The Class of 1971: Mahavishnu John McLaughlin — ‘My Goal’s Beyond’
My first exposure to John McLaughlin was in the basement of the University Center at college, where James Cameron, program director of WLVR-FM, the student-run free-form radio station, put a new album on the turntable in the fall of 1970. I had never heard anything remotely like it. The album was Devotion, and that first head-spinning track was “Marbles.”
I was hooked.
It would be some time before many of us would discover his incredible work with Miles Davis (In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew), Jack Bruce, Wayne Shorter, Miroslav Vitous, and the Tony Williams Lifetime. And that was just 1969, the year McLaughlin’s first solo effort, Extrapolation, was released. In 1970, he also recorded with Joe Farrell, Larry Coryell, and others. And then he worked with Miles Davis again (A Tribute to Jack Johnson, Live-Evil) and Carla Bley’s amazing Elevator Over the Hill.
By the summer of 1971, what I knew about McLaughlin was that he was a psychedelic machine-gunner of a guitarist. Which is why I was surprised to find the album My Goal’s Beyond by Mahavishnu John McLaughlin when I returned to school in the fall. An acoustic guitar? An acoustic band? What the heck?
McLaughlin had cut his hair short, sat in white clothes with that acoustic guitar, and had become a follower of Sri Chinmoy. An acoustic guitar? How was he going to play “Marbles” on that?
First answer: he wasn’t. Second answer: My Goal’s Beyond led to a mind-blowing trip into some incredibly spiritual music unlike anything I knew about at the time. Third answer: we were also about to discover that McLaughlin was forming a new band which he would call the Mahavishnu Orchestra. That band recorded in August and released Inner Mounting Flame November 3, 1971.
My Goal’s Beyond was recorded in New York in March of 1971. Its original release was on the Douglas label, a small company whose album releases included Lenny Bruce, the Last Poets, and Devotion. Douglas 9 was released in June of 1971. It also has a CBS number KZ 30766; earlier Douglas releases came through PIP records. The album had several vinyl re-releases and others on CD.
Personnel: John McLaughlin, acoustic guitar; Billy Cobham, drums; Charlie Haden, bass; Jerry Goodman, violin; Dave Liebman, flute, soprano saxophone; Airto Moreira, percussion; Badal Roy, tabla; and Mahalakshmi (Eve McLaughlin), tanpura (Indian drone instrument).
By the time of the album’s release, we were familiar with a few of those players, including Cobham from Dreams and some CTI jazz albums and Goodman of The Flock. Those two would become members of The Mahavishnu Orchestra. Haden, Liebman, and Moreira would become much more familiar shortly thereafter.
All compositions are by John McLaughlin unless otherwise noted.
My Goal’s Beyond
In the first 30 second of “Peace 1” (7:15), we are introduced layer by layer to the drone of Mahalakshmi’s tanpura, Haden’s pulsing bass, Roy’s tabla work, and percussive contributions from Moreira and Cobham. Then Goodman and Liebman (soprano sax) enter together, followed finally by a style of acoustic guitar that seems worlds away. It reminds of John Mark’s finger-style guitar on John Mayall’s seminal The Turning Point.
Liebman soars on flute, with Moreira adding bells and chimes. Goodman steps out next on violin, absolutely mesmerizing. Again, at the time, there was little to compare this totality of sound with (we would certainly discover much more in due time). The tanpura and table would inform MacLaughlin’s decision later to form Shakti.
“Peace 2” (12:18) builds similarly from the drone of the tanpura, percussion, and bass before violin and soprano sax again intertwine, the others like a heartbeat behind them.This is amazing inwardly-focused meditative magic, a direct result of McLaughlin’s study with guru Sri Chinmoy. McLaughlin’s works is stunning, as is everyone’s.
The eight songs on Side Two feature McLaughlin on double-tracked guitar and Cobham on occasion on cymbals.
This is as fine and loving a version of “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” [Charles Mingus] (3:15) that you will ever hear.
The interplay of the two guitars is simply masterful throughout, evidenced here on ”Something Spiritual” [Dave Herman] (3:35). It is hard to imagine he is not playing both guitars at the same time. Cymbal crashes create a quiet drone in the background. And McLaughlin’s rapid-fire burst would become his signature with The Mahavishnu Orchestra.
“Hearts and Flowers” [Theodore Moses Tobani] (2:05) is credited to D. Bob Cornford on the original album. This is a lovely, lively track.
“Phillip Lane” (3:35) is the most uptempo song on the album, full of cymbal crashes and lightning-fast runs before it downshifts to a slower tempo, then shifts back up.
The beautiful ballad “Waltz for Bill Evans” [Chick Corea] (2:00) gets beautiful treatment here. McLaughlin and Corea had recorded with Miles on Bitches Brew in 1968.
If there is a signature McLaughlin composition, I would nominate ”Follow Your Heart” (3:17). It appeared on Extrapolation as “Arjen’s Bag,” and he also recorded it on Joe Farrell’s CTI debut album (both of those version are included in the Spotify playlist). He treats it delicately and with power at the same time.
“Song for My Mother” (3:30) is another powerhouse acoustic track, full of cymbal crashes and blazing runs.
The album closes with “Blue in Green” [Miles Davis/Bill Evans] (2:37) from the seminal Kind of Blue.
This album is about 180 degrees away from “Marbles.” John McLaughlin was beginning to demonstrate that he could do anything, and 50 years later he is continuing to do exactly that.