Classic Music Review: The Turning Point by John Mayall

John Mayall is conclusive evidence that “Hope I die before I get old” is the dumbest fucking statement in music history.

The still-active Mr. Mayall will celebrate his eighty-fourth birthday this November. He has been a working musician for sixty-one years, and as I write, he is currently on tour in the United States. After a six-week hiatus, he’ll spend every night save three in the period between October 17 and November 26 on a stage somewhere in the U. K. He released his sixty-fifth album earlier this year, jamming with Joe Walsh on two of the tracks.

Fuck Pete Townsend.

The Woodstock Generation adopted another motto frequently attributed to yippie Jerry Rubin but actually added to the vernacular by Jack Weinberger of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement: “Never trust anyone over thirty.” John Mayall entered the consciousness of that generation with the release of Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton in 1966. The anti-aging crowd probably didn’t notice that John Mayall had already smashed the boundaries of obsolescence, having reached the ripe old age of thirty-two about six months earlier.

Fuck Jerry Rubin and Jack Weinberger.

To be fair, John Mayall is one of those characters who defy time and generational classification. In terms of genre-tagging, he is primarily known as a blues musician, a very limiting tag indeed. For while blues has always served as his musical foundation, and though The Bluesbreakers pretty much stuck to the dominant Muddy Waters electric guitar virtuoso paradigm of the British Blues Boom, Mayall has always been a curious sort, a man more than willing to expand the boundaries of the blues. After giving huge boosts to the careers of Clapton, Peter Green and Mick Taylor by making them featured Bluesbreaker soloists, he grew tired of chasing down the next guitar hero once Mick left for The Stones and decided to move in a different direction.

Hence The Turning Point. From the liner notes, written by Mayall himself (caps preserved):

THE TIME IS RIGHT FOR A NEW DIRECTION IN BLUES MUSIC.  HAVING DECIDED TO DISPENSE WITH HEAVY LEAD GUITAR AND DRUMS, USUALLY A ‘MUST’ FOR BLUES GROUPS TODAY, I SET ABOUT FORMING A NEW BAND WHICH WOULD BE ABLE TO EXPLORE SELDOM-USED AREAS WITHIN THE FRAMEWORK OF LOW VOLUME MUSIC.  THIS ALBUM IS THE RESULT OF THIS EXPERIMENT AND IT WAS RECORDED LIVE AT THE FILLMORE EAST THEATER, NEW YORK, AFTER ONLY FOUR WEEKS EXPERIENCE OF EACH OTHER’S PLAYING.

Elsewhere in the packaging, Mayall shows off his economical writing style, managing to further expound on his new direction while introducing his new bandmates at the same time:

It no longer seemed logical to me that I should find yet another new lead guitarist; since Eric Clapton more or less founded a whole cult of blues guitar stylists, too many people are into that bag for it to mean much anymore. So I have now got a new thing in operation whereby drums are not used on the theory that every instrument is capable of creating its own rhythm. An acoustic finger style guitarist of the finest order, Jon Mark, replaced drummer Colin Allen, Johnny Almond on flutes and saxophones replaces Mick Taylor who made the headlines a week after leaving me when he was asked to join the Rolling Stones.

“Every instrument is capable of creating its own rhythm” is a concept that solo acoustic guitarists and classical music aficionados easily grasp, and just a few months before The Turning Point, Ian Anderson demonstrated the utility of the flute as a rhythmic instrument in the context of blues on Jethro Tull’s This Was. But even with those precedents, dispensing with the drummer represented a huge commercial risk for Mayall. As anyone who has ever played in a band understands, the presence of a drum kit requires all the other instruments to crank it up so they can be heard. This dynamic becomes a virtue in rock music, because the loudness itself adds to the aura of excitement, allowing even third-rate bands to sound pretty good for a number or two until the audience filters out the noise. Because Mayall’s audience was a rock-oriented audience who expected loud-and-powerful, one would assume that “low-volume music” would have been greeted with hoots, hollers and catcalls by the crowd at Fillmore East on July 12, 1969.

Damn if he didn’t win them over and leave them begging for more. The Turning Point is one of the truly great live albums, all the more delightful for the risk involved.

