ERIC CLAPTON – Another Ticket

clapton another ticketMost sensible session musicians would have walked out on Eric Clapton after his hateful, racist outburst in Birmingham on August 5th 1976. However, his regular band of musicians from Tulsa stuck by him throughout the following two years as he battled with the bottle. After the release of the ‘Backless’ album in 1978, Clapton and band took to the road once again for a world tour. A full length movie ‘Eric Clapton’s Rolling Hotel’ was shot at this time during the German leg of the tour, but has never been given a full release.

Despite their loyalty for almost five years (something EC himself praises in ‘Rolling Hotel’), the Tulsa band had been entirely replaced by the time Clapton reached Japan in 1979. In their place, a new collection of hardy session guys: pianist Chris Stainton, bassist Dave Markee, UK blues guitarist Albert Lee and top session drummer Henry Spinetti, whose previous credits included work with Joan Armatrading and Roger Daltrey. This part of the tour was recorded for posterity and subsequently released as a double live album entitled ‘Just One Night’. On the live recordings, Clapton sounds far sparkier than on bootleg recordings from the closely preceding years – his 1977 ‘Old Grey Whistle Test’ appearance included – so it’s fair to say that he was on his way to beating his addictions yet again. He wasn’t yet back on top of his game, however, as the next set of studio sessions would attest.

The sessions for Clapton’s first studio album of the 1980s are somewhat understated. His band sounds fine on a set of gentle middle of the road adult rock/pop cuts, but Clapton himself is well under par, his vocals often mumbling and lacking any real presence. So under-par, in fact, that second guitarist Albert Lee even takes lead on occasion. The finished album – provisionally entitled ‘Turn Up Down’ – was rejected by the record company. According to legend, this rejected album was actually presented to the record company with the master at the wrong pitch, so the jury is out as to whether that was their main reason for rejection or whether the material was just too lacklustre. There are a couple of largely unheard gems hiding on the record, however: Albert Lee’s sublime JJ Cale influenced ‘The Game’s Up’ being the most lamented casualty, while Clapton’s own ‘Hard Lovin’’ features some great guitar lines, rather like those which filled the best parts of ‘Backless’.

A second attempt at an album saw release as ‘Another Ticket’ in February 1981. Although Clapton’s vocals are slightly improved the bulk of the released material is still of a similar understated and slow-burning nature, with four of its nine tracks actually being retakes of the previously rejected songs.

The first of these retakes – ‘Something Special’ – is chosen to open the disc. It is somewhat stately in general mood; the sound of a man whose played similar music for years. Occasional guitar leads nod to Clapton’s past, but the bulk of the work is left to the pick-up band – particularly Dave Markee, whose bass line is pivotal and Chris Stainton whose rolling piano lines are commendable – or at least they would be, if he’d not then allowed Procol Harum’s Gary Brooker to lay some truly horrible synths over the top. The best thing that could be said about this is that it sounds like a late 70s George Harrison reject. It certainly doesn’t deserve pride of place at the head of this musical table. It’s better than the semi-acoustic recording made for ‘Turn Up Down’, but better is very much a relative concept. Worse still is the country-tinged ‘Black Rose’, where Clapton and company sound disgustingly middle-aged (despite Clapton himself not yet even forty years old). The song comes with a mid-paced and very easy approach, with Stainton’s piano again taking the bulk of the work. This Troy Seals number revisits Clapton’s liking of syrupy country – as experimented with on 1977’s ‘Slowhand’ – only with vastly inferior results. To begin with it doesn’t sound too bad: Clapton’s in reasonable voice at first, while his acoustic guitar blends well with Albert Lee’s slide. But then it all turns horribly wrong at the chorus once Spinetti steps up a gear. That chorus is a mid-paced, slightly stompy affair, coloured by more of Brooker’s horrid keyboards. On this kind of material Clapton and band sound no better than a function band, playing material chosen to celebrate a pensioner’s anniversary.

With track three, things start to improve as Clapton retreats into even more safe territory. On a cover of the Muddy Waters penned ‘Blow Wind Blow’, his lead guitars have a reasonable presence against a bar-room twang (augmented by some equally good bar-room piano). Clapton’s lead vocal has a greater sense of presence too – if not any real edginess – proving that despite his many forays into other genres, he really is at his best when tackling blues-based material. He may not be a match for the best blues vocalists in the world, but he at least gives this his best shot. Although not Clapton’s best blues recording by some chalk, it’s one of a couple of relatively bright spots on ‘Another Ticket’. The title cut could have been as lovely as ‘Black Summer Rain’ (from 1976’s ‘No Reason To Cry’) had Marcy Levy been on hand to spruce it up with several octaves of backing vocals. As it is, having only Clapton’s average lead voice to carry things, it struggles a little and often veers towards the schmaltzy. Lee’s almost inaudible backing vocal does nothing to help the cause, but luckily the “live in the studio” sounding drums and bass add some dimension. Meanwhile, any lead guitar work Clapton half-arsedly threatens to play is ultimately drowned out by Brooker on the synth yet again… In all, a track which should have given the album something moving, just frankly isn’t actually that memorable.

