Eric Clapton, also known as Slowhand, is a rock and roll pioneer whose legacy is etched into the annals of history. An instrumental figure in the world of music, the guitarist has been involved in some of the most influential bands of all time before pursuing a lucrative solo career of his own.
While his standing in contemporary culture has threatened to undo some of his musical work, the guitarist is a British institution in his own right. With that in mind, Clapton took part in another British institution when he appeared on a 1989 episode of Desert Island Discs. As part of the BBC show, Slowhand picked eight pieces of music he simply couldn’t live without. It’s a collection of songs that not only shows us a great deal about Clapton’s love of music – and the song which shocked him into believing rock ‘n’ roll was still kicking – but also into the life that was lived alongside the tunes.
Eric Clapton’s influence on music can be dated way back to the sixties, placing the guitarist at the epicentre of swinging London. It was during this time that he would rub shoulders with Jimi Hendrix and, with his band Cream, shared the stage with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker as they became one of the single most inspirational groups of rock and roll. Fitting, then, that he should appear on BBC’s Desert Island Discs and be suitably dwarfed by a show with an even longer running legacy.
The programme has been woven into the dense tapestry of British pop culture for years. It’s a time-honoured tradition that has seen prime minister’s and rock stars alike walk through its studio doors. Created by Roy Plomley back in 1942, the format is always the same; each week, a guest is invited by the host to choose the eight records they would take with them to an inescapable desert island.
As well as their eight discs, a complimentary collection of the complete works of Shakespeare and a bible, the star in question also gets to choose one luxury item and one book. It offers a crisp insight into the life and times of our most notable figures in Clapton through some of his often personal choices. The guitarist was invited to the studio for his own interview on September 10th, 1989, to speak with host Sue Lawley.
“My castaway this week is a musician and a rock star. At the age of nine, he discovered that his parents were, in fact, his grandparents, the guitar he was bought as compensation for this revelation turned out to be one of the most significant events in his life,” begins Lawley, succinctly summarising what must be one of the pivotal moments in Clapton’s life as she was so capable of doing within the blink of an eye.
The conversation between Lawley and Clapton that follows is both warm and honest, not frightened to step into murky waters, using the music to guide them out. It puts Clapton as a refined, perhaps even reformed, rock and roller with the cultured mind of a true musical impresario. Or, as Lawley again neatly summarises in the introduction: “He’s now 44, drugs and drink are behind him, and his career is once more successful and lucrative. He is Eric Clapton.”
As Lawley talks about Clapton’s huge talent with a guitar, how it earned him the nickname ‘God’ and the curious set of situations which meant he was given one in the first place, the guitarist naturally chooses his instrument and arguably business partner as his luxury item. However, Clapton makes sure to not fall into guitarist stereotypes when selecting his first pieces of music. First up, Slowhand picks two pieces of classical music.
The guitarist, after a spell away from the limelight, had again begun to tour in the mid-to-late 1980s, and it influenced his choices. He claims in the clip that “when I’m working, regularly and hard, as I have been for the last few years, I tend to listen to music which is completely divorced from what I do,” he said, before continuing: “For the last year that’s been opera.” It’s no surprise, then, that his picks are Giacomo Puccini’s ‘Senza Mamma (from Suor Angelica)’, with soloist Renata Scotto and the New Philharmonic Orchestra, Conductor Lorin Maazel; Georges Bizet’s ‘Au fond du temple saint’ (The Pearl Fishers). Both are an indication of the complexity with which he appreciates music.
However, if you’re a Clapton fan, then chances are you will want to know the guitarists he selects. Slowhand picks a variety of artists that show off his varied taste in music but his one musical ethos too. No matter the tone of the genre, every artist Clapton picked was a genius with their instrument. It’s a sign of what mattered to the guitarist; it wasn’t what you played but how you played it that mattered to him.
Clapton chose guitar legend Robert Johnson and his iconic ‘Cross Road Blues’, as well as Muddy Waters track ‘Feel Like Going Home’ and Freddie King’s ‘I Love The Woman’. Moving his focus towards soul, the guitarist then selected two piano-powerhouses in Ray Charles and his song ‘Hard Times’ plus Stevie Wonder’s ‘I Was Made To Love Her’. All the songs show Clapton’s deep appreciation for R&B, the forefather to rock ‘n’ roll itself.
The interview has been made available by the BBC via their BBC Sounds channel and is now also available on Spotify. Find all the information here and the episode on Spotify below. But his favourite song, and essentially the song Clapton couldn’t live without, would be Prince’s hit number ‘Purple Rain’, which he describes as a “lifesaver”. The song has since become one of the most beloved tracks of Prince’s career, and it certainly hit a note for Clapton.
Clapton says he saw Purple Rain, Prince’s epic mauve movie, explaining: “At a time when I thought rock and roll was dead,” he said, before adding: “This is someone who is a reincarnation of Little Richard, Jimi Hendrix and James Brown in one. I thought that’s exactly what the world needed.” We’d struggle to argue with Clapton, especially about a guitarist and even more so a guitarist as gifted as Prince.
So instead, we’ll sit back and listen to an engaging conversation between two British institutions as Eric Clapton appears on Desert Island Discs to share the eight pieces of music he couldn’t live without.
Eric Clapton’s 8 favourite songs:
- Giacomo Puccini – ‘Senza mamma (from Suor Angelica)’
- Georges Bizet – ‘Au fond du temple saint (from The Pearl Fishers)’
- Robert Johnson – ‘Cross Road Blues’
- Muddy Waters – ‘Feel Like Going Home’
- Freddie King – I Love The Woman’
- Ray Charles – ‘Hard Times’
- Stevie Wonder – ‘I Was Made To Love Her’
- Prince – ‘Purple Rain’
BBC have made the episode, with slightly shortened musical pieces available on their website through the BBC Sounds channel and on Spotify.