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Date: June 2003
The Great American Novel
Review by Steve Tomkins
Rock music and charity have a long and close relationship - ironically for a culture that has turned hedonism and excess into art forms. Live Aid was the JFK 'where were you when...' event for my generation.
When George Harrison set the ball rolling in 1972 with the Concert for Bangladesh, Rolling Stone announced that rock was 'reaching for its manhood', which might have been better phrased, but we know what they meant.
Since then the good will has kept coming, from the super-rich saving the rainforest to student bands supporting striking miners. Even I've done a gig for Christian Aid, which I suspect fell short of JFK status for many of the audience.
What makes rockers so charitable? Are they atoning for all the sex and drugs and hotel rooms? Working off the guilt of being under worked and over-rich? Or do they simply see the power they have and want to use it to help people?
Martyn, I guess, comes somewhere between the super-rich and student levels, without a trail of hotel rooms and groupies on his conscience. He has an impressive record both of charity CDs and of tours in support of Christian Aid. This latest is an EP reflecting on the war in Iraq, the money going to War Child, an organisation beloved by musicians, working with - as the name suggests - children affected by war.
As Martyn says: "There will be a number of releases right now with all this in mind, to raise funds etc., and thank God too. They will have the ability to impact more people than myself. But it is the rich tradition of the music I walk within to tell the story and to say when the 'king has no clothes on'."
The Great American Novel is a collection of 5 songs, looking at different angles of the recent war. None are new compositions, though they are new recordings. The title track is a Larry Norman song from 1975 that Martyn has been singing live for many years, questioning American values.
'The Good in Me is Dead was Martyn's Kosovo song, the song of a refugee who has lost everything, maybe even himself, while 'Swansea' came out of the first Gulf War, a letter home from the front line. 'Arizona Dreams' makes the picture more rounded with an affectionate and hopeful portrait of America, the land of Woody Guthrie as well as Jerry Springer.
We end with Tom Robinson's 'War Baby', from the magical Faith Folk and Anarchy tour, performed with Robinson and Steve Knightley, which gets in by virtue of its title really.
The songs sit well together, and benefit from the stripped-down production - for three and a half of them, Martyn is completely solo.
The re-recorded songs are little different from the album versions, and this version of 'War Baby' will be on a FF&A live album next year, so unless you're quite new to Martyn Joseph or complete addict, there may not be enough you haven¹t heard already for your £7.
That is, if you look at it as a normal CD. If you look at it as a bonus for giving £7 to a good cause, it's a bargain.