Sunday, December 28, 2008

John Mayall

“Ladies and gentlemen, John Mayall! I’ll say that again, John Mayall!”

That is how Mayall is introduced in a live concert that was recorded in the late Sixties and released as The Turning Point. It is, to my mind, one of the finest albums ever recorded – an absolute joy to listen to.

Mayall was the grandfather of the British blues revolution of the Sixties, or what the aficionados called the British Blues Boom. Young and hip, but the grandfather, nonetheless. Just how he became that I hope to discover shortly, but suffice at this point to say that under his tutelage, the following superstar guitarists cut their blues teeth: Eric Clapton of Cream, Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac and Mick Taylor of the Rolling Stones. He seems to have been the local blues guru in swinging London town at the height of the Sixties musical revolution, the man visiting or local musos gravitated to in the hope that something of his bluesiness would rub off on them.

And all the time he was making these incredible albums featuring the brightest young stars in the business. We found out about The Turning Point by way of a single off the album, which was featured on one of those wonderful compilation albums which came out at the time. It was called Room To Move and featured Mayall not only on harmonica, but also on what he called chicka-chicka – though I can’t vouch for the spelling. It consisted purely of rhythmic, almost percussive sounds made with his mouth into the microphone – and it bowled us over. It was only later, when we discovered the album, that it emerged this was a unique blues album, because there were no drums, with the rhythm section coming from superb acoustic, finger-style guitar and electric bass. The lead instruments are harmonica, flute and saxophone. But before we discovered this gem, it was two other seminal Mayall albums which stole our hearts away: Bare Wires and Blues From Laurel Canyon. Isn’t it incredible that, at a time when commercial pop music was flooding the airways and being bought be zillions of teeny-boppers, we should be getting into far more serious fare, the sort of music which I so wish the present generation of young people would rediscover. Because there can be no denying, when you get to the roots of modern rock you’ll find they are blue. And in England, in the Sixties, it was John Mayall who epitomised what it meant to play the blues. He was arguably the greatest white blues musician of his time. But how did he achieve this status?

As usual, I’m relying on Wikipedia as my primary source of information. And the first starling fact I discovered is that in the Sixties Mayall was already “old”. Well, old in that he was already into his thirties when the decade broke, which probably accounts for his status as an elder blues statesman. Because he was born way back in 1933, which in 2009 would make him turning 76. Eish! as we say in South Africa, a word I’m sure could be worked into a blues tune, in fact. He was born on November 29, 1933, in the English heartland, at Macclesfield, Cheshire. Wikipedia describes Mayall as “a pioneering English blues singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist”. It says he was founder of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and has been influential in the careers of many instrumentalists, including Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, Peter Green, John McVie, Mick Fleetwood, Mick Taylor, Don Harris, Harvey Mandel, Larry Taylor, Aynsley Dunbar, Dick Heckstall-Smith, Andy Fraser, Johnny Almond, Walter Trout, Coco Montoya and John Mark. While many of those names are unfamiliar to me, those cited earlier and Bruce, McVie and Fleetwood obviously aren’t, and neither are Almond and Mark, because they performed on that crackerjack Turning Point album, of which more a bit later.

Like most great musicians, music was in Mayall’s blood. His father, Murray Mayall, was a guitarist and jazz enthusiast, says Wikipedia, which adds that from an early age, John was “drawn to the sounds of American blues players such as Leadbelly, Albert Ammons, Pinetop Smith and Eddie Lang”, and that he taught himself to play the piano, guitars and harmonica. And where do most would-be musicians go to study? Why art college, or course. But Mayall was also part of that generation of post-war kids in the UK who were caught in the conscription net – ask me, I know what it’s like. He did three years of national service in the British army in Korea. That couldn’t have been fun, but for those who survived what I assume was the Korean War, it was character building. The year I was born, 1956, Wikipedia says, he started playing blues with semi-professional bands. Alexis Korner persuaded him to move to London, where he formed the legendary John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. Wikipedia says the band was “always something of a training ground for blues musicians, and went through several changes of personnel, before the arrival of Eric Clapton, with whom they achieved their first commercial success. When Clapton left to form Cream, that string of other key musicians each had a role to play in the Bluesbreakers, with Clapton later being quoted as saying: “John Mayall has actually run an incredibly great school for musicians”. Like Eric Burdon, in the early 1970s he moved to California, settling in Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles. There, says Wikipedia, he helped develop the careers of such people as Blue Mitchell, Red Holloway, Larry Taylor (of Canned Heat) and Harvey Mandel.

While this biography is fairly thin on detail, it does note that he reformed a version of the Bluesbreakers in 1982 and has continued touring. In 2005 he was awarded an OBE in the British Honours List.

Blues Breakers

So much for the background, what of the music itself? A glance at Mayall’s discography reveals just how productive he has been. His first album was from 1965, a live album called John Mayall Plays John Mayall. I was fortunate to pick up a double play cassette a few years back from The Collector Series called John Mayall the Collection, with songs ranging from 1966 to 1968. And, unlike so many of these compilations, it includes fairly comprehensive notes about Mayall. It says “the classic John Mayall album was Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton, recorded in 1966”. This I see from the discography, was his second album, also with Decca. Four tracks from this album are on the compilation, and they reveal what a prodigious talent the young Clapton was, not only as a guitarist, but also as a vocalist on one of the songs. Wikipedia describes the album’s genre as blues rock, which I suppose it is, since it takes the old American blues sound, often played on solo acoustic guitar, and like folk rock, gives it an electric edge, while still staying loyal to the blues musical structure.

