It used to be said of English cricket that you could whistle down a coal mine and a fast bowler would emerge. John Mayall did much the same in British blues music in the 1960s. His whistling took place in London’s Flamingo Club or the wanted ads of the Melody Maker. What emerged were lead guitarists, outstanding ones, itching to flex their fingers with the bent notes of Mayall’s Englished blues.
The first was Eric Clapton, who joined Mayall’s band The Bluesbreakers in 1965. After Clapton ditched Mayall to join a band unpromisingly called The Glands on a jaunt to Greece (the 1960s, remember), a replacement arrived in the form of Peter Green. “He kept following me around all the gigs within reach of London and pestering me — a pain in the arse,” Mayall later remembered of Fleetwood Mac’s future founder. Other guitarists included Mick Taylor, later to join the Rolling Stones on Mayall’s recommendation, and a transatlantic recruit, Harvey Mandel, who joined after Mayall scuttled The Bluesbreakers and moved to Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles in 1969.
The “godfather of British blues” is still active at 87: he released his latest album in 2019. But The First Generation has the feel of a memorial to it — a grand, expensive, limited-edition memorial. It covers the first decade of Mayall’s recording career, which was also his most fruitful period. It comprises no fewer than 35 CDs, a hardback book, a signed photograph and various pieces of legacy-bait for the committed collector: yours for £275.
Leaving aside the question of value for money, this immense boxset package has a certain aptness. Mayall is the product of an era of record-collecting when an obsessive segment of postwar youth scoured record shops and US mail order firms for imports. The British blues boom of the 1960s was built on their willingness to pay through the nose for obscure records. Mayall began his collecting earlier than most, hunting down blues 78s in the late 1940s. By the time he began recording with The Bluesbreakers, he was in his 30s, a patronal figure to the tyro musicians whom he recruited.
The First Generation’s plethora of CDs includes live recordings, rarities and studio albums. Badly dated lyrics about women range from Austin Powers-style appreciations of Sunset Strip pulchritude (“All the pretty women/Never seen a better crop”) to the unlistenable, sub-Lolita scenario of “Saw Mill Gulch Road” with its “lonely girl who’s now fifteen”. But the hundreds of songs in the boxset testify also to Mayall’s bandleader ear for talent, and the formal adventurousness that he incorporated into the starchy world of blues purism.
Clapton’s famously savage solo in “Have You Heard”, forced though a distorted Marshall amp, rips through the 1966 song like a premonition of an approaching era of hard-rock heaviosity. But Mayall took a risk when that era actually arrived. For 1969’s The Turning Point, as rock music became louder and denser, he dispensed with the services of a drummer and lead guitarist in order to explore a theory that musical instruments create their own rhythms. “This ain’t nothing to do with the blues,” Peter Green recalled thinking about the 1967 song “Leaping Christine”, which was too driven and jazzy for his liking. He left The Bluesbreakers soon afterwards. Today, however, his complaint sounds like praise.
‘The First Generation’ is released by Madfish