It’s hard to contemplate just how the psychedelic Cream Clapton became the Clapton that put out records as pedestrian and trite as Wonderful Tonight (that rhymes!). I mean, Clapton is a guitar god, no? Now, I’d dabbled in some of his solo stuff at the turn of the millennium there; started with Time Pieces and although I wasn’t moved I thought “ach, it’s a best of. They’ve never got the good stuff on them”. So I moved to Slowhand. Then I put that down. It was all a tad dull, so I chalked the Clapton thing as a ‘not for me’ and moved along (though I still dig his stuff with Cream and Derek and the Dominos).
However, I was willing to review my thinking on Eric Clapton when I spotted 461 Ocean Boulevard at a record fair one fair-to-middling June afternoon in 2013. At Just £1! Gatefold and vinyl in pretty smashin’ condition, too … which I thought qualified this one as a ‘good catch’. So, there’s me handing over a nice shiny £1 coin and I have myself a copy of Clapton’s ‘watershed’ sophomore album. Strangely, as a non-Claptonite, I was actually pretty chuffed. Having been a subscriber to Uncut for about 3 years I had read enough Clapton articles to know that this album was a biggy. This was the Clapton album. The one that represented the Clapton of the 70s. The album that signalled the return of the great one after a long struggle with heroin addition. And I got it for a £1. Hurrah!
Or not so hurrah! That was my thoughts about this one for a while. It just did nothing to shift my stance on Clapton. It was dull. Lifeless. The musicianship was just … mnah. Nothing challenged me as a listener and nothing appeared to challenge Clapton or his band. It became the album in the collection that I wouldn’t talk about. But then something changed. I started being drawn to the album! I started visiting support groups where I would discuss it (not really).
It kicks off with the ol’ traditional, Motherless Children. It’s actually a rather jaunty run-through, with Clapton and the band mixing it up to good effect. The tempo is misleading, though – cause this is as lively as the album gets. It does, however, give an indication of what to expect and the next couple o’ tracks settle you in to the laid back vibes these cats had going on. The reflective blues-like mantra of Give Me Strength is one of three Clapton originals (one o’ them being the pretty frustrating Get Ready – a co-write with Yvonne Elliman – where Clapton outlines his intentions to “get revenge on your sinful sins”. Say what now?) and it’s actually pretty splendid. However, Johnny Otis’ Willie and the Hand Jive is the clear stand-out of side A. What with it’s infectious and easy groove and all. Side A closes with one of two songs that I was familiar with before going into this one. A song that, like Cocaine, is as identifiable with Clapton as much as the original artist – I Shot the Sheriff. Now, as I’ve become familiar with Bob Marley over the last few years I’ve noticed how interesting this version is – it sounds exactly like Bob Marley’s. There’s no additional Claptonisms. He doesn’t stretch out. No additional licks or flurries of lead. Nothing. Just I Shot the Sheriff.
By the time Side A is done, it’s clear that the Clapton who re-emerged after the break wasn’t the psychedelic blues Clapton of Cream (or Derek and the Dominos). The man done gone changed. There’s nothing on here that needs Clapton’s revered guitar chops. But this refrained disciplined and reflective Clapton is doing just fine. So too are his unremarkable band. I mean, just listen to the laid back grooves they have on Elmore James’ I Can’t Hold Out or Robert Johnson’s Steady Rollin’ Man. They don’t need to be snaking and sliding, when they can roll and tumble, right? Anyway, the the second track on this album that I was familiar with prior to picking this one up was Let it Grow. Well, what I mean is I was vaguely familiar with it as the result of some ad on TV for a building society back in the late 80s or early 90s. However here, heard in the correct setting and knowing the history of the man behind it, I hear it differently. I can see why it’s considered one of Clapton’s finest and, like Give Me Strength, it’s probably one of Clapton’s most personal.
Now, it has taken me a while to fully appreciate this one, but my friend Paul was right; this is a nice record to have in the collection. One that I’m really starting to enjoy. Starting to understand. It’s not the masterpiece I was expecting, but remove all the stuff it stands for and the ‘Clapton is God’ statements and it’s actually a pretty good album. It’s roots planted firmly in the music that Clapton was inspired by. He surrounded himself by musicians (Domino Carl Radle, Jamie Oldaker, Dick Sims and guitarist George Terry (whose Mainline Florida wraps things up)) and a producer (long time colaborator Tom Dowd – Cream and Dominos) that felt the same about the music he had been pushing to create. And I dare say they made him feel comfortable, too.
So, yeah. While there’s absolutely nothing on here that requires Clapton to stretch out, that’s what this was about. It wasn’t an exercise in Clapton the guitar god, but it was about his healing and recovery. That’s what makes the music and the album so intriguing and, well, charming.