Is it we who are getting old, or rock music itself?
November marks the 50th anniversary of the release of two landmark rock albums, Eric Clapton’s Layla and other assorted love songs (released under the name Derek and the Dominos), released on November 9, and George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, released on November 27 (November 30 in the U.K.) These albums, and their creators, were inextricably linked in 1970, and have remained so via their legendary status in the half-century since.
To put things in the context of that year for Clapton and Harrison, it was a tumultuous time for each. The story is well-known that Clapton was not only trying to shed the superstar status he had earned with the highly-praised but now defunct group Cream, but he was also going through the anguish of being in love with Harrison’s wife, Pattie Boyd. His failed attempts to win her away from George — his best friend — was a major (but not only) factor in Clapton’s downward spiral into heavy drug use.
As for George Harrison, April of 1970 saw the official break-up of history’s greatest rock group, the Beatles, which, while it caused much grief for the rest of the world, allowed him to more fully pursue his songwriting and recording without dealing with the approval and cooperation — or lack thereof — by the other Beatles. He had been writing a great number of songs in the previous few years, dating back to White Album days, but couldn’t get most of them onto Beatles albums. By the end of May, soon after the Beatles’ breakup, he was at Abbey Road studios to begin recording tracks for All Things Must Pass (although there are outtakes of the Beatles helping George rehearse numbers that would appear on the album,including the title cut). “I was really a bit paranoid,” he said of the time. “There was a lot of negativism going down. I felt that whatever happened to my solo album, whether it was a flop or a success, I was going out on my own just to have a bit of peace of mind.” Phil Spector was on hand as producer, with Ringo present on drums, along with a number of top studio musicians of the day, including Beatle friends Klaus Voorman, Billy Preston, Gary Wright, and the Apple band Badfinger.
At the same time, Clapton received a phone call from Carl Radle, bass player for folk/blues singers Delaney & Bonnie and their band, which had recently disbanded. The group also included keyboardist Bobby Whitlock and drummer Jim Gordon. Clapton greatly admired the band, and even played with them on tour, while at the same time attempting to keep a low profile. When Radle asked him if he’d be interested in beginning a new musical project with Whitlock, and Gordon, and Radle himself, Clapton didn’t hesitate to take advantage of the opportunity, and soon the others were flying to England to stay at his spacious estate. As he writes in his memoir, “It was the beginning of one of the most extraordinary periods of my life, the memory of which is dominated by one thing — incredible music. It began with me just talking to these guys about music and getting to know them, and then we just played and played and played. I was in absolute awe of these people, and yet they made me feel that I was on their level…we were kindred spirits, made in the same mold.”
Not long afterward, George invited the group to play on the sessions for All Things Must Pass. As Clapton recalls, “We made a deal whereby [George] would get Spector to produce a couple of tracks for us in return for having the use of our band for his album…We recorded two songs with him, ‘Roll It Over’ and ‘Tell the Truth’ at Abbey Road Studios before turning ourselves over to George as his session musicians.”
As the summer began, the newly-formed Derek and Dominos (who chose the name just moments before their first performance at a charity concert) began to tour the U.K., while still working on their album. They performed a combination of Delaney & Bonnie songs and those from Clapton’s first solo studio release from earlier in the year.
Clapton’s self-destructive feelings for Pattie drove him to write “Layla,” which was one of the few songs he had written by the time the band traveled to Miami to record the album. Having a shortage of material to work with, they jammed, wrote more songs, and indulged in lots of drugs. One night, Clapton and the album’s producer Tom Dowd went to see the Allman Brothers’ Band perform. Clapton was amazed by their musicianship, especially that of Duane Allman on slide guitar. The two were introduced and quickly became inseparable. Upon inviting Allman to play on the Dominos album, Clapton felt a jolt of creative energy with their collaboration. “He was like the musical brother I never had but wished I did.”
Once Allman left to return to his own band, however, Clapton felt deflated, and his enthusiasm for his own project dwindled, even in the months that followed its release. Subsequent touring to promote the album, the release of a live album from the tour, and a failed attempt to record a second Dominos album, were all sabotaged by a lack of enthusiasm, as well as the jaw-dropping amount of drugs he and the others had been taking by that point.
Clapton realized that he couldn’t hide his feelings for Pattie any longer, and, upon returning home, sat her down one day during one of their clandestine meetings, and played the newly-recorded song “Layla,” which he based on a book titled The Story of Layla and Majnun, by the Persian writer Nizami. As Pattie recalls, “He switched on the tape machine, turned up the volume, and played me the most powerful, moving song I had ever heard…about a man who falls hopelessly in love with a woman who loves him but is unavailable…he played it for me two or three times, each time watching my face intently for my reaction. My first thought was, Oh, God, everyone’s going to know who this is. I felt uncomfortable that he was pushing me in a direction I wasn’t certain I wanted to go. But the song got the better of me, with the realization that I had inspired such passion and such creativity. I could resist no longer.”
