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March 2013 Update

Well, there’s nothing like writing a book to keep one from updating websites, is there? I have a few pieces of news on CDs and suchlike, which appear at the end, but first the book…

At the moment I’m over 200,000 words into a project which has become more involved and perhaps more significant than was at first contemplated. My concept a year or so back was for a short book focused on the second Mahavishnu Orchestra, with a prologue covering the first Mahavishnu Orchestra and an appendix covering the essentials of leader John McLaughlin’s path through the 1960s. The first piece of writing I completed, after a serious trawl through primary print sources, was the prologue: a 10,000 word breeze through MO1 ‘as it happened’. The second piece of writing I attempted was the appendix.

It soon became obvious, though, that there was a great deal to be said about John McLaughlin in the 1960s, and about the worlds he inhabited then – British rock’n’roll, the London modern jazz world, the British R&B boom, Mods, the pop session scene, ‘free improvisation’, London psychedelic clubs, and more besides. It’s remarkable that no one has attempted this before – but then it’s also remarkable that there are so few books on British jazz in the 1960s. It is, for some reason, the last great under-known empire of that cultural abundant decade.

During the latter half of 2012 it increasingly became clear that what I was writing was not an appendix but the most significant part of the book in itself. My own interviews with John’s peers and associates from this era were combined with an exhaustive trawl through the key British music paper of the time, Melody Maker, at the British Library, along with reference to many other sources (Jazz Journal, Jazz Monthly, NME, Rolling Stone, Down Beat). Many memoirs by, and biographies of, other musicians from the era, and other reference books, have also been consulted.

It has been my overarching focus to write a book which not only chronicles the central subject (John McLaughlin) but also the world in which he moved: London in the 1960s. Above all, more than anything, I want this book to be readable by anyone interested in the decade and its culture. It is, determinedly, not a ‘jazz book’ – though it contains a great deal of information and adventure from that sphere that isn’t easily available elsewhere, that will delight jazz buffs – but simply a book about people making music in the melting pot of ‘60s London, coming at it from all sorts of directions, interacting with each other, making a living playing to people, striving to make individual statements at the cutting edges whenever they could. Genres – jazz, rock, soul, blues, pop – were not so rigidly codified in those days. A fundamental error of many writers/books is to treat a genre, and the goings-on within in in the 1960s, in isolation. Yes, it can be done. But it’s like singling out a tree in a forest. It’s so much more interesting to see the whole forest, to watch the squirrels and birds moving freely from tree to tree. It was a heady time, before the modern era in many ways but within it in terms of retrievable data.  

Much of the historian’s art is first finding the fragments of fabric and only then weaving the garment. Irish intellectual Fintan O’Toole once wrote that John McLaughlin, emerging into international prominence with the Mahavishnu Orchestra in 1971, ‘was a rock star who seemed to owe nothing to the ‘60s’. This was pertinent on two levels: firstly, the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s music was not obviously based on anything which had gone before in popular music; secondly, John McLaughlin appeared to have sprung into the spotlight fully-formed, having barely left a trace on popular consciousness prior to his involvement in Miles Davis records in 1969.

Nevertheless, John McLaughlin had a professional, very active and richly varied career in music from 1958. All one need try and do is retrieve the information. There may be no records with the words ‘John McLaughlin’ on the front cover prior to his own LP debut as leader, Extrapolation, recorded early in 1969 just prior to departing for New York and what would turn out to be an international career (after an ‘apprenticeship’ longer than the Beatles’ whole existence), but the threads are still there to be found and woven together. And yes, the name ‘John McLaughlin’ (in many variants of spelling) does indeed grace the small print of the Melody Maker more times than one might have imagined during the decade. In itself, this is still only a small part of reassembling the jigsaw. But it’s a bit like finding the bits at the edges. Testimony from associates, knowledge of the context and landscape of music, people and places of Britain and Europe at the time, plus the scattered recollections on his pre-fame past from John’s own many interviews of later years form the picture within.   

A contract has been agreed with the excellent Jawbone Press and publication planned for early 2014. The book will be called Bathed In Lightning: Mahavishnu John McLaughlin And The End Of The Sixties – or something similar. The main title was inspired by a 1975 Mahavishnu review from the legendary Charles Shaar Murray in British magazine NME:

‘Playing as he does in a state of transported ecstasy – God playing through him, as it were – his music expresses a view of religion as heroic, epic, large-scale, of almost unbearable passion and grandeur. His YMCA swimming instructor features either wreathed in a beatific grin or contorted with the righteous efforts of a Good Man wrestling with the Devil, he radiates an incongruous air of preternatural calm in the midst of the unbelievably violent electronic/percussive sturm und drang of the music – like a man serenely bathing in lightning because he knows that it’s on his side and will never hurt him.’

