LONE STAR – Firing On All Six

Not to be confused with the US country pop band of the same name, Lone Star are one of the best kept secrets of British rock. That said, their beginnings are not so great: their eponymous debut is an okay 70s rock offering, but few of the songs stretch the bands talents. It’s only really notable for being produced by Roy Thomas Baker (most well known for his work with Queen and The Cars) and featuring an extended workout of The Beatles’ ‘She Said, She Said’. Very few people would consider it an essential album. By the time of their second release – 1977’s ‘Firing On All Six’ – original vocalist Kenny Driscoll had been replaced by John Sloman and the end result is a marked improvement. Not just for the arrival of an obviously superior vocalist, but for the technical aspects of the release – in terms of production, albums rarely come better sounding than this.

Continue reading



By the end of 1972, in addition to their heavy workload with The Who, both Pete Townshend and bassist John Entwistle had recorded solo albums. Townshend had been featured on two albums inspired by the spiritualist teachings of Meher Baba and also released the moderately successful ‘Who Came First’. Enwistle had two non-charting solo albums under his belt (1971’s ‘Smash Your Head Against The Wall’ and 1972’s ‘Wistle Rhymes’). Surprisingly late to the party, Roger Daltrey’s first solo album was released in April 1973.

As part of The Who, Roger Daltrey had occasionally written songs (most notably receiving a co-write on their 1965 hit ‘Anyway Anyhow Anywhere’), but he wasn’t really known as a songwriter. With regard to his first solo album, Daltrey reprises his role as a gifted vocalist. Simply titled ‘Daltrey’, nine the album’s songs were written by David Courtney and the then unknown Leo Sayer, with another two written by Courtney with Adam Faith.

While Daltrey himself did not contribute to any song writing, some of the songs themselves are very much suited to his vocal style. From the off, it’s obvious that ‘Daltrey’ is not a selection of tunes that Roger could have performed with The Who, each of the songs markedly different to Townshend’s style. The album tests his instantly recognisable voice, with a softer selection of musical arrangements. While the music retains almost none of Pete Townshend’s usual bombast – settling more in the radio-friendly adult rock/pop field – Daltrey’s voice, for the most part, carries its distinctive bluster, but a greater focus on piano led tunes gives Daltrey the opportunity to stretch out a little.

The album opens with ‘One Man Band’ (a song which later would become a signature tune for Sayer). Daltrey is accompanied by an acoustic guitar, followed by a bouncy approach which combines elements of theatre (of the light-weight variety) with middle of the road pop. Daltrey’s vocal has an element of fun and in all, it’s an opening track which sets out Daltrey’s solo musical journey with something a little naive. This is followed by ‘The Way of The World’ (one of the Adam Faith contributions) which has a bias toward country music. Courtney’s piano leads things off in an almost waltzing time signature, and guitar fills from Argent’s Russ Ballard add depth. A guitar solo is well executed and a violin accompaniment courtesy of East of Eden’s Dave Arbus highlights the country feel. Sadly, its lack of bridge sections or middle eight makes its three minute duration feel more like five. Thankfully, the chorus features a welcome key change and while Daltrey does his absolute best with this song, he deserved far less cumbersome.

‘You Are Yourself’ exudes confidence, as Daltrey lends a very powerful vocal to an orchestrated arrangement based around Dave Courtney’s piano. As the vocal soars into the chorus, Daltrey hits the spot as he delivers notes which are unmistakable. While half a world away from Townsend’s songwriting, this is just fantastic, as the piano compliments the vocal and the strings rise swell to give emphasis. A closing section featuring a heavily reverbed vocal weaken the track ever so slightly, as Daltrey struggles to fight the temptation to shout a few vocal lines in a way only he can. On the whole though, it’s incredible.

Some of Leo Sayer’s songs are very sympathetic to Daltrey’s voice, the best of the bunch being the absolutely gorgeous ‘Giving It All Away’. Beautifully arranged, this ballad allows Daltrey ample opportunity to wring the best out of every note, without resorting to bombast. His voice cries out against Courtney’s piano (backed by Bob Henrit’s drums on the louder sections), but something which would have been good is elevated to superb by the addition of unfussy orchestration. The strings are great – if a little obvious, but listen out for those couple of stings featuring oboe and flute. Quite simply, Daltrey’s reading of this song is a high point of orchestrated seventies pop/rock. (Daltrey scored a top ten UK hit in 1973 with ‘Giving It All Away’. It was later re-recorded by Sayer after his breakthrough, although it’s best not to think about Leo Sayer – especially since his 1976 appearance on ‘The Muppet Show’ is scary to the point of almost freak-show proportions).

