Eric Clapton: The 1970s Review DVD Review: Between Cream and 461 Ocean Boulevard

The video company Sexy Intellectual specialize in unauthorized biographies, such as From Straight to Bizarre: Zappa, Beefheart, Alice Cooper and LA’s Lunatic Fringe, Joy Division: Under Review, and Brian Eno: The Man Who Fell to Earth among many others.Their Eric Clapton: The 1960s Review came out last year, and the new Eric Clapton: The 1970s Review is being released today.

In the ‘60s, hip Brits were spray painting “Clapton is God” all over England, but I think his career in the ‘70s was far more interesting. This Review fudges the timeline a little, but there is a natural break where Cream disbanded in 1968, and what followed. What I have always enjoyed about these programs is how they point out things that I had not really known about before, but make perfect sense when you think about it. In the early going, I came to understand just how big an impact The Band’s Music From Big Pink had on Clapton.

Clapton was burned out on the psychedelic trappings of Cream and the whole scene by the time of Goodbye. Like a lot of people, he was enthralled with The Band’s back-to-basics approach and such brilliant songs as “The Weight.” Apparently he even made a pilgrimage to Woodstock in New York to meet the guys with the intention of joining them. He never actually brought it up, which is just as well. But he came away with the realization that he should pursue his own version of their style of Americana music, which is pretty much what he did in the ’70s.

Blind Faith were a tentative first step in this direction. Young Steve Winwood had just left Traffic, and was thinking along the same lines as Clapton. With the addition of fellow ex-Cream drummer Ginger Baker and bassist Ric Grech, they formed rock’s first “supergroup,” Blind Faith. For all of the talent in that band though, their one and only album is pretty average. Meanwhile, the egos clashed like no tomorrow. Blind Faith would not be the answer.

Still chasing his dreams of American roots music, Clapton tried “hiding out” as a rhythm guitar player in Delaney and Bonnie for a while. His friend George Harrison was working on the greatest solo album any ex-Beatle ever made, All Things Must Pass, and asked Clapton to help sort out a band. After the sessions were over, those musicians joined Eric to become Derek and the Dominoes.

Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs was the album, and it is certainly my favorite Clapton recording. The presence of Duane Allman on “Layla” has been correctly cited as one of the great moments in rock history, and there was much more on this double set. I was too young in 1970 to know whether the album was widely accepted or not, and I had always assumed that it was. Turns out that it took a few years for it to actually catch on.

So Clapton was again at a dead end and wound up disappearing in a drug haze for nearly three years. The stories of his yearning for Harrison’s wife Patti are legion and surely attributed to him becoming a junkie. Unfortunately, the drug doesn’t care, and the only thing that came out of this period was Eric Clapton’s Rainbow Concert in 1973. This was a concert that friends such as Pete Townshend had put together to try and get him out of his funk. It would still take some time however. 

461 Ocean Blvd was the album that brought Clapton back. Today it is funny to think of Bob Marley as a cult artist, but he really was not very well known in the early ‘70s. Clapton’s version of “I Shot the Sheriff” introduced a lot of people Marley, the song’s composer, and to reggae in general. The album has been hailed as Clapton’s finest post-Layla recording, and it probably is. But the mellow ballads that he would pretty much focus on from then on out are a big part of it.

Clapton had given up on heroin, but replaced it with an alcohol habit that eventually became life-threatening. Patti Harrison had left George by this time, so Eric was happy on that front. Maybe too happy. He followed 461 with the lackluster There’s One in Every Crowd, the live E.C. Was Here, and the hugely disappointing No Reason to Cry. Expectations were high for No Reason because of the guest stars. Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and The Band all joined in at one point or another, but it really turned out to just be an excuse to hang out. Nothing of note emerged from this set.

For all intents and purposes, Slowhand was the true follow-up to 461. It was a huge record and contained the hits “Wonderful Tonight,” “Lay Down Sally,” and that J.J. Cale warhorse “Cocaine.” Then came Backless, which critics lambasted as “Spineless.” Clapton closed out the decade by marrying Patti in 1979.

The main bonus feature is titled “Inside the ‘Layla’ Sessions” (11:25) in which pianist Bobby Whitlock, chief engineer Ron Albert, and his assistant Howard Albert discuss the session with Duane Allman. There is a text-based “Contributors Biogs” and an ad for the website of parent company of Sexy Intellectual, Chrome Dreams.

What makes the discussion of Clapton’s post-Cream/early ‘70s period interesting are the stories from participants such as Bonnie Bramlett and Bobby Whitlock. Even Clapton himself appears, although his comments come from earlier interviews, one from 1979, 1997, and 2006. The big complaint most people have with these programs is that they tend to rely on rock writers such as Barney Hoskyns and Anthony DeCurtis. They are here, and give their critical opinions of the music in question. I agree that they can be annoying, but it is also kind of funny to watch them. Pretentious boors, one and all. Like David Lee Roth said it best, “Most critics like Elvis Costello because most critics look like Elvis Costello.”

As a critic (in training at least), I have watched quite a few of these programs, and always get something out of them. Sometimes it is quite unexpected. For example, during the discussion of Duane Allman’s appearance on “Layla,” we are shown some wonderful vintage Allman Brothers footage, of them playing “Whipping Post,” and “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.”

Mostly it is about the subject at hand though, and Eric Clapton: The 1970s Review spends a lot of time investigating that relatively little-known period between Cream and 461 Ocean Boulevard. This is clearly not for everyone; if all you know of Clapton is “Tears In Heaven,” you might find this stuff too obscure. For sexy intellectuals though, the minor details that we learn here are the keys to the realm of music geekdom.

I have no idea who the fans are who still pack stadiums to see Clapton play, but they are legion. In terms of his career, I think the ‘70s are fascinating as that was the decade in which he basically found his solo groove. At 150 minutes, this program is certainly comprehensive. Love him or hate him, this DVD tells us pretty much everything that Clapton did during that gloriously decadent decade.

Greg Barbrick

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