What’s a guy to do when the woman he’s fallen in love with happens to be married to his best friend? Well, if your best friend is a former Beatle, and you happen to be one of the finest blues rock guitarists in the world, you might just write and record an album’s worth of music about it.
tl;dr Version: Waitaminute! Where’s the new music reviews?! I don’t wanna listen to this hippy music!
‘Splain, Lucy Version: Okay, fair cop. My music challenge back in December said nothing about writing classic rock reviews. It also DIDN’T say I would only do new album reviews. I’m going to do more new ones as well. But this one is for me, and for those who might be looking for a review of a classic album they may not have heard, or who knows, actually have heard and loved, and wish to turn friends on to. It IS a pretty old album now, so lots of younger folks may have missed it, or stayed away from it because they were born after the 70s, growing up when this sort of music was considered dated and boring. I didn’t even really get my head around it until fairly recently, and I’ve been listening to tracks from it all my life.
Boring Version: A month before I was born (I’m a Boxing Day baby, for those who know what that means), Eric Clapton and his new band (Carl Radle on bass, Jim Gordon on drums, and Bobby Whitlock on keys and vocals, with guesting on Duane Allman on slide) released perhaps the finest recording of his or their career. A landmark double album with that rarest of qualities, no duff tracks. Even the Beatles couldn’t claim that honour. Prog Rock bands I’ve loved for decades hadn’t achieved it. Modern bands with 80 minutes of music on one disc have managed pretty well, but there have been a few modern double albums that have once again proven that too many songs can be just as bad as not enough. Layla, on the other hand, is a lovely album that really shows what you get when you lock up a lot of passion inside, play a mean musical instrument, and maybe indulge in a lot of recreational pharmaceauticals. It’s not a recipe for long lasting success, but some fantastic albums have come from this formula, even if the careers were largely short lived.
First off, I grew up on this album, along with several other seminal classics, some of which I will also review in time. However, this album has the distinction of being one of those few classic rock albums that every classic rock fan must have heard that I hadn’t actually sat and listened to from start to finish for most of my life. For those counting, I’m now 41, and I didn’t really decide it was time to give this album a proper listening until just last year.
It’s a peculiar thing to grow up with an album in your house and not really know the music. I certainly knew the hits, Bell Bottom Blues and Layla, but I couldn’t recall the album to save my life. I didn’t realize there were other tunes on there that I would grow to enjoy.
That out of the way, it should be fairly obvious that this review is less an objective critique (although there will be some of that; I really like this album, but even I can poke holes in it) and more an appreciation of a fine album that you may have overlooked.
I Looked Away is a curious opener, as it’s a country rock number that basically only functions as an opener because it sets the scene for the album. Some very nice guitar work on this one, the first of three tracks that Eric played all of the guitar parts on himself, because Duane Allman wasn’t in the studio yet.
Bell Bottom Blues is one of my all-time favourite Eric Clapton numbers. The second of three songs for which Eric played all of the dueling guitar parts by himself. A gorgeous, passionate ballad that doesn’t get too mawkish, with some of his most heartfelt singing, with him and Bobby harmonizing soulfully.
Keep On Growing is a much more raucous blues rock number, and the third track where Eric plays all the guitar parts himself, sounding for all the world like a band of three or four guitars jamming live. Such a fantastic groove, great bass playing and singing. This could easily be a radio hit if someone remade it today. The Black Crowes practically built their entire career on this song. Great jam rock.
Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out opens like a classic BB King number, which it probably is, as it was written by Jimmy Cox; bluesy, boozy and confessional. Truth to tell, this sort of blues tune used to leave me a bit cold, but I’m surprised to find it’s growing on me. What I will say is, it’s a little hard to take after the jaunty style of the previous track. Theater organ permeates the background on this track, giving it a slightly Ray Charles vibe, particularly when the upright piano plays (though Ray would probably have done this number from behind a Fender Rhodes). The twinned guitar attack gives the song a lushness it might have lacked otherwise, but ironically, it’s some of Eric’s genuinely bluesiest playing from this period.
I Am Yours starts with an acoustic guitar part that could easily have been a George Harrison composition, but the arrangement, subtle but layered, has kind of a calypso vibe. Duane Allman’s slide guitar is gorgeous here. It’s an ever-so-slight number, but the lyrics and chorus harmony are very effective and charming. It’s a very pretty song that you can imagine dancing to with a loved one, which I suppose was the point.
Anyday is another raucous blues rock number, and again, a number that defines the successful formula of bands like Black Crowes twenty-odd years later. Slide guitars, harmonies, a great rhythm section, and maracas for added percussion. Really, it’s a bit perfect, isn’t it? Eric and Bobby trade vocals on this track, but it’s as much about trading licks between Eric and Duane that makes this song shine. Really, I make that comparison about the Crowes to outline how obvious their influence here is, but they’ve never quite scaled these heights, for all that I love them so.
Key to the Highway is a cover of a straight up 8 bar delta blues shuffle in the Robert Johnson/Big Bill Broonzy mold (co-written by Broonzy, actually), again of the style that took me years to truly appreciate, but you can’t fault them for a flawless execution. It’s a sprawling mess of a jam, like the food and the air down on the Delta. Eric is in his element here, and the rhythm section sounds like it was stolen right out of the back of a Sun Records session. Duane gets in some stellar playing as well, which just goes to show why Eric loved him so. At nearly ten minutes, it pushes the upper limit for blues jams, as far as I’m concerned, but it seems to end just exactly when it needs to.
