He was never the world’s greatest guitarist. It goes without saying that as a soloist he was nothing next to Hendrix, John McLaughlin and Adrian Belew [the best representatives of “guitar virtuosity” we’ll ever witness}, but he also compares poorly with Frank Zappa, Carlos Santana, Ritchie Blackmore, Steve Howe, Pete Banks, Robert Fripp – hell, even Jerry Garcia and Richard Thompson are better harmonists! And as a guitar texturalist/arranger he wasn’t outstanding even for his time (remember, these were the days before McGeoch, Guthrie and R. Smith re-wrote the musical rulebook permanently – therefore…people like Gilmour and Hackett have him beat]. What he was was a credible, skilful imitator of other guitarists – it’s easy to hear how much careful study and practice he put into his replications of early heroes (R Johnson, F King, BB King, O Rush) and peers (D Allman, J `R’ Robertson, and his friend/enemy G Harrison].
And one thing that doesn’t get said often – he was a really good singer. Once he’d grown into it, anyway – in the early days it was easy for Jack Bruce, Steve Winwood and even John Mayall to make him look stupid on the mic. But during the 1970s, his vocals – understated but with plenty of character and, for want of a better word, soul – were very often the best thing about the albums on which he appeared.
So, let’s run down his core solo catalog:
1970’s Eric Clapton (the album), probably the best thing he ever did post-Cream. Not a solo album per se but a “spotlight on EC” album by the Delaney and Bonnie band. Blues-rock with real soul, and real muscle (and a real horn section: they’re the first thing you hear!). Even when the songs are threadbare (“Bad Boy”, “Bottle Of Red Wine” – the latter does at leat raise the question: was he a borderline alcoholic even then?) they’re carried by the performances: in short, great singing, great playing. In another taste of things to come, there’s a Beatlesque ballad (“Easy Now”) stuck in the middle of it. And the tracks everyone knows: “After Midnight” (I prefer the alternate mix with the horn chart, from Crossroads) and “Let It Rain” (to create the ideal version of this song, one would have to crossfade the vocal verses and choruses of the studio version into the long live version from Derek and the Dominoes’ In Concert)
Next stop in Eric’s career was Derek and the Dominoes. Then depression and drug addiction (heroin). And rather dodgy detox (not for the last time) as a result of which he became an alcoholic. And then…
1974’s 461 Ocean Boulevard, which creates that very same archetypal Clapton Sound that I lashed out at earlier. But this album is one of a handful that are actually nice Guilty Pleasures. Importantly, he was still at, or near, his peak as a singer – and that’s what carries the album. Once heard, songs like “Mainline Florida” (rocker), “Please Be With Me” (countryish ballad) and “Motherless Children” and “Give Me Strength” (both trad-arr) can’t be forgotten easily. There’s also “Let It Grow” (whose resemblance to “Stairway To Heaven” is often pointed out – but in its verses and middle-eight I hear “Echoes” of a certain Floyd opus as well!). And, of course, his legendarily awful cover of “I Shot The Sherriff” which couldn’t sound whiter and wimpier if it tried.
1975’s There’s One In Every Crowd sounds like what it undoubtedly was: the “work” of a lazy drunk who couldn’t care less. Some songs are so devoid of ideas they virtually evaporate before your ears (one of the worst, “Opposites”, he tries to resue by grafting on very-George-Harrison-esque guitar/keyboard motifs which belong on a better record). He even throws away the token blues standard (nominally “The Sky Is Crying”, though it’s barely that, or anything). And we don’t need one, let alone two, religious songs. And – pointing to another mistake he hadn’t learned from – he even writes his own sequel to “I Shot The Sherriff” (if Marley ever heard “Don’t Blame Me” I imagine he contemplated suicide).
