Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.
By 1998, John Martyn had lost the teen-idol good looks and the equally angelic voice of his debut recordings. He’d been through a few bumps along the way as well, distressingly, walking proof of what happens when you don’t “just say no.” Let’s just say his appetite for a self-destructive intake was prodigious; when his website describes him as a “maverick,” often you can paraphrase that into “drunken bum.” The irony is, at the time of his demise in 2009, he was several months sober and about to embark on new work. I have difficulty when character is allowed to impact on appreciation, with individuals being disappeared on account their attitudes. After all, across the centuries of artistic endeavor, to paraphrase Ian Dury, “there ain’t half been some clever bastards,” with the emphasis on the latter word as other than a term of affection or illegitimacy. Sure, there is a line to be drawn, but, I ain’t drawing it here.
Most folk know only the early stuff, with “May You Never” the frontrunner amongst the songs known to civilians, even if only from the versions of others, like Eric Clapton or Rod Stewart. I freely confess it was only as he became more ragged and less reliable that I took to him, and to his later work. In fact, it wasn’t until the Glasgow Walker album that I plucked up enough interest to fully engage, any residual folk singer in him long since buried. Now he planted his feet very much more in a smoky jazz club dive ambience, where his superlatively slurred delivery matched the swirls of brass, often embracing elements of the then-new trip-hop movement.
It was around about this time that he put out The Church With One Bell, his only collection of covers, sourced across an enormous range of styles and influences. How often would Portishead and Billie Holiday find themselves as bedfellows? His 20th studio release, it was actually put together in 1998, so two years ahead Glasgow Walker, and was made with long term associates Spencer Cozens (keyboards), John Giblin (bass) and Arran Ahmun (percussion). Remarkably, or not, depending on your opinions as to whether the sometime murkiness of sound is deliberate or not, it took barely a week to conceive, choose and put together. And the church on the cover? Martyn’s. The deal was, apparently, that his fee was the purchase, for him, of the same church as pictured, along with its solitary bell, as he liked the look of it. Fair enough?! Whether the company recouped is left unsaid, the record only attaining a peak position of 51 on the chart of the day. Irrespective, it has remained a core favorite amongst his following and deserves a place in this ongoing series.