Eric Clapton etched his name into the rich history books of Montreux Jazz Festival in 1986 when he performed a stunning career-spanning set that remains one of the most iconic performances that he has ever given. There are very few British guitarists—if any—who can cut it with Clapton and this footage of him performing ‘Cocaine’ at Montreux sees him firing on all cylinders.
Clapton seldom performed the track in concert, a factor which made the Montreux spectacle an even more special occasion and saw the guitar God pull out all of the stops at his disposal. The musician performed an array of Cream classics in his set including ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ and ‘White Room’ as well as airings for ‘Layla’, ‘Let It Rain’ and ‘I Shot The Sheriff’ which made sure that everybody in the building went home elated.
His band for the legendary show-stopping performance was an all-star cast that saw Phil Collins get behind the drum kit, Nathan East on bass guitar and Greg Phillinganes on keyboard who was also the musical director for Michael Jackson.
The band look and sound like a real unit, one who clearly had no issue gelling this line-up of world-leading musicians together to put in a performance of the highest calibre—especially on ‘Cocaine’ which is a high point of the set.
Despite what is largely assumed, the track is actually intended to have an anti-cocaine message which resonated with Clapton which is one of the reasons why he chose to cover the song which was originally written and performed by JJ Cale in 1970.
The lyrics are about drug addiction, which had played a large part in Clapton’s life and as he explained in his autobiography Clapton when he recorded this song, he had finally kicked his heroin habit but began to fill that void by resorting to heavy drinking as well as cocaine — which was a habit he knew he had to snap out of.
“It’s no good to write a deliberate anti-drug song and hope that it will catch,” he wrote. “Because the general thing is that people will be upset by that. It would disturb them to have someone else shoving something down their throat. So the best thing to do is offer something that seems ambiguous that on study or on reflection actually can be seen to be ‘anti’ which the song ‘Cocaine’ is actually an anti-cocaine song.”
Adding: “If you study it or look at it with a little bit of thought from a distance or as it goes by it just sounds like a song about cocaine. But actually, it is quite cleverly anti-cocaine.”
Clapton was thankfully finally completely sober by the time he performed the track at Montreux all those years later, which is undoubtedly the definitive version of the track and an absolute joy to behold.
Take six minutes out of your day to enjoy the Clapton masterclass, below.