I bought John Mayall With Eric Clapton Blues Breakers for two reasons, as well as the fact it was supposed to be a classic.  Firstly there’s an excellent BBC documentary on John Mayall that does the rounds of late night TV here which pricked my interest and because no lesser mortal than Brian May referred to it in a Queen book I used to have and called the improvised jam on his Star Fleet Project mini-LP after the album.

Brian May Star Fleet

I picked up a cheapo 70’s reissue, on vinyl so cheap that you could probably see through it if you held it up to the light, and proceeded to be really … underwhelmed.  I know my history and I know what Blues Breakers paved the way for; when Clapton, legendarily, plugged that Gibson into that overdriven Marshall he put in train all manner of electrifying white boy variations on the blues* that lead us inexorably to the summit of all rock, the apex of all culture, and the zenith of all human endeavour to date, that is AC/DC ‘Up To My Neck In You’.

Except that to modern ears, well mine at least**, with the odd exception it all sounds so polite to me.  It reminds me of those faded old news clips of crusty old British parents setting them selves alight in protest at the length of the Beatles’ hair, when we jaded 21st century types just think they look quite cuddly and sweet with their hair just touching their collars; it’s all about temporal context.  I come across these albums from time to time, especially in early hip-hop, where the real innovators sound a little less inspired than those who came later and built on the foundations of their work – unless you pause to consider the quantum leap the original made you do run the risk of shrugging your shoulders and so-whatting.

John Mayall Blues Breakers Clapton 05

Unfortunately, in my blinkered view, you can also trace an awful lot of blues-based schmaltz back here too.  Before we rediscovered our collective taste for a little raw authenticity back in our blues, we had to make it through the Cray/Clapton 80’s, which I can’t let myself think about too much, for fear of ruining many years of expensive therapy.  An era when no drum sound, however much it sounded like a man disinterestedly swatting a fly on a tray with a soggy turd, was too limp – an era when every LP released had to have, by UN directive I assume, Tina Turner / Mark Knopfler / Phil Collins and/or Clapton on it and they all had to employ that guy with the hat to play bongos at every single live date.  (shivers uncontrollably)

John Mayall Blues Breakers Clapton 01

But, let’s get to the good.  In every sense Blues Breakers was created as a vehicle for John Mayall to show off his young, flash guitarist and said guitarist repaid him lavishly.  Even on the few tracks I don’t like (stand up ‘Have You Heard’), Mr Clapton’s playing is lyrical and if it sounds hackneyed at times, it is because of the legions of guitarists who slavishly copied him afterwards.  On the numbers when he really catches fire, ‘Double Crossing Time’ for example to hear him is to understand why so many did copy him and buy into his deification.  I prefer the tracks which veer away from the originals (7 of the 12 here are covers) a little and don’t try to recreate them note for note, where the band throw in a little more of themselves, typically this happens on the faster numbers here, ‘Stepping Out’ is just brilliant.

One for all you scruffy shoe fetishists out there
One for all you scruffy shoe fetishists out there

For all the talk of the lead banjo player here, it shouldn’t be forgotten what a great band this was.  John McVie on bass formed a great rhythm section with Hughie Flint, who was a really excellent drummer and Mr Mayall was no mean player at all in his own right, his harp playing on ‘Another Man’ is really raw and percussive, just the way it should be and his keys on ‘Ramblin On My Mind’ is excellent, providing a rolling backdrop for Clapton’s first recorded solo vocal.

John Mayall Blues Breakers Clapton 03

John Mayall Blues Breakers Clapton 06

BUT as the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band put it so pithily, ‘Can blue men sing the whites? / Or are they hypocrites’^, there is always that question of authenticity hovering over Blues Breakers and their ilk, were they just dilettantes appropriating another culture’s music and commercializing it? or true lovers and believers bringing the music to a new, wider audience? very boringly, I’m going to be all adult about it and say it’s the latter.  John Mayall et.al were very assiduous in making sure everyone got the credit they deserved, unlike certain large balloon-named dudes who behaved very poorly in that regard and that counts for a lot with me.

John Mayall Blues Breakers Clapton 07

However and the reason why I think this LP is flawed for me, if you go back and spin the Otis Rush original of ‘All Your Love’, or the Little Walter version of ‘Stepping Out’, there is just more grit, earthiness, energy and fire in those originals than in their incarnations on Blues Breakers.  They are far less polite, maybe just less anglicized.  Those are tracks I really like on this album too but given the choice I’d plump for the originals every time, whether I’m just a product of a generation that fetishizes authenticity, whatever that can be pinned down to mean, over interpretation I will let you decide.

I always liked the Beano too.

John Mayall Blues Breakers Clapton 04
Symbolic king, standing on sleevenotes (sleevenotes!!)

490 Down.

*already merrily electrified in Chicago of course.

**maybe not totally modern then, but definitely pre-Paleozoic.

^pronounced hippo-crytes, to rhyme and to be funny; oh and there’s a further link as Hughie Flint joined the Bonzos in 1971.

