Island Samplers – more than your money’s worth in old pence

Island sampler You Can All Join In front cover

In the early 1970s, inspired by the success of CBS’s The Rock Machine and The Rock Machine Turns You On, many record companies started putting out budget-price samplers. Island Records made some of the most popular samplers, and the Island samplers are still regarded with affection and listened to today. Fairport Convention, Jethro Tull, Traffic, Cat Stevens and King Crimson all gained some of their early following from these collections. This is their story.

Cheap as chips

At the cusp of the 60s and 70s, albums were still quite an expensive item at around £2 (The equivalent would be £21 today; for context, the average weekly wage was around £32, a pint cost 20p and a new car £600!) These budget samplers would come in around at the pre-decimal equivalent of 70p (£8 today!) and were good for the labels, the artists and the punters. For many, this is how they were introduced to their favourite bands and albums. Would you pay £21 for a new album unheard?


You Can All Join In (1969)

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When Island released its first sampler, the Island ‘family’ was small enough and obscure enough to be gathered together in a park of a morning for the cover photo, taken by designer Cally for Hipgnosis, ‘bleary eyed after a party’. Standing shivering in greatcoats are the likes of Richard Thompson, Stevie Winwood, Sandy Denny, and all the members of Jethro Tull, Traffic and Free.

(Wikipedia for a who’s who of the cover)

For some of the bands, this was lift-off. Jethro Tull, Traffic, Fairport Convention and Free all gained a huge new audience. Some of the other bands, like Art and Tramline, disappeared.

1. Jethro Tull – A Song For Jeffrey
2. Spooky Tooth – Sunshine Help Me
3. Free – I’m A Mover
4. Art – What’s That Sound
5. Tramline – Pearly Queen
6. Traffic – You Can All Join In

7. Fairport Convention – Meet on the Ledge
8. Nirvana (not THAT Nirvana!) – Rainbow Chaser
9. John Martyn – Dusty
10. Clouds – I’ll Go Girl
11. Spencer Davis Group – Somebody Help Me
12. Wynder K. Frog – Gasoline Alley

… and You Can All Join In is one of those seamless compilations that simply cannot be improved upon. A dozen tracks highlight the best — and that is the best — of Island’s recent and forthcoming output, from much-anticipated debut albums by Jethro Tull, Free, and Spooky Tooth to the sophomore effort by Fairport Convention. There’s also a healthy taste of the label’s most-successful-so-far signing, Traffic, as a leaf from Steve Winwood’s back pages — the Spencer Davis Group’s “Somebody Helps Me” joins Tramline’s cover of “Pearly Queen” and Traffic’s own “You Can All Join In” (yes, indeed, this collection’s title track). (

The compilation reached the top 20 in June 1969. Such is its place in music history that this cheap, almost throwaway compilation was reissued on CD during the early 90s rush to the shiny disk, even beating some of the albums it referenced. The CD combined it with Nice Enough To Eat, and is now attracting high second-hand prices.

Nice Enough To Eat (1969)

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Encouraged by the success of You Can All Join In, a followup Island sampler appeared later the same year (1969) featuring many of the same bands. Jethro Tull, Fairport, Free, Spooky Tooth and Traffic got a further boost, and this time they were joined by such rising stars as Mott The Hoople, King Crimson, Quintessence, Nick Drake and Dr Strangely Strange. This lineup has proved to be more enduring over the ensuing decades, with only Heavy Jelly lost to us.

The collection may have been a bit less cohesive and more demanding than its predessor, lurching from Nick Drake’s tender Time Has Told Me to the iron crunch of King Crimson’s 21st Century Schizoid Man, gentling down to Quintessence and the Strangelies. describes it as ‘slightly incoherent’.

Mike Sida’s cover spelled the band names in alphabet biscuits on the front, and featured biscuits accompanied by various pills and capsules on the back.


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1. Fairport Convention – Cajun Woman
2. Mott The Hoople – At The Crossroads
3. Spooky Tooth – Better By You, Better Than Me
4. Jethro Tull – We Used To Know
5. Free – Woman
6. Heavy Jelly – I Keep Singing That Same Old Song

7. Blodwyn Pig – Sing Me A Song That I Know
8. Traffic – Forty Thousand Headmen
9. Nick Drake – Time Has Told Me
10. King Crimson – 21st Century Schizoid Man
11. Quintessence – Gungamai
12. Dr. Strangely Strange – Strangely Strange But Oddly Normal

Bumpers (1970)

The next Island sampler was a double album, released in 1970. There were variations in the designs and track listings released in Europe and Australia, which Wikipedia puts down to a rushed release. It cost the equivalent of £1.50. Bumpers were a kind of sports shoe fashionable at the time, and the cover was designer Tony Wright’s artwork, put into context by Mike Sida (who, inexplicably, put the shoes on the feet of an Aztec figure on the back).

