Eric Clapton – 461 Ocean Boulevard
As a body of work, I’ve never had much interest in Eric Clayton’s music. “Layla” is an all-time great, and I liked some of his singles from the 1970s and 1980s, but I have never once felt compelled to check out his albums, whether solo or with any of the several successful bands he’s been part of. It just wasn’t a sound that I connected with overall, and that’s fine: we all have to make choices.
Then came the tragic death of his son (followed years later by Anthony Jeselnik’s brilliant and completely tasteless joke – I won’t link to it here because it’s very dark, but search “Jeselnik Clapton” on YouTube if you’re curious and have a high tolerance for inappropriate humour), and the absolutely dreadful song that he wrote about this loss. I know that an awful lot of people love “Tears in Heaven”, and I won’t argue with that, but to me it’s just mawkish and, frankly, pandering to sentiment for commercial gain. I respect the need to write it as therapy and a memorial to his child. I just wish he’d stopped there.
Anyway, Clapton is the kind of artist who can force you to decide whether you can still enjoy the art while loathing the artist. Let us never forget that “Layla” was written about a woman who he was trying to steal from her husband, who was supposed to be his friend. More recently, he’s held some really shitty and dangerous beliefs during the COVID pandemic. There’s a past history of horrific substance abuse, and he blamed the former for a racist diatribe from an English stage that not nearly enough people seem to know about. The racism also is in the context of a man who feathered his pockets on the backs of Black blues greats. There is a LOT of evidence that he is something of a douche, at minimum, and a monster at worst.
And yet, there is the music. I came to this album, with my historic disregard for his music and general loathing of his person, ready to dislike it. Alas, it was not to be, because it’s a pretty awesome album.
Recorded after Clapton got off heroin, “461 Ocean Boulevard” (named for the street address of the house he lived in while recording) is a shambling record, completely at ease with itself. I don’t want to say he was taking any risks here, since half the songs are covers of old blues or traditional tunes, but Clapton was also definitely not mailing it in: there is a genuine sense of commitment in almost every track. For a guitar god, he made an album where the guitar is not merely a showcase for his playing. On, for example, “I Can’t Hold Out”, it’s played with finesse, not pyrotechnics: careful, technically precise playing, getting the notes right, making sure it is in service of the song. If any instrument takes centre stage overall, it’s the keyboards: the light ballpark organ of “Give Me Strength” gives the track a Christian spiritual feel, and it is similarly highlighted on “I Can’t Hold Out” and “Mainline Florida”.
He’s playing (lightly) with genre here, with souped-up southern rock on “Motherless Children”, sauntering blues on “Willie and the Hand Jive”, low-key funk on “Get Ready”, reggae-lite on “I Shot the Sheriff”, and barroom blues on “Steady Rollin’ Man”. “Let It Grow” feels like the next-to-closing track on a prog rock album, after the hero’s journey is at an end and he’s summing up what it all means before the hallelujah ending. The only real rocker is “Mainline Florida”, and it’s the track that is the most fun and features Clapton’s best vocal for my money. There’s a disjointed feel to several of the songs (on “Get Ready” in particular), with the instruments finding a weird harmony by competing with each other. These last two are my favourite songs on the album, along with “Give Me Strength” and “Please Be With Me”.
It’s far from a perfect record: some tracks run too long (“Motherless Children” runs out of ideas about 90 seconds into its almost five-minute run time), and most of the lyrics are nothing to get excited about. At its best, the album feels like the peace that comes at the end of a long battle, with the person you love most at your side. I don’t know if Clapton deserves that peace – see above re the racism, substance abuse, vaccination denial and wife stealing – but he definitely earned it. I guess there’s some form of redemption to be found here, though I leave it to others to put in the work to find it: he’s too much of a dick for me to bother.
2 thoughts on “Pazz and Jop 1974 #9”
You’re not alone in your distaste for Clapton, the person, or your indifference for Clapton, the musician. I know he’s widely worshipped, but I’m gonna be the heretic here and say he’s overrated. 🤯
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I guess that makes us both heretics. Is that enough to start an anti-Clapton cult?