After the chemical fuelled implosion of Derek and the Dominoes and the ensuing years in the wilderness due to a debilitating heroin addiction, 1974 signalled Eric Clapton’s return in earnest to making music when he entered Criteria Studios in Florida. The result was the gold certified album 461 Ocean Boulevard, which spawned Clapton’s chart topping version of Bob Marley’s I Shot the Sheriff and launched Clapton back on the road and back into rock superstardom. Capturing this seminal period in a souped-up five disc set, Give Me Strength: The ’74/’75 Recordings collates together expanded versions of 461 Ocean Boulevard, 1975’s followup There’s One In Every Crowd, live album E.C. Was Here and session outtakes with influential blues guitarist Freddie King. Clocking in at fifty-five tracks and over five hours, it certainly makes for an imposing collection, but how well does the material stand up forty years after its release, and what does it reveal about the artist formerly known as God?
Unfortunately after a few listens I am forced to concede that 461 Ocean Boulevard just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. There are some solid songs to be found, most notably upbeat blues-rock stomper Motherless Children and fan favourite Let It Grow, but on the whole Clapton sounds vocally strained and musically uninspired. Most of the songs are lacklustre interpretations of blues standards, which, though pleasant enough, fail to send sparks flying like Clapton’s previous work. Ultimately though, any rerelease package vying for £50 of your hard earned cash is only as strong as its bonus material, and as insights into the recording atmosphere of this period the extra tracks here do their job. Some of it is a bit pedestrian, but when Clapton is away from the band and forced to rely on his own skills on tracks such as Lonesome Road and the acoustic demoes of Please Forgive Me and Give Me Strength you can hear a solidly talented musician surely, if a little shakily, getting himself back on the horse. It’s just a shame more of this attitude did not make its way onto the original album, as it seems he tends to lean on his band and the cover material like a crutch. He may have been trying to get away from his guitar god image, eschewing guitar solos, but the fact of the matter is at this stage he was rusty as a song composer and it shows here.
There’s One In Every Crowd is even more tired. Clapton decamped to record in Jamaica in an effort to soak up the vibes of reggae music for inspiration, but this only serves to muddy the waters. The songs are either plodding rock or no-frills white reggae, with little energy or musical cross-pollination on display. The only real highlight here is the album’s closing instrumental, Opposites, which owes a lot to The Beatles but at least shows some creative inspiration at work. The most notable of the extra tracks, which are largely as uninspired as the album, is the reggae-tinged version of Bob Dylan’s Knocking On Heaven’s Door, but this is already widely available on most Clapton compilations. Despite the unremarkable nature of much of the studio albums in this collection, the live recordings on E.C. Was Here show that there’s still life in him yet. Clapton’s natural environment is playing and improvising in a live band format so it seems only natural that on stage he seems more comfortable with taking the reins and digging into some serious guitarwork, delivering some very compelling performances in the process. On thrilling renditions of Blind Faith’s Can’t Find My Way Home and Cream’s Badge the band take their cue from Clapton and are energised as a result, so it seems it may be the lack of this onstage charisma and band leadership on the albums which cause the quality of the studio recordings to suffer. It is telling that the overwhelming majority of material performed here are from previous ventures or are blues standards, suggesting that the recent studio albums do not reach the bar. With the expanded tracklist it is nice to hear more live cuts with Yvonne Elliman’s beautiful accompanying vocals in the mix, but all the best tracks in this collection already appear on the vanilla version of E.C. Was Here and a lot of the extended material is available elsewhere. And in truth, there is already enough live, and better, Clapton from his solo career to satisfy even the most ardent Slowhand fan.
The main attraction in the set is undoubtedly the fifth disc which houses the collected Criteria session recordings with Clapton’s idol, Freddie King, made in the summer of ’74 during the recording of King’s Burglar album. While the prospect of hearing a guitar duel between the Texas Cannonball and Clapton is undoubtedly an exciting one, especially in one of the last sessions King would participate in before his death in 1976, unfortunately what follows is a let down. There is an injection of energy here, but it is entirely down to King’s irrepressible vocals and formidable guitar chops, which completely upstage Clapton. Rather than a meeting between two capable and mutually appreciative musicians who have a master and apprentice relationship, á la Albert King and Stevie Ray Vaughan’s In Session, Clapton largely stands in King’s shadow and waits in the wings instead of engaging with him. In the extended twenty minute jam on Gambling Woman Blues Clapton finally responds to King’s goading and indulges in some guitarwork which shows occasional flashes of the old magic, but on the whole his playing is unfocused and pales in comparison to King’s razor sharp soloing. It is sadly ironic as it was partly Clapton’s electrifying take on King’s Hideaway on 1966’s Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton that first shot him into guitar hero territory and inspired the infamous “Clapton is God” graffiti mural in Islington tube station. The inevitable truth of the matter, and the thing I am constantly reminded of when listening to Give Me Strength, is that Clapton as a musician is not at the top of his game here. Had this session happened even five years earlier it would have been a close call between the two, but at this stage Clapton was just not ready for such a sparring session and so what appears here is sadly a wasted opportunity.
In retrospect, the 461 Ocean Boulevard and There’s One In Every Crowd albums seem like sacrificial lambs made as Clapton regrouped and eased back into making music after a period of heavy drug addiction, and if there is one thing the Give Me Strength package as a whole highlights it is that impression. Collected together and padded with session outtakes, the albums mainly draw attention to the fact that Clapton during this period was just not on form as a creative musician. If 461 Ocean Boulevard is your particular brand of Clapton though, then you’re just as well going with the 2004 deluxe reissue which features some nice session extras and recordings from shows at Hammersmith Odeon in London between 4th and 5th December 1974, which appear in the Give Me Strength package as part of the expanded E.C. Was Here. If you want even more live 70’s Clapton, better off going with Just One Night, from a show four years later, where he is back to sorts and backed by a more capable band. Overall, while some points of interest are to be had in the expanded material and session outtakes, most of the juicy bits are available elsewhere and do not warrant the price of admission.
Give Me Strength: The ’74/’75 Recordings will be released on 9th December.