Chris Blackwell at island Records. When Chris Blackwell realised just how personal an album Grace and Danger was, held the album’s release back a year. Partly, this was because of his friendship with both John and Beverley Martyn. However, Chris Blackwell also felt that Grace and Danger was “too depressing and didn’t want it released.” This angered John Martyn.

When John heard what Chris Blackwell thought of Grace and Danger, he wasn’t happy. He responded to Chris Blackwell saying: “please get it out! I don’t give a damn how sad it makes you feel-it’s what I’m about: direct communication of emotion.’” Eventually, a year later, Grace and Danger was released.

By then, the relationship between John and Island Records was damaged beyond repair. Grace and Danger was released in October 1980. Contrary to Chris Blackwell’s expectations, Grace and Danger was well received by critics. They realised just how personal an album Grace and Danger was, and empathised with what John Martyn had gone through. He had just suffered the breakup of a relationship, and was hurting badly. This however, wasn’t the last relationship that broke down during this period.

After the release of Grace and Danger, John Martyn’s relationship with Island Records deteriorated after he submitted another album to the label. This was The Apprentice which Island Records rejected. However, John Martyn had the last laugh when he eventually released The Apprentice in 1990 as his comeback album. It was a return to form from one of music’s survivors. By then, it was nine years since John Martyn parted company with Island Records.

A year after the release of Grace and Danger, John Martyn left Island Records. This was the end of a fourteen year relationship with the label and during this period, he had released eight albums for Island Records. His swansong, was Grace and Danger one of his most underrated and personal albums.

Opening Grace and Danger, is Some People Are Crazy. Just a broody bass, shimmering synths and bold keyboards combine with drums and crystalline guitars. They provide the backdrop for John Martyn’s vocal. It’s more a confessional that a vocal and there’s an honesty in his vocal. Belatedly, he come the conclusion that people either loved or loathed the hell raising John Martyn of the late seventies. He sings “some people are crazy about him, some people can’t stand his face.” He’s even chased the woman he loves away. This hurts. As if in desperation, John Martyn delivers the lyric “yes this loving kind of business, might be the best find you ever had.” Whether he believes this, though, is another matter? His parting line in this confessional is“some people are crazy, some people are just like me.”

Searing guitars and the rhythm section drive the rocky arrangement to Grace and Danger along. John Martyn’s vocal has a melancholy quality as he realises what he’s lost. Against a backdrop of chiming, blistering guitars, keyboards and the rhythm section his vocal is akin to an outpouring of pain. Reflecting, he sings: “I never knew the road that carried me along.” It’s obvious he had no idea where it would lead. It lead to him losing the woman he loved. Despite his being broken, he wishes Beverley Martyn well. He’s loved, lost and wishes her “sweet grace, no danger.”

Lookin’ On has a jazz tinged arrangement. A bass plays, guitars chime and stabs of keyboards are joined by drums played tenderly. As the drama builds, a tormented John Martyn paints a picture and it’s easy to visualise him returning from a night out, and his now ex-wife who quite rightly, is less than happy. John Martyn comes “stealing in, with an innocent grin, to leave you staring, at the empty ceiling, feeling nothing, lookin’ on, I’m just lookin’ on.” At that moment, he wonders what’s gone wrong with his marriage? Previously, this type of behaviour would’ve elicited a laugh. Not any more. Things have gone to far. That’s reflected in the urgent jazz tinged arrangement. It accompanies his despairing vocal on this tale of love gone wrong.

While Johnny Too Bad wasn’t written by John Martyn it sums up the situation he finds himself in. Just like the character in the song he also has a penchant for hard living. “With your running, and shooting, looting and tooting, you’re too bad, cos one of these days, you’re going to make your woman cry,” these lyrics could’ve been written about John Martyn. It’s as if he realises this, and delivers a gravelly, vampish vocal. Again, he makes the lyrics sound like a confessional. Accompanying him are the rhythm section and guitars. One of the guitars is played through his trusty Echoplex. Then later, he dawns the role of guitar hero and unleashes washes of a blistering, crystalline solo. It’s the perfect foil for the vocal as he vamps his way through the rest of what could be an autobiographical song.

Sweet Little Mystery marks a change in direction on Grace and Danger. It’s the first of a series of ballads. Against a backdrop of twinkling keyboards, synths strings and the rhythm section John Martyn tenderly delivers a beautiful, heartfelt ballad about a relationship that’s all but over. Accopanied by backing vocals, John lays bare his soul. His vocal is full of sadness, hurt and melancholy as he sings: “it’s not the letters you just don’t write, it’s not the crying in the dead of the night.” Instead, “it’s that sweet little mystery that’s in your heart, it’s just that sweet little mystery that makes me cry.” These lyrics show just how talented a lyricist John Martyn was. He wrote about what he had experienced and this includes the breakup of his marriage. It was the inspiration for such a beautiful, poignant tale of love lost.

