“Layla” was a stiff.
Clapton was not God, certainly not in today’s way, everybody did not know his name, he was not all over the papers, he was not Drake and he was not Taylor Swift, he was just a guitarist in bands who those paying attention knew of and were blown away by.
“Sgt. Pepper” might have caused the shift to albums, but it took years for radio to catch on outside the metropolis. There was underground FM in San Francisco and New York, but unlike today’s wired world, where they’ve got wi-fi in Dubuque, never mind cable, used to be if you didn’t live near the signal of the big city, which was approximately fifty miles, you were out of the loop.
But if you did… It was a cornucopia of greatness, a veritable smorgasbord of experimentation. The Bluesbreakers broke on college campuses, but Cream was embraced by these new FM outlets and eventually “Sunshine Of Your Love” crossed over to AM radio and became a ubiquitous hit but you only knew who Eric Clapton was if you were paying attention.
And most people were not.
Most people were listening to AM. But things were changing.
A gold album was five hundred thousand dollars in sales! The shift hadn’t been made to units. There was something happening here, but it wasn’t exactly clear, we were moving toward it.
Oh, I’m overstating the case a bit. Albums were moving, but usually only their frontmen were famous. Only a sliver knew who Jeff Beck was. As for Jimi Hendrix, he had no airplay whatsoever on AM radio. So music was a cult, that was exploding, the foremost evidence being 1969’s Woodstock festival, especially the resulting movie.
I’ll argue the film was the breakthrough. For the first time most people SAW these acts.
But they didn’t see Eric Clapton, he was not there.
But in the spring of 1970, having left Cream, having gone on an hejira with Delaney & Bonnie, Eric put out his first solo album. And few cared. It contained two exquisite cuts, “Easy Now” and “Let It Rain,” both of which were featured on FM radio, and two cuts that were not, but ultimately became even more famous, “After Midnight” and “Blues Power.” But he was just another guy trying to go solo, there was less buzz than there was for his previous acts. The record came and then went. Eric and his new group of merrymen absconded to Miami in the fall whereupon they set about cutting “Layla and Assorted Other Love Songs,” and when it was released in November few embraced it, after all, wasn’t this the guy with the middling debut? And why the name change to Derek and the Dominos?
Steve Jobs has nearly been forgotten. No one knows who Mitch Kapor was, even though he’s still alive. But the guitar-playing of Duane Allman survives. His is not a secret history, something only embraced by acolytes. You see Duane Allman is all over huge hits, and not only those of his namesake band. Duane not only presented Eric Clapton with the riff of “Layla,” HE PLAYED IT!
And he’s the one who makes the magic on “Anyday,” along with the organ of Bobby Whitlock.
Serendipity, it’s the essence of life. The great things happen when you don’t expect them to. That’s why innovation always comes from outside the system. Everybody else is on a path which is usually a rut. You’ve got to be open to stimulation, never mind change. There are all these new business rules about raising money and embracing failure but if you’ve paid your dues as a musician you’re always ready to take risks, and some of those risks have resulted in the greatest music of all time. A chance encounter, a chord change, they elicited inspiration that changed the world.
Because music can change the world. If you see it as art as opposed to business. If you reach for greatness. But in order achieve greatness you’ve got to hone your chops, practice, be ready. To the point where when Duane Allman showed up at Criteria Studios he was ready.
Derek had gone to see the Allman Brothers live. He was blown away and invited Duane to sit in. What resulted was the absolute peak of Eric Clapton’s career, not that the public knew, certainly not right away. Because the marketing channel said otherwise, because people are the last to know. Trust the makers first, the consumers last. As for those in the middle…they have no tuning fork, that’s one of the great assets of an artist, that inner resonance that says something’s right.
So these cats sit in the studio with Tom Dowd and Albhy Galuten and they record a double album so good it still gets played today and I didn’t buy it. Because my budget was limited, I had to make a Sophie’s Choice every time I went to the record store. And if I popped for a double album, that meant I could buy even less!
It’s been grey in L.A. Which is rarely the case. And after being in Colorado I’ve been thinking about winter.
Winter is cold and snowy and miserable.
If you live in the northeast.
And in the winter of 1971 I was ensconced in Middlebury, Vermont, I was going to college, during winter term, when you only took one course intensively and at night…
You got high.
It was too cold to leave the dorm. At some time between nine and ten we’d descend to Dave McCormick’s room to party. I didn’t know Dave previously, someone clued me in. The lights would go out, the joints would pass and the records would play. We’d talk and listen. Music was not background back then, it was primary. And Dave played the “Layla” album. I can’t tell you how many great records I was turned on to because OTHER people owned them. I was always the man with the most, it was rare that someone had something I didn’t, but when they did…
I was curious.
Actually, not that curious to hear “Layla.” There was no buzz. But Dave was in control. And he dropped the needle nearly every night. And the song that reached me first was “Anyday.”
Last night I got a hankering to hear “Third Stone From The Sun.” It was long after midnight and I scrolled through Spotify and when I heard the mellifluous sound I was taken right back to my bedroom, in 1968.
You see we had a lot of time.
Sure, there was a telephone in the house. But not in my bedroom. And if you think I was gonna call some girl at ten p.m. and have the whole house listen in…you weren’t alive back then, you’ve got no idea what it was like. Music ruled, but the cutting edge was a society. You took the train to the Fillmore East to see your heroes. And you played the records ad infinitum, on headphones, the musicians were the only ones who understood you.
To the point where you knew every lick on the LP. And there were a lot of famous tracks on “Are You Experienced.” Certainly “Purple Haze,” and most definitely “Manic Depression” and the cover of “Hey Joe.” And the second side standouts “Foxey Lady” and “The Wind Cries Mary.” My favorite of the traditional songs was “I Don’t Live Today,” but I know every lick of the almost seven minute journey known as “Third Stone From The Sun.”
