Interview With The Author
Is Bathed In Lightning an authorised biography?
No. John was extremely generous in giving me his blessing on the project at the very start but had no interest in being personally involved and, with many projects on the go himself (as ever), had no time anyway. The book took 17 months to research and write – from February 2012 to June 2013 – and I contacted John again two thirds of the way through, in case he wished to see the text thus far, but again he politely declined. I understand and respect this. It was all a very long time ago and, even aside from sheer busy-ness with current tours and creativity, he’s maybe just ‘done’ with it all. By way of analogy, I’m 45 and if someone contacted me with an invitation to a school reunion I’d run a mile! John is over 70 and much of the stuff I’m writing about happened half a century ago. In addition, by keeping determinedly detached from it, John – quite rightly – can simply tell future interviewers and fans, ‘I wasn’t involved… it’s nothing to do with me…’ if they ask him about this or that bit of information in it. And that’s fine.
Is the book compromised by not having John involved?
The perhaps surprising answer is ‘no’. In a general sense, it makes a biographer work harder if the ‘key source’ is out of reach. But, specific to this case, there were a couple of things balancing that: firstly, John is and always has been such an extraordinary musician that he had a much greater and more memorable impact on the musicians whose orbits he traversed than would be the case vice versa; secondly, in becoming so important an artist and so fascinating a character in the rock music world of the early ‘70s, there are consequently a great deal of published interviews with John from that decade onwards, many of the early ones exploring in as much detail as he would ever go regarding his pre-fame (pre-1969) past. In interviewing many of the musicians he worked with, in sourcing print interviews with other colleagues now deceased or unavailable, and through sourcing a great deal of early interviews with John McLaughlin himself it was possible to reconstruct the jigsaw remarkably well. Much better than one would imagine possible.
I would say the only aspect of John’s early career which is still hazier than I would wish is his involvement with the Ray Ellington Quartet (from roughly October 1964 to mid 1965). Similarly, more time in the British Library forensically working through the small print of 1958-60 issues of Melody Maker may have revealed a little more on the movements of Big Pete Deuchar & the Professors Of Ragtime, but time defeated me – after many long days in the place I was in the realm of diminishing returns and had a plane home to catch. Nevertheless, I managed to get a firm sense of the late Big Pete’s character from interviewees and from his own (relatively rare) book on a pioneering round the world cycling adventure he undertook in 1971. I should also say that I interviewed John myself in 1997, for a couple of magazine pieces, and some of that material was useful in the book.
Mark Lewisohn’s epic three-part Beatles biography All These Years (part one of which appeared in October 2013) was written, as I understand it, in a similar way to Bathed In Lightning: a combination of rigorous research and interviews, often with people who haven’t been interviewed before (also the case with Bathed In Lightning), but no specific interviews nor official endorsement from the remaining Beatles. Nevertheless, Mark has conceded that he had the luxury of being able to email Paul McCartney on the odd very specific question which could not otherwise be answered. He also, of course, had the great luxury of being able to afford to spend much more time on his project and the similar bliss of apparently unlimited word length in the eventual books! But, on the other hand, I had the luxury of essentially virgin territory: a story that hasn’t been visited before, without the detritus of hundreds of previous publications to clear out of the way.
Why write a book about John McLaughlin?
Lots of reasons. He is the most significant musical artist, by far, from the 1960s and ‘70s who has thus far eluded rigorous biography. Also, I’ve long felt it to be fascinating that he had such a long and varied career in Britain - prior to achieving international notoriety after the move to New York – which has remained all but unknown to most of his fans and to most commentators, especially those outside Britain. There are plenty of people who have sustained entire careers subsequent to the ‘60s based on much less than John achieved in that decade, yet in John’s case it’s as if that entire history is buried under a rock, out of sight. In John’s mind, it clearly isn’t that important. Indeed, he has always invested more energy – and more chronological accuracy – in interviews discussing his musical development as a child than he has in describing his musical adventures in his late teens and twenties.
