The story of Mahavishnu Orchestra: Devotional, dizzying, and downright revolutionary

Mahavishnu Orchestra
(Image credit: David Redfern/Getty Images)

It was late 1973, and Jeff Beck needed to take shelter from the chill winds blowing around his latest band, the supergroup trio Beck, Bogert & Appice. The guitarist had retreated to his country pile in East Sussex, where he indulged his passion for working on hot rods.

One day, while on his back under one of those mean machines, hammering and spannering and cutting fingers that had already produced some of the most jaw-dropping guitar playing ever heard, he stopped suddenly. His attention had been caught by the music playing on the car radio. It was a sound he’d never heard before: thundering drums powered and underpinned a cacophony of guitar, synthesiser and electric violin. The band had a strange name to match their strange, new sound – Mahavishnu Orchestra.

Instantly, Beck saw his future unfolding before him. Beck, Bogert & Appice – and the power trio format – were a thing of the past. This fusion of jazz and rock was the way forward, and he wanted to be part of it.

Not long afterwards, Beck heard Spectrum, the similarly groundbreaking debut solo album by Mahavishnu Orchestra drummer Billy Cobham. Mahavishnu had opened his ears and his mind. Spectrum convinced him that he was making the right decision.

“It changed my whole musical outlook,” Beck said many years later. “It represented a whole area that was as exciting to me as when I first heard Hound Dog by Elvis Presley.”

Beck was as good as his word. His next album, 1975’s Blow By Blow, was an all-instrumental excursion into the sort of territory mapped out by the band he’d heard on the radio that day. The guitarist had been blown away, and he wouldn’t be the only one. On paper, the influence and success of the Mahavishnu Orchestra made no sense at all. But then that was the point.

“It wasn’t about making sense,” says John McLaughlin, the Yorkshire-born guitar virtuoso who steered the Mahavishnu Orchestra through a kaleidoscope of musical dimensions during their two separate runs in the early 70s and mid-80s. “It was about the opposite, in fact. Or rather, it was about making better sense. It was about connecting music to the spiritual, the universal, the stuff beyond. So when people asked: ‘Is it jazz? Is it rock?’ I would laugh and say: “I don’t know. What do you think?”

The truth is, nobody ever really did figure out exactly what the music of the Mahavishnu Orchestra was supposed to be. As the group’s founder suggests today, whatever people thought they were supposed to be, McLaughlin and his fellow musical alchemists would actively push against.

John McLaughlin onstage

John McLaughlin performing on stage with Mahavishnu Orchestra at Knebworth Festival, Knebworth House, Hertfordshire, 20 July 1974. (Image credit: Ian Dickson/Getty Images)

Mahavishnu blazed out of the left field at the beginning of the 70s with something very new: jazz-rock fusion. They had a foot in both camps but belonged to neither. Rock audiences, already educated in the far-out by Jimi Hendrix, latched on to their complex musical explorations which took the burgeoning cult of instrumental virtuosity and raised the bar to a vertigo-inducing higher level. 

Conversely, beard-stroking jazz purists, hung up on the lack of horns and shocked senseless by Mahavishnu’s controlled cacophony of guitar, bass, drums, synthesiser and electric violin, washed their hands of them from the start.

Between August 1971, when they first began to meld jazz, rock and spiritualism on their visionary first album The Inner Mounting Flame, and June 1973 when the original and best line‑up dissolved, the Mahavishnu Orchestra were the most far-out, game-changing, multi-discplinary musical outfit in the known (and unknown) universe. 

Led by the unlikely figure of McLaughlin – short-haired and beardless, white-clad, brandishing beatificially a twin-neck guitar – they were devotional, spiritual, meditative, fiery and, above all, free. And, remarkably, they were hugely successful on the back of it.

“It was a very powerful time of upheaval,” McLaughlin reflects. “The psychedelic revolution; the whole black and white thing in America; the assassinations; the Vietnam War on top of that. The music just reflected society as it was then. There was a great feeling that we could actually make the world a better place.”

