John McLaughlin on His Final U.S. Tour, Revisiting Mahavishnu Orchestra

Ahead of a new run celebrating his revolutionary Seventies jazz-rock band, the guitarist looks back on his 50-year "love affair" with American music

Ahead of his last U.S. tour, John McLaughlin talks revisiting the work of Mahavishnu Orchestra, and recalls playing with Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix. Credit: Alessio Belloni

When John McLaughlin looked through his archives in preparation for an upcoming tour celebrating his pioneering Seventies jazz-rock outfit the Mahavishnu Orchestra, he was shocked by how out-there his old tunes still seemed. "I was into my yoga, my meditation, no drugs, but I wrote some weird music in those days, man," says the British guitar virtuoso with a laugh.

Now 75, McLaughlin was not yet 30 when he formed the Orchestra, the band that would make him a legend among fellow guitarists and devotees of boundary-pushing musical hybrids. Their explosive sound drew as much on Indian music and psychedelic rock as on his earlier experiences playing electrified jazz with Miles Davis and drummer Tony Williams. The teachings of McLaughlin's then–spiritual guru Sri Chinmoy – who gave him the moniker "Mahavishnu," a combination of "maha," meaning great, and the name of the Hindu deity Vishnu – helped inspire the band's ecstatic intensity. Their performances matched the high-prog complexity of McLaughlin's compositions with proto-metal muscle and breathtaking dynamic control. 

After coming together in New York 1971, the quintet quickly outgrew clubs and made it all the way to arenas, a rare feat for an instrumental group, and gigged alongside rock heavyweights like Frank Zappa. "Watching them was an education," Jeff Beck told band biographer Walter Kolosky of seeing the Orchestra's classic first lineup. "It was like having your pants ripped off and politely put back on again."

On McLaughlin's upcoming tour, billed as his last in North America, he'll survey the group's full discography, drawing both on early triumphs The Inner Mounting Flame and Birds of Fire, and works by later Mahavishnu Orchestra incarnations, including at least one piece from 1974's London Symphony Orchestra–backed, George Martin–produced Apocalypse. As heard on the guitarist's new Live at Ronnie Scott's album, along with the Mahavishnu material, he and his current band, the 4th Dimension, will also perform recent material that reflects his continuing love of pyrotechnic intergenre fusion. 

For McLaughlin, the tour, which kicks off November 1st, isn't just a chance to revive the Mahavishnu songbook, but also a way to pay back a debt of gratitude to the country that shaped him – and wholeheartedly embraced a project as bold as the Orchestra. "I wanted to do this tour in America, and to thank the American people for the impact that American music had on me my entire life," he tells Rolling Stone via phone from his home in Monaco. "The idea to bring the Mahavishnu music back again, it brings it full circle. ... It's part of my musical history; it's part of my cultural history; it's part of this wonderful love affair that I've had with American music since I was 13 years old. "

The guitarist spent the Sixties as an in-demand presence on the English scene, playing R&B, blues and jazz with groups such as Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames, the Graham Bond Organisation, and Herbie Goins and the Night-Timers. As detailed in Bathed in Lightning, Colin Harper's fascinating account of McLaughlin's early history, he would often cross paths with fellow journeymen and future stars like Jimmy Page, Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker and John Paul Jones on gigs and sessions – and even toured behind visiting American acts such as Wilson Pickett and the Four Tops. But in early 1969, he made a key move to New York at the invitation of Tony Williams, the former Miles Davis drum phenom who recruited McLaughlin for his new electric trio Lifetime after hearing him on a tape of a London jam. Within days, McLaughlin was sitting in on a session with Davis himself for what would become the trumpeter's ambient-jazz classic In a Silent Way. ("I heard him play with Tony up at Count Basie's and he was a motherfucker, so I asked him to make the date," Davis wrote of McLaughlin in his autobiography.) He would also be a vital presence on Davis' equally pivotal plugged-in experiments Bitches Brew and Jack Johnson, the latter of which was shaped by McLaughlin's wah-wah–drenched blues licks and snarling funk riffage.

"I had already been a fan of Tony since '65 from the Miles Live in Europe album," McLaughlin recalls, speaking in a distinctive accent that seems at once English and continental European. "Miles Davis himself, I discovered him when I was 15, and he rocked my world. I arrived in New York and I couldn't have been luckier – I ended up playing with the best players of that time."

