What I’ve Been Listening To: Eric Clapton/461 Ocean Boulevard

1974 album marked Slowhand’s triumphant return to music after three-year heroin addiction

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461 Ocean Boulevard represented a clear break for Eric Clapton from his hardcore blues rock-oriented days with John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers, The Yardbirds, Cream and Derek and the Dominos. I’m a fan of all the aforementioned bands but also dig the more laid back side Clapton showed on his second studio solo album, which was released in July 1974.

It’s important to remember this record came after a three-year hiatus during which Clapton had overcome a heroin addiction. As the great documentary Eric Clapton: Life In 12 Bars tells, he tragically ended up replacing heroin with alcohol before finally getting sober in 1987. Clapton had also grown weary about his previous status as a “guitar god,” so he was clearly looking for a new start.

The album opens with a cover of Motherless Children, a blues standard that was first recorded by American gospel blues singer Blind Willie Johnson in 1927. The sped up beat gives the tune a great groove. I also like Clapton’s slide guitar playing.

The second track Give Me Strength is one of three tunes, for which Clapton has writing credits. I dig the dobro he plays on that track, something that at the time of the album’s release seemed to irritate a Rolling Stone critic, who also noted, “What’s disturbing is not that Clapton plays differently, but that he plays so little.” In my humble opinion, knowing when and how to show restraint is part of being a great guitarist.

Willie And The Hand Jive is one of two songs that were also released separately as singles. The tune was written by Johnny Otis and first appeared in 1958. Like the original version, Clapton’s take has a cool Bo Diddley beat.

The second and undoubtedly much better known single from the record is I Shot The Sheriff, a nice cover of the Bob Marley tune. I really like the slightly funky guitar sound and the keyboard part on this recording. It became a big hit for Clapton, hitting no. 1 in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100, and also topping the charts in Canada and New Zealand. According to Wikipedia, years later Marley told Clapton he liked his cover.

Next up: Let It Grow, which is my personal favorite on the album and another tune written by Clapton and on which he plays the dobro. Yvonne Elliman sings backup vocals. Before joining Clapton’s band in 1974, she had played Mary Magdalene in the musical Jesus Christ, Superstar. Elliman also scored a hit with If I Can’t Have You in 1978, which became part of the soundtrack of the motion picture Saturday Night Fever. Music critics noted the chord progression of Let It Grow is similar to Led Zeppelin’s Stairway To Heaven, something Clapton himself acknowledged. I wonder whether those same critics also worried about the similarity between Stairway and Taurus, the instrumental by Spirit.

The last track I’d like to call out is Steady Rollin’ Man, a song written by Robert Johnson, one of Clapton’s influences. In fact, 30 years later, he would record Me And Mr. Johnson, an entire album dedicated to the delta blues artist. This is another example where Clapton took an old blues tune and gave it new life and a nice groove by speeding it up.

While 461 Ocean Boulevard received mixed reviews from music critics, it became one of Clapton’s most successful albums with strong chart performances in the U.S. and many other countries. In August 1974, it was awarded Gold status by the Recording Industry Association of America. And, oh yes, it’s also listed at no. 409 in Rolling Stone’s 2012 list of the 500 Albums Of All Time – the same publication whose critic ripped it apart when it originally appeared.

This post wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging the musicians who helped Clapton record the album. Some critics felt they were less than capable – yes, there was no John Mayall, Ginger Baker, Jack Bruce or Duane Allman, but to say that Clapton’s band essentially was mediocre is simply ridiculous, in my opinion.

The musicians included Dick Sims (keyboards), George Terry (guitar, vocals), Carl Radle (bass), Jamie Oldacker (drums, percussion), Al Jackson Jr. (drums on Give Me Strength and Albhy Galuten (synthesizer, piano, clavichord). In addition to Elliman, Tom Bernfield and Marcy Levy were backing vocalists.

Last but not least, the album was produced by studio wizard Tom Dowd. This certainly helps explain the great sound.

Sources: Wikipedia, Rolling Stone, YouTube

Clips & Pix: Bob Marley/Iron Lion Zion

I’ve loved this Bob Marley song from the first time I heard it, which must have been around September 1992, when it was first released posthumously. According to Wikipedia, Marley originally recorded the track in April 1973 or 1974.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening to: Bob Marley & the Wailers/Babylon By Bus

This 1978 gem is one big reggae party, from the first to the last track

Babylon By Bus was my first deeper introduction to Bob Marley in ca. 1979/1980. I borrowed the album from my best friend shortly after he had gotten it on vinyl. This was still pre-CD days. I was immediately drawn in by the music’s amazing groove and the record’s party mood that invites you to get off your chair and move!

