Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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John McLaughlin, Dave Holland, John Surman, Stu Martin, Karl Berger [extended]

  • Devotion [Douglas, 1970] A
  • Where Fortune Smiles [Pye, 1971] B+
  • The Inner Mounting Flame [Columbia, 1971] A
  • My Goal's Beyond [Douglas, 1971] B
  • Birds of Fire [Columbia, 1973] A-
  • Between Nothingness and Eternity [Columbia, 1973] B+
  • Love Devotion Surrender [Columbia, 1973] B-
  • Apocalypse [Columbia, 1974] C
  • Visions of the Emerald Beyond [Columbia, 1975] C+
  • Inner Worlds [Columbia, 1976] B-
  • Electric Guitarist [Columbia, 1978] B+
  • Electric Dreams [Columbia, 1979] B-
  • The Lost Trident Sessions [Columbia/Legacy, 1999] ***
  • Thieves and Poets [Verve, 2003] Dud

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

John McLaughlin: Devotion [Douglas, 1970]
McLaughlin reminds me as much of Duane Eddy as of John Coltrane--he loves electric noise for its own sake and rocks more naturally than he swings. Here Buddy Miles provides his usual ham-handed thump, a universe away from Tony Williams's sallies, and McLaughlin just marches along on top, his tone supremely heavy by choice. But like Coltrane, though in a much more detached way, he can get enormous mileage out of harmonic ideas whose simplicity is probably one source of the spirituality he generates. Rarely has a rock improvisation been more basic or more thoughtfully conceived than on the little track, where he and Larry Young trade the same elemental motif for so long it turns into an electric mantra. A

Where Fortune Smiles [Pye, 1971]
Recorded in New York in 1969, when McLaughlin's studio appearances were amazing everyone from Jimi to Buddy to Miles, this prefigures Mahavishnu's fusion at an earlier, jazzier stage. Pretty intense. The rock guy (drummer Martin) sounds a lot more original than the jazz guys (keyboard player Berger and--especially--saxophonist Surman), but only the justifiably ubiquitous Holland (on bass) can keep up with McLaughlin. And believe me, even if in historical fact it's McLaughlin who's trying to keep up, that's how it sounds. B+

Mahavishnu Orchestra/John McLaughlin: The Inner Mounting Flame [Columbia, 1971]
He couldn't very well call it the John McLaughlin Lifetime, but that's what it is--with Billy Cobham a somewhat heavier Tony Williams, Rick Laird subbing for fellow Scot Jack Bruce, violinist Jerry Goodman and keyboard man Jan Hammer vainly filling in Khalid Yasin's organ textures, and McLaughlin back on electric guitar. The raveups aren't quite as intense as "Right On," though "Awakening" and "The Noonward Race" come close, but McLaughlin has a much clearer idea of how to make a rock band work than Williams. No vocals is the right idea--imagine what claptrap he'd come up with putting the beyond into words. To change pace he provides more of the noble, elemental themes he introduced on Devotion--my favorite is "The Dance of Maya," which breaks into a blues about halfway through. Mistake: "A Lotus on Irish Streams," a lyrical digression featuring Goodman, who ought to be watched closely at all times. A

Mahavishnu John McLaughlin: My Goal's Beyond [Douglas, 1971]
What a mind-fuck! Just when I have him pegged as the Duane Eddy of the Aquarian Age he goes acoustic on me! "Peace One," "Peace Two," yeah yeah yeah--it's easy when you don't plug in. Conjuring peace out of chaos the way Devotion does is the real trick. And while like most white people I've failed to develop my taste in sitar music. I don't like the looks of this Mahalakshmi on the cover--she's white too, and I'll bet she got on the record the same way Sri Chinmoy got to write the notes. Sitar sound effects from George Harrison are one thing--that's just rock and roll. John's goal is supposed to be beyond. B

Mahavishnu Orchestra: Birds of Fire [Columbia, 1973]
In which the inner mounting flame is made flesh? Something like that. The celestial raveups are more self-possessed, the lyrical interludes less swoony, and the modal themes are as grand as ever. A-

