Narendra Kusnur's music musings …

Archive for March, 2015

Happy 70th Birthday, Eric Clapton


Clapton

WHEN I first heard Eric Clapton, he was 35 years old, exactly half his current age. The year was 1980, and my first exposure came through the songs ‘Lay down Sally’, ‘Layla’, ‘I shot the sheriff’ and ‘Wonderful tonight’ over the radio. The following year, ‘Cocaine’ was played at every college festival in Delhi. Soon, I was hooked to the live album ‘Just One Night’, tripping on newer favourites like ‘After midnight’, ‘Tulsa time’, ‘Setting me up’ and ‘Blues power’ once my ear slowly got trained into appreciating those gorgeous guitar parts.

Clapton, who turns 70 today, has been regular on my playlist since the early 1980s. After the initial exposure, there was an effort to listen to his earlier stuff, beginning with his work for the groups Cream and Derek & The Dominoes, and his solo albums. His contributions to Blind Faith, Yardbirds and John Mayall’s Blues Breakers came later in my life, and at the same time, I tried to keep in touch with his latest releases.

While the initial admiration was more for his guitaring, I slowly began grasping the beauty of his raspy voice. Still, though he became one of my favourite musicians ever, I had two
complaints. One, many of his most popular songs were actually written by others. Even though he gave a completely different twist to his cover versions, only a handful of songs written by him were hugely successful.

Secondly, Clapton has had a fair share of erratic and average albums, specially in the 1980s and early 2000s. While his work till the mid-1970s was memorable, his later efforts were not always consistent, despite some excellent albums now and then. In the latter part of his career, the collaborations with greats like BB King and JJ Cale were brilliant, and so were some of his blues tributes. His rendition of Gary Moore’s ‘Still got the blues’, from his 2013 album ‘Old Sock’ was first-rate. But efforts to write his own stuff were namby-pamby.

These flaws notwithstanding, nothing could stop me from getting back to Clapton after regular intervals. I may have spent months away from other favourites like Pink Floyd, Doors, Jethro Tull and Santana, but Clapton, like the Beatles and Bob Dylan, always kept returning. To pep up one’s mood, nothing seemed better than a live album of Clapton – ‘Just One Night’, ‘Unplugged’, or his tie-ups with Steve Winwood and jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.

The admiration of the man increased after I read his autobiography, where he not only talks of his music and influences, but about his various romantic interests (including the one with George Harrison’s wife Pattie Boyd), his battles with drugs and alcohol, his subsequent attempts to help addicts, and the tragic death of his son Conor, which led him to write the brilliant ‘Tears in heaven’ in ‘Unplugged’.

Clapton has been on the scene for nearly five decades, and released some incredible stuff over the years. To join in his 70th birthday celebrations, here’s my list of favourite Clapton studio albums culled from various phases of his career. Not an easy task, of course, but here goes, in chronological order of their release:

Blues Breakers – John Mayall with Eric Clapton: This 1966 recording was fronted by British blues great John Mayall, who does lead vocals and plays piano and Hammond B3 organ. Clapton joins on electric guitar, with John McVie (later of Fleetwood Mac) on bass and Hughie Flint on drums. Popular songs are ‘All your love’, ‘Hideaway’ and ‘Rambling on my mind’.

Disraeli Gears – Cream: The second studio album of rock supergroup Cream, featuring Clapton, bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker. The 1967 record, also recognised for its psychedelic cover artwork, features classic Cream numbers like ‘Tales of brave Ulysses’, ‘Sunshine of your love’, ‘Strange brew’, ‘We’re going wrong’ and ‘SWLABR’.

Blind Faith – Blind Faith: Released in 1969 with a controversial cover, this was the only album by the legendary line-up of Clapton, keyboardist-vocalist Steve Winwood, bassist-violinist Ric Grech and drummer Ginger Baker. Classic cuts include ‘Had to cry today’, ‘Can’t find my way home’, ‘Well all right’, ‘Presence of the lord’ and ‘Sea of joy’.

Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs – Derek & The Dominoes: One of Clapton’s best works to date, this 1970 release features the memorable ‘Layla’, which Clapton wrote for Pattie Boyd. Super-guitarist Duane Allman appears on 11 of the 14 songs, which also include ‘Bell bottom blues’, ‘Have you ever loved a woman’, ‘Nobody knows you when you’re down and out’ and a version of Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Little wing’ Bobby Whitlock does a great job on piano and organ.

461 Ocean Boulevard – Solo: Clapton’s second solo studio album, released in 1974, was an indication of the style he was to follow for many years, using laidback pop-infused rock songs laced with blues influences. Hits here included a version of Bob Marley’s reggae hit ‘I shot the sheriff’, ‘Let it grow’ and ‘Willie and the hand jive’.

Slowhand – Solo: The title of this 1977 record was based on the nickname given to Clapton. The first three numbers became classics – namely ‘Cocaine’, ‘Wonderful tonight’ and ‘Lay down sally’. The album was to reach No 2 on the Billboard 200 charts.

From the Cradle – Solo: Released in 1994, this was Clapton’s marvelous tribute to old-school blues, as he played a selection of standards in his own style. On the list were Willie Dixon’s ‘Hoochie coochie man’, popularised by Muddy Waters, Tampa Red’s ‘It hurts me too’, Lowell Fulson’s ‘Sinner’s prayer’ and Leroy Carr’s ‘Blues before sunrise’.

Riding with the King – With BB King: Clapton fulfilled his dream of collaborating with one of his heroes in this 2000 album, which also featured great talent like guitarists Andy Fairweather Low, Jimmie Vaughan and Doyle Bramhall II, keyboardist Joe Sample, bassist Nathan East and drummer Steve Gadd. The version of Big Bill Broonzy’s ‘Keys to the highway’ is brilliant.

