Saturday 19 March 2011

My Goal's Beyond

It might seem apt to describe the Mahavishnu Orchestra's sound as "Indo-Futurist", but for the embarrassing detail that no-one in the group was of even remotely sub-continental extraction. Lead guitarist John McLaughlin was a Yorkshireman who became a disciple of the dubious guru Sri Chinmoy, and the early Mahavishnu albums express an ardent ambition on his part to become perfectly reconciled with his own inner divinity.

Like the Mothers of Invention (with whom they shared a member, the violinist Jean-Luc Ponty), the Mahavishnu Orchestra had a strict straight-edge policy, with band members kept focussed by mandatory pre-gig meditation. The weirdness of the music evidently isn't druggy weirdness: its psychedelic effusion is too intricately-worked to be mistaken for infantile stoner look-at-the-colours-man indulgence (this is essentially the difference between Mahavishnu and, say, the Ozric Tentacles). But it is weird stuff, both sonically and affectively: dislocated and driven, with the sort of frantic joyfulness you'd generally associate with, well, some kind of cult. Imagine the Polyphonic Spree playing about three times as fast, in one of those double-figure-prime-numbered time signatures, with Jan Hammer wazzing about in the super-Locrian over the top of it all.

It's certainly a more elaborate way of getting in touch with your inner divinity than squatting on a rug in some ashram intoning "ommmm...". The Mahavishnu Orchestra are a striking demonstration of the proposition that narcissism doesn't have to be boring: if the self you've fallen in love with is really so much more abundantly interesting than you are, the resulting striving to live up to this image - together with its attendant delusions and anxieties - can occasionally be productive. Grandiosity, in other words, can be the mother of invention.

What's needed, and what McLaughlin was evidently able to produce, is the talent to pull it off: his playing on the early recordings always seems just on the edge of what he can technically manage, and includes some feats of disarming sprezzatura.

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