If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Desert Island Discs 8

I've been a fan of Eric Clapton since his Bluesbreaker days. I listened to some John Mayall the other day (Blues from Laurel Canyon and the self-titled Blues Breakers) and it was very disappointing - Mayall was a truly awful singer. But some of Clapton's intstrumental work, including things like Hideaway and Steppin' Out were guitar classics. He left, taking Jack Bruce with him, to form Cream with Ginger Baker.

Cream were my favourite band of the era, bar none. They started as a bluesy outfit with the album Fresh Cream, and then went into a psychedelic mood with the next, Disraeli Gears (which the observant will have noted I have used for the email account for this blog). The next album, Wheels Of Fire, was a double LP, with a set of studio pieces which seem to be moving towards the prog rock that was emerging at the time, and on the other disc four live numbers from their American tours. The band disbanded (heh) in late 1968, but before they did, they made some amazing music.

The one I have chosen for No. 8 is Crossroads, a live 1968 recording from Winterland in California of the well-known Robert Johnson blues song. It is chiefly known for Clapton's guitar solos, and the second solo has made it to the top of many lists of 'greatest guitar solos', although I prefer to think of the solos in Crossroads as one solo divided by a bit of singing in the middle.

Why is it so great? Well, for one thing it is improvised. It was a common repertoire item at the time, so no doubt Clapton had a pretty good idea of what he was going to play, but the delight of improvisation is that you never know what is going to come out until you play it. And what you play often depends on what everyone else is playing. If you listen carefully, there's a lot of call-and-response between bass and guitar. Bruce and Clapton worked very well together.

The playing is beyond any praise I could give it. It's inventive, it's showy, and it is, by turns, both melodic and savagely slick. It starts in the lower range of the instrument, but quickly builds in energy and tempo until a break for Jack Bruce to belt out the middle verse. When the guitar returns, it picks up where it left off and soars away into some blues stratosphere where mortals cannot live. Taken as a whole, the song and the solo has an amazing shape, and a Gibson ES-335 never sounded better. I've listened to this piece a million times, and there isn't a bad note in it. And all from three basic chords and a sequence of 12 bars.

We can still barrelhouse, baby, on the riverside ...


  1. And despite undoubted over indulgence in bad-boy consumables, Cream stayed together enough to make great music - unlike Peter Green who, in his prime, I still rate as God's God. Shame his prime was cut so short.

  2. LSD, schizophrenia, the life of a recluse - very sad. As you rightly say, at his peak he was a brilliant player with the most amazing tone.

  3. Not meant to offend: I'm in my early 50's (white North American, university education) so have heard Eric Clapton yet for the life of me would not be able to identify his music (except perhaps for that song he wrote/played about his daughter).
    I haver heard people go on an on about Eric Clapton over the years, which guitar he played on "that night" etc., so why I can't I play anything of his "in my mind".
    I have a feeling he is a "musician's musician". Technically brilliant.
    I bet you are a musician, I'm not.
    Good music to me must cause a visceral reaction in me when heard, if it doesn't it's just so much back ground noise not entirely unlike 98% of all other 'music'; my definition of great music includes some very important requisites; it must have melody, orchestration, and it should be esthetically and aurally unique and memorable.
    So once again, why can't I hum a few bars of Eric Clapton in my head?
    I can hum a few bars of Grace Jone's "La Vie en Rose", a few choice cuts off the Fine Young Cannibal's "The Raw and The Cooked", ....but no Eric Clapton?

  4. No offence taken, I assure you. We are of similar backgrounds and ages, so your comments are interesting. I suspect you are right - if you were into blues and things like that in the 60s/70s, then Clapton was an overarching figure. But you had to be into that kind of music (not necessarily a musician)to be aware of it all. The more mainstream stuff he did ('Wonderful Tonight' and 'Tears in Heaven') is a world away from his blues/rock, and rather cheesy IMHO. Conversely, I have heard of the two you mention, but I couldn't tell you the first thing about them.

    I think you are right - Clapton has often been described as 'the guitarist's guitarist'.

    If you ever get the chance to listen to his album 'Unplugged' (all acoustic material), do so. It's very good.


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