Me and Mr Johnson – Solo: Another blues tribute, this time dedicated to the legendary Robert Johnson, with Clapton exclusively playing his compositions. Released in 2004, it contains Clapton’s versions of favourites ‘Milkcow’s calf blues’, ‘Love in vain’ and ‘Kind hearted woman blues’.

The Road to Escondido – with JJ Cale: Clapton had over the years popularized two Cale songs ‘Cocaine’ and ‘After midnight’. In this 2006 collaboration, he teams up with his idol on songs like ‘Sporting life blues’, ‘Hard to thrill’, ‘Don’t cry sister’ and ‘Ride the river’. The guests include guitarists Derek Trucks and John Mayer.

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Andy Fraser, Free and the great ‘earlier’ bands of the stars


Fraser2

Andy Fraser of Free

THE week gone by has been rather sad for rock music, following the death of three outstanding musicians – Toto bassist Mike Porcaro, Free bassist/ pianist Andy Fraser and Twisted Sister drummer A J Pero. While each of them was incredibly talented, they were at their prime in different periods – Fraser in the late 60s and early 70s, Porcaro in the early to mid-1980s, and Pero in the late 1980s.

Followers of good old ‘classic’ rock would remember Fraser’s group Free not only for its rock staple ‘All right now’, but also because it was the earlier band of super-vocalist Paul Rodgers, who made waves in the mid-1970s with Bad Company. In fact, Rodgers is considered one of the greatest rock vocalists ever, but there again, much of his success and memorable songs are due to Bad Company.

On its own, Free was one of the most popular bands on the British circuit, shuffling between early hard rock and blues-influenced rock. It released six studio albums, including the successful ‘Fire and Water’, ‘Highway’ and ‘Heartbreaker’. Besides Rodgers and Fraser, who passed away at age 62, it had the incredible talents of guitarist Paul Kossoff and drummer Simon Kirke (who also joined Bad Company), and later featured keyboardist John Rabbit Bundrick and bassist Tetsuo Yamauchi.

Yet, barring those who followed Free as part of the late 1960s and early 1970s British rock scene, a large number of people outside the UK and US knew it primarily as Rodgers’ earlier band. Thus, the work of Fraser and Kossoff was somewhat overlooked during their hey days, but recognised only much later, specially when people saw footage of their performance of the 1970 Isle of Wight festival. In many cases, Bad Company fans became Free admirers later.

FREE is a classic example of the earlier band of a rock superstar (in this case Rodgers). And come to think of it, there are quite a few examples of such outfits, which were on the one hand admired by a select set in its performing days, but became even more famous because one or two of its members became superstars later.

Here, let’s take a look at 10 such names. This isn’t a complete list, but an ideal starting point for those who want to follow the larger repertoire of the more famous artistes we have idolised over the years.

Yardbirds: An extremely popular group on its own, this also was a launch pad of sorts for guitarists Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, and rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja. Hits included ‘For your love’, ‘Heart full of soul’ and ‘Over under sideways down’.

John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers: Mayall was one of the biggest names in the British blues scene in the 1960s, and his group Bluesbreakers included guitarists Clapton, Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac and Mick Taylor of the Rolling Stones, and bassists John McVie of Fleetwood Mac and Jack Bruce of Cream.

Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated: Like Mayall’s group, this outfit launched many stars, including drummers Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones and Ginger Baker of Cream. Jack Bruce played with both Bluesbreakers and Blues Incorporated, and he and Baker played with Graham Bond Organisation, before they attained superstardom with Cream, along with Clapton.

Mott The Hoople: Best known as the band featuring guitarist Mick Ralphs, who later made it big with Bad Company. The group also featured guitarists Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson, best known for his collaborations with David Bowie.

The Byrds: Hugely popular in the mid-1960s with hits like ‘Eight Miles High’, ‘Ballad of Easy Rider’ and its cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ and Pete Seeger’s ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’, it also was the earlier group of David Crosby, part of the legendary Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

Buffalo Springfield: The earlier group of Stephen Stills and Neil Young of Crosby Stills Nash & Young, it also featured Jim Messina who later formed country-rock group Poco and earned fame with the group Loggins & Messina. Interestingly, Poco also featured Springfield’s Richie Furay and bassist Randy Meisner, later of the Eagles.

Flying Burrito Brothers: The earlier group of Eagles founding member and multi-instrumentalist Bernie Leadon and singer-songwriter Gram Parsons.

The Jeff Beck Group/ Faces: Super-singer Rod Stewart and guitarist Ronnie Wood, later of the Rolling Stones, were an integral part of guitarist Jeff Beck’s group, before they formed the Small Faces, which later became the Faces. Interestingly, the Faces also had keyboardist Ian Maclagan, who toured and recorded often with the Stones.

Spencer Davis Group: Best known because it featured keyboardist, guitarist and vocalist Steve Winwood and his brother Muff. The group is best known for the songs ‘Gimme some lovin’, ‘Somebody help me’ and ‘Keep on running’. Steve later played a leading role in the groups Traffic and Blind Faith, before embarking on a solo career.

Them: A hugely successful Irish band in the mid-1960s, Them featured vocalist Van Morrison, who became a solo legend in his own right. The band was best known for its anthem ‘Gloria’, and was also a huge influence on the Doors.

AS we said, besides Free, we have cited the examples of 10 such bands which featured future greats. For those interested in the earlier work of these phenomenal musicians, it would be a good idea to check out their songs from their early career. There are a lot of unknown gems left to discover.

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