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I’m not going to pretend my age doesn’t show in some measure in these writings (and particularly in what records I actually own on vinyl), but in noting that I grew up with Eric Clapton’s Unplugged on cassette in my family’s vehicles, I’m going to date myself a little more explicitly than I might have previously. Clapton has always been one of the most fixed sounds in my musical experience of the world–not so much in the sense of constant appearances, but in the sense that there has never been a moment that his work seemed to be either bizarre or uncomfortably trite. I did grow up with the “blasphemous” notion that the acoustic version of “Layla” was better, hearing it a million times before I ever heard the electric one, which was a jarring experience, let me tell you. I’m often left sputtering that including the instrumental outro as proof of the original’s superiority is just “cheating”. Of course, what I really mean is, “Yeah, you’re right, and I just like the pacing and sort of bluesier feel of the acoustic one. Sue me.”
As an extension, more than the Yardbirds or even Cream, it was Eric Clapton’s solo work that really seemed to be most “timeless” to me–not in the sense that it was most lasting, so much as established, undated and seemingly “always” there, if only to me. I never have mistaken it for an actual external permanence or “eternal” nature, but I can’t think of a time I didn’t know “It’s in the Way That You Use It”, the acoustic singles (alongside “Layla”, of course “Tears in Heaven” and maybe “Before You Accuse Me”), “Wonderful Tonight” or a small stack of others. And, indeed, it was my sappiness (that I have mentioned before) that really spurred the interest in this album, and it naturally relates to that very song.
I mentioned, when I wrote about Ziggy Stardust, that eventually we’d see some records with permanent black “X”s drawn in their top right corners. Shockingly, I find this is the first to appear. Of course, some have lost out in polls, so there’s that. The X is an indicator that the title came from the bargain $1 bin at my (now sadly passed) favourite music store, Musik Hut (formerly) in Fayetteville, NC. I would peruse the heck out of that thing in high school, often walking out with semi-classic albums in great condition, classic albums in iffy condition, and obscure albums in excellent condition. My copy of The Boomtown Rats‘ The Fine Art of Surfacing actually has its “X” on still-intact shrinkwrap–and yes, unfortunately, I’m quite sure that counts as obscure these days, though not on the level that many I own do. Mid-range obscure, perhaps.
In any case, Slowhand is one of the Clapton solo albums that is saddled with placement on “best album ever” lists, though usually not exceptionally high. Even appearing on them at all does mean, however, that this album crackles and pops a bit (not as much as my copy of Ziggy, or a fair number of other LPs), and, worst of all, has two (unintentional) locked grooves in “Peaches & Diesel”. I always forget both of them, and so, coupled with their placement in the final track, it’s always pretty disappointing when they appear. With that in mind, I am of course going to cheat just a bit on this and use my digital copies–which I’ll admit I always use for in-the-moment dissection as I write all the time, though I always do sit and listen to all my records all the way through for this. I patiently lifted and nudged the needle to escape both a few times, trying to lose as little music as possible, but I’m still going to use the digital copy as my “reference”, a first for this kind of “replacement”.
Slowhand is, of course, named for Eric’s own nickname, and it opens with a pretty significant combination: all three singles from the album come out in a row, some of them absolutely iconic for Clapton, or even rock music in general. “Cocaine” starts things off with a little fire at low flame: J.J. Cale’s easy riding tune is laidback, but it cuts and it burns. Largely hanging out on a simple “boom-bap” bass-snare beat, Jamie Oldaker lays a firm frame out for the famed riff, dense up front, then eased and free at the end. The hissing hi-hat Oldaker is hiding on top of the beat, though, is like a fuse to an explosion that never comes, and never should. There’s a halt for repetition at the chorus: “She don’t lie, she don’t lie, she don’t lie…” and it stands on freed guitar chords and short rises from Oldaker, it’s ended quietly with Clapton’s anticlimactic delayed antecedent: “…Cocaine.” It wouldn’t be Clapton, or maybe there wouldn’t be a sort of “Clapton™” (perhaps no OBE title) without the sparks and rising licks of flame that mark the solos at the halfway mark and fading out the ending.
