Clapton is gold His best never sounded better, thanks to remarkable new discs

September 08, 1995|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

When record industry types talk about an established rock star whose older albums sell consistently, they say the back catalog is "golden."

But that's literally the case with Eric Clapton. Because he's a favorite of audiophile rock fans, nearly a dozen albums featuring Clapton have been reissued as ultra-high fidelity gold discs. Although none of his recent albums have been released in this form, a wide array of older titles are available -- ranging from "Eric Clapton" and "461 Ocean Boulevard" to Cream's "Disraeli Gears" and "Layla" by Derek and the Dominos.

Why so much Clapton? To a certain degree, it's because he has made so many noteworthy recordings over the years. Between Cream, his work with John Mayall's Blues Breakers, and Derek and the Dominos, Clapton contributed more to the sound of English blues rock than any guitarist alive. As a result, albums like "Wheels of Fire," "Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton" and "Layla" are justifiably considered classics.

Thanks to their enhanced sound quality, these gold disc reissues make it even easier to hear the greatness in the music. Because so much extra care goes into mastering these gold CDs -- that is, converting the sound on the original master tapes to digital sound -- what emerges from the speakers has far more depth and presence than on standard CDs. At their best, the gold CDs deliver a sound so clear and lifelike it's almost like being in the same room with the band.

That's certainly the case with John Mayall's "Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton" (Mobile Fidelity UDCD 616). Recorded in 1966, a year after Clapton abandoned the Yardbirds for not being bluesy enough, the album fairly burns with intensity. Some of that can be credited to the way the album was recorded; as the reissue's liner notes explain, Clapton "caused a minor problem [in the studio] when he decreed he could only play his guitar as usual: turned up high and straight through an amplifier."

That raw power, combined with passionate playing on Clapton's part, brings an unexpected edge to the music. Robert Johnson's "Ramblin' on My Mind" has a lean, hungry feel that is only enhanced by the contrast between Clapton's sweet voice and biting blues guitar, while Freddie King's "Hideaway" fairly sizzles through the speakers, thanks to Clapton's meaty guitar tone.

While in Mayall's band, Clapton met bass player Jack Bruce, and once the two of them hooked up with drummer Ginger Baker, they formed a band of their own called Cream. This was rock's first real power trio, and the emphasis truly was on "power" -- with both Clapton and Bruce playing through massive, double Marshall stacks, Cream's instrumental attack was massive, far bigger than the sound most rock bands made.

As engineer Tom Dowd recalls in the liner notes to "Disraeli Gears" (Mobile Fidelity UDCD 562), he had no idea what he was in for when the band turned up to record. Instructed to "record them before they have to go back to England," he came into the studio to find it crammed with amp stacks and the biggest drum kit he'd seen.

Three and a half days later, they were done, and the album captures the manic intensity of that effort, from the lush psychedelia of "Tales of Brave Ulysses" to the brute power of "Sunshine of Your Love." In addition to remarkably vivid stereo, the gold disc also includes monaural mixes of all the songs, for those who prefer the truly vintage sound.

Still more of Cream's musical might can be heard on "Wheels of Fire" (DCC GZS 1020), which brilliantly renders the complexity of Felix Pappalardi's studio concoctions, and the double-disc set "Live Cream & Live Cream, Volume II" (Mobile Fidelity UDCD 2-625), which accurately recreates the muscular thump of the band's stage show.

Clapton eventually soured on Cream, and by 1970 was fronting a new band, called Derek & the Dominos. Dowd also worked with this group on its classic album, "Layla" (Mobile Fidelity UDCD 585), and describes its attitude toward amplification as being completely different from Cream's.

"When I was recording the group Cream, both Jack Bruce and Eric were using double stacks of Marshall amps, and Ginger Baker was using a double set of kick drums," Dowd write in the liner notes. "When The Dominos came to the studio in Miami, Eric had switched to playing on [small amps like] either a Fender Champ or a Fender Twin."

That gave the band a smaller, more intimate sound, and afforded a greater degree of communication between the musicians in the studio. That comes through loud and clear in the gold disc version of "Layla," which from the exquisite melancholy of "Bell Bottom Blues" to the roiling passion of the title tune tempers the music's magnificent passion with an immediacy rarely found in rock.

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