The album has often been called The Beano album, because it features a photograph on the cover of Clapton reading a copy of the famous British children’s comic. But in musical terms, this was certainly not kids’ stuff. As Wikipedia, somewhat understatedly states: “Apart from being one of the most overall influential albums in blues-rock history, it was likely (to have been) the first time anyone had heard a Gibson Les Paul through an overdriven Marshall amplifier; this unique sound would become particularly influential”. The website, bless its cotton socks, adds that the re-introduction of the Les Paul by Gibson was “largely fuelled by the blues boom that so often featured it”. And with the release of this album, Clapton’s “incendiary playing” turned him into an instant star. The Bluesbreakers featured Clapton, Mayall on harmonica and most of the vocals, John McVie on bass, Hughie Flint on drums and John Almond, Alan Skidmore and Dennis Healey as the horn section. The album comprised blues standards by several long-established blues artist, along with some originals by Mayall, or Mayall and Clapton. It also features Clapton’s very first recorded vocal performance on Robert Johnson’s Ramblin’ On My Mind, which is on the compilation. Clapton left the band a year after the album was made, but Wikipedia says his time with Mayall marked “a huge step forward for his playing as far as improvisation and guitar tone (are concerned)”. It formed a bridge between his time with the Yardbirds and his later co-founding of Cream with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker. Listening to the four songs off Blues Breakers, it is very clear what a driving force Clapton was on guitar. This was at a time, 1966, when bands were still pretty tied to the conventional rock and roll or blues formats, with very little scope for the sort of innovation which would mark the latter part of the decade. Thus a song like Key To Love, while a Mayall composition, sticks fairly rigidly to the blues-rock template, with powerful brass, Mayall’s distinctive slightly nasal vocals, and the occasional lead break. Clapton’s guitar is more dominant on Hide Away, a tight arrangement with guitar-led intro and some interesting, fast-paced organ. The Clapton sound which would become such a hallmark of Cream, is evident on Ramblin On My Mind, which is a slow blues with piano and electric guitar – and Clapton’s vocals. All Your Love features some swashbuckling guitarwork, Mayall’s vocals and adroit tempo changes.

In 2003, Blues Breakers was ranked 195 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

Looking Back

But on that compilation tape, it is a slow blues, performed live and, says the cover notes, from an album called Looking Back, that the full, powerful Clapton-Mayall sound is perhaps best heard. Recorded live, this instrumental again features piano and guitar, with some wonderful improvisations ranging from moody blues to tearaway jazz. There is also some good use of feedback, in the Hendrix mould. More strident guitar and harmonica characterise the largely instrumental Hoochie Coochie Man, another live track. While again a slow blues number, the guitar is played at a rapid pace, and there is also a section where Jack Bruce, another Cream driving force, uses the bass virtually as a lead guitar.

A Hard Road

That compilation album’s notes tell us that “late in 1966 Peter Green had the onerous task of replacing Clapton on guitar”. The result was another impressive blues-rock, or electric blues, album, A Hard Road, released by Decca in 1967, four songs from which are on the compilation. And what a replacement Green turned out to be, setting the stage for his short but spectacular career with Fleetwood Mac, before he quit and the band turned commercial, of which more later, God willing. Green’s own vocal style, like Mayall’s perfectly suited to the genre, is featured on two tracks, You Don’t Love Me, which is on the compilation, and The Same Way.

The band Green played with included Mayall, McVie (later also of Fleetwood) and Aynsley Dunbar on drums. It is interesting to consider how the Mayall sound progressed from another live track, Crocodile Walk (a Mayall composition) from 1964, to the sound of the band with Green at the guitar helm. Roger Dean plays competent lead guitar on Crocodile Walk (from Live At Kooks Kleek, says the album cover), including a satisfactory lead solo, but here it is Mayall’s harmonica which is the key lead instrument. Fast forward to A Hard Road, from 1967, and you get a sound where the guitar is the predominant instrument. In Green’s hands, it has taken on the guise of a magic wand. The title track, A Hard Road (Mayall/Gunnell), is another piano-led slow blues, with Mayall doing the vocals. Suddenly the guitar slices into the action, turning it into a masterpiece as all the other instruments lift their game. There has to be a term for what Green does on The Super-Natural, a Green-Gunnell composition. He somehow suspends a note and then lets it slide away. Also, significantly, there is the first introduction of some acoustic guitar later on, a harbinger of things to come. And then, as Monty Python would say, if I’m very much mistaken, Peter Green handles the vocals on You Don’t Love me, where Mayall’s tight harmonica recalled for me the sounds of the great King Biscuit Boy. Green’s breathy vocals, like Clapton’s, were ideally suited to the genre, and would make him a sure-fire hit with Fleetwood Mac in its best blues era. The final track on the compilation tape off this album is Leaping Christine, a Mayall-Gunnell composition, which again is harmonica-led, and announces Mayall’s fixation with women. Christine gave him “all the action a man could hope to find”.