As with Shake It Up, there was probably one primary driving force behind my purchase of Slowhand, and that was “Wonderful Tonight”. Yes, it’s a cliché for school dances now (so I’m told, at least), and yes it’s a bit schmaltzy if you feel the need to be above such things (and maybe even if you don’t), but pulling that much feeling out of a single bend has got to be some kind of accomplishment we can all respect. While Dick Sims’ keyboards, the backing vocals of Marcy Levy and Yvonne Elliman (particularly on the chorus), and the laidback drumming of Oldaker set the stage, with a special nod to Sims as bearer of the core of the song, it’s that lick. The handful of variants Clapton works out at the end are special as well, but it’s just a little bend and two notes and it aches with all the kind of sweet, innocent love that Clapton is clearly at least perceiving here. Sure, Pattie Boyd, the alleged subject, had been married to another man when Clapton first fell for her, and would later succumb to addictions and extramarital temptations (to put it ever-so-mildly) that would ruin their marriage, but that’s not what this is–this isn’t about reality. This is the feeling that precedes it–sometimes runs right through it, and has little to do with the final facts. In the same sense that romantic anything media-expressed is going to be a rough outline at best, or scattered details.
From the dark hints of “Cocaine” into the sad, awed beauty of “Wonderful Tonight”, we get one of the most simply fun and pleasant tracks the album has to offer, the final single, “Lay Down Sally”. Written with bandmates Marcy Levy and George Terry (who mans the other guitars on the album), it’s a countryfied, jaunty, comfortable little tune. Clapton is joined by Levy and Elliman for the great majority of the track on vocals. The track is spare, but only cut free of any extraneous fat. Carl Radle’s bass walks at an easy gait, alternating back and forth with a simple tune that fits with the feeling of crystalline studio-infused backporch performance. The picked and plucked guitar keeps the tune low and contained, even when Eric improvises and expands at a few odd moments, and prevents it from losing its familiarity by becoming too showy.
The mixed tones and emotions of “Next Time You See Her” quickly grew to some of my favourites on the album, as Sims’ organ introduction is dramatic but plays the role of backing to the exquisitely emotive lead guitar that takes centerstage in front of it. Eric sings of the woman in question, describing her in pleasant and loving terms, but a firmly accented acoustic and drum beat matches his words and embellishes the sound of the song; “Next time you see her/Tell her that I love her…” he sings, and now we know she’s not there with him, and it seems quite sweet, but then he turns the lyric in another direction: “Next time I see you/Boy, you’d better beware.” After a threatening verse (“I’m just trying to warn you/That you’re bound to get hurt…”), he repeats the chorus, and, seeing this is not enough, the song eases off to just hi-hat, restrained but intermittently spiking organ, and a pleasantly bouncy feeling as he quietly sings the final clarification: “If you see here again/I will surely kill you.” The song itself is gloriously ignorant of its lyrical content, and it may be my favourite on the album.
A full relaxation from the tension, aching feel of love that can’t be expressed fully enough, a bit of fun, and serious threats, “We’re All the Way” is a nice break. The song is light and gentle, in the same easy pace as the album as a whole, and Eric’s voice acts with the others as something approaching a duet (or a trio; I’m not always good at separating these things!). Distinctly short for the album, it’s almost like a worthwhile afterthought, not fluff or confection, just passing wisps of substance.
