Around forty years ago, a friend of mine, Gyan Nain Singh, walked into my house with an album I’d never heard before. The Turning Point. Sure, I’d heard of John Mayall. Sure, I’d listened to some of the early Bluesbreakers stuff. By then I’d even managed to acquire a copy of Empty Rooms, the album he released after The Turning Point. But for some reason I’d never heard that particular album.
[Sadly Gyan is no more; he influenced me in ways I’m still discovering, and I remain grateful. Thank you Gyan.]
Here’s what the album liner notes said:
An aside. I wanted to show people what the liner notes said. Now I have an original 1969 vinyl version of the album, but I wanted to see if there was an easier way. And there was. Thank you AlbumLinerNotes.com.
In those days I used to listen to a lot of the music Mayall describes above, with the “heavy lead guitar and drums” prominent. And usually listened to with the volume turned way way up.
What intrigued me was that someone at the top of his profession, someone already a legend, someone already known for having mentored a vast number of “greats”, was still capable of such radical experimentation. A lifelong learner.
I’d already discovered Brubeck and Getz and their ilk; I’d been listening to Traffic, Chicago and Blood Sweat and Tears for some time by then (in point of fact it was Gyan again who introduced me to BST). So it wasn’t the instruments Mayall was introducing that intrigued and enchanted me. I was spellbound by what he was leaving out. No drums. No keyboards.
And if that wasn’t enough: “I set about forming a new band which would be able to explore seldom-used areas within the framework of low volume music.”
Explorations in low-volume music. That couldn’t have come at a better time for me, I was just metamorphosing out of the head-banging stage and into the sitting-crosslegged-in-dark-smoky-rooms-and-swaying-gently stage.
Listening to that album taught me something about true visionaries: they have this amazing ability to move out of spaces dominated by them into completely new spaces where there were many lessons to learn before mastery could be achieved. The word “visionary” was not in my mind at that time, all I knew was that there was something remarkable, something uncanny, about the way Mayall experimented with music: the band members, the instruments, the framework, the format, the volume, the time signature, everything.
I’ve been lucky enough to see Mayall perform many times since, and I treasure each of those times. Over the years I’ve heard him perform the three songs that make up one of the best vinyl sides ever:
Incredible. If you haven’t heard them yet, don’t miss this opportunity.
In later years I would come across many many instances where an individual or an organisation changes radically mid-stream; while Steve Jobs did it a few times, the one that really stuck in my mind was when he pulled out of the iPod mini in order to resource up the iPhone and iPad. Similarly Marc Benioff “saw” something and changed tack at speed, taking half the development resources of the company and committing them to building Chatter.
Today we use terms like “pivot” all the time. In a digital age it has become easier to implement feedback loops for products and services, to sense what the customer says, to respond.
Those are pivots. Not Turning Points of The Turning Point class.
Quitting while you’re ahead in order to learn and master new things is hard in itself. Choosing those new things and calling the market right while doing that is even harder.
John Mayall. Thank you for showing me how it’s done, all those years ago. [And Gyan Singh, ditto].