Colin H on Mahavishnu Orchestra
I thought I’d share this compact history of Mahavishnu Orchestra (Mk 1), from my book ‘Bathed in Lightning: John McLaughlin, the 60s and the Emerald Beyond’ (Jawbone Press, 2014). I noticed that it had sold out a couple of years ago and very few copies seemed to be available second-hand. Jawbone Press very kindly returned the physical rights to me (retaining the e-book, which is available from the usual places) and a few months back I had a stock of near-facsimile copies printed (with a couple of new pages at front and back), really as a public service. Should anyone want a copy and not like the idea of spending £50+ on the rare occasion someone parts with a copy on eBay, if they look hard enough it’s ‘there’ at a normal price – at my Bandcamp page. To be precise, here: https://colinharper.bandcamp.com/merch
But I’m sharing this chapter because the mighty MO ended 50 years ago this year and people need reminding that this was, I contend, the pinnacle of all music.
Chapter 14: God’s Orchestra
‘When you’re younger it’s very self-centred. You want to change the world but you realise it’s easier to conquer New York than to conquer yourself.’
Dion DiMucci, 2012 
‘John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu group. They are going to be huge, because they’ve pulled so many styles together and come out with something unique.’
Jimmy Page, 1972 
‘John McLaughlin – he’s the one, that’s the killer.’
Miles Davis, 1972 
The first Mahavishnu Orchestra was born and died in New York City. There were two and a half years separating those two events. In between they released three records, played somewhere in the region of 500 concerts  and managed to astound the world, or that part thereof that took notice of modern music. And in the early 1970s that was a lot of the world. There were still vast, uncharted realms of sound for music to inhabit, still record-making corporations willing to fund the voyages of exploration and still hordes of listeners eager to make new discoveries. Popular music informed the culture, it was muscular and virile – a louder, more confident, more resourced young adult than the precocious youth of the 1950s or the questing adolescent of the 1960s – and the feeling was abroad that perhaps still it could change the world. Mahavishnu John McLaughlin had not a shred of doubt about that:
‘There’s no evil, no sin, only ignorance,’ he explained at the time, holding his inquisitor in a state of some awe. ‘Right now ignorance is king on earth. He has virtually everybody in his grasp and, unfortunately, most people are happy that way. But once you start aspiring, you step off that – and ignorance doesn’t like it, so he’ll try to pull you back. That’s where the battle is and you have to be very strong, cultivate your divine gifts, like courage, perseverance, faith, love, renunciation, determination. Man has only a few enemies: fear, anxiety, doubt – doubt is a killer…’ 
Changing the consciousness of the world was, for John, the whole point of the thing. For the other guys, whatever turned John on was fine: they were simply ecstatic to be playing in what felt like the greatest band on the planet.
The band, like the city, was a melting pot of nationalities and cultures: John McLaughlin from England; Billy Cobham from Panama; Rick Laird from Ireland via New Zealand, Australia and London; Jan Hammer from Czechoslovakia, as it was then, via Germany; and Jerry Goodman from Chicago, USA. Many roads had led each of the five to New York where the first Mahavishnu Orchestra came together in the summer of 1971.
John’s first recruit, Billy Cobham, was almost a native, which may go some way towards explaining his mental and physical strength. His family had moved to Brooklyn when he was eight.
‘When we started I still didn’t really understand what John McLaughlin was trying to do,’ Billy recalled, ‘and also the music was taxing on me because I didn’t know how to approach it. So I used to put all my energies into it and I’d come away huffing and puffing and really, it would frighten me. I’d come off the stage and my heart would be beating so fast because of the energy. I didn’t think that I could physically play at that level of intensity and get [the music] over and still keep myself together. Then, all of a sudden, I began to learn how to pace myself. It was either that or die.’ 
As much as John’s lightning fast playing, esoteric modes and mind-boggling time signatures imbued in listeners and concert-goers a sense of awe, so too did the physique, stamina and creative prowess of Billy Cobham. He was a guy you’d want to have on your side, not coming after you – which was exactly how the rest of the band and their road crew felt any time there were disagreements with dubious concert promoters. While the unit was, to its members, five equally dependent people (musically if not contractually), to many at the time Billy Cobham was up there with John McLaughlin as the superstar within:
‘The very intensity he once feared [he] now directs,’ observed one commentator in 1972. ‘Soaring through time and sound, through the often unfathomable dimensions of the Mahavishnu music, Cobham creates this intensity as variable rhythm and colour itself… He is an essential element in [their] cosmic alchemy… To witness his playing is to witness truly kinetic sculpture, both in sight and in sound, sensually exhilarating, first to the eye and then even more so to the spirit.’ 
‘I never know what’s going to happen,’ Billy said, ‘when, how or who it’s going to happen to – but you know it’s going to happen!’ 
While Billy Cobham was largely self-taught, Jan Hammer had been brought up in a jazz-mad family in Prague, had been through conservatoire education, had won awards and had most recently earned a living playing at strip clubs in Boston: ‘I had wanted to leave for a long time but I waited to make sure I wasn’t going to come back,’ he explained. ‘Some people said I’d waited too long to come to New York. But I didn’t feel New York.’ 
Finally, in April 1970, he made the move, securing a gig in NYC as pianist/arranger to established singer Sarah Vaughan:
‘I really was deep in it when I was in Europe,’ he reflected, at the height of the band’s success. ‘If I hadn’t left and come to New York I would never have gotten out of it. New York is the place. You set your traps and have your dreams eaten… I believe you can find your own self anywhere but, musically, there are guys in NY who play. You can’t find these musicians anywhere but in New York. That’s why I’m here.’ 
Jan Hammer made a dramatic, whole-hearted journey from starched European jazz man to American rock’n’roll animal as a member of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. He had an ally in violinist Jerry Goodman – the pair united as much in age (being, at 24 and 23 respectively when the band started, between five and seven years younger than the others) as in outlook.
‘John first approached me with the idea of the band even before there were any other members,’ said Jerry, in 1973. ‘[First] I went to New York and did… My Goal’s Beyond. The irony in the album title was that I sort of did it against my will. At that time I was living on a farm in Wisconsin really enjoying myself… [But when] John and I got into a room and started playing together, Zap! Energy was there – all around! All of a sudden I could see it, hear it, feel it and there were no doubts about anything after that.’ 
Rick Laird, of course, had known John since 1963, from their shared time together on the British jazz scene. While John worked in many contexts during the ‘60s, Rick was strictly a jazz man, and happy to be a sideman before moving to Boston to study at Berklee College of Music. ‘Don’t stay at Berklee too long, come to New York and play!’ saxophone icon Sonny Rollins told him. Rick didn’t listen. At least, not hard enough.
‘The States at that time was a European jazz musician’s dream,’ he explained, in 1973. ‘Most of us were in awe – a little afraid of it – really afraid of New York because of the rumours about how hard it was to make it there.’ 
Two and a half years after starting Berklee, in 1969, Rick had headed to Los Angeles with big dreams; within a week he had become trapped, and would remain so for two years, as the bass player with notoriously egocentric drummer and band leader Buddy Rich (‘the music was insignificant: just a filler between drum solos’): 
‘I got off the band in 1971 in London, disillusioned about the States and music. I’d been playing for a long time and was tired… I was beginning to think about other things like carpentry… Something creative. Anything except wearing a tuxedo and playing at bullshit gigs… Then John called.’ 
It’s tempting to believe that karma was at work in the assembling of the first Mahavishnu Orchestra. Jerry Goodman, with his classical music/hippy rock background, had not been John’s first choice (that was French jazz virtuoso Jean-Luc Ponty, who was too far away at the time). Similarly, Rick was a second choice bass player: first choice, progressive vibraphonist Gary Burton’s bassist, Tony Levin, had failed to return a call – fatally misconstruing it as an invitation to join some bizarre weddings/cabaret act called ‘Murray Vishnu & His Orchestra’.  Even Jan Hammer had only been sought when Larry Young proved unavailable.
And yet, in spite of all save Billy Cobham being ‘seconds’, the five individuals who rehearsed for five days and played their first show at New York’s Gaslight Au-Go-Go club on 21 July 1971, supporting Chicago blues and boogie minimalist John Lee Hooker, were exactly, magically right. Everyone pushed themselves and each other to the limit creatively, intuitively, mentally and physically. The whole was greater – even greater – than the sum of its parts.