Released on November 10, 1978, Babylon By Bus was the second live album from Bob Marley & the Wailers and their 12th release overall. By that time, Marley already had been making music for some 13 years. But broad international success had not started until 1977, when Marley and the band released their ninth studio album Exodus. This came on the heels of Marley seeking exile in London after he had survived an assassination attempt on his life in Jamaica.

Babylon By Bus is believed to capture performances from three shows recorded at the Pavillon de Paris in France from June 25-27, 1978 during Marley’s Kaya Tour, which included the U.S. and Europe. The album kicks off with Positive Vibration from the 1976 studio album Rastaman Vibration, which became Marley’s first release to crack the top 10 on the Billboard 200, peaking at no. 8.

I could literally call out every other song on Babylon By Bus as well, since each tune is incredibly powerful. Obviously, that would not be practical, so the following selection is somewhat arbitrary. First up is Exodus, the title track from the above mentioned studio album.

The next tune I’d like to highlight is Stir It Up, one of Marley’s early songs he composed in 1967. It was first released as a single that year and later also included on Catch a Fire, the fifth studio album from Marley & the Wailers released in 1973.

Is This Love is another song I’d like to call out. It has always been one of my favorite Marley tunes, especially the live version on Babylon By Bus. It is faster than the studio recording, which I’ve always felt is how the song was meant to be played. The studio version appeared on Kaya, the 10th studio album from Marley & the Wailers, which was released in March 1978. The speed of the version on the following clip is somewhere in-between the studio recording and Babylon By Bus.

The final tune I’d like to note is Jamming, the album’s closer. The track originally appeared on the above mentioned studio album Exodus. It was also released as a single. Stevie Wonder used it as inspiration for Master Blaster (Jammin’), his tribute to Marley with whom he had performed live in the fall of 1980. It must have been one of Marley’s last live appearances prior to his premature death from metastasized cancer in May 1981.

Not only is Babylon By Bus my favorite Bob Marley album, but I would also consider it as one of the best live albums I’ve heard. It remains just as vibrant today, almost 40 years after its release, a great testament to an exceptional artist.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

On This Day in Rock & Roll History: June 3

1964: Ahead of their upcoming world tour, The Beatles met for a recording session at Abbey Road’s Studio Two, according to the Beatles Bible. The session, which lasted from 5:30 to 9:00 PM, started with George Harrison recording a demo of You Know What to Do, a tune that would remain unreleased until 1995’s Anthology 1. Moreover, The Beatles recorded a demo of John Lennon’s No Reply, which was included on Beatles For Sale, the band’s fourth studio album. The Fab Four also made the last recordings for A Hard Day’s Night, the film soundtrack and their third studio album, taping some overdubs for Lennon’s Any Time At All and Paul McCartney’s Things We Said Today.

1967: Aretha Franklin hit no. 1 on the U.S. singles chart with Respect, which would become one of her signature songs. The tune was written and originally released by Otis Redding in 1965. Franklin’s version became an anthem of the feminist movement and earned her two Grammy Awards in 1968 for “Best Rhythm & Blues Recording” and “Best Rhythm & Blues Solo Vocal Performance, Female.” The track was also included in the soundtrack for Blues Brothers 2000, the sequel to the iconic 1980 motion picture featuring Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi as “Joliet” Jake and Elwood Blues, respectively. That movie featured another great Aretha Franklin song, Think.

1970: Deep Purple released their fourth studio album, Deep Purple in Rock. It was the first record to feature the band’s classic Mark II line-up of Ritchie Blackmore (guitar), Jon Lord (keyboards), Ian Paice (drums, percussion), Ian Gillan (lead vocals) and Roger Glover (bass). The album includes classics, such as Speed King and Child in Time. Black Night, another Deep Purple gem, was recorded at the same time but not included on the album. Instead, it was released separately as a single. While Deep Purple in Rock was the band’s breakthrough album in Europe, climbing to no. 1 on the German album chart and reaching no. 4 in the U.K., success in the U.S. was more moderate with a no. 143 placement on the Billboard 200.

1977: Bob Marley & Wailers released Exodus, their ninth studio album. In addition to the title song, the record includes some of Marley’s greatest reggae classics like Jamming and One Love/People Get Ready. Recorded in London after Marley’s departure from Jamaica in the wake of an assassination attempt, Exodus finally brought this exceptional artist the wide international recognition he so much deserved. The record peaked at no. 8 on the U.K. Albums Chart and at no. 20 on the U.S. Billboard 200. The album earned gold certifications in the U.S., U.K. and Canada.

Sources: The Beatles Bible, This Day in Music.com, Wikipedia, YouTube