In the track listing we can see some follow-through of the acts that were now the flagbearers for Island – Tull, Crimson, Fairport – as well as newer acts like Cat Stevens and Fotheringay, the band formed by Sandy Denny on leaving Fairport. Jimmy Cliff was there representing Island’s Jamaican past, as this music began to go mainstream in the UK.

Traffic – Every Mother’s Son
Bronco – Love
Spooky Tooth – I Am The Walrus
Quintessence – Jesus, Buddha, Moses, Gauranga

Mott The Hoople – Thunderbuck Ram
Jethro Tull – Nothing To Say
Jimmy Cliff – Going Back West
Blodwyn Pig – Send Your Son To Die
Dave Mason – Little Woman

John and Beverley Martyn – Go Out And Get It
King Crimson – Cadence And Cascade
If – Reaching Out On All Sides
Free – Oh I Wept
Nick Drake – Hazy Jane

Fairport Convention – Walk Awhile
Cat Stevens – Maybe You’re Right
Renaissance – Island
Fotheringay – The Sea
Clouds – Take Me To Your Leader

El Pea 1971

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The last in the series of classic Island samplers was this double album released in 1971, the title an obvious pun on ‘LP’. The design – by Douglas Maxwell Ltd – was unusual – a cardboard gatefold sleeve in which the two albums were presented in transparent plastic pages. The inner sleeve had drawings of the artists by Alan Cracknell.

El Pea had a leaning towards acoustic and folky songs.  Some of the hungover urchins who had appeared two years ago on the front of You Can All Join In were now stars, and could be used to attract listeners to Island’s newer signings like Amazing Blondel, Tir Na Nog and the Incredible String Band, who had just come to them from Elektra. Notable surprises were the String Band’s Mike Heron showing off his rock chops with John Cale, and McDonald and Giles  and Emerson Lake and Palmer, two off-shoots from King Crimson.

1. Traffic – Empty Pages
2. Sandy Denny – Late November
3. Alan Bown – Thru The Night
4. Heads Hand & Feat – Song For Suzie
5. Fairport Convention – Lord Marlborough

6. Jethro Tull – Mother Goose
7. Quintessence – Dive Deep
8. Amazing Blondel – Spring Season
9. McDonald & Giles – Extract from Tomorrow’s People: The Children Of Today
10. Tir Na Nog – Our Love Will Not DecaY
11. Mountain Side 3 – Don’t Look Around

12. Free – Highway Song
13. Incredible String Band – Waiting For You
14. Cat Stevens – Wild World
15. Bronco – Sudden Street
16. Mike Heron – Feast Of Stephen

17. Emerson, Lake & Palmer – Knife Edge
18. Nick Drake – Northern Sky (listed on the sleeve as One Of These Things First, a different track from his album)
19. Mott The Hoople – Original Mixed-Up Kid
20. Jimmy Cliff – Can’t Stop Worrying, Can’t Stop Loving
21. Mick Abrahams – Greyhound Bus

I don’t think El Pea was ever released on CD but it’s been shared on YouTube here

The appeal of the samplers was clear. Punters got a chance to hear some of the best new music at a heavily discounted price, whilst the record company got to promote music that did not readily lend itself to radio or TV airplay. Some of the compilations were classic recordings in their own right, and Island Records probably came out with the classiest. (Nic Oatridge)

Other labels samplers

Island sampler artists I’ve written about


A Norman Lamont sampler!

If you’ve made it this far you might want to try this:

John Martyn for beginners: 3 albums and 5 tracks

First of a series following from my Inspirations series, where I’ll offer a beginners’ guide to some of the artists I love. Three albums and five tracks.

A virtuoso musician with a voice to melt the coldest of hearts.
(John Hillarby)

Three albums

Solid Air (1973)

The definitive John Martyn album, where he found his voice and the musical themes he would develop over the next three decades. The feel is late-night, languid and luxurious. Solid Air, Don’t Want to Know, Go Down Easy and The Man In the Station all have that repetitive, hypnotic groove, Martyn’s slurred voice like a baritone sax. To avoid a one-tone album, it’s seeded with contrasting tracks – the aggression of I’d Rather Be The Devil and Dreams By The Sea and the lighter acoustic sound of May You Never and Over the Hill.