‘ESP happens in this band,’ said John, a year after that first show. ‘It’s a solid physical fact. We are not separate. In ignorance, we are separate, in the truth we are one… If love is there, anything is possible.’ 
For the time being, love was there.
‘We thought alike,’ said Jan Hammer, a few years after the gold-rush, ‘melodically, harmonically… John could bring a sketch in and he knew the band would just grab it and make an incredible piece of work out of it – just organically.’ 
Almost as if it was meant to be, John began the band’s journey with enough music – enough sketches – for two and a half albums. With the addition of one subsequently written piece by himself and one by Jan (comprising between them one side of an LP), and notwithstanding a handful of pieces on a third studio album, aborted in the Summer of 1973, that would be in totality the concert repertoire of the first Mahavishnu Orchestra during the two and a half years of its existence. It might almost have been predetermined from the start.
‘We have a common goal,’ said Rick, not long prior to the abortive third album sessions that signalled the end of common goals. ‘Unity. To love each other from minute to minute without question and to somehow help each other get past what we are; to grow; to push forward, inch by inch… [W]e all, I think, knew at the beginning what we were doing. Getting out on a journey like this was not a gig. I cannot treat this as a gig… This is an experience. It’s like a mission.’ 
God knows what John Lee’s audience made of it all. ‘Vital Transformation’ was apparently the first song played at that first gig in New York, [FN 1] and transformation, in John’s mind, was vital indeed: for himself and his audience. For John, it went much deeper than ‘just’ music – and yet music, for him, went far, far deeper than almost anything else:
‘For me, music is the second highest language,’ he stated. ‘The highest language is complete, exquisite silence. The silence of meditation in which the infinite truths can be communicated.’ 
With delightful irony – a seeming paradox, among several surrounding the band, in which John delighted – the Mahavishnu Orchestra were the very opposite of silence.
‘Their music is as loud and raucous as the Who’s,’ wrote the man from Rolling Stone, ‘as subtle and precise as the Modern Jazz Quartet’s, and has a blazing devotional message that cannot be missed by anyone who sees the shivers of rapture pass like quickly changing seasons on John McLaughlin’s face as he bends back from his instrument and sends a searing flash of prayer straight to the heart of God.’ 
Across the ocean, British writers would similarly have to dig deep for the new ways to describe the indescribable. The music of the Mahavishnu Orchestra in concert was ‘a sound never before heard to mortal ears… music of the Gods… co-operative brilliance so far above the normal jazz or rock performance as to defy analysis or explanation.’ 
Or, alternatively, as the man from Down Beat asked: ‘Why turn the damned sound up so bloody loud?’ 
The Mahavishnu Orchestra’s debut album The Inner Mounting Flame, with John pictured in lotus position among his cohorts on the cover and a poem on aspiration by Sri Chinmoy within, had been recorded on 14 August 1971, within days of the Gaslight residency. Released before the year’s end, it sold 20,000 units in the first three weeks alone.
The music was astounding. While some of the elements and ideas within it may be glimpsed, in retrospect, scattered here and there across Devotion, My Goal’s Beyond, the recordings with Miles Davis, Lifetime and Carla Bley, even back to Extrapolation, those were but doodles on paper compared to this fully-formed masterpiece. It was a music that was wholly new and which could not have been predicted. More to the point, it was by turns beautiful, frightening, thrilling, wild, portentous, serene and mesmeric. Sometimes all in the one tune. It could be heard again and again and again, revealing new facets and aspects like an aural diamond. After the shock, it never ceased to fascinate and enthral. It was simultaneously Mahavishnu John McLaughlin’s personal vision made real and the unmistakeable work of an ensemble of wizardly people interacting and playing at an incredibly advanced level. It had that sophistication from jazz, but it rocked like a bastard. It was neither one nor the other but the best of both: it had the swagger, volume and grit of rock music coupled with the harmonic richness, compositional language and dizzying musicianship that might be expected only to exist in the worlds of jazz or art music. The final ingredient that gave this already heady concoction a flavour that would remain distinctive, then and now, was the influence of the East. Modes and time signatures seemed to have been flown in wholesale from India or Eastern Europe.
John’s compositional maturity had finally arrived. [FN 2] As fabulous as Extrapolation was, this was a level beyond. There was an indestructible, immortal aura around several of the album’s pieces. A lesser item like ‘Vital Transformation’ – its title reflecting Sri Chinmoy’s preoccupation with the lower and higher vitals of the soul – grabbed the listener by the throat with its superficially Hendrix-esque riffing and sound, but even here the lascivious blues-rock overcoat gave way to a clean, ascending movement. Everything in Mahavishnu music was about ascension: mirroring the soul’s progress toward God-realisation.
It was in the contemplative pieces, ‘Dawn’, ‘You Know, You Know’, ‘A Lotus On Irish Streams’ – where space, restraint and the wisdom to use it were the key – that the caterpillar truly emerged as a many-coloured creature in winged flight. The yin to their yang were the unholy behemoths ‘Meeting Of The Spirits’ and ‘Dance Of Maya’. Introducing the world to a device that might as well be known as ‘Mahavishnu arpeggios’ – weird, unresolving cyclical guitar patterns played in arpeggiated form that formed the basis of many of John’s compositions of the Mahavishnu era – these two pieces felt like a man conjuring Lucifer and delighting at holding the beast in his thrall. Among the many paradoxes of the Mahavishnu world was John’s avowed God-aspiration and the all-but Satanic power and flavour in some of his works. It was a headlong rush into the electrical storm, bathing, as one sage was to put it so memorably, in the lightning, invulnerable to chaos through the grace of the Supreme. It was music which allowed the listener to leave behind their own mundane world for a voyage in sound. It held out a hand, inviting them along on a journey towards a fantastic place, tangible yet beyond imagining. It was high art for the masses. And the masses came.
‘I notice some difference in the music I played before I became [a] disciple and the music I play now,’ John mused, early in 1972. ‘When I play now, I think of Sri Chinmoy. I think of him as my higher self, and me as his lower self. I think of my music now as an offering to God… God is the master musician, the soul of music, the spirit of music. I’m just trying to reach him by letting myself be his instrument. That’s what I’m striving to become.’ 
‘It is difficult to verbalise the experience of the person of McLaughlin,’ observed one interviewer, three months later. ‘As man and artist, he radiates that characteristically awesome presence of the self-determined spirit. Yet at the same time, McLaughlin expresses a rarefied innocence, the illuminating esprit that is beyond explication; it is aesthetic, indefinable, yet it is real.’ 
‘His verbal communication is similar to his musical communication,’ observed another. ‘In both, he is concerned with a statement: there is no rambling, he starts with an idea, and he develops it. There is a beginning and an ending, an aura of simplicity. He treats both forms of communication with a sense of dignity – and conviction.’ 
Things had moved on from the somewhat rambling, imprecise radio interview of August 1970. Perhaps the most compelling observation came from Ian MacDonald: ‘The man is so assured and direct,’ he told his readers, ‘that I have no recollection of him blinking during the whole hour we spoke.’ 
Perception is half of history; truth is the rest. To the record-buying, concert-going public of the early 1970s, the substantial coverage given to John McLaughlin as the face and voice of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and his serene demeanour onstage, asking for moments of silence before every show and presenting the performance as an opportunity for all assembled to reach their highest heights and deepest depths, fuelled a general fascination with the man. His extraordinary virtuosity and his band’s extraordinary music spoke for itself, but his commanding, slightly otherworldly personality and the spiritual commitment behind it all not only added weight and portent to the music but, conversely, suggested that such singular accomplishments were achievable to all and sundry through the path being espoused. Mahavishnu John McLaughlin wasn’t a man on a table-tapping weekend in Bognor, he was deadly serious. As one commentator observed: ‘You know with McLaughlin it wasn’t karate and hoola hoops yesterday and it won’t be cowboy belts tomorrow.’ 
‘I’m not a musician for musicians,’ he stated. ‘I’m a musician for non-musicians… What is a musician for if he isn’t for the non-musician? I’m a musician, I’m the ears of humanity. I listen on behalf of humanity. Most people’s roles in this divine drama on earth is to do something else, but they love music so I am here for them. Musicians are here for people who can’t hear, and painters are here for people who can’t see – so they can learn to hear and see.’ 
