For the prosecution: Mojo Flucke, Ph.D.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the prosecution will prove that Eric Clapton has committed numerous crimes against rock, namely:
â€¢ Making music way more derivative than legally permissible for a rock god
â€¢ Exploiting fans by releasing milquetoast pap
â€¢ Squandering monstrous talent
Clapton is not God, contrary to the Islington graffito proclaiming it during his tenure in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. He is, however, an excellent blues mimic, taking compositions like Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads,” William Bell and Booker T. Jones’ “Born Under a Bad Sign,” and for Mayall, Freddie King’s “Hideaway.” He can derive like few others on earth, in a musical milieu where creatively covering other compositions is the best way to connect with the audience.
Yet great blues musicians contribute at least one or two original compositions–or the definitive interpretation of someone else’s song–to the canon of blues standards. B.B. King has “The Thrill Is Gone” and “Every Day I Have the Blues.” Junior Wells, “Messin’ With the Kid.” John Lee Hooker, “Boogie Chillen’,” “Boom Boom” and “One Bourbon, One Scotch, and One Beer.”
Clapton’s got nothing. “Layla” is known for its innovative coda written by Domino Jim Gordon and a legendary main riff written and co-performed by Duane Allman. “Sunshine of Your Love” was co-written by all three members of Cream. Its undisputedly legendary guitar solo opens not with an original Clapton-improvised phrase, but the melody from “Blue Moon.”
Left to his own devices, Clapton churns out total dreck. There’s a lot to choose from; I’ll keep it brief by offering the “greatest whiffs” from three different decades:
Exhibit A: “I’ve Got a Rock ‘n’ Roll Heart.” Have you known any Brit to espouse the glories of American carmakers in a song? Clapton didn’t; someone sold him on the song. This 1980s total cash-in opened his moldy 1960s output to a new generation.
Exhibit B: “Wonderful Tonight.” The message is the most left-handed compliment a knucklehead can give his woman, even back in the ’70s: “Honey, the more smashed I get, the better you look.”
Exhibit C: “Running on Faith” (Unplugged).” One of several 1990s hits for Clapton, it should be titled “Running on Fumes,” because the fire, the passion, the blistering energy that fueled his great performances (such as the aforementioned “Sunshine” solo) left the building long ago. Clearly, he just doesn’t care.
Once Jimi Hendrix and Duane passed away, Clapton assumed the mantle as the most recognized blues-rock guitarist on earth. And what did he do with it–and the promising start of his 1960s recorded output and Layla, mostly great rock albums? Mostly crap. When he does dip back into the blues, Clapton still is strong, see the Me and Mr. Johnson (2004) covers CD and the B.B. King duet album Riding with the King (2000).
The question, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, is: The recent Johnson and King albums show that early-career drug use and Father Time clearly have not diminished Clapton’s skills. So why can’t he write a song to save his life, and why does he continually rely on the Mellow Gold sound instead of reaching for more creative heights? The answer: He’s guilty as charged.
For the defense: Ed Murray
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the prosecution’s arguments against Eric Patrick Clapton are patently absurd, especially the ludicrous attempt to paint the defendant as first and foremost a songwriter, when his talents â€“ and primary musical focus! â€“ have clearly always been as a guitarist. Far from being prosecuted for his crimes against rock, Clapton should be (and has been) honored for his contributions to rock.
The Yardbirds. John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. Cream. Blind Faith. Clapton was already long established as a major blues and rock guitar virtuoso well before the release of his first solo record in 1970. He also helped give birth to both the mid-’60s British blues craze and late-’60s psychedelic rock, both movements which, in turn, spawned countless bands, sounds, styles and other pop cultural artifacts. Calling him derivative, or a mimic, is a cheap shot. Blues has always been an interpretive art, and Clapton’s guitar prowess introduced and popularized electrified blues to an entire generation of musicians and fans on both sides of the Atlantic.
I’ll posit that Clapton is not the strongest songwriter to grace the airwaves. Indeed, Clapton has always been strongest as a collaborator and interpreter, as part of all the aforementioned groups, as well as Delaney & Bonnie & Friends and Derek & The Dominos. His biggest early solo hits, in fact, were covers of other people’s songs – â€œAfter Midnightâ€ and â€œCocaineâ€ (J.J. Cale), â€œI Shot the Sheriffâ€ (Bob Marley). In fact, if you go through his entire canon, almost every familiar song â€“ from â€œBadgeâ€ (with George Harrison) to â€œIt’s In the Way That You Use Itâ€ (with Robbie Robertson) â€“ carries a co-writer credits.
But is it a crime against rock to be a better instrumentalist and collaborator than a songsmith? Is Clapton on trial for not being a superlative songwriter? And if the defendant’s â€œBell Bottom Bluesâ€ can’t be considered a staple of classic rock radio, than I don’t know my AOR. Ditto (Knocking â€œWonderful Tonightâ€ is a low blow even for the prosecutor; sure, the sentiment is a little sappy, but that guitar hook gets me every time.)
In fact, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I’ll submit that Clapton’s mid-career penchant for weepy ballads and at-times generic corporate rock were simply an attempt by the defendant to redefine himself as merely a blues-rock guitar god â€“ and maybe to get some Top 40 action (and cash), to boot. We’re still, after all, talking about someone who has won 19 Grammy awards, alone and or shared with other artists, as well as being the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s first and only Triple Inductee: as a solo artist, as a member of Cream and as a member of the Yardbirds.
The prosecution’s assertions against Clapton’s weak songwriting form a classic straw man argument. Let’s face it, when the defendant focuses on his guitar playing, he can do no wrong. In later years, Clapton himself seems to have realized this. The all-blues From the Cradle, released in 1994, was one of his most successful albums, both commercially and critically. The soloing on â€œFive Long Yearsâ€ proves that Clapton’s guitar chops are still and forever what will define this artist. The prosecution gave props to Me and Mr. Johnson and Riding with the King. And as recently as 2006, Clapton released the critically acclaimed collaboration with J.J. Cale, The Road to Escondido (another Grammy winner, no less).
Prosecution’s closing argument:
The defense has been wonderful tonight, erecting a concise, clear argument that Eric Clapton is more like Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Keith Richards, Paul Butterfield and even Billy Gibbons than God. Except those guys could write their way out of a paper bag, which we’ve established Clapton can’t. He just doesn’t deserve the iconic status he’s given in rock. Especially after committing the numerous musical crimes outlined above. No true rock fan could listen to the whole of Clapton’s 1980s output and return anything other than a “guilty” verdict. Now go vote with your ears.
The defense’s closing arguments:
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the prosecution is â€œPretendingâ€ that EC hasn’t earned and doesn’t deserve his stature in the annals of rock history. Are you going to judge a man whose career in music is approaching the 50-year mark by a handful of mediocre albums in a 12-year chunk of that career? And I know plenty of people who love Journeyman (though I’m not one of ’em, heh-heh). The prosecution also raises the scepter of other so-called guitar gods in comparison. I’d challenge him on all of ’em: Jimmy Page had Robert Plant and John Paul Jones (not to mention the blues canon itself). Keith Richards had Mick Jagger. Billy Gibbons penned some good hits, but what has he done for us lately? And I dare you to name a few of Jeff Beck’s or Paul Butterfield’s hits (without using Google or iTunes, of course). Clapton is still a viable force in music (his Crossroads Guitar Festivals prove that), and if the guitar solo fits, you must acquit! The defense rests.