Bathed In Lightning

The life and legacy of guitarist John McLaughlin explored in Colin Harper's monumental new biography

East Belfast author Colin Harper unequivocally asserts that guitarist John McLaughlin at his peak possessed ‘an artistry that remains the highest in the whole history of rock music', that McLaughlin’s most acclaimed band, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, represent ‘the pinnacle of all rock music’ and, indeed, that their 1973 album, Birds Of Fire, is ‘the pinnacle of all twentieth century music'.

Such passion for his subject drives Harper’s monumental biography of McLaughlin, which covers the Yorkshire man’s career until the demise of the last version of the Mahavishnu Orchestra in 1975. Perhaps unusually in the world of popular music biography, Harper brings to his task the rigour of a professional historian and the work is exhaustively-researched.

McLaughlin, disappointingly, didn’t grant Harper an interview (though the book is an authorised biography), but this loss is barely felt because Harper has diligently tracked down, it seems, virtually every interview McLaughlin ever did, as well as personally interviewing dozens of characters with whom he worked.

And in telling the story of McLaughlin with such diligence, Harper simultaneously tells the stories of the British R&B and jazz scenes of the 1960s, scenes which have rarely been depicted with such vividness, thoroughness and insight.

The level of detail may indeed overwhelm some more casual readers. There are 14 or so pages on obscure soul singer Ronnie Jones, for example, in whose band the Night-Timers McLaughlin played for a mere few months, and there are ten or so pages on Duffy Power, a nearly-man of British blues and rock, whose career briefly intersected with McLaughlins'. 

This same level of detail, of course, makes the book an utter delight for aficionados and Harper’s recounting of McLaughlin’s career is revelatory. How many 70s fans of the cutting edge, fusion music of the Mahavishnu Orchestra knew, for example, that McLaughlin’s first professional band was the square-sounding Big Pete Deuchar’s Professors of Ragtime?

Who knew that McLaughlin once toured backing the Four Tops, or that he had been a member of [ex-Shadows drummer] Tony Meehan’s Combo? (A revealing story is told of McLaughlin weeping backstage at a Meehan gig, out of sheer, soul-destroying musical frustration.)

Or, indeed, that as a session man he had played on Engelbert Humperdinck’s ‘Release Me’, Herman’s Hermits’ ‘No Milk Today’, Donovan’s ‘Mellow Yellow’ and on records by Petula Clark? It’s entirely typical of Harper that he actually makes contact with Clark to elicit her recollections of McLaughlin, which are fascinating.

Harper’s writing is eloquent and frequently even poetic. He exuberantly describes McLaughlin’s playing with saxophonist Joe Henderson on a track from Miroslav Vitous’s Infinite Search as ‘rather like an Errol Flynn fight-scene involving winding castle stairways, upturned tables and precarious behaviour with chandeliers'.

Elsewhere he writes that, on another track, Vitous’s bass ‘peeked around corners, warning the villagers beyond to beware', and that on Miles Davis’s ‘What I Say’ McLaughlin’s guitar ‘danced like a charmed snake in one hell of a hurry around the edges of a fiery pit'.

It’s entirely possible, of course, that those whose response to music is more prosaic, or at any rate, less visual, might consider such conceits risible and once or twice, as when a McLaughlin duet with saxophonist John Surman is described as ‘high percentage dark chocolate’, the effect is admittedly more baffling than enlightening. But such is rare.

Harper is an opinionated fellow. At one point, for no very obvious reason, he digresses to give the Rolling Stones a good kicking, calling them a ‘god-awful garage band’ and ‘gurning caricatures’, and at another point he inexplicably launches a bizarre attack on the UK public sector, which he pronounces ‘a temple to waste and mediocrity on a truly industrial scale'.

But such quirks aside, this is a remarkable, enlightening and entertaining book, a work of invaluable scholarship, which adds immeasurably to our knowledge of McLaughlin and the eras in which he developed and prospered.

Bathed In Lightning: John McLaughlin, the 60s and the Emerald Beyond by Colin Harper is published by Jawbone Press. An extended, ebook edition is also available.