This will be my twenty-first and last review covering The Beatles and their solo careers.
I am so done with The Beatles.
More accurately, I am done with a hardy group of Baby Boomer males who have hounded me for years because I had the chutzpah to express my heartfelt opinion that both The White Album and Abbey Road suck.
Blasphemy! Burn the heretic! She wasn’t even there—what does she know? You can’t possibly understand what The Beatles meant unless you were there!
That perspective is so fucking stupid you’d think Trump invented it. Members of the generation who experienced the history are the least qualified people to evaluate that history. Every generation thinks their generation was the greatest gift to humanity, and the Baby Boomers are exceptionally prone to mythologizing. While there is no doubt that the rock music of the 60’s and early 70’s contained some of the finest and most lasting contributions to music history, that music was made by human beings, not gods, and all human beings are subject to hot and cold streaks. The Beatles were a great band for five or six years, then went into a noticeable decline during which their godlike status, not their music, sustained their popularity. They still bathed in the glow of mythology and its revenue-generating power during their solo careers, none of which produced much of lasting value.
Which brings us to Ram, a good-news/bad-news album if there ever was one.
Let’s start with the good news: Paul McCartney has rarely sounded more exuberant than he does on Ram. With Linda’s emotional support, he found his way through the darkness occasioned by the collapse of The Beatles and shed all traces of depression and disorientation that marked his first solo effort. On Ram, he sounds positively thrilled to embark on a new, independent musical adventure, as is evident in the unbridled energy he displays throughout the record and the blessed return of his sense of humor. His melodic gifts remain intact, he sings as well as he ever did and he’s still one hell of a bass player.
The bad news: exuberance often occasions a lack of discipline and judgment. We have all experienced this phenomenon in our personal lives when we get too drunk or too horny and wind up doing dumb things we regret. The thing about Ram is that Paul did a lot of dumb things that he should have regretted but instead wound up using the dumb things to create the template for his solo career. That’s the really bad news: Ram turned out to be the incubator for later crap like “Silly Love Songs” and “My Love.” Add to that the generally weak and sometimes nonsensical lyrics and there’s a lot about Ram not to like.
Note that I did not include the presence of Linda McCartney in either the good news or bad news. She’s not much of a vocalist, but at least she hits the notes. Having said that, there is always a temptation to compare the relative contributions of Beatle wives, but the last thing I want to get into here is the whole John-Paul public brouhaha that in many ways was more classless than the tiresome spats involving the Gallagher brothers.
Unfortunately, the song that John uses as evidence for his “I didn’t start it–he started it!” argument opens the album. Sigh.
If you leave the nonsense out of the discussion, “Too Many People” is a pretty strong opening cut. McCartney’s vocal is outstanding, spanning the range from full-throated, growling oomph to sweet soprano. His bass part is thumpingly energetic, adding significantly to the strong forward movement. Hugh McCracken’s lead guitar solo is very impressive, and Linda’s supporting vocals are her strongest on the album. What’s not to like?
All the nanny-nanny poo-poo shit, of course.
The confirmed attacks on John and Yoko (the ones McCartney owned up to) involved the lines, “Too many people preaching practices,” and “You took your lucky break and broke it in two.” Other somewhat credible suspects include:
- The “cake lines.” These include the opening, “Piss off, cake” and “Too many reaching for a piece of cake.” Both are references to the well-publicized act described in “The Balllad of John and Yoko” where the two honeymooning lovebirds found themselves in Vienna, “eating chocolate cake in a bag.”
- “Too many people going underground,” is allegedly based on John and Yoko’s shared perception of themselves as leaders of an amorphous worldwide underground movement that was going to achieve world peace through billboards and bed-ins.
John also thought “Dear Boy” and “Back Seat of My Car” were about him (ridiculous), and some sources say that John and Yoko saw the whole album as an attack on them, which has about as much credibility as John’s assertion that Yoko was one of the greatest artists to ever grace the planet. The silliness didn’t end with John, unfortunately. George and Ringo thought “3 Legs” (coming up next) was an attack on them and Mr. Lennon, a splash of lingering spite left over from the argument concerning the selection of The Beatles’ business manager.
Putting all the pettiness aside, the most important lines in the song are the closing lines to the third verse:
Too many people holding back
This is crazy, and baby, it’s not like me
That is Paul McCartney’s statement of liberation from the chains of depression. He’s telling us he’s not going to hold back anymore; he’s going to be himself and doesn’t give a rat’s ass if anyone thinks he’s a bourgeois bore. I think he’s right in one respect—holding back is crazy from a personal perspective. You have to be yourself regardless of consequences; otherwise, what’s the fucking point of living? However, the creation of art involves creating some kind of aesthetic distance from the subject matter, for without that shift in perspective, the personal remains personal instead of universal. What happens too often on Ram is McCartney follows his undisciplined impulses, and without a Lennon or George Martin around to whack him upside the head, what we get sometimes is pure self-indulgence.
