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Eric Clapton Buyers Guide

With some 40 albums to choose from, stretching across five decades, building up a Clapton collection requires a certain amount of care. The essential albums - Bluesbreakers with John Mayall, Cream’s Disraeli Gears and Derek & The Dominos’ Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs – are the cornerstones of his career in the Sixties. They remain the vital reference points for the legions of guitarists who have
been influenced by him since, from Duane Allman to Richie Sambora to Stevie Ray Vaughan right through to Sonny Landreth and Derek Trucks. They are also albums that Clapton himself has been revisiting in the last decade. As a rule of thumb you can skip much of Clapton’s Seventies output – the alcohol years - where the quality is uneven, although most contain a couple of good tracks and a blues song that will never let you down. You’ll miss out on a batch of classic Clapton tracks – ‘I Shot The Sheriff’, ‘Lay Down Sally’, ‘Wonderful Tonight’, ‘Cocaine’, but they’re all included on the current 2-CD "Best Of”, Complete Clapton, that provides a good overview without duplicating much from this guide. Since his Nineties renaissance, Clapton has released a wide range of albums – studio, live, blues, collaborations – and it’s worth checking out the DVD racks for stuff that’s not available on CD, like the 1996 Hyde Park show, John Mayall’s 70th birthday concert and the recent Crossroads festivals. Indeed there are those that maintain that, these days, Clapton is best appreciated as a live performer.

Essential Albums

Blues Breakers (1966)
John Mayall with Eric Clapton

There isn’t a British blues rock guitarist around whose ears weren’t pinned to the wall the first time they heard Bluesbreakers. Thirty two years later it still has the power to shock and awe. From the opening notes of Otis Rush’s ‘All Your Love’, Clapton’s Gibson Les Paul is at piercing volume as he plays with the arrogant bravado of youth and selfbelief. After the slow/fast/slow cut and thrust of ‘All Your Love’ he tears into Freddie King’s instrumental ‘Hideaway’ with a mature fluidity and bleeds all over Mayall’s own ‘Double Crossing Time’ with almost reckless abandon. His vocal debut on Robert Johnson’s ‘Ramblin’ On My Mind’, is timid compared to his guitar playing but the song has remained a staple throughout Clapton’s career. And the short sharp ‘Steppin’ Out’ instrumental was turned into a 15-minute epic in the latter days of Cream. But his piece de resistance comes on the six-minute ‘Have You Heard’, another Mayall original where Clapton effectively redefines the slow blues guitar solo for the next decade. There are many who will argue that Clapton never played a better, more inspired solo.

TRACKLISTING:
All Your Love, Hideaway, Little Girl, Another Man, Double Crossing Time, What’d Say, Key To Love, Parchman Farm, Have You Heard, Ramblin’ On My Mind, Steppin’ Out, It Ain’t Right.

Disraeli Gears (1967)
Cream

Cream’s second album caught the band’s creativity at its peak. Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker blazed their mercurial talents across the diverse range of their own material from the swirling atmospherics of ‘Strange Brew’ (brilliantly reconfigured from the blues song ‘Hey Lawdy Mama’), ‘Dance The Night Away’ and the slow-building ‘We’re Going Wrong’ to the fierce ‘SWLABR’ and ‘Tales Of Brave Ulysses’ with its driving wah-wah guitar, the first time the effects pedal had been used on record. Towering above all these was the epic ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’, built on a Jack Bruce riff with lyricist Pete Brown that came together early one morning ("It’s getting near dawn”) while Clapton added the middle section. There’s just one blues cover – Robert Johnson’s ‘Outside Woman Blues’. Clapton gives a master class in varied and controlled guitar tones throughout. In a year of landmark albums from the Beatles, the Doors, Jefferson Airplane, Pink Floyd and the Velvet Underground, Disraeli Gears caught the spirit of the moment, epitomised by Martin Sharp’s flowerpowered album cover.

TRACKLISTING:
Strange Brew, Sunshine Of Your Love, World Of Pain, Dance The Night Away, Blue Condition, Tales Of Brave Ulysses, SWLABR, We’re Going Wrong, Outside Woman Blues, Take It Back, Mother’s Lament.

Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs (1970)
Derek & The Dominos

Tired of being a guitar hero, Clapton retreated behind an anonymous sounding band with a trio of American musicians that he’d got to know with Delaney & Bonnie. They hid themselves away in Miami’s Criteria Studio with producer Tom Dowd and worked up a harrowing album of pain and unrequited love. Several factors turned this collection of blues songs and original material into such a powerful howl of despair: the chemistry within the band, particularly between Clapton and keyboard player/covocalist Bobby Whitlock, Clapton’s own measured yet emotional playing, inspired by his unrequited love for Patti Harrison and a book he’d been given called The Story Of Layla and Majnun by Persian writer Nizami, Dowd’s sympathetic production and ability to realise when the jams were turning into songs (the only one he missed was the intro to ‘Key To The Highway’) and the arrival of Duane Allman who raised the musical intensity. In particular he doubled the speed of a riff they’d been working on for ‘Layla’ and transformed it. It has to be said that drugs were also a major factor in the creation of the album although they destroyed any chance of a follow-up.

TRACKLISTING:
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 Have To Be So Sad, Have You Ever Loved A Woman, Little Wing, It’s Too Late, Layla, Thorn Tree In The Garden.