‘It’s a Hard Life’ has a smooth arrangement, with Dave Courtney’s piano work laying the foundations, which is then overlaid with a lush string arrangement. Whereby most vocalists would treat this as a heart-tugging ballad, Daltrey tackles it a full bore, his loud voice even cracking as he hits the loudest notes. The closing section of the song introduces pounding drums and brass. Naturally, this is the part where Rog ought to have belted out at the top of his lungs…but it’s instrumental. The vocal ought to kill any passion carried within the song, but Daltrey is such a consummate professional, it works.

‘The Story So Far’ sounds like a quirky number at first, but it soon stumbles. Tackling a tune which wobbles somewhere between reggae and calypso, Henrit does a fine job behind the drum kit and Dave Wintour puts in a fine performance on the bass, but the other elements let the side down somewhat. Courtney’s piano playing could best be described as heavy handed, going from bad to worse as he hammers out a solo which barely stays in tune (or in time); there are strings thrown in where they don’t belong, alongside a particularly unpleasant brass section. And all the while, Rog is in there, trying his best to be a star. While ‘Daltrey’ features some great songs, this is bar far it’s worst – and possibly even one of the worst of Roger Daltrey’s solo career. ‘Reasons’ is a decent rock-based number, where Wintour’s bass work is one of the high points. Very high in the mix, the bass is really solid and played against an equally suitable drum part, this really helps the track to be one of the album’s greatest musical outings. Daltrey in turn sounds comfortable here, given ample opportunity to belt out a vocal more in keeping with his day job. Measuring this against ‘The Story So Far’ (and maybe even ‘One Man Band’), it proves there’s so much truth in the old saying that sometimes less is more.

‘When The Music Stops’ is steeped in sadness as Daltrey recounts the end of a relationship, his voice backed solely backed by a string quartet. Where normally Daltrey appears to only be capable of singing at two volumes (loud and louder), here, he offers a rare, thoughtful, almost even gentle performance, his voice really feeling the sad tones of the song. A reprise of ‘One Man Band’ (recorded live on the famous rooftop of Apple Studios) plays up the busking elements of the original opening number. Traffic noises accompany Daltrey’s vocal and acoustic guitar before he performs a scat vocal and imitates trumpets with his voice (very loudly). The sound of his voice drifts into the distance, bringing the album to a close.

‘Daltrey’ sold very well in the UK upon release, eventually peaking at #6 on the UK album chart, making it his most successful solo album. Anyone expecting something with a similar timeless quality to The Who at their best will possibly be disappointed, but anyone able to appreciate the album on its own merits will find some genuinely great songs here.

November 2010



In the mid 1960’s, beat groups and rhythm ‘n’ blues changed lives, and with their bombast, The Who had become one of the era’s most popular bands. Pop music had constantly re-invented itself and psychedelia had pushed pop’s boundaries even further. As part of The Who’s second album (1966’s ‘A Quick One’) Pete Townshend contributed a theatrical piece, ‘A Quick One While He’s Away’, which suggested there was more to the band than their previous work may have suggested. But things were going to get bigger. Much bigger.

As the lead track from Mark Wirtz’s ‘A Teenage Opera’, Keith West scored a hit single in the summer of 1967 with ‘Excerpt from “A Teenage Opera” (Grocer Jack)’. EMI pulled the plug on the release of the complete ‘Teenage Opera’, but between Wirtz’s grand musical vision and the rock musical ‘Hair’ making its off Broadway debut at the end of the year, some important musical seeds had been sown. Via experiments with psychedelia, The Who released their career defining rock opera, ‘Tommy’, in May 1969.

This was not only a career defining moment for The Who, but for rock music in general. After an appearance playing ‘Tommy’ at Woodstock and the release of their seminal ‘Live at Leeds’ album, Pete Townshend (alongside a few famous chums, including Small Faces man Ronnie Lane) recorded ‘Happy Birthday’, an album of music inspired by the spiritual teachings of Meher Baba. The Who returned in 1970 with a re-recording of a track from this release, ‘The Seeker’, which became a UK top ten hit. Pete Townsend intended The Who’s next album to be an ambitious concept piece called ‘Lifehouse’, though the project was abandoned in favour of a more conventional album release. In 1971, The Who released ‘Who’s Next’, an album containing a solid collection of rock tunes (some of which were intended for ‘Lifehouse’. ‘Who’s Next’ is rightly regarded as a masterpiece; one of its many stand-out moments is ‘Baba O’Riley, a track which would also appear in extended instrumental form on a second collection of spiritual material, once again dedicated to Meher Baba.

