Graded on a Curve: Derek and the Dominos, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs

Eric Fucking Clapton: I’ve been blowing hot and cold on the guy for decades now, and would most likely completely despise him (for his racist comments, innumerable mediocre solo LPs, and general lack of a chin, to say nothing of “Tears in Heaven”) were it not for the ace up his sleeve, namely 1970’s Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs by Derek and the Dominos. One of rock’s greatest albums, Layla offers up a vision of a Clapton one will find nowhere else. Impassioned, funky, and loose, the Clapton of Layla is a man free at last of the shackles of this supergroup or that, and he has something to prove. Which he does, on a bunch of songs that sound as fresh, frenetic, world-weary, heartbroken, and wild as they did when they were recorded.

Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs has been one of my favorite LPs since the early seventies. I played the hell out of my older brother’s copy, and was not above listening to the title track 10 or so times in a row, while playing air guitar before the mirror to its remarkable coda. It’s sublime, that coda, one of the most sublime things I’ve ever heard, and I’ve never tired of it and I never will.

The story behind the double LP is well known. Clapton hooked up with a stellar cast of musicians (Bobby Whitlock on organ, piano, vocals, and acoustic guitar; Jim Gordon on drums, percussion, and piano; Carl Radle on bass and percussion; and coup of all coups, Duane Allman on guitars), all but Allman being alumni of Delaney & Bonnie and Friends, with whom Clapton, happy to be sideman for once, had been playing. Clapton and Whitlock co-wrote a good number of the originals, five were covers, and so on. The musical rapport between Clapton and Allman was, by all accounts, instantaneous, and Clapton was thrilled by his sidemen, saying later, “Carl Radle and Jimmy Gordon are the most powerful rhythm section I have ever played with” and calling Gordon “the greatest rock’n’roll drummer who ever lived.” (Those are strong words coming from a guy who played with Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce.)

As for the recording sessions, I’ve heard apocryphal stories of Clapton singing while flat on his back because he was too stoned to stand, but he was yet to become a full-fledged junkie and said later, “We kept ourselves going with… a cocktail of drink and drugs, mostly cocaine and Mandrax. ‘Mandies’ were quite strong sleeping pills, but instead of letting them put us to sleep, we would ride the effect, staying awake by snorting some coke or drinking some brandy or vodka, and this would create a unique kind of high.” All you young and aspiring musicians, pay heed!

The LP opens on a relatively laid-back note with the likeable and not overly ambitious “I Looked Away,” a Clapton-Whitlock composition with vague folk and country touches that highlights Clapton’s surprisingly emotive vocals (as well as a verse sung by Whitlock) and includes one stinging guitar solo. Follow-up “Bell Bottom Blues” opens with some lackadaisical organ and guitar and features some slow verses and great choruses, wherein Clapton cries, “Do you wanna see me crawl across the floor to you?” The passion is very real, because as with many of the songs on the LP, it was more or less addressed to pal George Harrison’s wife Pattie Boyd, with whom Clapton had fallen in love. Anyway, the vocals on “Bell Bottom Blues” alone make it a keeper, and the great guitar riff that accompanies said vocals makes it great. Allman had yet to join the sessions when the song was recorded so the great guitar solo is all Clapton’s, God bless his fascistic little heart.

“Keep on Growing” is a funky, up-tempo number that features the singing of both Clapton and Whitlock, and their shared vocals remind me a bit of The Band, a group Clapton deeply admired and would have loved to have joined. I can’t say enough good things about this one; the guitar solo is brilliant, Gordon and Radle kick ass, and if the long Clapton-Allman guitar jam that closes this number out doesn’t send you, you’re lacking the proper postage and need to take a remedial course in total funkification. Next up is the band’s cover of Jimmy Cox’s “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.” I’m not thrilled by it, but I can appreciate its attributes; a slow blues, Allman’s playing is high-pitched and thrilling, while Clapton pours everything he’s got into the vocals. He then proceeds to play one very good solo, although it’s a bit slow for my tastes. But hey, I’ve never been a blues guy, so you can take what I say about the tune with a grain of salt. As for the muted “I Am Yours,” it sounds like the laid-back-to-the-point-of -comatose Clapton of later years, and I flat out dislike it. It has a vague Beatles feel, and not even Gordon’s great percussion and the sudden jolts of electric guitar can keep me from thinking that here it is, the Rosetta Stone of Eric Clapton’s latter-day mediocrity.

But “Anyday,” with its thrilling verses and transcendentally inspired choruses, makes me forget all about “I Am Yours.” Once again Clapton and Whitlock take turns on the vocals, that is when they’re not singing together, and as for the guitar riff the song hinges on, it’s a miracle. This is one you’ll want to crank up to 11, even if the guitar solo isn’t all that. What makes it so great is that it’s working on all cylinders—Derek and the Dominos are in total lockstep, and every time that delirious chorus circles round you get to lose yourself in pure musical bliss. Clapton and Whitlock outdid themselves on this one, which is good because they follow it with the LP’s elephant in the living room, a nine-and-one-half minute version of that hoary old blues chestnut, “Key to the Highway.” Why, it almost kills me to think about the songs that might have been on the LP but weren’t because this dinosaur hunkered itself down at the end of Side Two and died. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a blues guitarist’s dream, and I don’t tear it off the record player when it comes on, but there must be 6,456 versions of this song on record, and did we really need another one? Legend has it that “Sam the Sham” Samudio was playing the song in a neighboring studio, and that Clapton and Allman, upon hearing it, launched into a spontaneous version of their own. At which point producer Tom Dowd, who I would like to kick in the nuts, cried, “Hit the goddamn machine!” to make sure they got it on tape.

