“The Blues Alone” – John Mayall
Recorded 1st May 1967
Released Nov. 1967 on Decca Ace of Clubs SCL 1243
Perhaps it was the frustration of having two star guitarists in a row quit the band that motivated John Mayall to this unprecedented display of self-sufficiency. But while he was busy auditioning replacements, and keeping the Bluesbreakers on the road, he found time to nip into Decca Studios for a day, and record this stunning selection of self-penned, self-played songs, assisted only by drummer Keef Hartley.
Though the next band album, featuring Mick Taylor, was recorded after this one, ‘The Blues Alone’ stayed “in the can” for six months, finally only finding release on Decca’s budget label, Ace Of Clubs. But placed back in the correct sequence, this seeming novelty is a far stronger and more personal work than ‘Crusade,’ and the rightful successor to ‘Bluesbreakers’ and ‘A Hard Road,’ exhibiting all of Mayall’s prodigious skills as a musician, singer and songwriter.
Celebrated “Underground” disc jockey John Peel, who’d achieved popularity with his late-night “Perfumed Garden” show on the pirate Radio London, was embraced by Auntie after the pirates were scuttled, and worked for many years on BBC Radio 1. He wrote the quirky sleeve notes, in a track-by-track breakdown you may find familiar, and I repeat them here.
“ In the summer of 1966 I was working for a radio station in Southern California and, in my capacity as resident Englishman and therefore intimate friend of all groups, I had to contribute a column of light hearted chatter about the British music scene to the station paper. Part of this column was a listing of the current British top ten.
As far as the inhabitants of San Bernadino and Riverside counties knew John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers had a string of enormous hits during that summer- a number of them being, in some curious fashion, LP tracks. Chart-rigging was a hideous reality in unsuspecting California.
Shortly after returning to London I met John Mayall and found him to be a very warm-hearted person despite his somewhat forbidding stage presence. He has a huge laugh that springs from some deep recess within him and tumbles into all corners of the room. I was featuring his LP ‘A Hard Road’ (Decca LK 4853) on the air and was amazed that, in addition to writing 8 of the 12 numbers on the record, playing 5 and 9 string guitar, organ, piano, harmonica and singing, he had written the sleeve notes and painted the portrait of the group on the front cover.
With this new LP he has carried all of this to its logical conclusion and has produced a record featuring no other musician than himself except for the occasional aid of his drummer Keef Hartley. This then is John Mayall – one of the greatest bluesmen in the world.
BRAND NEW START
John plays harmonica, guitar, piano, drums, and also sings. A hymn of earthy praise to his current woman with some of his best recorded harmonica. Strangely remote ‘popping’ guitar adds a touch of deep melancholy.
PLEASE DON’T TELL
(Vocal, harmonica, guitar, bass) John has apparently uncovered something new in the popular field of male/female relationships – after exhaustive research- and wants to keep it a secret. In his writing he always adds something fresh and interesting to traditional concepts- whatever that means.
DOWN THE LINE
(Vocal, piano, 9-string guitar) In the clubs the appearance of the Mayallian nine-string is greeted with shouts of approval. On this number the distinctive sliding sounds keep up an almost unbearable tension behind the sparse piano. A searing, incredibly lonely sound.
SONNY BOY BLOW
(Vocal, harmonica, jangle piano) A tribute to the late Sonny Boy Williamson – not a sad, gloomy tribute but a rollicking, cantering thing filled with unrestrained outbursts on the harmonica and some rolling boogie woogie from John’s famous ‘jangle’ piano.
(Piano, drums) A portrait of an attractive and independant girl. I think I know the Marsha of the title and if I’m right then this superb piano solo fits her well.
NO MORE TEARS
(Vocal, 9 & 6 string guitars, bass) A great track featuring John’s obviously underrated guitar. Although his efforts are unlikely to start a mass movement of blues guitarists to the bridges of the Thames this should be a revelation for those who’ve tended to concentrate more on John’s celebrated lead guitarists than the man himself. I’m glad he recorded this one.
