ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, JAN. 13, 1989
By Steve Newton
The biggest aim for most rock musicians when they’re starting out is getting on a major label. A major-label signing means that your music is available to the masses. It’s the first step on the road to international stardom.
But it’s not just newcomers and unknowns who have trouble convincing big labels of their ability to move vinyl. Take legendary bluesman John Mayall, who just recently signed a three-album deal with the heavyweight Island Records. He’d been looking for major label backing for the last eight years.
“It’s been very tough to get a deal,” sys Mayall, who plays the Town Pump on Saturday (January 14). “I mean we’ve waited so long for something like this. But in a way I’m glad it has taken so long, ’cause in the meantime I’ve had four-and-a-half years of this particular band, and we’ve matured tremendously. When we did get the opportunity to get in the studio, we were ready.”
The resultant LP, Chicago Line, is the 34th album of Mayall’s career, which began in the ’60s when he found the famed Bluesbreakers. That group became a proving ground for some of rock’s greatest guitarists, including Eric Clapton, Harvey Mandel, former Rolling Stone Mike Taylor, and Fleetwood Mac co-founder Peter Green. Other players who honed their chops with Mayall’s Bluesbreakers were bassists Jack Bruce, Andy Fraser, and John McVie, and drummers Aynsley Dunbar, Keef Hartley, and Mike Fleetwood.
“I never hired anyone who wasn’t outstanding,” recalls Mayall. “You can’t compare them, though. Each had his way to play; each had his own distinctive sound.”
Although several of his proteges have gone on to become much wealthier and better-known than Mayall (who has but one gold album), he has no regrets.
“When I compare the happiness and fulfillment I get out of my music, and the freedom I have, I can’t imagine anyone enjoying what they do more than I do. I can’t feel envious of people who get caught up in these huge combines and sometimes lose sight of the joy of playing the music. And as for the money part, if it’s supposed to happen, it will.”
The possibility of Mayall making a big comeback in 1989 is a very good one–as the superior blues-rock on his new album attests. And Mayall feels that the mid-’80s successes of young bluesmen like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Robert Cray haven’t hurt his chances either.
“They’ve certainly done a lot to broaden the scope of the blues, and I think it’s terrific. There are signs that we are in the middle of a blues revival, and people that break into the charts are gonna turn more people onto the music itself.”
Mayall and his Bluesbreakers recorded Chicago Line in just five days last April at a studio in Tutzing, West Germany. The album was produced, surprisingly enough, by Tony Carey, who had a solo hit in 1984 with “A Fine, Fine Day” and was a member of Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow in the seventies.
“It is a surprise really, but I wasn’t familiar with any of that history before I met him. We recorded in a studio owned by Peter Maffei, who’s a superstar in Germany–he’s the German equivalent of Bruce Springsteen. Tony is Peter’s resident producer and keyboard player and musical director, so he came with the studio., and it was just a marvellous combination. He really has the right feel. He’s got great ears, and he just captured everything.”
Mayall wrote five of the new album’s 10 tunes himself, as well as supplying all the vocals and harmonica. He also played some guitar, and shared the keyboard duties with Carey. On a couple of songs he borrowed lyrics from ’30s bluesmen Blind Boy Fuller (“Cold Blooded mama”) and Walter Davis (“Tears Come Rolling Down”), and worked his own musical compositions around them. He also recorded a song by Jimmy Rogers, “The Last Time”, which is actually the first single from the album.
“He writes some really good tunes,” says Mayall of Rogers. “I first came across him when he was playing with Muddy Waters on the early records. So I’ve always liked his material. And ‘The Last Time’ was one that hadn’t been done by other people too much.”
Five days might seem like an incredibly short amount of time to record an album, considering some bands spend months in the studio. But most of the tracks were done on the first take. Mayall says that all of the time the Bluesbreakers have spent together–continuously playing clubs while waiting out that elusive record deal–has made the band very tight.
“I don’t think it could be tighter!” he says. “And it’s also loose–that’s the mark of a great band. It’s different every night you play, and that’s what keeps the band alive.”
Anyone who saw Mayall’s Bluesbreakers at the Commodore last year would be hard-pressed to argue that point. It was a tremendous show, and Mayall’s own electricity was matched by that of his band–guitarists Walter Trout and Coco Montoya, bassist Bobby Haynes, and drummer Joe Yuele. Guitar fans were especially rewarded for their attendance by the searing performances of Trout and Montoya, who are also in top form–and very prevalent–throughout Chicago Line.
“Well that’s the way the Bluesbreakers are these days,” says Mayall. “You’ve got two giants of the guitar there, following in the traditions of you-know-who.”
Mayall says that his new album more than holds its own against those old classics he made with Clapton, records that became enormously influential to such current guitar heroes as Eddie Van Halen.
“All those albums have a place in history, and the musicianship on those early albums is impeccable, but from my point of view I’m singing way better–and certainly playing a lot better–on the new one. And this band is also better, on the whole, than any of the others were.”