For example, I’m not aware of a single instance in which he has referenced his time in the Tony Meehan Combo: a brief period at the end of 1963, but one which involved his first appearance on a record, and a minor hit record at that. Similarly, John has only very rarely and very vaguely referred to Duffy Power, and yet they wrote at least five songs together, performed several advertised gigs, recorded a significant cache of material over several sessions spanning 14 or 15 months and had a UK single and French EP released during the lifetime of their partnership (with the rest of their recordings trickling out over the next 35 years). This was clearly much more than a casual acquaintance. So it was time we turned over the rock.
On a more personal level, I found myself receiving great solace from Mahavishnu Orchestra recordings during a very low period over a year or two in the late 2000s. I’d always felt it was spiritual music, from the moment I first heard Birds Of Fire – bought as a vinyl reissue in Belfast around 1982/83 when I was 14 or thereabouts – and this period of time confirmed it. It seemed to me that the music John McLaughlin wrote, and the performances he gave – many of them, happily, preserved on ‘recordings of independent origin’ – from the Mahavishnu Orchestra era were uniquely powerful, quite distinct from his subsequent work.
I took a voluntary redundancy in December 2011, from a job which had been contributing to my malaise for some years, and within a few weeks had begun work on the book. I’d been a professional writer on music, for broadsheet newspapers and magazines, in the ‘90s, so it was a bit like getting back on a bicycle! It was initially conceived as a more modest project: a small book celebrating the ‘second Mahavishnu Orchestra’, as a complement to Walter Kolosky’s Passion, Power & Beauty (Abstract Logix, 2006), a splendidly celebratory book, in oral history format, which focuses on MO1.
Largely, that very modest ambition on my part was because, after 10 years away from professional writing and 10 years in an increasingly demoralising job, my confidence was low. But I’m glad to say the project brought that confidence back and, with a real personal interest in the path that had led someone to create such immortal music during the Mahavishnu era, along with a professional curiosity as an historian in restoring the details of what was pretty much an entire ‘lost career’ prior to it, the book took on a life of its own and more or less reshaped itself as an account of John McLaughlin and the world he moved in spanning 1942-75.
How would you describe Bathed In Lightning - is it a book for anyone or only connoisseurs?
It’s a book combining what might be called a popular style with academic rigour. It’s written for anyone – literally anyone – who has any interest in the music and culture of Britain in the 1960s. Even a curious 14-year-old who has just bought a Best Of The Sixties compilation on iTunes or in a supermarket will find it accessible and, I hope, fascinating. And, at the other end of the scale, hardened jazz buffs who own every record with John McLaughlin’s name on the front will find huge swathes of information available nowhere else. It’s the story of a jazz man who triumphed in the rock world, and then just stopped and walked away from it. It’s a story which should be ‘filed under rock’ more than ‘filed under jazz’. But inevitably, in any bookshops that remain, it will probably be filed under jazz – on a dusty shelf at the bottom of a dark and little-visited corner of the Music section!
Anyway… no existing knowledge is required to enjoy Bathed In Lightning; everything is explained, introduced, put in context, and the narrative rattles along. We meet a whole load of fascinating characters during the first two thirds of the book – several of whom reappear throughout – before it narrows down to focus on John alone, when he moves to New York in 1969. Actually, the structure is quite similar to that of my first book Dazzling Stranger: Bert Jansch and the British folk and blues revival (Bloomsbury, 2000; revised 2006 and 2012). The first two thirds of that has Bert as the central figure in a narrative that manages to explore and illuminate the previously hazy British folk world of the ‘60s in London, before focusing in on Bert’s career as an international artist into the ‘70s and beyond, outliving the once vibrant club scene of the capital.
With the caveat that Bathed In Lightning determinedly ends in 1975, the structure is very similar: a milieu of people in a heady London-focused club environment which seems all the more tantalising and exciting as time goes on, followed by the central figure from that narrative emerging from the crowd into a long and sustained international career. Bert and John actually knew each other slightly during the ‘60s – but then almost every musician in London was connected in some way to every other.