Tell the Truth opens with a clean little guitar lick that sets up the kind of dual blues guitar that makes this track stand out from the pack, even if the lyric is a bit slight (to my jaded ears, at least) and could very easily have been a fluff track on another band’s album. Bobby Whitlock sings co-lead on this number as well, and the rhythm section of Jim Gordon and Carl Radle really gets to shine here, with the stop/start gaps and rising volume. A great tune that originally started life as a Spector-produced up=tempo number, but the band wisely decided it needed to be slowed down and stripped down to just the band. A good decision, I think.
Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad? opens like something from a different period in Eric’s career, sounding a little more like a Cream tune, rocking along at breakneck speed. It comes at a good time on this album, given the slow numbers that have dominated this part of the album, and outlines was a great rock band these guys actually were. It’s actually rather saddening to think they were such a short-lived band, when you consider what a tight unit they were. They even manage the slowed-down tempo at the end in perfect unison. Eric never really had a better band than this.
Have You Ever Loved a Woman takes us back to the blues, covering an old 12-bar Freddie King number that apparently has become a go to piece for Eric ever since. This is a fine performance, and you can actually imagine it being recorded live in some roadhouse tavern somewhere. It’s definitely a drinking song, in my books. Listening to it makes me want to reach for a beer, actually.
Little Wing is, of course, a cover of one of Jimi Hendrix’s finest compositions. The irony of this track is that they recorded it days before Hendrix died, at which time, as I understand it, the decision was made to include it on the album as a tribute. The track itself is a slightly more raucous affair than Jimi’s recording (if such a thing is possible), with Eric and Bobby singing twin leads. They inserted a slightly Spanish riff into the piece that wasn’t in the original, and they repeat the verse section to give the track a more epic feel; indeed, the playing on this piece truly is epic, which makes it a more fitting tribute than they could have known. This is one of the standout tracks for me on this album.
It’s Too Late is another cover, this time in a doo-wop style, which they’ve given a very slight blues rock makeover, but is otherwise very faithful. Switching out for this sort of song at this point was a clever idea, though I do suffer from the disease of not being a fan of doo-wop. Still, not a bad track, really, and the bluesy treatment actually saves it, for me.
Layla is the song we came here to hear, but honestly, can anyone not have heard this song before? Do you really need me to talk about this one?
Oh, alright, if you insist.
First off, it has one of the most killer rock riff intros in all of rock history, bar none. I mean that sincerely. There has never been a better intro, ever. It also trades on one of Eric’s most passionate vocal performances, and the band absolutely sizzles. There exists an entire generation of kids who grew up on Eric’s Unplugged version, and have almost no idea that the song was meant to move at breakneck speed, laying waste to all that get in its tracks. Duane plays some of the most amazing slide guitar you will have ever heard; a fitting testament to a man who was himself cut down too soon. And then that piano outro. Oh my sweet lord, that outro is simply the most gorgeous piece of music ever committed to vinyl. This song deftly shifts from one of the most rocking numbers to perhaps the prettiest piece of music ever written, and it does it without ever sounding like the two pieces have no business being together. Duane’s slide and Eric’s electric and acoustic tracks are perfect. The rhythm section is perfect: lively and dynamic while keeping the spirit of the piece alive. The piano is perfect. This song… you guessed it… perfect. They could have phoned in the entire album and still achieved rock history with this one track. It’s a wonderful thing that the album as a whole is so good, you almost don’t realize what just happened.
Thorn Tree in the Garden closes the album with a short piece that uses the stereo field perfectly, just five guys sitting around a mic, playing a touching little lost love song. This song dares to come on after a juggernaut like Layla, but really, how else do you close an album of this magnitude? I don’t think I can imagine it any other way.
This is without a doubt the most important album Eric Clapton ever recorded. I say that being a fan of Eric’s other bands and his solo career as well. There are important songs all throughout his career, but this album absolutely cements his legacy as one of the finest guitarists and band leaders ever to play either the blues or rock & roll. A truly magnificent album, and yet, one I suspect has been allowed to slip into obscurity. Kids* I meet today have rediscovered classic rock bands like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, Queen and the Beatles, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath, and I’m glad they have, but I rarely if ever hear them talking about this album.
Perhaps it’s because Derek & the Dominos really didn’t last that long, making it nearly impossible (unless you decide to check out the rest of Eric’s back catalogue; a fairly daunting and not entirely rewarding exercise, given the unevenness of his output) to immerse yourself fully in a career-spanning discography the way kids might do with a torrent program and a list of albums to go hunting for online.
There is an anniversary collection that puts together live performances and the original studio master jam sessions with the original double album, which I have heard, and can say that it’s a fairly exhaustive and not-unentertaining listen. But I think most folks will, like me, gladly stop at the end of this album and marvel at what they have just heard, and perhaps imagine what this band might have accomplished if they’d only lasted long enough to follow it up.
© 2012 Lee Edward McIlmoyle
*I say kids with all affection and respect, given that I’m pretty much a big kid myself.