Fifty years on: Eric Clapton
By Trevor Moore
In the autumn of 1967, on a wall in Arvon Road in London, there appeared graffiti that proclaimed, “Clapton is God”. And for a young and budding guitar player, such as I was in 1967, that statement was about as close to reality as anything in the Summer of Love. This month, on 19 August 2020 to be precise, my good friend Macman, a.k.a. Neil Mack will be tripping the light fantastic on 2EARFM in the third of his series of albums Fifty Years On.
Macman’s show takes its name from a lyric in the Grace Jones’ song Walking In the Rain. She sings “Trip the light fantastic, dance the swivel hips” originally composed and recorded by Australian band Flash and the Pan. This month he has selected Eric Clapton’s first eponymous album. In many ways this album is a first step toward his second, massively successful 1974 album 461 Ocean Boulevard. By 1970 my guitar playing had improved and Clapton was still a hero. But here was an album, by a guitar god, whose first track Slinky opens with a riff on the saxophone with a piano backing. What was going on?
Clapton was born in Ripley, Surrey on 30 March 1945. His mother, Patricia Clapton, was 15 when she became pregnant by a 24-year-old Canadian serviceman named Edward Fryer. Fryer could not be described as a gentleman; he refused to accept any responsibility and went back to Canada, after receiving a dishonourable discharge, never to reappear. Canadian servicemen remained in Ripley for some time after the end of the war and in 1947 Pat met a second Canadian, Frank McDonald with whom she fell in love. He asked her to return to Canada to get married … but without Eric. She left Eric with his grandmother, Rose, and Eric was brought up believing that Rose was his mother. Rose was a widow and she had remarried in 1942 to a man called Clapp which has led some writers to conclude that Clapton was derived from Clapp. It must have been a shock to the young Eric when he wormed the truth out of Rose that she was, in fact, his grandmother. In his book Slowhand: The Life and Music of Eric Clapton, Philip Norman says that Pattie Boyd, his wife for 10 years and George Harrison’s ex-wife, says that “He became the wounded child. From then on, everybody around him seemed to feel an obligation to take care of him and prop him up.” He wasn’t helped when in 1954 his real mother reappeared to visit him and did not behave well toward him.
His family was not particularly musical - Rose’s father had played the accordion and violin in summer fêtes - but, like many teenagers as the 1950s became the 1960s he became obsessed by American rhythm and blues artists. An early influence was B B King and in the excellent 2017 documentary Life In 12 Bars he recommends any budding guitarist to listen to King’s Live at the Regal, a recommendation that I wholeheartedly agree with.
The first solo album: the man can sing AND play guitar The American R&B influence permeated popular music as the 1950s, with Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochrane and the Shadows, gave way to the 1960s with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Kinks, all of whom essentially started as R&B cover bands. He started playing in pubs and clubs around Surrey in 1962 with his friend David Brock. Brock went on to form Hawkwind in 1969 and plays with them to this day. Clapton formed a band called the Roosters with Tom McGuiness. McGuiness went on to play with Manfred Mann until they disbanded in 1969 when he formed the highly under-rated McGuiness-Flint with Hughie Flint who had drummed briefly with John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers.
Keith Relf and a stern-looking Clapton: he doesn't like the haircut.
When the Roosters split up in 1963, Clapton joined the Yardbirds. The early Yardbirds were a classic early 1960s blues-influenced rock group and their early material is raw and unreconstructed. They played covers, though they played them very well. Clapton played lead guitar with the band until 1965. He was succeeded by Jeff Beck who in turn was succeeded by Jimmy Page. The Yardbirds, however much Clapton felt they sold out to pop, was a major 1960s’ band. But when the band decided to cover Graham Gouldman’s (later of 10cc, he also wrote the Hollies’ Bus Stop) For Your Love, Clapton decided that he was not being taken in the right direction and his view was buttressed by lead singer Keith Relf’s adoption of a Beatles haircut. It’s a shame in a way because the underlying chord sequence of For Your Love (Em / G / A / Am) would be a wonderful platform for a Clapton solo. Perhaps there is such a solo somewhere. If there is, I would love to hear it.
Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton, the Beano Album.
Having established a reputation as a great guitar player, he slid easily from the Yardbirds into John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers. The Bluesbreakers never produced a record that appealed to the average record buying public, but they were an incubator for the talents of so many rock ’n’ rollers. Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton (1966) was their first studio album; it’s the one with the cover that everyone (well, everyone of a certain age) knows. (The earlier 1965 album John Mayall Plays John Mayall was a live album.) Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton is one of those albums that you really had to have, Clapton on lead guitar, John McVie (later Fleetwood Mac) on bass, John Mayall and drummer Hughie Flint. Kicking around in the background was Jack Bruce who recorded several tracks with Mayall and Clapton that were not released on the original album. Clapton’s time with Mayall was brief and inconsistent; he joined in April 1965, left a few months later and then re-joined in November 1965. He left in July 1966 before Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton was released. But he had made a name for himself gaining a reputation as the best blues guitarist on the club circuit.
Clapton's 1964 Gibson SG.
Philip Norman notes that Clapton “has a history of walking out of bands at their peak (first the Yardbirds, then John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers)” and he certainly moved around. In 1966 he found time to join Steve Winwood, Jack Bruce and others in Powerhouse. It was Ginger Baker who invited Clapton to play with him and Jack Bruce in the trio that became Cream. Cream was a huge success selling millions of records in the US and Europe. It was the band that introduced America to Clapton and while Jack Bruce shouldered most of the vocal and song writing duties (with lyricist Peter Brown), Clapton began to develop as a singer, songwriter and, as the only guitarist, had to thicken his sound and develop his techniques to rise above and around the bass and drums. As they left for the States in early 1967, Simon Postuma and Marijke Koger of the Fool Collective delivered to Clapton the Gibson SG guitar, known as Sunny. Psychedelia was the name of the game and the guitar is a beautiful ornament to the Summer of Love. 1967 saw the appearance of a guitar player whose capabilities were at least on a par with Clapton’s. Jimi Hendrix’ playing style was very different to Clapton’s. While Clapton says on Life In 12 Bars that “I don’t like having my photograph taken”, Jimi was much more of a showman. He used feedback and effects in a way that was new, and probably challenging to Clapton whose blues inspirations contrasted with Hendrix’s acid-rock infusions.
Cream formed in 1966 and were a brilliant band both for the record-buying public and for the hordes of young people (mainly young men I suspect) trying to play the guitar at least half decently. Despite Clapton’s reputation as a guitar legend, Cream was relatively short-lived. They fell apart in 1968 as drug and alcohol use escalated tension between the three members, and as a result of conflicts between Bruce and Baker. They made four albums of which the fourth Goodbye was the result of them being persuaded to record and tour. I think that the spontaneity of that last album suffers as a result. It is the second album, 1967’s Disraeli Gears, with its lovely psychedelic cover that integrates British psychedelic and heavy rock (Sunshine of your Love) with traditional American blues (Outside Woman Blues). The cover of Disraeli Gears, incidentally, was designed by the Australian Martin Sharp who was also a co-founder of the legendary underground magazine Oz. You can listen to any track from Disraeli Gears (at a satisfactory volume or not) and it has undeniably stood the test of time.
After the breakdown of Cream, Clapton joined Steve Winwood and Ginger Baker to form the short-lived Blind Faith with Ric Grech on bass. Blind Faith’s live debut was a free concert in London’s Hyde Park in June 1969 in front of an estimated 100,000 people. Their first eponymous album, with its controversial cover, immediately went to number 1 in the UK and the US. But Clapton was not happy; Blind Faith was over-hyped, and its US tour showed it was under-rehearsed with insufficient material. But among the supporting acts was the American country and blues husband and wife duo Delaney and Bonnie. Clapton began to hang out with them, writing songs and even joining them on stage. Steve Winwood takes over Clapton’s lead role in Blind Faith and by the end of the tour Blind Faith is finished and Clapton is planning to record and go on the road with Delaney and Bonnie.