Deliberately, chords are played on the shimmering keyboards as Hurt In Your Heart unfolds. They’re joined by weeping guitars. They reflect the heartbreak in John Martyn’s weary vocal. It’s akin to a cathartic outpouring of hurt and regret, regret at the way he behaved, and how it caused his marriage to end. However, although his marriage is over he hopes that “when that hurt in your heart has gone, I’ll still be your friend, right to the end of our river, and further still.”

Baby, Please Come Home is another beautiful, soul baring ballad. Against a backdrop of an understated rhythm section, glistening keyboards and a sometime, scorching guitar, John Martyn delivers a needy, hopeful vocal. Full of regret, he wants to make things right, and almost begging and pleading, sings “Baby, Please Come Home.”

Save Some (For Me) sees John Martyn change direction on this  mid-tempo track with a punchy, spacious introduction. Drums and synths combine before John Martyn’s tender vocal enters. He leaves space between the lyrics and this adds to the urgency of the arrangement. Soon, he’s accompanied by backing vocals from Phil Collins and combines power, emotion and urgency. Behind him, sci-fi synths, shimmering keyboards and the rhythm section combine and  play a supporting role in another emotional roller coaster.

Our Love closes closes Grace And Danger which was John Martyn’s Island Records’ swansong. Phil Collins’ drums set the scene for the rhythm section, keyboards and John Martyn’s needy, hurt filled vocal. Memories come flooding back, back to a time when their love was young. Things were good, the future looked bright. “Our love, once was you and me against this world, made a man from a boy and made a woman from a little girl.” Not any more. Now I find I have to beg before you call my name, please call my name, please call my name, and baby take a look, take a good look, baby, baby take a look in your heart.” As he delivers these lyrics he wells up, regrets omnipresent at the hurt he caused, and the love he lost.

While Grace and Danger was well received upon its release, it wasn’t the commercial success that John Martyn classics like Solid Air or One World. This had nothing to do with the music. Partly, it was to do with the type of music that was popular in 1980. By then, John Martyn’s music was the polar opposite of the post punk, hip hop, electronica and new romantic music that filled the charts. Then there was the fact that Chris Blackwell didn’t like Grace and Danger which was John Martyn’s soul baring opus and a highly personal album .

Chris Blackwell found the music on Grace and Danger “too personal” and “depressing.” As a result, Island Records didn’t seem to cover themselves in glory when it came to promoting Grace and Danger. This was a huge mistake as  here was an album that spoke to many people. Grace and Danger was the story of many a failed relationship and marriage. For many, who had loved and lost, Grace and Danger spoke to them. It said everything that they wished they could. Forty years later, that’s and still the case.

Many suffering the heartbreak of a marriage breakup, have found solace in Grace and Danger. John Martyn speaks for, and too them on Grace and Danger. He’s been where they’ve been, and experienced the hurt, heartbreak and regret. Each song brings back a memory, often, a memory of better times. Especially Our Love, which closes Grace and Danger.

John Martyn is at his most eloquent, writing “Our love, once was you and me against this world, made a man from a boy and made a woman from a little girl.” Not any more. “Now I find I have to beg before you call my name, please call my name, please call my name, and baby take a look, take a good look, baby, baby take a look in your heart.” Not only does this prove the perfect way to close Grace and Danger, but sums up succinctly, the thin line between love and hate. That’s one of nine reasons why Grace and Danger is a forgotten classic in John Martyn’s back catalogue.

Quite simply, Grace and Danger is best described as the most personal album John Martyn ever released. It’ tells the story of one of the worst periods in his life, where the newly heartbroken John Martyn lays bare his soul for all to see and hear.

What would’ve been fascinating is if Beverley Martyn had replied to Grace and Danger. We could’ve heard her side to the story. Sadly, that never happened and despite her making a brief comeback this is unlikely to ever happen.

As a result, Grace and Danger is one of John Martyn’s most underrated albums and remains one of the most soul-baring and cathartic breakup albums ever released.

Forty Years Ago John Martyn Released Grace and Danger.

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2 Comments

  1. A great album that I only discovered for myself about three years ago after realizing that Solid Air had become one of my overall favorite albums by anyone. I didn’t realize Blackwell hesitated to release it. Some people are just crazoo.

    • Grace and Danger is a wonderful album and one of John Martyn’s finest albums. It’s such a powerful album once you’re aware of what was going on in his life around this time. It’s a very honest album and it must have been emotionally draining laying bare his soul like that.

      Nowadays I doubt a record company would hold off releasing an album for a year.
      It was a strange decision given how good and powerful an album it was.

      Solid Air is also one of my favourite albums. I remember seeing John Martyn playing the title track live when he played a small venue in Edinburgh. An incredible gig.

      There’s some good late period John Martyn albums. I like The Apprentice. If you see a copy it’s worth buying.

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