Eric Clapton: Prototype of the Guitar Hero

Doug Collette By

Sign in to view read count
Eric Clapton
Disraeli Gears (with Cream)
461 Ocean Blvd.
Layla (with Derek & The Dominos)
Universal Music Enterprises

With the reformation of Cream looming for later this year, it's well to ponder how Eric Clapton became the archetypal guitar hero of our times. A series of reissues including some of his most significant work illustrate his checkered yet influential past and in so doing give some insight into how he ended up make music as prosaic as some of most recent solo work.

Cream virtually redefined rock by the way the trio—Clapton on guitar and vocals, Jack Bruce on vocals, bass and harmonica and Ginger Baker on drums—extended their improvisational tendencies even beyond the scope of West Coast American counterparts like the Grateful Dead. Listening to the deluxe edition of the band's second studio album, Disreali Gears , you can hear how the group perhaps unwittingly navigated itself in that direction and how the threesome ultimately shortchanged themselves by their own lack of collective and individual discipline.

Purely in terms of its remastered sound, this version of Gears is superior to the same content included in Those Were the Days which collected almost all of Cream's recorded work in a single four-disc set. You have to wonder if the release of the original album tracks in mono suggests a paucity of worthwhile material to compile such a double-disc package as this (notwithstanding the plethora of great photos and, to a lesser extent, the coldly analytical essay in the booklet), but while you're listening to the gigantic throb that is the ultimate riff tune, "Sunshine of Your Love,"? those thoughts are far far away.

Such reservations do return as you get to the end of this first disc and encounter alternate takes and outtakes of unreleased material that suggest how Disreali Gears might've even been a stronger album than it is and truly worthy of its significance in rock's canon. While there were those at Atlantic who fancied Eric as the figurehead of Cream, Jack Bruce quickly assumed a greater role in the band's makeup by dint of his distinctive singing style (especially the use of a ghostly falsetto) as evidenced on "World of Pain"? and "SWALBR."?

Even more importantly, the bassist's songwriting collaborations with lyricist Pete Brown—whose words to songs such as "Tales of Brave Ulysses"? derived from true mind-expansion of one sort or another— usurped Clapton's status as titular frontman even further, often relegating him to offering rewrites of blues numbers such as "Lawdy Mama"? (also appearing here as "Outside Woman Blues"?) as his contribution to the band's repertoire simply because he was not so prolific as the Bruce/Brown collaborative team.

To include the collaborative marriages of cryptic lyric and complex melody in the form of "Weird of Hermiston"? and "The Clearout,"? both of which appeared eventually on Bruce's solo album Songs for a Tailor, would have made for a distinctly different and more substantial album than the one that appears twice (once in mono?!) in this set, especially if those cuts been substituted for throwaways like "Take It Back,"? "Mother's Lament"? and Ginger Baker's metronomic dirge "Blue Condition"?(made no less monotonous when Clapton sung it in an alternate take)

"Hey Now Princess"? is most noteworthy perhaps because it recalls nothing so much as the frenzied, full-speed ahead attack of latter-day Cream in concert; the demonic edge to this power trio's music is hardly hidden by the concision and pop overtones sculpted by producer Felix Pappalardi, who, working with engineer Tom Dowd (later to produce the Allman Brothers and Derek and The Dominos) fashioned a more accessible Cream sound. Yet this came at the expense of the true scope of the Clapton/Bruce/ Baker firepower: perhaps it was the future bassist of Mountain's means of containing the three forceful personalities, but to curtail the improvisational possibilities of "Dance the Night Away"? in favor of a more Byrdsy- stmosphere sounds in retrospect like playing it safe.

There's no denying the long-term influence of Cream, however. You have to ask if jambands would exist today if not for this group (especially when you detect the chord structure of Cream's arrangement of "Spoonful"? at the end of "Outside Woman Blues"? and fancy the segue on stage)even given the fact they were together a little more than two years. What is perhaps Eric Clapton's most important work, however, was done with a lineup lasting less than that: Derek & The Dominos self- destructed working on a studio follow-up to the monumental Layla, having done only an abbreviated tour in Britain (where Clapton's desire to camouflage himself within a band was undermined by buttons reading 'Eric is Derek."? and one trek in America. Story has it Clapton decided to quite Cream when he heard the economy and soul of The Band's Music From Big Pink. He then spent some time as a sideman for rock'n' souls show called Delaney & Bonnie and Friends, with whom he recorded his eponymous solo debut and, eventually, lured from that aggregation keyboardist/singer Bobby Whitlock, drummer Jim Gordon and bassist Carl Radle (later to become de facto bandleader for Eric when he emerged from his post-heroin hiatus) to form The Dominos.

