Five unexpectedly good tracks by Eric Clapton

Five unexpectedly good tracks by Eric Clapton

Yes, we're surprised too: lesser-known gems from the subject of a new documentary feature

It was announced today that Oscar-winning producer Lili Fini Zanuck (Driving Miss Daisy) is to direct a feature-length documentary about guitarist, singer and songwriter Eric Clapton. And the question on most people's lips is probably, 'Why?' Anyone who's ever grappled, for whatever reason, with the recorded oeuvre of Eric Patrick Clapton, possibly the richest blues musician who has ever lived, must sooner or later face the uncomfortable truth that a lot of it is pretty boring.

Of course, Clapton is the kind of musician who exists beyond praise or dispraise. To his fans, he's just the greatest; to another kind of fan, he was good but he wasn't in the same league as Hendrix; to other music lovers, he's what dad played in the car while everyone else was on headphones; or, he's one rich white appropriator of African-American music among many others; or, I donno, some of it's good, some bad; or he's just irrelevant. On a personal note, I listened to a lot of Clapton in my early youth because as a small boy I wanted to learn guitar, and not knowing of any famous guitarists, I asked around in primary school for who was meant to be good: nobody else knowing much either, the answer I got was 'Eric Clapton', so that's who I first listened to as I taught myself the instrument.

As a result, there were a lot of wasted hours trawling through Clapton's 70s and 80s output and looking in vain for something that didn't sound like music to have a hangover to. I feel a complicated mix of emotions about Clapton: admiration for his talent, intermittent excitement about his music; gratitude for what I learned from him about music-making; rage at how sheerly uninspired too much of his music actually is. Entire decades have gone by with Clapton making albums about which the kindest thing you could say was 'tasteful'. He was the moving force behind 2003's George Harrison memorial concert, but if that concert was moving, it was for largely non-musical reasons. The 2005 Cream reunion lit a welcome fire underneath everyone involved, but still, if you wanted to introduce someone to the purpletastic splendour of that band's output, the first thing you'd play them would not be Royal Albert Hall London May 2–3-5–6, 2005.

No, if when we think of Clapton we think of a bespectacled millionaire in a Versace suit mumbling into a mic and stopping every so often to peel off perfectly formed clichés, he's only got himself to blame. Clapton keeps his (many) demons firmly on the leash, and has done so for years, but there was a time when he was raw and hungry and had the urge to say something. The makers of the new film are being granted access to his own archive of performance clips, and it has to be said that they have a fine team: besides Ms Zanuck, producer John Battsek made One Day in September and Searching for Sugar Man, and editor Chris King won a BAFTA for Senna, so perhaps the film will be worth watching in its own right. But here are five reminders of how good Eric Clapton could be before he learned manners.

The Yardbirds – Here 'Tis (live)

The Yardbirds were the band that made Clapton famous, and their speed and intensity are on full display in this crazed version of Bo Diddley's Here 'Tis. Older rock critics used to disparage white bands like the Yardbirds for not playing songs like these with the same kind of soul as the original, but that's missing the point. This turns a fun party song into a hormone-driven mating ritual.

John Mayall and Eric Clapton: Lonely Years

Clapton's quest for blues authenticity has led him to make some of his least gripping records, but this isn't one of them. For some reason, this two-man blues, recorded in a Soho studio in 1966, sounds like it came out of Chicago in the mid-50s. Clapton's then-bandleader John Mayall for once sounds convincingly world-weary, and the overall grunginess is compelling. No, we have no idea what this song is about. But it's hellish lonely.

Cream: Steppin' Out (live)

When Cream were good, they had a gnarly intensity that belied their reputation as psychedelic overlords. This isn't quite the version of Memphis Slim's 1959 instrumental that was featured in the closing sequence of Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets, but it's still highly impressive for its balls-to-the-wall aggression.

Eric Clapton: Let It Rain

The best track from Clapton's debut album might have been a clue to Clapton's future direction, if he'd only conducted his later career with this much infectious energy. The R&B-roadshow lilt would be conspicuously absent from his later work, but as happy songs go, it's a hard one to dislike.

Derek and the Dominos: Have You Ever Loved a Woman

Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs really is a bit of a masterpiece, but its most famous track, the title one, is over-familiar from its use in films (most memorably, Scorsese again, in Goodfellas) and the authorship of the song is mired in controversy, ever since drummer and credited co-writer Jim Gordon's ex-girlfriend, singer-songwriter Rita Coolidge, alleged in her autobiography that she co-wrote the coda with Gordon, and that they denied her songwriting credit. Less controversial is this gut-wrenching blues cover, which in itself is sufficient justification for Clapton ever picking up a guitar. The second solo in particular is a masterpiece of choked anguish, and Clapton never sang with this much passion again.

Eric Clapton plays the Royal Albert Hall from Mon 22–Thu 25 May 2017.

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