I can’t stress enough that, in particular, no-one should feel wary of buying this book if they don’t know much about jazz or feel intimidated by it. There are far too many books in the world where one feels the author is taking it for granted that the reader knows vast tracts of information already, where people or places are not properly introduced and where a reader can feel frustrated or inadequate for not understanding references. Many books on British music in the ‘60s seem to focus on things in a very genre-specific way – with the British jazz world of that period, especially, often being ignored entirely.
Are there still new discoveries to be made about London in the 1960s?
Yes: new discoveries but also new angles on existing knowledge. The music world in ‘60s London really was like a village in many ways, and that comes across in the book. There were fascinating interactions between all sorts of musicians from all sorts of backgrounds. Many musicians knew many others, and yet the ‘village’ was still big enough that people could co-exist without meeting or even knowing of each other – despite the main clubs in central London being within walking distance of each other.
Gary Boyle, who was guitarist with first Dusty Springfield and then the Brian Auger Trinity, recalls that in late 1966 into 1967 the two most exciting guitar players in London were Jimi Hendrix and John McLaughlin – and yet John never met Jimi until he (John) moved to New York in 1969. It seems remarkable: you would almost have to be trying not to meet Jimi Hendrix if you were a working musician in London in the mid 60s! Yet John was a curiously elusive presence on the London music scene, as several interviewees have put it – there one minute, gone the next.
It’s quite telling also (though less surprising) that John, so far as I’m aware, didn’t meet his future friend Jeff Beck during the 1960s – simply because they were moving in slightly different circles. The Flamingo and the Marquee were on the same street, but were the epicentres of two different kinds of R&B in the mid ‘60s: a soulful Ray Charles style and a gritty Chicago style, respectively. The same street – and yet there was very, very little crossover between the acts associated with each venue. Jeff was with the Yardbirds, a Marquee act, while John was with Georgie Fame, Graham Bond, the Night-Timers – a succession of acts associated with the Flamingo (although Graham Bond, a master of blagging a gig anywhere, did play a couple of times at the Marquee). Jimi Hendrix, almost uniquely, managed to play in practically every London club there was – from Ronnie Scott’s jazz club to folk cellar Les Cousins.
The 1960s was a time of huge activity in both live music and recorded music being made in the city, and a time of huge excitement and innovation in music – which was not only revolutionary but globally, genuinely popular too. From staid beginnings at the start of the decade, when popular music is still being performed within the context of ‘Variety’, in package tours generally using a national circuit of cinemas and variety theatres as venues, we see a huge network of live venues gradually opening up, both in London and across Britain, and the whole nature of music presentation and consumption change forever. John McLaughlin was a witness to all that, from the rock’n’roll package tours to R&B all-nighters and free-jazz happenings as the decade progressed. Likewise, he was a participant in an incredible range of recordings from 1963 onwards – many of which remain extant but as yet unreleased, including work with Pete Brown’s First Real Poetry Band, the Mike Carr Trio and the Danny Thompson Trio.
Sometimes you might read a book on the period and be left with the impression that the only music in the capital was happening at the Marquee Club, or that all the acts were white ‘British Invasion’ guitar bands like the Yardbirds. But this is only a fraction of what was happening. In Bathed In Lightning, the ‘Marquee scene’ is occasionally glimpsed at the edge of the picture – as a scene for teenagers - while the camera focuses on more ‘grown up’ places like the Flamingo, Ronnie Scott’s, the Little Theatre Club or Klooks Kleek. That isn’t snobbery, by the way: it really was the case that the Marquee and acts like the Yardbirds were perceived by other club owners, and some musicians, as a teenage scene. Some club owners, if they were operating from licensed premises, felt it necessary to advertise ‘over 18s only’ if they were putting on a more sophisticated R&B act, such as Herbie Goins & The Night-Timers, with whom John was involved during part of 1965-66.
But despite these almost invisible lines between ‘scenes’, the fluidity between jazz and pop, to use very blunt descriptors, was remarkable in London during the ‘60s. The R&B boom of 1963-64 – which propelled the Rolling Stones to national fame, among many others – was an almost equal merging of jazz players and pop aspiration. But jazz musicians in London routinely appeared on pop records during the ‘60s – Ronnie Scott playing saxophone on the Beatles’ ‘Lady Madonna’ being just one well-known example. Eddie Thornton, a trumpet player from two bands John McLaughlin was in (the Blue Flames and the Night-Timers), had already played on a Beatles record (‘Got To Get You Into My Life’) by then. John himself was scheduled to appear at a ‘free improvisation’ concert with John Lennon in March 1969 before deciding that moving to New York was a better idea!