As quickly as Mayall helped hone these talents, they moved on to greener pastures, as it were. Because in 1967, who should replace Green but a 19-year-old prodigy called Mick Taylor. He featured on the Crusade album from that year, alongside a brass section including Chris Mercer, Dick-Heckstall Smith and Henry Lowther.

Taylor started to epitomise the new, youthful sound of modern blues-rock, and with Mayall’s band would make some of his finest music. On Suspicions (Part 2), off the Crusade album, his guitar soars alongside that big brass sound and some magnificent saxophone. The use of acoustic guitar as a blues-rock instrument became a feature of the Rolling Stones, and it takes early form via Taylor’s bottle-neck guitar work on the Mayall composition, Picture On The Wall. Here, Mayall’s voice, normally strident and piercing, is more mellow, warmer: “I was looking through my pictures, of days that’s been and gone …” As we’ll see later, on The Turning Point there is also a song about J B Lenoir, but it was on Crusade, that Mayall first paid tribute to him on The Death of J B Lenoir. Almost a dirge, Mayall’s plaintive vocals and harmonica bemoan the fact that “the blues have lost a king”. While, as you’ll see, one website scribe is critical of Mayall’s lyrics, I believe on this song he uses a bluntness which is incredibly moving and apposite. He sings that when he heard the news of Lenoir’s death “night came early in my day / J B Lenoir is dead and it’s hit my like a hammer blow”.

Bare Wires

I am now getting to familiar territory, because it was the 1968 album, Bare Wires, which gave us our first, succulent, taste of Mayall’s music. What I have covered thus far has been a bit of a retrospective analysis – songs I only heard off that compilation tape from the early albums. But Bare Wires, for me, was modern, contemporary, real- time Mayall. It was a classic, with a strong, rich jazz feel. And the cover was class itself. Two shots of Mayall, one of his face, the other of him dressed ultra cool with long hair and goatie looking down at the viewer, are superimposed in browns, blacks and creams. The album title and performers’ credits are writing in swirling white and yellow lettering.

It is always interesting to note how younger people respond, by looking at comments posted on websites. One person wrote that Mayall “had some STRANGE ideas about blues instrumentation: harmonium (parlour organ), harpsichord, violin … not yer everyday band lineup for certain. And I’d be the first to admit that as a lyricist he wasn’t the next Great White Hope. However, with all its shortcomings this is still a listenable recording after 40 years, pointing both backward to the British Invasion blues explosion, and forward to the jazz-rock-psychedelia that was pouring back across from America”. Ouch! Or Eish! as our African compatriots would say. Does this guy know who he’s talking about? Surely that “strange” instrumentation is the hallmark of a highly creative spirit? One thing this know-all does inform me about is that apart from Mick Taylor, later to replace Brian Jones with the Stones, the band included Dick Heckstall-Smith, Tony Reeves and John Hiseman, as well as Henry Lowther “before his Woodstock appearance with Mayall alumnus Keef Hartley (whose departure from the Mayall organisation is commemorated on this album by Mick Taylor’s intro ‘Hartley Quits”). That was another group, the Keef Hartley Band, which was doing the rounds as I was growing up, but hell there’s no way I’ll get to him. But I did not know he too was a Mayallman.

Taylor excels on this album, especially on Side 1, which is devoted entirely to the Bare Wires – Suite Medley. As a young lad just entering his teens, this became like a holy grail, a work to be revered. Giving it a fresh listening with the ears of age, it remains for me as exciting and rewarding an album as you’d hope to find. But be advised, this is not just something you shove on the CD player and then go and do other things. You have to listen to it, deeply and intensely. Get into it, like we used to do as kids, often with the aid of a bit of boom, grass, stop, majuts, tsangu, dagga – call it what you will. Today, however, I realise that was more part of our anti-social, rebellious way than a prerequisite for enjoying Mayall’s – or anyone else’s – music. Today, all I need is relative freedom from anxiety and a peaceful few hours to be able to ease into a couple of sides of Bare Wires.

