There is no reason in 2012 to review a record from 1977 as if it were new. Eric Clapton’s Slowhand should now be looked at under the lens of how it stands up 35 years down the road. Also, forget the nostalgia trip. Your thing is gone, and you want to ride on – fine. But this isn’t about you and where you were at the end of the seventies. This is about Cocaine, Lay Down Sally and Wonderful Tonight. This is about Clapton’s harmony with vocalists Yvonne Elliman and Marcy Levy. This is about a rare saxophone solo on a Clapton track (The Core). This is about Looking at the Rain, a marvellous Gordon Lightfoot cover included with the reissue. And this about the best solo album E.C. ever recorded, rival-ling 461 Ocean Boulevard, from 1974.Slowhand – the semi-eponymous titling comes from Clapton’s nickname, which is a reference to the languid speed at which he replaced his broken guitar strings – is defined by his backing band. On hand was bassist Carl Radle, whose collaboration with Clapton stretched back to Derek and the Dominos and the 1970 classic Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. Other Oklahomans included keyboardist Dick Sims and the shuffle drummer Jamie Oldaker.
At the time of Slowhand, Clapton was heavily into the laid-back approach of yet another Panhandle State player, J.J. Cale, who wrote Cocaine. In a biography from 1985, Clapton spoke about the sprightly trundle of Lay Down Sally and his attempt to find the carefree country-rock rhythm and sweet spot indigenous to dead-centre America: “It’s as close as I can get, being English, but the band being a Tulsa band, they play like that naturally. …. Their idea of a driving beat isn’t being loud or anything. It’s subtle.”
There’s much subtlety to the album, but the riff to the LP-opening Cocaine isn’t light-handed at all. It is a cast-iron motif, mischievously reclaimed from Cream’s Sunshine of Your Love. It doesn’t stop – it is used 42 times within the song’s three minutes and 41 seconds. It is on cocaine. It is cocaine.
It is hard to believe we’re not sick of Wonderful Tonight by now. But the electric-guitar ribbon is elegant, the organ is the most comfortable of bedding, and the arrangement’s touch is as beautiful as the woman walking with Clapton at that party. (It was Pattie Boyd, and when I asked her about the song recently, her eyes welled up.)
Next Time You See Her features a slightly ragged and subdued style of singing. The lyrics, involving an estranged lover and her new dalliance, are contradictory. “Next time you see her, tell her that I love her,” Clapton sings, only to follow later with “If you see her again, I will surely kill you.” The dude is in a pickle, right?
The freshest thing here is The Core, perhaps due to its duet nature. (Why didn’t Clapton do more of those?) At its core, The Core is a guitar riff. But it’s the album’s biggest, boogiest cut – solos (guitar and saxophone) flying crossfire-hurricane wild. Levy is a siren; the organ is juicier than Tropicana. The jam runs nearly nine minutes, captured in bold colours by producer Glyn Johns.
Extras include nine cuts from a 1977 concert at London’s Hammersmith Odeon, including five previously unreleased. Of those, the highlights are the 14-minute workout of Bob Marley’s I Shot the Sheriff and an escalating version of Blind Faith’s Can’t Find My Way Home, about spiritual confusion.
Of the four bonus studio tracks, Looking at the Rain stands out. Clapton reads Lightfoot’s melancholia well, his early-morning voice gracefully registering the insomnia, the minor-key reflection and the sense of loss – “looking at the dawn, knowing it’s wrong.” It is down and brush-drummed, perhaps not suitable for an album mostly up. Or maybe it is too much competition for Wonderful Tonight. It’s out now, though – 35 years later, window glass rained upon, absolutely worth the wait.