Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
You getting a bit weary with the news this year? Getting all a bit dark, isn’t it? If evil is too strong a word for this virus, good it certainly ain’t, with some of the actions of our leaders sometimes also bordering on, let’s say, willful. So it is to John Martyn I turn, with his plea for a little more uplift, a little more enlightenment. A little more love.
John Martyn was a mercurial man, a mass of paradigms. He had the voice and look of an angel at the start of his career, and the recreational habits of the devil. Those lifestyle choices visibly destroyed his body, as over the years he became the embodiment of Dorian Gray’s attic artwork. Yet the voice remained–sure, a tad more blurred around the edges–with the songwriting seeming not to suffer at all. Sounding as though he was never sure if he was a home counties poet or a Glaswegian hardman, Martyn’s onstage persona and accent slipped randomly from the one to the other, belches and sonnets taking turn for attention. Said not to be the nicest of men, not least when afire with alcohol, he left a trajectory of broken relationships and broken faces behind him. His bad habits ultimately killed this 20-stone diabetic amputee, although, with no small irony, his death came at a time where he had finally taken to sobriety. This was no challenge in itself, when journalists, seeking a good story, would sneak him in bottles of hooch, directly against the wishes of his final partner.
Not to be confused with the similarly entitled songs by Fleetwood Mac or Maroon 5, Martyn’s own version of the song “Don’t Want to Know” comes from possibly his best known album, 1973’s Solid Air. It benefits from the warm production of Island records house producer John Wood. With Martyn’s voice and guitar to the fore, it has delightful Ray Manzarek-like shimmers of keyboards, courtesy John “Rabbit” Bundrick; underpinning the whole is the Fairport Convention rhythm section of the Daves Mattacks and Pegg, with room also for Danny Thompson on stand-up bass. From a delicate start, the song builds into a celebratory mantra, choral vocals and handclaps giving a pentecostal feel. (Don’t make the mistake of seeking out the version of 2000’s Classics, wherein he revisited his back-catalog with an ill-befitting glossy studio sheen. But you might chance on a terrific 1995 rendition, again alongside old mucker Danny Thompson, for the Transatlantic Sessions.)
Whilst the title track and the hugely covered “May You Never” have possibly overshadowed the song somewhat, over the years it has become recognized as one of Martyn’s finest. As these covers show, the range and breadth of the artistic reinterpretations show that the combination of the lyrical aspiration and the Celtic keen of the melody can cross any genre.
Dr. John – I Don’t Wanna Know (John Martyn cover)
Case in point: New Orleans legend Dr. John got surprisingly down key with his cover of “I Don’t Wanna Know,” yet left in enough trademark syncopation to amplify the soul aspects, stretching the Martyn slur to breaking point (though not as far as Martyn himself took it in later years). Memorably featured in the TV series True Blood, it was originally part of 1988’s Anutha Zone, an odd place in the Mac Rebbenack canon, transplanting his gris-gris to the UK of Britrock, engaging with the young turks of the moment. Thus, much of the backing is provided by Jason Pierce’s band Spiritualized. And yes, that is Paul Weller on guitar and backing vocals. Weller, of course, had just provided a cover of Rebennack’s “I Walk on Gilded Splinters.”
Muki feat. Sophie Barker- I Don’t Want to Know (John Martyn cover)
A bit of a slow burner this, starting as a very sweetly sung acoustic version, good if not earth-shattering. However, stick with it. After a couple of verses, in kicks some classy backing: electric piano, drums and, a few bars later, some sublime bass. All very “chill,” and it seemingly appears on a number of compilations, usually with “Cafe” in their name. Muki are/were an acid-jazz duo who hooked up with other musicians as needed. Here the singer is Sia associate, Sophie Barker.
Ruthie Foster – I Don’t Want to Know (John Martyn cover)
Ruthie Foster has been described as the link between Aretha Franklin and Bonnie Raitt. Impossible shoes to fill, but the yeasayers have a point. A consummate blues guitarist with a fine gospel voice, Foster has been playing her blend of both for over twenty years. In the paradoxical world where female blues guitarist are largely white (Raitt, Susan Tedeschi, Sue Foley, etc.), Foster, as a woman of color, has earned a place alongside them, and has won a roster of blues awards, including a sevenfold Koko Taylor female blues artist of the year. This cover of “I Don’t Want to Know” comes from her 2012 release Let It Burn, and is impressively sturdy in the instrumental chops that gild her vocals like a silken glove.
Spill – Don’t Wanna Know ‘Bout Evil (John Martyn cover)
Should you recognize the vocal timbre, this is indeed Beth Orton, who continues to include “Don’t Want to Know” frequently within her live repertoire. But this is back from before any success, when, as part of a largely unsung duo with William Orbit, they together virtually invented the concept of folktronica. Superpinkymandy, their sole output, came out in 1992, and if both choose to play it down, so be it. Having said, if push comes to shove, I confess it is this remix I prefer.
Karine Polwart – Don’t Want to Know (John Martyn cover)
What is it about female voices seeming to serve Martyn’s material better? Whatever, this, the highlight from Scottish folk doyenne Karine Polwart’s album of Scottish songs, Scottish Songbook, offers a hypnotic groove, building slowly, encompassing every facet of the original design, yet with knowledge both of genres unimagined in Martyn’s lifetime, indelibly stamped with the folk word he himself wanted to irrevocably eschew.