John Mayall “Blues From Laurel Canyon”

Blues From Laurel Canyon

John Mayall is of course the Godfather Of British Blues, first recording in 1965 and still touring and recording prolifically today, well into his seventies. My favourite of his many albums is this offering from 1968, which is both a collection of original blues-based songs with contemporary psych overtones and also a diary in music of his three-week vacation in Los Angeles that summer: either a song cycle or a concept album, according to your own definitions, but certainly unique among the slew of straightforward blues albums being produced by white performers on both sides of the Atlantic at the time.

Starting with the roar of a jet swinging across the stereo plane – a device cheekily lifted from the Beatles’ White Album – the record chronicles Mayall’s discovery of the heady delights of late sixties LA, his first sojourn in Laurel Canyon where he would later make his permanent home, his stay as a guest of Canned Heat with whom Mayall struck up a strong and lasting rapport – later, both Harvey Mandel and Larry Taylor would leave Heat to join Mayall’s band – and, in considerable detail, his mission to get laid. It ends with a rueful recollection of the brief love affair and a moody anticipation of returning home to the UK.

In fact this is a collection of many moods, from joyous exploration of glamourous new surroundings, to irritable self-examination following a bust-up with an unidentified companion, to deep and intimate relations in the bedroom. The changes of mood are emphasised by Mayall’s constant switches of instrumentation – he was already virtuosic on piano, Hammond, and mouth-harp and capable on guitar – and by the careful segue of each track into the next, plus the pitching of each song in a different key. Every one of the twelve keys of the chromatic scale, except F#, is used (try playing blues in Db or Ab, if you will).

Backup is provided by the rock-solid rhythm section of drummer Colin Allen and 18-year-old bassist Stephen Thompson, while guitarist Mick Taylor, on his final studio outing with Mayall prior to joining the Stones, wields his Les Paul always tastefully and often excitingly throughout. Production by Decca’s veteran producer Mike Vernon is commendable for those eight-track days.

My standout tracks are Ready To Ride, on which Mayall’s overactive hormones fuel some explosive harp work, The Bear, whose intro pays tribute to a well-known Heat riff before segueing into a delightful piano-led country blues dedicated to Bob Hite, and Miss James, in which the Hammond reels through jazzy changes in their best Jimmy Smith style. But individual tracks cannot do justice to this album; for best effect it demands to be heard in sequence at a single sitting.

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“Ready to Ride”

:D CD Reissue | 2007 | United UK | amazon ]
:) Original Vinyl | 1968 | Decca | search ebay ]
;) MP3 Album | download ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

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  • dk

    A great album. This one really sets the late-60’s, Laurel Canyon mood…

  • Jason


    Good heads up, this is really a terrific record by an unsung blues hero. I remember buying this when I was about 18 years old only to sell it back to one of the local record stores – I was disappointed, at the time I didn’t understand the whole British Blues movement. I bought the recent cd reissue a little while back and think it’s a superb album – boy I was stupid it to sell it that first time around. Most people mention the Clapton record as being Mayall’s classic but this album is almost as good or the equal of that record. Really a great psychedelic blues lp – good, thought provoking review too! Not really blues but another outstanding record is the Groundhog’s Split – they began as a straight up British Blues Group but by Split they were a garage progressive monster.

  • Thanks for the post. This was my first Mayall purchase, and only because Mick Taylor was on it. What followed was an appreciation of the guy that goes beyond who his guitar-players were. On my Mayall favourites list I’d put this at Number 3 behind A Hard Road and Bluesbreakers.