How easy to listen disinterestedly to something and then summarily dismiss it, as that guy on the website did. How great to really listen to it, and appreciate every nuance. This is what I’ve just done with Bare Wires, to my mind one of the greatest albums of all time. How odd that my website friend should look cynically at the fact that Mayall uses harmonium, harpsichord and violin on this album – “not yer everyday band lineup for certain”. The first side of this album is a wonderful showcase for soloists, loosely couched within half a dozen or so interconnected songs. Having just also given Pink Floyd a thorough examination (to be posted soon), I’d say the big difference here is that Mayall is dealing with human, emotional issues, in the true blues tradition. The love of a woman has always been at the heart of the blues, and this is explored continuously, since it is all too often the cause of so much pain. But what a masterstroke to start the album with low-key harmonium – think Bowie’s Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud off Space Oddity. Then he issues his manifesto, in the form of a song about what is to come: “These are bare wires of my life, since it was cut down the middle by love / Tides have been turning, I’ve been learning / All my bare wires are alive …” At least that’s how I heard the opening lines. Suffice it to say this sets the stage for an incredible 20-plus minutes of blues-rock-jazz. “Where is my guide for direction / How can we live with deception …” Acoustic guitar, violin, low saxophone. This must be one of the first instances when the violin has been used in this way, as an instrument of improvisation. “Who can rule my desires? / Who untangles bare wires? / Stars of fate can you hear me …” The song builds in intensity, the fiddle giving it an almost Celtic feel at time. It is a progressive sound, with jazz-accented guitar; an emblematic statement that none would be able to match. But from this mellow start the medley seques, if you’ll again pardon my “verbing” the noun sequence, into a piece of heavy blues rock that really gets the adrenalin pumping. But before tackling that, I read a lovely critique of this US penchant for using nouns as verbs: “Verbing weirds language.” Think about it. Anyway, we’re right into this heavy rock section: “Well I left my woman …”, young Mick Taylor’s lead guitar bold and well, beautiful. “On that lonely day I started walking, I started walking…” It is no exaggeration to say that a lead guitar solo here takes on almost Hendrix-like proportions, before the song starts winding down, to the strains of great brass and sax lines. “Stepping outside, pretty girls all saw me … / But good things always end its over, open up a new door…” The sax solo on this song is extraordinary, while organ and some tight guitar chords give it the requisite jazzy feel, before it again transforms into one of the most progressive and surreal pieces on the album. That drumming is incredible. It just keeps thumping away as a harmonica bluesily blows beside it: “Dark is the colour of heathen blood / Red is the colour of a flame (more thumping drums) / Time to get lost in fire / Making love like a sail in a hurricane / Feel my love like a fire / Feel my warmth but you can’t touch the centre / I’m a fire that will burn you if you get too close …” Out of that continual drumming a guitar solo emerges, unpretentiously, all the time accompanied by that other-wordly harmonica overlay, with interesting effects recalling, echoing, or perhaps pre-empting, the Hendrix sound. And then another change, as a new tempo is set in train by drums, organ and bass: “So I think about the life I live … / And I remember the little things couldn’t last … / Yes, I know now … / That I’ve lost the best woman I’ve ever had… / Little children playing, / I hear them saying, Mother, / Tell me what life has in store”. It is a classic slow blues, sung in Mayall’s inimitable style. That touch of harpsichord is introduced to add a freshness at the end of this section, along with more excellent sax, before another cracking opening assault of drums and piano on an up-tempo final section: “Look, in the mirror, what is there to see / Just a man, but can that man go free?” This is a fast blues-rock, with very powerful lead guitar and a short but sweet bass solo, which is soon overtaken by one of the finest sax assaults around. The song ends with a quietly whispered warning: “Don’t stare into the mirror too long / Or you’ll get cut by the pieces of splintered glass…” Whereupon you hear the sound of glass shattering, beside some frenzied piano. Thus ends a phenomenal concept, a work of creative mastery that none will equal. In short, a Mayall masterpiece, one of many, and one that can be ascribed not only to his compositional genius and astute arrangements, but also to the sort of musicians he attracted.

Blues from Laurel Canyon

Like that other great British bluesman, Eric Burdon, Mayall was enticed to California by the vibey scene that was going down there in the late 1960s. His next album, Blues from Laurel Canyon, captures something of the exhilaration he felt in this bohemian atmosphere of free love, warm weather and wide open spaces. Coming from the cold UK, it must have felt like heaven – which is why this album remains so close to my heart. Mayall, like all great artists, uses a very personal experience as the basis for the expression of a universal emotion. Anyone who is young wants to travel and see the world. I think that feeling was even more prevalent in the Sixties, when there weren’t the same hang-ups as we have today about safety and security. Mayall’s euphoric response to what must have seemed like a sunny utopia is a timeless classic. But, while he may have felt he was in nirvana, it is the lot of the bluesman to be forever dogged by the hurts of love, and much of this album, like Bare Wires, is inspired by this obvious ladies’ man’s many brushes with the labours of loves lost.

The album cover design is a continuation of the Bare Wires concept, with layers of images of Mayall, only this time the dominant colour is green. Recorded at the Decca Studios in London and released in 1968, the album runs for nearly 48 minutes, yet seems to pass all too soon. It is a story of a journey, from London to Los Angeles, a sojourn there, and then a return home. As such it is one of the first true, complete concept albums, and is characterised by some of Mayall’s finest personal performances, both as a vocalist and musician, with his harmonica, organ and piano work superb – and ably complemented by the rapidly maturing Mick Taylor on lead guitar. Steve Thompson’s bass and Colin Allen’s drums, and importantly, tabla, provide a hugely creative rhythm section which render this, to my mind, one of the albums of the decade. It was Mayall’s first album after the Bluesbreakers, well, broke up on July 14, 1968, and his last with Decca before moving to Polydor.

