John Mayall

Album Reviews:

1968: Bare Wires

1970: Empty Rooms

Compilation Reviews:

1969: Looking Back [German Double-LP]

2010: So Many Roads: An Anthology 1964–1974

Bare Wires

Rating: 6.4/10
Rated as
: Album
Album Status: Fan Recommendation
Released: 1968
Specific Genre: British Blues
Main Genre: Blues, Electric Blues
: Rhythm&Blues, Chicago Blues, Jazz-Rock, Psychedelic Rock
Label: Decca

Tides have been turning, I’ve been learning

A strange little release by John Mayall – the last with the Bluesbreakers, trying to diversify everything he ever did, mixing up things by fusing his British blues-base with jazzy intersections, psychedelic tidbits, acoustic folky violins… the year is 1968 and psychedelia is the game. Mayall does not quite approach the genre with studio effects or fuzzy playing. Instead, he opts for jazz horn instrumentation, log cabin violin, different sets of harmoniums and keyboards to create a side-long “suite” full of blues licks and folk-jazz simulacra.

Mayall’s high-pitched but mellow voice delivers indecipherable lyrics, and what can I say: Mayall always sounds like a weirdo with a purpose, the guy building odd things behind his barn, most of which turn out to be surprisingly conventional. He somehow had hit gold with his entry card into the business (the Bluesbreakers debut), but only since the nerdiness of his inclinations aligned with popular taste by accident. This is obtuse in comparison, and while I like the “Bare Wires Suite” for its over-stated ambitions, and the morphinic, smoky folk-blues ballad “Sandy”, the pure electric blues numbers here had run their course – no wonder he would make for different shores. For Mayall-enthusiasts, this is an intriguing record.

Trivia: the CD-release really overplays the „suite“-aspect, delivering side A as a 23-minute opus – which it isn’t, it’s loosely connected songs of different styles having no compositional interdependence. Anyhow.

Empty Rooms

Rating: 5.9/10
Rated as
: Album
Album Status: Fan Acquisition
Released: 1970
Specific Genre: British Blues
Main Genre: Blues
: Jazz Blues, Chamber Folk, Bluegrass
Label: Polydor

So new, in fact, we didn’t get that far yet

British blues without drums – Mayall continues to ponder his obsession with the late 1960s’ California blues scene from London and the result is an album like a dry twig sprouting new leaves, calm, warm and introspective. Mayall touches on acoustic chamber folk and slight, jazzy timbres, accomodating a flute, saxophones and some beat poetry, as spoken to oneself in a… well, an empty motel room. So much for the title. This is the studio follow-up to the career-changing The Turning Point, where he had first developed his acoustic jazz-folk-blues, miles away from the crunchy electric rhythm&blues from before. As opposed to the live-outing, this is not captivating music – but its desert-iguana-like languor transports a certain hazy atmosphere, like dozing off in the afternoon and really liking it. I also enjoy that after his obsession with fiery and soulful electric blues guitarists (Green, Clapton, Taylor), Mayall turns out to be completely self-sufficient, forging a mix of blues, jazz and folk that might be less than spectacular, but is, nonetheless, unique.

Looking Back

Rating: 6.4/10
Rated as
: Anthology
Compilation Status: Decent Overview
Released: 1974
Recorded: 1965–1968
Specific Genre: British Blues
Main Genre: Blues, Electric Blues
: Rhythm&Blues, Chicago Blues
Label: Decca Records DS 3104/1-2 (Germany)

Due to unfortunate circumstances we’ve been playing something that is not usual for us

This is quite confusing: Two versions of a compilation by this name exist. One is a 1969-UK issue, collecting non-LP-singles from the mid- to late-1960s and forming a proper album, so to speak. This version here is a German 1969-double-LP which shares three tracks with the 1969-album of the same name (A2, A3, A4) while the rest are tracks culled from the first seven Mayall/Bluesbreakers-albums between 1965 and 1968 (and the odd, but brilliant Champion Jack Dupree-track, where Mayall, Clapton and other bluesbreakers contributed). Therefore, the two versions of Looking Back have so little in common, it’s hard to view them as related publications. It is beyond me why they were published with the same title and cover art – especially as the song „Looking Back“ doesn’t even appear on this German double-LP.

The German double-LP does give a nice overview over Mayall’s late 1960s career and manages to pick this or that great track. There is the fantastic blues workout „Stormy Monday“, consisting mainly of one single killer-solo by Clapton until Mayall starts shouting some lines deep into the fourth minute, it has a garage-y live feel to it (and Jack Bruce is on there, too) and is one of my favourite blues moments with Clapton. There is the very good, eerie „Jenny“ with that hint of psychedelia that Mayall would start to embrace around 1968 and a quite unconvential blues melody, and the other stuff is nothing to sneeze at: Mayall developing his sensible, relaxed British blues approach somewhere between Chicago romp, jazzy lines and melodic folk touches. The Dupree-track deserves a honorable mention for quality and that moaning Dupree-singing, but it doesn’t actually belong here.

