With karma and kaleidoscopic virtuosity
Bathed In Lightning: John McLaughlin, The 60s & The Emerald Beyond By Colin Harper Jawbone Press, 512pp, $25 WELCOME to psychedelia, hallucinogenics, transcendental spiritualism, Indian gurus, jazzrock fusion, and many more recollections of the music and unrepeatable, trippy times of the 1960s and 70s. Among the best of that era’s music was guitarist John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, where musical karma and kaleidoscopic virtuosity burst out in 1971.
Irish author, music journalist, and composer Colin Harper has produced a work of meticulous, almost overwhelmingly detailed research, based around McLaughlin’s extraordinary career. Born in 1942 in Yorkshire, McLaughlin became a major catalyst of the jazz-rock movement. The book’s title is taken from a quote by writer Charles Murray describing McLaughlin onstage as “like a man serenely bathing in lightning”.
The youngest of five children, McLaughlin’s father was an engineer, his mother an amateur violinist, and ”there was a lot of music happening in the house”. At nine he started piano les-
June 14-15, 2014 sons but at 11 he took up the guitar, recalling that he regularly took the guitar to bed with him. Around 12, his heroes were acoustic blues players Muddy Waters and Leadbelly. By the age of 13 he’d discovered flamenco and classical guitar and soon found gypsy jazz exponent Django Reinhardt; later he admired Charlie Parker, but his two greatest inspirations were jazz giants Miles Davis and John Coltrane.
By 1960, McLaughlin was working in a London musical instrument shop, playing with various musicians and “paying his dues” by touring with a top list of London’s jazz, R&B and rock musicians. He joined Georgie Fame and The Blue Flames and backed numerous pop vocalists on recordings, including Tom Jones and Petula Clarke. In 1963, McLaughlin played R&B in Graham Bond’s quartet, where he made volume a key element and started using feedback. After accompanying US soul sensation Wilson Pickett in 1965, he began his most creative period to date, culminating in the 1969 underground classic album Extrapolation with John Surman on reeds.
McLaughlin arrived in New York in February 1969, invited to join drummer Tony Williams’s group Lifetime. Williams introduced him to Miles Davis. McLaughlin later announced: “Two days after I arrived, I was in the studio with Miles.” They produced the album In a Silent Way and McLaughlin recalled being nervous. Davis was an enigma, a complex individual, surrounded by mystique. His cryptic instruction to the guitarist: “Play it like you don’t know how to play the guitar.” Mystified, McLaughlin started playing the melody to Davis’s encouragement, and was later surprised at how good it sounded. Six months afterwards, Davis rang McLaughlin to invite him to record what became the large ensemble, iconic jazz rock album Bitches Brew, Davis’s first gold album with sales of more than half a million.
By now firmly established in New York, McLaughlin continued recording with Davis and playing in Lifetime. He also played with just about everyone of note, and was introduced to Sri Chinmoy, an Indian guru whose disciplines and philosophies he followed strictly for the next five years
McLaughlin formed the five-member Mahavishnu Orchestra in 1971 and in 2½ years they released three records, played about 500 concerts and managed to astound the world. The guitar’s lightning-fast playing, the esoteric modes and mind-boggling time signatures imbued a sense of awe. The music erupted at a spine-shaking 130 decibels and Downbeat magazine asked: “Why turn the damned sound up so bloody loud?” Their debut album sold 20,000 units in three weeks.
The orchestra folded at the end of 1973, possibly due to McLaughlin’s highly disciplined “enlightenment”. By early 1974, however, McLaughlin had assembled another four players, including European violin virtuoso Jon LucPonty, and together they formed the nucleus of Mahavishnu II. Their launching concert was with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, their first album, Apocalypse, was recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra. Mahavishnu II’s second album, Visions of The Emerald Beyond, is McLaughlin’s favourite album of the era. Meanwhile, pursuing his interest in Indian music he formed Shakti, a quartet of Indian musicians.
When Luc-Ponty and one other member left the Orchestra, things changed as McLaughlin began to drift away from Sri Chinmoy — the final incarnation of Mahavishnu also faded away in late 1975.
Harper has written this amazingly detailed, easily read reference book about a fascinating musician, an era and its music. It provides a huge quantity of contemporary conversations, opinions, reviews, analyses and descriptions. The book has a discography plus many monochrome images, and the eBook edition contains bonus chapters including details of Mahavishnu’s 1974 tour of Australia and New Zealand.