The Class of 1970: John McLaughlin’s ‘Devotion’
1970 was an astonishing year for astonishing guitarist John McLaughlin. After two early album appearances in 1966 and 1968, he was suddenly everywhere in 1969: his first solo record, Extrapolation; Miles Davis, In a Silent Way; Tony Williams Lifetime, Emergency; Miroslav Vitous, Infinite Search; and Wayne Shorter, Super Nova. That was amazing, but in 1970 his career exploded!
Consider the following albums he played on with Miles Davis: Bitches Brew, Live-Evil, Jack Johnson, Cellar Door Sessions, and Get Up with It. Now add Tony Williams Lifetime, Turn it Over; Jack Bruce, Things We Like; Miroslav Vitous, Purple; Joe Farrell, Joe Farrell Quartet; Larry Coryell, Spaces; The Graham Bond Organisation, Solid Bond; and Duffy Power, Innovations.
And one more: his second solo album, Devotion. This album was issued in September of 1970 on the Douglas label, a very small label that also produced albums by Lenny Bruce, The Last Poets, and Eric Dolphy. Over the course of his career, McLaughlin has been at the forefront of jazz fusion, including his Mahavishnu Orchestra, and plays blues, flamenco, world music, Indian classical music, and Western classical music, performing with some of the finest musicians in the world.
Not a single one of his 90+ appearances on record sounds like Devotion. Perhaps we could regard it as a on-off. However, you care to categorize it, you will agree: THIS ALBUM IS A MINDFUCK. Pardon the expletive, but this album will spindle, fold, and mutilate your brain. Are there better albums by McLaughlin? Everybody has favorites. But this is some mind-blowing, face-melting, trippy shit. And it never gets old.
Let’s set the stage. Larry Young (also known as Khalid Yasin) plays electric piano and organ. Billy Rich, who had been playing with Buddy Miles and associated with Hendrix, is on bass. And the drummer is Buddy Miles, who had already made a big splash with The Electric Flag and with Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys in addition to his own Buddy Miles Express.
One more important note: MacLaughlin hated the end result, saying, “In 1969, I sign a contract in America for 2 records. First is Devotion that is destroyed by producer Alan Douglas, who mixes the recording in my absence.” It’s likely he was much happier with My Goal’s Beyond, the second one.
The original gatefold cover is here in all its trippiness. There were numerous later covers, most of them useless.
Buddy Miles pushes the pace immediately on “Devotion.” This album might be Miles’ best outing ever. McLaughlin’s tripped-out guitar runs are stunning. Young’s organ washes over the playing, Rich with a solid bass line. The psychedelic effects used in the studio achieve the desired result.
The album’s only long track, “Dragon Song,” clocks in at 11:12. It starts at a measured pace with an almost evil menace to it. Rich and Miles are in perfect sync as they guide this along. Young accents McLaughlin’s guitar work, double-tracked here, one clear, the other distorted. Miles’ fills were spot-on, Young’s solo perfect in context.
The trippiest of the trippy is “Marbles,” a song Miles later recorded live with Carlos Santana. It begins with all sorts of wiggy effects before Miles begins a massive drum intro. Somehow, as McLaughlin enters and then the others, Miles turns the beat upside down; I am still dazzled by this. Rich is relentless on bass while Young’s organ dances all around. When I first heard this, it took my head off. And it still does. McLaughlin rips.
“Marbles” melts into “Siren” (well, on the vinyl version, at least). The pace is deliberate, Rich with an almost blues approach. Young sounds awesome as McLaughlin is completely tricked out here, sound-wise. And he explodes at the end, a torrent of notes pouring from the guitar.
Young opens “Don’t Let the Dragon Eat Your Mother” as the band cranks up behind him. Miles’ steady pulse provides the heart of the tune as McLaughlin rocks this, double-tracked for maximum effect. The guitars seem to swirl around each other, cascading downhill. Young’s electric piano emerges along with the organ. The extra percussion here is added by Ralph MacDonald.
“Purpose of When” is just so nasty, mean guitar and evil-sounding bass while organ and electric piano fill in; Miles is very low-key here at first, then picks up the beat. Machine-gun bursts of notes shoot out from the guitar.
If you are looking for an album of beauty, this isn’t it; try his next album on Douglas from 1971, Mahavishnu John McLaughlin: My Goal’s Beyond. That is a beautiful acoustic album, and, of course, he made many more. But if you’re looking for a MINDFUCK, well, then you have come to the right place!