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Sunday, August 13, 2017

Eric Clapton: John Mayall's Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton

ERIC CLAPTON: JOHN MAYALL'S BLUESBREAKERS WITH ERIC CLAPTON (1966)

1) All Your Love; 2) Hideaway; 3) Little Girl; 4) Another Man; 5) Double Crossing Time; 6) What'd I Say; 7) Key To Love; 8) Parchman Farm; 9) Have You Heard; 10) Ramblin' On My Mind; 11) Steppin' Out; 12) It Ain't Right.

Formally, this album belongs in John Mayall's discography, not Eric Clapton's. However, with all due respect, it was not because of Mayall that history chose it to count as one of the seminal blues-rock records of the Sixties — and there is not a single reasonable discography or Eric Clapton, pure or annotated, that would omit it or place it in parentheses, either. It is no incident that, out of all (quite numerous) Mayall albums, this is the only one, ever, that would explicitly mention another band member in its title: cynics will say that John understood that such a move would boost sales, while idealists will counteract that John was simply willing to acknowledge the unquestionable superiority of his partner.

Prior to the «Beano» album (informally titled this way because of the comic that Eric is reading on the front sleeve photo, already staging one of his «I'm-not-really-with-these-guys» moods), Mayall only had one record out — the live album John Mayall Plays John Mayall, with Eric's predecessor Roger Dean on guitar (not the Roger Dean of the Yes artwork fame). It was one of Britain's first blues / blues-rock albums, but that's about it: together with Alexis Korner and a few other chaps, Mayall represented the sincere, hard-working, educational side of the British blues movement that, honestly speaking, was of more interest to purists and snobs than people vying for genuine excitement and innovation.

Mayall himself, a solid musician in his own right, would remain that way until the present day; but things briefly took a different, and quite sharp, turn when a young Eric Clapton, having freed himself from any obligations to the «pop-going» Yardbirds, was convinced to join Mayall's Blues­breakers. He actually served two brief stints with the band — in mid-'65 for the first time, and then again in 1966 (in between, he had a weird side project with «The Glands», while his position in the Bluesbreakers was being filled in by Peter Green). The problem with Eric, as is slightly hinted at by his biographies and autobiographies, is that he was regularly caught between fits of modesty/humility and severe egoism — as shy and reclusive by nature as he was also ambitious and determined to have his own way. No band in which he'd ever served before going full-time solo in 1974 could be said to be completely dominated by him, yet none of these bands ever gave him complete satisfaction. But his relations with John Mayall and his gang seem to have been particularly tense — ultimately, it was Beano all the way.

Nevertheless, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton, at least nominally, sounds precisely like the kind of record that would have made Eric totally happy. Unlike in The Yard­birds, he is given almost complete control over the most powerful aspects of most tracks, his only «competing» instrument being Mayall's harmonica, and that's not much of a competition. Unlike  in Cream, the Bluesbreakers play straightforward blues and R&B, without any jazzy edges or psychedelic experiments. Unlike in Blind Faith, the musicians — including the rhythm section of John McVie and Hughie Flint — sound like a tightly focused outfit, rather than a pack of super­heroes that got together by accident. And while the atmosphere in the band is predictably conser­vative and the music is formulaic, there are no bans on approaching the material with a creative, experimental edge that allows Eric to preserve that duality — humble and modest relative to his predecessors, ambitious and narcissistic relative to his peers.

It might not be easy, more than half a century after the fact, to understand the link between this record and the ensuing «Clapton Is God» legend, what with the large army of superb electric guitar players that arose over the next five years and made Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton into just another electric blues record. It becomes easy enough if you line up a whole series of electric guitar records from 1965-66 across both sides of the Atlantic, of course. In the UK, only Jeff Beck, who had, ironically enough, replaced Eric in The Yardbirds, could probably make up for some healthy, juicy competition; certainly Jeff was already taking blues guitar to places where Eric neither could nor would take it, ranging from Indian ragas to European avantgarde. But when it came to «regular» blueswailing, combining soul, technique, and a little help from those over­driven Marshall amps, not even Beck could compete.

The greatness of the album becomes evident in its first three seconds — three seconds. The mag­nificent Otis Rush had penned ʽAll Your Loveʼ back in 1958, a unique example of tango-blues that converted aching yearning into music like few things did that year. But like with so many other things in the Fifties, technology and spiritual restraint did not allow the song to play out to its full potential. Eric's guitar has a thicker, juicier tone, each of the notes feels more «fulfilled», and, unlike Otis, Eric has learned a thing or two about the power of sustain. Where that guitar used to prick and bite, Clapton's guitar groans and moans: as he reaches the first solo, each phrase has a «sinking» effect, creating the atmosphere of a living hell. The sharp, crisp, dry nature of the tone that he gets out is really as good as blues guitar ever gets; in this department, his sound would later be frequently matched, but never surpassed.

