Now Spinning: John Mayall – USA Union

Once John Mayall’s latest guitar hero departed for the Rolling Stones, Mayall risked sharing a legacy much like The Yardbirds: more famous for the guitarists he employed than his own talents, as Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Mick Taylor graduated from Mayall’s blues school on their way to classic rock titans. But instead of fading into obscurity, Mayall rebounded from Mick Taylor’s departure to produce arguably the best work of his career in The Turning Point, a revolutionary live album featuring drummer-less hushed jazz-inflected blues highlighted by unusual instrumentation and improvisation. The style that continued into the studio with 1970’s USA Union, albeit once again with a new lineup adding new flavor. Despite a lack of major critical success, U.S.A. Union was not only Mayall’s highest-charting album in the U.S. but also possesses a deeper legacy as the first album to directly address our impending environmental doom, released just months after the first Earth Day in 1970.

Tweaking the lineup that recorded The Turning Point and its follow-up, Empty Rooms, Mayall plucked Harvey Mandel and Larry Taylor from the ashes of Canned Heat for a harder-edged blues backing, while Don Harris’ violin replaced Johnny Almond’s saxophone and flute as an unusual lead touch. Harris’ sometimes electrified violin previewed a sound Jefferson Airplane soon mimicked with the introduction of Papa John Creach into their family of bands, who played on around a dozen albums by Jefferson Airplane and their members solo projects over the next five years, in addition to releasing his own star-studded album of San Francisco rock. Though the USA Union band continued to feature no drummer, Larry Taylor’s prodigious talent and penchant for noise rendered the point moot while Mandel was Mayall’s most electrifying guitarist since Taylor, trading off solos with Harris’ violin and Mayall’s harp.

The environmental crisis is addressed on the first track, ‘Nature’s Disappearing’, and even more remarkably impressive and practical, the inside of the gatefold jacket includes ‘ten ways you can help fight pollution while there’s still time…’

John Mayall’s rules for fighting pollution

The suggestions, ranging from basics like recycling to ideas that wouldn’t come into vogue until years later, such as composting and banning plastic packaging, are remarkably practical and, sadly, more relevant than ever today. When we think back to the history of environmental activism in popular music, certain songs and artists come up repeatedly – though none of them, with the exception of Pete Seeger, responded with Mayall’s mix of urgency and practicality expressed here nearly fifty years ago.

Complementing the album’s environmental notes, the album’s first track ‘Nature’s Disappearing’ addresses the crisis head on. Fueled by the belief that ‘Tomorrow may be too late’, he confronts apathy with lines like ‘Now’s the time that you must be aware/Nature’s disappearing/Polluted death is coming, do you care’ and turns in more practical advice with ‘Boycott at the market/Containers that are non-returnable’. Meanwhile Harvey Mandel’s guitar slithers in the background with a somewhat subdued power threatening to explode to the forefront – perhaps deliberately resembling how we have tended to consider our environmental future. Over Taylor’s slinky bassline and Mayall’s percussive organ, Mandel and Harris trade solos with Mayall’s harmonica wailing in and out.

Following ‘Nature’s Disappearing’, Mayall steers away from the environment as lyrical subject matter, opting instead for the familiar blues topics of traveling on the road, love gone wrong and insomnia. ‘You Must Be Crazy’ accelerates the pace towards rock ‘n’ roll with bubbling fills and solos from Mandel, electrified effect-laden violin and a rhythmic thump from Taylor strong enough to pull off the no-drums rocker. The effects return in ‘Possessive Emotions’, as Harris’ playing adds a psychedelic flare to the funky number led by Mandel’s lyrical guitar work and Taylor’s funky bottom end. Taylor shines throughout, but especially stands out during solos on ‘Off the Road’ and ‘My Pretty Girl’, which preview a jazzy, experimental side that would emerge more fully in his 1980’s work supporting Tom Waits. Meanwhile Harris largely abandons effects on the second side, as the musical feeling of the album shifts from an ambitious amalgamation of funky, improv-heavy jazz blues to a more down home Americana-like approach, culminating in ‘Deep Blue Sea’, which deeply echoes The Band as Robbie Robertson-style funky string bending from Mandel leads into Harris’ mountain fiddle while Mayall’s barrelhouse piano holds things loosely together.

While listening to music on large slabs of vinyl is hardly the most green way of consuming music, there is certainly a strong sustainability benefit out of turning someone else’s trash into treasure, and this album, can be found all over dollar bins, yard sales and flea markets. I took home a copy from one of my favorite record store’s $2 bin, and listings start at $.50 currently on Discogs. Though my copy is a fairly beat up VG with plenty of visible scratches, it nevertheless sounds spectacular with excellent instrument separation, as is the case for Mayall’s entire Polydor catalog.

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