Music was more than a pastime or an income or even a vocation to John McLaughlin. It was a mission from God. Among Sri Chinmoy’s many aphorisms was one which explains John’s extreme devotion to the cause of spreading his music as a gateway to God for the masses: ‘If you say that a musician is not God, I may agree with you. But if you say music is not God, then I totally disagree with you.’ 
‘I know where music comes from and I know the Creator of the music,’ John explained. ‘And my entire life is dedicated to Him: the Supreme Creator. He gives me the music… I’m far from a perfect instrument, but that’s what I’m aspiring to be… It’s like the highest music is happening right now, the most unbelievable music – but you can’t hear it because your consciousness is not there. It needs me as a musician to manifest itself on earth… God is in you – but He’s asleep. Some people you can nudge and they’ll wake up. Other people you shake, but they want to sleep on for another few lifetimes. I’m awake.’ 
New York certainly woke up after the first gig at the Gaslight in that summer of ‘71. The band had been booked for one week; they were kept on for three. After two shows at the city’s Beacon Theater supporting the Steve Miller Band and Cannonball Adderley came their first radio spot, on a local FM station broadcast live from the Jabberwocky Club, Syracuse, New York. After that – with Columbia Records’ shrewd assistance – a series of dates around New York State and the East Coast supporting Blue Oyster Cult and the Byrds:
‘We got solidly behind the Mahavishnu Orchestra,’ said Clive Davis, the man with the plan at Columbia, ‘because they were a group most agents wouldn’t promote because they didn’t know who the audience would be. So we subsidised them to put them on tour with the Byrds headlining – I felt we had to have a headliner or no one would come to see them…. They toured up and down the East Coast and immediately Mahavishnu got enormous response and they broke out.’ 
A December 29 1971 date at Carnegie Hall supporting soft-rock hippy harmonies act It’s A Beautiful Day marked the end of a phase one that had surprised everyone involved:
‘The first notes of the music made the audience literally jump,’ recalled one writer, present at the Carnegie Hall show, ‘roaring, vibrating rock; the violin, guitar and piano all playing like lightning in the same high range; Billy Cobham… playing so fast that you can’t see his arms; Mahavishnu and Goodman skirling out brilliant, driving music that translated into invocations of the spirit, prayers, chants; music that seems to go as far as music can go from the fingers of mortal musicians.’ 
‘They received five standing ovations during their set,’ observed another writer, ‘by the middle of It’s A Beautiful Day’s act, the once full house was half empty.’ 
‘Take a Beatles album,’ said John, a few days later, ‘there are things on the record that can’t be recreated on stage, and in our case it’s the other way round… We were in Carnegie Hall the other night and the reaction was fantastic to the unity and love that’s in this band.’ 
There he was again, fearless to the notion of tempting fate. But if the Mahavishnu Orchestra was not the crackpot cabaret act of Tony Levin’s nightmares, what exactly was it? It was neither jazz nor rock; it was not, in the eyes of its members, ‘jazz-rock’ – a term only just becoming current among commentators during its lifetime; and it certainly wasn’t ‘fusion’ (a term that became prevalent to describe the likes of Mahavishnu Orchestra and other disparate acts loosely regarded as bedfellows only years later). Mahavishnu Orchestra records were not to be found in some distant genre-labelled rack in the record stores, they were displayed alongside Tom Jones, Tony Bennett, the Beatles and anyone else releasing long-playing records to the public. These were simpler times.
‘I’ve played rhythm-and-blues, free-jazz and rock – but I don’t feel that way anymore,’ John explained in 1972. ‘I’m not a jazz musician, I’m not a rock musician, I’m just a musician – that’s all.’ 
It was a point he would make repeatedly during the Mahavishnu era. Even before that, during the two years he spent ploughing a hard furrow with the wilder neither-jazz-nor-rock shores of Tony Williams’ Lifetime, his mind was clear on the matter:
‘I mean, it’s like Cream,’ he had told America’s premier pop journal, Hit Parader. ‘The Cream weren’t ‘pop’ musicians. They’re just musicians. I don’t consider something in a category. Neither do any of us.’ 
John was always willing and eager to tell interviewers about musicians who had influenced and inspired him, and many of these – Miles Davis and John Coltrane being perhaps the most important – were musicians considered as jazz players of one shade or another. But he would also speak of his admiration for the Beatles and even, on one occasion, for soft-rock artists James Taylor and Seals & Croft.  Only from the very late ‘70s onwards did John McLaughlin start using the ‘J word’ to identify himself in interviews in ways which placed him and his music essentially in that orbit. In the early ‘70s, his music was determinedly for everyone, not the few:
‘I don’t care what people call me. I don’t care what they call the music,’ he told another inquisitor, when asked if he was, as others considered him at that point, a rock guitarist. ‘People ask me what kind of music we play, and I say, ‘You listen, then you can call it anything you want’. There are people who consider themselves Mahavishnu Rock and Roll Freaks, that’s great. I’d rather play for rock and roll audiences than jazz audiences anyway. Jazz listeners are too narrow, too purist for us. Rock audiences are more open.’ 
He was right. Throughout 1972 the Mahavishnu Orchestra pounded the road relentlessly, focusing on New York and the North-Eastern states (from the Atlantic seaboard inland to Illinois), with a handful of short trips to Florida, Texas and California. In March, at San Francisco’s Winterland supporting Emerson, Lake & Palmer, John’s old friend Brian Auger came along:
‘It was very strange,’ Brian recalls. ‘I went in, there were all these people from the Sri Chinmoy organisation around him. I said, ‘Hey, John, how’s it going man?’ and he seemed a little bit distant. I said, ‘By the way, how are the kids doing?’ – and he didn’t want to talk about that. It was a bit like, ‘Ssssh! People aren’t supposed to know that!’ That was a turning point for me in the way I saw him, as a friend of mine, and we became… well, I think there was a little bit of distance after that. I also opened for the Mahavishnu Orchestra on the Montreux Jazz Festival [in August 1972] and again I found him to be a little bit distant. I brought him a present but in the end I thought, ‘I’d better go back to my own [dressing room] here’. Rick Laird came with me. Rick didn’t seem to be too happy either.’
There would be occasional shows with jazz or folk artists on the bill – a Carnegie Hall date with Oscar Peterson during the Newport Festival, for example, and a double-header with folk siren Judy Collins at Hunter College, New York City, broadcast on a local FM station – but generally the group was sharing stages with rock artists, playing to rock audiences.
A Creem writer, Robert Hurwitz, reported one telling episode at the Spectrum in Philadelphia early in 1972, where the Mahavishnu Orchestra were supporting British teenybop act T-Rex:
‘The T-Rex audience, young, impressionable, the odour of Bazooka bubble gum filtering through air, made a collective sigh of ‘The Maha-What?’ when McLaughlin and his men reached the stage. Slowly, a musical transformation took place. By the end of the set, the audience wouldn’t let them pack up. McLaughlin’s very polite about these things, and when he tells the crowd that his band has to leave, it’s because he realizes his responsibility to the other group… [But] after the Mahavishnu Orchestra finally departed, the crowd… responded by booing their former heroes, T-Rex, off the stage until… McLaughlin’s group came back on. The crowd, needless to say, went wild.’ 
‘Whatever I do must come from the depths of my heart to reach others,’ said John. ‘People want to be moved. That is the success of this band… I have learned through meditation to concentrate more within, for I have always known that the music was waiting to come out.’ 
John’s explanation for the extraordinary effect his band were having on audiences is at least as good as any other: on paper, it made no sense that a band playing complex, purely instrumental music in a variety of modes and times unfamiliar to Western ears, with a leader espousing exotic religious ideas, should have such a powerful, immediate effect on people.
On April 21 1972 the Mahavishnu Orchestra supported Procol Harum and West, Bruce & Laing (Jack Bruce’s back-to-basics rock trio with two thirds of Mountain) at a gymnasium in Cleveland, Ohio. Columbia, recording a possible live album for the headline act, took the opportunity to record McLaughlin’s band while they were there. Never released officially, the hour-long, four-song performance was devastating.
‘I’ve got a live tape from Cleveland from the first band that is just unbelievable, it’s unreal,’ even John, notoriously non-nostalgic, was able to say, decades later. 
