The Island Trinity as I refer to them, have been written about numerous times by writers far more accomplished than I. This is a plea for the uninitiated to go out and explore their works. If I could recommend one album per performer they would be ‘Rumour and Sigh’ by Thompson; ‘Solid Air’ by Martyn and ‘Bryter Later’ by Drake. These will give you very different experiences but also the desire to explore more of these fantastic singer song writers.
I write pieces about modern recording artists and also retrospective album reviews. I urge people to go and check out musicians and bands. I praise the praiseworthy (see – So Much More Than Nigel). I do not write critical reviews on artists as I choose those that I love. Your taste is different to mine (although mine naturally is flawless and wonderful).
There are three singer songwriters however that if you are stupid enough to have ignored then shame on you. They were all signed in the mid to late 60’s to Island Records. All of them were astonishing guitarists with the touch of wizardry in their fingers. They could craft a simple song into the most beautiful piece of music. Two were signed as solo artists and the other as a founder member of Fairport Convention. They were inspired by principally Bob Dylan but others in the emerging folk scene of the 1960’s. Richard Thompson (the Fairport founder member), John Martyn and Nick Drake have written some of the finest music that England has ever produced. They are cited by many current artists as major influences. They are or were all very different characters. Richard Thompson came to prominence with Fairport a group out of North London signed to Island records and produced by the American producer Joe Boyd. Their first album leaned and borrowed from their influences. Their second album ‘What We Did On Our Holidays’ introduced Sandy Denny on vocals and made much more of an impact. Richard Thompson’s guitar sound and style was more at the forefront. He recorded ‘Unhalfbricking’, ‘Liege and Lief’ and ‘Full House’ before leaving to pursue solo career and other collaborations. He has recorded 20 studio albums since his debut solo in 1972 ‘Henry the Human Fly’. He is so distinctive in his guitar playing that his guest appearances on numerous other artists shine out. He recorded many of his solo works with his ex wife Linda producing some of the most memorable songs such as ‘Waltzing for Dreamers’, ‘I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, ‘Why Do You Turn Your Back?’, ‘Walking on a Wire’ and ‘Wall of Death’. I have had the privilege of seeing Richard on several occasions at the Fairport Cropredy reunions in the 1980’s especially memorable amongst them in 1983 as headline act on the Friday night. He had brought out the excellent up tempo ‘Hand Of Kindness’ album with his Big Band. It was his first album minus Linda and he returned to the production skills of Joe Boyd. He once described Thompson’s style of playing ‘He can imitate almost any style, and often does, but is instantly identifiable. In his playing you can hear the evocation of the Scottish piper’s drone and the melody of the chanter as well as echoes of Barney Kessell’s and James Burton’s guitars and Jerry Lee Lewis’s piano. But no blues clichés’. Richard Thompson is still recording fantastically original material and lives in the US. His influence on performers persists and that unmistakeable sound lingers in the notes of many an act. Around the same time Fairport were gaining prominence, a singer songwriter was also signed for Island.
Nick Drake, a young introverted guitarist and songwriter was being promoted and nurtured by Joe Boyd. His songs were wistful, thought provoking, haunting and beauty personified. Incidentally I believe him to be one of the greatest players of an acoustic guitar to have ever recorded. His style is effortless yet so technical. It is never overdone but balanced and rhythmical. He used musicians such as Richard Thompson and fellow band members from Fairport as well as the virtuoso bassist from Pentangle, Danny Thompson & John Cale (who played on ‘Northern Sky’ from the album ‘Bryter Later’). He recorded only three studio albums between 1969 and 1972. His mental health deteriorated as his recording career progressed. He suffered terribly from depression & was once described by John Martyn as the ‘most withdrawn person he’d ever met’. He had left Cambridge University 9 months before graduation to concentrate on his musical career .He had studied English and his music is very influenced by his love of the poets William Blake and WB Yeats. His albums became increasingly stark using less backing instruments or tracks. Nick Drake dropped out of music in 1973 only to try to revive his career in 1974. Sadly he committed suicide at the age of 26 on 25th November of that year. He was never a comfortable performer live and would often mutter incoherently to predominantly folk audiences that also struggled with his style of song writing.
The third artist to emerge from the same stable as Drake and Thompson was also a phenomenal guitarist that was as distinctive in style as the others.
John Martyn was signed in 1967 by Island and his first album ‘London Conversation’ was released in 1968. This had a beautiful simplicity which had echoes of Nick Drake a friend and stable mate at Island. His second album ‘The Tumbler’ followed swiftly after. This however introduced an electric element to his music and jazz leanings. In fact John’s music moved very much towards a jazz style with much experimentation with effects. His 1973 album ‘Solid Air’ is regarded as one of the seminal albums of the decade. He formed a firm partnership with Danny Thompson. The title track is an homage to Nick Drake who as mentioned was struggling with depression at that time. He was regarded as a difficult artist to work with and struggled with drinks and drugs at various stages of his career. I saw John play as Friday night headline act at Cropredy festival in 1987. It was a really hot day. John and Danny played as the sun went down. It was the most perfect performance on a perfect day. Such fantastic tracks such as ‘May You Never’ & ‘I Don’t Want to Know’ off Solid Air; ‘Dancing’ & ‘Dealer’ off the brilliant 1975 album One World had almost dreamlike quality and fitted with the setting and festival vibe. His early albums were more folky with such tracks as ‘Fairytale Lullaby’ & ‘Sandy Grey’ off London Conversation or ‘Dusty’ & ‘Sing a Song of Summer’ off The Tumbler. John sadly died in Ireland from pneumonia in 2009 aged 61.
These three guitarists who all exude such mastery of their craft, have influenced so many current performers. Richard Thompson still continues to record and play live regularly. John recorded his last studio album in 2004 but played live until 2008. Nick Drake never was able to fulfil a more extensive career but his small output of music is so highly regarded. Whether he would have had the iconic status he now enjoys within music if he had lived longer, is hard to guess. His and John’s music relied much as mirrors into their souls. Richard’s music is also very personal at times but also has much humour and social comment within it.
I have recently become aware of an English singer living in the US by the name of Alexi Murdoch. His music is haunting, the guitar work is exquisite and reminds me of John Martyn/Nick Drake. Their influence whether consciously or otherwise is evident. it is not mimicry but I feel a modern nod to the old masters. Similarly James Walbourne, a singer songwriter from Muswell Hill in north London has an uncanny sound of Richard Thompson. Indeed he performs with Kami Thompson, (daughter of Richard and Linda) as the Dead Flamingoes.