After appearing on Miles Davis’ landmark opus Bitches Brew, the 30-year-old British-born guitar wizard known as Mahavishnu John McLaughlin birthed his own band and christened it The Mahavishnu Orchestra. His quintet featured virtuoso instrumentalists, each hailing from a different country, each applying his uniquely flavored and unquestionable means towards an end of jazz-fusion nirvana. Birds of Fire, the band’s sophomore effort and gong-heralded opening track knocked the crap out of everyone daring enough to turn on to it in 1973.
How much has the world changed since then? Forget the muttonchops and flared pants legs, they’re more than likely on the way back in these days, this album actually charted in a big way. Come on folks, we’re talking about daring (with a capital D) music making a large noise on the Billboard album chart. You don’t think that’s strange? A quick peek at the current top 50 albums will make your head spin. Check it for yourself, Billboard.com, but have your Dramamine handy and don’t say I didn’t warn you. In 1973, this ultra challenging hard rock/jazz fusion exploration began an 11-week stay on the Billboard chart and fully ripened at number 15. Today’s number 15 album? That would be Shaggy’s Hotshot. Glad you took the Dramamine now?
Okay. The times were different. The early ‘70s were ushering in an era of arena rock and the audiences were ripe for a group of virtuosos able to take stage and whim out a multitude of breathtaking musical influences often at sound barrier threatening volumes. Exactly why this isn’t appreciated now is beyond me.
Oh yeah, I know what you’re thinking: “He grew up in the ‘70s, this was HIS music and now he’s trying to force it on us because he’s either unwilling or unable to adapt to the changes of the field he professes to be fairly coherent in.” To which I reply: “Uh, have you listened to Shaggy?” Actually, you’d be wrong. I came of age in a magical era baby, when a young man could ride a giddy hook, a Flock of Seagulls hairdo and a 35 dollar Casio keyboard into the top 40. The 1980s.
The Mahavishnu Orchestra is hell and gone from ‘80s goof. This was a group of players who were masters of their prospective instruments. Right, now you’re thinking: “This is music to be appreciated more so than listened to. The only people deriving pleasure from this album are the theory dipped music geeks capable of hearing their microwave’s done signal and telling you what key it’s in.” Okay, it’s fairly complicated stuff; I’ll let you have that one. Still, we’re talking about a band with an electric pulse and a heart with at least two of its four chambers pumping blood of the rock and roll variety. This will appeal to anyone eager to open their mind and expand their musical horizons.
Twenty seven years later this digitally remastered album is as vibrant and demanding as ever. John’s playing, be it Teddy Bear tender or perilously abrasive, fits nicely amidst the controlled den created by Billy Cobham’s assault on the skins and Jan Hammer’s synthesized acrobatics. Jerry Goodman’s violin provides a bit of a Dixie Dregs type vibe at times, while the slower tempo ditties offer more than a morsel of a Bela Fleck and the Flecktones type feel. Still, both those bands are alive and kicking out great music that’s all but going unnoticed by the general music consumer.
I suppose the only mega-popular band around today that somewhat incorporates the fusion aesthetic into its art is the Dave Matthews Band. So let’s put it this way: Mahavishnu was a peyote fueled Dave Matthews Band, sans vocals, with 20 times the talent and influences plus a baddass seventies tube-amp swagger.
I wonder if Shaggy’s Hotshot will be digitally remastered and re-released 27 years from now.