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The Apprentice – John Martyn.

Jan 19, 2023

John Martyn was in a dark place in 1989; he was regularly in dark places but this hole that circumstance had dug was deeper than most. His second spell at Island Records had crashed when the label dismissed his first attempt at the record out of hand. Believing in his music Martyn stuck his hands in his pockets, paid the cash from his own funds and set himself up in Ca Va Studios in Glasgow to recut the whole thing. Eventually after hauling it round other record companies, his manager shaped a deal with Permanent Records, the album finally saw release in March 1990.

I first got to hear it on a promo cassette and immediately knew this was class. You could argue it wasn’t the John Martyn of ‘Solid Air’ and it isn’t but it is the work of a mature songwriter who’s comfy in his environment and knows how to get the best out of each idea and source. Undoubtedly the songs here are inspired by British encounters and events, centrepieces- the big ballads- ‘The River’ and title track focus on the River Clyde in Glasgow and meeting a Sellafield worker with terminal cancer respectively, both are total successes in different ways. The first is really a hymn of regret to a life spent on the water yet unfulfilled in other ways, a case of irony/ if only. ‘The Apprentice’ is a howl of rage that a company would expect people to work in such dangerous conditions knowing they could contract life ending illness. John sings it through gritted teeth, laying the blame at the door of those in higher places, ” I tell you the boss don’t care, I know that the boss don’t care, he don’t even talk to me.”

Elsewhere there are tales of rough living ‘Income Town,’ not recorded live as the sound effects would have you believe, where you might have job but living there takes your soul. There’s a brilliant guitar break in the middle and the track soars on its wings. One of the most gentle tracks yer man ever recorded closes out, ‘Patterns In The Rain,’ a co write with keyboard genius Foster Patterson, its soft melody line mirrors the isolation and longing of staring out of a rain soaked window trying to capture a love that’s lost and hopelessly looking for shapes in the falling drops on the pane. You’ll have it on repeat play for days.

‘Send Me One Line’ is just as striking as romantic mystery ” send me one line to tell me who you are,” and ‘Look At The Girl,’ is a personal reflection on fatherhood and wondering at the passing of the years, again a fantastic lyric, ” I remember when I held in the palm of just one hand, now she tells me things I can barely understand.” If you’ve a daughter – and I have- you’ll know exactly what he means. ‘The Moment,’ is yet another corker, it begins with gurgling sound effects and keyboard sweeps before John’s burr of a voice recites a poem to the glow of deep love and contentment, ” never, never let this love go by, never hurt my heart,” he pleads, the guitar chimes and melody rolls along in fine style.

There is more but I think you’re beginning to get the idea I love this record and still hold it in high regard after thirty two years. Cherry Red’s new ‘expanded and remastered’ edition is worth the investment even if you’ve the original, there are bonus tracks including a brilliant single version of  ‘Deny This Love,’ two discs from a London concert date from the promotional tour which features none other than Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour,  also a DVD of the event, which fascinates.

Lots of articles and journals will tell you that ‘The Apprentice’ isn’t top notch John Martyn, but I’m telling you it is. John Martyn was smart enough to know you don’t make a career by repeating things, sure the acoustic guitar, slurred vocal and effects were great in the 1970s but change is a spur. Here Iain McGeachy shows just how much he’s learned, with tenacity and self belief he created a superb album. Believe that.  ‘The Apprentice’ is proof that light can shine, even in the darkest places.

Simon Jones.

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