This completely unexpected review is the direct result of the serendipitous melding of three disparate phenomena: winter weather in Nice, my ingrained discipline concerning preparation for sex and the determination of mother and daughter to forbid my father from even thinking about coming into the kitchen when we’re preparing a meal.
Climate change variables aside, my favorite time of year in Nice is late winter, when the temperature range is 50-60º F (10-15º C). It doesn’t matter if it’s sunny or showery; all that matters is the temperature. That’s the temperature range I grew up with in San Francisco, and it’s perfect fuck weather for those of us who don leather garments to heighten the sexual experience.
Unlike most people who try to balance the drain of the workweek by partying all weekend, I never go out on Saturday night unless a performer I want to see happens to show up in town. I usually go out for dinner on Friday nights, but that’s more to reconnect with the people I love than to try to obliterate memories of the work week through heavy doses of alcohol. Although I have sex with my partner most weeknights when we’re both in town, we save Saturday night for the longer, more elaborate experiences referred to in the BDSM world as “scenes.” And like professional actors (though nothing we do is an “act”), we engage in deliberate, painstaking preparation for the big night. I won’t bore you with the details, but one fundamental rule is to avoid eating a large meal before a scene. That requires the participants to have a satisfying meal around lunchtime so they have enough stamina to perform at peak levels. “Dinner” before a scene usually consists of something small like a pannisse or bread with cheese—just enough to prevent stomach growl.
It all works out because I usually hang out with my parents on Saturday afternoons, and my mother and I like to cook together. Last Saturday, we were preparing a pasta dish from ingredients we’d scored at a farmer’s market and just as soon as the garlic made contact with the olive oil in the sauce pan, we could hear my father, bloodhound that he is, heading directly to the source of the scent. Just as he was about to place one of his big feet on the kitchen floor and say, “Something sure smells good,” my mother and I cried out in unison.
“GET YOUR ASS OUT OF OUR KITCHEN!”
He pulled his foot back and whined from a safe distance. “Sheesh! Just seeing if I could help!”
“If you want to help, put on some music!” I cried.
“Something nice,” my mother added.
“Something nice, huh?” It seemed to take him quite a while to find “nice,” but eventually the music started drifting into the kitchen.
“Ah, good choice,” maman responded within two chords.
“Wow. I don’t think I’ve heard this since San Francisco—pre-college.”
“Nice enough?” Dad shouted from a safe distance.
“Yes, beautiful,” maman replied while chopping fresh basil for the pistou.
“It’s coming back to me—this is a nice album,” I opined, but was still drawing a few blanks. “This is . . . early Fleetwood Mac, right?”
“Correct. The Future Games album.”
The album was playing in the background as we sat down to enjoy the meal. One of the melodies caught my attention and I said, “This really is a nice album.”
“It is,” responded my dad in between mouthfuls. “Bob Welch’s début.”
“But . . . what’s his name is still there . . . Danny . . . ”
“Kirwan,” said dad, filling in the blank.
After the album ended we had a discussion that morphed into trying to establish the definition of a “nice album.” We began by brainstorming a list of albums that could qualify as “nice” based purely on gut feel, then started looking for common themes. The first thing we agreed on was the absence of pretentiousness—any album purported to be “epic” is by definition not a nice album. The second criterion we came up with was “melodies that drift through the air,” one of those vague qualities that comes down to “you know it when you hear it.” We then agreed on the most obvious feature—the sound of a nice album cannot cross the line into “loud or harsh.” The final suggestion sparked some debate as my dad tried to argue that nice albums “make you feel good.” Maman correctly pointed out that both Future Games and Rubber Soul (our nominee for The Beatles’ nicest album) were tinged with melancholy sentiments. When my dad tried to argue the point, I nailed his ass by referring back to the first album he offered during the brainstorming phase: Paul Simon’s Graceland. “Shit, dad, even ‘You Can Call Me Al’ paints a pretty sad picture.” Maman and I made him feel better by agreeing that Graceland qualified as a nice album despite Paul Simon’s epic pretensions, allowing the man of the family to rise from the table with his fragile masculine ego intact.
One of the frustrating things about being a millennial is that most of my generational colleagues have no sense of history—musical, political, cultural—they just don’t give a shit. I’ve never heard a fellow millennial even mention Fleetwood Mac in conversation. Even many members of other generations think of Fleetwood Mac in a very limited way—the band associated with Rumours. Though this may bore the Boomers in the audience who have mastered the band’s complicated lineage, here’s a brief introduction to Fleetwood Mac:
- The only constant members are drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist John McVie. That’s where the band’s name comes from, and they won a lawsuit to prove it.
- Fleetwood Mac began life as a blues band during the peak years of the British blues movement. Their first album is officially titled Fleetwood Mac, but nearly everyone refers to it as Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, referring to the band’s lead guitarist and singer. This début album was a smashing success, and remains one of the most enjoyable blues records of the era. A gent named Jeremy Spencer contributed slide guitar and some vocals. As was true for so many British musicians of the era, Peter Green developed his chops in John Mayall’s band.