In perfect sound, that third-on-the-bill performance of Inner Mounting Flame material remains a vivid, essential snapshot of the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s extraordinary live power. [FN 3] It’s not hard to understand why many acts of the period had real problems in stepping onto a stage that had just been vacated by the people who had played such music.
Increasingly, as the year rolled on, the Mahavishnu Orchestra were becoming a headline act in their own right. In August the band took its only overseas trip of the year for two weeks in Europe, appearing at a handful of jazz and rock festivals and having concerts filmed and broadcast in Germany, France and Britain. The staid world of BBC television was unprepared:
‘We were there for a soundcheck,’ recalled Billy. ‘A couple of guys came out in white smocks with sound meters. They said to John [McLaughlin], ‘I just want you to know that we will stop this program if you play over 90dB.’ John just smiled politely. The guy turned to us again and said, ‘Does everyone understand?’ There was just silence from the band. The first chord we played was 130dB. The cameraman in front of us actually fell over, and they stopped us right away. After that we agreed not to play a 130, we just played at 115.’ 
Birds Of Fire, the group’s second LP, had begun life at Trident Studios, London, during the short trip in August, with former Beatles engineer Ken Scott co-producing with John. It would be finished off at Electric Lady Studios in New York. Together, Ken and the band would create a singular sound world, further honing the band’s music into a pervading atmosphere of strange, unsettling beauty, existing alone in its own universe.
If the first album had been akin to the discovery of a complex and beguiling 12-year-old malt whisky from a hitherto unknown distillery, Birds Of Fire was like a 30-year-old vintage from the same place – a single cask of stunningly unique properties, of similar basic provenance but incomparable beyond that in its distillation, purity, complexity and flavour. It was yet more exotic, yet more intoxicating. Any initial sting, even repellence, in the strength and apparent weirdness of the taste gave way, with familiarity, to the belief that this was surely the finest among all its peers. Birds Of Fire, a collection of compositions that might span over two hours in concert, [FN 4] and seem all the more glorious for it, was 40 minutes 28 seconds of an artistic statement in exquisite concision. It was, and would remain, the pinnacle of John McLaughlin’s art and the pinnacle of all twentieth-century music. [FN 5]
While The Inner Mounting Flame had arrived with the listening public like a bolt from the blue, Birds Of Fire was, by the time it appeared in January 1973, long-awaited. It came with great expectations. Supported by an extensive headlining tour through Canada and the Mahavishnu heartland states from the ocean to Illinois, spanning January to March, and by a nationally syndicated radio broadcast, shared with Bruce Springsteen, on the first ever King Biscuit Flower Hour, the album rose to No.15 in the Billboard national chart and No.20 in the UK. It was a remarkable achievement for an instrumental record of any kind, let alone one so esoteric and dissonant to the casual ear.
‘An extraordinary record,’ concluded one reviewer, who had welcomed a new addition of ‘soul’ to the extreme concoction of its predecessor. ‘Even now I’m not sure whether I really like it – but I certainly can’t stand up to it. I surrender, and I bet you will.’ 
‘It’s music that people are made to shy away from,’ admitted Billy, ‘because it’s too sincere and it represents life in its real form. The fact that everyone’s living a lie on the street, drugged out, eating cornflakes and thinking they’re vitamins, makes it hard to take in because the music is just the opposite of that.’ 
And he wasn’t kidding. Reviewers debated whether the new album was better than The Inner Mounting Flame, a repeat of it or something completely fresh. There were conflicting views on who was the stand-out soloist – one commentator even suggesting that John was ‘the weakest soloist in the band’,  while another was convinced that the same fellow ‘has passed out of the realm in which useful criticism can be made… the stratosphere [being] now his natural environment’.  English writer Richard Williams hit the mark in realising that this approach was a false one, ‘because this is mostly group music, using the textures of the instruments, rather than their individual ideas, to create the overall tapestry’. 
In effect, the group had conjoined so perfectly, were so exquisitely at a state of equilibrium and so tightly bound in communication and creative unity that they had arguably reached their apogee. In concert, many of the compositions might last up to four times their length on record, yet the equilibrium remained: five people locked in joyous combat forever, 10th Dan masters, perfectly matched.
‘It’s very balanced,’ said Jan. ‘Each person is a certain extreme and it’s a five-way tie, making it all round. Like when Jerry stands drinking beer with a cigarette stuck in his violin playing next to the immaculate image of John – it’s great having these extremes. The feeling I get is that I’ve waited for this band knowing it was bound to happen. Every experience I’ve had led me to this point.’ 
In June 1973, the first Mahavishnu Orchestra toured Britain for the first and last time; six dates in large halls from Glasgow to London:
‘I can’t help feeling,’ mused Jack Bruce at the time, ‘that a lot of the people who put Lifetime down are the same people who are giving the Mahavishnu Orchestra rave reviews… I can’t help feeling that if Lifetime was around now…’ 
‘In a way it’s a funny experience for my coming back here to England,’ John told the Melody Maker’s Chris Welch. ‘It’s so remote from me now, I feel like a visitor. [But] every country I visit, I feel at home in, because you carry your home with you in your mind.’ 
‘He would come back to visit,’ says Trevor Watts, of the family John had left behind in Ealing, downstairs from John Stevens. ‘I remember one occasion in particular. John M was dressed all neat and tidy, pristine attire, and he’d come to visit his family and was upstairs in John Stevens’ apartment when I arrived. John S at the time looked a bit down in the dumps, but he’d just broken his kneecap. I was with him when he did it, just stepping off a pavement, but when John S stepped off a pavement he didn’t always take care, because he always had other things on his mind.
The contrast between this guy with a plaster round his knee feeling a bit sorry for himself, and one returning in triumph, if you like, was remarkable, and quite comic to a certain extent.’
‘At the Midland Hotel, after their immensely successful opening night [at Manchester Free Trade Hall], John had no need to unwind or relax, as he seems to be permanently in a state of tranquillity,’ observed Welch. ‘And devotion to Sri Chinmoy does not seem to have dulled his sense of humour either. He playfully convinced the girls at reception desk that he was Scottish with a marvellous Glaswegian accent that made Jack Bruce sound like Ginger Baker. Later, in the midst of an impassioned declamation of his beliefs, he suddenly adopted a deep Lancashire accent and said, for no apparent reason: ‘If you don’t speculate, you don’t accumulate.’ Musicians have a knack at imitating speech… but McLaughlin’s talent for mimicry could probably earn him a season at Batley Variety Club…’ 
‘My life and music are serious,’ John later explained. ‘You know, I don’t like to take myself too seriously because you become a parody. But music is serious and life is serious.’ 
Future King Crimson biographer Sid Smith was at the Newcastle City Hall show two days later – where John had happily reduced ticket prices in view of local unemployment:
‘[Afterwards] we got talking to all of the band members who were all remarkably friendly and apparently pleased to see us!’ Sid recalled. ‘As we chatted with McLaughlin he astonished us by revealing that he too was a bit of Geordie, telling us he grew up in Whitley Bay. Indeed, he was off to Whitley Bay the next day to see his mother… The next day my sister Lesley, who was temping at a building firm, used the works phone to systematically ring all the McLaughlin numbers listed in the Whitley Bay telephone directory. After several wrong numbers, there was this exchange:
‘Hello?’ enquired a female voice.
‘Erm, is the Mahavishnu there?’ my sister nervously asked.
‘Hang on, I’ll just get him,’ replied Mrs McLaughlin, who then shouted (off-phone) ‘John!’
‘Hello?’ said a male voice with that strange Transatlantic twang.
‘At which point my sister brought her fledgling career as a stalker to an abrupt halt and put the phone down!’ 
‘[There are] nights when the band becomes like one musician,’ said Rick, ‘with ten arms, five heads… Five energies in the same direction is one of the most exhilarating experiences I’ve ever felt because of this band.’ 
While most of the band would admit to having an active interest in exploring spiritual philosophies and books, Jerry Goodman was sanguine:
‘The music that people come to understand and spiritualize in,’ he said, ‘is the energy derived from all the members of the band playing together. In this sense, I personally find it to be a very spiritual trip.’ 
Keeping five elements in balance is never easy; keeping the egos and aspirations of five human beings in harmony towards shared goals for any length of time is all but impossible. And so it was to prove.
