Swinging London, James Bond, The Beatles, mini skirts and Mini Cooper cars… 1960s England was an unlikely place for a blues revolution, but it did happen. The young white English guitarists who embraced and super-electrified the blues in the 1960s were hardly of a similar background to their original inspirations – pioneering bluesmen such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker – but they took electric blues to new places.
Indeed, the “Surrey Delta” – jokingly named because Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck were all born within a few miles and a year of each other – remains a world away from the Mississippi. Surrey remains an opulent part of England to the west of London where the river Thames winds into verdant countryside. There were never cotton plantations and chain gangs in Clapton’s home village of Ripley.
But imported American blues records helped shape British rock. Early “skiffle” star Lonnie Donegan, a huge influence on The Beatles, regularly covered Lead Belly songs. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards formed their alliance when the guitarist spotted the singer clutching blues albums in his arms at Dartford railway station. Jimmy Page reworked quite a few Willie Dixon songs in early Led Zeppelin…
Britain’s young blues-loving guitarists soon morphed their own style into something recognizable as rock. But early on, their unique take on Amercian blues resulted in some remarkable recordings. Here are just five…
John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers: Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton
If there was one British blues album that punched hardest, it was 1966’s Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton album by John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers. Commonly known as the “Beano” album (due to Clapton reading the comic on the cover photo), it did much to reawaken guitarists to the majestic tone of single-cutaway sunburst Gibson Les Pauls.
Clapton told Guitar Player magazine that the famed six-string he played on Blues Breakers was “the best Les Paul I ever had… just a regular sunburst Les Paul that I bought in one of the shops in London right after I’d seen Freddie King’s album cover of Let’s Hide Away and Dance Away, where he’s playing a gold top. It had humbuckers and was almost brand new – original case with that lovely purple velvet lining. Just magnificent. I never really found one as good as that. I do miss that one.”
Clapton’s “Beano” Les Paul became near-mythical, after being stolen during rehearsals for Cream’s first gig in late July 1966. But the guitar lives on in Clapton’s stinging Les Paul/Marshall tone on the album, be it on Mayall/Clapton originals “Key To Love” and “Double Crossing Time,” to fiery covers of Willie Dixon/Otis Rush’s “All Your Love” and Freddie King’s “Hideaway.” This album remains a landmark of electric blues.
Fleetwood Mac: Fleetwood Mac
If there is a rival to Clapton’s guitar crown in the British 1960s blues pantheon, it is Peter Green. Londoner Green had briefly replaced Clapton in Mayall’s Blues Breakers when Eric formed the more psychedelia-tinged Cream, but it is Green’s work on Fleetwood Mac’s 1968 debut that impresses most. It’s a no-frills blues LP, with Robert Johnson, Elmore James and Howlin’ Wolf covers interspersed with Chicago blues-inspired originals.
And Green’s weeping Les Paul playing that sets it apart: B.B. King famously remarked, “He has the sweetest tone I ever heard, he was the only one who gave me the cold sweats.” Fleetwood Mac soon branched beyond “pure” blues to have pop hits with “Black Magic Woman,” (later a hit for Santana) followed by 1969’s #1 instrumental “Albatross.” Green had bailed out by 1970, after a binge of LSD left him fragile. Fellow guitarists Kirwan and Jeremy Spencer also left.
Peter Green still plays, but nothing quite recreates the sweet Les Paul sound he had on early Fleetwood Mac recordings. Play Fleetwood Mac’s debut album 44 years on, and you’ll still be amazed this is the blues guitar of Peter Allen Greenbaum, a 22-year-old Jewish man from a poor neighbourhood in East London.
Watch “Homework” from French TV in 1969, a song first recorded by the band on Fleetwood Mac in Chicago with Otis Spann on piano.
The Rolling Stones: The Rolling Stones
Even if held at knifepoint by Keith Richards, few would admit the Stones were ever a purist blues band. But alongside their love of high-tempo R&B and straight-ahead rock ’n’ roll, blues music was a touchstone for the Stones – from Jagger and Richards’ first alliance to their name (both indebted to Muddy Waters). Early leader Brian Jones, despite his dandy hair, was the real blues purist of the band and it’s his influence that stands proud on the Stones’ 1964 debut. Covers of Willie Dixon/Waters, Slim Harpo and Jimmy Reed are at the heart of the album, and if Jagger and Richards’ blossoming songwriting soon established their own sound, the blues never left them.
As Richards once said: “If you don’t know the blues, there’s no point in picking up the guitar and playing rock and roll or any other form of popular music.” The Stones’ debut, remarkably, stands the test of time. Mick Jagger is no Howlin’ Wolf, but getting this “alien” music to the top of the U.K. charts in 1964 was some achievement.
“Little Red Rooster” from 1964.
The Yardbirds: Five Live Yardbirds
The Yardbirds were just as much a psychedelic R&B/rock band as “pure” blues, but their impact was huge. Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck all variously served as guitarists, and their early repertoire did much to introduce the blues to British teens – they covered songs by Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Sonny Boy Williamson II and Elmore James, including “Smokestack Lightning,” “Good Morning Little School Girl,” “Boom Boom,” “I Wish You Would,” “I’m a Man,” “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” and more. The various guitarists use of early fuzzboxes, feedback, backward echo and super-distorted amps foresaw heavy rock by years – it was no coincidence that Page originally called Led Zeppelin “The New Yardbirds.”
For the proto-sound of their “blues” rave-ups, seek out Five Live Yardbirds, recorded in March 1964 at London’s legendary Marquee Club. It’s a bridge between British beatpop and psychedelia, but with the blues beating strong at its heart. After all, The Yardbirds acted as Sonny Boy Williamson’s backing band on his 1963 U.K. tour.
But a few years on, The Yardbirds were rocking harder. Watch this great clip of The Yardbirds in 1966 with Jimmy Page on bass and Jeff Beck on lead guitar.
Ten Years After: Ten Years After
The “classic” British Blues Boom only lasted a few years. John Mayall kept going, moving in a jazzier direction with Mick Taylor joining on guitar. Jimmy Page formed Led Zeppelin. The Stones became their own people, though their remarkable cover of Robert Johnson’s “Love In Vain” (from 1969’s Let It Bleed) proved their blues mojo was still working. Clapton’s Cream lasted only two years. Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green and Jeremy Spencer both left the music industry, after suffering mental health problems.
And as Brit Blues got harder and morphed into hard rock, there were few more aggressive than Ten Years After. Toting an ultra-amped Gibson ES-355, Alvin Lee turned blues tunes into proto-shred, paving the way – along with Jimmy Page – for blues pentatonic wigouts to form the basis of 1970s hard rock. Ten Years After’s version of “Spoonful” was surely not what writer Willie Dixon had in mind, but it and other cover songs kept the blues alive for a new generation of guitar blasters.
Here is Ten Years After’s version of “Spoonful” from 1968.
The notion of “British blues” pretty much disappeared with the dawn of the 1970s. But in its prime, the U.K.’s guitarists’ work revived old blues tunes and turned many fans on to the originals. The above players may not be your own “best.” And there may be others coming along. And we’ve had to omit a few worthy of mention, of course: Gary Moore, Mick Taylor, Paul Kossoff and Robin Trower all have their fans. Add your own favorites below!
More British blues:
John Mayall and the Les Paul Legacy of Clapton, Green, and Taylor
Get That Tone: Blues Breakers Era Eric Clapton
Peter Green, Gary Moore and The Holy Grail Les Paul
Andy Fraser of Free: Video Interview