24 thoughts on “Blue Men Can Sing The Whites

  1. While I do get that looking back to an earlier time can lead to some confusion about what people saw in the original, context is all (please add italics there). Although you’ve covered your back, Joe, I think you may have missed the point of this record in music history (esp. British music history). Saying it is too polite is like saying The 1964 Beatles are too cute. It’s what it was – an embracing and exploring of a genre/style of music that was almost entirely forgotten/ignored in its country of origin. You would probably have never heard of – let alone been able to listen to – those ‘originals’ without the British Blues boom of the mid-60s. And the references to 80s Clapton are spurious (as I’m entirely sure you realise). Now, if you said that you prefer the bluesy Small Faces or Pretty Things of 1966, I’d accept that as a perfectly reasonable matter of taste difference (and probably agree, too!). But if I could be bold, I’d say listen to much more music from 1964 – 1969 and then return to the Bluesbreakers. I don’t think it is timelessly great either, but I do think it deserves its place in rock history.
    Disclaimer: I return to work tomorrow and am thus in a foul mood.

    1. I think, you Antipodean curmudgeon, that it depends why you own/listen to records – as historical artefacts or as a pleasurable thing to spin during your leisure time.

      It’s nearly always a mix for us collector types, but for me at the moment the curation aspect takes a back seat and this doesn’t deal me the requisite number of kicks.

      I hold deep grudges against Clapton for his drunken support of Enoch Powell, never fully recanted … as well as his 80’s. That colours my view a little too.

      I’m more of an Animals fan myself.

  2. I bought this on CD on my first trip to Glasgow, 1993 if memory serves. I was laready a blues head, hot on the heels of my lifelong love of jazz and swing music. I was deep into the old shit, and already a hardened Stones fan, so I popped for this disc. You know something, 1993 me really liked it. Because blues. Because guitars. Maybe I’m an easy audience. Play anything in a 12-bar format and sing the phone book and I’ll start drooling. But I recall a kernel there, a… something. The entire British appropriation of the blues in the 60s was a mess. I mean, a lot of it was loving homage, a lot of it was blatant stealing, but there was enough of it to make a movement out of it, and look how long some of these people (E.C. included) have carried on.

    Laughed out loud at the balloon people comment. You know, I don’t have this record here but I should, probably. Then I could listen to it again and make intelligent comments here instead of just blathering on.

    1. Whatever you don’t go listening to stuff and stop your blathering on, what’d we all do around here without that?! Don’t be so selfish, man.

      I can appreciate the history and I did like some, but if you go listen to the originals the vitality of them just blow right through this for me.

  3. I agree with you here. I’ve always thought this is one where you probably “had to be there” to understand its importance or impact. But I wasn’t so… I don’t get much out of it. Prefer Cream, the Jeff Beck Group, early Fleetwood Mac. Blues is always a bit of a hard sell to me anyway but this always struck me as a bit lifeless.

  4. I will give Clapton the credit he is due, but I will never say I’m a fan. I think he peaked between 1966 and 1969. Yes, Cream. I’ve heard some of the Blues Breakers stuff and to my 41 year old ears it sounds rather pedestrian. I know that in the early to mid-60s it was rather mind-blowing what he was doing, but I don’t think Clapton really found his sound till he plugged the SG into the Cry Baby with Bruce and Baker.

    Your comment about the 80s, the drum sound, and the bongo guy made me laugh out loud(or LOL) as it’s completely true. Those were some dark, dark times my friend. But what’s funny is that now you’d never find an artist on the radio with songs in the top ten like Clapton, Collins, or Knopfler. You know, guys that actually employed skills and talent to create music instead of having a board room full of songwriters and musicians making the music. This could be a good or bad thing, depending on who you are and your IQ.

    All of this is for naught anyways. Jeff Beck was(and is) a much better guitarist.

    1. Thank you, I aim to please. I do worry about the bongo guy, has anyone seen him since ’93? Has he been taking his mail in?

      I agree about Cream too, wholeheartedly. Believe it or not, I know very little Jeff Beck and don’t own any at all. I’ve fancied getting hold of truth for years. Have you got any?

      And I agree re. 80s Top 10 dudes, you don’t get their likes anymore because so much chart music just seems to be farted into existence by computers. Jeez, I’ve finally become a proper old timer, I’ll leave my job and start a bait shop somewhere.

      1. A bait shop seems like the right thing to do. Have a rocking chair on the porch and start working on a good and angry scowl.

        I do have some Jeff Beck. Truth and Beck-Ola are the best of his earlier stuff with Stewart and Wood. For me Blow By Blow and Wired are where it’s at. I think Blow By Blow is a masterpiece. Funky, groovy, and filled with Beck’s best guitar work. Beck, Bogart, Appice is like the proto-metal power trio, but really only worth a few listens. Their cover of “Superstition” is pretty tight.

Leave a Reply