461 Ocean Boulevard was the first album by Clapton where he really got his arse kicked by the critics. Rolling Stone magazine in particular was especially disparaging, describing it as teetering “precariously on the very edge, flirting with, but in the nick of time always just skirting, dullness”. Ouch. Move forward some forty years and how things have changed. Just as the hundredth statue of Ramesses II may have seemed rather trite and boring to any ordinary Egyptian at the time, today is considered a priceless artefact and masterpiece of its era. So after four decades of “dullness” and boring old Eric, people have perhaps forgiven him for turning away from the very thing his fans had adorned him for in the first place; that is exciting and brawny guitar solos.
But it’s no secret that Clapton’s heroin addiction dealt a heavy toll on his personal life not to mention creativity, as an egoist who hopes to absolve himself through drugs and alcohol, so did Eric no doubt wish to release himself from his mental anguish. In other words your basic run of the mill rich fucked up tortured artist. Clapton has admitted that it represented some of the worst years of his life. Therefore it should come as no surprise that his next public statement would come more in the form of a quiet confessional, a sort of penance if you will for all his sins and spiritual misdemeanours.
Things get off to a good start with “Motherless Children”, an old blues standard first recorded by Blind Willie Johnson in the 1920’s, and covered by many a white musician ever since. As one might expect, Clapton’s own interpretation bears little if any resemble to the original, much less any other version I’ve heard. It’s a choice track, and one which sees Clapton stretch himself in the vocal department. The song itself sounds like a throwback to the Derek and the Dominoes days, but that’s about all you’re going to get of that on this album I’m afraid.
“Give Me Strength” is one of only two Clapton originals he recorded for Boulevard, and it’s not a bad number. Eric’s vocals aren’t exactly going to set the bible on fire much less produce a burning bush as the original bluesmen did back in the 1920’s and 30’s, who seemed to have an urgency in their voice as if they really did have a hell hound on their trail. Here, you get the feeling that he’s just complaining about his latest electricity bill.
“Willie and the Hand Jive” is a sort of reggae blues, which I guess you have to be in the mood for. All nicely played of course, but overall it’s about as interesting as watching a snail crawl across the driveway. Likewise “Get Ready”, another semi-reggae blues number, where Clapton unleashes his inner Jamaican, with some help from vocalist Yvonne Elliman. But before you begin to snooze off, Clapton’s cover of “I Shot the Sheriff” gives the album some much needed mouth to mouth, and is probably the one main reason why so many bought this LP in the first place, most of whom had probably never even heard of Bob Marley, much less reggae in general. Apparently Clapton didn’t think it was anything significant, and therefore not worth releasing, however his colleagues convinced him otherwise, and of course it went straight to number one on the U.S. pop charts, just to prove that an artist is not always the best judge of their own work.
Clapton’s interpretation of Elmore James’s “I Can’t Hold Out” contains none of the exigency of the original. On here Eric sounds like he doesn’t really give a shit whether she talks to him on the phone or not. George Terry does contribute some delicious slide guitar, but that’s about its only redeeming feature however. Things don’t get any better with “Please Be With Me”, a colourless country-blues song which is about as memorable as a kick in the shins. “Let It Grow” has often been criticized for sounding too much like “Stairway to Heaven”, something which Clapton himself has admitted to. But then Jimmy Page nicked the main riff off “Taurus” by Randy California, so there you go. It’s a relaxing tune to be sure, cathartic even (depending on what state you’re in), and while it has been celebrated by many a fan as one Clapton’s finest compositions, personally I think it’s a tad over-rated. At least the main riff to “Stairway…” actually went somewhere, whereas this is just the same relaxed phrase repeated over and over ad nauseam. Like luggage on a conveyor belt.
Robert Johnson’s “Steady Rollin’ Man” is next, and if Johnson had of lived long enough to hear this version I’m sure he would have been as perplexed as I am. There’s nothing wrong with it in particular, except that it’s all a bit, well… nice. Although the track is compensated for by some inspired guitar playing, where Clapton sounds as though he might even start to sweat.
Last song “Mainline Florida”, written by George Terry, begins with a strong riff, and some excellent guitar interplay between Terry and Clapton himself. All I can say is thank heavens he didn’t choose to end the album with some laid back introspective ballad, of the sort designed to send the listener to sleep, like a form of harmonic sleeping pill.
Ultimately this is an LP which saw Clapton begin to finally emerge from the fog of drug abuse, and that is why it is perhaps so important. Unbeknownst to fans at the time, it would also serve as a template for all his future endeavours over the next several years, and when compared with those, it’s no wonder people generally regard 461 Ocean Boulevard as one of his best, a sort of crossroads between the heady days when his guitar still had a bit more testosterone, and the almost evangelical soul-searching period following where Eric saw the instrument more as a way to commune with his creator than his actual audience. How someone with so much talent could be possessed by such intense self doubt is as mystifying as it is endearing. And for that reason alone, getting Eric back into the studio and making this album was almost a minor miracle in itself.