“Tell the Truth” is a chunkier, funkier take on the blues, with Allman’s guitar singing and Clapton and Whitlock doing their best Band imitation on vocals. Did I say the Band? At times they again rather remind me of the Beatles. Whitlock in particular throws himself into the vocals, while the guitar solo by Allman at around the 2:40 mark is truly inspired, if too short so far as I’m concerned. But once again it’s the whole band that makes this one so great; you can almost hear the interlocking parts that precede a guitar solo that cooks and another guitar solo after that one that doesn’t just cook but serves you dinner and even provides dessert. As for “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad?” it’s my second favorite song on Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. A total rave-up from the word go, it begins with Clapton crying, “Yeah yeah yeah yeah!” while Allman shoots sparks on guitar, and just gets more frenzied as it goes on. There’s lots of shouting and Allman plays a solo that God himself couldn’t wrap his mind around and this one is a runaway train you’ll actually want to ride, Clapton and Allman make such a beautiful sound together. Even its slowed down ending is a delight, and listening to it is enough to make me think that Allman’s death may have been less tragic for the Allman Brothers than for Derek and the Dominos, had the band ever recorded another LP.

“Have You Ever Loved a Woman?” is another blues cover, of a song by Billy Myles that Freddie King made a hit in 1960, and if I’m not totally thrilled by it I do love the way it builds and builds, with guitar piling on guitar and solo following solo. And these are some frenetic solos I’m talking about; show-offy shit, with Clapton, obviously thinking about George Harrison’s wife, going on about how he just can’t leave her alone. Meanwhile, the Dominos’ take on Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” is both lovely and supercharged hard rock, with its momentous power chords flattening space and time while Clapton and Whitlock sing the vocals in tandem. Of all the songs on the LP, “Little Wing” alone sounds like supergroup material; this could be Cream but it’s not. It’s goddamn metal is what it is, and it’s tremendous; Allman and Clapton take the melody and play it round and round and round until you’re dizzy, then follow it with a relatively low-key cover of Chuck Willis’ “It’s Too Late.” Once again Clapton and Whitlock collaborate on vocals to wonderful effect, and Allman plays a bird song of a solo, and this one is a soulful son of a bitch that doesn’t aim too high but wins you over with its charming humility.

As for “Layla,” what’s to be said about it that hasn’t been said before? Its two-part construction is a stroke of genius, and part one, the part where Eric gets down on his knees and begs, is rock at its most frenzied. That repetitive guitar riff by Clapton is great, and then Allman throws his “crying bird” sound into the mix and presto—you have one of the most delirious ravers of all time. The vocals are desperate, pleading, and reaching—this one is definitely about Pattie Boyd, and Clapton pours his heart into the vocals, with Whitlock joining in. And then comes the famous coda—a piece written by Gordon that Clapton had talk him into adding at the end. If I understand, both Gordon and Whitlock—who didn’t even like it, and didn’t want it there—play piano on the piece, while Allman’s guitar sings and I get goosebumps. Every time. I consider the second half of “Layla” one of the greatest moments in rock, and I’ll never understand those folks who don’t like it. It sends me into a trance, it does, and it leaves me feeling merciful towards the track that follows, “Thorn Tree in the Garden,” a very quiet and lovely piece written and sung by Whitlock. It’s not my thing, but its acoustic simplicity—no drums or bass, just those guitars and Whitlock’s voice—make for an oddly appropriate ending to an album filled with much ambitious numbers.

Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs marked a moment of divine synchronicity, when Eric Clapton and Duane Allman got together on a whim and produced an LP that is far more than the sum of its parts. It doesn’t matter that there are songs on it that I don’t even like; what matters are those moments that ignite and fire the imagination, like flash fires of musical genius. Clapton and Allman had an unerring ability to play both against and with one another, Whitlock is the album’s secret genius, and Radle and Gordon nail the whole thing down without flash but with an uncanny ability to keep things both loose and tighter than a drum. I’ll say it again: Duane Allman could have been the salvation of Eric Clapton, because he forced him to play at the very limits of his ability. Ditto Whitlock on vocals. Instead Allman died and Clapton fell into heroin addiction, and as a result four long years would pass before he started releasing that interminable string of so-so solo albums I cite at the beginning of the piece, and which led Robert Christgau to quip that Clapton was, “A master guitarist whose studio albums have been cited for unfair trade practices by Sominex.”

But it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that Clapton bequeathed us this album. He could have done nothing else—no Cream, no Blind Faith, no “Tears in Heaven” (thank God)—and I would still acknowledge him as a great musician. Layla and Other Love Songs is one of the few albums I consider utterly indispensible to every music listener’s library, “Key to the Highway” and “I Am Yours” notwithstanding. It will never fail to amaze me that many critics eviscerated it upon its release, and that it was anything but a commercial success. Both because it’s a deep reservoir of pure passion and marks a moment of camaraderie between two great musicians, but most importantly because I will never get “Layla” out of my head, and I don’t want to.


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