CATCH THAT TRAIN
(Harmonica with train) Blues harmonic players favour trains to a degree where they might be suspected of a locomotive fetish – a rare condition. This must surely be the first time that an actual train has been used as an accompanying instrument. All of this poses an interesting demarcation question – did the N.U.R. receive recording wages? Incidentally I am the train’s agent so don’t get any ideas.
(Vocal, piano, organ) We all know the ‘Put-together’ girl – probably one of the main causes of international confusion. John sings of his intention to cancel out that kind of chick, He underlines this laudable decision with grumbling bass figures on the piano and fiery organ playing. Is this a protest song?
(Harmonica, celeste, bass) Music -box type celeste sounds – a very emotional music-box lat me hastily add- and wandering harmonica phrases. There is no truth to the rumour that the Bluesbreakers will be using dulcimer, sackbut and psaltery. Let’s face it, guttural cries of “Let’s hear your sackbut, son” can only lead to violence.
(Vocal, piano, guitar, organ) You don’t need me to tell you what this is all about. Just listen to the lyrics. More slide guitar accentuates a blues that’s got nothing to do with Tate & Lyle.
(Vocal, organ) This is the sort of thing that should be heard on the car radio late at night driving alone in the rain. A very gently, caressing and beautiful song. You needed to know this side of Mayall.
DON’T KICK ME
(Vocal, organ, piano, guitar, bass) For the final track on this astounding LP, which shows every facet and talent of the limitless John Mayall, a rumbling plea not to kick him when he’s down. I get the impression you’d be in a rather dramatic situation if you tried it.
Thank you, John, for letting me write these notes for what is an essential record for anyone with any interest in any good kind of music. JOHN PEEL”
All instruments played by John Mayall with the exception of drums on tracks 2, 4, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 which are played by Keef Hartley. All titles are John Mayall compositions.
Album produced by Mike Vernon and John Mayall
Engineered by Gus Dudgeon and Dave Grinstead
Trk. 1) “Brand New Start.” John seems introspective, wistful, and yet strangely sombre as he describes his feelings for his “fine, brown” woman with her “new brand of loving.” With minimal backing of piano bass and reverb-soaked guitar, the time kept by no more than a metronomic tick, there’s an unexplained tension between the celebratory lyrics and the sparse, mournful sounds which accompany them. His breathy harmonica, up close in the mix, conveys an intimacy contradicted by the rest of the recording.
Trk. 2) “Please Don’t Tell” is an exhortation to secrecy which drives along with reassuring vigour, despite the sparseness of its accompaniment. Once again John’s harp takes the lead, his guitar and bass work reduced to the barest necessities beside Keef’s economical drumming, and yet this Spartan arrangement makes the Bluesbreakers version with Greeny (unissued until 1971) seem heavy-handed by comparison.
Trk. 3) “Down The Line” finds Mayall in his most melancholy mood, his stark piano work accompanied only by the chilling ring of his 9-string slide as he bemoans the loss of his woman, and his empty bed. There’s a faint hope for reconciliation as he begs her, “next time, please, please be mine,” but the music itself is drenched with despair and desolation. A seriously spooky sound.
Trk. 4) At the other end of the emotional spectrum is the perky “Sonny Boy Blow,” a warm and rocking tribute to the legendary Bluesman. Mayall’s left hand and Hartley’s drums provide a tight, boogie-woogie backing while John works out on the “jangle piano” and harmonica in this musical eulogy. A real toe-tapper.
Trk. 5) “Marsha’s Mood.” Mayall plays drums as well on this relaxed and tuneful, slightly Jazzy piano instrumental. Cool and mellow, with beautiful bell-like sounds, a real rarity.
Trk. 6) “No More Tears” is a lively shuffle with a reassuring lyric. Accompanied by Keef’s deft snare-work, Mayall plays all three axes, and the high notes of the lead guitar make me suspect that it was overdubbed with the tape slowed down, so that pitch and speed were both increased when it was running normally, a trick that John Lee Hooker pulled on his 1952 recording “Walkin’ The Boogie.” The unusual effect adds an even more upbeat feel to the music – who says all Blues is depressing?