After live shows for ‘Who’s Next’ wound down, many musicians would’ve taken the time to step back from such an extraordinarily busy schedule. But not Townshend. He returned to the studio to record a second album of songs inspired by Meher Baba, ‘I Am’, and ‘Who Came First’, an album of personal material; a collection of songs which is widely regarded as his first official solo release.

As expected, the album showcases Townshend’s skill as a songwriter, but also highlights his talents as a studio hand. With the opportunity to have the final say with regard to this project, Townshend not only takes on vocal and guitar duties, in addition to playing various keyboard parts, but also becomes producer, engineer and mixer too. Where The Who had previously enlisted either Kit Lambert or Glyn Johns to produce, ‘Who Came First’ was Townshend’s opportunity to oversee all technical aspects of the project in an almost Orson Welles like fashion.

He’s not so arrogant as to not enlist other musicians where necessary though (even letting them take the musical reigns on occasion). Old friend Ronnie Lane contributes vocals and guitars, Caleb Quaye (best known for his work on Elton John’s albums from a similar period) is enlisted as bassist, drummer and sometime guitarist, and Billy Nicholls adds guitars and vocals. As for the material itself, it’s very much a rag-bag of stuff; some which is instantly enjoyable and some which requires work on the listener’s part to get to grips with.

The album opens with one of its most familiar numbers. Originally intended as part of ‘Lifehouse’, ‘Pure & Easy’ made its debut here as a Pete Townshend solo recording, but was re-recorded by The Who a short time later (eventually appearing on their 1974 compilation of rarities, ‘Odds & Sods’). In the hands of The Who, the song features some great harmony vocal moments in addition to Daltrey’s commanding lead. Townshend’s original take is weak in comparison. The harmonies are all but absent, and Townshend’s vocal during the opening verse is almost painful to listen to, as he hits notes which are far too high for him. Thankfully, he settles down by the pre-chorus, and the song finds its stride. Despite Townshend’s vocal shortcomings in various places ‘Pure & Easy’ is a great song and his band is solid throughout (if never remarkable). Since the song features some great moments but never quite reaches its potential, it makes sense that The Who re-recorded it so quickly, improving it a great deal in the process.

‘Evolution’ presents one of the album’s best numbers. Here Ronnie Lane takes the helm in an acoustic reworking of ’Stone’, an old Faces number. Lane’s vocal is easy and natural, the perfect fit for the rootsy, blues-folk hybrid of the music. The main acoustic part is fairly basic, but a few complicated runs and some fantastic soloing really bring style to the number. Having long been peers by this point in their careers, there’s a mutual respect between Lane and Townshend and the space each performer affords the other on this recording highlights that. [Lane and Townshend would work together five years later on a completely collaborative album, ‘Rough Mix’].

‘Sheraton Gibson’ tells a tale of life on the road and of how it takes its toll upon the artist. Townshend’s gentle vocal is full of aching and longing and set against a beautiful plucked acoustic arrangement, it’s certainly one of his best performances. A few electric guitar overdubs during the chorus flesh things out unnecessarily – as if to remind us of Pete’s usual background – but essentially, this solo performance (without bass or drums) has an air of fragility – of feeling lost. Whether the home he refers to is literal, or whether home refers to the spiritual teachings of Meher Baba is unclear.

‘Time Is Passing’ is a rumbling pop-rock number, which has echoes of The Who, only without any of the power. The guitar parts are somewhat understated, but there’s some great organ accompaniment. Townshend’s vocal style makes this number sound far more twee than it ought to be, but the end result still has more in keeping with The Who than most of the numbers present on ‘Who Came First’. Townshend may be star of his own show, but it’s Caleb Quaye’s bass and drum work which is this number’s strongest feature. Granted, his drumming might not carry the breezeblock subtlety of Keith Moon, but it’s powerful enough; his bass style is very upfront, giving this track an anchor.