There's a 20th anniversary edition of Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs containing, in three separate discs, the original album, outtakes from the sessions and jams that occurred before during and after the studio wok proper (much of it with members of guest guitarist Duane Allman's Allman Brothers Band). As such, even an SACD digital version of the album itself can't take its place, but perhapsthat's injecting too much nostalgia into the work. Potential listeners to Layla are no doubt unaware the album was no commercial blockbuster upon is release. The album, originally a two-LP set, became has become rightly famous over time as the most resounding expression of Eric Clapton's (he)art.

And rightly so, just in terms of its production and the musicianship that brought to life these songs, a compendium of judiciously chosen blues and consummately crafted originals. It's been said that the recording of this magnum opus did not truly come to life until the entrance of Duane Allman, at Clapton's invitation, to join the sessions and effectively become a member of the band (a permanent spot of which Allman refused, preferring to concentrate on his own at that time fledgling group instead).

The song sequence leads the listener directly along the route of the recording process: Duane does not appear till he fourth track, appropriately a blues "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out." More importantly, the incremental increase in intensity, as certifiably great originals written by Clapton and Whitlock such as "Why Does Love Got to be So Sad"? alternate with blues the likes of which Clapton has never surpassed (except perhaps on Derek & The Dominos' Live at the Fillmore ) such as "Have You Ever Loved a Woman," most likely because he chose those songs that spoke directly to his unrequited love for George Harrison's wife Patti.

Not much of a singer at that point, Clapton nevertheless wailed with a soul he has barely approached since, while his guitar work, alone and in tandem with Allman, is an overall thing of beauty. Which is not to disparage at all the Southerner's own fretwork, because it is arguably even a cut above the Brit's in part because he was thrilled to play with his hero, his hero deferred to him much of the time and, again, the work at hand must've felt like it now sounds today: one of, if not the greatest, rock albums in history.

Given the rarefied air of that artistic apogee, Clapton must've felt daunted to carry on much less surpass himself, particularly when Allman deigned not to join the Dominos and the quartet's own internal strife rent it asunder soon after their live performances came to an end. Sequestered with a growing heroin addiction, from which he was rescued in large measure through the efforts of The Who's Pete Townshend—see Eric Clapton's Rainbow Concert —Clapton emerged as a solo artist with the burnish of living legend. Not surprisingly, the work he issued upon his return to the limelight was uncomfortably modest in the form of 461 Ocean Blvd now available as an SACD and an expanded deluxe edition, including a live concert recording from the end of his initial tour behind the album.

It's no more obvious what the advantages are to the super-audio version of 461 than Layla ; in contrast to, say, The Allman Brothers' Eat A Peach SACD, o the Dylan and Stones hybrid discs, little discernible depth or clarity emerges from the special remastering. And it must be nothing more than niche marketing that generates a separate version of 461 , with bonus tracks in that format, when the original album plus those same tracks, comprise disc one of the deluxe double set!?...Why not package the SACD in the expanded package? It's arguable unless you treat it as a matter of taste or equipment, whether the SACD sound is superior to the remastered discs in the 461 Deluxe Edition : the former has a broader sound, the latter a deeper sound.

Say what you may about the low-key approach taken on the Florida-recorded album, and forgetting for the moment Eric's limitations as a singer at this point, but throughout Clapton displays a humility, not mention an autobiographical bent, that, allows him to render songs such as "Give Me Strength"? and "Please Be With Me" with an emotional authenticity to match the rootsy likes of "Willie & the Hand Jive,"? And that's not to mention his faithful (to-a-fault) cover of Bob Marley's "I Shot the Sheriff"? that served the dual purpose of bringing attention to the reggae icon and cementing Clapton's own return with a hit single (despite the fact his next album There's One in Every Crowd , recorded in Jamaica, displayed more palpable atmosphere than this single tune.)

Subsequent albums fell short of those virtues, except sporadically—see "The Core"? on Slowhand —in large part because the virtues of Clapton's backing band were submerged. Nothing if not tasteful, and able to lock into a groove their leader could ride without fail, the quintet nevertheless had more charm than technical ability (as opposed to Eric's current band). More importantly, there was no one in this lineup, including Radle from the Dominos as well as a couple of the bassist's old cohorts, keyboardist Dickie Sims and drummer Jamie Oldaker, that would ever challenge Clapton to push himself.

Regardless, the element of the music that threw more than a few long-standing Clapton fans off was the reticence of the man to step back into the role of guitar hero. He was no more or less prominent on "Mainline Florida"? or "Motherless Children"? than second-line guitarist George Terry and while the unreleased tracks suggest Eric got the self-indulgence out of his system behind the scenes, it was nevertheless his goal during this time to play with restraint rather than flash.