Two national TV broadcasts in America in 1973, both filmed at shows in New York, brought the group even further towards a truly mass popularity: an ABC In Concert segment shot at Bananafish Gardens during the triumphant Birds Of Fire tour in February; and a Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert appearance, taped at the Palace Theater in November. In hindsight at least, the taut expressions on the musicians’ faces at the Palace Theater betrayed the turmoil within.
As early as May, a New York correspondent for Melody Maker reported rumours that Jerry Goodman was to quit the band, suggesting that even from watching Jerry and John onstage ‘it’s somehow apparent that true rapport does not exist. Goodman is too remote, too unwilling to trade with the others. I don’t think it’s just my imagination.’ 
It probably wasn’t. The first cracks had appeared when a brief studio sound-check – somewhere between an art statement and an in joke – entitled ‘Sapphire Bullets Of Pure Love’ appeared on Birds Of Fire, its publishing credited solely to John McLaughlin. Not one note of it had been pre-thought by John or by any of the others for that matter. [FN 6] Even aside from that track, John’s position as sole credited writer had become tolerated rather than celebrated within the band. In Jerry’s mind, the material on the first two albums was all ‘actually written by the band’; for Jan, he believed that most of the pieces were ‘about 60% by him and 40% by the other members of the band’. 
There was a long tradition within jazz of the band leader or recording session organiser taking the credit on collective pieces – as with, for example, many of Miles Davis’ recordings. His musicians on any given session understood, and accepted, the idea that Miles was the energy around which the music, however sketchily contrived beforehand, would coalesce and therefore any record resulting would give him the full credit as writer. John himself had been perfectly happy with that arrangement.
This was all very well, but it depended upon an overriding deference to that tradition or at least to the band leader in question. John’s benign dictatorship, as it were, for all the success that it had delivered thus far, was becoming resented. The Mahavishnu Orchestra were selling serious quantities of records with a significant disparity in royalties between its members and, of no lesser importance to some, the lack of opportunity in creative terms to get their compositions on record.
Billy Cobham had realised the way things were early on and had accepted it, determining to pursue a solo recording career in tandem with the Orchestra – his first solo album Spectrum was recorded in May 1973 – as an outlet for his own compositions. The others, Jerry and Jan especially, had no such admirable pragmatism. Billy had worked out what the score was for himself, but as he later reflected the lack of clarity on roles and leadership meant bad feeling ‘was a ghost that haunted the band since the inception’. 
A third album was to be recorded in June – during a week immediately subsequent to a slew of European dates – at Trident Studios in London, again with producer Ken Scott hopefully repeating his magic. John had one more rabbit left from his hat of ideas at the very start of the band, a long piece entitled ‘Dream’, first heard on that debut radio broadcast in 1971. He also had two new pieces in ‘Trilogy’ and ‘John’s Song #2’ (never performed onstage and hence never given the luxury of a title). Jerry, Jan and Rick came armed with a song apiece. [FN 7] The equilibrium was broken. ‘After five days I remember John leaving the [sessions] crying,’ recalled Rick. 
‘They were probably the hardest sessions I ever worked on,’ Ken recalls, ‘not musically but emotionally. The band was breaking up whilst we were recording that. It was nasty.’
‘John was sorta bending over in his own way to try to get some things happening,’ said Billy, ‘but no one ever knew what that recording was all about.’ 
‘[Recording the other members’ tunes] was forced on the situation,’ says Ken. ‘It wasn’t necessarily done willingly by John. He knew that if he wanted another album he had to allow them to do that. And to a point, I think, some of the stuff he played on there is half-hearted, just because it’s not his material. He was back acting as a session musician again as opposed to being a part of a band.’
Nevertheless, as Billy observed only a few months later: ‘The combination of the five people playing the music the way [John] saw it was great. The funny thing was, though, that when anyone else wrote something it sounded like he had written it.’ 
He wasn’t wrong. All three of the non-McLaughlin pieces – Jan’s ‘Sister Andrea’, Rick’s ‘Steppings Tones’ and Jerry’s ‘I Wonder’ – were recorded at Trident and performed at concerts during the latter half of 1973, the latter pair especially sounding for all the world like compositional tributes to John McLaughlin.
On August 17 and 18 the Mahavishnu Orchestra played two triumphant shows to 10,000 people each night at New York’s Central Park. Tellingly, perhaps, one reviewer noted that John ‘unlike previous New York gigs… made a special point of introducing each of the other band members before they began their set’.  Of the new pieces, John’s ‘Dream’ and ‘Trilogy’ and Jan’s ‘Sister Andrea’ were performed on both nights and Rick’s ‘Steppings Tones’ on the second night, with an array of established classics making up the set-lists. A writer from Crawdaddy magazine, the improbably named Patrick Snyder-Scumpy, was taking the opportunity of the shows – two nights in one place, a real rarity for the band – to conduct in-depth interviews with all five members. Also on hand was a multi-track recording facility from Columbia Records. Unsurprisingly, some of the band had written off the Trident sessions:
‘The studio is so great, the sound was so incredible, but the music, the band just didn’t play well,’ said Jan, to the man from Crawdaddy. ‘We can’t use any of it because we didn’t rehearse. And that’s just because we are playing too much, too many gigs… It’s the whole vicious circle of ‘there are gigs, there is this much money to make, so let’s go and play these gigs’.’ 
The group was commanding up to $20,000 per show by now, although John had the leeway to reduce that if there were circumstances he felt compassionate about, and certainly did so on occasion. [FN 8] The Mahavishnu Orchestra were heading steadily and surely to a point where their fees and popularity would rise, the following year, to the level of a truly major act.
Rick Laird agreed with Jan that the Trident sessions were a write-off, although the others were more circumspect. John even hoped, in interviews the following year, that the album – which he evidently regarded as finished and worthy – would come out. In the event, it would remain unheard for a quartet of a century. 
With opinions divided over the matter, it had been decided to capture the new material in concert. A single LP, Between Nothingness And Eternity, resulted, comprising blistering performances of John’s ‘Dream’ and ‘Trilogy’ and Jan’s ‘Sister Andrea’ (written for his sister, Andrea) taken from the second night. [FN 9] Released in December, in a worldwide sleeve design referencing infinity with a star field, it would be the little-known Canadian alternative sleeve, a fuzzy but evocative photograph of the tiny figures of the band onstage against the backdrop of the vast New York skyline at night, that captured the reality: not infinity, but a moment in time (and place), conjured by ‘a time-leaping pilgrim possessed by the music’.  It was a moment that was perhaps inexorably coming to an end.
‘When this band is on stage making their music, riding its power and communing with its beauty,’ wrote Snyder-Scumpy, in conclusion to what was destined to be an article of mass destruction, ‘they become a single, pentagonal organism. Unfortunately this state of unified, interlocking communication can be maintained only while they are playing. At other times they become normal men, beset by ambitions and doubts as they struggle to grasp the quick phantom of personal equilibrium.’ 
‘I have a feeling, and I hope I’m right, that the worst is over,’ Jan had told him. ‘Now, it just demands that we keep after the record company and the promoters to see it as a homogeneous unit as opposed to a back-up band for a superstar, because it’s just not as simple as that… He assumes the reason he is promoted like that is not at all commercial. He refuses to see that. The only things he sees in it is that he is there by Divine Right, and that he’s an enlightened person who is already sort of a guru… We all really love the band because it gives us a tremendous opportunity. Any of us play better with this band than in any other situation. We were really made for each other and these things just interfere.’ 
During two weeks ‘off’ in September, freed from the tribulations of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, John McLaughlin and Billy Cobham toured as a joint unit with Hispanic guitar star (and recent Sri Chinmoy convert) Carlos Santana and members of his band in support of Love, Devotion, Surrender, a high-speed homage to Chinmoy and to John Coltrane that they’d knocked off earlier in the year. The collaboration, jointly credited to the two band-leaders, was big news – a certified gold album would result – and the tour, from Saratoga to Hawaii, had been undertaken at Sri Chinmoy’s request.
John had given no indication to Snyder-Scumpy that all was not bliss in the Orchestra, but the atmosphere at the one-off new band’s rehearsals in a Manhattan studio was bliss incarnate and nobody was hiding it. ‘A flopped out approximation of Nirvana’  as one reporter put it; ‘purposeful but carefree’ said another, reporting John ‘shaking his head with happiness’ and Carlos ‘hardly contain[ing] the joy he feels’. 
