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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
*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.