REVIEWS

Blues Breakers John Mayall with Eric Clapton

Forget the pallid interpretations of Chuck Berry's Roll Over Beethoven as recorded by the Beatles or Willie Dixon's I Just Want to Make Love to You by the Rolling Stones - Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton released in England on the 22nd of July in 1966 is the album that woke American guitar players to their forgotten heritage.

John Mayall was (and still is) a deeply serious collector and connoisseur of original American blues records amassing a huge collection of 78's and sourcing material in a much more authoritative manner than his English contemporaries who skimmed the surface of blues releases they could find in England. Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton represents a treasure trove of material from American musicians such as Otish Rush, Freddie King, Ray Charles, Moser Allison, Robert Johnson, L. C. Frazier and Little Walter. That line-up alone is enough to set you hair on edge. The album was Mayall's second release but first studio recorded album release. It's often referred to as the "Beano" album because Clapton is seen reading (or pretending to read) a copy of the English weekly children's comic book. Clapton has since admitted he did this to express his indifference to the photo shoot. The core band for this album was John Mayall on keyboards vocals and harmonica, Eric Clapton on guitar, John McVie (yes the same John McVie who went on to glorious infamy in Los Angeles with Fleetwood Mac) and Hughie Flint on drums. The band is augmented with a horn section comprised of Alan Skidmore on tenor sax, John Almond on baritone sax and Dennis Healey on trumpet. Mike Vernon is credited as the producer and Gus Dudgeon as the engineer. Vernon went on to found the British record label Blue Horizon and worked with a slew of other English acts including: David Bowie, Savoy Brown, Chicken Shack, Eric Clapton, Fleetwood Mac, Peter Green, Danny Kirwan, Christine McVie and Ten Years After. Dudgeon had a lengthy career at Decca Studios and went on to work with David Bowie and Elton John.


Left to right: John Mayall, Eric Clapton, John McVie November 1965.

The song choices for the album were gathered from the Blues Breakers' live shows at the time and included the Mayall originals "Another Man," "Little Girl," "Double Crossing Time (co-written with Clapton), "Key to Love" and "Have You Heard." The ferocity of the guitar playing - Clapton has not played with such fervor since this recording - is startling thoughout the album and stands infitnite repeated listenings. Playing a 1960 Gibson Les Paul Standard through a 45-watt model 1962 Marshall 2x12 combo. The amp was usually turned up full volume. The studio as fairly small (even for those days) and Clapton wanted to play at full volume to match the soudns and sustains he was achieving at live shows - when Dudgeon placed the microphone to record the guitar right next to the amplifier, standard practice for engineers then, Clapton insisted his amp be placed across the room potentially flooding all the other instrument tracks with sonic bleeding. "I didn't give a shit about what anyone thought" says Clapton "I mean we made the record in two days, and I told the engineer where to put the microphone, and that's the way it went. If you didn't like what I was doing, then you weren't on the same planet as me."

  • The album opens with the Otish Rush and Willie Dixon song "All Your Love" and Clapton howls over the previously tracked rhythm guitar part and Mayall's organ playing. I say "rhythmn" guitar - but it's really another single note style guitar part that drives the track up to and into the double-time section and back out to single-time for the outro section, Mayall's vocals are wrapped in reverb which enhances the "live" feel.
  • Next comes classic "Hideaway" which has since become the musical standard for how to play the Freddie King original. The keyboard organ sounds a little wimpy here (somewhat like an ice-rink musical in tone) and the band hits another double-tempo section which must have sparked a riot at live gigs. Clapton's double string bends express a complete mastery of the tune - it should be noted this was recorded during the days that "Clapton is God" was seen written on walls and posters everywhere, and Mayall began to recognize that audiences were coming to see and hear Clapton play, younger people were attending shows and playing "air" guitar in the front rows at gigs.
  • The third brief track "Little Girl" composed by Mayall contains some menacing guitar playing but the writing is not quite up the calibre of the blues (now standards) that the band were covering form American writers.
  • "Another Man" is a great solo harmonica track composed and sung by Mayall and works perfectly to re-adjust your hearing and set the stage for the band in the album's following sequence. If all the tracks had the same instrumentation it probably wouldn't have been as successful. "Double Crossing Time" opens with acoustic piano and a baritone sax doubling the bass line. Clapton alternates with restraint and bridge pickup attack - you can hear the plectrum assault the strings before the notes come. The performance however brief is superbly dynamic.
  • "What I'd Say" the Ray Charles cover is used as a drum solo for Flint who does a great job - but listening to it now you can almost hear the ghost of Ginger Baker waiting in the wings.
  • "Key To Love" is one of the weakest songs on the album despite the excellent horn arrangement - it's a short distance from this rendering to an actual "pop" song. But even on such weak material Clapton kicks the tune into high gear - albeit momentarily.
  • The harmonica driven "Parchman Farm" became the staple for harmonica players all over England for years after this release - I'm guessing because of live audio monitoring difficulties Mayall leaned more towards the Organ in thsoe days which is a shame because his hamronica playing here is really strong and I would like to have heard him play on top of the full band - perhaps more like Paul Butterfield delivered.
  • "Have You Heard" another Mayall composition opens with a nice contrasting tenor sax solo from Skidmore swapping intro phrases with Clapton. Clapton's outro solo is one of his performances he has yet to surpass - and still makes me drop whatever I'm doing when I hear it.
  • "Ramblin' on My Mind" represents Clapton's first vocal recording and his reverence for the Robert Johnson original restrains his performance - it's said he cut the vocals when the band was outside the studio in case he "blew" it.
  • "Steppin Out" is the Everest in this range of mountains - the guitar playing here will never be improved upon in this genre of music - Clapton's soloing here exceeds anything he has ever played before or since. He is so close to the edge of the cliff here - in later years he became a serious and safe musician content with delivering a "good" performance whenever he hit the stage - but this single recording represents a player out of anyone's comfort zone and creates a sonic assault than menaces, urges, consoles, attacks and whips the band into full submission. There's a single progression of Mayall's Organ soloing - but this is just so Clapton can get his breath back and kill everyone in his path. Clapton's guitar playing on Steppin' Out is the golden ticket to to the chocolate factory - after this there are merely shadows of his playing however good - he never reaches this mountain again.
  • "It Ain't Right" finishes the album but having just listened to Steppin' Out this is virtually takes the place of a credit sequence at the end of the movie when everyone leaves for the door - it's great music but I just can't get over the previous track - and I'm headed to the bar to get another beer.
  • — Conrad Warre

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