Some of Eric's finest soloing is captured on the slow blues tunes here — ʽDouble Crossing Timeʼ on Side A and ʽHave You Heardʼ on Side B in particular, generic blues-de-luxe frameworks populated by new lyrics for songwriting credits and elevated to heavenly status by blues guitar fireworks from Eric's Gibson Les Paul. A lot of these licks, for sure, were copped from Albert King and Freddie King records — but, much as I revere and enjoy those giants, Clapton took the formula to a whole new level here, with richer, thicker, more resonating phrasing, and, most importantly, borrowing some spirit from the garage-rock movement, using mild distortion and wild-high screechy pitch to make the songs burn. (It is safe to say, I think, that while early Clap­ton was unquestionably highly influenced by Freddie King, late Freddie King was likewise back-influenced by early Clapton — compare Freddie's playing in the early Sixties with his barn-stomping live shows in the early Seventies and you'll know what I mean).

Freddie gets directly Claptonized on the cover of his classic instrumental ʽHideawayʼ, which is, again, a vast improvement on the original: Freddie laid down several cool riffs (with a relatively «thin» guitar tone), but did not significantly improvise — the Bluesbreakers version faithfully reproduces all the riffs with a thicker, more aggressive tone, and on top of that, Eric lays down some improvised solos that make this version, too, a quasi-garage classic. More difficult would be the comparison between this version of ʽSteppin' Outʼ and the Memphis Slim original, because they are so stylistically different — the old variant was piano- and sax-driven, with a very interes­ting jazzy acoustic solo from Matt Murphy. The Bluesbreakers (despite preserving the sax part for rhythm) transform the composition into a vehicle for more of Eric's maniacal soloing, and it assumes an anthemic «don't-mess-around-with-me» quality in the process — good enough to have smoothly made it over into Cream's live repertoire a few months later.

So much for Clapton; but what, may you ask, about the record in general — what is it worth as a sample of the general British blues scene at the time? And what about Mr. Mayall? Well, this is where assessments become a bit more ambiguous. Mr. Mayall is primarily a blues singer, whose singing voice is not a personal preference of mine — it is much too high and «whiny» for the general purpose of the blues, where the vocalist is supposed to be a bit tougher — but is at least individualistic and recognizable. He can also blow a mean harmonica, but, alas, not mean enough to blow Little Walter off the map (ʽIt Ain't Rightʼ); and his solo spot on ʽAnother Manʼ (actually a lyrical rewrite of ʽBaby Please Don't Goʼ), where it's just him, his harmonica, and somebody's handclapping, is nothing more than professional. (Compare Cream's ʽRollin' And Tumblin'ʼ and Jack Bruce's escapades on the mouth harp — the quintessential difference between professional homage and crazyass inspiration).

On the other hand, Mayall certainly has to be commended for making an intriguing, diverse set­list. Where lesser pundits would see no problem in populating the record with nothing but similarly arranged 12-bar blues, Mayall cares about attracting a wider and more exploratory audience, as the track listing, in addition to slow 12-bar stuff, features Mose Allison's jazz-blues (ʽParchman Farmʼ), Ray Charles' R&B (ʽWhat'd I Sayʼ — with most of the sex stuff replaced by a drum solo, unfortunately, but also slyly incorporating the riff from the Beatles' ʽDay Tripperʼ), and some blues-rockers in which brass instrumentation plays a prominent role (ʽKey To Loveʼ, credited to Mayall and actually featuring a perfectly constructed brass melody). In the end, it means that, while some of the recordings are in themselves fairly expendable on a global scale, the album never becomes boring. Every time you think they might be running out of ideas, John adds a tiny nudge — like, for instance, urging Eric to sing on ʽRamblin' On My Mindʼ. Admittedly, Eric was a poor singer, suffering from lack of confidence, but his nervousness serves him right on this cute, stripped-down performance, and it is a nice one-time change from the ever-present Mayall as lead vocalist anyway.

So, as a British blues-rock record, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers is a decent stab at the genre, certainly a huge advance over Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated and less predictable than, say, the first Fleetwood Mac records with Peter Green. But there is no getting away from the plain truth that it is Clapton's presence only that advances it to the status of a masterpiece — one that still sounds totally fresh today, with some of the best blues tones to ever be captured on record, and, as far as I'm concerned, deserves an unconditional thumbs up outside of any historical con­text, because that lead guitar simply rips through the speakers.

Completists and fans of that Sixties' sound should probably hunt for the deluxe 2-CD edition of the album which, in addition to both mono and stereo editions of the album (personally, I'm a sucker for stereo, since proper separation only lets the lead guitar ring out louder and clearer), collects just about every piece of Clapton's legacy with the Bluesbreakers — most importantly, two non-LP singles (ʽI'm Your Witchdoctorʼ is an absolute classic: dark, tense, voodooistic, and featuring a proto-psychedelic solo that is nothing but sustained woman-tone howling, as far re­moved from stereotypic Clapton as possible), and some live tracks, including those recorded during Jack Bruce's brief stint with the Bluesbreakers. These are, however, mainly interesting for historical reasons, since the sound quality of the recordings from London's Flamingo Club is pretty poor — but still, indispensable for a brief history of musical relations between Bruce and Clapton. All in all, the package radiates an aura of excitement from an era where things that we take for granted nowadays were, like, totally happening — and an era when young Eric Clapton, still working his way up to God status, was not yet afraid of letting a bit of distortion and punkish anger spoil his blues credibility.

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