My Rating: 2.67 out of 5
1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die: X
Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums: √
The Mojo Collection: X
Chart Peak (UK/US): 23/2
Favourite Tracks: The Core, We're All The Way, Peaches and Diesel
Least-Favourite Tracks: Next Time You See Her
Firstly to anyone who has noticed an audible glitch on their remastered edition of Eric Clapton’s albums… err, sorry about that. You see, as a young lad I got my first job in the music business at a certain major record label to which Mr Clapton was signed. I spent most of my time working in their dingy basement storeroom which was actually quite good fun as I could listen to all the rare demo tapes & nose through their performer’s royalty statements to see how much they were getting paid. Now since I couldn’t reach the top shelves & since nobody had thought to provide me with a ladder, I used my youthful initiative to build a makeshift set of steps out of dozens of small plastic cartons that I found stacked in a dark corner. They were a bit wobbly & would make a horrible crunchy, cracking noise with every step I took, but eventually I figured out a way of stacking them together so the whole thing wouldn’t keep collapsing under my weight. Ah yes, I can still remember sorting the top shelves standing proudly atop my creaky plastic podium when I was distracted by a strangulated gargling sound from the doorway. This turned out to be one of the record company big cheeses who, when he’d finally calmed down enough to shriek coherently, pointed out in less than complimentary terms that I had constructed my staircase out of Eric Clapton’s original 24-track studio master tapes. Oops.
Now I have to confess that in addition to stomping all over his priceless recordings, I have always found Eric Clapton a little dull. I saw him live at the Albert Hall several years ago & I remember thinking that it was one of the most passionless exhibitions of guitar-playing I’d ever heard. And I’ve never been able to equate this reputation he has a “guitar-god” with what I’ve heard of his soloing which, while technically-accomplished, always seems to have this going-through-the-motions feel that lacks any great spark of inventiveness. Before the lynch mob arrives at my doorstep, I should also point out that I have never listened all that closely to Clapton’s recordings, so I was rather looking forward to hearing this album properly & perhaps being made to eat those words.
So what’s the verdict? Well, in some ways it was pretty much what I expected but I will concede that I was also pleasantly surprised… yes, even by much of the guitar work. I would still argue that Clapton is greatly overrated as a guitarist, but I may indeed have to consume a snack-sized portion of my words as he does demonstrate a great deal of versatility on this album, in addition to delivering some admittedly impressive solos. I particularly liked the eclectic nature; the understated fluidity of the solos on Cocaine, the compressed country-picking on Lay Down Sally, the Led Zep like riffing on The Core (complete with an energetic heavy rock solo at the end) and the dirty blues of Mean Old Frisco.
So having got completely obsessed with the relative merits of Clapton the guitarist, I was rather shocked to notice what a lousy singing voice he had. It’s not that’s he’s out of tune but his vocals are just rather limp & characterless. Plus of course he’s just so nasal - on Wonderful Tonight he literally sounds like he’s got a clothes peg stuck on the end of his nose. Such weak vocals flatten all the life out of the lyrics for me & if you need convincing try playing John Martyn’s poignant original of May You Never next to Clapton’s cover... even Pinky & Perky could have sung it with more emotion.
Clapton is often criticised for his over-reliance on cover versions & relative lack of songwriting which is valid in some senses but perhaps also not entirely fair as he did pen 5 of the 9 tracks on this album (& I thought his compositions were more effective than the covers anyway). If composing songs was the only measure of musical greatness then we’d have to start downgrading Elvis & Sinatra too, but we celebrate them as great interpreters of songs and in a similar way I think Clapton tries to use his guitar-playing to add an extra dimension to the original. And on the strength of this album, I’d say with mixed results. At first Clapton’s version of Cocaine doesn’t stray all that far from the J.J. Cale original, but his guitar work & soloing did eventually add (just) enough for me to make the cover worthwhile. On the other hand quite what he thought he could bring to the John Martyn song is beyond me.
Glyn Johns is usually a pretty solid rock producer but I was a little disappointed by some of the production values here. Perhaps it was tempered by Clapton’s need for commercial success at this point in his career, but I felt that rather too many raw edges had been smoothed over. The Core cries out for a heavier touch, Next Time You See Her sounds like a sanitised version of Ian Dury & The Blockheads and there’s a touch of the pub band about several of the other performances that could have been lifted by more inspired arrangements.
Overall though, I’d have to say that this was a better record than I expected. It meanders easily across genres, from rock to blues to country; it rocks out then drops to a soft ballad and then surprised me further by closing out with a melodic pop instrumental. Others might disagree, but for me despite such varied material it still held together as an album. Shame it didn’t hold together quite so well as a staircase.