Ian Rankin on Solid Air by John Martyn: “The voice of a whisky-soaked angel”

From the Long Players series: writers on their most cherished albums.

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My “favourite album” is not set in stone: it changes every week or maybe every month. Having said that – give me an album at a certain age and it is mine for life, as Miss Jean Brodie might have said. So I’ll settle for Solid Air.

I was not a shoo-in as a John Martyn fan. I was 17 and liked Status Quo and Alex Harvey. When punk came along I would embrace it. A school pal called John Scott played me Solid Air, and I wasn’t hooked. I could hear jazz and folk and soul. Anathema to me at the time. But John knew his music so this had to be good, didn’t it? I duly bought the vinyl and started listening. My mum almost liked it – another mark against it – but I kept listening. It grew on me. And kept growing.

Punk came and went but Solid Air was still there. I became a student, then a PhD student, then a husband. Kids arrived. I moved houses and countries. Each time, when we moved, the first album on the turntable was Solid Air. It separates good sound systems from bad. And suddenly I’m a successful novelist and I’ve been invited onto Desert Island Discs (one of the last recordings Sue Lawley did). So I’m in London. The one song I can’t live without is “Solid Air”. I’m about to say that on air. I’m having lunch with my agent beforehand. And Martyn is with some mates at a nearby bottle-strewn table. And I can’t go talk to him. My one and only chance and I blow it. Oh well. The song and the album remain the same, unchanged by circumstance and time.

What’s so special about Solid Air? Great musicianship, Martyn’s voice – that of a whisky-soaked angel – and songs that defy categorisation. There are simple-sounding toe-tappers, extended improvisations, meditations on love, sin and death. The title track is Martyn’s commemoration of his friend Nick Drake, while “May You Never” is the song most people know. And then there’s the raucous updated blues of “I’d Rather Be The Devil” – a title so good I borrowed it for my latest novel.

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This article appears in the 07 December 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special