Somewhat unexpectedly long, “The Core” is roiling blues-rock, though the pace continues at its usual relaxed rate. One of those licks that tucks all its varied ends into all right corners and slots to come out sound more like a simple riff, but detailed upon closer inspection, Levy’s voice actually opens the song as a more complete duet with Clapton’s. The chorus’s rising stomp of melodic rhythm, the “brakes” of Sims’ pounded organ keys all lead to a fantastically tasty variation on the core (ahem) lick in near isolation. It turns and curls backward on itself, moving downward like a dancer sure to get each foot on every stair, up one for every two it goes down before it just releases and spreads at the end. It just rings out over nothing but hi-hat and the tone and recording are just damnably good. This sound eventually turns to a restrained solo that leads into the absolute histrionics of a Mel Collins saxophone solo (we last heard from Mel on Mike Batt’s Tarot Suite), which only trades into a far more freed guitar solo, the sense of a “jam” explaining the runtime of the song (nearly nine minutes).
While Clapton has a lovely and enjoyable voice, it’s at its best in “May You Never”, the melody and momentary vibrato he works into the chorus (which opens the song) is just delightful, and perfect for the laidback way he uses his voice. It’s the sound of a warm well-wishing to a leaving acquaintance–close enough for this to be heartfelt, distant enough for the wishes to be more general than specific.
Pulling out the only straight blues cover on the album, “Mean Old Frisco” reworks the Arthur Crudup song into one that vaguely hints at the country accents of the album’s overall sound. You wouldn’t know it from the way Clapton plays though. His voice and slide guitar follow each other so closely, it’s hard to tell which is coming “first”. Sims attacks the piano with the improvisation of pure feeling, but keeps it from competing too directly with the two slide guitars. Clapton also works his voice into his best subdued bluesman, which only helps it to follow the slide. And that is some delicious slide.
Tucked away at the end, “Peaches & Diesel” is the sole instrumental on the album. It almost seems like a sort of medley or amalgamation of the songs that precede it. Radle’s bass is at some of its most active, the upward swing of the tone against the semi-melancholy keys and peaks and valleys of single-picked guitar. The smooth, easy lead that sings over it eventually takes over, and guides the rest of the instruments through the rest of the song, moving briefly into a section that reminds one of “Wonderful Tonight” without explicitly quoting it. Bittersweet melancholy seems too harsh for the song, especially when the guitar guides everything to a few high notes, but it does carry the sense of passing, of times now seen only in memory, happy though they may be, they are inaccessible. Sims’s organ becomes soulful and free, though, and punches through with a brighter feeling overall. Though repeatedly coming back down, the overall thrust does remain upward. Perhaps there’s something to naming an instrumental with the word “Peaches” that renders it artful and lovely (if you know what other piece I’m referring to, you get some bonus points–otherwise, you’ll get it in, er, a few months). It all acts as a lovely coda to the album, not clearly ending, or even fading it all away, just carrying the sounds of the album off with itself, and condensing them to leave them all in your ears and mind after the album itself fades.
So, sure: I bought the album for $1 (if I listed purchasing price for everything, it might either be enlightening or misleading, actually–too much more goes into it than that), but that doesn’t make it bad. I know Eric tends to receive a lot of knocks as a player these days, more and more seeming like the general notion is “white-guy-steals-blues, gets way too much credit and actually isn’t that great”. I’m not a player. I never will be. I’m not going to profess anything on that front, as it would be stated in ignorance, and achieve nothing useful. What I will say–what I can say–is that his playing is effective. If it isn’t technically impressive (and I don’t know that it isn’t, either) it does what it should, and does it very well. This album has always pleased me because it is not about showmanship, not even the kind that permeates the blues as a fixture, the sort exhibited in songs played like “Mean Old Frisco”–there’s that one track and no other. I love Johnny Winter (also months away), but there’s no doubting the reason it turns my father away is inaccurate. It’s fireworks throughout, seemingly no note left unplayed, no lick left to languish. To me, that does have a place, but it shouldn’t be everything–I suppose that could very well be my musical epitaph, actually–and this exhibits something almost counter to it as a result: a guitar album that’s very definitively about the songs and maybe, just maybe, not actually a guitar album at all (other than the cover, of course).
- Next Up: The Clash – To Be Determined! (See Polls on Right)