ERIC CLAPTON – 461 Ocean Boulevard

461By the tail end of the 1960s and having recorded three seminal studio albums with his power trio Cream, Eric Clapton was at the forefront of guitarists. By 1970, Blind Faith (the supergroup featuring Clapton, Steve Winwood, Family’s Ric Grech and Ginger Baker – who’d previously worked alongside Clapton in Cream) had imploded.

Clapton had grown tired of aggressive music. Instead, he spoke fondly of the Canadian retro outfit The Band. He, in turn, wished to make music with a similar smooth, rootsy feel. Enlisting a cast of musicians (including Delaney Bramlett, with whom Clapton had previously played as sideman), work began on a solo album. Released in August 1970 and titled simply ‘Eric Clapton’, the resulting disc was a reasonable stab at something with more pastel shading than guitar based aggression or purist blues. While never cited as one of Clapton’s great works, the album featured a couple of early Clapton classics: ‘Blues Power’ (a track which would become a live favourite for many years) and ‘After Midnight’, a shuffling boogie written by the then unsigned and unknown JJ Cale.

This desire to perform laid-back music could have been written off as a fad, since by the end of that year, Clapton returned fronting a full-on rock band, Derek and the Dominos, who’s sprawling double album ‘Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs’ featured a sound very different to that of Clapton’s solo disc, with many of its tracks sounding more typical of Clapton’s previous works. Despite now being heralded as one of the classic albums of the age, upon its release, the album failed to chart in the UK. Despite this, The title cut became one of Clapton’s signature numbers and eventually became a belated UK hit single when an edited version was issued in 1972 (reaching #7) and again a decade later (reaching #4).

Like Blind Faith before them, the Dominos did not enjoy a long career. By the end of 1971 they had fallen apart, with Clapton getting bogged down by a heroin dependency. This low point in Clapton’s life would stretch across the next two years, until Pete Townshend encouraged him to return to live performance, by organising a handful of star studded gigs at London’s Rainbow Theatre in 1973. With Clapton substantially cleaned up and his fans delighted by his return, the time was right for him to work on a new album.

His then manager, Robert Stigwood, arranged for Clapton to rent a house in Miami where he would work upon new material. Some new music had already been demoed by Carl Radle (previously of Derek and The Dominoes) with keyboardist Dick Simms and drummer Jamie Oldaker – the three gentleman who would become the core of Clapton’s new band. They, in turn were joined by second guitarist George Terry and vocalist Yvonne Elliman (with whom Clapton later became romantically involved).

The resulting album – ‘461 Ocean Boulevard’ – is largely made up of covers and a couple of blues standards. It is unclear as to whether the arrangements for these tracks came from those demo tapes presented by Clapton’s band members, but what is clear is that ‘461 Ocean Boulevard’ is a great album. It adopts the semi-laid back approach that Clapton had hankered after back in 1970, but the performances are far more memorable than those featured on his debut. It may have something to do with a great choice of material, but it’s just as likely down to Clapton’s backing band being absolutely superb. [They were, perhaps, Clapton’s greatest ever band of session musicians – especially once vocalist Marcy Levy was added to their number the following year].

With regard to Clapton’s original compositions on the album, two are very strong, introspective affairs. The gentle longing of ‘Give Me Strength’ is especially telling of his state of mind. While the main base of the number is provided by Simms at the Hammond organ, it’s Clapton’s dobro playing which grabs the listener. With an absolutely crystal clear sound, the music harks back to Clapton’s blues roots while the pain in his voice highlights his vulnerability – the song itself an obvious ode to his dark, then recent past and how he desperately wants to leave those times behind and start anew. ‘Let It Grow’ has a message which is also inspired by a desire to move forward, but this time, the aching is replaced by an almost misty-eyed optimism. There’s absolutely nothing angular here and nothing for guitar fans to sink their teeth into, but the final arrangement is gorgeous. Clapton, Terry and Elliman join in harmony on various vocal moments to great effect. Clapton and Terry ten hammer out a gentle twin guitar riff over the closing minutes, creating something which would be more suited to George Harrison than Blind Faith, Derek or Cream.

The third track to feature a Clapton writing credit, ‘Get Ready’ (co-written by Yvonne Elliman) has a great groove, but little else to back it up. Capturing Clapton duetting on vocals with Elliman, lyrically, it sounds like it could have been improvised; not necessarily on the featured take, but certainly, the actual feel of the number is more important than the lyric. There is a verse, but half the song is taken up by both vocalists labouring the line ‘Get ready, he’s the one who’s gonna break your heart’. A more confident Clapton would have almost certainly punctuated this with a couple of sharp guitar runs, but as it stands, we are left with a half-finished vocal performance to carry the song. Clapton plays a couple of pointed notes at the end, but then the groove stops, as if he only played those notes in order to tease us…to remind us that the guitar god is waiting around the corner.

A take on the Elmore James number ‘I Can’t Hold Out’ lacks the fire of Fleetwood Mac’s version recorded a few years previously. Despite the relative smoothness, it’s still a great number with Clapton’s syrupy vocal tackling the song in a half-asleep back porch manner, befitting of JJ Cale (with whom, Clapton’s career would soon be often linked, thanks to a hit version of ‘Cocaine’). Although taken at a laid back pace, it’s a high point with regard to guitar playing on the album, with Clapton turning in a couple of solos (slide based, naturally, since firstly, this is an Elmore James number and secondly, ‘461 Ocean Boulevard’ isn’t really about solos or musical prowess). Great accompaniment is also on hand from Dick Simms on the Hammond organ. After the band pulls the track to a close, one of Clapton’s band men can be heard shouting with glee and then asking ‘Is he all right?’. Although this could have been edited, its presence gives an insight into the energy at the session.