After Mayall’s decidedly proper introductions of the boys in the band and without further ado, the band launches into the Mayall composition, “The Laws Must Change.” In the midst of the atmosphere of protest pervading the United States with the Vietnam War at its peak, Mayall delivers a song that radicals of the era would have dismissed as “Establishment propaganda.” Urging listeners to be nice to the police and to try to see both sides of a question, Mayall even goes so far as to remind his probably stoned audience that “Every time you’re holdin’/You are guilty of the crime.” Seriously uncool, man! Actually, the advice is quite sensible, but common sense was an alien concept for the starry-eyed idealists of the period:

It seems to be the fashion
To say you’re right and they are wrong (2)
But you gotta see both sides
(Or) You’ll find yourself in jail ‘fore long

You’re screamin’ at policemen
But they’re only doin’ a gig (2)
Gotta try and take the time
To figure out how the issue got that big

After that verse Johnny Almond launches into a Yusef Lateef/Ian Anderson-style flute solo, heavy on the thrust with sharp overtones. The rhythm section of  Steve Thompson on bass and Jon Mark on rhythm acoustic guitar is spot-on, inspiring a mid-tempo ass wiggle from yours truly. Halfway through the solo, Mayall asserts himself on harp, leading to a tight call-and-response pattern with Johnny Almond’s flute that earns a well-deserved round of applause. Almond disappears for a moment during the Lenny Bruce verse (“Lenny Bruce was trying to tell you many things before he died/Don’t throw rocks at policemen/But get the knots of law untied), reappearing with a sax to enhance the sharpness of the rhythmic punctuation. This switcheroo pays off in the fade when the band highlights the dominant pattern of three eighth notes played in 4/4 time, leading to a subtle crescendo of rising harmonic notes and a sudden but effective finish that definitely wows the crowd. “The Laws Must Change” is the perfect opener, a mid-tempo number that shows off the tightness of the band (after four weeks!) and allows the audience to get comfortable with drum-deprived rhythm.

“Saw Mill Gulch Road” is a slower blues number with a gorgeous introduction featuring John Mayall playing slide on a Telecaster, his sustained notes floating over a somewhat intense rhythmic pattern established by Mark and Thompson. Johnny Almond enters toward the end of the intro with a warm and gentle flute pattern that communicates a mood of introspective regret. The song is about a teenage girl, your classic jail bait who sneaks out at night to meet her adult male lover. The male narrator decides to break it off without a word of goodbye, probably realizing that fucking a minor wasn’t the smartest idea he’d ever had. What makes the story work is not the double-sided aspect of the regret (lost love and “how could I have been so fucking stupid?”) but the simple truth that the blues is the place where you share the unthinkable, the shameful and the honest, sometimes ugly truth. As a mood piece, it’s a first-rate performance.

The next piece is John Mayall’s second tribute to the late blues great J. B. Lenoir, a relatively minor figure from the popular perspective but an influential guitarist and one of the few blues singers in the 50’s and 60’s who tackled social and political issues such as racism and war. Mayall’s first song about Lenoir was the mournful “The Death of J. B. Lenoir” on the album Crusade, where he sings that Lenoir’s death “hit me like a hammer blow.” In “I’m Gonna Fight for You, J. B.” he has moved beyond grief and resolves to dedicate his energies toward making sure Lenoir’s blues is “heard everywhere.” Mayall would not realize his dream until the 21st century, when Lenoir was featured in Martin Scorsese’s documentary series The Blues (2003), inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame (2011) and honored by the inclusion of his song “Alabama Blues” in the movie Selma (2015).

“I’m Gonna Fight for You, J. B.” is a relaxed blues in the traditional style, sung by Mayall in his relatively high-pitched voice (a trait he shared with Lenoir) over a guitar duet that shifts to a long instrumental break allowing both guitarists to strut their stuff. Jon Mark’s acoustic solo is a breathtaking flurry of notes and chords with occasional patterns that break the boundaries of the loping rhythm; Mayall’s Tele solo is by contrast clean and classic blues. Interestingly, Steve Thompson doesn’t enter until Mayall’s solo, adding depth to that passage and retrospectively confirming that “every instrument is capable of creating its own rhythm” (you hardly notice his absence during the duet). The simplicity of the arrangement also gives you a moment to appreciate the quality of the recording: The Turning Point is beautifully recorded and engineered (kudos to Eddie Kramer), capturing each performer’s contributions while always maintaining superb sonic balance.