But she did resist longer. At a party, Clapton finally confessed his love of Pattie to George. While George understandably did not take it well, there were no fisticuffs involved — partly because George and Pattie’s marriage had already been falling apart, with George having grown emotionally distant and uninterested. Even so, Pattie had no intention of leaving her husband. Clapton was devastated. “Driven by my obsession with Pattie,” he writes, “I was writing a lot, and all the songs I wrote for the Dominos’ first album are really about her and our relationship. ‘Layla’ was the key song, a concious attempt to speak to Pattie about the fact that she was holding off and wouldn’t come and move in with me.”
By the end of November, both albums had been released. Layla and other assorted love songs received neither the impressive sales nor strongly positive reviews that would come with the passage of time, despite the obvious emotional intensity and astonishing musicianship by all involved. Clapton’s world-weary vocals (at the ripe old age of 25) reflect his inner torment throughout the double LP, as well as the effects of the various substances in which he had been indulging to excess. But most evident is the skill with which he and the band present us with gut-wrenching blues standards, side-by-side with their original compositions.
Perhaps the highlight of the album, other than the pentultimate track “Layla,” comes with the back-to-back tracks “Why Does Love Got to be So Sad?” followed by “Have You Ever Loved A Woman.” On the former, the furious tempo and lyrics of desperation set up one of Clapton’s most blazing guitar solos. On Billy Myles’ “Have You Ever Loved A Woman,” first recorded by Freddie King in 1960, we dive into a slow, churning 12-bar blues, whose lyrics mirror Clapton’s heartbreak over Pattie with almost creepy accuracy. After the opening verses, Allman chimes in with his slide guitar virtuosity, followed by another intense Clapton solo, during which he actually seems to make his guitar weep (and not so gently, either).
And so goes the album, with a few quieter moments thrown in to provide a bit of relief from the emotional chaos and raw musical power. “Layla” provides the climax, with the opening riff created by Allman, whose searing slide reaches almost impossible heights as the number soars into the final, plaintive instrumental passage, composed by Jim Gordon. The track is followed only by the curiously placed closing ballad “Thorn Tree in the Garden,” written by Whitlock, perhaps chosen to be the quiet closing track out of compassion for the listener, who had been experiencing such a swirl of emotions — albeit musically exhilarating emotions — for the duration of the album’s four sides.
Just two weeks after the Layla’s release, George came out with All Things Must Pass, not a double, but triple album — although the third disk is comprised mostly of various and often repetitive jam sessions, plus a musical birthday greeting “It’s Johnny’s Birthday,” from George and Ringo to John Lennon.
The first two disks, however, contain many of George’s finest songs, including the gentle opening track, “I’ll Have You Anytime,” co-written with Bob Dylan (and featuring Clapton’s recognizable guitar work). Other highlights include “Apple Scruffs” a skiffle-inspired ode to the girls who were known to plant themselves at the entrance to Apple Studios on Savile Row for hours at a time, waiting for various Beatles to arrive and depart. The haunting “Beware of Darkness” gently warns of how sadness and depression can “make you sore, and what is more — that is not what you are here for.” Another track, “What Is Life” is an exuberant mini-masterpiece, as is George’s monster hit, “My Sweet Lord,” which became the first #1 single by an ex-Beatle in both the U.K and America.
“For me to do my own album after [the break-up] — it was joyous,” he said. “Dream of dreams. Even before I started the album I knew I was going to make a good album because I had so many songs, so much energy.” With Phil Spector infusing the songs with his “Wall of Sound” technique of production, often involving the use of countless musicians playing simultaneously to create a big, almost operatic sonic landscape, many have praised the overall result on the album, admiring how it gives George’s philosphical posings more musical heft. However, the method to this madness also sometimes creates, well…madness. Songs like “Awaiting On You All” become a cacophonous mess, and “What Is Life” comes mighty close to suffering the same aural fate. Sometimes, in music, more is less.
Even so, the album was a critical and commercial triumph for George. The “quiet Beatle” had kicked off his solo career with a masterpiece, by any standard.
As for the George-Pattie-Eric soap opera, Pattie did, of course, eventually leave George for Eric, but he and George remained close friends, with George inviting Eric to take part in The Concert For Bangladesh in August of 1971. But even after kicking hard drugs, Clapton’s ongoing alcoholism ultimately doomed his marriage to Pattie by 1979. To this day, though, she harbors no ill will toward either him or George, and cherishes the memories of having each of them in her life. Eric and George appeared as guests on various tracks for each other’s albums, and shared the stage in a number of charity concerts and events throughout the ’80s. In 1991, a healthly, sober Clapton even coaxed a reluctant George to tour with him and his band (limited to Japan), resulting in George’s release of a critically-praised double live album from the tour. At the time, the two friends jokingly referred to each other in interviews as “husbands-in-law.”
Fifty years, and a lot of music history, since the release of the Layla album and All Things Must Pass, these two rock legends still have the power with those releases to move not only those of us who were around when the LPs were new, but even those who are now just discovering their timeless work.
Until next time…stay safe.
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