Island Records undoubtedly did a lot of good for John Martyn but they also royally messed around with arguably his two best post-1970s albums.
First there was the delayed, eventually botched release of 1980’s Grace And Danger, then the complete rejection of The Apprentice when first delivered in 1988.
The album eventually saw the light of day on Permanent Records (owned by Martyn’s then-manager) in early 1990, after John finished it at his own expense at Glasgow’s Ca Va Studios. It immediately sold strongly and got a great review in Q magazine (alongside a memorable interview) amongst other rags.
But co-producer Brian Young reckons it could have done a lot better – the idea apparently had been to tout it around the major labels, but John’s manager decided to steer clear of the suits this time around. We’ll never know if that was wise (and sadly it’s currently on streaming platforms with completely the wrong artwork attached).
Most importantly, The Apprentice is full of memorable songs which easily offset the sometimes fairly flimsy production. He was expanding his harmonic horizons (and vocal range – this is probably his best singing on record) and there’s a strong Latin influence throughout, helped enormously by the return of Danny Cummings on all kinds of percussion.
‘Live On Love’, ‘Deny This Love’ and ‘Send Me One Line’ could have made cracking singles, the latter apparently penned for the movie ’84 Charing Cross Road’ but not used. ‘The Moment’ and ‘Patterns In The Rain’ suggest a hitherto unacknowledged influence from the Great American Songbook.
‘Look At That Girl’ is a gorgeous ballad for his daughter Mhairi, while the title track was a rare insight into Martyn’s political leanings, written from the point of view of a terminally-ill worker at the Sellafield nuclear plant. ‘Income Town’ may just be the standout, another attack on rampant capitalism featuring a meaty guitar solo.
In short, there was something for everyone. Long-term fans just had to accept that he wasn’t going to be playing the acoustic through an Echoplex anymore; but his collaboration with keyboard player Foss Patterson was hitting its peak, after promising beginnings on 1986’s Piece By Piece.
John sold out no less than eleven nights at London’s Shaw Theatre to promote The Apprentice, enlisting Dave Gilmour to guest on guitar, and then played at the Glasgow Big Day festival a few months later. 1990 turned out to be a pretty good year (reportedly followed by one of his worst, though I saw him live several times in 1991 and he was always superb) for Big John.