Looking back at those days, he describes a heady period when he was hanging out at Davis' house weekly while blowing minds onstage with Lifetime's psych-jazz. "He wanted to play loud," McLaughlin recalls of Williams, who had revolutionized jazz drumming as a member of Davis' band but was ready for a change. "He wanted to bring rock beats in; he wanted to bring funk beats in; he wanted to be free. ... And that was perfect for me. There would be times when he would be singing some kind of song and I'd be reciting poetry, and there would just be feedback happening from my amp. We would just let it go. It was out there. And a lot of people, I could see their faces, they were looking at us like, 'What the fuck are they doing?!'"


That band, which would later feature McLaughlin's old friend Jack Bruce on bass, also led to a jam session with Jimi Hendrix. "Mitch Mitchell and me were tight," McLaughlin explains, "and Mitch was crazy about Tony, so every time Jimi came into town with Mitch, Mitch would come to see me. And this one particular night, Jimi was at Electric Ladyland studio, and Mitch said, 'Hey, come on, let's go.' And we walked in the studio, and it was like party time – a lot of players – and we started playing. I should have taken a solid-body guitar; I had this hollow-body guitar; it was feeding back. ... But I met Jimi again when he was playing at the Garden."

McLaughlin would also soon meet the man who would become his spiritual guide. After arriving in the States, he and his then-wife Eve began delving seriously into yoga and meditation. One night in the spring of 1970, after a studio date with fellow guitarist Larry Coryell, they both tagged along with the session's producer, Danny Weiss, to visit Sri Chinmoy in Connecticut. The three men meditated there with the guru, and during a question-and-answer session, McLaughlin asked Chinmoy about the relationship between music and spirituality. "He said, 'Well, it's not really a question of what you do,'" McLaughlin later recalled. "'It's what you are or how you are that's important because you can be making the most beautiful music sweeping the road, if you're doing it in a harmonious way, in a beautiful way.' It sounds so simple, but it was everything I wanted to hear and I felt I should stay with him, which I did for five years."

With his newfound spiritual focus and his diverse musical associations, McLaughlin was perfectly poised to bring the jazz-rock fusion movement to glorious maturity. "By the end of 1970, I had just finished a gig with Miles just outside of Boston and we were just chatting, and he said, 'You gotta form your own band, John,'" which was really a shock for me," McLaughlin recalls. "I had to do it just to justify his faith in me." The guitarist recruited Panamanian-American drum force Billy Cobham, another veteran of Davis' Jack Johnson sessions; Czech keyboard star Jan Hammer; bassist and fellow U.K. jazz mainstay Rick Laird; and Jerry Goodman, the violinist from eclectic Chicago band the Flock. 

Sporting the moniker Chinmoy chose for them – "I thought it was a bit strange, but in those days, strange was cool," McLaughlin once said of the Mahavishnu Orchestra name – the group debuted at Greenwich Village club the Gaslight, opening for John Lee Hooker, in July 1971.

Before the end of the year, they would record their debut LP for Columbia – The Inner Mounting Flame, featuring searing, diabolically intricate McLaughlin pieces such as "Meeting of the Spirits" and "The Dance of Maya" – and open for everyone from the Steve Miller Band to the Byrds. Live footage of the group shows McLaughlin taking the stage in all-white garb, projecting an unearthly calm and proceeding to shred mercilessly on double-neck guitar. "It was the loudest thing I had ever heard," eminent jazz guitarist Pat Metheny, who saw the band in Florida in 1972, told Kolosky. "I think the term 'face melting' would fit here."


Around the same time, the Orchestra also made a serious impression on another young guitarist, Jimmy Herring, who would go on to work with Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit, Widespread Panic, and various Grateful Dead offshoots. Now a label-mate of McLaughlin, Herring will open for the elder guitarist on the upcoming tour and join up with him for a Mahavishnu-centric finale each night. For Herring, whose first exposure to the Orchestra came as a teenager when his older brother played him The Inner Mounting Flame, the band served as a bridge from classic rock to a broader musical spectrum.

"I was into a lot of great music: Allman Brothers, Santana, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin," Herring, now 55, tells Rolling Stone. "My age group was listening to Aerosmith, Kiss and stuff like that, and I loved all of it. But for a young kid like me, who was playing guitar, and rock & roll was the central focus of what I was trying to do, when you heard Mahavishnu, it was electric and really loud like rock & roll, but my God ... the incredible passion and the rhythmic complexities of what was going on and the deep harmony, that's all part of jazz."

