Derek And The Dominos: When God walked among us

Derek And The Dominos: When God walked among us

Of all the songs on Derek And The DominosLayla And Other Assorted Love Songs, the one that sounds most out of place is the title track. Layla is largely a laid-back jam record—a collection of electric blues and country-tinged folk music banged out on the quick by Eric Clapton, Bobby Whitlock, Jim Gordon, Carl Radle, and Duane Allman. And then there’s “Layla,” with its mammoth opening guitar riff, wailing Allman slide-guitar solo, and plaintive Gordon piano coda. The song is more arena-rock than roots-rock; in fact, it sounds like the birth of arena-rock, at least as it would come to sound in the ’70s. By and large on Layla, producer Tom Dowd held to his philosophy of always recording what happened in the studio rather than trying to force it; but with “Layla,” Dowd moves gracefully between the recording’s various elements, giving each their spotlight and maximizing their power, right down to the playful little “bird-tweet” that ends the track. This song doesn’t feel off-the-cuff in any way. This is a pronouncement, delivered from a mountaintop.

Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs was released 40 years ago, and will be re-released later this month in a special edition containing the original album, a disc of additional Derek And The Dominos records, and two discs of the Dominoes in concert. It’s not a complete document of the Dominos’ brief run. An earlier anniversary edition featured a full disc of Clapton/Allman instrumental jams that don’t appear on the new set, and though the second disc of the new Layla includes some songs recorded for an unfinished second Dominos album, it only includes those that were pretty well “finished,” which leaves a few oft-bootlegged tracks on the outs. Still, with the addition of a few previously unreleased performances from The Johnny Cash Show—including a joyous take on “Matchbox,” performed with Cash and Carl Perkins—this is fairly close to a definitive document of what Clapton’s intentions were with this band.

Those intentions are something Clapton talks about in his autobiography:

It began with me just talking to these guys about music and getting to know them, and then we just played and played and played. I was in absolute awe of these people, and yet they made me feel that I was on their level. My musicianship fit with their musicianship. We were kindred spirits, made in the same mold. To this day I would say that the bass player Carl Radle and the drummer Jimmy Gordon are the most powerful rhythm section I have ever played with. They were absolutely brilliant. When people say that Jim Gordon is the greatest rock ’n’ roll drummer who ever lived, I think it’s true, beyond anybody. All we did was jam and jam and jam and night would become day and day would become night, and it just felt good to me to stay that way. I had never felt so musically free before. We kept ourselves going with fryups and 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. This became the chemistry of our lives, mixing all these things together. God knows how our bodies stood it. I had no game plan at this time. We were just enjoying playing, getting stoned, and writing songs.

To understand the significance of Clapton writing about feeling like a peer with the other Dominos, it helps to know where his head was at prior to 1970. While Clapton’s peers in the British rock scene were courting success on the pop charts, Clapton remained a purist, holed up in his room trying to master the techniques of Big Bill Broonzy and John Lee Hooker. He quit The Yardbirds because he thought they were sellouts; and he quit John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers because he felt he was way beyond his bandmates. Along the way he left behind just a little recorded evidence of his guitar prowess—primarily the pistol-hot Five Live Yardbirds and the rollicking Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton—but for the most part, Clapton’s reputation was built on his cockiness and his fiery performances. Around the time Clapton abandoned Mayall, graffiti started popping up around London: “Clapton Is God.”

Then Clapton formed Cream with bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker, and reality finally began to catch up with the hype. Cream had a monster sound, influenced by jazz, blues, and psychedelia, and the band quickly became one of the top touring attractions at home and in the U.S. But Bruce and Baker couldn’t stand each other, and Clapton grew wary of the idolatry. As he crisscrossed two continents, he heard musicians like The Band writing and recording new classics with little of the fuss or bluster of Cream. Clapton quit Cream and formed a new band, Blind Faith, with Baker and Steve Winwood, intending to emulate The Band and make the music the star. Instead, the industry rushed to capitalize on Clapton’s iconic status and make Blind Faith the next “supergroup.” Sensing a repeat of his Cream frustrations, Clapton killed the band quickly and went out on the road with Blind Faith’s American supporting act: husband-and-wife roots-rockers Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett. He worked strictly as a sideman and asked not to be the main attraction. (Nevertheless, Delaney & Bonnie did release a live album from the tour called On Tour With Eric Clapton. It’s excellent.)

