This project grew out of Eric Clapton’s frustration with the hype associated with super groups, like his previous band, Cream. He had Bobby Whitlock on keyboards and vocals, Jim Gordon on drums, Carl Radle on bass, and special guest performer, Duane Allman, on lead and slide guitar.
The album is legendary mainly for the premier Clapton centrepiece, “Layla”. However, it’s not only that track that’s propelled the album into the annals of rock and roll history. After three separate periods in the US charts (1972, 1974 and 1977), it’s since been certified Platinum by the RIAA.
For such a lengthy album in its day, it’s only right this is explained through how much covers played a part in the album’s construction.
You’ve got “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out” (Jimmy Cox); “Key To The Highway” (Charles Segar and Willie Broonzy); “Have You Ever Loved A Woman” (Billy Myles); “Little Wing” (Jimi Hendrix); and “It’s Too Late” (Chuck Willis).
Looking at the album cover, apparently Clapton was taken aback with the original painting’s likeness to ex-Beatle George Harrison’s wife at the time, Patti Boyd. It features a caricature of an alluring blonde woman, the left side of her centre parting her face, and her right side a bouquet of flowers. White roses, in fact.
Kicking off proceedings is “I Looked Away”, and it has a slightly stilted Shadows quality to it. Then when the impassioned vocals of Clapton kick in, deeply in pain, you know you’re dealing with a whole other thing completely. The solo’s quite tragic, but has a degree of majesty, too.
Clapton’s wearing “Bell Bottom Blues”, next, and it’s bluesy, indeed. Clapton’s guitar and vocals in sad tandem, the chorus packing tearful punch. Its soulful histrionics lend its guttural blues sophistication. The grit is still there, hoarse throats obviously capable of various singing styles.
He wants to “Keep On Growing”, and this opens with thick guitar, bassy and abrasive. Flourishes then greet an unexpected turn into happiness and appreciation. What appears to be the vocal contributions of Whitlock sound like, to an extent, Tom Jones. The solo’s got passion, twiddly and high register. A particularly lengthy passage ends as thus, too.
“Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out” has a real swing to it. However, immovably sad, swinging in a bluesy sort of way. Organ really adds depth to the arrangement, like a funeral procession. One for someone chopped down in their prime.
Clapton proclaims “I Am Yours”, which sees organ in a completely different context. Yes, some of it’s joyous, but there’s also melancholy. It’s evocative of the everyday struggles of love, falling out and the like. Maybe it’s a poisonous relationship, driven by lust and incapable of love. A solo like a river of tears, very emotive. The guitar an extension of Clapton’s deepest sadness.
Come “Anyday”, things open mighty and triumphant. Proceedings are certainly raucous, even the comparably sedate verses are bursting to release untold energy. The solo eventually takes centre stage across the middle verse, a cacophony of crashing drums heralding all it unleashes.
The band seek a “Key To The Highway”, which’s a swinging blues arrangement. The bass and drum really pronounce the trundling rhythm. This, almost clocking ten minutes, is really room for Clapton to break out and play until his heart’s content.
Clapton urges you to “Tell The Truth”, and it seems like confrontational rock in the mould of imploring, moody blues. The guitar almost syncopates with the drums, giving it a quality you might hear in the earliest Rainbow albums, for instance. This manages to do it in quite a wholesome way, a middle ground without offending the non-headbanging, non-hard rockers.
“Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad?” continues in a similar vein, in a way. Not syncopated, but certainly the fastest effort on the album so far. A cacophony of drums, indeed, plus some of the most impressive bass playing on, yes, the album so far. Super busy yet also creative and appealing.
There’s a question posed in “Have You Ever Loved A Woman”. The opening gambit lets you know that, as such, this is the real, heavyset blues. The solo playing would knock your socks off if played too loud, or witnessed from the front row. Barroom piano rings low, evoking tales of drunk bluesmen chasing skirt.
Standout cover, “Little Wing”, is, as said, a Jimi Hendrix number. It’s quite regal and grand in the opening exchanges, before getting incredibly downbeat and maudlin. Reminiscing on a past love, everything seeming so perfect. What exactly went wrong with this perfect love? What did I do to screw it up?
Maybe “It’s Too Late”. This also evokes similar feelings regarding the one that got away. Its lopsided swing seems to imply that the sadness is different now, having reviewed the situation in retrospect. Like laughing when you think back to those days, sort of thing.
Key track, “Layla”, is possibly one of the most triumphant songs Clapton’s ever been involved in. That opening salvo, on the guitar, is hard to beat. Ironic in a way, given the song’s origins as a number pining for George Harrison’s wife, Patti Boyd. The verses are clearly Clapton in some sort of deep seated, emotional pain.
That main riff, however, suggests the hero saving the day and, perhaps, getting his woman. The instrumental middle section, hated by many, is incredibly progressive and furthers the stakes in the tragic sense. Is this Clapton admitting he may be that man who doesn’t get his heart’s desire in the end, no longer triumphant? The soloing in this passage seems to cry like the tears in Clapton’s eyes, dainty and shimmering. That final flourish leaves the story maybe undecided.
The album ends by painting a picture in “Thorn Tree In The Garden”. It’s arguably lyrically driven, the musical backdrop candid, sparse and sad: “If she’s in somebody else’s arms, I’ll understand”. Is this him saying perhaps Patti’s better, happier, with George Harrison?
Highlights of this album are “Bell Bottom Blues”, “Anyday”, “Little Wing” and “Layla”. The first of those packs a punch with its blues power, but also has a soulful sophistication which refines the primary elements. This done in such a way that brings the blues forth in a format crafted in a way that makes for excellent listening.
“Anyday”, on the other hand, perhaps, is slightly less refined. This is its whole appeal. Even in its quieter moments, it’s got this palpable, pulsing energy just dying to be unleashed. The lead guitar playing rips through the midpoint, and crashes of grandiose drumming a powerful racket irresistible, indeed.
The Jimi Hendrix cover, “Little Wing”, is interpreted as such to do it justice, yet is approached not to be a note for note mimicry of the original. Perhaps this was in tribute to a guitarist that, upon Clapton soaking in his first impressions of Hendrix’s playing, almost made him quit his instrument in bewilderment at the American’s sheer playing ability. It’s, arguably, grand sound maybe a tribute to a not long dead Hendrix. Hendrix is God?
The last, arguably best, is “Layla”. Although a love letter to the aforementioned Boyd, sonically, that opening, and recurring, guitar riff is a paean of almost monolithic proportions. Any hero, or heroine, could save the day were that the soundtrack to their weighty toil and eventual triumph. Even the much maligned meandering of piano towards the track’s end is beautiful and incredibly heart on sleeve.
This album’s basically the precursor for Eric Clapton’s solo career. Yes, there was a band dynamic, but there wasn’t the clash of characters like in super group, Cream. However, he didn’t want to be the centre of things and let it detract from the music. He straddles the line between self and band quite expertly. Derek & The Dominos’ Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs can be heard on iTunes here.
Words by Andrew Watson