Word To Tom Dowd
What can you say or write about Eric Clapton that hasn’t already been voiced? His hailings have always preceded him, and we can visibly see through history it was much to his dismay. Journalists much more qualified than I have tread and re-tread this path quite ceremoniously in the last 50 years, and most have had the same things to say ... over and over again. Soon after “Clapton Is God”, the unsolicited titles bestowed upon him have done so much to distract one away from the music. It’s as if he were an actual Beatle, or some mythological deity summoned to this mortal coil to save the world with his mighty riffs. Of course I type in jest, but this stuff was real. Kids spray-painted these sentiments on their neighborhood buildings, and wrote them in their schoolbooks. Myths galore further alienated him along with tragedy, causing the man quite a deal of pain and anger. And being in the public eye like that? Anyone can surely conclude it is not pleasurable.
Some of his most celebrated works have come from his expressions of that, but not much has been done to highlight the music Clapton made when he was, dare I say it, happy. He sure looked happy on the cover of 461 Ocean Boulevard, and the record as a whole felt the same. To a lesser extent, so did There’s One In Every Crowd the following year. Clapton was infatuated with the island vibe then, and I’ve quietly wondered for years if ‘Slowhand’ had explored reggae further than “I Shot The Sheriff”, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, “Don’t Blame Me”, and “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” (he did record There’s One In Every Crowd in Kingston). The answer to that query, and many more revelations await the curious Claptonite on Give Me Strength: The 1974/75 Recordings.
Coming off of his well-publicized heroin hiatus and the Rainbow Theater comeback show, Clapton made his way to Miami, Florida for some needed rejuvenation time. The band assembled for his stay at Criteria Studios soon after would provide a well-spring of groove for these new formulas he wished to explore, somewhat based on his love for The Band and JJ Cale as well as a properly-timed introduction to the music of Bob Marley thanks to guitarist George Terry. Bassist Carl Radle, keyboardist Dick Sims, drummer Jamie Oldaker (all three just came off of touring with Bob Seger), and backing vocalist Yvonne Elliman also participate in a stellar ensemble that execute Clapton’s pared down vision sublimely. Basically, he replaced the searing solos of the recent past for a slow-cooked southern-tropical feel, and he was extremely successful for doing so. Vocal ‘guitar god’ fans tend to dismiss this period in his career, pandering to the notion he was just going through the motions. If this box set proves anything, it’s the explosion of song-craft in the midst of this career revival and the humility expressed from within the man himself. Not the guitar god.
461 Ocean Boulevard was originally released in 1974 immediately following his first US number-one hit, “I Shot The Sheriff”. Yes, it was instrumental in the rise of reggae music awareness in the states, but didn’t do much to satiate the fans of the guitar workout a-la Cream. In fact, the whole album alienated many who hoped for the return of the macho soloist more than the discovery of an intimate artist. More respect is deserved, for this album is a moment of comfort never felt in a Clapton disc before. “Let It Grow” is a major breakthrough songwriting-wise, and it’s lush construction sounds as good today as it did on the ‘lite-rock’ FM stations of the ‘70s. “Give Me Strength” gently pulsates thanks to the guest rhythms of Al Jackson Jr. from the MG’s. All tracks from the Criteria sessions are fulfilling in their own way, and the Miami bonus cuts featured in this new boxed set are extraordinary.
Whether you admit it or not, Clapton was quite good at interpreting reggae. The smattering of a few more in this vein throughout the Strength box only drives this point home. If you put all of them together, there are enough tracks with the Carribean vibe here to release a reggae-only compilation (hint, hint). These explorations dominate the sessions for There’s One in Every Crowd, but that’s to be expected since the recording took place in Kingston at the revered Dynamic Sounds. From these tapes comes the additions of “Burial” and “Whatcha Gonna Do”, both penned by Peter Tosh (I swore I heard Tosh vocally participating during the sessions). There more than a handful of bonus goodies from the Dynamic Sound days, and it’s easy to appreciate each one of them.
The happiness heard on 461 Ocean Boulevard isn’t found in the same quantity in the Dynamic Sound sessions. Moments of awesome do await, but there is an overall strain felt throughout the recordings. Over the years, certain writings have alluded to the start of another dark period (in most historical accounts, it was). Clapton’s autobiography cites “problems in Jamaica”, but other than a developing drinking issue during this time period, very little is said. History would soon chronicle a drunken mess of a rant at one of his shows in 1976, thus beginning another chapter to be ‘box-setted’ in the future. I can’t wait to hear that one.
The rest of this snapshot in time chronicled within Give Me Strength finds one knee deep in the blues, especially the live stuff originally released as E.C. Was Here in ‘76. Unreleased performances from the Long Beach Arena show that made up most of the aforementioned live gem are incredible as well, leading me to question why E.C. Was Here wasn’t originally released as a double-live affair. There’s much more that’s been tapped from the vaults for discs three, four, and five ... some of which was previously issued on the expanded edition of 461 Ocean Boulevard and others. We also hear the return of Clapton the unholy soloist, unleashing pure fire and blues-brimstone throughout the live tracks and studio workouts with Freddie King. This set also marks the first release of the full 22-minute version of “Gambling Woman Blues” with King. And if that wasn’t enough, quad mixes of both studio albums and the 5.1 mix of 461 Ocean Boulevard are here, too. There’s so much new information to ingest, it makes sense to study Give Me Strength in sections. I did, and I’m still overwhelmed.
As with most period-studying box sets, Give Me Strength: The 1974/75 Recordings is aimed right at the completist, or that smartass that writes their fine-arts doctoral final on subjects like Clapton. On the outside, it looks like a bunch of fluff peacocking on glossy stock. Niche marketing at its most diabolical. After the smoke clears, this collection reveals Eric Clapton, the song-crafting human being. Every track paints a new picture on his storyboard, filling in the blanks between the groove on the record and the tales in the headlines. We as listeners are now invited to examine his personal, emotional documents in a roughly two-year period, and I for one feel like I’m intruding a bit. It’s a lot to get through, but it never gets daunting. It gets real. That’s what makes this set so compelling, and worth both the money and time.