The section of the book covering Britain and Europe up to 1969 comes to around 170,000 words at present, including two substantial appendices: one listing known concert appearances from 1963-68; the other a discography/sessionography (which adds/clarifies a great deal of information to existing discographies of the period). The second section – covering the Miles Davis and Tony Williams Lifetime era (1969-71), the MO1 era (1971-73) and the MO2 era (1974-75) – is currently being written, but will be significantly shorter than section one – less than half its length.

An option of dividing the book into two books was discussed with Jawbone and with my agent, the splendid Matthew Hamilton, over Christmas, but it was ultimately felt that one long book would be preferable to two shorter ones.

So, because of the likely length of the (single) book it’s been agreed with Jawbone mainman Major Tom, and with Agent Hamilton – over a long cup of coffee and amidst much bonhomie at a sub-zero St Pancras train station café – that there will, in effect, be two versions of the book.

The first, in hard copy, will come in somewhere below 200,000 words. (Jawbone’s longest title to date is 180,000 words, I kept being told…) The second, the e-book edition, will be longer: not an alternative ‘cut’ of the book, as such, rather the same basic text as the hard copy – but with the addition of bonus chapters and appendices. This seems to me a very acceptable compromise: I want the book to be available to as many people as possible, price wise, and I don’t want it to be uncomfortably bulky to hold. (I wonder how anyone can possibly read, for example, Johnny Rogan’s latest version of his increasingly Biblical Byrds biography – it’s hard to lift let alone open, hold and read.) On the other hand, I would hate to waste material that has taken a long time to corral and which is, to the best of my ability, fashioned into a narrative designed to engage the general public.  

Consequently, from the 170,000-odd words of Section One (1942-69), two chapters and two appendices can be fairly easily removed to the e-book version without compromising the rest of the tale. The chapters in question are on two fairly ‘stand alone’ episodes in John’s journey: Big Pete Deuchar & the Professors of Ragtime and the Tony Meehan Combo. A few paragraphs summing up the essentials of each can be added to the hard copy version, with the full tales appearing in the kindle/iPad/whatever edition.

From Section Two (1969-75), similar appendices covering gig listings (for MO2) and discography/sessionography (for the whole period), can also become e-book exclusives. Whether there is also ‘bonus chapter’ material remains to be seen.

In Other News…

My old friend film director Jan Leman got in touch recently. Jan made a lovingly crafted, beautifully filmed documentary called Acoustic Routes in 1992. Anchored around Bert Jansch, it was, in essence, a document of many key people from the guitar-centric British folk scene of the 1960s, specifically focused on Edinburgh and London. Artists who were rarely-seen at that time were filmed in conversation, reminiscence and performance – Anne Briggs, Wizz Jones, Davy Graham, Hamish Imlach, Archie Fisher and others. It concluded with a terrific sequence where Bert got to meet and play with his old hero Brownie McGhee, in California.

The film was shown once on BBC2 in 1993 and appeared at a few film festivals but soon drifted from view. It was still a few years prior to Bert’s renaissance as an artist and a few years prior to the whole ‘60s folk scene being resurrected in popular interest as a mythical time. By the time BBC4’s Folk Britannia aired, around 2004 – well into the CD reissues era (which had barely begun back in 1993) – one could say that the most of the participants in Acoustic Routes were now better known and more highly regarded than they had been 10 years earlier.

So, in a way, what made Jan’s task as a film-maker so difficult back in 1992-93 (getting the funding together, getting a broadcaster interested), has since become a virtue: he caught great performances and relaxed, natural reminiscences from people still very much capable of delivering the goods, at a time when they were being more or less ignored by the media in general. One could say that a documentary about has-beens in 1993 has re-emerged as a time capsule of great musicians in exquisitely filmed performance 20 years later. It seems, perhaps, less ‘out of time’ now than it did then. In addition, though, Jan has gone back to his rushes and created a new 102 minute cut of the film (originally 70 minutes), with new grading and mastering. I understand it looks fabulous.

I was very peripherally involved in the film – I think I may have given Jan a couple of phone numbers, I certainly attended one of the filming sessions (a wonderful experience, at the old Howff folk club premises in Edinburgh) and later the cinema premiere at the Edinburgh film festival. I also wrote a lengthy sleevenote for the original soundtrack CD, released via Demon in 1993 – and now fetching absurd sums on ebay.