“So Hard to Share” shifts to more of a jazz sensibility in large part due to Johnny Almond’s sax and Mayall’s syncopated rhythm guitar pattern. Johnny Almond’s solo is a marvelous piece of work alternating between smooth riffs, disciplined flurries and near-growls at the higher end of the register. In one memorable passage, Mayall sings scat while harmonizing with his guitar licks, totally immersed in the groove. The fade is fascinating because it is a genuine fade, a slow but steady reduction in volume down to nothing but the sounds of the musicians catching their breaths. The audience is so silent during the fade you’ve almost forgotten about them, indicating how firmly Mayall had them seated in the palm of his hand with his low-volume approach.

Mayall attached a brief explanatory tagline to each of the songs in the track listing, and the one of “So Hard To Share” reads, “Patricia and a possessive ‘old man’ who stood in our way.” Patricia is hard to share because her ‘old man’ sometimes keeps Patricia “locked up,” denying Mayall a coveted spot between her luscious legs. Mayall differentiates himself from the possessive prick in the third verse, stating clearly that “If she loves him that’s okay,” indicating he has no possessive designs of his own. Whoop-de-do. 1969 was the year of one small step for man, and I guess the share-the-broad concept could have been perceived as one small step in the deconstruction of traditional relational paradigms. Since there’s no indication that Patricia had a say in the matter, though, I think it was really one small step forward and two steps back into the safety of a male-controlled society. In a truly enlightened relationship, Patricia would have been in charge of the whole thing! To be fair, Mayall wasn’t the only stepper to stumble that year, for 1969 was also the year of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, a thoroughly stupid film about open relationships long on titillation, short on delivering the goods and leaves all participants in the foursome completely disillusioned about traditional and alternative ways of getting your rocks off. If Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice had been released in today’s environment of sequel-mania, there would have been four sequels, one for each member of the quartet, each showing them masturbating for two hours in a state of existential disillusionment.

John Mayall wisely changes the subject with “California,” a nine-and-a-half minute Mayall-Thompson opus described as “improvisations and moods on the theme of homesickness.” California of the late 60’s probably was more like the paradise described in this song (unless you lived in Watts or East Oakland), so the lyrics represent a time capsule of sorts. Here the music is the draw, an extended jazz jam that remains in the key of D for the entire journey. The soloists take over a little more than a minute into the song, beginning with Johnny Almond on alto sax. Almond’s solo captures the feel of driving down Highway 1 during a sunset while the Pacific Ocean fog remains at bay—fluid with peaks of color expressed at the upper end of the alto sax range. The next passage features Jon Mark’s rhythmic capabilities with a few understated variations, inviting Mayall to join in with a touch of support on the harmonica. We also hear a touch of Almond’s flute, presaging a more prominent role in a harmonica-flute duet. Here Almond adds a touch of Arabian Nights by shifting briefly to the Andalusian scale, reflecting the reputed magic of the California scene. The piece wraps up with Mayall returning to the scant lyrics, and my overwhelming reaction is one of disbelief that this piece has ended so soon! It certainly doesn’t feel like nine-and-a-half minutes, indicating that it is very easy to lose yourself in such an enchanting piece as “California.”

“Thoughts about Roxanne” shifts the mood to 3 a. m. night club with a languorous blues number featuring deft and subtle work from Almond, Mark and Thompson (who co-wrote this piece). The fills and responses here are an absolute delight, with Almond’s smooth but intense blues-informed riffs and Mark’s nimble command of the stop-time-punctuated rhythms. John Mayall’s Telecaster enters with some sweet reverb-accented touches before cueing the band to pick up the tempo. Johnny Almond is all over that cue, leaving smoothness behind for the sensibilities of modern jazz played fast and furiously. Mayall comes to the fore with his guitar, a relatively straightforward run that sounds fabulous in context. A sudden shift—perhaps a bit too sudden to my ears—brings us back to the smoky bar and our half-finished highball.