These days McLaughlin resides in a beautiful coastal home just outside millionaires’ playground Monte Carlo, where he’s lived for the past 33 years. It’s a long way from his roots in the former Yorkshire mining town of Doncaster, where he was born in January 1942. A war baby, he was brought up to appreciate classical music, studied piano and watched entranced as his mother played the violin. He was 11 when he got his first guitar, and he has rarely been in a room without one since. 

“The guitar caused a revelation in my head and my heart,” he says. “Right now, as I speak to you,” he points out, “I have a guitar about twenty centimetres from my hand.”

Instead of Elvis, the young McLaughlin dug gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt and French jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli. But the real light-bulb moment came when he was 15 and he heard jazz trumpeter Miles Davis’s groundbreaking album Miles Ahead.

“Miles was the godfather of fusion, even in 1957,” he says. “In Mahavishnu Orchestra we were just Miles’s boys, basically just following his dream.”

He makes it sound easy, but there would be years of slog before McLaughlin was ready to even attempt such lofty ideals. After arriving in London in 1961, he did the rounds playing with Alexis Korner, Georgie Fame, the Graham Bond Organization and Ronnie Scott; he even played on sessions alongside Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones. By the mid-60s he was dropping acid and “tripping out” on The Beatles and John Coltrane, especially the latter’s 1965 modal jazz masterpiece A Love Supreme.

“Trane integrated what you would call the spiritual dimension into music,” he says. “Before that all music was secular. Or it was about religion, as opposed to being spiritual.”

McLaughlin was on his own spiritual path. His discovery of Indian classical music – together with the spirit of the times – led him to meditation, yoga and, eventually, Sufism.

“The more mystical aspect of Islam,” he explains, “which is very, very beautiful. I was really deep into it, until this day, really. Then right in the middle of that I got the call from Tony.”

Tony Williams was a Chicago-born jazz drummer who found fame earlier in the decade as a 17-year-old wunderkind in Miles Davis’s band. In 1969 he formed the proto-jazz-fusion group the Tony Williams Lifetime, and invited McLaughlin to move to New York to join. The group’s debut album, Emergency!, led to McLaughlin getting his “gig of a lifetime” with his teenage hero Miles Davis, just in time to record In A Silent Way and, in 1970, Bitches Brew, the landmark record that brought the new jazz-rock fusion to the widest possible audience.

“The whole world really exploded then,” he says. “Miles would do things like a Zen master would to one of his young disciples. Just knock his normal mind out, like, what are you gonna do now?”

When McLaughlin asked keyboard player Chick Corea what Miles was thinking of playing at their first gig, Corea just looked at him and said: “I don’t know. Just be ready, that’s all.”

They began with an extended improvisation based on Round Midnight, the great trumpeter signalling McLaughlin in with just a sideways nod of the head. Twenty minutes later, as the piece ended with a volcanic flourish, Davis walked over and knelt before his guitarist on stage and stared at him: “Just freaking me out!”

McLaughlin would eventually appear on seven Davis albums, including acknowledged jazz-rock cornerstones Jack Johnson, Live Evil and On The Corner. And so it might have continued, had Miles not taken John aside one night in 1970 and told him: “It’s time for you to form your own band.”

“I hadn’t even thought of that. I was playing with Tony. I was playing with Miles. I had the best gigs in the world. But the fact that he said it to me was very significant, because he was the most honest man I’d ever met.”

As the 70s dawned there was a new spirit of détente flourishing between the worlds of rock and jazz. In the wake of Miles Davis’s success, fans of both forms were beginning to appreciate what the other had to offer.

McLaughlin was already being singled out as the key man in this burgeoning movement. Czech bassist Miroslav Vitouš approached him about joining a new group he was forming called Weather Report. McLaughlin was flattered but unmoved. 

“I’m like, that would be great, but I’m under orders here from Miles,” he says. “I had to justify his belief in me. So I did, and that was Mahavishnu Orchestra.”

In New York, McLaughlin had become a devotee of Sri Chinmoy, a 38-year-old Indian spiritual master whose meditation centre he regularly attended. It was Chinmoy who gave him the name ‘Mahavishnu’, meaning ‘Divine compassion, power and justice’, or simply ‘Great Vishnu, an aspect of Vishnu’, after the Hindu god. Calling his band the Mahavishnu Orchestra was both a way of telegraphing his spiritual devotion, and coming up with a cooler name than the John McLaughlin Band.

