“Bare Wires” – John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers
Recorded April 1968
Released 21 June 1968 Decca LK 4945
Since “The Blues Alone,” John Mayall had recorded three albums with an ever-changing line-up, the only constants being guitarist Mick Taylor and saxophonist Chris Mercer. Passing through were Rip Kant (sax) Hughie Flint & Keef Hartley (drums) and John McVie, Paul Williams & Keith Tillman (bass.) With ex-Blues Inc. and GBO member Dick Heckstall-Smith coming in on sax, the band toured America for the first time, breaking all attendance records at New York’s Cafe Au-Go-Go where Billboard reported “Musically, the group evokes an exciting sound without the loudness usually associated with blues-rock.”
The Bluesbreakers also took in the Grande Ballroom in Detroit and the Whisky A Go-Go in Los Angeles, and at San Francisco’s Fillmore and Winterland, they shared a bill with Jimi Hendrix and Albert King. But upon their return to the UK it was “all change” again as Tillman was replaced by a 15-year old Andy Fraser, and Hartley left to start his own band. Fraser stayed only six weeks before quitting to form Free, where he penned the group’s chart-topping “All Right Now,” and he was replaced by Tony Reeves, formerly a member of the New Jazz Orchestra. Another ex-NJO and -GBO musician, John Hiseman, took up the drum spot, and the line-up was completed by Henry Lowther, who joined in February of 1968, contributing cornet and violin. Only two months later, the band recorded “Bare Wires.”
Whether by accident or design, the majority of Mayall’s Bluesbreakers were now musicians with a strong grounding in Jazz, and for the first time in Bluesbreaking history, every band member received an individual credit on the front of the album sleeve, listing their names and instruments played. They are also shown in photographs, but Mayall alone appears on the front cover, and his image dominates theirs both on the back, and inside the sleeve. It was also the last of John’s studio albums to be released under the “Bluesbreakers” banner and marked a deliberate departure from Mayall’s usual writing style.
In an interview with WABC’s Howard Smith in New York, Mayall explained, ”The whole purpose of blues is that it’s storytelling, you know. The only difference here: this is my first attempt -on record anyway- to put an extended piece, like in the concept of a novel which would have different chapters in order to tell one story, and THIS sort of idea behind THAT one. The Bare Wires story is the story of my breakup of marriage.”
He continued, “I didn’t start playing professionally until I was thirty and (had) four kids. But with being a musician, particularly in the thing of blues…in order to experience everything life has to offer, you have to be free. It’s a selfish kind of thing in a way. ” Nonetheless, it is to his wife Pamela, and their children, Gary, Tracey, Jason, and Ben, that the album is dedicated.
Presented in a gate-fold sleeve with full lyrics, the only “sleeve notes” were these short lines from Mayall himself: “This album and these Bluesbreakers mark the beginning of a new journey for me in 1968 – impossible to speak too highly of the musical contributions from the revised personnel – only one thing left to say – this is my story so let this music be my true voice. ” John Mayall May 1968
John Mayall – vocals, harmonica, piano, harpsichord, organ, harmonium, guitar
Mick Taylor – lead guitar, Hawaiian guitar
Chris Mercer – tenor, baritone saxophone
Dick Heckstall-Smith – tenor, soprano saxophone
Jon Hiseman – drums, percussion
Henry Lowther – cornet, violin
Tony Reeves – string bass, bass guitar
Mike Vernon, John Mayall – producers
Derek Varnals – engineer
Pete Smith, Jan Persson – photography
Side One: Bare Wires, A Suite by John Mayall.
