Clapton gained his reputation in the 1960’s as a psychedelic blues rock guitar god, bouncing from band to band like an unsatisfied gun for hire (John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, The Yardbirds,Cream, Blind Faith and Derek and the Dominos). By 1970 he had left Derek & the Dominos and released his first solo album, which contained the J.J. Cale cover “After Midnight”. Instead of propelling his solo career forward he slid deep into heroin addiction that became a four year abyss where Clapton disappeared from the face of the earth, surfacing briefly on a couple of occasions to perform charity concerts. In 1974 after breaking free from his addiction to heroin he returned to the studio to record 461 Ocean Boulevard, his first studio album in four years. This record established the solo sound that would define him for the remainder of the ’70’s, with more emphasis on mellower, compact songs and less on long guitar solos. Some believe that his inclusion of Bob Marley’s “I Shot The Sheriff” was a major factor in the both the popularization of Reggae music and of Marley himself.
After releasing 3 albums in the previous 3 years he offered up Slowhand in 1977, a record that in my opinion was his best. Easily a rock classic that can be put on and listened to from start to finish. The disc’s most recognizable song (although surprisingly it was not released as a single until 3 years later) is his cover of J.J. Cale’s “Cocaine”. The song is still a staple on AOR radio over 30 years later. The first single released off of Slowhand was the exquisitely beautiful “Wonderful Tonight”. In my eyes its Eric Clapton’s best. Although it may be somewhat simplistic in its lyrical content, it blends effortlessly with the slowed down almost waltz-like musical pace and the sincerity in the narrative. The ironic nature of this song cannot be overlooked either. Clapton wrote most of this song while he was waiting for his wife Pattie to get ready for a party they would be attending that was being thrown by Paul and Linda McCartney. Pattie was the ex-wife of Beatles guitarist George Harrison, whom had been Clapton’s best friend and whom he stole her away from. Years earlier when Parttie and George were still married Eric had written his classic “Layla” about his unrequited love for Pattie. It is a song that is easily personally identifiable and timeless. For some reason this song was never a top 10 hit, reaching just #16 on the Billboard Hot 100. The next single, however, did crack the Top 10. It was the hard to categorize “Lay Down Sally”. Is it rock, pop or country? Apparently no one was able to answer back in 1978 either, as the song was a Top 40 country hit, while peaking at #3 on the Hot 100 and landed in heavy rotation on FM AOR stations. Truly a crossover song that helped propel Slowhand to #2 on the album charts and make it one of the most commercially successful albums of his career.
If you were to stop right there, Slowhand would be a great disc, but you would be doing this record a tremendous disservice. Although Eric touches on many musical styles on this offering, there is an overwhelming country rock sound to much of this disc. The #3,4,5 tracks on side one showcase this, starting with the aforementioned “Lay Down Sally”. Another more subliminal theme that runs through parts of this album is cheating and fear of losing your spouse, which given the time frame when he recorded this record he was married to his best friends wife which he stole away, should not be too surprising. “Next Time You See Her” touches on both of these things. Country twinge guitar set to lyrics of the narrator talking to another man about leaving his woman alone (…and if you see her again, I will surely kill you) and includes the classic line “she’s got everything…including my old gun“. Side one concludes with a cover of a Don Williams country ballad “We’re All The Way”, a song that showcases what an underrated lyricist Williams is. It is a beautifully simple song that is a man talking to his woman and professing his love to her and his willingness to take their relationship to a new level (don’t put words between us…we shouldn’t say..and don’t be acting half way, when you know…we’re all the way). While side 1 of Slowhand has the country rock feel and radio format friendly songs (the longest track clocks in at 4 minutes) side 2 starts out with the blistering hard rock classic “The Core” with fiery rock guitar licks and featuring Marcy Levy stepping out from being just a back up singer and co-singing with Eric Clapton.The song was a DJ’s wet dream in the late ’70’s and early ’80’s, clocking in at just under 9 minutes it allowed them to take a piss, have a smoke or fire off a quick joint. Then there is the cover of British singer/songwriter John Martyn’s beautiful “May You Never”. It’s a song about the love and loyalty of our closest friends and the singers hope for peace in thier friends lives. Interestingly Clapton follows the original version very closely, except for one small addition. In the chorus he adds the line “may you never lose your temper, if you get hit on a bar room fight…may you never lose your woman overnight”. That addition once again enlightens one to Clapton’s self doubt and insecurity about maintaining his relationship with Pattie. On the next to last cut Eric’s blues influence finally makes an appearance with a gritty cover of Arthur Crudup’s “Mean Old Frisco”.
Slowhand would be the album that propeled Eric Clapton back to the foreground of rock’s consciousness. It is a timeless classic that resonates today, nearly 35 years after its release.
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