During his stint with Delaney & Bonnie, Clapton met—and stole—Whitlock, Radle, and Gordon, and Derek And The Dominos were born. Bobby Whitlock is himself a superior singer-songwriter, whose self-titled 1972 solo debut (with backing music provided primarily by the Dominos) is an under-heralded classic. Layla is often talked about as a Clapton album, but the Stax-trained Whitlock wrote or co-wrote six of its 14 songs, and provided a much-needed foil for Clapton, keeping him in a down-home, country-soul mood. Then, partway through the Layla sessions, Dowd took Clapton to see The Allman Brothers, and Clapton tried to steal Duane Allman for the band too. Instead, he had to settle for Allman playing ferociously on 11 of the album’s songs, giving the blues workouts in particular more gas than they might have otherwise had.

Which is good, since those blues workouts dominate Layla. Clapton reached way back into his repertoire for songs like “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out” and “Key To The Highway,” which according to his autobiography he’d been playing since before he joined The Yardbirds. As he did with Cream, Clapton stretched out on the classics, except he wasn’t trying to overpower the listener anymore; he and the Dominos were just enjoying the moment, in no hurry to see it end. In the songs Clapton co-wrote with Whitlock—like the easygoing album-opener “I Looked Away” and the exuberant “Keep On Growing”—the Dominos show what they learned from their time on the road with Delaney & Bonnie. The music is loose and rootsy, designed to give off a pleasurable buzz.

It’s this mode of the Dominos that Clapton carried into the live performances and the second-album material on the Layla reissue. The live tracks are funky and jammy, even when the band tackles poppier non-Dominos Clapton songs like “Let It Rain” and “Presence Of The Lord.” The songs for the unreleased record—like the stormy “Evil” and the acoustic “One More Chance”—are even more steeped in country-blues than the music on Layla. When Clapton dissolved Cream, part of him wanted to go back to being a talented journeyman, playing alongside the likeminded. With Derek And The Dominos, he almost got his wish.

But traditionalism and a happy-dudes-hanging-out vibe are only part of the legend of Derek And The Dominos and Layla. The band’s story can’t be told without acknowledging the rampant drug use, which quickly shaded into abuse once heroin entered the mix. Derek And The Dominos fell apart because Clapton was often in too rough a shape to play, which left Whitlock in the lurch and wrecked their friendship. Later, Radle’s various addictions caused the kidney infection that killed him in 1980, while Gordon was institutionalized in the mid-’80s after he had a psychotic break and killed his mother with a hammer. (Allman, who was never an official member of the band, died in a motorcycle accident in 1971, before sessions for the second album began.)

As for Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs, it’s rightly hailed as one of the best albums Clapton ever made, though it doesn’t have the arc of a great album. Because of the jams, it was originally spread across four LP sides, with sides two and three each containing only three songs; but on CD it all fits on one disc, and the sequencing doesn’t have any particular flow or build. And yet it still works as a concept album of a kind. When Clapton formed the Dominoes and recorded Layla, he was smitten with Pattie Boyd, the wife of his friend George Harrison. Much of the album was written with her in mind, and even covers like “Have You Ever Loved A Woman” and “It’s Too Late” are not-so-coded expressions of Clapton’s unrequited affection. 

Clapton’s covert mission to win Boyd’s heart through music also partly explains the album’s swagger. He gets sensitive and self-lacerating with the Eastern-influenced ballad “I Am Yours” and the aching “Bell Bottom Blues”—the latter being the most Clapton-y song on Layla besides “Layla”—but he also gives the band’s cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” a weirdly triumphant air for a song that’s so wistful in its original form. Though Clapton craved anonymity after Cream, the part of him that believed he was unassailably the best young blues guitarist in Britain didn’t just disappear overnight.

So while on the surface “Layla” sounds like an outlier on the album that bears its name, deep in its bones, the song is the album. It’s the modern blues: a raw howl from a man desperately in love. And it’s his way of showing off. “Why don’t you love me,” the song seems to ask, “When I can do this?”