“3 Legs” is a good example. The answer to the question, “What the fuck was he thinking on ‘3 Legs’?” is pretty obvious: he wasn’t. The lyrics are terrible, the music is an insult to every credible blues performer who ever lived and the attempt to spice up the dullness with vocal patches and tempo changes fails to achieve the desired effect. It’s followed by the equally awful sort-of-title-track, “Ram On,” another piece of total nonsense with only one redeeming quality—it allowed Paul to get acquainted with the ukulele, a skill he would apply some thirty-odd years later with grace and class when performing “Something” in a touching tribute to George Harrison.
“Dear Boy” is a definite upgrade, with McCartney displaying his still impressive talent for melody and harmony. I have to say that I strongly prefer the mono mix of this song, as the stereo version leaves Paul’s lead vocal and the Linda-Paul background vocals competing for attention. A YouTube comment by a gentleman by the name of Gene Stewart described the song as a “Wonderful, elegant Fuck You song,” and I have to agree. The lyrics express his appreciation for Linda’s presence in his life through a message to her ex, a pretty odd way to express appreciation, but not uncommon with competitive males. While the lyrics don’t exactly knock me out, they do form a coherent story, which is more than we can say about the two preceding tracks and the one to follow.
That next track demanded a conversation with my father:
ME: Dad! “Uncle Albert!” What the fuck?
DAD: I assume you mean “How did ‘Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey’ make it to the top of the charts?”
ME: Yeah! The Grammy I get—Grammy voters have always been stupid. But why on earth did people flock to the record shops and pay money for this . . . this . . .
DAD: Wow. My daughter at a loss for words. Never thought I’d see the day . . .
ME: I’m baffled, befuddled and bewildered. What happened?
DAD: It’s pretty simple. “Uncle Albert” was the one that sounded most like The Beatles at their peak—it had the harmonies, it had the joy, it had the humor. I know you don’t care for the suite on Abbey Road, but for a lot of people, that was their favorite part of the album.
ME: But . . . just think about that one line—“Hand across the water/Heads across the sky.” What?
DAD: I know you hate to hear “you weren’t there,” but there is some validity to that statement in one sense. For those of us who grew up with The Beatles, losing them was like a death in the family, and you know the first stage in processing grief is denial. I think we were all in denial about it, but for several years after they broke up, just hearing one of their voices was very, very comforting—the dream was still alive. “Uncle Albert” was the closest thing we’d heard to that magical sound, and I don’t think anyone bothered to pay attention to the lyrics, even when they were singing along.
Similar to the suite on Abbey Road, “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” is pieced together from unfinished fragments of songs. The “Admiral Halsey” piece is clearly a throwaway, but McCartney had something there with the story of the boring old uncle who inspired everyone in the family to avoid his presence at any cost. The chords to the “Uncle Albert” segment are quite clever, with a nifty half-step resolution to the D major root. Sadly, he never finished it, tacking on an absurd bit about an American admiral, an exhortation to the listening audience to discover their inner gypsies and the faux thrill of “Hand across the water/Heads across the sky.” An author by the name of Andrew Grant Jackson interpreted the song to be a quite coherent tale related to The Beatles’ breakup, but on closer examination his explanation makes about as much sense as the “Paul is dead” conspiracy theory.
Side one ends with a song that I will defend to my death, the seriously exuberant “Smile Away.” Why does this one make the cut while other exuberant songs on the album miss the mark? First, it’s Paul McCartney rocking as hard as he had in years, and when McCartney has the fire on high, he’s fucking awesome. Second, and probably even more important, it’s Paul McCartney poking fun at himself, placing himself in the unlikely role of total loser, the guy who desperately needs a shower, a SonicCare and a fresh bottle of Listerine. In the context of a guy recovering from depression, the ability to laugh at oneself is a huge sign that recovery is moving full steam ahead. I love McCartney’s Elvis/Lady Madonna voice, and when he adds roughness to it during the fade it knocks me out every fucking time. Great guitar, great bass, solid Americanized fifties background vocals from Linda—love it!
Side two brings us to “Heart of the Country.” Jon Landau of Rolling Stone thought it was the low point of the album; Stephen Erlewine of AllMusic gushed over its arrangement and claimed that it ranked among McCartney’s very best songs. I find it dull, duller and dullest, but if there’s one song on Ram that tells you where McCartney will be headed in the future, it’s “Heart of the Country”—inoffensive, not unpleasant, but hardly engaging.
On a spectrum all by itself we have “Monkberry Moon Delight.” There are three major interpretive theories about this piece:
- The song is an attempt by the authors (Paul and Linda) at surrealistic poetry.