1. “ Bare Wires” is just John and his harmonium, a fragment – at 1min, 25 secs. It’s hardly long enough to be called a song- that’s unexpectedly gentle and melodic, making the statement that he’s laying himself bare on this album. “These are the bare wires of my life,” he sings, “since it was cut down the middle by love.” Fading away, it segues into
2. “ Where Did I Belong.” Acoustic guitar, violin and string bass, with lightly beaten tom-toms, create a very warm, summery sound, belying the sadness in the lyric, “Life is not worth a life when something’s wrong.” Lowther’s sinuous violin solo brings this placid piece to a close, making way for
3. “I Started Walking.” The strange resonance of a backward cymbal brings us into this uptempo, one chord boogie, with a verse which doesn’t repeat itself. Regretfully, Mayall sings “There never was builder, he would be so good, could repair the ruins I left behind.” Feedback heralds a fiery solo from Mick Taylor, which starts in Claptonesque fashion, yet has a trace of Hendrix in the tail. Arguably derivative, it’s beautifully executed, and it’s worth bearing in mind that Mick was still only 18, younger than either Clapton or Green when they were Bluesbreakers. Then the horns play us into
4. “Open Up A New Door.” A similar sequence to Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man,” but cleverly taken at a very different tempo, with plucked violin lending extra lightness to the verse. The brass section drops in a contrasting sequence as a bridge, bringing more weight to the tone. John cheerfully sings “I’m loving again,” although lyrics on ‘The Blues Alone’ suggest he wasn’t stinting himself for female company prior to his divorce. As the song ends, the track develops a funky feel behind a cool Chris Mercer sax solo, and free-form saxes lead us towards
5. “Fire.” John double tracks his vocals in this unusual and experimental piece, based on, of all things, a sex-tape. There’s a story behind this one, so over to Dick Heckstall-Smith: “Somewhere on the Scandinavian tour the previous Autumn, John had had a strenuous encounter with an extrovert and powerfully-built blonde woman on a trip who had a good deal of stamina. This happened on a hotel bed whose springs were extremely pressure – sensitive. Beneath it all, through out, was John’s shaggy shoulder bag (containing a portable tape recorder) with the mike switch left on. “
Dick continues, “Well, in the ‘Bare Wires’ studio, John produced a six-or seven-minute edited two track version featuring choice rhythmic subtleties culled from the original state-of-nature magnetic, strung together to form a whole, with a beginning, a middle and end. Instructing John Hiseman to play what he heard, he sent the lad into the studio and fed his ‘rhythm trouvé’ into his cans without further explanation. Jon, the ultimate responder, did a series of masterly performances. John chose the one he liked best, and used it as the basic backing track.“ Accompanied by harmonica and what sounds like backwards guitar, the effect is striking, weird and almost timeless, until finally the drums fade away, to be replaced by the hymnal organ of
6. “I Know Now.” A very tuneful slow Blues, with Mayall’s voice swathed in reverb as he admits “I lost the best woman I ever had.” Soft, mellow brass paces the organ through the chord changes, and both a wah-wah guitar and harpsichord are buried somewhere deep in the mix, the sound both rich and lush. This leads us at last to
7. “Look In The Mirror.” Forceful drumming introduces this fast 8 bar, piano led blues. Reeves contributes a neat bass guitar break that leads into a long, tasty, two-sax solo from Dick recalling the best of his work with the GBO. Hot, swinging stuff, with a finale of breaking glass, fading out over a speeded-up piano. Only on the sleeve will you find the dire warning: “But don’t stare at the mirror too long, or you’ll get cut by the pieces of splintered glass!” I wonder if it was ever part of the recording?
Side Two: Another Side
Trk. 1) “I’m a Stranger.” Organ and brass lead this lilting, Gospel flavoured tribute to one of the girls that got away, and the band creates an almost orchestral sound, reminiscent of Ray Charles’ finest recordings. Lovely sax from long-time BB’er Chris Mercer, and Hiseman’s light, busy touch keeps this slow number swinging. Gorgeous.
Trk. 2) “No Reply.” ‘Deezer’ present this song alongside the lyrics from ‘No Reply’ by Lennon & McCartney. Another internet triumph! Co-composer Mick Taylor provides very Hendrixian double-tracked wah wah guitar, Hiseman goes banging on the bongos, John throws in some harmonica, and it’s all rather light and bouncy. But who’s he ringing? The “freak-out” ending is unexpected.
