Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
Artist: ERIC CLAPTON
[Welcome to Forty Year Friday, the weekly series on my favorite albums of 1977]
Last year I wrote about Eric Clapton’s 1986 solid-but-far-from-a-masterpiece album, August, in my Thirty Year Thursday series. In that post I shared this brief summary of my early history with Clapton’s music:
During my pre-teens and teenage years, Eric Clapton was among my four or five favorite artists. Between his solo career and his work with Cream, Derek & The Dominos, Blind Faith and The Yardbirds (I wouldn’t discover his groundbreaking recordings with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers until my 20’s), his biting, lyrical & melodic guitar playing and that gritty, authoritative voice were an integral part of my daily musical diet. Thanks to Clapton I learned about blues, psychedelic rock, folk, reggae & many other genres, and even after hearing the artists who influenced him it was clear that he was as good as his inspirations: a jack-of-all-trades and master of all. Although his peak era was undoubtedly the ‘60s & ‘70s when he earned his reputation as a guitar god, along with the nickname “Slowhand” (apparently due to his early reputation for breaking strings and the audience going into a slow handclap as he replaced them, i.e. “Slowhand Clapton”), he kept a high profile throughout the ‘80s, with each of his albums featuring at least one rock radio hit.
As I was discovering the vastness of his discography (which was already impressive back then, less than 2 decades into his career), a few of his solo albums stood apart from the others: 1970’s Eric Clapton, 1974’s 461 Ocean Boulevard and 1977’s Slowhand. Across these three records he moved away from the guitar-playing heroics on which he established his reputation, preferring instead to focus on his more recent songwriting influences like Leon Russell, The Band, Delaney & Bonnie and J.J. Cale. He certainly delivered some impressive work on the 6-string, but more often than not it was in service of the song and not a pyrotechnic display or extended blues workout. All three of these albums remain among his most beloved and best-selling releases, with Slowhand arguably the pinnacle of his solo career based on the consistently strong songwriting, impeccable musicianship and production by legendary (then and now) studio whiz Glyn Johns.
A few of Clapton’s most popular songs form a mighty 1-2-3 punch to begin the album. His rendition of J.J. Cale’s “Cocaine” is a loping, laid-back rocker with an instantly identifiable riff, which became a hit in 1980 via a live version. The anti-drug message was probably lost on many fans, which later led Clapton to add the phrase “that dirty cocaine” into his performances. “Wonderful Tonight” is a tender ballad about his future wife, Pattie Boyd, who was also the subject of Derek & The Dominos’ “Layla.” It might be too sappy for some listeners but there’s no denying the melody or his heartfelt performance. The country/blues hybrid “Lay Down Sally,” with the irresistible refrain “I’ve been tryin’ all night long just to talk to you,” is as far as you can get from the electric blues and British pop of his early years. He actually sounds like he’s from the American south. Co-writers George Terry (guitar) and Marcy Levy (vocals), along with vocalist Yvonne Elliman, are equally integral to the strength of this track. He duets with Levy on their co-written rocker “The Core,” which was an FM radio staple when I was a teenager, and still one of my favorite Clapton songs. Its nearly 9–minute running time flies by whenever I play it. I wasn’t familiar with British folk/rock legend John Martyn until about a decade ago, so I had been unaware that the folky-pop of “May You Never” was written by him. I think I appreciate this cover version more than ever now that I’m a big fan of the original. Clapton’s raspy vocals are the perfect match for the relaxed arrangement of “Next Time You See Her,” which would have been a strong follow-up single to the Top 10 “Lay Down Sally.” It wouldn’t be an Eric Clapton album without a straight-up blues song, and “Mean Old Frisco” fits the bill. His rhythm section (drummer Jamie Oldaker and bassist/former Derek & The Dominos bandmate Carl Radle) provides a subtle, slightly-behind-the-beat groove which allows the song to breathe. Slowhand is rounded out by a couple of pleasant but minor songs, which leaves us with 7 winners out of 9 songs, all of which still sound great four decades after they were recorded.
[Next Friday I will be celebrating my 10th wedding anniversary, hopefully far away from the internet, so I’ll return in two weeks with another classic from 1977]