While the band was McLaughlin’s brainchild, he made sure to surround himself with musical equals. He had met drummer Billy Cobham while both of them were doing sessions for Bitches Brew with Davis. The Panama-born, New York-raised Cobham had graduated from the High School Of Music And Art in 1962, then spent the next three years in the US Army. Discharged in 1965, he passed through the Big Apple’s clubs in a succession of jazz bands before pitching up with Davis. “The craziest I’ve ever known,” Cobham says today of the Bitches Brew sessions.

It was there that Cobham and McLaughlin bonded, forming a musical alliance that would fuel Mahavishnu. After Cobham accepted McLaughlin’s invitation to join the new band he was putting together, the pair embarked on what the drummer calls an “extended duet”.

“We played together, just the two of us, for about three weeks,” Cobham recalls now, down the line from Los Angeles. “Just jamming, out of which John made notes. That’s how the music on the first Mahavishnu album appeared.”

Before that album, McLaughlin had to recruit the rest of the band. Despite his own high standards, the task proved surprisingly easy. Miroslav Vitouš recommended keyboard player Jan Hammer, a fellow Czech. Born in Prague in 1948, Hammer came from a properly musical background – his mother was a well-known singer, his father an amateur jazz musician. He had begun playing piano aged four, and had toured Eastern Europe with his own trio. He gained a degree from Prague’s Academy Of Musical Arts, followed by a scholarship at Berklee College Of Music in Boston.

When he auditioned for Mahavishnu, Hammer was a member of jazz singer Sarah Vaughan’s backing band; an overqualified bit player who had lofty aspirations of his own. He turned up for the audition with a Minimoog synthesiser, then a brand new and exclusive toy. “He was unbelievable,” McLaughlin says with a chuckle. “Such self-belief.”

That self-belief was key to what Hammer brought to Mahavishnu. Like his bandmates, he was a master of his instrument; a maverick confident enough to push his abilities to the limit.

The last two members to join were no less accomplished. Jerry Goodman was a precocious, conservatory-trained 21-year-old electric violin player. His parents had performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and his uncle was jazz pianist Marty Rubenstein, who composed film scores. Jerry had been the star with 60s band The Flock.

“I found Jerry on a farm somewhere in Illinois,” McLaughlin recalls. “He’d made one record with The Flock. I heard him play and said, ‘Yes, he’s the one.’” Goodman’s rock background, together with his long hair, gave Mahavishnu a direct connection to the rock audience that they would appeal to so strongly. He looked like a rock star, performed like a rock star and, when success swiftly came calling, began to think like one too.

A year older than McLaughlin, bassist Rick Laird was another highly trained musician: he’d studied at the Guildhall School Of Music in London and the Berklee College Of Music in Boston. His sophisticated, inventive but unobtrusive style fitted right in. He was also an older head that McLaughlin felt he could rely on. “Rick didn’t play teenage games,” he says, pointedly. Indeed it was the two elder statesmen of the group, McLaughlin and Laird, who eventually found themselves pitted against the younger Hammer and Goodman, with Cobham keeping his head down over his drums.

Each member of Mahavishnu was a master of their own instrument, and the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. With all the instruments at times meshing with impressive precision, at others bouncing around and off each other like high-energy pinballs on separate trajectories to the same place, the results were often noisy, sometimes quietly delicate, always dynamic and above all supremely accomplished.

The first Mahavishnu Orchestra album, The Inner Mounting Flame, released in 1971, remains their best. Opening track and statement of intent Meeting Of The Spirits says it all: volcanic explosions of life one moment, twinkling vistas of sensuous joy the next. This was the music of tomorrow delivered at a time when much of mainstream rock was talking about getting back to the garden.

There was nothing simplistic or humble about tracks like the swirling, dizzying Vital Transformation. And while more soothing moments existed in tracks like the opulent Dawn, or the luxuriant, peaceful, mostly acoustic A Lotus On Irish Streams, there was a fury; there was at root an almost unbearable tension about the album that left you feeling the band were teetering on the very edge of exploding into a thousand pieces, so far did they push and extend themselves and each other.