Trk. 3) “Hartley Quits” is Taylor’s own contribution, a straight shuffle guitar instrumental, with an axe approach that’s still quite Claptonish. It’s punctuated by hard hitting brass, and Hiseman really packs the beats in. But wot’s it got to do wiv Keef?
Trk. 4) “Killing Time” is an insistent, plodding 12-bar, based on a similar piano riff to ‘A Hard Road,’ with John singing very up close and personal. Background slide guitar gives way to a burning solo, while sobbing saxes repeat the theme. I remember seeing them do this live, and it would really cook. Satisfyingly catchy.
Trk. 5) “She’s Too Young.” “But not for me!” John adds quickly. Crazy drums intro this very uptempo boogie with stabbing brass. John’s plainly changed his tune about young girls since he aired his views on ‘The Blues Alone.’ Singing of his desire for this nameless 16-year old who’s still in school, he says “She was born to be loved and I can’t wait to bury her down.” Steady, John!
Trk. 6) The mood of “Sandy” strangely echoes “Jenny,” the single he cut with Green and Hartley. John plays his own slide on this, with only drums and violin for accompaniment. The sound is very sparse and the effect’s spine-tingling.
The “Bare Wires Suite” that fills side one is an excellent concept piece, full of variation, with high quality musicianship, which holds the listener’s attention. And just as well, because the songs are not separated, and the suite has to be listened to in it’s entirety, or not at all! However, I wouldn’t count that as a problem. Overall, the album has a very warm, open and organic sound, and the arrangements wisely don’t allow all the band to play on all the tracks all the time. Taylor’s guitar, with unusually ample use of wah-wah, brings a hint of Rock to the mix of Jazzy Blues already created, and the use of unconventional instrumentation like violin, harmonium and harpsichord, alongside the experimental “sound painting” style of some tracks, creates a very wide tone palette.
With Mayall’s fringed leather look, the trippy Fillmore Poster style lettering, and the song lyrics on the sleeve, the whole thing adds up to a record that wouldn’t have looked or sounded out of place among the ‘psychedelic’ albums released by contemporary American West Coast bands like HP Lovecraft or Fever Tree. Perhaps it’s not too surprising then that it was Mayall’s best-selling LP in the USA so far.
Bare Wires was an altogether different animal to previous Bluesbreaker albums, and elicited conflicting critical response. Melody Maker described it as containing, “absorbing music richer in content than any previous British group album, apart from Sgt. Pepper and The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack.” (an LP by Keith Emerson’s early band The Nice.) Record Mirror called it “a remarkable showcase of one of the most inventive and authentic Blues outfits on the scene.” On the other hand, Rolling Stone considered it a “disastrous episode for Mayall,” panning it for “sloppy orchestration and poor material.” Released on June 21, 1968, the album was Mayall’s most successful to date, reaching #3 in the U.K, and #59 in the US Charts. A worthy addition to any collection of Classic British Blues Albums.
For all its achievements, Bare Wires was also the album that ended The Bluesbreakers. After its release, the band toured for a few more weeks before Mayall disbanded the group in July – only six months after its inception – so he could “work in more of a solo capacity with a small backing group.” In an interview with Melody Maker’s Chris Welch, Mayall explained, “On the ‘Bare Wires’ album, we could use the brass section properly, but in clubs, it didn’t work out. There are two ways to use a section, either with arrangements, which you can get anybody to play, or to feature them all as soloists. But when you’ve got Jon (Hiseman) and Tony (Reeves) who were front line men as well, you’ve got seven people queuing up for a blow, most of them standing around doing nothing. I was just one of the seven joining in a blowing session.“ There were to be no more “Bluesbreakers” until 1984, when the name was resurrected for the line-up containing Walter Trout and Coco Montoya.
© Stevie King 2015 for the British Blues Archive.