One World (1977)

After Solid Air Martyn ran a zig zag path between his free-form experimental side (Inside Out) and his warm acoustic side (Sunday’s Child). One World is still experimental but manages to include the warm, loving side of Martyn’s personality, even in the instrumental passages.





Grace and Danger (1980)

Created with Phil Collins as they both floundered in the wreckage of broken marriages, Martyn’s record company were reluctant to release this album. According to Wikipedia “Chris Blackwell … was a close friend of John and Beverley, and found the album too openly disturbing to release. Only after intense and sustained pressure from Martyn did Blackwell agree to release the album.”  While biographers could poke holes in the way Martyn seems to adopt the victim role in the breakup (as with Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks) there’s no denying the pain that permeates this album, harnessed by Martyn and Collins into a cathartic and ultimately beautiful experience.

Five tracks

My selection has tended to focus on Martyn the singer rather than the acoustic guitarist – that’s another playlist to be done one day!


Other people’s selections


John Martyn biographies

  • Detailed biography by John Hillarby on Folk? Blues? Jazz? Rock? Reggae? Trip Hop? Funk? John refused to conform to any particular music genre whilst simultaneously embracing them all. Without fail he always took the less travelled road in search of new experiences and inspirations.
  • An obituary and an appreciation (The Quietus) – John Martyn’s fuck-you attitude, his life-long refusal to do anything other than what he wanted may have led to ill-advised decisions in terms of a perfect oeuvre but who gives a shit about that? Certainly not him. John Martyn was a starsailor, still is.
  • John Martyn – the three-year wake –  “He didn’t want anyone to see that soft underbelly. He wanted to be portrayed as the hard man, and people thought he was a bit of a braggart, a bit arrogant, and of course he wasn’t.”(Danny Thompson)

My John Martyn post

Ye Banks And Braes – Robert Burns in John Martyn style

The banks of the river Doon

Following my post about  John Martyn I was thinking about where I’d used his guitar style most, and it was probably this Robert Burns song.

I’m using the thumb-slap technique that was the mainstay of Martyn’s acoustic work, the most celebrated example being May You Never. In this song I’ve dropped the E string down to D, and I’m playing with a capo on the second fret so I sing it in E.

Here are the chords in D for the first two sections, which are repeated for the rest:

D            A7
Ye Banks and braes
D        G6
O' bonny Doon
D        G6
How can you bloom
D             A7
Sae fresh and fair?
D           A7
How can you chaunt
D         G6  
Ye little birds
D         G6
And I sae weary
A7      D
Fu' o' care

Ye'll break my heart
Ye warblin birds
     D       D7
That wanton through
Em          A7
The flowery thorn
D          A7
Ye mind me o'
D         G6 
Departed joys
D        G6
Departed never
A7   D
To return

Robert Burns and me

I have my parents to thank for my love of Burns, as well as being brought up in the heart of the Burns legend. This song finds the poet, let’s face it, feeling sorry for himself and complaining about why the birds and trees can be happy when he’s been dumped by his girlfriend.

I experienced the same thing as a fourth-year schoolboy on the very same banks of the Doon, pining for a fifth-year girl. So yes, I’ve suffered for my art. (Now it’s your turn, as the saying goes.)

This recording of Ye Banks And Braes

This recording was made in 2013 by Daniel Davis, who added some lovely trumpet.

Here’s a Soundcloud audio link where you can download the free mp3. If you like it, please share it on Facebook, Twitter and whatever means of production you currently occupy.

The video

The video was shot on my phone in 2012, before I learned that you shoot video in landscape not portrait. It’s not the river Doon, but the river Ayr, pretty close by most standards. I grew up very close to the river and it’s a place of childhood wonder for me.

Thumb slap guitar technique

If you’re new to the thumb slap technique here’s the first of a series of tutorials by Gareth Evans. The rest are here.

(This is an update of a post from 2013 which didn’t have the chords)

John Martyn – the wounded giant

John Martyn

This is part of a series of posts about the musicians who’ve inspired me. Today it’s about the wounded giant that was John Martyn.

You know John?

One summer when I was at Glasgow University, I worked lunchtimes in Glasgow’s first vegetarian restaurant, Gemini, on Sauchiehall Street. Sometimes after my stint I would stay and have a coffee with some of the regulars. One unassuming young man seemed to share, not only an interest, but an intimate knowledge of, a lot of the artists I loved at the time. We talked about Richard and Linda Thompson, John Martyn, Nick Drake, Fairport Convention, the Incredible String Band and John Cale. A bit into our second conversation it emerged that he was actually Linda Thompson’s brother, and regularly spent time with all these people in the Island offices and Basing Street studios. Some of what I gleaned was fan gossip, but reached me this way before it reached the music papers, our only source of information in those days: Richard Thompson was pathologically shy and had just embraced Sufi Islam. Nick Drake made Richard look like an extravert. John Cale and Nico were ‘scary’.

