When The Cream of Eric Clapton was released on vinyl in 1987 it was one of the records that bonded my family. Mum and dad knew Eric Clapton from his 70s solo triumphs and the early bands where he’d earned his God-like reputation. They were fans. And though CDs were creeping into the world we were still a family of record buyers and the weekly LP that my mum would buy was always an education.
We bought The Cream of Eric Clapton for her as a birthday gift – or Mother’s Day – or something like that. But it was basically for the whole family.
And it was a revelation to me. I went in hard and heavy after that. Sixties guitar legends in general but Clapton was – to begin with – the focus. (Don’t worry readers, you should already know that it wasn’t long before Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck earned my full attention).
But for the late 1980s and early 1990s Clapton was not just God – he was The Man. To me. And it all culminated in the first big gig I saw – Eric Clapton live in 1990. A crack band. A great setlist. All the ducks in a row. He was out the other end of a trying 1980s and not yet unplugged nor fully passionless. I reckon I saw him at the right time. Sure, he was Mr Armani Bluesman. But he was in good voice and sans NeckBeard.
I was 13. And it was a big deal seeing him. And to say I had high – and weird – expectations is an understatement. On the long drive from Hawke’s Bay to Auckland I remember asking my brother, with utter excitement dripping from my breath, if he thought that Clapton might play Peaches & Diesel – a rather lovely, but ultimately fucking unlikely, borderline obscure instrumental from the album Slowhand.
And so either side of that concert I made it my business to buy up as many of the albums released by Clapton – or featuring him – that I could find in the little old music stores of Hastings. And I made a good fist of it – getting Yardbirds and Cream and Dominos albums or compilations and many of the EC solo records up to and including Journeyman, the album he was touring behind. The best of his ‘comeback’ attempts after the diminishing returns of his lazy late 70s/early 80s wildness years.
I kept buying Clapton even after he disappointed me massively – but I finally reconciled that somewhat by seeing a second very good gig (Clapton was the third best guitarist on his own stage, with Doyle Bramhall and Derek Trucks absolutely killing it on his behalf) and by writing off most of the last 30 years of his professional catalogue and career.
But every now and then something comes back.
And, from the Harder To Defend Files comes 1985’s Behind The Sun.
Here was Clapton trying very hard to be both an 80s pop star and return to being a bluesman. It’s a mess. Of course. But he does shred out some epic solos (Same Old Blues, Just Like A Prisoner) and provide some pretty bouncy little pop hooks (She’s Waiting), great ballads (See What Love Can Do, Never Make You Cry) and some genuinely intriguing wee slices of nearly good pop that just miss but still provide…I dunno… ‘something’? (Tangled In Love).
I mean there’s lots wrong with these selections and plenty of things far worse – a version of Knock On Wood that could only be clever if the meta-prank was just how fucking wooden it is. And some rather bad versions of the balladry (It All Depends) and pop (Something’s Happening). And if not strictly ‘bad’ – they’re like first drafts for better efforts later on the album (I’d take Behind The Sun’s title track over All Depends and Forever Man eats Something’s Happening alive). Also, the ‘blues’ songs are actually pretty shitty. He has a go at wailing on his axe but they’re uninspired songs.
But there’s something about all of it – and the way I first heard it – that works. Still. This is an interesting time for Clapton too – he’d met the woman that would be the mother of his child Connor, and so his marriage was again on the rocks. The writing on the wall. Patti was moving on from him too. Or trying/hoping to. Many of the songs are informed by that. There’s bookending tunes to chart the end of their relationship – we open with “She’s waiting for another lover”, and close with the title track – which is a) beautiful and b) easily the most bizarre and oddly moving, brilliant thing Clapton did. But hear it at the wrong time and you’ll just think what the actual fuck? But he sings about how the flowers that used to grow in his heart are dying now. It’s framed by producer Phil Collins on synthesizer and EC even dabbles with the Roland Guitar Synth which is about as un-blues as you can get.
The big hit from the album – and the only song I knew going in (it was one of the ‘weaker’ songs in the scheme of things on Cream of Clapton) is Forever Man. I still kind of think this is a perfect pop song for someone like Eric Clapton to make. He really kills the solo – the production (again, Collins, top of his game, biggest star in the world, beginning to get absolutely fucking hated for it – and quite possibly fair enough) is shiny-sublime for the era. And very much of the era, of course.
I’ve always been able to return to Behind the Sun. Something I cannot do with the records that arrived either side of it – or many of the other ones in Clapton’s catalogue. I reckon there’s something deep hiding in here. He got about as honest as he ever did.
And yet I remember the first time I heard this album – my friend Richard played it to me on cassette tape, he’d got to it first and was thrilled to be able to introduce me to an Eric Clapton album for once. I thought it was weird. I thought it was kinda silly. It didn’t feel right. It didn’t sound ‘good’. But something intrigued me about it. That something intrigues me still.