The Yardbirds, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Cream and Blind Faith – four epic bands united by a single thread, the astonishing Eric Clapton.
Clocking in at two hours, the new DVD, Eric Clapton: The 1960’s Review, is hands-down the most easily digestible biography of Clapton’s formative decade as a player. The narrative is mostly spun from interviews with those who’ve been close to his career, from English music journalist Chris Welch to former bandmates Chris Dreja and Tops Topham of the Yardbirds, from his one-time boss Mayall to members of his pre-Yardbirds outfit the Roosters as well as Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker of Cream. Clapton himself also offers comments on his bands and his perspective on music, gleaned mostly from interviews in 1991 and 2005.
Although the disc is short on live concert performances, it is long on detailed analysis and even includes a stretch on Jimi Hendrix and his impact on Clapton and the rest of the British blues-rock scene of the late 1960s.
Beginning with footage of Clapton’s famed 1968 interview in which he explains his “woman tone” and the function of a wah-wah pedal to a BBC reporter – all the while playing his psychedelic painted Holy Grail Gibson SG known as “The Fool” – and concluding with footage of Blind Faith’s Hyde Park concert take on “Sleeping in the Ground,” nearly every aspect of his artistry is displayed.
The impact that his lonely childhood had on his decision to play music is examined, and how that lead to his search for kindred musical spirits – a search that, given the make-up of his annual Crossroads Guitar Festivals, still continues today.
The bonus material is notable, too. Dreja speaks at length about the Yardbirds’ experience backing up the feisty and sodden American blues legend Sonny Boy Williamson, which yielded the 1966-released live album Sonny Boy Williamson & the Yardbirds. English blues singer and harmonica player Paul Jones discusses the one-off Powerhouse project, which united him with Clapton, Bruce and Baker for a recording session just as Cream was forming.
And the most fascinating extra is engineer/producer Bill Halverson’s account of the creation of the Cream classic “Badge,” which was an example of cosmic alignment. Clapton was playing through a new pedal that allowed a guitar to be pumped through a spinning Leslie speaker cabinet. The virtuoso was burning on the rig for hours when his friend George Harrison arrived at the studio, became similarly fascinated with the device and joined Clapton in tinkering with the pedal. After Baker and Bruce walked in, the song was composed and recorded on the spot. And then Harrison’s handler stole the foot pedal, which, Halverson theorizes, explains all the guitar-and-Leslie sounds on Harrison’s own 1970 solo debut All Things Must Pass.
Of course, the film features a cavalcade of gorgeous Gibson guitars, starting with the opening credits that feature Clapton playing various Les Paul ’Bursts, ES-335s and SGs.
Clapton’s history and that of the Gibson guitar company became entwined during his stretch in the Bluesbreakers, where he played a 1960 Les Paul Standard in a sunburst finish. In the DVD, Mayall notes that within weeks of joining the band, Clapton’s reputation was confirmed by the public. Fans began scrawling “Clapton is God” and “Let God Take a Solo” on the walls outside London’s clubs.
During his stint with Mayall, Clapton used several Les Paul Standards, dating between 1958 and ’60, and continued to do so early on in Cream. Although he has spent much of his later life playing other models, Clapton’s career-building use of the Gibson Les Paul did much to contribute to the instrument’s popularity and value.
His next important Gibson, “The Fool” is the guitar named after the Dutch artists collective that produced its distinctive paint job. Clapton bought the 1964 Gibson SG in ’67 and used it for much of Cream’s Disraeli Gears and Wheels of Fire.
Although he played other types of guitars in Blind Faith, he also used the red 1964 Gibson ES-335 he acquired while in the Yardbirds, a six-string that made cameo appearances in Cream as well. Clapton also played a Gibson Firebird in that band, as did his main musical foil Steve Winwood.
Clapton has occasionally returned to Gibson models as the decades have passed. For 1974’s 461 Ocean Boulevard, which mixed traditional blues with pop hits like his cover of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff,” he resurrected his Firebird I and tapped a 1958 Gibson Explorer that he also used for the 1975 E.C. Was Here concert album. His next major recording with Gibsons was his 1995 blues pilgrimage From the Cradle, which features his faithful red ES-335 and found him revisiting his Derek & the Dominos interpretation of Freddie King’s devastating “Have You Ever Loved a Woman” on tour.