Ben Davies of All Music Guide, whose views I found on a website, is correct in noting that the album is a return to Mayall’s blues roots after the jazz/blues fusion of Bare Wires. Certainly this time there is no room for the bold saxophone and other jazz-orientated instruments. And he makes the same point I noted as I gave the album a fresh listen: the first guitar solo by Mick Taylor occurs just 50 seconds into the album. The album kicks off with the sound of a jet aircraft taking off – shades of the Beatles’ Back In The USSR – except this time the plane is going west, to California. As the sound of the aircraft’s engines travels, via stereo, between the speakers, so Allen’s drums and Mayall’s organ are overlaid before those first distinctive bass notes arrive: dum, dum, dum-dum-dum dum ... “Ten hours on the plane, England left behind / Here in LA, wonder what I’ll find …” This is all the introduction Taylor needs before he launches into his first, oh so subtle, lead break. Indeed, a feature of his playing here is that, despite his youth, still under 20, he masters all the nuances which Mayall demands. This is no impetuous teenager keen to tear into music hell for leather. Instead, he effortlessly fits into one of the finest blues outfits around, and comes out with a master’s degree. The plane lands: “Summertime, my plane is coming down …” sings Mayall, as he wonders what will occur. Naturally, each song unfolds into the next, so this gentle opening is followed by the faster blues-rock Walking On Sunset, in which Mayall soaks up the atmosphere of this famous beach: “Watching all the people like the waves along the shore … / I’m walking on Sunset, everything is like a friend.” As usual, Mayall has an eye for the girls, and is quite unashamedly objectifying: “All the pretty women, never seen a better crop / Music all around the flashing lights they never stop …” A feature of this song is his harmonica playing, as he laps up the scene. “Well standing on the corner watching every kind of car / Friendly people come and say they want to know you star.” It was a world, he says, where “I never felt to so free”. As the harmonica and guitar fade out, so Mayall’s slow blues on the piano takes over: “Each and every morning, when the sun is high / I wonder round the canyon, till I find a place to lie / It’s so beautiful to be alone. / Got the sun and trees and silence / I’m in my Laurel Canyon home.” What a change it must have been from cold, wet old England! Mayall’s piano playing is soothing and understated, providing just the right mood for this song of meditation. “Looking back a century / I look at where I stand / It must have looked the same / When Apaches roamed the land …” I recall these lines from the song from my youth, from some 35 years ago. Finally, the reverie ends. “Now the sun is sinking / It’s time to reminisce. / Here’s a way of living / That I will surely miss …”

Of course the next song has to be fast-tempo and upbeat, and that is what 2401 is, though I have always battled to get the lyrics. However, this time I have been lucky, and found them on the Net. So let’s discover what it was he was singing, apart from those few lines we were always able to hear and which became part of our upbringing, like “Trying to change the system, many things that must be done” and “Maniac the raven could he have his gun back, No”. Well the actual songs goes: “There’s a hero living at 2401 / And all around / A family circus in the sun / Got his Mothers working / While you’re having fun / Trying to change the system / Many things that must be done.” So what’s this all about? “Where did Moon go? / Better call at GTO / In the red room / Pam is planning where to go / Gail and Pauline / Who is prowling round your door? / A maniac, The Raven / Could he have his gun back? / No!” Then follows. “2401, got myself a place to stay / On the railroad, Kansas nearer every day / Miss Christine cooking / Looking very gay / How do you say a Thank You? / How do you ever tear yourself away?” Is this about Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention? I did a quick Google and discovered that a girl, Moon Unit Zappa, was born in September, 1967, in New York City. This song must be about a meeting with Frank and family.

The next song is slower, more sensual. Ready To Ride is what Mayall seemed always to be, and this song makes that all too clear. It starts with guitar and harmonica, a slow blues. “I’ve waited a long time, to get my loving done / There’s so much beauty around here, I’m bound to find me one.” Women as love objects? It was that kind of time, I guess, and Mayall obviously thought it was his prerogative to shop around. As the chorus notes: “I said baby, Don’t you run, you can’t hide / My love is boiling over, and right now I’m ready to ride.” It takes him a week to “find one” who “danced a special way / got me so excited I couldn’t walk away …” A good night was had of it, with Mayall concluding that “she nearly ragged my mind / She’s got to be the best lover, a man could hope to find”.

An innovation – slow, big bass notes on the piano, then a steady bass guitar rhythm – gets Medicine Man under way. And it seems John will pay for his free-loving ways. “I had a bit of bad luck, something I would never plan / Got a little problem, help me any way you can. / I’m out of circulation, take me to your medicine man.” This is formerly Native American Indian country, so his use of this term is a kind of homage to the indigenous people of the area. He then contemplates the dangers of picking up infection, in those far more carefree, pre-Aids days: “Loving is a gamble, never knowing who to choose. / You find yourself a winner, then you find you’ve picked to lose…” I can only imagine this recounts how he picked up some sort of sexually transmitted disease. The pained, lovely harmonica between verses seems to endorse this.

The relationship dramas continue on Somebody’s Acting Like A Child, a fastish blues-rock number which kicks off with a fine organ and guitar combination. “Just a silly kind of quarrel, well we made each other wild / Just a silly kind of quarrel, well me made each other wild / Maybe both of us were wrong / but somebody’s acting like a child.” Again it is the harmonic and guitar which provide rich pickings between verses, with Mayall concluding that his experience “makes me kind of wonder, what love is all about”.

