Pictured above (l-r): John Mayall, Eric Clapton, John McVeigh, Hughie Flint.
In an earlier post, I recounted the story of the Yardbirds and how Eric Clapton – content for a while playing blues in clubs – became increasingly dissatisfied. He started to see a trend in the Yardbirds towards more of a pop and less of a blues direction. “The truth is,” he says, “I was taking myself far too seriously and becoming very critical and judgmental of anybody in music who wasn’t playing just pure blues.”
So when the Yardbirds recorded the song, “For Your Love,” that was the end for Clapton. He couldn’t stand the song and felt it was a betrayal of the band’s blues roots. Contrary to popular belief, he did play on that song. But to appease him, he was given a blues on the record’s B-side.
The rest of the band could not understand why Clapton would not want to be a pop star. But to him it was crystal clear. As Howlin’ Wolf’s guitarist Hubert Sumlin said, “It may be a little faster or a little classier, but when it comes down to it, you playin’ the blues or you ain’t.”
Clapton left – or was asked to leave – the Yardbirds in March of 1965. For a time, he was at sea, unsure what to do with himself. But he felt good because, “I was able to pat myself on the back for sticking to my principles, even though I wasn’t really sure quite what my principles were.” (Been there, done that.)
But within a month he was offered a position in John Mayall‘s Bluesbreakers which he quickly accepted. (Mayall had heard the B-side of the Yardbirds’ record and was duly impressed. In reference to Clapton, Mayall said, “He was the first guitarist I had heard who had it, you know, the elusive ‘it.’) Bluesbreakers were going in a jazzy direction and Clapton felt he could join and help steer them more towards Chicago-style blues.
It was during this era that someone spray painted ‘Clapton is God’ on the Islington train station. Clapton had very mixed feelings about this. On the one hand he was embarrassed by the unwanted attention. On the other, he was thrilled that people were recognizing his guitar prowess.
British blues bands in general – and Bluesbreakers in particular – were very fluid and dynamic, with members coming and going. Jack Bruce at one point played a few gigs with the Bluesbreakers, giving Clapton a taste of what a more adventurous bassist might sound like.
Truthfully, there really wasn’t a hell of a lot of loyalty and if guys saw a better – or even just fun – opportunity, they took it. Clapton, in fact, after several months told Mayall he was going to tour Europe with a pick-up band (The Glands!) of friends he’d met.
Not knowing when or if Clapton was returning, Mayall hired Peter Green as a replacement. When Eric returned, Mayall was gracious enough to give him his old job back, pissing off Green. Peter Green, of course, eventually played with Mayall then founded Fleetwood Mac.
When it came time to record the album, Clapton brought his recently purchased 1960-era Les Paul guitar and a brand new Marshall amp. (London music shop owner Jim Marshall had been convinced by Pete Townshend and other guitarists to create an amplifier that would give them the sound they wanted. And thus was born the famous Marshall amp.)
And so during the recording of the Blues Breakers album, Clapton – who was very much trying to replicate his live sound – played incredibly loud, louder than anybody had ever heard in a studio. No one had ever recorded like this and the engineer wanted Clapton to turn down.
Clapton’s response was, effectively, go fuck yourself. So they went through much re-arranging of the room and angling of the amp and blankets over things and whatnot. The guitar still bled all over everything. But when they were done, it sounded like this:
A perfect example of what made Clapton so great was his solo on the song “Double Crossing Time.” It’s a standard slow blues song, nothing special. But then at 1:10, Clapton’s solo comes blasting in with an unexpected intensity.
And at 1:21, he hits and holds a single note for five seconds. You cannot do that without being cranked up all the way. And in that five seconds, most other guitarists would have tried to squeeze in as many notes as possible. Clapton? One note.
This brief workout is a master class in blues playing and any guitarist would do well to try to hear how Clapton uses phrasing, intensity, tone and timing to create the perfect solo:
And that, that vintage Les Paul cranked as loud as possible through a Marshall amp – as much as anything – is the sound that set the template for most blues rockers of the ’60’s and beyond. (Notwithstanding Hendrix and his Stratocaster.)
To this day, Clapton’s Bluesbreaker tone is still highly regarded and sought-after by guitarists. I recently read where ace blues guitarist Joe Bonamassa says he still tries to get that sound. And those 1958-1960 Les Pauls are much in demand. (If you want one, it’ll cost you anywhere between $50,000 to $200,000 USD).
Released in July 1966, Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton is ranked number 195 on Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. (This album is also known to blues aficionados as the Beano album due to a particularly uncooperative Eric Clapton reading the British comic book on the cover.) I recall seeing a listing of the top 30 British blues albums of all time. Bluesbreakers was number 1.
The British blues scene started with Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies. (Korner convinced Mayall to strike out on his own, Bruce played in his band, Clapton was a disciple.) But this album brought it to the rest of the world.
– John MacVeigh left Bluesbreakers to play in Fleetwood Mac with Peter Green. He was lured in part by naming the band after him and drummer Mick Fleetwood. McVeigh has remained Mac’s bass player ever since.
– The engineer on Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton was Gus Dudgeon who went on to produce most of Elton John’s classic albums.