Counterbalance No. 75: Derek & the Dominos’ ‘Layla’

Derek & the Dominos
Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs

Mendelsohn: Derek and the Dominos’ Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs marks the first time that we get to talk about Eric Clapton. That seems a little weird to me, Klinger. So two things right off the bat: how did we get this far without talking about Slowhand, and why aren’t we talking about his work with Cream first? Layla turned out to be a one-off record that Clapton managed to get out just before his drug addiction swallowed up his career for three or four years. It’s a fine record, to be sure, but putting aside my personal problems with this album, I’m still a little at odds over its ranking. Placate my misgivings, Klinger, before I start to question other universals facts like how global warming is simply a plot to sell more sunscreen and cavemen caused the dinosaurs to go extinct because they were so damn tasty.

Klinger: Well, Mendelsohn, I think it all comes down to one word (or rather one word that my spell check really thinks should be two words)—backstory. It is true that while Cream albums serve to bridge the gap from psychedelia to the rootsier sounds that followed, Layla has the benefit of an incredible backstory. By now it’s a standard part of rock lore: Clapton had fallen madly in love with one Patti Boyd Harrison, who was not only married, but her husband was his good friend George Harrison, lead guitarist for the Beatles, a Liverpudlian pop combo of some renown. To make a long story that you could look up somewhere else short, he wrote a clutch of songs chronicling the torment that his love for Patti was causing him. He then rounded up Duane Allman and members of Delaney and Bonnie’s band, and the newly dubbed Derek & the Dominos set about recording them in a substance-fueled frenzy.

So in this one album, you’ve got a guitar legend in the midst of an epic battle with his inner demons, a love triangle involving a Beatle, hard drugs, and doomed band members (all of the Dominos died tragically young, except Jim Gordon, who was sentenced to prison after killing his mother). Given all that, it’s fair to say that rock critics didn’t have a chance.

Backstory, Mendelsohn. Makes all the difference.

Mendelsohn: I know the backstory, Klinger. Remember the problem I had with this album that I alluded to earlier? The backstory would be it. I know how important a good story can be in cementing an album’s permanence into the public’s consciousness. We’ve discussed that on several occasions—most notably with the Sex Pistols and Fleetwood Mac—but the whole Patti Boyd part of the story makes my skin crawl a little. I get that it’s a huge romantic gesture, but c’mon, Clapton—the lady was spoken for. My suggestion would have been to go out, find an impossibly hot groupie, date her for a while and try to instigate a hard swap with the Harrisons one night. I mean, it was the ’70s, swinging was in vogue. Get it all out of your system and then move on. Writing an entire album and then taking it on tour seems a bit over the top to me. Maybe I’m just a cynic because the whole lovesick puppy act is almost enough to make me hate this record. That part of the backstory is really hard to ignore since Clapton lays it on extremely thick.

The part of the backstory I do like though is the serendipitous meeting of Clapton and Allman. Allman’s contribution to this record would not have happened had Clapton not gone to that Allman Brothers show shortly after they started recording Layla. Without Allman on board to contribute and fuel Clapton’s playing, we might be looking at a very different record — if they even managed to put one out at all.

This record may very well be the perfect storm of rock and roll records, which makes me appreciate its existence all that much more, but doesn’t really help me like the actual music all that much.

Klinger: You know something, Mendelsohn, I was all set to agree with you here. After all, to my way of thinking, few classic rock icons have so consistently tested our collective patience as Eric Clapton (Rod Stewart no longer being considered a rock icon, of course). “Wonderful Tonight” alone should have been enough to make us question his standing in the rock community, but then he’s compounded his folly with an endless parade of dire AOR and clichéd blues-flavored rockery. I came into Layla fully expecting to be bored silly, but I’ve been more than pleasantly surprised.

There’s a lot to like about the music that Clapton and keyboard player/co-writer Bobby Whitlock have constructed here. At its best, it stands up well to the early works of the Band, an obvious influence. Say what you will about the desperate lyrics to songs like “Bell Bottom Blues” and “I Am Yours”, but I can’t help but nod approvingly when I hear the Indian tabla drum that both songs appear to feature—it comes across to me as a cheeky reference to the spouse of Clapton’s objet d’amour, and you know what a sucker I am for cheeky references.

As I’ve spent the last weeks immersed in Layla, I have to say that the ten-minute blues jammery of “Key to the Highway” is just about the only time where I find myself staring at the little timer on my CD player.

Mendelsohn: I, on the other hand, like everything that “Key to the Highway” has to offer. It kind of encapsulates the off-the-cuff, true appreciation for the art form that these musicians shared with one another. There is an energy that you can’t reproduce in that song, simply because the band just picked up their instruments and started to play without any real prompting. The songs fades in because no one in the booth knew what was going on until someone realized what was happening and had the bright idea to hit record, and what happens next is a spectacular display of blues-rock. It is also one of the few songs where Clapton isn’t singing directly to Patti Boyd.

I don’t have any real problem with the rest of the record. The Clapton/Whitlock partnership works well on so many different levels. Their songwriting meshes well and I like that traditional track they take by switching back and forth on the vocals. I get the feeling with this record that Clapton had found a writing partner that allowed him to exploit his true strength—writing middle of the road, pop-oriented blues-rock songs. After Layla, it’s all kind of downhill for old Slowhand. He does eventually get Patti, but if anything, that makes this record seem almost that much more stalkerish.

Klinger: The line between desperately romantic gestures and legally actionable offenses is so often a blurry one, Mendelsohn. Trust me. But in the process, we also get the album’s title track, and I’m pretty sure we would be remiss in not talking about it. After all, “Layla” has been a fixture of FM radio Labor Day Weekend Top 500 countdowns for as long as I can remember, and it’s a big reason why I bought into the Clapton myth as an impressionable teenager. I recall being less taken with the serviceable rock of the first half than I was with the elegiac second half, written by drummer Jim Gordon and used to such dramatic effect in Goodfellas.

In listening to it again recently, I came to realize just what an important role producer Tom Dowd played in this album. In the astonishing documentary Tom Dowd and the Language of Music, there’s a scene where Dowd sits at a mixing desk and breaks the track down into its constituent parts. While hearing Clapton and Allman’s dual improvisations apart from the track does remind me of two gabbling chickens in too small a coop, Dowd knew exactly how to use that sound to create a bed underneath the piano melody, building the track and allowing it to breathe without overpowering. It’s an impressive trick, and to me it underscores just what a collaborative process record making really is, even if the resulting album ends up being largely credited to one man’s vision/obsession.

Mendelsohn: The opening riff of “Layla” may be one of the most recognizable in all of rock history, and I’m not ashamed to say it still gives me chills. I may not find the back end of the song as poetic as you, but I can certainly appreciate the behind-the-scenes work of producers, sound engineers, etc. that so often takes a good album and turns it into a great record. With Dowd’s contribution in mind, I think my characterization of Layla as the perfect storm of a rock record becomes more evident. There is so much energy, so many competing directions that it could unravel at almost any moment but yet it doesn’t—you can’t even see the seams—and that’s a huge testament to Dowd’s talents as well as the band that Clapton had assembled around him. Now if only he hadn’t been so hell-bent on stealing George Harrison’s wife…