Clapton with Pattie Boyd
1970 was a busy year for Eric. As well as releasing his first eponymous solo album, he also cofounded Derek and the Dominos. Most of the songs he wrote were about his infatuation with Pattie Boyd, later to be his wife but then married to George Harrison. He was certainly ardent in his wooing of Pattie and in 1970, the year we are interested in, he careered off the road while driving his lilac-coloured Ferrari without a driving licence. Apparently, a euphoric Clapton was driving home following his first kiss with Pattie Boyd – who was then married to close friend and Beatles legend George Harrison – when he lost control of the sports car, flipping it onto its roof. It’s difficult to confirm this; other sources suggest that Pattie had rejected his advances in 1970 and as a result Clapton took refuge in drugs and that it wasn’t until much later that his wooing of Pattie was successful. He married her in 1979. The marriage lasted ten years. Such, I assume, is show biz.
Clapton’s 1970 album, which Macman will feature on his show on 19 August 2020, was released fifty years ago on 16 August 1970. It was recorded partly in London and partly in Los Angeles and used musicians from the Delaney and Bonnie tour with Blind Faith. Some of the musicians on the album would go on to Derek and the Dominos. The album is a marked departure from his previous work. The influence of Delaney and Bonnie results in less urgency in the delivery. When playing with Cream or Blind Faith, Clapton’s guitar sounded like he had a message to convey and that you absolutely needed to listen to that message. On Eric Clapton the album the feel is more laid back, more leisurely. Perhaps this is because the album relies at least as much in his voice as on his guitar. Clapton was not confident of his voice, he thought he couldn’t sing but, although he felt the vocals on Eric Clapton were a weak point, listening to it now I do not think that is so. His timing is good. his vocal range suits the songs and his delivery is measured.
In some ways, listening to the album today it sounds almost middle-of-the-road. It has more of a pop feel than Clapton’s earlier work. This is the reason for its success; it was more accessible, perhaps, than his earlier work as a guitar virtuoso. In no small way is this due to Delaney Bramlett’s production. Delaney would have brought the emphasis on melody from his work with Bonnie on their earlier albums. Even so, Clapton turns out some magnificent guitar solos on the album that paradoxically de-emphasises his prowess as a guitarist.
(L) Bonnie and (R) Delaney (d. 2008) Bramlett
Oddly, the track Blues Power isn’t a blues song at all, indeed the lyric starts “you didn’t think I knew how to rock ’n’ roll”. Of the eleven tracks, eight are written or co-written by Clapton. Delaney and/or Bonnie take song writing credits on nine tracks. J J Cale’s After Midnight is the only cover version but a cover version that takes Cale’s version and wrings the melody out. The two songs credited to Clapton alone are Easy Now and Bottle of Red Wine. Easy Now was a complete change for Clapton and betrays his lack of confidence in his voice. It’s a lovely acoustic song but the vocals are rather too drenched in reverb for my taste; I am not sure how Clapton persuaded producer Bramlett to let it through. Bottle of Red Wine is more of a rocker, basically a swung 4/4 12-bar that no doubt Eric knocked up in 5 minutes. But then the best songs are written in 5 minutes and Bottle of Red Wine is driven along by Carl Radle’s bass. If there’s a weak point on the album it is I Don’t Know Why. A Bramlett-Clapton collaboration, I have always thought that it was a weak song that is rescued only by top quality musicianship and production. I suspect Bonnie Bramlett and Rita Coolidge are on duty for the backing vocals. Stephen Stills is there somewhere as well.
There is far more to Clapton’s story. Eric Clapton, as a solo album, might be regarded as the gateway to the second Clapton album, the almost incomparable 461 Ocean Boulevard and then to 1997’s Slowhand … and beyond. But even compared with 461 Ocean Boulevard, Eric Clapton was and remains great listening. Clapton remains at least a demi-god to guitar players who learned from him that improvisation works in rock as well as jazz. But as Eric himself would tell those guitar players to listen to B B King Live At The Regal and that would be good advice.