Friday Flashback: Slowhand

Been a while since I’ve done a Friday Flashback, but we’re back this week with Eric Clapton’s 1977 classic Slowhand. Three of the album’s tracks can be found on most Clapton “Greatest Hits” collections — the first three tracks on the album, in fact. It’s been labeled one of his best, alongside 461 Ocean Boulevard (his second album, which included his cover of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff”). Slowhand includes three covers among its nine-track playlist, not at all uncommon for Clapton. Before I get into the rest of the review, I should note that I’m reviewing this album based on the vinyl, so it’s certainly possible that there are nuances I’ve missed by not listening to it in an updated format. But I don’t think that anything I might notice in a newer format would change my review in any way.

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I do wonder if this cover was inspired by Springsteen’s Born to Run

And now, of course, the breakdown:

  1. “Cocaine” — I’ve already mentioned that I’ve performed this one, so it’s probably easy to guess that I like it. The drums are actually fairly subtle, considering this is very much a rock song, but they work perfectly here. Rock or not, it’s a sin to drown out the guitars in a Clapton song, so it’s good that the drums are fairly understated here. But they’re still subtly complex, which is always a pleasure. There’s a certain amount of depth to them that you might not notice without focusing on it, but which you’d probably miss were it absent. One thing to note with this one is that the lead guitar riff is practically the same as the one Clapton played ten years earlier on Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love.” Even the best has to copy himself at some point, I suppose. The old saying has always been “sex, drugs, & rock ‘n’ roll,” and this track has two of the three. Interestingly, it’s actually intended as an anti-cocaine song, which went straight over my head — and over the heads of the Argentinian government which banned the song until 1984. I suppose looking closely enough at the lyrics you can understand where the message is, but it’s not really very apparent without looking quite closely at the song.

  2. “Wonderful Tonight” — I love Clapton’s rock tracks, but often his ballads are were he really shines. There’s a special place in my heart for this one in particular. For one, I just think it’s a beautiful song, despite the fact that it feels, to me, quite cliché (though I should note that the lyrics aren’t actually particularly trite; I think it’s just the overall message of the song?). Secondly, it’s more than likely the only Clapton song I’ll ever be able to play on guitar (I’m not counting “May You Never,” since it’s a cover). The guitar part is actually quite impressive, not because it’s technically difficult, but because it’s mostly just the one phrase and one or two variations on it, and yet it really cements the song despite the song being pretty much anything but guitar-driven.

  3. “Lay Down Sally” — A bluesy track with country influences — or maybe the other way around, I’m not quite sure — this one is a lot of fun. The rhythm guitar line is jaunty and bouncy, and really more of the backbone of the song than even the drums. The chorus is also really catchy, so it’s got that going for it. Lyrically it’s nothing terribly special, but that’s ok, because it stands out musically, which is often more important. Good music can make even the worst lyrics seem good. There’s a reason this is one his more famous songs.

  4. “Next Time You See Her” — The interesting thing about this one is that it sounds like a love song if you’re not listening closely, but it’s way deeper than that. I’m pretty sure someone’s having an affair, or maybe attempting to seduce someone, or something like that, I’m not entirely sure, but the narrator isn’t having it. It’s very clearly a Clapton track, with his blues influences noticeably especially in the guitar solos. But lyrically it sounds more like something Johnny Cash might sing, for instance, though not in these particular words, I suppose. The death threats in the bridge sound fairly weak and pithy coming from Clapton, to be honest. His vocals aren’t very well suited for intimidation. Again I’m thinking of Cash, whose “Now you gonna die!” in “A Boy Named Sue” feels way more threatening than Clapton’s here.

  5. “We’re All the Way” — I’m not sure if the backing vocals here are Yvonne Elliman’s or Marcy Levy’s, despite my best research efforts, but I’m leaning toward Elliman. Either way, they strengthen the song for sure. It’s a pretty enough track, but ultimately it’s not particularly memorable. There’s not really a catchy chorus or guitar riff to grab onto. It’s not a bad track and not a bad way to end the first side of the album, but it’s just not the kind of track that’s going to stick with you. I wonder if perhaps it’s because it’s a cover of a Don Williams song, but the other two covers on the album are much stronger than this one.

  6. “The Core” — A duet with Marcy Levy, this one has some of the best guitars on the album. I’m not sure how this riff isn’t more famous, actually, it’s stellar. The track takes hold of you from the first note and just does not let go. Levy’s vocals are, to me, noticeably stronger than Clapton’s, but to be fair he’s always thought of as a guitarist first and a singer second, or maybe even third, after songwriting, depending on who you ask. It’s quite a positive song, promoting, as I see it, acceptance of oneself and finding your inner strength, things like that. Musically I think this one sums up Clapton’s unique brand of rock. I could do with some stronger drums on this one, but what’s there works well enough. There’s a sax part later in the song that hits some impressive high notes — like I don’t think I knew a sax was capable of emitting those notes. It’s quite a long track, over eight minutes, but it’s worth it for the blazing guitar solo and just overall quality of the song. Pretty much the perfect opening track for the second side of an album.

  7. “May You Never” — Arguably another somewhat forgettable track, depending on who you’re talking to, but I personally love it. It’s a cover of a John Martyn song, and it doesn’t have any guitar solos or lead riffs or anything. It’s a simple song, strummed throughout, nothing fancy. And it doesn’t need it. It’s got a strong chord progression and a lovely set of lyrics to go with it. Sometimes the simpler songs are strong for the very fact that they don’t have a lot of fancy, complicated things happening.

  8. “Mean Old Frisco” — This is pure blues, through and through, shot through with a rock edge (just listen to the distortion on that guitar). There’s some very nice slide guitar work here, something I’ve come to appreciate a lot more as I’ve tried to dabble a little with slide and found out how hard it is. It’s a cover of Arthur Crudup’s 1942 original. If you know blues or the music theory behind it, you can quite clearly hear the chord pattern, as well as the lyric pattern. It’s a damn good track, and this is coming from a guy with very little blues experience. But versed in the blues or not, I know good music when I hear it, and this is good music.

  9. “Peaches and Diesel” — I don’t know where the title comes from for this one, but it’s a fantastic track with some of the most beautiful guitar work I can recall. It’s an instrumental driven by that guitar, and to be quite honest, I don’t really even know how to describe how I feel about it. All I can really do is hope that listening to it can give you an idea of what I mean here. Certainly in the running to be my favorite track on the album.

And that’s Slowhand. It’s actually a fairly short album, clocking in at just over thirty-six minutes total, but don’t let that fool you. There’s a lot going on here. I’d not heard it until recently, and it’s already easily one of my favorite classic rock albums. It’s not every day that I come across an album that I’m content to listen to repeatedly, without wanting to skip any tracks, but this falls squarely into that category. I’m no Clapton expert, and haven’t listened to probably even a quarter of his recorded material, but I’d still be willing to bet that this is some of his best, despite how long and successful his career has been. If you haven’t heard it already, this one should definitely be on your list of albums to listen to.

 

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