Nowhere is this felt more than on the six-and-a-half-minutes of the breathless, head-spinning Noonward Race, on the surface a frenzied ‘duet’ between guitar and drums. In fact, during its recording, Laird and Goodman had thrown down their instruments and begun to fist fight, knocking over Hammer and his keyboards in the process. McLaughlin signalled Cobham to keep on playing.

“It was a great band,” McLaughlin says of the original line-up. “One of the greatest bands.”

Critics agreed, fans fell under its musical spells and Mahavishnu Orchestra hardly left the road for the next two years.

The might have travelled the world together with Mahavishnu, but Billy Cobham was never tempted to join John McLaughlin on his spiritual journey. “That was his thing, not mine,” he says now. But the drummer acknowledges that something mystical happened when Mahavishnu played on stage. “There was telepathy, at times, when we played. We were so deep down into it I didn’t even notice the audience.”

The original line-up performed more than 500 shows between 1971 and 1973. They were long, elaborate affairs that required almost as much concentration from the invariably stoned audience as they did from the customarily stone-cold sober musicians. While Cobham speaks of having “out‑of-body experiences” when playing live, he sternly refutes any suggestion that the band ever did anything weirder off stage than stay up all night talking. 

“I only smoked pot once or twice in my life,” he says. “John was totally clean too. Downtime between shows we would play ping-pong. The music was so demanding, so mathematical, I spent most of my time counting.”

They played with Aerosmith and Blue Öyster Cult, Yes and ELP, Steve Miller and Taj Mahal, even The Byrds and James Taylor. McLaughlin seemed to relish unlikely bills – they were both a challenge and an opportunity to bend audiences unfamiliar with Mahavishnu’s music to the band’s will.

Concert tickets stubs

In late 1971 they opened up for the Eagles. Such were their powers that even the supremely confident headliners were freaked out.

“On the second night, they came in and said: ‘From now on, we open, you close,” says McLaughlin. “We said: ‘Of course. Whatever you want.’ We were getting very strong and in-your-face, you see. In that era, that’s what people were waiting for. The Eagles were huge, but this was a whole other trip.”

Unlike the sniffy, buttoned-up jazz crowd, rock audiences thirsted for new sounds. Mahavishnu might have cut their teeth in the jazz world, but this was no beard-stroking stuff. This was loud, noisy and in-your-face, new, different and exciting. At a time when rock fans were starting to worship instrumental virtuosity, here it was with knobs on. Like Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart or Soft Machine before them, here was a band whose albums people could carry under their arm as a badge of cool.

By the time Mahavishnu released their second album, Birds Of Fire, in March 1973, they’d built up a dedicated following. With its interstellar soloing, head-spinning ensemble playing and more chops than a butcher’s fridge, it followed closely the template laid down by its predecessor – in truth, almost too closely. 

Not only did each track on Birds Of Fire sound remarkably similar to one of the tracks on The Inner Mounting Flame, but they were also sequenced in the same order: opener Birds Of Fire was Meeting Of The Spirits Mk.II; Thousand Island Park was A Lotus On Irish Streams Mk.IIBirds Of Fire was a tremendous record, for sure, but also a strangely familiar one, full of déjà vu moments.

Still, that didn’t prevent the album from breaking into the Top 20 on both sides of the Atlantic – an extraordinary achievement for such ‘out there’ music. These five jazz-schooled musicians suddenly found themselves in the most unlikely position imaginable: they were rock stars.

“I know,” McLaughlin says, chuckling. “I took it all with a pinch of salt because it’s not serious. Don’t misunderstand me, I felt it was fantastic that we had popularity, but in a way I think we had too much success too quickly. The band ended very acrimoniously, and it upsets me to this day. I have great relationships with all the musicians that I worked with. Except that bloody band.”

It was perhaps inevitable that the tension in the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s music would bleed into the real world. The band that was so mystically tight on stage began to unravel. In a large part it was down to the widening gap between McLaughlin and Laird on one side, and Hammer and Goodman on the other. While it wasn’t quite a generational thing, the differences in ages were becoming an issue. Asked now why the original line-up of Mahavishnu Orchestra lasted only a couple of years, McLaughlin sighs and says: “Those buggers Jerry and Jan.”