 

Expand Your Collection

461 Ocean Boulevard (1974)
Eric Clapton

For his come-back album after beating his heroin addiction, Clapton returned to Miami’s Criteria Studio where he had recorded Layla with the same production team but only one of the Dominos – bassist Carl Radle. Producer Tom Dowd eased Clapton back into the saddle by encouraging a laidback groove. Not that you’d think so on the opening frenetic rocker ‘Motherless Children’ that proves that Clapton’s licks have lost none of their incendiary power. But the rest of the album is characterised by slow, insistent rhythms – the shuffle of Johnny Otis’ ‘Willie And The Hand Jive’, the steady reggae of Bob Marley’s ‘I Shot The Sheriff’, the aching grind of Elmore James’ ‘I Can’t Hold Out’ and the gradually rising glow of Clapton’s ‘Let It Grow’. But if the mood is laid back, Clapton himself is alert and on-form, before alcohol moved in to dull his senses for the rest of the decade.

TRACKLISTING:
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.

Journeyman (1989)
Eric Clapton

Having gathered up the most challenging band he’d worked with for more than a decade – Greg Phillinganes on keyboards, Nathan East on bass and Steve Ferrone on drums – Clapton responded with his most consistent album since 461 Ocean Boulevard. The emphasis is firmly on the songs – Clapton approaches each one on its own terms rather than using them as a vehicle for his own prowess, from the vintage blues of Bo Diddley’s ‘Before You Accuse Me’ to the slick funk of ‘Breaking Point’. It helps that it’s a particularly strong and varied set of songs, including four by Jerry Williams, a cover of Ray Charles’ ‘Hard Times’ and Clapton’s own, wonderfully languid, ‘Old Love’. But he approaches them all with the same passion, keeping his own playing restrained but more effective as a result. The most calculated song is the hit single ‘Bad Love’ with its intro reworked from ‘Layla’ and the middle section taken from ‘Badge’.

TRACKLISTING:
Pretending, Anything For Your Love, Bad Love, Running On Faith, Hard Times, Hound Dog, No Alibis, Run So Far, Old Love, Breaking Point, Lead Me On, Before You Accuse Me.

From The Cradle (1994)
Eric Clapton

Despite his reputation as a blues guitarist this is Clapton’s first dedicated blues album, covering songs that had become part of his concert repertoire in recent years by artists like Leroy Carr, Eddie Boyd, Willie Dixon, Lowell Fulson, Elmore James and Muddy Waters. The recording is "live” in the studio which creates just the right tension, keeping everyone on their toes, and Clapton demonstrates an uncanny ability to recreate the sound of the original while still sounding just like Clapton which is a tribute to his own playing. Nowhere does this work better than on Lowell Fulson’s ‘Reconsider Baby’ that starts with a stinging guitar intro before Clapton sings with an authority that takes your mind away from his playing which is saying something. Indeed his singing throughout this album ranks among his best. It’s the same with the guitar solos but then you’d expect that as Clapton is clearly in his element. The result is a blues album brimming with vitality.

TRACKLISTING:
Blues Before Sunrise, Third Degree, Reconsider Baby, Hoochie Coochie Man, FiveLong Years, I’m Tore Down, How Long Blues, Goin’ Away Blues, Blues Leave Me Alone, Sinner’s Prayer, Motherless Child, It Hurts Me Too, Someday After A While, Standing Round Crying, Driftin’, Groaning The Blues.

24 Nights (1991)
Eric Clapton

A live album taken from Clapton’s series of concerts at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 1990 and 1991, that featured him in four different settings. There’s the "minimalist” fourpiece outfit running through a number of Cream classics such as ‘Badge’, ‘White Room’ and ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’. Then there’s his "Blues Nights” featuring fellow guitarists Buddy Guy and Robert Cray along with Chuck Berry’s pianist Johnnie Johnson. They wrap their individual and collective chops around ‘Have You Ever Loved A Woman’ and ‘Worried Life Blues’. Clapton’s nine-piece band put their combined weight into gems from the Journeyman album and offer a radical reworking of ‘Wonderful Tonight’, stretching it out and adding a sublime call-and-response between Clapton’s guitar and Katie Kissoon’s wordless vocals. And finally Clapton’s big band is joined by the National Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Michael Kamen, who co-wrote the theme to ‘Edge Of Darkness’ which is given a full orchestral work-out. 24 Nights is a superb example of the range and versatility of Clapton’s playing.

TRACKLISTING:
Badge, Running On Faith, White Room, Sunshine Of Your Love, Watch Yourself, Have You Ever Loved A Woman, Worried Life Blues, Hoodoo Man, Pretending, Bad Love, Old Love, Wonderful Tonight, Bell Bottom Blues, Hard Times, Edge Of Darkness

 

For The Die-Hard Fan

Crossroads (1988)
Eric Clapton

A 4-CD retrospective that set new standards in the re-issue market, Crossroads contains the best known songs from Cream, Derek & The Dominos and Clapton’s solo albums but it also spanned his entire career from early Yardbirds demos to his (possibly unwise) reworking of ‘After Midnight’ for a beer commercial. It’s stuffed with hard-to-find treasures including duets with John Mayall, tracks from Cream’s BBC sessions (which are now all available), an outtake from the Blind Faith album, alternate mixes of several tracks from Clapton’s first solo album, the Delaney & Bonnie single ‘Coming Home’, Derek & The Dominos’ first recording session with Phil Spector and, most fascinating of all, their last abortive sessions for a second album, plus various outtakes from various solo albums from the Seventies and Eighties and unreleased live tracks. While all the greatest hits are present, the wealth of rare and unreleased tracks makes it a collector’s dream.

 

Hugh Fielder

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