1976’s No Reason To Cry is better – and not just ’cause he sounds awake on this one. A return to the collaborative method of his first, it’s basically an album by The Band, in which EC assumes frontman duty and writes some of the material, ceding the spotlight to Bob Dylan (on “Sign Language”) and the-then Marcella Levy (on “Innocent Times” which turns out to be the best track on it) and ceding much of the lead guitar duty to Robbie Robertson (footnote: Jssse Davis and one Wah-Wah Watson have briefer lead-guitar cameos too). Eric’s only real guitar moment of note is the Otis oldie “Double Trouble”. Other pick tracks: “County Jail Blues”, “Hungry”, “Last Night”.
After that qualified success, it must be time for another bad album. Or one-and-a-half. (1977’s album is just about passable, 1978’s is a near total wreck). There seems little point in discussing Slowhand, which is dominated by (a) songs we’re all sick to death of (the John Martyn and Don Williams covers, as well as the first three tracks: you probably know what they are), and (b) songs that aren’t very good. Elsewhere, he throws away an Arthur Crudup number (already recorded in much tougher form by D+tD). Only two non-single tracks are worth keeping: the instrumental which concludes the album, and “The Core”: this album’s Marcella moment (it has some really hot solo breaks too).
Backless is a multi-platinum garbage dump – Eric resumes some of his worst habits here. We get another JJ Cale song (one of a few times on the album where Eric sounds half-asleep or in a drunken stupor, certainly physically unable to “make love…any old time”) . We get a lot of bad country songs – two written by himself, one by gnash-tooth-ville nobodies, and … not just an actual Don Williams song (Eric tries his best to “rock up” the feeble “Tulsa Time”), but one obviously song written with dreary Don in mind, full of his mannerisms (“Promises”). Marcella is out of luck this time: her final feature on a Clapton record is a half-baked jam in which neither she, Eric, nor the band seem to have a clue what to do. So what does that leave? Three good numbers: A blues in which Eric has some guitar-playing energy. And two Bob Dylan songs…
It’s a pity Bob couldn’t drop in again and sing them as Eric’s voice, by now, is starting to change from soulful tenor into the gravel-throated baritone we eventually came to hate. (If his 1980s voice conjures up a picture of a white macho idiot who probably idolises BB King for all the wrong reasons, well, try reading about Eric’s “stormy” relationship with Patti Harrison…)
I could almost leave the story on that sour note, but I’ll say that in the eighties, as he struggled to quit drinking (a near-death experience alone couldn’t stop him), and his marriage unraveled, there were moments when he showed signs of finding a new musical direction. No “revelations”, but on Behind The Sun and August he showed signs that he could at least make AOR that wasn’t hateful, that had some grit and guts to it.
The former is more interesting – mainly because you can read Rumours-type subtexts into it. He was trying in vain to save his marriage at the time. (Patti left him due to “bad behavior”, returned briefly when he begged her to come back, then left him again due to “infidelity” [they’d both had bits on the side, but there was now a pregnant woman involved, and it wasn’t her]) Key tracks: “Forever Man” (one of his best singles); “She’s Waiting”, which unwittingly predicts what was about to happen in his home life; “Same Old Blues” (not the JJ Cale song, oddly enough) which has some great guitarwork (one should also hear the version on the Live In Montreux video, where Nathan East and Greg Phillingales also get to take solos); “It All Depends” which isn’t much of a song but has a measure of infamy, having been plagiarized for the `Bob Geldof’ milk advert jingle (!), and the convincingly miserable “Just Like A Prisoner” which has the most balls-out soloing on the record. Some of the feebler songs carry a sliver of interest because they can be related to the aforementioned soap opera behind the scenes: in particular the two songs which confirm that he only knew one way to communicate “persuasively” with his wife, and that was by musically impersonating her ex-husband! The short and relatively sweet title track sounds Harrison/late-Beatles-esque, while the longer “Never Make You Cry” contains a nearly subliminal musical quote from “Something” (and one from his own “Wonderful Tonight”), although there are no other points of interest: as a song it verges on the pathetic/infantile.