Clapton pays further homage to his blues influences with a rendition of ‘Motherless Children’ – a now traditional blues number, often associated with Blind Willie Johnson and covered by seemingly hundreds or artists since the 1930s. While Clapton had more than enough credentials to approach this number in a blues purist’s fashion, he chooses instead to approach it as a very 70s sounding blues-rock shuffle. His band pick up most of the musical weight, with Jamie Oldaker’s shuffling approach and drum fills providing most of the better moments. I could perhaps suggest that the band’s upbeat arrangement isn’t quite suited to such bleak subject matter – and the chirpy manner in which Clapton quips ‘When you’re mother is dead’ sounds especially inappropriate as a result. However, Clapton’s slide guitar work isn’t without merit and across four minutes, this acts as a snapshot of how great Clapton’s backing band is – and more importantly, how relaxed they sound playing together. At the close of the track, Oldaker bashes his drums in a manner which would certainly suggest that – like ‘I Can’t Hold Out’ – this had been recorded live in the studio. [A couple of other numbers featured on a 2004 expanded version of the album were studio jams, so it’s likely a couple of the bluesier numbers featured on the original album were from the same session].

Perhaps ‘461’s most famous number is the cover of Bob Marley’s ‘I Shot The Sheriff’, a number which featured in Clapton’s live set for many years. While the recorded version doesn’t quite have the power of some of the live recordings (particularly those from the 1970s), Clapton and his band treat the song with great respect. Yvonne Elliman’s counter harmony helps beef up the lead vocal and a gentle reggae approach allows Oldaker to lay down a tight drum part with a few fantastic fills. Clapton occasionally punctuates the rhythm with a lead guitar note or two, often echoed by Dick Simms at the organ, but his piano fills which create the biggest impression. It must be tricky being a bunch of white rock musicians tackling the work of a reggae legend, yet somehow, Clapton and co hold onto their dignity.

‘Please Be With Me’ is a pastel shaded acoustic number, featuring Clapton sounding somewhat content with his current situation. While the twin guitars of Clapton and Terry make for great, rootsy listening – Clapton’s dobro work here particularly charming, once again – the track’s shining moments come from Yvonne Elliman’s harmony vocals. A take on Robert Johnson’s ‘Steady Rollin’ Man’ works its way through a funky riff that nods towards The Allman Brothers with its easy funkiness. Over that groove, Clapton’s vocal is slightly harder than on much of ‘461’. Jamie Oldaker, meanwhile, carries most of the weight with a drum groove that’s busy without ever becoming intrusive. There are a couple of guitar solos featured; though these are relatively busy, they’re certainly not aggressive in the way Clapton had been in his Cream or Derek and the Dominos days.

‘Willie and the Hand Jive’ (originally by Johnny Otis) has a rock ‘n’ roll rhythm slowed down to almost a reggae pace. Oldaker’s drum fills are great, as always and Simms maintains a middling presence on the organ. Bassist Carl Radle features higher in the mix than on most of the album, but doesn’t manage to do anything wholly remarkable and Yvonne Elliman’s harmony vocals are understated. Clapton and his band could have tackled Johnny Otis with a bit more enthusiasm; in this form, ‘Willie and the Hand Jive’ is filler material at best. [Clapton doesn’t have an especially good track record with regard to Johnny Otis numbers: On his 1983 release, ‘Money and Cigarettes’, Clapton covered ‘Crazy Country Hop’. The end result was a horribly low point on an already patchy album].

Written by guitarist George Terry, ‘Mainline Florida’ comes with a pleasing guitar riff, but like so much of ‘461 Ocean Boulevard’ it leans towards a sunny, jammed out vibe with no sharp edges. Letting his hired hands do most of the work here, it becomes obvious what a great band Clapton has in tow. Elliman’s backing vocals have a real presence; Dick Simms’s organ style throughout the number is limited to big chords with nothing fancy, but yet he still manages to leave his mark, while Jamie Oldaker’s drum style goes the distance without breaking beyond a solid shuffle. Each musician knows his or her role and never fights for domination. Clapton, meanwhile, never fights for domination either, with his unthreatening vocal delivery almost lost in the mix at times.

In all of its shiny eyed optimism, ‘461 Ocean Boulevard’ may not bring much in the way of original new material, but it presents Clapton at one of his career peaks – and in good shape. It’s interesting in that, for a guitarist, the album features so few obvious guitar solos. In this respect, the album’s arrangements are left to stand with relative simplicity, with no show-boating or none of the featured musicians taking a deliberate place out in front (Clapton included).

If you’re a fan of Clapton’s more ferocious work with Cream or Derek and the Dominos, it’s highly likely you’ll think of this album as lightweight or slight. While it may not carry much of a bite, despite a couple of misses, ‘461 Ocean Boulevard’ is one of Clapton’s best releases. With regard to his solo work, it may even be the best.

December 2010