“I’ve had quite a lot of pain over the last year,” reveals Clapton, now aged 71. “It started with lower back pain and turned into what they call peripheral neuropathy, which is where you feel like you have electric shocks going down your leg. And I’ve had to figure out how to deal with some other things from getting old.”
If this is starting to sound like an encounter with a moaning pensioner at the bus stop, it’s probably worth remembering that Clapton is not just one of the most fêted instrumentalists in rock history, he’s also in the record books as one of its epic caners.
“Because I’m in recovery from alcoholism and addiction to substances, I consider it a great thing to be alive at all,” he declares. “By rights I should have kicked the bucket a long time ago. For some reason I was plucked from the jaws of hell and given another chance.”
Given Clapton’s candour barely minutes into the conversation, initial fears that he would prove to be an unaccommodating interviewee have been allayed. I had been warned that he might be resistant to trawling through his back pages – which any sentient music lover, faced with an artist of his stature, is surely going to want to do – and prefer to focus on his new album. So when I tentatively propose a full overview of his incredible, albeit turbulent, journey, taking in all his ch-ch-changes, from The Yardbirds to The Bluesbreakers to Cream to Blind Faith to Derek & The Dominos and beyond, I was prepared for a polite but firm negative. Which makes his response all the more pleasing.
“You do what you like,” he says, breezily.
“I was channelling music”
In October 1963, Anthony Topham quit The Yardbirds and was replaced by 18-year-old art student and guitarist Eric Clapton, fresh from The Roosters. With Clapton on board, The Yardbirds would become one of the most accomplished rhythm and blues bands in the UK, and serious rivals to the Rolling Stones.
Is it true you would stand in for Mick Jagger at Ken Colyer’s 51 Club onLondon’s Charing Cross Road in the early days whenever he got a sore throat?
Not there. But the Stones used to play at a place called The Ealing Club, and it was in Ealing, opposite a pub called the Feathers, I think, that I did that. They played there almost every Saturday night, in a period when Brian Jones was with them, obviously, and when I’m not even sure they had a bass player.
How good were The Yardbirds compared to the Rolling Stones at that point?
About the same. I think Keith [Relf, vocalist] had difficulty because he only had one lung and he had asthma. His ability to give it his all was limited. But the Stones were a bit older than us and a little bit further down the road in terms of confidence and experience. So The Yardbirds followed on. We were never going to catch up. But I think for a while, while we were playing the clubs and before they decided to go for stardom, we were on an equal footing.
Which was the first song you did with The Yardbirds where you were able to cut loose and put your signature on it?
We used to do an instrumental [by Memphis Slim]called Steppin’ Out, or we’d do funny stuff like play [Howlin’ Wolf’s] Smokestack Lightning next to [pop song]Hang On Sloopy! And it was often about creating these artificial crescendos, and that would prompt a lot of pseudo-virtuoso lead guitar playing.
n 1964 The Yardbirds, their reputation growing as fast as Clapton’s, were invited on tour as support to bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson. A prestigious slot, perhaps, although an unimpressed Clapton, with his in-depth knowledge of the blues, knew that he wasn’t the real Sonny Boy who had written Good Morning, School Girl and been killed with an ice-pick, but a surrogate whose real name was Rice Miller and, to avoid confusion, became known as Sonny Boy Williamson II.
Do you think Sonny Boy Williamson II was as stunned as audiences were by your guitar playing?
I don’t think so, no. I don’t think he was stunned by any of it. I think he was seriously disappointed. I found out when I sat down and talked with Robbie Robertson [later of The Band], who knew Sonny Boy very well, and he said Sonny Boy would come back to the States from working with us and say some pretty disparaging things about what we were doing and who we were. He wasn’t impressed at all.
Nevertheless, there must have been legions of young male admirers coming to see you play as much as they were there to see frontman Keith Relf, which was surely unusual: an instrumentalist with his own following?
There were girls too, actually! I had a nice little following, until I quit [in 1965]. There was a grey period when I had ‘retired’ at the age of nineteen, or whatever I was, and then I joined John Mayall and those people followed me there. I was very fortunate. I mean, I think those people responded to what I was channelling, the same as I did, which was the blues.
Were you channelling emotion but also a desire to be technically great?
No, I was channelling music. I was channelling what I heard on record by people that I was following, trying to learn from; I was channelling Freddie King, BB King, Buddy Guy. I was melding all those guys into some new shape. And I think people liked that. Maybe people projected stuff onto that. But for me I was purely trying to turn people on to what I loved: old music.
One of those you ‘turned on’ was Ronnie Spector, wasn’t she? You’d been touring with The Ronettes and, according to your autobiography, one night she “made a move” on you. You say you were besotted with her, “the most sexual creature I had ever laid eyes on”.
Yes! Well that was interesting, wasn’t it? And I think she said to me… Cos we went on tour up and down England on a coach for three months. Can you imagine? Playing in every cinema and theatre all over the country, with Billy J Kramer and all kinds of people. Anyway, she said that I reminded her of Phil [Spector]. He’s a chinless wonder as well. And we do look – or did look – quite similar back then. But it was [a]very short-lived [romance], believe me.”