“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
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
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
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
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.
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
In 2003, Blues Breakers was ranked 195 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.
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
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,
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
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.
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.
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
Like that other great British bluesman, Eric Burdon, Mayall was enticed to
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
Released in 1969, it was recorded live at Bill Graham’s legendary Fillmore East in
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
The title of the next song,
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
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.
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