At Jan’s request I’ve unearthed that original CD note (possibly, after a while of searching, the oldest piece of writing I have in electronic form). It will appear, in very slightly tweaked form, in a 48 page book which will be part of the Deluxe Edition box set of Acoustic Routes: 2 CDs, 2 DVDs and the book. The second DVD is titled Walk On, being the full 50-minute session with Bert Jansch and Brownie McGhee. The 2 CDs are, I understand, the original CD soundtrack plus a second disc of previously unreleased recordings from the film sessions. Aside from the Brownie McGhee session – where they filmed until the film stock ran out – Jan shot very leanly, from what I could see, but even from the Howff folk club session I attended there were, from memory, at least two songs filmed which were not used in the BBC version, so I imagine this ratio of used/unused material was typical.

In addition to the original CD note, I provided Jan with a Bert Jansch/Davy Graham piece written for Mojo in 2000 plus, at his request, an edit of the section referencing the film from my Jansch biography, Dazzling Stranger (Bloomsbury, 2000). I also supplied around 60 B&W photos, taken around the time of the film, of Bert Jansch in concert with the likes of Peter Kirtley and Jacqui McShee, who are both also featured in the film. Jan has a lot of other content for the 48 page book – including several hand-written lyrics from various participants and some great photos of his own – but I daresay some of the aforementioned writings/pics will appear in it.

Acoustic Routes is in cinemas around the UK during March (details can be found elsewhere online) and other versions of the film and its soundtrack recordings will be released soon, including a 2LP vinyl edition and more basic editions on DVD and CD. It’s all highly recommended. Support it if you can!

Also on the CD front, I’ve been loosely involved in a few more projects with my friend Brian O’Reilly at Hux Records. Just out, or coming soon, are Just Like Yesterday: The James Griffin Solo Anthology 1974-77, featuring the former Bread maestro’s two neglected ‘70s solo albums plus two live Old Grey Whistle Test performances. The CD comes with a terrific sleevenote from Peter Doggett. Ron Geesin has done his usual good job on the mastering, but I think he excelled himself on the second project I wanted to mention: The Joe Farrell Quartet.

The Joe Farrell Quartet is a wonderful, 37 minute New York jazz LP from 1970. It pairs the sax and reeds man Joe Farrell with Miles Davis’ entire rhythm section: Chick Corea (piano), Dave Holland (bass), Jack DeJohnette (drums) plus John McLaughlin (guitar) on two tracks. The stand-out performance is lead track, ‘Follow Your Heart’, written by John, in its definitive arrangement, but the whole LP is wonderfully evocative stuff. It’s been out on CD before, but not in recent years. The Hux release, aside from Ron’s excellent mastering, comes in a 6 panel digipak designed by the increasingly legendary Mark Case of Whitenoise Studios: based on a facsimile of the original LP gatefold, plus brief period quotes from all five players and extracts from period reviews of the LP. A beautiful looking, and sounding, artefact.

Plans are afoot at Hux to release/reissue material by a couple of British jazz icons which I’ve had the pleasure to interview for the McLaughlin book: Trevor Watts and (pending Sony’s permission) Howard Riley. Fingers crossed.

Finally (for the moment at least), I continue to provide Barney Hoskyns’ excellent subscription website  with gleanings from the archive. Most recently, in searching for the Acoustic Routes material, I came across a previously unpublished piece I’d written in July 2007, more or less on spec, and just out of interest at the time, on the ’50 year copyright issue’ in recorded sound.  To an extent, the story has moved on a little since then, but it remains an interesting piece, I think, and hopefully it will appear on Barney’s site in due course.

Myself and webmaster Uncle Spike talked about revamping the design of this site’s Journalism Archive a year or so back, to allow more new pieces to be added and accessed in easy fashion, but both of us became very busy at the time… In due course, hopefully this can be dealt with. Certainly, there are many more pieces which could be added.

When the McLaughlin book is closer at hand I hope to launch a directly-related website as a kind of online shop window for it, possibly including exclusive written content. All in good time.

Likewise, regarding my own musical activities, I’ve only recently started thinking about completing the instrumental EP referred to in the April 2012 Update. My good friend and Wiizard Of Sound, Cormac O’Kane, has been busy buying/building a new studio. I’ve been rather distracted with a book. At some point, our planets will align.

For the moment, here’s hoping it won’t be another 11 months till the next update. 

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