One Song – Three Versions – Stop Breakin’ Down

Wherein we visit the original tune and a couple of covers to see how other bands mash it up …

“Did Blues King Robert Johnson Sell His Soul To The Devil To Become The Worldโ€™s Greatest Musician?” screams the headline on a blog. Did he? Can you actually do that? I don’t know.

As I said in a series I did on the blues a while back, “And while he didnโ€™t invent the blues, I donโ€™t think there is much argument that singer/writer/guitarist Robert Johnson was one of the most influential recording artists ever. Everyone from B.B. King to Clapton has covered his songs, of which there are only a relative handful. There were earlier bluesmen such as Charlie Patton and Leadbelly. But Robert Johnson is the guy that most modern blues artists go back to most frequently.”

“Stop Breakin’ Down Blues” comes from one of Robert’s few recordings before he disappeared in a blaze of blues glory, hellhound on his trail. From 1937:

There is no greater devotee of Robert Johnson’s than Eric Clapton. “It is a remarkable thing to have been driven and influenced all of my life by the work of one man,” Clapton said. “And even though I accept that it has always been the keystone of my musical foundation, I still would not regard it as an obsession; instead, I prefer to think of it as a landmark that I navigate by, whenever I feel myself going adrift.

I am talking, of course, about the work of Robert Johnson. Up until I heard his music, everything I had ever heard seemed as if it was dressed up for a shop window somewhere so that when I heard him for the first time, it was like he was singing only for himself, and now and then, maybe God.

At first, it scared me in its intensity, and I could only take it in small doses. Then I would build up strength and take a little more, but I could never really get away from it, and in the end, it spoiled me for everything else. Now, after all these years, his music is like my oldest friend, always in the back of my head, and on the horizon. It is the finest music I have ever heard. I have always trusted its purity, and I always will.”

From his 2004 album, Me and Mr. Johnson:

Spotify link

I don’t think I even knew this song that well until I heard the Stones do it on the great Exile on Main Street. This one’s got Mick’s wonky-wonky harmonica and Mick Taylor’s slide guitar. Somehow the Stones manage to make it all sound evil:

Spotify link

28 thoughts on “One Song – Three Versions – Stop Breakin’ Down

  1. I certainly agree on Robert Johnsonโ€™s influence, and you can see evidence with the many covers of this one song. Your post caused me to go look & listen, and itโ€™s interesting to see how each of the artists cover it in their own style. Clapton stays truer to the original (as he states that Johnson is a keystone for him), the Stones add in massive production value (as well as the under-appreciated Mick Taylorโ€™s guitar work), the White Stripes have Jack Whiteโ€™s inimitable volume 11 reverb, and the late great Jeff Healey just lets his guitar run wild.

    Thanks for the post; it was fun to listen to the different versions.

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    1. I’ve got a whole category called One Song/Three Versions if you’re ever really bored and looking to pass the time. The initial impetus was hearing how other artists can radically change songs by modifying tempos, changing the feel of it, etc. The ones I like best are where it’s recognizably the same tune but it might as well not be. So Hendrix’s “Watchtower” or Gary Jules “Mad World.”

      White Stripes were on my short list but I realized I always start with the original and so, went with the other two. I’ll have to check out Healey’s version. He was a great, great player.

      Glad you dug it. It’s been on my to-post list forever.

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  2. Robert Johnson, The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, I also like the noisy and fun version of the White Stripes. Sounds like a village music band under power.

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    1. Ironically it was White Stripes version that initially inspired this post. But as I mentioned in one comment, these posts always start with the original then two others. I love the White Stripes as a band and their version but I ultimately had to decide and went with the other two.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Great original and two superb covers. I have to say in Clapton’s version it’s particularly his singing I really dig. I guess I kind of take his top notch guitar for granted. Plus, Clapton’s voice has gotten better over the decades, IMHO.

    And the Stones version – holy cow! That’s smoking hot cover. Makes me want to listen to all of Exile again! And, who knows, it may even knock off “Sticky Fingers” from the throne of my all-time favorite Stones album. I guess these selections at least to some extent also depend on your mood of the day. As I’m listening to this tune right now, it’s a total turn on!

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    1. I agree on Clapton’s singing. His voice is just about as soulful as his guitar. As to the Stones, ‘Exile’ is not only my favorite album of theirs but my favorite rock album of all time. There’s something about the back-in-the-alley bluesy murkiness of it I like. With the exception of ‘Tumblin’ Dice’ it’s totally non-commercial.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I can definitely see your point about Exile. I think it’s fair to stay many Stones fans consider it to be their best album.