If you go to see the overrated Gary Clark, Jr., he sometimes inserts the riff in his music. You tingle, you’re thrilled. And before you get your knickers in a twist, the reason I zinged Mr. Clark is because he can play but he cannot write. Writing is a skill, that you work on, and when done right, the song is forever. And Jimi Hendrix’s songs are forever, it’s just that most people don’t know them, or not his versions. Funny that his most famous number this far down the line is a Dylan cover, “All Along The Watchtower,” but most people don’t know Hendrix wrote “Little Wing.”
Sting does a bang-up version of the song.
But the cover that broke through first was on “Layla.”
I’m changing my story. It was “Little Wing” that hooked me first, that was the track that got me into “Layla,” listening now I realize that, I never did get to it last night, it’s that powerful riff, which blew out of Dave McCormick’s speakers and filled the room, squeezed out anything contrary, any thoughts that would bring me down. The band’s reworking of Jimi’s number was exquisite, who’da thunk to remake it as riff rock? Still, my favorite number on “Layla” is “Anyday.”
Now if you’re confused, and you’re probably not, no one EVER referred to the double LP as “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs,” everyone just called it “Layla,” like the title track, which got some airplay but didn’t really break through for years. And if you’re pulling the project, it’s got many killers, “Bell Bottom Blues,” “Keep On Growing,” “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out,” “Key To The Highway,” “Tell The Truth,” “Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad,” the title track, the aforementioned “Little Wing” and…
It was right smack dab in the middle of side two. It started off on a tear, kinda like “Little Wing,” but faster, and then it got slower.
So I’m thinking about “Little Wing” and I pull up “Axis: Bold As Love” on Spotify, take a look at it and my mind starts to wander, I think back to the Derek and the Dominos cover, to Dave McCormick’s dorm room, and then I realized, I’VE GOT TO HEAR ANYDAY!
You were talking and I thought I heard you say
‘Please leave me alone’
I had no idea those were the lyrics. There was no internet, there was no lyric sheet, but all of this has surfaced via modern technology, reading along was a peak experience decades on, but not as much as…
Bobby Whitlock’s organ and Duane Allman’s slide guitar.
Yes, the vocal is intimate, especially with the dual guitars in the background.
And when everybody explodes in the pre-chorus it’s a revelation, no one throws in everything anymore, they extract elements from the kitchen sink and feature them, but here everybody’s wailing, like at a live show, and the end result is the record levitates any room it’s played in.
But that intimate interlude…
Well, someday baby I know you’re gonna leave me
When this old world has got you down
Now Bobby Whitlock, the cowriter, the keyboard player is singing, it’s these verses that bond you to the track, the riff is key, but it’s intimacy that puts it over the top.
So what you’ve got is a bunch of drug addicts in Miami making a record under contract doing their best to nail the music, thinking little about commercialism. As for the label, it’s far away, up in New York City, awaiting results, input is nearly nonexistent, because you’ve got to trust experts to do the job, and in this case everybody in the room was experienced, the players, the producer and those moving the faders.
And the end result was…
To break the glass and twist the knife into yourself
You’ve got to be a fool to understand
To bring your woman back home after she’s left you for another
You’ve got to be a, you’ve got to be a man
This is completely different from the modern ethos, wherein braggadocio is king.
We were a couple of years and a couple of changes behind our heroes. They tended to be born during the war, they had experiences we did not, and there’s wisdom and direction baked into these numbers, they were our bible, we were in school but I learned much more in Dave McCormick’s dorm room than I ever did in class.
And these records still exist. Available for anybody to hear. For free. Anyday.
Jim Gordon is in jail. Carl Radle is dead. Duane Allman, of course, too. Bobby Whitlock is still around, completely uncelebrated, funny how so many are hiding in plain sight, just like the bluesmen who inspired them to begin with.
And Eric Clapton…
It took a while for the public to catch up. “Layla” went nuclear and sustained. Clapton came back and retreated so many times one can no longer count. But everybody was paying attention, he had to live up to his rep, but in the fall of 1970, he was just doing his job.
Eric’s peaked since “Layla.” But it’s been different. Kinda like the Allman Brothers without Duane. Good, but in both cases Skydog put them over the top. He added a special sauce. He didn’t sing, he didn’t necessarily write, but he sprinkled his fairy dust and took these numbers into the stratosphere.
I’m no longer in college, and I don’t want to go back.
I’ve got an iPhone 7, I like having the world at my fingertips.
But part of me hankers for darker days. When I was more isolated and had to count on those around me. When there wasn’t a brand new hype every week, but the pace of product was more comprehensible, when you could slow down and in a stolen moment be grabbed by something great that you might have missed.
That’s right, I would have ultimately come to “Layla” even if I’d never met Dave McCormick.
But it would have been different. I wouldn’t have had “Little Wing” and “Anyday” hammered into me night after night, to the point where they’re part of my DNA…
I’d rather go back, I’d rather go back home
And I can. I just put on these tracks and I’m taken there.
I don’t want to go to the show, too often it’s creepy, people who weren’t there at the advent listening to those giving them what they want as opposed to giants descending from their spaceship to grace us with their mood and then disappearing.
That’s what’s wrong with Desert Trip. It was about us.
And back then, it was positively about them. They were Gods.
Eric Clapton lives to fish. Pattie Boyd just got married for the third time. We’ve lost our hair, we go to the doctor more than the show. But when we put on these tracks we remember…
That once upon a time music was the most important thing in the world. You didn’t go to Facebook, you went to the record store. You might have saved up for a better turntable, but that was about as far as your tech went. And most stereo systems were shite.
But what came out of the speakers was not.