Isn’t it wonderful when two of your favourite groups intersect? This is precisely what Mayall achieves on Bear, a delightful piece about his friendship with the leader of Canned Heat on the next track. It starts with the band playing and paying a tribute to the band by doing a few bars from On The Road Again. Just as Mick Taylor gets into some fiendish guitarwork the song slows, before branching into an entirely new, slow bluesy melody, with guitar and piano to the fore. “I’ve been living, with the Bear / In a big house full of booze / Going back through the years / Hear any record you choose / Yeah, the sun is shining down / And the Bear is rolling in the shade”. Clearly, here were people on the same wavelength, and that spirit of blues kinship comes through strongly. “All the men of Canned Heat are part of my family / I’m gonna remember the things, that they did for me…” After this verse we experience one of the great guitar solos on the album, ably supported by the Mayall piano. Finally, it’s time to leave: “I’ve gotta be moving, they call me Wandering John / I’ll see you Bear, I’ll be back before long …”

Miss James is a quick-fire story of how Mayall spots a pretty girl, tracks her down, finds his way into her bed, makes love to her, and, on the next song, First Time Alone, realises it was probably the most important sensation he will ever experience. Again, there is great organ and guitar work on this one, which starts: “I read about her in a magazine / The writer painted her in colours of a queen / Other people said bad things instead / So I was curious to check out what I read / But asking around she couldn’t be found / Strange, elusive Miss James!” But Mayall was lucky: “Two weeks later I was down the Shrine / Saw a pretty girl who would suit me fine / Rushing around we forgot to trade names / I didn’t connect her with the one I called Miss James / I was surprised when I realised / The two were one and the same / I had the phone company give her number to me / I called her at home, she said she was alone / Would she see me tonight? / Yeah, that was alright...” A note is sustained and then a slow, steady rhythm is entered into – as we enter into the soul of Mayall, a man who clearly revered this sexual encounter. “There was nothing, like that first time / Alone, with you. / There was nothing, like that first time, alone with you…” He tells of the “sweet perfume in your hair” and time spent beside a log fire, before they find themselves in her bed, “so soft with your sweet whispering”. He tells how her “fingers explored my burning skin, soft as the wings of a butterfly”, before concluding that no matter how many years they spend together, “there will never be such a peace like that first time I was alone with you”. Here Taylor achieves just the right, beautifully understated sound on the guitar – or is it indeed a Hawaiian guitar, which I see he also plays on this album?

But being the bluesman that he is, Mayall can’t wallow for too long in a good time. Long Gone Midnight brings us back to earth with a bang. A heavy blues-rock song, Mayall announces desperately: “Long gone midnight, and I miss my woman so bad”, which he repeats, before concluding that “it’s a long wait till the dawn” and adds, with emphasis, “Sometimes love can make you wish that you’d never been born.” A man who speaks in these terms is clearly one who feels very strongly, which is what has made Mayall the great songwriter he is. But consider the lead and piano duet played in the middle of this song, and realise what genius puts a prodigy like Taylor alongside a vet like Mayall.

There can be few songs more sad or full of regret at the prospect of leaving any place than the final track, Fly Tomorrow, which is a fitting finale to a wonderful album. It starts with that tamba and bass, slow and contemplative. “Got to fly tomorrow, gotta pack my gear / readjust my mind, my time is near / Fly tomorrow, got to pack my gear, / fly tomorrow, now my time is near…” He looks ahead, where he’ll have to “get ready for the change, / Fly tomorrow, living back home is going to be strange. / Got to fly tomorrow, got to be goodbye / Before tomorrow’s over, I’ll be in the sky … I’ll be way up in the sky … in the sky … in the sky”. But instead of fading out on that, the song reaches its high point, as Taylor’s guitar enters into the spirit of the thing, with the intensity escalating as the organ is introduced. The end result is a passage not dissimilar to parts of Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland. But even then the song is not over, because it returns to that slow, haunting rhythm which set the initial scene. Only then does it fade away, bringing to an end of a bit of Mayall magic.

The Turning Point

As I mentioned earlier, Mayall probably first made an impact on us when we heard the song, Room To Move, on a compilation album of progressive, underground music. It was such an unusual type of music that it immediately attracted attention. It forms the high point, among many peaks, of The Turning Point album, which had a blue cover with a large, close-up, grainy black-and-white photograph of Mayall playing the harmonica.

Released in 1969, it was recorded live at Bill Graham’s legendary Fillmore East in New York City on July 12, 1969, and released by Polydor. Wikipedia is typically matter-of-fact in its short article on the album, but the most salient point about The Turning Point, for me, was that it is virtually an “unplugged” album – something that only became popular decades later. Because there is no drummer. Instead, Mayall uses the incredible talents of Jon Mark on acoustic finger-style guitar in a dual role as rhythm and percussion provider – all done through his guitar – with the occasional acoustic lead part at appropriate times. Providing more than adequate support on bass is Stephen Thompson, while Johnny Almond plays tenor and alto saxophones, flutes and mouth percussion. This last “instrument” is also “played” by Mayall, particularly during that grand finale, Room To Move. For one who up till then had employed the skills of some of the world’s finest electric guitarists, this album marks another turning point for this elder statesman of the blues, because apart from playing harmonica and singing, Mayall also plays slide guitar and electric Telecaster guitar, as well as the tambourine. He wrote all seven songs, with Thompson co-writing California and Thoughts About Roxanne.