        The reason why I would probably still prefer “Sticky Fingers” is because of tunes like “Brown Sugar”, “Wild Horses”, “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”, “Sister Morphine” and “Dead Flowers”. Perhaps somewhat weirdly, the last song has become one of my favorites Stones tunes over the years.

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        1. There is nothing about ‘Sticky Fingers’ I don’t love. I sometimes think ‘Brown Sugar’ is the greatest rock song of all time. Except for ‘Rosalita.’ And of course, ‘Hotel California.’ But I digress.

          Mick himself has on multiple occasions downplayed the idea that ‘Exile’ is their best album. He thought of just as a collection of songs. John Lennon said that just about any song on ‘Sgt. Pepper’ could be on any other album. Glad we’re here to tell they are both wrong.

          I think that one thing that stings for Mick is that his best albums came out in the late ’60’s, early ’70’s. And he knows that with brief exceptions like ‘Some Girls’ and ‘Tattoo You,’ they would never again reach those heights of creativiity.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. Actually, I seem to recall reading that the Stones were knee-deep into drugs – especially Keith – when they recorded Exile.

          It’s kind of mind-boggling when you see the musical outcome. Without meaning to romanticize these fuckin’ drugs at all, one wonders whether literally being stoned may have played a role in the great music the Stones did during these days!

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        3. Being around the Stones in that period was not, let us say, necessariliy the healthiest thing. Reportedly Mick Taylor left because he was afraid he’d get addicted. Saxman Bobby Keys once filled a bathtub with champagne which really pissed Mick off. He either got tossed or quit due to his own addiction. And let us not forget that “friend-of-Keith Gram Parsons OD’ed around this time

          Jagger did stuff but reportedly never went over the edge. They all had their problems. Keith was definitely THEY guy on this but if I recall correctly, he really checked out later on in the ’70’s. So much so that he somewhat abdicated to Mick and says in his book that Mick was kinda put out when Keef rehabbed. Like, welcome back junkie-boy but frankly I was kinda enjoying being in charge.

          And BTW, you doubtless know that Sgt Pepper was heavily influenced by pot and acid.

          Liked by 1 person

        4. Yep, The Beatles certainly were no angels either.

          If you think about it, it’s really frightening how easily drugs were available to music artists at the time. But unlike Keef, The Beatles didn’t do heroin at the time, though I think at least Lennon did later.

          That Richards is still alive really borders on a miracle. I guess you could add Clapton to that list as well!

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  4. Dude, I can sit and listen to Robert Johnson all day long and keep a smile on my face.

    In terms of the covers I gotta give it to the Stones – they were on fire from Beggars to Exile and they just rip the arse off it and bring something new to it with that darkness that hits all the buttons for me and, yeah, Mick Taylor.. now there’s a guitarist and a story.

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    1. It’s a funny thing but as much as I love to listen to and play the blues, I’m much more of an electric blues-rock fan than I am of country blues. I admire what Johnson did but given the choice between his ‘Crossroads’ and Cream’s I’ll go with the latter every time. Sacriligous I suppose but there it is.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. No… I get it, Crossroads always feels like Cream’s song even after I heard the original. I’m still new to the blues though but overall I prefer the crunch and bite of electric blues-rock, Johnson is the exception I guess – I think it’s more down to the… I’m scratching my head for the phrase… but the rawness of it, like you’re listening to the source.

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        1. Oh, absolutlely. When you’re in the mood for that shit there’s nothing better. I have B. B. King’s station on Sirius and they play as much of that stuff as they do electric. That’s because B. B. grew up on that stuff and never stopped loving it.

          Liked by 1 person

    1. You wound up in the spam bucket ‘o death because of the URL. Don’t let that stop you. I just use that filter to keep the douchebags out. I’ll give it a liten shortly.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Ah, yes. It’s funny but in the comment all you can see is the link. I couldn’t see who it was till I went back to the post. Sounds great. Peter Green. As good as any blues guitarist who ever lived. Thanks for that.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. Now you’re screening you’re so called followers.
          Greens “Johnson’ album is probably a little more laid back. I have to get the Clapton sides. I liked his version. Always thought the two were pretty close.

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        3. No, just screening CB. If half the stories about him can be believed down here you can’t trust him as far as you can throw him. Yeah, that “Mr. Johnson” album is all blues like “From the Cradle.”

          Liked by 1 person

        4. I have ‘Cradle’. Like Springsteen I’ve been drifting back to Eric. The guy is good.
          I have a certain Green album and I was thinking of you when I was listening to it awhile back. I know how much you like Mayals lyrics. Well the lyrics are the same But Green does great fret work so what do you do?

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        5. Well, consider that most rock and blues ain’t exactly Shakespeare anyway. Ya gotta overlook a lot. So yeah, just enjoy it. I spend most of my Greenie time with Mac.

          Liked by 1 person

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