To use an analogy, it is as if we’ve been looking at ‘60s London through a camera pointed in one direction, with people drifting in and out of the picture from the left. If we move just the lens slightly to the left, we see a whole new, unexplored tranche of activity going on, from whence all these people are coming into the main picture on occasion, and that’s the British jazz world. You might say the same, to a lesser extent, about the world of British soul in the middle of the decade – a scene that was huge at club level but was never quite reflected in chart terms. John McLaughlin was heavily involved in both the jazz and soul scenes – and also knee-deep in the pop world, through his work (through gritted teeth) as a session musician. I get the feeling John enjoyed playing on pop sessions about as much as I enjoyed working in the public sector the past few years, but it’s still a fascinating chapter in his past and that whole world – of factory-like pop recordings at Abbey Road and Decca with vocal stars and anonymous, though often now legendary, players - is explored in great detail in Bathed In Lightning. It’s another example of just needing to shift that standard camera angle to suddenly see it: something vaguely familiar made sparklingly new!
Why is there a load of extra material in the eBook edition of Bathed In Lightning? Are people buying the print edition missing out?
I had an amusing meeting with my publisher, Tom Seabrook of Jawbone Press, and my agent Matthew Hamilton at a café in St Pancras Train Station during one of my trips over to the British Library, in January 2013. By that stage it was clear that the book was heading inexorably over the cliff marked ‘Danger! 200,000 Words!’
I have this memory of Tom saying, in fearful tones, ‘Our longest book is 190,000…’ – a phrase which kept being repeated as the conversation went on! Somehow, we arrived at a cunning plan: the print edition would not exceed 210,000 words while the eBook edition could include, in theory, any amount of additional material in the form of bonus chapters and appendices. It was an elegant solution to a problem that was both logistical (the physical size of the print edition, given Jawbone’s favouring of particular font size and paper thickness – both of which could be tweaked, but not excessively) and financial (keeping the cover price at a sensible level).
I went away and adapted some sections of what had already been written – removing two entire chapters and a chunk of a third over to the eBook extras, while replacing them with a few paragraphs of material essential to the ongoing narrative in the print edition. I would also now be writing the remaining text from scratch with a view to assigning it to two different contexts.
It’s important, though, to emphasise that the print edition can be read and enjoyed entirely on its own. It’s not the case that there’s a ‘vanilla’ version of the book and a ‘director’s cut’. Or that you only find out if the butler did it by purchasing the eBook. Rather, the main text is EXACTLY the same in both formats (print and eBook) with the additional material all appearing as stand-alone bonus text with the eBook. The bonus text will also be available to download separately at a very low price, so no one will have to buy the book twice just to get the extra stuff: one could buy the print edition for the main text and, if one wished, buy just the extra material as a separate download.
Actually, the plan for the eBook bonus content allowed me to write pretty expansively on the second Mahavishnu Orchestra. It was a terrific adventure for most of the very young musicians who were part of it, and we see the band and its travels very much from their perspective in the eBook bonus chapters whereas the main text has to focus very tightly on John’s perspective.
The funny thing is, Dazzling Stranger: Bert Jansch and the British folk and blues revival (Bloomsbury, 2000) was written with a huge number of appendices – discography, concert listings, TV and radio sessions and so on – but the publishers felt it was too much, it couldn’t be done. Well, that book has been republished twice now – in 2006 and in 2012 – and each time the publishers have come to me asking for more stuff. In 2006 I added a discographical appendix and Johnny Marr very kindly wrote a Foreword; in 2012, I updated the discography and Pete Paphides generously contributed an Afterword. Perhaps I’ll have to resurrect all those other appendices for the next reissue. And who knows, maybe if Bathed In Lightning is popular there’ll be a deluxe print edition with everything in it!