Promotional opportunities had been arranged through the press department of the Sri Chinmoy Centre. Yes, the guru had a press department. Did the new collaboration mean, wondered the woman from Rolling Stone, that the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Santana, would fold?
‘No,’ said John, ‘each group is like a child. It would mean dissolving two children to get one. Instead, we have three. They’re going to evolve in their own ways, and inspire differently. There are infinite modes of expression and each expresses the same Divine.’ 
Rick Laird, himself an active seeker after a mystical path, wasn’t so sure that John truly believed this:
‘John’s sincere belief in the teachings of Sri Chinmoy has led him on a very narrow path, a tunnel vision, however bright the light at its end might be,’ he had explained to Snyder-Scumpy. ‘He is completely committed and it seems to have brought great serenity to his life. [But] although there are many paths to the Lord, he is convinced he is on the best. This yields a certain peremptory and condescending attitude that has become more and more untenable for some of the rest of the band… We’re not saints, and naturally we have problems communicating. Sometimes we don’t communicate at all, but he needs us and we need him.’ 
‘McLaughlin is still possessed with his shining vision and its evangelical imperative,’ Snyder-Scumpy postulated. ‘It is difficult, if not impossible, for him to compromise with what he sees as the path to ultimate, holy truth. His eyes and soul and artistry are fixed on a goal beyond.’ 
During a flight to Japan, however – where the Mahavishnu Orchestra had a series of seven concerts in the latter half of September – his eyes were fixed on a transcript of Snyder-Scumpy’s endeavours for Crawdaddy. The magazine, which would feature John in lotus position on the cover and the immortal strapline ‘Mahavishnu Orchestra: Not Guru-ving’, was not yet in the shops but it mattered not. The fractures everyone had been skirting around for some months were there, with speech marks, for all to see.
‘[T]hey have made music that is probably the most significantly innovative to reach a mass audience since the halcyon days of the Beatles,’ Scumpy had written. ‘One hopes for a brighter future and continued growth but even if it all ended tomorrow, an awestruck gratitude would linger for the special wonder of the Mahavishnu Orchestra.’ 
Snyder-Scumpy had done nothing wrong. His piece was well-crafted, measured and honest. Everyone interviewed had expressed hopes and aspirations regarding the band and the future; four of the five had nevertheless been open about the problems. Snyder-Scumpy’s eulogising had become, in effect, a eulogy.
‘The thing was, it didn’t say anything John had never thought,’ said Billy, with the luxury of three months’ perspective. ‘Jan Hammer sort of put John down but it was nothing John didn’t realise. It’s just that now it was words in black and white and he had to face it every second. That’s a different trip… That was the beginning of the end.’ 
Over two editions of Britain’s New Musical Express back in July 1973 Ian MacDonald had taken stock of John McLaughlin’s career thus far, from a time when he ‘had a reputation for being one of the remotest and most difficult people to work with in London’ to his current status as a ‘Hero’ who ‘bestrides the world of the electric guitar like a solitary colossus’.
‘Ridiculous speed is the transcendental essence of McLaughlin’s recent work with the Mahavishnu Orchestra,’ he wrote. ‘[T]he fastest passages in The Inner Mounting Flame and Birds Of Fire are now being played so swiftly that the ear has difficulty in separating bar from bar, let alone note from note… This, in purely musical terms, means that in about six months’ time the Orchestra will be no more than a shrill aural blur with the members fading visibly into hyper-space, like Captain Kirk in the transporter-room of the Starship ‘Enterprise’.’ 
At this stage, it was difficult for anyone to cling on. But MacDonald’s timescale to oblivion was uncannily prescient. The band still had a mass of concerts booked across America, criss-crossing from New York to California, including cities in Colorado, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Washington State, Oregon, Illinois and elsewhere. Two dates in early November at the Roxy nightclub in Los Angeles saw thousands turned away and an A-list of musicians and music business heavyweights get in. Circulating recordings from post-Japan shows, including several made in remarkably high fidelity off the desk by their sound engineer of choice, Stuart ‘Dinky’ Dawson, reveal a musical unit still capable of incomparable, stunning performances, despite Jan and Jerry no longer being on speaking terms with John – each side as entrenched as the other.
‘Within the band there were factions,’ said Billy. ‘You’d have Jan and Jerry, and maybe Rick, or John and myself, and maybe Rick would go with us. Rick was weird, he’d go back and forth. He was the needle on the VU meter…’ 
Armed with the knowledge that this was a train hurtling off a cliff at break-neck velocity, the modern day listener to Dawson’s thankfully preserved artefacts might be tempted to hear fury, resentment, rage and other negative energies in the playing. And that listener might well be right.
‘You can make some great music out of negativity, but only for a very limited time,’ said John, reflecting on the period five years later. ‘I realized that it was the opposite of what the music needed and what I needed. You can get angry on the stage and scream through your instrument, which can be nice… but you cannot just keep doing that. You have to have the other side as well, in any relationship. So I realized the love affair was over, and it was a shame.’ 
Billy had told Snyder-Scumpy that the problems, in his opinion, all stemmed ‘from the basic immaturity of some’. He was talking about the two youngest members. ‘Some of the cats feel that they don’t get their just deserves [sic] when it comes to notoriety and exposure. On the other hand, they don’t try to get themselves exposed. It’s like [they’re] waiting for somebody to do something for them.’ 
Ironically, John had done something for one of them: Jan’s ‘Sister Andrea’ was one of the three pieces on Between Nothingness And Eternity, recorded in Central Park in August and released in America in December ; it was also one of three pieces featured in what would transpire to be the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s national TV swansong on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert the previous month. Whatever the tensions onstage, nobody looked like they were ‘phoning in’ a performance. There was still fire in the dying dragon, but it was certainly dying.
Two weeks after the broadcast Billy Cobham had what he later termed a breakdown prior to a show in Atlanta, Georgia: ‘I was very, very emotionally upset… I was playing a game of my own in saying ‘sure, everything’s fine’, when in actual fact all that we had worked for, and the effort I had put in personally, was more at stake than I wanted to face… I missed a concert. I just didn’t go. And I really don’t know why I did it…’ Billy just stayed in his hotel room watching a Charles Bronson movie repeatedly on TV. ‘The point was no one really cared anymore.’ 
Seemingly unaware that his advice was too late, one reviewer of the live album singled out ‘Sister Andrea’ as giving a general sense of possible new rabbits in what was now an otherwise well-worn hat of light-speed ferocity, where ‘all you can do is watch and wait for the sound to catch up’:
‘This track seems to stand out a little,’ he mused, ‘maybe because although it has the same sound everything they do has, the flavour has been altered ever so slightly. It would be a wise idea to check into the composing abilities of all of the Orchestra, judging from the track by Hammer and Cobham’s new album [Spectrum, also released in December], which is a slam in the crotch from the word go… If they were to break up we’d all lose, but better to see a creature die quickly than suffer along pretending to be alive when the soul is gone. Their future lies not in a one-man dictatorship but a five-man entity. All giving, all sharing, all leading and non-leading. God likes that. Mankind is like that.’ 
‘I don’t like it very much,’ opined Ian MacDonald, on the live album’s January 1974 UK release. ‘It sounds like it was a good thing the band broke up before they attained the speed of light and destroyed the universe. They play like maniacs. They play very loudly. The whole zaperama is as predictable as Marc Bolan’s press statements.’ 
‘We were knocking on the door of something really new,’ said Billy, from the wrong side of New Year 1973, and the pained resolution it brought. ‘Something unique. Something that had never been done before in rock and roll. And we came so close… and we lost.’ 
‘The flower has to grow; the universe has to expand,’ John mused, a few months later, innocently adding to the literature of astrophysical references surrounding his music. ‘But before a new era can be born, the old one’s got to fall away.’ 
Poetically, after a Boxing Day show in Florida, the cliff’s edge was reached with two nights at New York’s 2,600-seater Avery Fisher Hall on December 27 and 28 – most of which was captured for posterity by ‘Dinky’ Dawson. Unfortunately for the symbolism of the New York shows, the band’s cumular limit was to be found two nights and 500 miles away in Detroit on December 30, at the 4,400-seater Masonic Temple. In between, there was a sports arena in Toledo, Ohio.
