Eric Clapton. Old Slowhand is perhaps the most universally decried cultural icon that Britain has to offer. Van Morrison also makes a strong claim, but he’s not as widely loved as Clapton, nor has he made any heinous comments vis-a-vis race (that we’re aware of). Clapton is a legend when it comes to playing the guitar, there can be no denying it, and the same cannot be said for Morrison.
Clapton‘s heyday was undoubtedly during the 1960s and ’70s, a time when the white western blues explosion was in full force, and it permeated rock music. It wouldn’t be until nu-metal came along during the ’90s when blues-inspired rock would be thrown out the window for darker chromatic harmonies.
The shift away from traditional rock would also bring about more revisionist opinions on the ‘gods’ of conventional rock and roll. These days, Clapton seems to be an outlier in the world of rock music. Nowhere near as likeable as his living contemporaries such as Paul McCartney or Mick Jagger, nor does he have the vast array of classics, which is strange considering that he is one of the best-selling artists of all time.
Yes, he has the skill, and Clapton purists would argue the contrary, but to me, the guitarist has always seemed very overrated, and the slew of controversies that he is now shrouded in further plays into that idea. In The Yardbirds, The Bluesbreakers, Cream, Derek and the Dominos, he wrote brilliant songs – it’s just that they weren’t as good as his contemporaries. Hypothetically, if someone was to offer us tickets to a Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton show, we know which one we’d pick.
So now we’ve got that out of the way. We can turn to his most prominent detractor – himself. Regardless of the heroin abuse and tumultuous personal life that he led when ‘classic rock’ was in its supremacy, from discourse and interviews with Slowhand, it seems as if he’s always been a somewhat tricky fellow to get along with.
We know it’s a very overcooked subject, but for the purpose of the argument, we need to return to those remarks he made on August 5th, 1976. Without going too deep into that turgid subject, his “Keep Britain White!” declaration and appropriation of a National Front slogan seemed rather rich coming for a man who not only owed his whole musical existence to the blues but also openly copied Jimi Hendrix’s style (and barnet) after Hendrix blew across the Atlantic like an ice-cool blast of air in late 1966.
After Clapton’s 1976 comments, and in addition to statements made by David Bowie and some of punk’s use of Nazi imagery, the iconic Rock Against Racism was formed. Ironically, never before had a musical hero inspired a movement so necessary. In addition to this, there’s Clapton’s support of the Countryside Alliance and somewhat ill-thought-out anti-lockdown campaign; and the rest. In short, Clapton is probably not the sort of chap you’d want to go for a quiet Sunday evening beer with. After a couple of rounds, he’d most likely be up on the table, flinging his vest around singing ‘Ten German Bombers’. He’d probably then proceed to tell you how ex-West Bromwich Albion manager ‘Big Ron’ Atkinson is definitely not a racist because he gave Cyrille Regis his big break.
It seems as if his old buddies in The Yardbirds were acutely aware that Clapton is a bit of a pain. Yardbirds drummer Jim McCarty is quoted as saying: “Eric had these R&B mod songs he wanted us to do. Him leaving was a relief. Eric would be sitting in the van not talking to anyone. You’d think he’s so moody, he’s such a pain, we’re fed up with this.”
At that point, Clapton was a short-haired unwavering blues purist. He wanted songs that were three minutes long that included none of the frills that The Yardbirds were increasingly flirting with. No Gregorian chants, bongos, and certainly not the harpsichord as the band’s 1965 hit single ‘For Your Love’ boasted. It was this track, coupled with The Yardbirds’ commercial aspirations, that made Clapton depart in favour of the traditionalist John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers. He was replaced by the more dextrous Jeff Beck, on the recommendation of his friend Jimmy Page. Arguably, the Beck then Page era’s were the best of The Yardbirds’ career anyway.
Either way, Clapton was free, and after his short stint in the Bluesbreakers, he’d form power trio Cream with Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce – another ironic point, as they were one of the most experimental and influential bands of the era. Oh yes, Jimi Hendrix.