70 Years of Eric Clapton: Ranking Slowhand's Best Songs by Decade, Including 'Layla' and More
Eric Clapton has been one of the most renowned guitarists of all time (ranked no. 2 all time by Rolling Stone, behind only Jimi Hendrix), spreading his six-string and vocal work across bands such as The Yardbirds, John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, Cream, Derek and The Dominoes, and of course as a solo performer. Music Times is celebrating the 70th birthday of Slowhand by selecting his best piece from every decade of his performing career. It's obviously a contentious contest, so feel free to chip in your personal favorites if we chose something else.
NOTE: Selections required that Clapton had some role in the creation of the song, either as a songwriter or as an arranger. For example, as great as Cream's "White Room" is, Clapton had no hand in writing it and therefore it doesn't qualify, despite his masterful guitar playing.
The '60s: "Crossroads" by Cream
Clapton, despite being "God" according to London graffiti, rarely tackled songwriting by himself. Prior to joining Cream, the guitarist sat down with Elektra Records producer Joe Boyd to consider standards for Clapton's Powerhouse project. Both agreed that he should include something from blues icon Robert Johnson, but the guitarist voted for "Traveling Riverside Blues" while the producer recommended "Cross Road Blues," a reference to Johnson's legendary meeting of the devil at the crossroads to gain his guitar-playing talent. Johnson's original had been done with an acoustic guitar of course, so Clapton created a modern electric arrangement for Powerhouse. He brought the arrangement back with Cream, altering it to suit the band's personality, featuring a more aggressive, galloping version of the classic riff. This is the rendition that you've most likely heard on classic rock radio, recorded live for inclusion on the album Wheels of Fire. Clapton must be thankful to Boyd for his opinion, as the rocker continues to close concerts with it to this day, and named his annual blues festival after the song.
The '70s: "Layla" by Derek and The Dominoes
Your correspondent would argue that the '70s was Clapton's high point as a performer, although many a Cream/Bluesbreakers fan would be sure to argue. Regardless, both sides would agree that Slowhand's greatest guitar contribution came early during the decade, dragging his '60s repertoire with him. Despite his aforementioned nickname, there is nothing slow about the fiery opening to "Layla," a song that breaks through the gate like a racehorse, with Clapton playing one of his most famous riffs while none other than Duane Allman backs him up...making this album possibly the greatest guitar collaboration in history. The only thing more emotional than Clapton's screaming guitar is how wailing during the iconic hook, proof that Clapton is at his best when he's heartbroken (this song is well known for its connection to his adoration of George Harrison's wife, whom he would later marry). Although the most rambunctious moments of the song are done just after three minutes, the sweet melodies that follow for the next four don't seem like a change of railroad tracks at all, despite the dramatic shift in pace.
The '80s: "I Can't Stand It"
Clapton had turned out many of his better solo singles during the '70s as well, including the shuffling "After Midnight" and the immortal groove of "Cocaine." It's not surprising then that his best single of the '80s came early, with "I Can't Stand It" from 1981's Another Ticket. Continuing the theme that the best musical Clapton is a hurting Clapton, and such is the case during this single, where he starts laid back, passively listing the transgressions of a cheating lover, before laying into both his guitar and lyrics during the hook. The song, one of the rare ones where Clapton is the sole songwriter, is somewhat ironic considering its historical context. Pattie Boyd, the subject of "Layla," married Clapton during 1979, yet it was the guitarist who was less than faithful around the time when the single was written. This would become the first track to top the Top Rocks Songs chart when the new list debuted that year.
The '90s: "Old Love"
Sharp Clapton fans will point out that "Old Love" originally premiered on 1989's Journeyman, however we're opting for the version included on his live album Unplugged as the better of the two (and significantly different enough to justify consideration). Many will no doubt point to "Tears In Heaven" as his most popular '90s creation, and although we appreciate the heartfelt sorrow within the song's narrative, we prefer Clapton with a bluesy guitar in his hand. Unplugged was one of the highlights of the MTV Unplugged series, featuring a poignant version of "Tears In Heaven" and a brilliantly downbeat version of "Layla," however his recent hit "Old Love" gets the best treatment. Rather than shorten it down to accommodate the acoustic instrument, Clapton uses the penultimate track on the album for an almost necessary jam session, soloing and also allowing keyboardist Chuck Leavell (of Allman Brothers fame as well) to do the song justice on his own instrument.
The '00s: "Superman Inside"
Choosing the best of Eric Clapton during the first decade of the new millennium is both simple and challenging. Simple, in that many of his recent recordings during that span were on tribute albums, leaving few options that he actually had a hand in writing. Difficult in that many of them also come from an acoustic, or otherwise slow direction. Obviously Clapton has the chops to pull off ballads and easygoing numbers, but we're not ready to give up hope on Slowhand the blues rocker either. The best example during 2000-'09 was "Superman Inside," one of the few rockers featured on 2001's Reptile. Longtime collaborator Doyle Bramhall II must have shaken some dust off of the guitarist to turn this sucker out.
The '10s: "Run Back To Your Side"
Clapton, despite being named after the performer himself, ironically features very few actual songs from the guitarist. The only number that applies, "Run Back to Your Side," is—perhaps less than coincidentally—the best song on the album as well. Although it was nice to hear Clapton turn it up during "Superman Inside," he also turns it on during this track, bringing back the shuffling boogie that made "After Midnight" nearly 40 years earlier. One of the greatest misconceptions about the blues is that it needs to be sad. Clapton brings it back to a dancing stomp during "Back to Your Side."