‘It was so anti-climactic,’ said Billy. ‘We played two shows after New York, which is where it all started. We should have finished on a high in New York. Why trudge through the snow to Detroit on New Year’s Eve [sic]? Come on, who needs it?’ 
‘We never even said goodbye to each other after the last concert,’ Rick told a reporter from the New York Times. ‘Pride – that’s what ultimately destroyed us. I feel we’ve let down a lot of people – especially the huge audience that we had gained… The first year and a half was spent with us battling [John’s] so-called enlightenment, and him battling our so-called ignorance, which is the highest form of bullshit I ever heard in my life. Nineteen seventy four promised to be the year in which we could have possibly made some money as individuals, and that too is gone. It’s very unfortunate.’ 
‘At the finish we were playing what was still the most intense stuff around,’ said Jan, with the benefit of hindsight. ‘But we were totally disinterested [sic], we were just detached from it completely. It was really weird, there was no purpose to it… None of us will ever be the same after that band – and a lot of other musicians won’t be either… But it all happened so fast. We were ill-prepared to deal with the complex personal problems that arose. Oh, it wasn’t only the commercial recognition, it was also the quality of the music, the volume, the intensity, everything combined. It changes you. It made it quite intense to deal with each other. Toward the end we used to joke that we were going to have five separate limousines.’ 
However painful the last days of the Mahavishnu Orchestra were, John had always maintained more than one creative iron in the fire: he had, throughout, been studying the vina (an Indian instrument, ancestor of the sitar) with a vina master at Wesleyan University, as often as the insane touring schedule would allow; he had periodically been performing sacred guitar/vocal music with his wife Eve, at religious venues [FN 10]; and he was apparently working on a large-scale choral piece. However aghast Columbia Records may have been at the impending dissolution of their rising star act, John McLaughlin – by nature, temperament and spiritual certainty – was effectively primed to shrug his shoulders and get on with the furtherance of his vision. In John’s world, the will would always triumph.
Billy Cobham, himself getting on with what was looking set to be a successful solo career, mixing his second album in London within weeks of the band’s demise, had less bitterness than the others, and some insight into a potential problem within John’s cast-iron certainties:
‘I think [John] always meant well,’ he said, in sincerity. ‘He wanted to do right… And he did something bold in a way, because he went from [one extreme] completely over to the other side, to not smoking, no drugs whatsoever, totally vegetarian, cleansing his system, and to me he’s an indication of someone trying to find peace of mind and to do what’s right… But there’s a lot of stuff that’s tearing at him, and frustrations come out… [W]ith all respect to him putting on a white suit and finding a guru master… I think the man is at odds with himself. He’s gotta deal with that, deal with two people that are tugging at him from the inside, the involuntary John McLaughlin and the voluntary Mahavishnu, the cat that he’d like to be, and be looked upon as. [Still, there’s] one thing I learned. If you want to have a say, just put the band in your name!’’ 
FN 1. A recording of the first show apparently exists, presumably made by an associate of the band, but is not in circulation.
FN 2. Aside from the original recordings of John’s pieces during the Mahavishnu era, the canon has proven remarkably resilient to, and worthy of, interpretation in concert and on record in more recent years by artists and ensembles of diverse background: big bands, string quartets, flamenco troupes, solo pianists, solo guitarists, alongside more conventional tribute ensembles using the original instrumentation of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. As extraordinary as the original recordings are, the compositions have immortality beyond them.
FN 3. The Cleveland performance was mixed by Sony/Columbia in the early 2000s but release was apparently negated after some former MO members were offered derisory payments and, understandably, withheld permission. The Wild Strings bootleg containing the performance presumably derives from the Columbia mix.
FN 4. Of the album’s 10 pieces, two – ‘Sapphire Bullets Of Pure Love’ and ‘Thousand Island Park’ – would never be performed in concert. Of the rest, ‘Hope’ and ‘Resolution’ would always be performed at album length; the other six were stretched out (anywhere up to 30 minutes in the case of ‘One Word’) in concert.
FN 5. Comparing music is largely pointless, but we all do it. If the author can be permitted one opinion in the guise of fact, the supremacy of Birds Of Fire in both John McLaughlin’s canon and the canon of all 20th Century music would be it. Other opinions are available.
FN 6. Co-producer Ken Scott recalls: ‘There was this set-up they had done specifically for me – I can’t remember the exact details, but it was something like me saying, ‘Okay, let me just hear a bit before we do a take to check levels’. They would just all go nuts. And it was supposed to be a joke. But for whatever reason the tape was running and we got it – and it was used: ‘Sapphire Bullets Of Pure Love’. And John claimed writing credits for it, which pissed them all off. There was no writing for it! John liked to control that side of things absolutely.’
FN 7. Jerry was happy to concede, even during the band’s lifetime, that his piece was ‘a little idea’ he was playing in the studio with which the others joined in: ‘In reality it wasn’t really a piece until the band started playing it.’ (Crawdaddy, 11/73) On such imponderables are huge, tawdry court cases, decades after events, built.
FN 8. The $20,000 figure was quoted in a piece by Jim Jerome (People, 21/6/76). Supporting this, an advertising poster from New York’s Felt Forum, spotted on eBay in 2012, giving attendances and gross takings for shows during 1973 gives the Mahavishnu gross as $28,800. Anecdotally, the band are known to have reduced their fee to $7,000 earlier in their career in order to meet one college’s available budget.
FN 9. By chance or karma, and for all the unofficially recorded versions of the three pieces extant, the Central Park August 18 versions are definitive. In November 2011 Sony released The Original Mahavishnu Orchestra: The Complete Columbia Albums box set containing all three original albums, The Lost Trident Sessions, a live track from 1972 that had previously appeared on a festival LP on Atlantic Records, and a disc of unreleased material from the Central Park 1973 shows. As welcome as the extra material was, the single LP was the right decision at the time. Like the original single LP version of Who’s Live At Leeds (1970), less is more.
FN 10. The pair even appeared, in August 1971, at the Bilzen Jazz Festival in Belgium, opening for the Faces.
1. ‘The Bard Of Bronx County’, Graeme Thomson, The Word, 4/12
2. Interview with Keith Altham, NME, 25/11/72
3. ‘Mahavishnu’s Inner Flame Mounts’, Stephen Davis, Rolling Stone, 30/3/72. Miles was quoted from an unnamed earlier source.
4. ‘McLaughlin: A human lighthouse radiating inner calm’, Ian MacDonald, NME, 23/9/72
5. Jazz-Rock Fusion: The People, The Music (Dell, 1978), Julie Coryell & Laura Friedman
6. ‘Billy Cobham: Intensity and Intuition’, Mike Bourne, Down Beat, 12/10/72
7. ‘Billy Cobham: Intensity and Intuition’, Mike Bourne, Down Beat, 12/10/72
8. ‘An Innermost Vision’, James P Schaffer, Down Beat, 26/4/73
9. ‘An Innermost Vision’, James P Schaffer, Down Beat, 26/4/73
10. ‘An Innermost Vision’, James P Schaffer, Down Beat, 26/4/73. Perhaps unknown to Jerry at that time, John had Billy Cobham confirmed before any other members and they had already been rehearsing as a duo. John has often stated that a great drummer is the foundation and key to any band.
11. ‘An Innermost Vision’, James P Schaffer, Down Beat, 26/4/73
12. ‘An Innermost Vision’, James P Schaffer, Down Beat, 26/4/73
13. ‘An Innermost Vision’, James P Schaffer, Down Beat, 26/4/73
14. As described in Walter Kolosky’s Power, Passion & Beauty (Abstract Logix, 2005)
15. ‘McLaughlin: A human lighthouse radiating inner calm’, Ian MacDonald, NME, 23/9/72
16. ‘Jan Hammer: Saved By The Synthesizer’, Herb Nolan, Down Beat, 11/3/76
17. ‘An Innermost Vision’, James P Schaffer, Down Beat, 26/4/73
18. ‘McLaughlin: A human lighthouse radiating inner calm’, Ian MacDonald, NME, 23/9/72
19. ‘Mahavishnu’s Inner Flame Mounts’, Stephen Davis, Rolling Stone, 30/3/72
20. ‘Mahavishnu Orchestra: Music Of The Gods’, Chris Welch, Melody Maker, 23/6/73
21. From a review of the Mahavishnu Orchestra in concert at Carnegie Hall with Oscar Peterson and Cannonball Adderley, ‘D.M.’, Down Beat, 14/9/72
22. ‘Mahavishnu’s Inner Flame Mounts’, Stephen Davis, Rolling Stone, 30/3/72
23. ‘The Magic Of Mahavishnu’, Mike Bourne, Down Beat, 8/6/72
24. ‘John McLaughlin’s Immaculate Conception’, Robert Hurwitz, Creem, 6/72
25. ‘McLaughlin: A human lighthouse radiating inner calm’, Ian MacDonald, NME, 23/9/72. MacDonald was a very perceptive writer, later author of the acclaimed Beatles critique Revolution In The Head (Fourth Estate, 1994).