It is great, nearly 40 years on, to sit back and relax and listen in a quiet room to this album, crisply clear on CD, without distractions. Only now do I fully appreciate just what a superb live concert this must have been. Remember, this is at a time when bands are bursting forth with ultra-heavy sounds, smashing guitars on stage, burning them, and so on. What is Mayall’s response? A suave, sophisticated evening of ever-so-subtle and nuanced blues-jazz, which relies entirely for its considerable impact on the accomplished musicality of the performers. That this show was well rehearsed is obvious, but there always seems to be room left for the sort of improvisation that is a hallmark of the best jazz bands. You can hear, on several songs how the introduction of a fresh instrument energises the group, setting it off in a new and interesting direction.

Having grown up with this music, it is a part of me. I remember Mayall’s introduction from having listened to the album so many times, but I had forgotten that the album actually starts with Mayall saying: “Alright Mister, we’re ready. Where’s the announcer man?” It is then that he is introduced: “Ladies and gentlemen, John Mayall!” Because there is a bit of noise and laughter, he adds: “I’ll say it again, John Mayall!” Then, prior to launching off into the concert, Mayall asks for some extra light so the audience can “see who’s here”, before introducing the band. Then starts one of the finest concerts in the history of modern music, with the opening track, the fast-paced The Laws Must Change, a classic Mayall composition. It starts with some lively bass, harmonica and sax. That acoustic guitar is always present, rumbling rhythmically along, its nylon strings humming harmonically, offering a variation on drumming whereby not only rhythm, but also those musical chords, are provided. “The time must surely come, for the laws to fit their time,” Mayall sings this twice before adding: “While the law is standing, you’ve gotta open up your mind.” This is a song about the law and whether it can be openly challenged. “It seems to be the fashion, to say you’re right and they are wrong (repeated). / You gotta see both sides or you’ll find yourself in jail before long.” It is interesting that in a sense Mayall is lecturing the youth about the dangers of confronting the state head-on. He is calling for some pragmatism, urging protesting students not to throw rocks at policemen after saying this was one of the many things that Lenny Bruce was “trying to tell you … before he died”. He concludes by saying that “the laws must change one day, but it’s going to take some time”. I’m not sure what law he was on about – possibly the draft – but it is unusual in the context of modern popular music to find a young(ish) star making such a strong call for restraint. However, the key point about this album is that the songs, the lyrics, are – in six out of the seven songs – just a peg on which to hang the guts of these great tunes. Because in between verses we are exposed to some of the most wonderful passages of restrained blues-jazz I’ve been privileged to hear. The guitar and harmonica are used percussively, with the bass ever present, a steadying factor, yet at times itself employed as a lead instrument. There is a lovely “duel” here between Almond’s flute and Mayall’s harmonica, and the first taste of that vocal percussion. Another part of the template used for these songs is the introduction of the saxophone in the latter stages of the song, providing a full, rounded, powerful sound with which to wrap things up.

The title of the next song, Saw Mill Gulch Road, so unusual, is part of my psyche. If someone came up to me while hiking through the Himalayas and said those four words, I would immediately be transferred, metaphorically, to the second track of The Turning Point. And it is here that we get to experience the first taste of Mayall’s impeccable use of the slide guitar. There can be few more evocative sounds than those first few bars of this song, with the slide played hauntingly alongside bass and acoustic guitar. Then the flute is gently introduced, before Mayall sings in equally gentle tones: “Living here, Saw Mill Gulch Road / There’s a lonely girl, who’s now 15.” In true blues tradition, the first line is repeated, then, “Since I’ve been gone, left a part of me / Things unsaid, remembering.” I may have some of these lyrics wrong, but the gist is that he expresses feelings, memories, in a few short phrases. “I took her home, rode a car / Through rushing trees, moon and night. / Seems so wrong to say goodbye, / With things unsaid, it wasn’t right.” This is the only song on the album where there is no use of flute or sax breaks. The song ends as it started, with haunting slide guitar alongside that steady acoustic guitar rhythm.

A Mayall song dedicated to American blues guitarist J B Lenoir, who died in 1967, was on an earlier album, as mentioned previously. I’m Gonna Fight For You JB, is the title of the song devoted to him here, and it’s another cracker, though I have battled to hear all the words. Here, alongside more fine finger-picking by Mark, Mayall plays some great electric guitar. He sings: “Well I believe you got a bad deal / And that’s something I want put right.” While Wikipedia doesn’t explain what that raw deal was, it tells us that Lenoir (1929-1967) was a Chicago blues guitarist, singer and songwriter, born in Mississippi. Muddy Waters was among those he performed with. While he mainly played electric guitar, during the Civil Rights and Free Speech movements in the 1960s, he recorded several albums using acoustic guitar. Often his songs had political content relating to racism or the Vietnam War. A gentle person, he encouraged black and white blues artists until dying of a heart attack following injuries sustained in an earlier car crash. Wikipedia says “his untimely death is lamented by John Mayall” in this song and Death Of J B Lenoir. Again, though, this song is much more than its lyrics. Here we hear the acoustic guitar used as a lead instrument, with quick-fire picking in numerous arcane variations. There is also a nice tempo change, with the electric guitar serving as a perfect foil. Naturally, a virtuoso sax solo near the end wraps the song up perfectly.