He had a particular soft spot for John Martyn. Martyn had just followed up his hit album Solid Air with the experimental and fan-scaring Inside Out. I learned that he was working on a more commercial, song-based album (it would become Sunday’s Child) but my new friend doubted if it would see the light of day. He said it was a wonder John Martyn could even walk given the amount of chemical abuse he gave his body. I was given a picture of a man of great warmth and heart, but prone to wild mood swings and vindictive behaviour, on a path of self-destruction. Thankfully my friend was wrong, and Martyn spun that path out for a few more decades.

Glasgow John and Lahndahn John

John Martyn spent his childhood back and forth between Scotland and England, allowing him to use different personas when he performed in those countries. I saw him in Glasgow most times, where his stage patter was straight out of Billy Connolly, and often just as funny. He was every inch the drunken Glaswegian, rolling in laughter at the absurdity of the world. I would hear him on the radio introducing songs in a mock Cockney accent, and think he was putting it on for a laugh. It wasn’t until I saw him in England a couple of times that I realised that’s how he spoke – there! I often wondered what his ‘home’ accent was.

He was picked up by Island Records as part of their growing folk/songwriter roster, but his unique guitar style – unusual tunings and a finger slap back-beat – wasn’t enough for him and he started to augment it with delay pedals and distortion. When he changed his vocal style to a deep slur he had created the sound of Solid Air, the definitive John Martyn album, released in 1973. The way his voice evoked a saxophone wasn’t just evolution – it was a deliberate stylistic choice.

His career continued until – and past – his death in 2009, with 21 official studio albums released, as well as many live and unofficial ones. While many artists are ‘stuck’ by one masterpiece which they struggle to surpass, Martyn reached artistic highs with One World in 1977 and the raw emotion of Grace and Danger in 1980, following the breakup of his marriage to singer Beverley Martyn.

How I discovered John Martyn

I’d been aware of John Martyn as I gradually got into the Island Records roster, but more because I liked the album title Stormbringer, referencing a Michael Moorcock fantasy novel I was reading. A friend introduced me to Solid Air on its release. The entry point was the only solo acoustic song on the album, May You Never, but I was soon entranced by the late-night, smoky vibe that most of the tracks created.

‘Entranced’ seems an appropriate word for the mood evoked by Solid Air. It’s dark, it’s fluid, it’s hypnotic. It also has the best cover design ever, by Fabio Nicoli – I can’t think of any album cover that has so perfectly captured the mood of the music it contained, despite its almost literal interpretation of the title: ‘moving through solid air’. It’s a Schlieren photograph – a technique that captures movement through air or fluids, and used in aeronautical engineering. (Schlieren photography on Wikipedia )

The quintessential Martyn song is a recycling two or three chords with a slapping backbeat, over which the voice intones a repetitive melody. The repetition is what makes the magic.

Following this I went to every gig I could get to, including several by the classic combination of Martyn and bassist Danny Thompson, a pair of hell-raisers who were the perfect foils for each other. The comedy would go on until you thought they were never going to start playing, then they’d suddenly drop into a groove and the banter was forgotten as their dialogue became a call and response between Martyn’s rough play, the right hand almost grappling with the guitar strings and Thompson’s equally physical wrestling with the bass. All this as they stared at each other with the same intensity with which they’d been laughing only moments before. There’s a Martyn/Thompson concert video in the playlist below.

He put out a live album Live at Leeds, sold directly from home, a forerunner of today’s direct selling from artist to audience. It arrived from Hastings in a plain white sleeve with a hand-written ‘Love from John and Bev’.


  • the end of Solid Air where Martyn’s sax-like voice interweaves with a real sax
  •  the start of One World is one of the most beautiful pieces of singing I’ve ever heard “Some of us live like princes, some of us live like queens, most of us live just like me and we don’t know what it means”

How he influenced me

What did I learn from John Martyn and how has it influenced me? First and foremost was the percussive right hand guitar technique. Different people do this different ways – some do it with fingers, some with the thumb. I’m a thumb man. I use this style a lot. You can hear it on Come With Me and If I Could Be With You. Second was his use of pedals, and showing that distortion and delay aren’t just for guitar hero histrionics – they can be used to serve a song too. (There’s an interesting tutorial on Martyn’s Echoplex style at

My John Martyn playlist