Trk. 1) “Catch That Train” is an amusing experiment – harmonica played against the sound of a real train – but far too gimmicky to bear repeated listening. To those youngsters who are baffled by Peel’s riff on the N.U.R., that’s the National Union of Railwaymen, kiddies – yes, prior to 1997, “British Rail” was a nationalised industry, hard to imagine now, eh?
Trk. 2) “Cancelling Out.” He don’t like ’em too dolled up, too needy, or too dumb – picky, picky, picky! Farmer John sorts out the bad eggs in his hen house, and though his assessment of women is hardly the most misogynistic you’ll have ever heard in a Blues record, it certainly seems rather anachronistic in the 21st century. Fortunately John’s fine piano and organ work render this odd ditty listenable, but Heaven only knows what Mrs. Mayall thought of it all.
Trk. 3) “Harp Man” is a cool and catchy instrumental held together by Mayall’s tight bass and Hartley’s funky drumming, with improvisations played on chromatic harmonica and the celeste or celesta, which is a struck idiophone, if that’s any help to you. The tinkling sounds produced by this cross between keyboard and percussion have also featured in Buddy Holly’s “Every Day” and the Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning,” but don’t sound at all out of place in the Blues. An unexpected pleasure.
(And BTW, let’s not diss the sackbut! Richard Thompson made very good use of it, and the krumhorn too, on “I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight,” though that belongs in my series of Classic British Folk Albums. ) Sneaky Stevie
Trk. 4) Four years before the Stones, John penned this pleasing paean to a paramour who’s a person of colour. Managing to avoid references to whips and slavery, his “Brown Sugar” is charmingly “going to melt away in his arms.” Careful, John, that’s almost poetic!
Trk. 5) “Broken Wings” is a very tender, touching ballad, as John promises to love and care for a woman who’s been badly hurt. With only organ and Keef’s brushes backing him, the tone is light, warm and open, and, like “Please Don’t Tell,” can make Mayall’s full band versions sound crass and clumsy. I also counted at least a dozen websites out there with entirely the wrong lyrics, so tread warily! The original recorded version here is unique, and heart-breakingly beautiful.
Trk. 6) “Don’t Kick Me” is a hard-rocking, funky Blues built around a great big, dirty guitar hook, and if ever there was a evidence that John Mayall doesn’t need a band, look no further! It’s tremendously catchy, too, and ensures that this remarkable album goes out with a bang, not a whimper.
Although Decca sidelined it onto the budget Ace of Clubs label, “The Blues Alone” was well-received by the music press. Disc and Music Echo described it at the time as “technically beautiful and faultlessly ethnic . . . as good an example of pure blues as is ever likely to come out of Britain,” and I see no reason to disagree.
Although Mayall does some fine singing and playing on this album, and easily proves his versatility, its real strength is, as always, in his song-writing. I can think of few writers who have restricted themselves deliberately to a single genre, who have managed to mould it into so many differing tempos, subjects, styles and sequences, and still come up with so many successes. Clapton’s complaint that John’s songs were “like pop R&B” to some extent missed the point – that the Blues we call R&B was the “pop music” of black urban America in the fifties and sixties. And, much as Willie Dixon was in the U.S.A., John Mayall has always been the songsmith of British Blues.
Unlike many albums, this is not an endless succession of shuffles and slow Blueses. There are no two tracks based on the same template, and some of them – “Brand New Start,” “Please Don’t Tell,” “Down The Line,” “Broken Wings” and “Marsha’s Mood” – couldn’t or don’t work effectively in any other form than the one presented here. So don’t dismiss this “done-in-a-day” solo album as a novelty, or a bargain-bin “cheapie.” This is the album it was intended to be, the natural follow-up to ‘Bluesbreakers’ and ‘A Hard Road,’ and one of the undeniable Classics of British Blues.
© Stevie King 2015 for the British Blues Archive.