26. ‘John McLaughlin: Man For All Seasons’, Andrew Tyler, Disc & Music Echo, 15/1/72
27. ‘Mahavishnu John McLaughlin’, Vic Trigger, Guitar Player, 11-12/72
28. From God’s Orchestra, a collection of poems by Sri Chinmoy, as cited in Rolling Stone, 30/3/72
29. ‘McLaughlin: A human lighthouse radiating inner calm’, Ian MacDonald, NME, 23/9/72
30. ‘The Clive Davis energy rush’, Lisa Robinson, NME, 24/8/74
31. ‘Mahavishnu’s Inner Flame Mounts’, Stephen Davis, Rolling Stone, 30/3/72
32. ‘John McLaughlin’s Immaculate Conception’, Robert Hurwitz, Creem, 6/72
33. ‘Mahavishnu’s Inner Flame Mounts’, Stephen Davis, Rolling Stone, 30/3/72
34. ‘McLaughlin: A human lighthouse radiating inner calm’, Ian MacDonald, NME, 23/9/72
35. ‘An interview with guitarist John McLaughlin’, Jonathan Penzner, Hit Parader, 5/71
36. ‘McLaughlin: Silence is the great communicator’, Andy Gray, NME, 2/6/73. James Taylor shared a manager with John in Nat Weiss, and even on one occasion (New York’s Felt Forum, 16/3/73) brought a birthday cake onstage for Jerry Goodman. Asked in the same conference, as reported by Gray, for his views on other currently popular acts John declared: ‘Alice Cooper and T Rex are supplying a need and giving satisfaction to many people. I can’t say it’s wrong. Who can say that? It just doesn’t inspire me so I don’t listen to it.’ Asked by Andrew Tyler in Disc, 15/1/72, if he had heard of Slade or Mott The Hoople, John responded: ‘I’ve never heard them, please forgive me. But I know if I’m meant to hear them I’ll hear them.’
37. ‘Mahavishnu John McLaughlin’, Vic Trigger, Guitar Player, 11-12/72
38. ‘John McLaughlin’s Immaculate Conception’, Robert Hurwitz, Creem, 6/72
39 ‘John McLaughlin’s Immaculate Conception’, Robert Hurwitz, Creem, 6/72
40. Interview with the author, 17/1/96
41. Billy Cobham quoted in
42. LP review, Ian MacDonald, NME, 17/2/73
43. ‘Two Sides To Every Satori’, Patrick Snyder-Scumpy with Frank DeLigio, Crawdaddy, 11/73
44. LP review, Andrew Tyler, Disc & Music Echo, 17/3/73
45. LP review, Ian MacDonald, NME, 17/2/73
46. LP review, Richard Williams, Melody Maker, 10/2/73
47. ‘An Innermost Vision’, James P Schaffer, Down Beat, 26/4/73
48. ‘Jack Bruce’, Chris Charlesworth, Melody Maker, 7/7/73
49. ‘John McLaughlin: Natural High’, Chris Welch, Melody Maker, 30/6/73
50 ‘John McLaughlin: Natural High’, Chris Welch, Melody Maker, 30/6/73
51. ‘Evolution Of A Master’, Chuck Berg, Down Beat, 15/6/78
52. Sid Smith’s blog, 11/2/11: http://sidsmith.blogspot.co.uk/2011/02/john-mclaughlin-in-whitley-bay.html Accessed: 7/3/13
53. ‘An Innermost Vision’, James P Schaffer, Down Beat, 26/4/73
54. ‘An Innermost Vision’, James P Schaffer, Down Beat, 26/4/73
55. ‘Firebird’, Michael Watts, Melody Maker, 26/5/73
56. ‘Two Sides To Every Satori’, Patrick Snyder-Scumpy with Frank DeLigio, Crawdaddy, 11/73
57. ‘Cobham: It ended in total fiasco’, Chris Welch, Melody Maker, 2/2/74
58. ‘Why Mahavishnu Is Breaking Up’, Loraine Alterman, New York Times, c.2/74
59. ‘Cobham: It ended in total fiasco’, Chris Welch, Melody Maker, 2/2/74
60. ‘Alone He’s Cool’, Brian Priestly, Down Beat, 14/3/74
61. ‘Two Sides To Every Satori’, Patrick Snyder-Scumpy with Frank DeLigio, Crawdaddy, 11/73
62. ‘Two Sides To Every Satori’, Patrick Snyder-Scumpy with Frank DeLigio, Crawdaddy, 11/73
63. The third studio album, whether regarded as finished or unfinished, was released as The Lost Trident Sessions in 1999.
64. ‘Two Sides To Every Satori’, Patrick Snyder-Scumpy with Frank DeLigio, Crawdaddy, 11/73
65. ‘Two Sides To Every Satori’, Patrick Snyder-Scumpy with Frank DeLigio, Crawdaddy, 11/73
66. ‘Two Sides To Every Satori’, Patrick Snyder-Scumpy with Frank DeLigio, Crawdaddy, 11/73
67. ‘A pair of white pants will never let you down’, Andrew Tyler, NME, 15/9/73
68. ‘Carlos & John: They share a guru and a band’, Lorraine O’Grady, Rolling Stone, 11/10/73
69. ‘Carlos & John: They share a guru and a band’, Lorraine O’Grady, Rolling Stone, 11/10/73
70. ‘Two Sides To Every Satori’, Patrick Snyder-Scumpy with Frank DeLigio, Crawdaddy, 11/73
71. ‘Two Sides To Every Satori’, Patrick Snyder-Scumpy with Frank DeLigio, Crawdaddy, 11/73
72. ‘Two Sides To Every Satori’, Patrick Snyder-Scumpy with Frank DeLigio, Crawdaddy, 11/73
73. ‘Cobham: It ended in total fiasco’, Chris Welch, Melody Maker, 2/2/74
74. ‘Looking Back Part 1: The Captain Kirk In John McLaughlin’, Ian MacDonald, NME, 7/7/73
75. ‘Cobham: It ended in total fiasco’, Chris Welch, Melody Maker, 2/2/74
76. ‘Evolution Of A Master’, Chuck Berg, Down Beat, 15/6/78
77. ‘Two Sides To Every Satori’, Patrick Snyder-Scumpy with Frank DeLigio, Crawdaddy, 11/73
78. ‘Cobham: It ended in total fiasco’, Chris Welch, Melody Maker, 2/2/74
79. LP review, Clyde Hadlock, Creem, 3/74. Like Crawdaddy, Creem was a monthly title with what appears to have been a three-month lead time between writers’ submissions and the cover date of the edition in which their work appeared. It’s likely this review was filed before the end of December 1973 and the band’s demise.
80. LP review, Ian MacDonald, NME, 19/1/74. He didn’t like Billy’s solo album Spectrum much either.
81. ‘Cobham: It ended in total fiasco’, Chris Welch, Melody Maker, 2/2/74
82. ‘Mahavishnu’s Apocalypse’, Jim Schaffer, Down Beat, 6/6/74
83. ‘Cobham: It ended in total fiasco’, Chris Welch, Melody Maker, 2/2/74. As far as one knows, neither show was recorded.
84. ‘Why Mahavishnu Is Breaking Up’, Loraine Alterman, New York Times, c.2/74
85. ‘Jan Hammer: Saved By The Synthesizer’, Herb Nolan, Down Beat, 11/3/76
86. ‘Cobham: It ended in total fiasco’, Chris Welch, Melody Maker, 2/2/74