Is there a more important year in music than 1967? It seems to exist as a pivot between then and now, the old and new, the past and the future. Thanks to that year’s rebooted technicolour of the Beatles, and similarly colourful debuts by (the) Cream and (the) Pink Floyd, the floodgates were opened and the rules were rewritten.
Pink Floyd must have been some whacky sight to behold around this time. Who would have thought that such a pretentious bunch of architecture and art students playing freak-out music in front of a trippy light show would become one of the world’s biggest stadium rock bands? At this point, it’s still very much Syd Barrett’s band – his off-kilter rhymes and childlike lyrics drive the record along, with very little of the form and function that would characterise the band after Roger Waters took control.
Compared to the comparatively conventional beat music that had peppered the charts over the previous five years, the primitive and experimental feel to Floyd’s early music is almost proto-punk, a pre-echo of that other seminal year in music a decade later.
Hearing a Pink Floyd song on the soundtrack to a film is thankfully a rare thing, but I appreciated the appearance of the brilliant Interstellar Overdrive on the otherwise dull Doctor Strange a couple of years ago. The outlandish asking price for last year’s Record Store Day 12” live version of the song was too much for me, but for this year’s Record Store Day I hunted down this mono reissue of the album, in a lovely redesigned outer sleeve by Aubrey Powell at Hipgnosis.
I understand The Yardbirds. I understand John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. I understand Cream. I (almost) understand Blind Faith. But I have trouble understanding Derek & The Dominos. It’s not that I think it’s a bad record, it’s just that it doesn’t really appeal to me like those other projects / records.
Layla is a different beast altogether – without a doubt it’s one of the best rock records committed to vinyl. But maybe that’s why I have a problem with the rest of the record. Compared to the frantic bombast of Layla, the rest of the album is bordering on easy-listening. It’s about as far as from Cream as you could get. I read an interview with Clapton the other day, and the interviewer brought up the subject of Layla. Clapton said he always has problems listening to it because it sounds so different to his usual self. He’s right – it’s probably the best thing, and most outlandish thing he’s ever done – but it also sounds like nothing else on this record.
Clapton and the band (Bobby Whitlock on keyboards and vocals, Jim Gordon on drums, Carl Radle on bass, and Duane Allman on lead and slide) even bother to record a turgid cover of Little Wing, one of my favourite Hendrix songs.
Robert Christgau rates this as the third greatest album of the 1970s. I just don’t see it.
I was listening to Neil Young the other day, and suddenly realised that I’m much more in tune with Young’s brand of folk music. It’s not that I hate Dylan – I’ve recently become a convert (to his earlier material at least) – but his music seems completely devoid of humour. I’m sure if I took the time to decipher some of his lyrics, I’d find plenty of humour, but I really don’t have the time.
Neil Young, in comparison, comes across as more of a dangerous entity – all vague traces of threat and darkness. I sometimes wonder if North America got it wrong putting Dylan into the (unwanted) position as spokesman for the generation – perhaps they should have searched further North, over the border.
I’ve written before about my inability to remember (and in many cases, hear) lyrics. For me the music is far more important – regardless of how much credit is accorded to a songwriter purely for the words written down on paper. I find it much more satisfying to listen out for hidden things in the music – like the fact that Clapton is playing the melody of Blue Moon in the guitar solo of Sunshine Of Your Love, or the way Andy Summers strums chords to symbolise crashing waves in the post-chorus ‘breaks’ of The Police’s Message In A Bottle. This beats a handful of vague verses involving tambourines or the blowing wind any day.
Calling this album Eric Clapton’s debut is a bit of a misnomer. This is man who has been through The Yardbirds, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Cream, Blind Faith, and Delaney And Bonnie And Friends before getting around to releasing a solo album. Not surprisingly, given that pedigree, it’s a pretty robust offering – miles away from the highs he would hit on later solo albums, but still a decent rock and roll record.
The band that backs Clapton on this album is essentially Delaney And Bonnie And Friends, key members of which he would also recruit to form Derek & The Dominos. That record – Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs – is really where Clapton’s solo career really gets going, despite the anonymity of the ‘group’ name. Layla remains one of the finest rock songs committed to vinyl – and there’s not really anything as cutting as that on Eric Clapton, even though it was only recorded six months prior to the Dominos record.
I’ve only seen Clapton play live once, and he remains one of my biggest disappointments. It might have been that we had bad seats, up in the rafters; or that he hardly played any of his hits, save for Layla and Cocaine, leaning on a set-list geared more towards his own enjoyment rather than the paying audience; but he just didn’t cut it. Since I saw him that time, I have read his autobiography, and I guess I’m just happy I got to see him at all, given how he squandered most of his life (and talent) to drugs and alcohol.