Chosen as a single release, ‘I Can’t Stand It’ is unremarkable at best; as Clapton and band make their way across four minutes of rock/pop in a workmanlike fashion. Here, they sound completely uninspired, as if RSO forced them to attempt to write a hit single, and given the rejection of their previous recording. this probably isn’t too far from the truth. Sure, Clapton’s guitar tones are pleasant enough – when he actually allows them to sheepishly poke their head above the rest of the band, that is – and once again, Spinetti’s drum sound is great, but it’s just not enough. Clapton even raises his voice on a couple of lines here and there to suggest tension, but the result is laughable. [Although in 1981 this may seem almost impossible, ‘I Can’t Stand It’ is still better than the chosen single from his next album]. A JJ Cale-esque groove comes back to the fore for ‘Hold Me Lord’. Better than the contrived ‘I Can’t Stand It’, the whole band sound far more natural in this rootsy setting. A pleasing vocal arrangement and even better use of dobro provide some musical highlights here, but while the musical arrangement is both concise and lean, it’s disposable at best. In terms of imagination, it sounds like something even the most drunken Clapton could have written in ten minutes. It’s fun. but also completely inessential…but with regard to this album, fans would be better to accept “fun and inessential” over the obvious dross on show elsewhere.

‘Floating Bridge’ returns things to blusier pastures. Like ‘Blow Wind Blow’, this number – from the Sleepy John Estes catalogue – represents ‘Another Ticket’s better side. There’s a woozy warmth seeping through the six-and-a-half minutes and Clapton’s slide guitars have a prominence, while his lazy vocal befits an arrangement on which the rest of the band prove more than up to the task. Markee’s bass is strong, often providing the real power which the drums never manage to muster. It’s during the instrumental moments where things really begin to work out, though; Clapton’s guitar talks, Lee’s rhythmic accompaniment almost chirps in response while Brooker’s organs bring a strong musical colour. This is perhaps the only time on the album where Brooker ought to have been given a greater prominence: his organ playing is strongly suited in this style of electric blues, so much so it would have been good to hear him cutting a bit looser. As it stands, he doesn’t bring any more than the most basic chord patterns to the table. [Just as Sleepy John Estes provided one of the strongest cuts for this album, the same could be said for Clapton’s 1983 follow-up, on which a cover of ‘Everybody Oughta Make a Change’ would be a similar stand out].

‘Catch Me If You Can’ – a Clapton/Brooker co-write – has the kind of bounce which is sorely lacking on most of ‘Another Ticket’. The best thing about this number is the breezy piano line contributed by Brooker himself; it’s so good for him to finally offer something of a higher calibre and come up winning. The rest of the band seem to welcome the buoyancy too; the drums shuffle in a manner they’re often denied while Clapton’s guitar riffs echo the rootsy twang of JJ Cale, with a hint of the earliest Dire Straits (albeit with only a fraction of Mark Knopfler’s unmatchable presence). Vocally, too, it’s an improvement over some of the other cuts. While Clapton’s slightly drawly style (possibly affectation) isn’t always the best choice, here, it’s well chosen. Topping everything off comes a quirky (if not particulary fierce) guitar duel between Clapton and Lee which is commendable to say the last. Coming near the end of the album, it almost seems to be a last gasp at something respectable; whoever was in charge of the album’s running order should have swapped this with ‘Something Special’: the album may not have ended up any better overall, but at least EC would have gone in with his better foot forward.

The best track on the album is left for last, presumably to create an upbeat impression once the record has stopped spinning. ‘Rita Mae’ is another track dating from the first sessions, but this second take is infinitely superior. Clapton’s buzzing rhythm guitar does nothing to hide his own love of JJ Cale’s work, while the backline of Spinetti (drums) and Markee (bass) is tight throughout, having more than been warmed up by the end of the last tour. While Spinetti is no Stewart Copeland, he particularly shines with regard to his work on the hi-hat on this number while Markee’s bass retains a strong root within the busy arrangment. Clapton, meanwhile, remains vocally ordinary, but his main guitar riff – creeping in between verses – helps pique a little interest, even if it still lacks most of the fire of his past glories. The featured solo isn’t too shabby, but again, he’s played better. While ‘Rita Mae’ is one of ‘Another Ticket’s best cuts – and certainly one of the only times the band actually sound like they’re having any fun, particularly during the extended instrumental coda – this studio cut pales into significance compared to the all-star version from The Royal Albert Hall a couple of years later.

Despite a relative lack of promotion, fans dutifully bought copies of ‘Another Ticket’ – the album eventually reaching an astonishing #7 on the US Billboard chart, one place higher than the infinitely superior ‘Backless’ – but it certainly represents a creative low for Clapton. While RSO were probably right to reject ‘Turn Up Down’, ‘Another Ticket’s material isn’t often any better. The blues-based material is fine enough, but too much reliance on light-weight adult rock/pop makes for a largely forgettable record. For the last album of original material recorded for RSO, it pales into utter insignificance compared to even the worst moments of his previous works. Maybe the presence of the often magical Marcy Levy would have lifted its spirits a bit – but then, even the most talented can’t work miracles.

July/October 2011