Up to this point, none of the songs on The Turning Point qualify as up-tempo numbers, and though Mayall and friends have broken any resistance to low-volume music with a series of intensely pleasurable performances, both he and the crowd recognize it’s time to slam the foot down on the accelerator and get the fuck moving! In the pause that follows “Thoughts about Roxanne,” someone in the audience calls out for “Chicka, chicka!” Mayall’s response is a puzzled, “What? What’s it say? Chicka-chicka what?” He then acknowledges the request for mouth percussion by announcing, “Well, there’s a bit of chicka-chicka in this one, actually. You’ll be all right. This one’s called ‘Room to Move’.”

Oh, yeah, baby! Chicka-chicka all over me!

According to the liner notes, “Room to Move” is about “a musician’s need for personal freedom to love without entanglement.” The lyrics are short and to the point:

May seem peculiar
How I think o’ you
If you want me darlin’
Here’s what you must do.
You gotta free (give) me
‘Cause I can’t give the best
Unless I got room to move.

If you want me darlin’
Take me how you can
I’ll be circulating,
‘Cause that’s the way I am.
You gotta free me
‘Cause I can’t give the best
Unless I got room to move

I endorse these sentiments whole-heartedly, because unlike the “I’ll be true to you” blather that accompanies too many romantic interactions, these sentiments are unmistakably honest. This man needs freedom to get a hard-on, and unlike all the other lovers who sneak around behind your back, he’s giving you the straight scoop. Now you have a choice, and that choice needs to be just as honest—“Well, I’ll fuck him and maybe he’ll change” just isn’t going to cut it. That’s called a hidden agenda, and that’s something you should never bring into a relationship. And here’s a tip: honest people are experts at sensing hidden agendas and relational bullshit. If you try to get down and dirty with a guy like Mayall, you’ll send all kinds of confusing vibes and the result will be a penis that you couldn’t firm up with all the plaster in the world.

Hmm. Maybe I should do a “Dear Altrockchick” column.

Lyrics aside, “Room to Move” reinforces the other freedom that pervades the album: the freedom to create rhythms without a drummer. There is no better illustration on the album—or perhaps anywhere—to demonstrate that human beings are creatures of rhythm, and if you don’t have a drummer handy, you still have plenty of options. Thighs. Hands. Fingersnaps. Shoes, with or without taps (boots for the heavy stuff). The body of an acoustic guitar.

And the entire human vocal apparatus.

“Room to Move” shoots out of the gate like the proverbial bat out of hell, with all four musicians on point with the quick chord changes and the stop time moments at the end of each bar. The chord changes themselves aren’t at all difficult (E-D-E-D-E-D-E-rest, then up to A-G), but the speed and the precision required to properly execute the pattern isn’t kids’ stuff. The break to a G chord also temporarily changes the rhythm, and whether that feels like temporary relief or a stride-breaking moment depends on the musician. Fortunately, this bunch could handle anything you threw at them.

After only four weeks of rehearsal.

After Mayall sings the first verse, he launches into an energetic harp solo. What I find amazing here is that he’s already spent more energy alternating between voice and harp in the first verse than most singers expend during your average song, but damn, this is a man on fire and there’s nothing that can slow him down. Accompanied only by Jon Mark slapping his guitar body and a bit of handicapping, Mayall delivers a solo that qualifies as an absolute delight—I smile every time he starts to crank it up. Right when he seems to hit the peak, Johnny Almond enters with “mouth percussion” (chicka-chicka stuff), a series of unvoiced syllables attached to the frantic rhythm. Eventually, Mayall puts his harp in his shirt pocket and does counterpoint mouth percussion that draws oohs and aahs from the crowd, throwing in a cheek pop and random breath for good measure. Now I’m smiling and giggling, immersed the sheer playfulness of this unique musical moment. Mayall reconnects with his harp for a few more measures, gives the countdown one more time and once again, the entire band enters on point, thrilling both the crowd and yours truly. Amazingly, Mayall, who has taken more breaths during the preceding four minutes than an out-of-shape stud giving the fuck of his life, steps up to the mike to sing the final verse, blowing harp between the lines. I want this man’s genes preserved for science! Needless to say, “Room to Move” ends on the dominant pattern, with everyone ending at precisely the same moment, like a group of Olympic gymnasts who all stick it at once in a ten-point performance that even a Russian judge would validate.