"I heard the music, and my reaction was immediate," he continues. "It changed my direction, and from that point, for at least three to five years, that's all I listened to after that, either Mahavishnu or Weather Report or Miles Davis or Dixie Dregs or Allan Holdsworth, and then I got into horn players when I started going back and researching where John got his inspiration: Miles and John Coltrane and Charlie Parker."

Looking back to the band's early days, McLaughlin says he was unprepared for the wild enthusiasm that greeted them. "The Mahavishnu Orchestra, when it came out, it was an explosion, completely unexpected, as far as I was concerned. I was just forming a band," McLaughlin says, a sense of marvel in his voice. "But I have to say, for two years, I'd been touring with Tony and Miles and it gave me a rocket boost in my musical evolution. ... And so Mahavishnu Orchestra, the way the American public reacted to it, it was simply unbelievable, and it just got stronger and stronger."

From 1971 to '73, the band gigged relentlessly, playing one-nighters at colleges and theaters across the U.S., touring arenas with Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, and eventually making it as far as Japan. The second Mahavishnu Orchestra album, 1973's Birds of Fire – which cracked the Top 20 on the Billboard album charts – pushed the band's daredevil virtuosity and compositional grandeur further still. (During the same period, McLaughlin teamed with fellow Chinmoy disciple Carlos Santana to record the fiery, John Coltrane–inspired Love Devotion Surrender, which also featured Cobham and Hammer, as well as McLaughlin's old Tony Williams Lifetime bandmate Khalid Yasin, formerly known as Larry Young.)

But by the end of 1973, with their third studio LP still unfinished, the Orchestra came unglued. Tensions flared over composer credits, McLaughlin's devotion to Chinmoy (not shared by the other members) and the guitarist being billed as the leader of what some saw as a collective group. "The band ended really in acrimony, and that was one of the saddest points of my life," McLaughlin says. 

He later attempted to reunite the band, to no avail. "I really tried but I couldn't get it together," he says. "There was too much resistance." The guitarist would subsequently work with Jerry Goodman and Billy Cobham in other projects, but he and Hammer never reconciled; Rick Laird transitioned to a career in photography. At present, McLaughlin says he's over the idea of a reunion. "I shall always regret the way that band went, because it was a beautiful band; it was a beautiful spirit; it was a beautiful everything," he explains. "And it just turned to shit. ... But you get on with it, and life on goes on."

After the breakup of the original group, McLaughlin soldiered on, creating a new Mahavishnu Orchestra in 1974 with an expanded lineup that added vocals and more pop-friendly elements to the mix. For the guitarist, though, the band turned out to be just one phase of a brilliant career: He would go on to co-found Shakti, an innovative ensemble that blended jazz and Indian music; appear in a celebrated guitar trio with Al Di Meola and Paco de Lucia; work with legendary John Coltrane drummer Elvin Jones; reunite with Miles Davis for recordings and performances late in the trumpeter's life; and compose for classical orchestra.


His current group the 4th Dimension – with keyboardist Gary Husband, bassist Etienne M'Bappé and drummer Ranjit Barot – lets him synthesize his many musical interests, touching on electronica and funk in addition to his longtime loves of high-energy jazz-rock and Indian-inspired rhythms. On the Mahavishnu material, in place of the original band's slashing fury, the group performs with laid-back finesse. "Those guys can play anything, and they play it to death," McLaughlin says. "Plus, there's a great spirit in the band."

So if he's in such a positive place these days, why embark on a farewell run? The guitarist emphasizes that while he's ramping down his touring as a health precaution – "Basically, you can fight everything except old age, you know what I'm saying?" – retirement isn't in his future. "Musically, I've never felt better," he says. "The day I stop making music would be the day I keel over, really." Next year, he'll limit himself to one-off performances.

For now, he's relishing the process of relearning all that weird music he wrote for Mahavishnu Orchestra some four decades ago – and the prospect of taking it for a spin once more on American stages. "Right now, everybody's working really hard, but it's a preparation for some liberating experiences, a lot of fun experiences," he says. "I'm excited. I talk to Jimmy; he's excited. I talk to my band; they're excited. It's a wonderful feeling, really, to do it in America. Because, you know, I have very deep feelings about American music, my whole life, and American people. What an impact on my life ... I wouldn't be who I am today without that."