The first serious fissures occurred in London in early 1973, during aborted sessions for the follow-up to Birds Of Fire. Hammer and Goodman wanted more input into the writing – and a bigger share of royalties. The pair became further incensed when McLaughlin and Cobham took off for a US tour with Carlos Santana in support of the Love Devotion Surrender album the Mahavishnu duo had made with Carlos, another devotee of Sri Chinmoy.

John McLaughlin and Carlos Santana with their guru Sri Chinmoy

John McLaughlin and Carlos Santana with their guru Sri Chinmoy. (Image credit: GAB Archive/Getty Images)

Cobham was increasingly uncomfortable with “the people who followed John around”, alluding to the entourage of ‘spiritual advisers’ McLaughlin surrounded himself with. The drummer suggests he was viewed as a troublesome advisor, something that would culminate in his departure from Mahavishnu. “I remember one gig where they had Narada Michael Walden [the drummer who eventually replaced Cobham] standing behind me on the stage, watching.”

Matters reached a head on a tour of Japan. McLaughlin recalls stepping off a plane and being blanked by Hammer and Goodman. “We were in the middle of a Japanese tour. And one day I said: ‘You’re playing music with me, why don’t you just talk to me? Tell me I’m the worst bastard in the world, I don’t care!’” he says. “Rick said to them: ‘Yeah, why don’t you tell him? You’re always telling me!’ I said: ‘What are they telling you?’ He said: ‘They should tell you.’ But they didn’t. They just walked out of the room. Next day, I said: ‘Either you talk to me, or I don’t want to live like this. We’ll just finish up the contract and you can just go off and do what you want.’ And they did. And that was it.”

The original line-up of Mahavishnu Orchestra played their last show on December 30, 1973 at Detroit’s Masonic Temple Auditorium. Each member went on to varying degrees of success. Billy Cobham became one of the most in-demand jazz drummers around as a session man and leader of his own band. In the early 70s he released a trio of acclaimed jazz-rock albums, the first and best of which, Spectrum (with Tommy Bolin on guitar), is often cited as a jazz-rock fusion benchmark.

Rick Laird hooked up with Stan Getz and Chick Corea; today he’s a respected photographer. Jerry Goodman and Jan Hammer reunited for an album, 1975’s Like Children, before the violinist carved out a career that saw him play with everyone from Hall & Oates to former Dream Theater keyboard player Derek Sherinian. Hammer collaborated with Jeff Beck, most notably on Beck’s Mahavishnu-inspired album Wired, and he famously scored 80s cop TV show Miami Vice.

McLaughlin himself launched a retooled version of the Mahavishnu Orchestra with drummer Narada Michael Walden and virtuoso French violinist Jean-Luc Ponty. This and subsequent line‑ups produced three albums that were a lot more jazz and a little less rock, a little more studied and a lot less electrifying. After splitting the band in 1976, he relaunched Mahavishnu for a few fleeting years in the 1980s. But it’s the initial line‑up, and the two groundbreaking, game‑changing, visionary studio albums they made that truly hold a place in his heart today.

“I have to tell you, that first Mahavishnu line-up, they were all great,” he says. “The second one, too, with Narada. But the first one was really special. When the music was bigger than personal egos. It didn’t end well; it was a hundred per cent bullshit. But what to do? It was fantastic while it lasted, and it’s entered into the jazz-fusion annals as the beginning. And that’s probably all that matters now. I still meet people that tell me how much they love those Mahavishnu Orchestra albums. There are still people discovering them for the first time now. And will be long after I’ve disappeared into… nothingness.”

John McLaughlin

(Image credit: Abstract Logix)
Mick Wall

Mick Wall is the UK's best-known rock writer, author and TV and radio programme maker, and is the author of numerous critically-acclaimed books, including definitive, bestselling titles on Led Zeppelin (When Giants Walked the Earth), Metallica (Enter Night), AC/DC (Hell Ain't a Bad Place To Be), Black Sabbath (Symptom of the Universe), Lou Reed, The Doors (Love Becomes a Funeral Pyre), Guns N' Roses and Lemmy. He lives in England.