God damn, what an experience! More! More! More!

If, like my dear OLD dad you bought the original album in the 60’s, you didn’t get any more. The album ended with “Room to Move.” What? No encore? No sloppy seconds? No post-fuck cigarette? You’re just going to fuck me, put your pants on and split! You rotten bastard!

Ah, but if you buy the 2001 re-issue, “Room to Move” is followed by three bonus tracks. I usually abhor bonus tracks because they usually are sloppy seconds, but in this case, the bonus tracks enrich the listening experience so much I can’t imagine listening to The Turning Point without them. “Sleeping by Her Side” combines a soothing background of acoustic guitar and clean flute with a lyrically-vivid story about a seriously desirable party chick who passes out in John Mayall’s arms, and though he didn’t hit the jackpot, he nestles by her side as the sun rises over the Arizona desert. “Don’t Waste My Time” is a country-tinged hoot (Jon Mark does some brilliant finger-picking here), a reinforcement of the “Room to Move” message:

Well, tell me woman who you’re with tonight
If you’re on your own then that’s alright
But if you don’t want me with you
Don’t waste my time with your jive

Mark opens “Can’t Sleep This Night” with another mesmerizing pattern that seems more British folk than blues or jazz, a pattern that eventually gives way to bass, sax and Tele riffing over a steady, slightly edgy contrasting minor key pattern. When Mark returns with the opening pattern, it has the effect of intensifying the edge, a musical replication of the tension that often drives a sleepless night. After the song ends, Mayall responds to the applause with a polite but absolutely firm, “Thank you and good night,” giving the album the proper ending it deserved.

One of the most truly unique and memorable albums to come from a unique and memorable decade, The Turning Point is a testament to the freedom-seeking ethos that formed the positive pole of the 60’s dynamic. Conceived and released during a period when genre-definition was virtually irrelevant, the spirit of The Turning Point reflects the same spirit that led Miles Davis to turn traitor to the pure jazz contingent and create the inevitable act of fusion we know as Bitches Brew. In The Turning Point, John Mayall proved two things: one, that despite certain structural norms, the blues is much more malleable than people believe; and two, music in all its various forms has the power to move people to let go of expectations when the music is played with drive, enthusiasm, talent and ego-free collaboration.

May John Mayall live and play forever.

4 responses

  1. Excellent review of one of my all time favourite albums! Thank you for that! I haven’t listened to it for a while and gonna enjoy it on this rainy day…

    Like

    1. Enjoy! It’s such a one-of-a-kind experience!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It must had been frustrating for John Mayall as during the 60’s I think he became more well known as a talent scout as opposed to his own talents since he sure had a good eye and ear for talent and indeed it is known that many would go to his gigs simply to watch and listen to the guitarist instead of him – Screaming Lord Sutch was in a similar situation in spite of his crazy stage show. Seeing Clapton, Jack Bruce, John McVie, Mick Fleetwood, Peter Green and Mick Taylor all go on to bigger fame and fortune shortly after leaving his employ must had been galling in some ways though seems like Mayall took it all in his stride and more determined to find a way forward in his own right. Though he’d already to tried to make a point with “The Blues Alone” being a totally solo album with occasional percussion, this album was his first major statement that he was his own man and has his own talent.

    A brave and bold statement for its time going onstage in an unplugged like manner as that in itself would had defied all expectations as I’m sure those attending the Fillmore were expecting a couple of hours of in yer face blues rock, but Mayall was no schmuck – he knew there were plenty other bands doing just that, so how do you stand out and make an impact? Like THIS! Despite that, this is still not an album most people cite or think of when Mayall is mentioned and more’s the pity.

    Like

    1. Definitely one of the unappreciated gems of modern music. Shit, I forgot all about Screaming Lord Sutch!

      Liked by 1 person

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