August has a lot more drab stuff seemingly written with ’80s AOR radio in mind (and you can’t blame his collaborators: Robbie Robertson, Lamont Dozier, Robert Cray, and – yes, even – Phil Collins, were capable of better work than this). What’s worth saving? “Behind The Mask” and “Tearing Us Apart” (two more decent singles), maybe “Grand Illusion” and “Miss You” (they have a bit of energy to them and aren’t irritating).
There was never likely to be a mid-life creative-revolution/late-flowering-of-genius a la Tilt/The Drift – the nearest thing to it was his soundtrack to the TV series “Edge of Darkness“. He began the creative process by adlibbing to the rushes of the incomplete film, and during this, seemingly glimpsed an alternative future to himself. Of course, it’s likely that the music that resulted was more Michael Kamen’s work than his own (EC can’t arrange music for orchestras: he’s no FZ), but judged within the context of his work the music can almost be called harmonically and texturally outre. Though – as is the nature of “film cues” – it doesn’t really stand up out of context, it’s the most adventurous music he’d participated in since the sixties. Download the live 24 Nights version of the main theme tune (you already know it, even if you think you don’t) – and get the DVD of the series, which I may review on another blog someday.
The Crossroads four-disc compilation is interesting in that it reveals Eric’s capacity for misjudgement when it comes to separating material into “main catalogue” and “marginalia”. He shares a trait with artists as diverse as Bob Dylan and Dead Can Dance: repeatedly failing to accurately determine what is worthy of “mass consumption” and what isn’t. In its day, the main selling point was the fact it rescued the best studio outtakes from D+tD (and the double bill of “One More Chance”/”Snake Lake Blues” is rather lovely), but the real revolution is the outtakes from the mid ’70s and mid ’80s. Evidently One In Every Crowd need not have been a total waste of money and electricity – if he’d only thrown out four songs to accommodate his contemporaneous covers of Jimmy Reed, Elmore James, Peter Tosh (an improbable success, especially in light of Eric’s “politics”) and whoever it was who wrote “I Found A Love” (which isn’t the Wilson Pickett song). And two of the weak tracks on Behind The Sun could have been thrown out in favour of “Too Bad” (acoustic blues, b-side) and “Wanna Make Love To You” (Hendrix-tinged, outtake).
A few notes on the live albums: Rainbow Concert – bit of a shambles, sloppy ensemble playing and sore-throat singing, but the version of Winwood’s “Pearly Queen” is worth hearing, and at least it’s not a badly-edited mini-album anymore; EC Was Here – if all you want is blues, this pretty much fits that particular bill, although George Terry seems to be playing half the solos, and the best bit is a version of “Can’t Find My Way Home” harmonised with (Bee Gees protege) Yvonne Elliman. Just One Night – a hit and miss microcosm of his seventies. Wretched lowpoint: a Dire Straits cover [salva nos!] Good bits: the solos on “Worried Life Blues”, the fast version of “After Midnight” and “Double Trouble”, “If I Don’t Be There By Morning”, “All Our Past Times” (never thought I’d be saying that!) and “Cocaine” (it’s hilarious the way the crowd so strenuously identify with that song!). Timepieces Two – Live In The Seventies – an inexpertly chosen comp, mostly from the above three albums, but it does include a fun rarity, a cover of Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” (let’s damn it with faint praise by saying it’s far better than Michael Jackson’s version!) 24 Nights – here you have to live with his latterday bad points: the changed voice, the inexpertly handled blues numbers – to get to the good points: surprisingly intense versions of Cream and D tD songs, one Nathan East solo, the aforementioned “Edge Of Darkness”. Crossroads Two – Live In The Seventies – starts by recapping the EC Was Here material and adding a lot of similar stuff (including noticeably-drink-impaired performances); ends with songs you didn’t want to hear again from the Slowhand/Backless era. Oh well, at least the jam with Santana (on “Eyesight To The Blind”) is worth keeping.