That duality also figured into his role as a bandleader and frontman, roles he had clearly been ambivalent about in the past. In covering material by those of whom he was most fond—Bob Dylan, JJ Cale ("Cocaine"?) and country artist Don Williams, Clapton seemed all to willing to submerge his own personality beneath that of the songwriters and musicians he admired. Judging from the live concert included on deluxe disc two, the artful balance of source and individuality was fragile indeed. This is definitely not the sound of a man trading on his name, but rather that of an artist struggling to live up to it.

As his solo career progressed, Eric Clapton never truly overlooked any phase of his past and this 1974 concert includes nods to Blind Faith ("Can't Find My Way Home"?), Derek & the Dominos ("Tell the Truth"?), Cream ("Badge"?) as well as his blues roots. The latter sound most heartfelt and least turgid: whether the torpor that afflicts this performance is the result of fatigue, alcohol (Clapton turned to the bottle when he forsook the needle)or a combination of both, it is the rare moment, as on a tribute to Hendrix, "Little Wing,"? that the deliberate pace resonates rather than dragging. This in contrast to the healthy detachment you can hear on EC Was Here and the grinding intensity of much of the live material on the Crossroads 2 box. It's something of a pity that Eric has never able to truly reconcile his self-image with his natural inclinations as a musician. It wouldn't diminish Clapton's stature if he followed a course similar to Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia, playing regularly with as ever- changing variety of musicians in a diversity of venues large and small; such flexibility, and the agility it would engender in Slowhand , might well elevate him and the product of his muse to a higher level than that at which he now resides: playing for others in a variety of contexts—guesting with John Mayall, performing a tribute to George Harrison and raising funds for his Crossroads project— find Eric Clapton playing with more fire than he does left to his usually middle-of-the-road commercial devices or even special efforts such as his recent tribute to Robert Johnson (how different that might've sounded had it been recorded with, say The North Mississippi All-Stars?).

But if it's true Eric Clapton doesn't always act like a guitar hero anymore, it's because he's aspires totranscend that role and those aspirations, well-intentioned or errant, do not demean his accomplishments.

Track Listing:

461 Ocean Blvd Deluxe Edition

Motherless Children; Give Me Strength; Willie and the Hand Jive; Get Ready; I Shot the Sheriff; I Can't Hold Out; Please Be With Me; Let It Grow; Steady Rollin' Man; Mainline Florida; Walkin' Down the Road; Ain't That Lovin' You; Meet Me (Down at the Bottom); Eric Afters Hours Blues; B Minor Jam; Smile [live/#]; Let It Grow [live/#] Can't Find My Way Home [live/#]; I Shot the Sheriff [live]; Tell the Truth [live/ #]; The Sky Is Crying/Have You Ever Loved a Woman/Ramblin' on My Mind [live]; Little Wing [live]; Singin' the Blues [live/#]; Badge [live/#]; Layla [live/#]; Let It Rain [live/#];


I Looked Away; Bell Bottom Blues; Keep on Growing; Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out; I Am Yours; Anyday; Key to the Highway; Tell the Truth; Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad?; Have You Ever Loved a Woman; Little Wing; It's Too Late; Layla; Thorn Tree in the Garden;

Disreali Gears

Strange Brew [Stereo Version]; Sunshine of Your Love [Stereo Version]; World of Pain [Stereo Version]; Dance the Night Away [Stereo Version]; Blue Condition [Stereo Version]; Tales of Brave Ulysses [Stereo Version]; Swlabr [Stereo Version]; We're Going Wrong [Stereo Version]; Outside Woman Blues [Stereo Version]; Take It Back [Stereo Version]; Mother's Lament [Stereo Version]; Lawdy Mama [Version 2]; Blue Condition [#]; We're Going Wrong [demo version]; Swlabr [demo version]; Weird of Hermiston [demo version]; The Clearout [demo version]; Strange Brew [Mono Version]; Sunshine of Your Love [Mono Version]; World of Pain [Mono Version]; Dance the Night Away [Mono Version]; Blue Condition [Mono Version]; Tales of Brave Ulysses [Mono Version]; Swlabr [Mono Version]; We're Going Wrong [Mono Version]; Outside Woman Blues; Take It Back [Mono Version]; Mother's Lament [Mono Version]; Lawdy Mama [Version 1]; Blue Condition [#]; Strange Brew; Tales of Brave Ulysses; We're Going Wrong; Born Under a Bad Sign; Outside Woman Blues; Take It Back; Politician; Swlabr; Steppin' Out.

Visit Eric Clapton on the web.

About Eric Clapton
Articles | Calendar | Discography | Photos | More...


Shop for Music

Start your music shopping from All About Jazz and you'll support us in the process. Learn how.