Mahavishnu Orchestra: Between Nothingness and Eternity [Columbia, 1973]
This live album is as rough as they're liable to get on record--I even hear a quote from "Sunshine of Your Love," and the raveup on Jan Hammer's simple rock tune "Sister Andrea" is a ballbuster. Empty patches are inevitable but remarkably few. I'm beginning to wonder, though, how long McLaughlin can make his fusion work. Because this is jazz, McLaughlin and Cobham really do improvise (about the others I sometimes have my doubts). But because it's rock the notes and accents they play don't matter all that much--what communicates is the concept, which is mostly a matter of dynamics and which hasn't changed at all over three albums. Not that the improvisations count for nothing, or that striking new melodies--which are in short supply here--couldn't keep things interesting for quite a while. But it's not going to be automatic. B+

Carlos Santana/Mahavishnu John McLaughlin: Love Devotion Surrender [Columbia, 1973]
On the back cover is a photograph of three men. Two of them are dressed in white and have their hands folded--one grinning like Alfred E. Neuman, the other looking like he's about to have a Supreme Court case named after him: solemn, his wrists ready for the cuffs. In between, a man in an orange ski jacket and red pants with one white sock seems to have caught his tongue on his lower lip. He looks like the yoga coach at a fashionable lunatic asylum. Guess which one is Sri Chinmoy. B-

Mahavishnu Orchestra: Apocalypse [Columbia, 1974]
McLaughlin was right to decide to revamp. But hiring a vocalist, a string section, Michael Tilson-Thomas, and the London Symphony Orchestra isn't revamping. It's spiritual pride pure and simple--or else impure and complicated. C

Mahavishnu Orchestra: Visions of the Emerald Beyond [Columbia, 1975]
Well, it's surprisingly funky, though not dirty-funky--dinky-funky, sort of. Michael Tilson-Thomas is nowhere to be perceived. It's got the usual words of wisdom and choirs of angels. But mostly it's just, er, green--electric green. C+

Mahavishnu Orchestra/John McLaughlin: Inner Worlds [Columbia, 1976]
McLaughlin's return to a small group would seem overdue, but in fact he's right on time--trapped in the dead end he saw looming ahead of him way back in 1973, which is why he resorted to orchestrations in the first place. Yup, John's got himself a funk fusion group just like Jan Hammer and Billy Cobham. Stu Goldberg (come back, Jan) and Ralphe Armstrong (composer of "Planetary Citizen") are the sidemen, Narada Michael Walden the coauthor. Walden has better technical control of funk rhythms than a lot of jazz-oriented players, but he's squeamish about grease, and as a result his tunes tend to be cute even when they're good. McLaughlin, meanwhile, tends to be impressive even when he's repeating himself. But not that impressive. B-

John McLaughlin: Electric Guitarist [Columbia, 1978]
In which the top musicians in fusion are gathered by the man who made it all possible to show the genre off aesthetically--no funk vamps, no one-run solos, no twaddle about the harmony of the universe. The project has a certain stillborn aura--it doesn't swing a lot, there is a reliance on Speedy Gonzalez climaxes, and snatches of such deathless melodies as "Holiday for Strings" and "Mohammed's Radio" are audible. Still, repetitiousness is minimized, and there are good ideas and lots of sensitive interaction. And it didn't sell diddley. B+

John McLaughlin with the One Truth Band: Electric Dreams [Columbia, 1979]
Indicating that when fusion grows up it may achieve the artistic significance of the "cool" jazz of the '50s. Personally, I never had much use for Barney Kessel in the first place. I grant you that Kessel never had a drummer who could roil it up like Tony Smith. But he also never had a drummer who helped sing "Love and Understanding." Ugh. B-

Mahavishnu Orchestra: The Lost Trident Sessions [Columbia/Legacy, 1999]
From before John McLaughlin discovered Barney Kessel and Jan Hammer discovered Jan Hammer ("John's Song #2," "Trilogy"). ***

John McLaughlin: Thieves and Poets [Verve, 2003] Dud