- The song is the evil twin of “Glass Onion,” poking fun at Beatle freaks who dive deep for meaning and come up gasping for air.
- Paul and Linda were stoned out of their fucking minds.
I don’t buy the surrealistic argument—this was written years after the brief period surrounding Revolver when McCartney spent his free time hobnobbing with the avant-garde. I also don’t buy the “Glass Onion” connection, an argument that weirdly validates the content of “Glass Onion.” No, I’m going with “stoned out of their fucking minds,” because when I listen to it straight—and by that I mean “not under the influence of cannabis or hashish”—I feel like I’m hearing people laughing at one of those funny things that are only funny when you’re high. As I was unable to score any weed before writing this review, I’m going to give “Monkberry Moon Delight” a pass until I can confirm my theory.
Shit. If I’d monetized the blog, I could have deducted the weed as a business expense. Oh, well.
Ringo and George liked the next tune, “Eat at Home,” a Buddy Holly-esque rocker that allows McCartney to reconnect with his teenage self. I think the song would have been a good fit in the back-to-basics operating mode of Let it Be/Get Back, but nothing could have saved that turkey, and given all the bad juju in the studio back then, I don’t think Paul would have given it half the energy he does here. Overall it’s a plus, but nothing that knocks my socks off.
McCartney got one thing right on “Long-Haired Lady”—the first word. Man, this sucker is long. It seems to go on forever. The best part of the song comes early, when Linda gets a little snarky on the line “Or is this the only thing you want me for?” After that, you can lift the needle at any time. You may want to skip the next track, too, a pointless reprise of “Ram On.” I have no idea why McCartney bothered to reprise this piece of nothingness unless he was trying to duplicate the reprise trick made famous on Sgt. Pepper. That reprise was the perfect way to introduce one of the great songs in rock history; this reprise does come before one of the best songs on the album but it does nothing to heighten your sense of anticipation like the Sgt. Pepper piece. In that sense, the reappearance of “Ram On” only provides evidence about how far we have fallen.
Lucky for us, McCartney makes a last-minute save with “The Back Seat of My Car,” a song that owes a deep debt to Brian Wilson. The rising falsetto passages are pure Beach Boys, and there’s nothing wrong with imitation if it is delivered with deep admiration, as McCartney does here. For teenagers of that era (especially American teenagers, who had much easier access to family wheels), the back seat of the car was the place where you could snuggle up with your honey, share the feelings and thoughts you’d never share with mom and dad, and, if magic was in the air, find yourself a candidate for a statutory rape charge. McCartney isn’t so much concerned with the snogging aspect of the back seat as he is with its status as a safe haven from the buffeting winds of the generational divide:
Speed along the highway,Honey, I want it my way
But listen to her daddy’s song—“Don’t stay out too long.”
We’re just busy hidin’, sitting the back seat of my car.The laser lights are pretty
We may end up in Mexico City
But listen to her daddy’s song—“Making love is wrong.”
I’ve always been amazed at the thickness of parents of the era as depicted in movies, music and television—they seemed to believe that parenting had everything to do with “Thou shalt nots” instead of encouraging kids to talk about their feelings and help them think through the upsides and downsides of a desired course of action. Because the parents were engaged in many of the activities they told their kids not to do (smoking, drinking, fucking), the “Thou shalt nots” inevitably led to valid accusations of hypocrisy. “Because I said so” didn’t cut it with a better-educated, skeptical generation of teens. The complete deafness on one side led to both sides taking the posture, “We believe that we can’t be wrong,” hence the Generational Divide.
The arrangement is easily the best on the album, a well-balanced mix of orchestral and rock conventions, diverse tempos and strong vocals (especially the low-octave pairing on “But listen to her daddy’s song”). “Back Seat of My Car” was apparently a late-stage possibility for Let It Be/Get Back, but it would have been wasted on that not-much-of-an effort. Here it allows McCartney to finish strong and give fans some encouragement for the future.
As history shows, though, ever-hopeful McCartney fans were in for some serious disappointment if they bought the first Wings album. My passionate-defender-of-all-things-Beatles father listened to Wild Life once, slipped it back in its sleeve and traded it in for the new Badfinger album, a definite (if ironic) upgrade.
Ram was not received well by critics of its day, but lately it has gone through a reappraisal, resulting in more favorable reviews. The Monkees recently experienced a similar reappraisal, demonstrating only that Baby Boomers can’t let go of the 60’s, and even if they have to scrape the bottom of the barrel, they cling to the belief that any music that came out during their salad days has to be better than Radiohead, even the fucking Monkees. My take is that Ram has a few good songs on it but if this album had been released by a nobody, not too many people would have bothered to listen.
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.