All this adds up to a very decent listening experience by itself, but seems a bit pointless now. If you’re a Mayall-fan and you already have all the albums, there is no point in acquiring this one, especially since you need to get the UK-version for the singles anyhow (unless you go for the box set So Many Roads which has the UK-versions material sans one B-side, „It Hurts Me Too“).

A1: Champion Jack Dupree’s From New York to Chicago(1966)
A2, A3, A4: Looking Back (the „original“ UK issue, 1969)
A5: John Mayall plays John Mayall: Live at Klook’s Kleek (1965)
B1, B2, B3, B5, B6: Blues Breakers (1966)
B4, C1, C2: A Hard Road (1967)
C3, C4: The Blues Alone (1967)
C5, C6, D1, D2: Crusade (1967)
D3: Bare Wires (1968)
D4: The Diary of a Band, Volume One (1968)

So Many Roads: An Anthology 1964–1974

Rating: 7.8/10
Rated as
: Anthology
Compilation Status: Recommended Collection
Released: 2010
Recorded: 1964–1974
Specific Genre: British Blues
Main Genre: Blues, Electric Blues
: Jazz Blues, Chamber Folk, Chicago Blues, Rhythm&Blues
Label: Universal

Life is just a slow train crawling up a hill

This kind of anthology leaves me confused. Whom is it for? If you are a Mayall-fan and you own a couple of albums, you might be glad to pick up the early non-album singles here. But you’ll already own most of the chronologically sequenced album tracks. There are a few of his album cuts from every album until 1974. And the material you don’t already own will just be incomplete albums. Surely this will drive you mad, won’t it?

But let’s say you are just the casual Mayall-fan: You don’t want all the albums! You just want some singles and some album highlights. Here you go! But wait, will a casual fan seriously consider buying five hours worth of Mayall’s British blues, jazz blues, blues rock and rhythm&blues?

I just don’t get it. Anyway, technically, this is as close to having a career-retrospective including some important singles you can get. The sternly chronological sequencing (by recording date) works to the collection’s advantage because Mayall made subtle but very distinct changes to his blues visions during this crucial period. You start with some shuffling rhythm&blues, go into heavier Chicago and British blues material and minor psychedelic touches and then witness Mayall’s turn to a low-key acoustic sound with a jazzier, folkier band in the second half, creating this very recognisable mellow Mayall-blues sound.

The first and second disc are of most interest to serious fans and completists as they contain a number of singles and important left-overs from the Bluesbreakers/Eric Clapton period that are not readily available like this elsewhere. Mayall’s musical vision quickly became album-focused and that’s where the inherent value of this anthology stops dead. Still, depending on the price, this isn’t a bad buy at all, given the good package, the good liner notes, photographs and all.

1.1, 1.2: 1964 single
1.3–1.6: John Mayall Plays John Mayall: Recorded Live at Klook’s Kleek (1965)
1.7, 1.8: 1965 single
1.9, 1.10: 1965 single
1.11: Blues Anytime, Vol. 2 (1967 V/A)
1.12: Looking Back (1969 compilation)
1.13: Primal Solos (1977 compilation)
1.14–1.19: Blues Breakers (1966 album)
1.20, 1.21: 1966 single
1.22: Raw Blues (1967 V/A)
1.23, 1.24, 2.1–2.3: A Hard Road (1967 album)
2.4: 1967 A-side
2.5, 2.6: John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers With Paul Butterfield (1967 EP)
2.7: 1967 A-side
2.8: 1967 A-side
2.9–2.11: Crusade (1967 album)
2.12, 2.13: The Blues Alone (1967 album)
2.14: 1967 A-side
2.15–2.17: Bare Wires (1968 album)
2.18: 1968 A-side
2.19–2.22: Blues from Laurel Canyon (1968 album)
3.1–3.3: The Turning Point (1969 album)
3.4: The Turning Point (2001 bonus track for 1969 album)
3.5–3.8: Empty Rooms (1970 album)
3.9–3.11: USA Union (1970 album)
3.12–3.14, 4.1: Back to the Roots (1971 album)
4.2, 4.3: Memories (1971 album)
4.4–4.7: Jazz Blues Fusion (1972 album)
4.8–4.10: Moving On (1972 album)
4.11, 4.12: Ten Years Are Gone (1973 album)
4.13, 4.14: The Latest Edition (1974 album)