Love. Ah, love. Mayall’s favourite subject inspired So Hard To Share, the next song, which starts off with crisp sax over that insistent bass and guitar. “So hard to share / The one you love with another guy,” sings Mayall, twice. He’s a jealous guy. “When she’s with you / I feel your time will soon expire.” This sets up another wonderful piece of improvisation, with the sax leading the way. Jazzy electric guitar adds oomph, along with some “bee-bee-beeps”, ala Alvin Lee of Ten Years After. Finally, even Mayall has to conclude “his” girl may be happier with another guy. “If she loves him that’s okay / I want to step back, keep control.” However, if I heard correctly, he keeps his options open. “But if she ever needs me / I’ll be the first to know.”

After that idyllic visit to the West Coast cited earlier, it comes as no surprise that Mayall was still obsessed with the place. California is the next song. Here the bass and guitar are low-key, with a low, throaty sax whispering over them. “Going back to California, so many good things around / Don’t want to leave California, sun seems to never go down. / Some people may treat you ugly, some treat you beautiful too…” Again, these pleasant musings provide the melody, the backdrop, for another wonderful piece of jazzy blues. The tambourine is heard for the first time as Almond’s sax soars and dives, then reaches almost unparalleled heights. As a long, high note is held, the audience break out in applause. Then comes a lovely acoustic guitar and bass section, before a very bluesy harmonica and a bit of chukka-chukka voice harmonics take over. Liquid flute plays as Mayall repeats that “I’ll be back before long”, fading out before the acoustic guitar brings things to a close with a distinct frumpppp!

Thoughts About Roxanne. What better subject to build a song around? This time the guitar and bass start slowly, with Almond’s sax launching immediately into a delightful solo, before Mayall’s plaintive: “I call her on the telephone, but she is hardly ever home / I hear she’s got no loving man / And so I see I win again. / Roxanne will always be my friend. / And that’s why I keep her love.” The acoustic guitar surges along relentlessly. But in the game of love, it seems Mayall was a persistent player. “I think she’s pretty as a rose. / I take her out and buy her clothes. / I like to take her home with me. / But I must wait until she’s free.” From penetratingly powerful to featherly subtle, the sax solo on this song is breathtaking. There is also a lovely change of tempo, with the sax notes coming through at double time along with fairly hyped acoustic guitar, before things slow again before the last verse. “I love to touch her when we walk. / I love to listen to her talk. / The way I feel I can’t explain. / But I will wait for her again.” What is significant on this whole album is that each note played is considered and made to count. Sometimes there will be just a bass guitar rolling along alongside that acoustic guitar, at others a full sound comprising all instruments will create entirely different musical textures. And it is texture, percussive texture, which describes the last track, which is introduced by Mayall thus:

“What, what’s you say? Chikka-chikka what? Well there’s a bit of chikka-chikka in this one actually, so you’ll be okay. This one’s called Room To Move.” Fast, energetic, the songs kicks off with that acoustic guitar strummed alongside some frenetic harmonica, flute and bass. The vocals come equally thick and fast, and I can’t catch them all, but the key line is something like this: “If you want me darling, take me how you can. / I’ll be circulating, ’cos that’s the way I am. / You’ve gotta give ’cos / I can’t give my best unless I’ve got room to move.” The audience is kept enraptured when Mayall and Almond dispense with their instruments and launch into the chikka-chikka section of the song, to the accompaniment of an acoustic guitar box being tapped, as well as a microphone. Finally, after some incredible effects, the band comes together following Mayall’s 1,2 -1,2,3 call.

Do yourself a favour and get this album. I know that the newest CD release has three extra tracks, which if they are not of the standard of these seven, may distract. On the other hand, they may be equally good, in which case I have some catching up to do. I see from Wikipedia that there is even a 25-minute black and white Turning Point DVD documentary, which would be great to see/hear. But nothing could match this album. For me, it was the highlight of the Mayall era in my young life. Indeed, the albums mentioned here would sustain my love of his unique style of blues for many decades to come.

Of course Mayall continued making music, and I’m sure much of it is great. But I just never got near it. There was enough quality music on those iconic albums to more than suffice. Except now I realise I’m shooting myself in the foot. If anyone wants to contribute Empty Rooms, USA Union (both 1970), or Back to the Roots (1971), or Memories (also 1971), or – well, you name a year, and there’s a Mayall album or two there, throughout the Seventies and Eighties… Indeed, I see from Wikipedia he was still being productive in the Nineties and 2000s. In all, a remarkable contribution by the elder statesman of British blues.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hey YouAll!

Give the catalog a listen! John is a legend at interpreting the blues!!!

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