‘Forever’s No Time At All’, written by Billy Nicholls sounds like filler material. It has a similar-ish vibe to ‘Time Is Passing’ (clearly that kind of rock-pop was Townshend’s band’s forte) and Townshend’s multi-tracked guitar parts are fabulous (lending themselves to a great use of stereo). Sadly, his great contributions are almost eclipsed by handclaps which are far too loud in the mix. Since it was his number, Billy Nicholls takes lead vocal and his high tone kills any enjoyment this song may have had.

‘Heartache’ is an acoustic cover of the Jim Reeves number ‘There’s a Heartache Following Me’. Hearing Townshend lumber his way through this old, crooning number is just bizarre. Recorded just after the most inventive part of The Who’s career, it seems so out of step with Townshend at his best. However, with ‘Who Came First’s main focus being on more introspective and personal material, it almost fits here. Why did Townshend choose to include it, when the sessions included better cuts which were originally left behind (such as the basic blues workout ‘I Always Say’ or the wonderful film-score-like piano instrumental ‘Lantern Cabin’)? The answer is simple: it was one of Baba Meher’s favourite songs.

Released as a single by The Who the previous year, ‘Let’s See Action’ appears on ‘Who Came First’ as alternate recording made by Townshend and his band. Having Daltrey, Entwistle and Moon on hand may have improved ‘Pure & Easy’ but interestingly The Who’s rendition of ‘Let’s See Action’ isn’t as good as Townsend’s solo take. With Townshend up front, this rolling bar-room rocker feels more natural; his softer vocal appears far more understanding with regards to its mid-tempo, mid-volume arrangement. The Who’s single version appears to drag in places, despite only a four minute duration; by contrast, this six minute extended arrangement stays the course, with Caleb Quay’s rhythm work carrying just enough punch to keep it flowing.

‘Content’ is an interesting choice, particularly for a rock star of Townshend’s usual posturing and bravado. For this track, he uses a poem by Maud Kennedy as a lyric, which he then sings rather gently over a simple piano arrangement. The piano chords are played slowly and very clearly defined in an unfussy style. There’s almost not quite enough happening to make the music gel, so an overdub of Townshend’s buzzing guitar strings is used to add extra musical depth. Again, it’s a world away from the then most recent Who album (‘Who’s Next’), but what is a solo album for, if not to release pieces of music which have no suitable home for a main project? The idea of including poetry just wouldn’t sit right with The Who, although it is very much in keeping with the hippie ethos of the early seventies [See also the old woman reading poetry at the end of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Bare Trees’ LP].

‘Parvardigar’ is a reworking of a track from the second album for Meher Baba. The lyrics are based upon one of his prayers, but it’s the music which is of greatest interest. Multiple ringing acoustic guitars make up the core of the main tune, but it’s not always gentle. There are moments where Townshend just cannot resist throwing out huge ‘Pinball Wizard’ style chords and during the moments where the band provides complete support, it sounds like a Who demo. Even Caleb Quaye’s drum fills are a nod to Keith Moon (albeit played with far more subtlety). While I don’t care especially for the spiritual aspects of the lyrics, or the general praise lavished upon Meher by Townshend, it would have been great to hear Daltrey at his peak absolutely belting his way through this tune.

‘Who Came First’ only achieved limited commercial success at the time of release, spending just two weeks on the UK album chart, its highest position just #30. Over the years, the album has been re-appraised and is often seen as one of the best Who-related solo ventures.

While ‘Who Came First’ features some good songs,Townshend’s vocal approach doesn’t always bring out their best qualities. Over the years Daltrey breathed a great amount of power and presence into Townshend’s songs and, in comparison, Townshend’s high voiced (although more than competent) style is often unremarkable. While some people have heaped praise upon ‘Who Came First’, it’s possibly more of an interesting curio than an essential album.

[An expanded version of ‘Who Came First’ features most of Townshend’s main contributions to the Meher Baba albums as bonus tracks, as well as a few other choice cuts].

November 2010

THIN LIZZY – Vagabonds Of The Western World


By the end of 1972, Thin Lizzy had attracted a cult audience, but also had two albums under their belt which were commercial failures. Early 1973 bought a change in their fortunes when their reworking of the Irish folk song ‘Whiskey In The Jar’ (released as a single in November ’72) became a huge hit. Eventually reaching #6 in the UK chart, it gave them massive exposure on radio and even scored them an appearance on ‘Top of the Pops’. The song also became a German top 10 hit and a number one single in Ireland.

Continue reading

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

Posted in 70s