>In 1968, with the Beatles still at the height of their power and riding the wave of The White Album, John Lennon was called upon by Mick Jagger, host of the BBC TV Special The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, to perform a song in front of an audience. Though The Beatles had not played a live concert in over two years since the inception of sampling and looping during the Revolver recordings in 1966, Lennon took it upon himself to join Jagger’s Circus.
The ’60s were chock full o’ collaboration, and given The Beatles’ inability to perform their electronically complex music in a live forum, Lennon decided to be the first member to deviate from the group . Enter: The Dirty Mac. As a play on the ever popular Fleetwood Mac, Lennon formed a supergroup of rockers that has been virtually unrivaled in the 40 years since, save for the Traveling Wilburys. For Dirty Mac, Lennon chose Rolling Stones bassist Keith Richards, Cream guitarist Eric Clapton, and Jimi Hendrix Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell.
It is Mitchell’s recent death that lead me to discover Dirty Mac. Despite my penchant for Beatles history and that of 1960s rock in general, the group had somehow slipped under my radar. Perhaps it is because it only had one performance, and it was of a Beatles song (“Yer Blues”) that had been released only a few months earlier on The White Album (the band also backed Yoko Ono and violinist Ivry Hitlis for the set’s second and final song), but given the amount I’ve read about the the late 1960s, the Lennon-Ono fiasco, and the subsequent Beatles’ breakup, a riveting performance of a Beatles’ song by a band other than The Beatles at the height of their popularity seems a rare and exciting event.
What truly sets this performance apart from a Beatles’ performance is, of course, the players. Surely McCartney and Richards are at an equal level of skill, and Harrison was, at the time, arguably a better guitarist than Clapton, but Mitchell is leagues better than Ringo Starr. I’m no Ringo basher — more of an admirer, really — but Mitchell is pure dirty blues. With his relentlessly hardhitting style, he takes “Yer Blues” to a very different place than Starr did. Mitchell’s heavyhandedness lends the lyrical touch that, in this case in particular, Starr’s lacks. Again, I mean this not to discount the original beat, which carries the song well, but only to accentuate the appropriateness of Mitchell’s harder blues. Lennon’s lyrics are some of his darkest to that point, drawing heavily on the pain he felt from his heroin withdrawal (or so the story goes) and intense self-loathing, as evidenced by his screeching “even hate my rock and roll, yes I’m lonely, wanna die…”
After Liberty DeVitto, Mitchell was the second drummer whose style I melded into my own and his work on songs as intense as “Fire” and airy as “Hey Joe” are still very obvious influences on most drummers that play the blues today. Most impressive was his rare ability to capture the musicality of the song and the songwriter, a skill that most drummers would do well to work harder at developing. Whether the rapid eighth notes that kick off Hendrix’s “Machine Gun” or the awkward breakdown that comes towards the end of the “Yer Blues” guitar solo, Mitchell was a champion and pioneer of melodic drumming in rock and blues.