In 1969, John Mayall was looking to put the Bluesbreakers to rest. Gravitating towards the scene out in LA (his last album had been titled Blues from Laurel Canyon), Mayall was looking for a sound that was less amp-ed up, less quintessentially ‘blues-rock’. The sound that he minted on The Turning Point, recorded live at the Fillmore East, was therefore rootsier, gentler, more acoustic. Shockingly drummer-less, these extended jams veered away from rock and towards a folk-jazz not a million miles from Astral Weeks. Key to this reinvention were two musicians: saxophonist and flautist Johnny Almond, whom Mayall wrangled following session work with the likes of Fleetwood Mac and Chicken Shack, and acoustic guitarist Jon Mark, whom he recruited from Marianne Faithfull’s touring band. Not to minimize Mayall’s abilities as a performer and an arranger, but it’s undeniably the interplay between these two musicians that give each song their floaty, hypnotic character. Mayall’s choice was almost too good; like Clapton, like John McVie, like Mick Taylor, these were musicians you could hear graduating on the album they had been enlisted to record.
Following the release of Mayall’s Empty Rooms album that same year, the two were already striking out on their own, now as the unfortunately named Mark-Almond (forever cursed to be misfiled under ‘Soft Cell’ in record stores everywhere). Although Mayall himself would gradually reincorporate the electric blues he was known for, Mark-Almond pretty much stuck to the smoky, nite-club grooves they had laid down on The Turning Point. Listen, for instance, to ‘The City’, from their eponymous debut (1971).
Mark-Almond :: The City (1971 version)
Jon Mark’s luscious vocal is pitched somewhere between Colin Blunstone and Jimmie Spheeris. Gone is the bluesy template Mayall was working from, replaced by the hammock swing of a bossa nova chord sequence. However, the smooth vibes are still very much the same: an airy folk-jazz that accumulates like weather, like a lazy tide. The album as a whole may represent the funkier, shadowy end of what would later become Soft Rock, but in 1971 where could you turn musically to get this West Coast outside of David Crosby’s If Only I Could Remember My Name? Okay, granted, ‘The City’ doesn’t quite earn its seven and a half minute length, and the vocal harmonies might sound a little like Three Dog Night at cocktail hour, but remind yourself that this was a full year before Can’t Buy a Thrill. Plus the spectacularly rich tone of Johnny Almond’s sax is something rare for a rock album at the time (even counting Traffic); here it has room to move, coming through the mix like a guest vocalist, working its way into the song like Van Morrison might.
The tune later became something of a signature for the band. Between a live album and various solo projects, Mark and Almond recorded it no less than four times. Its last appearance (as far as I know) was on 1978’s Other People’s Rooms. The key difference between the 1971 and the 1978 versions of ‘The City,’ however, is what occurred musically in the interim: Steely Dan, The Hissing of the Summer Lawns, Alan Parsons’ Projects, Rumours-era Mac, Silk Degrees, to note just a little of the cross-pollination you can detect on the later recording. The funk by this point has matured, grown lustier, and far less folky. And this time it does earn its length, driving (windows down) down a coastal highway, more stars than city lights. The perfect song, in other words, for an evening in the dog days of summer. words / dk o’hara
Mark-Almond :: The City (1978 version)