    Click here for a review of a 1982 Melbourne Bluesbreakers gig with the same lineup as the Lauel Canyon album:

  • Len Liechti

    Nice gig review, Lad me lad, except that John McVie didn’t play on Laurel Canyon – he’d left to form Fleetwood Mac a few months earlier. He had been replaced by the unknown 18-year-old Steven Thompson. I’ve seen Mayall live a few times over the years and he’s never disappointed, although the drumless band from The Turning Point era (including Thompson) was probably the weakest. I saw him at The Colston Hall in Bristol, UK, five or six years ago when he was touring supported by Peter Green’s Splinter Group (sadly they didn’t play together). Mayall was 67 at the time and gave a performance whose enthusiasm and physicality would have shamed many teenage bands. At the start of the set he rode on stage on a mountain bike, and at its end he jumped off the five-foot-high stage to shake hands with the audience, and then sprang back on it again! Mick Taylor turned up at Mayall’s 70th birthday gig in Liverpool, when Mayall was also reunited with Clapton for the first time since 1965 – great show, catch it on telly or DVD. Yes, all those fine guitarists, but I’d say that big Buddy Whittington, the current seatholder, is probably the best yet – amazing player. PS: Steve Thompson is now playing upright bass with various modern jazz outfits in the UK. PPS: are you really a Brian Jones clone?

  • Thanks for the heads up on Laurel Canyon’s personnel, Len! It’s been a while since I pulled out the vinyl. Whittington must be something else. I’ve got the Mayall 70th DVD on my Amazon Wish List and it’s getting near the top. Looking forward to it, now on your recommendation as well.

    As for Brian Jones, check out the 2005 biopic Stoned on DVD to solve the mystery once and for all. If only he’d joined up with Keith Relf after leaving the Stones they might both still be with us.

    Jones WIkipedia entry is fair to all concerned, particularly about his musical legacy. Unfortunately, I don’t look a bit like him nor do I have a skerrick of his charisma or musical ability.

  • TimB

    I bought this album after hearing Mayall’s Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton. Laurel Canyon is very underrated, yet shows a side of the sixties that too few people are aware of. One question – the album begins with the sound of an aircraft, as does The Beatles White Album, so who was the first to do this? (The Beatles – I was hoping it was Mayall). Anyway, it’s great to see this album on the shelves of the more mainstream record shops. Medicine Man interludes the album really well, and Fly Tomorrow concludes it brilliantly especially with the way the tablas merge into rock, then back to tablas again.

  • Simon S

    Love this album,just listening to it now for the first time in ages…was introduced to it as a teenager and loved the way it was like a sonic diary, and it really gave me a taste of what it would’ve been like in LA in the 60’s! Listening to it now being in my 30’s it DOES sound a little like an older man ogling all the young hippy chicks and then catching himself sound kind of mild STD,and by the end realising that these girls dont subscribe to his old-fashioned views of monogamy, but that doesnt take away from the incredible ambience of a track like “first time alone”,the excitement of being somewhere new having just stepped off a plane (“walking on sunset”),and the slow hypnotic build of “fly tomorrow” which features in my opinion some of Mick Taylor’s best playing…My first visit to Laurel Canyon was always gonna make me think of this album, and like the best music,it transports me to a time that i wasnt even present in!

  • Len Liechti

    This album really is a dairy of Mayall’s first vacation in LA (he was always an obsessive diarist), and all the incidents are decipherable if you know where to look (Wikipedia is a good source so far). The song “2401” refers to Frank Zappa’s Log Cabin at 2401 Laurel Canyon Blvd. The “hero” is Zappa himself. “Moon” is Zappa’s daughter, Moon Unit. The “GTO” reference is not to a fast car but to a member of Girls Together Outrageously, the infamous loose association of LA groupies centred about Zappa and the Mothers, two of whom were “Pam” (Pamela Miller, aka Des Barres) and “Miss Christine” (Christine Frka, who is also the woman crawling out of the crypt on the cover of Zappa’s Hot Rats). “A maniac, the Raven” was a madman who entered the house unbidden and flashed a bottle of fake blood and an old army Colt .45, freaking out the entire assemblage. So that’s what it was all about! This sort of information was simply not available in 1968 – you either took the lyrics at face value or simply didn’t wonder too long about it. But forty years on . . . what would we do without t’Internet?

  • Reggie

    Thanks to Len Liechti I finally understand the ‘GTO’ reference and what ‘a maniac, the Raven’ in Mayall’s ‘2401’ was all about. I’ve enjoyed ‘Blues from Laurel Canyon’, which I believe is Mayall’s best album, since its release in 1968 and I’ve always wondered what that GTO/Raven reference meant. Thanks again, Len, for finally clearing that up for me.

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