- Peter Green stayed with the band through the third studio album, Then Play On, the first album with Danny Kirwan. Kirwan would emerge as sort of co-leader with Jeremy Spencer on the fourth album, Kiln House. Spencer left the band shortly thereafter. Christine Perfect, aka Christine McVie, who had appeared occasionally on earlier albums, became a full-time member after Kiln House, the name change reflecting her marriage to John McVie.
- Prior to Future Games, an American musician by the name of Bob Welch joined the band, sharing guitar duties with Kirwan. This relationship ended after the follow-up album Bare Trees when Kirwan’s drinking and temper led to some serious altercations with Welch, which in turn led to Kirwan’s dismissal. Welch contributed to five studio albums, and the period from Future Games to Heroes Are Hard to Find are colloquially referred to as the Bob Welch Era or similar designation.
- In 1975, Christine McVie pushed hard for more radio-friendly music to pad her bank account. Welch thought he’d be better off going solo and left the band. Fleetwood Mac replaced him with Americans Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham, became a milquetoast pop band, sold millions of records and bore me to fucking tears.
All my Fleetwood Mac records come from the Peter Green to Bob Welch period; if I do any more Fleetwood Mac reviews, that’s where they’ll come from. Since the British members moved to the States in the mid-70’s and then added two more yanks, I consider the Nicks-Buckingham version of Fleetwood Mac an American band and subject to my boycott of American artists.
Lucky me. I can’t stand Rumours.
Future Games was poorly received by the critics of the time. From Lloyd Grossman of Rolling Stone:
Future Games is a thoroughly unsatisfactory album. It is thin and anemic-sounding and I get the impression that no one involved really put very much into it. If Fleetwood Mac have tried to make the transition from an energetic rocking British blues band to a softer more “contemporary” rock group, they have failed. If they have simply lost interest, I hope they regain it in time to salvage what was once a very promising band.
Translation: “My limited brain cannot process experiences beyond what I expect to experience. Experiences I do not expect are therefore bad.”
Robert Christgau’s commentary shows how much the man admires what he perceives as his superior ability with wordplay as well as the usual pomposity and factual errors:
These white blues (and hippie rockabilly) veterans shouldn’t have to depend on new recruit Bob Welch’s deftly metallized r&b extrapolation for rock and roll, but unless you count the studio jam, they do. And if the best song on the album isn’t the slowest, that’s only because Welch also has mystagogic tendencies. It’s the simplest in any case: Christine Perfect’s ‘Show Me a Smile.’
Errors galore! Christine was no longer calling herself Perfect but was still good enough to qualify as McVie. Bob Welch actually contributed relatively little to Future Games: he wrote two of the songs (including the title track) and “played mostly rhythm guitar.” And to apply the term “mystagogic” to Bob Welch is completely absurd, for “A mystagogue is a person who initiates others into mystic beliefs, and an educator or person who has knowledge of the sacred mysteries of a belief system.” Neither of Welch’s songs come close to qualifying as a trip into the mystic (though Danny Kirwan’s do).
Dean of American Rock Critics my ass.
Let us correct the record. Future Games balances the impressive songwriting talents of Kirwan, Welch and Christine McVie. Each of those artists put a great deal of effort into crafting those songs, a glaring truth that is obvious to anyone who actually takes the time to listen to the record. Danny Kirwan is clearly the dominant presence, contributing the three songs most crucial to establishing the reflective mood of the album. If anything, Future Games increased Fleetwood Mac’s “promise” by extending their playing field beyond straight blues-based rock ‘n’ roll.
The expansion of the band’s range is established immediately in the pair of sus2 acoustic guitar chords that form the intro to Kirwan’s “Woman of 1000 Years.” Patterns of sustained and major seventh chords have an elusive, indefinite feel, calling up adjectives like “ethereal,” “dreamy” and “melancholy.” Most songwriters fail to develop chord structures to support them, leading to a vague, uncertain musical statement that lacks a sense of forward movement—songwriter and song remain suspended in a musical vacuum.
Danny Kirwan was not one of those songwriters. “Woman of 1000 Years” has one of the most beautiful and satisfying chord structures I’ve ever heard. When I reproduced the chords on my acoustic guitar, I felt myself moving into a still, reflective space where I was at one with the sheer beauty of the musical progression. I switched to piano and the progression had the same entrancing effect. The sense of movement and wonder is enhanced by subtle changes and additions along the way that keep things challenging and intensely interesting—but not once does a chord feel out-of-place. Chord charts on the Internet are often hit-or-miss (half the contributors couldn’t tell a minor chord from a major to save their lives), but I found one on Ultimate Guitar that gets it right. If you are a musician, I encourage you to head over there and explore the pattern—the improvisational opportunities are limitless.
Back to our story, the “resolution” chord is Asus2, which effectively means there is no resolution at all—the woman of a thousand years remains an indefinable mystery. Although not specifically identified as such in the lyrics, the woman is certainly a manifestation of the muse, but Kirwan doesn’t limit her role to sparking creativity in the artist. She inspires men on land, sea and sand with her beauty, beguiling them through her mystery, igniting the desire to please her and earn her favor.
AS. IT. FUCKING. SHOULD. BE.
Danny Kirwan’s vocal is beautifully restrained and blends marvelously with Christine McVie’s harmonies. The first guitar solo is a gorgeous display of simplicity, completely consistent with the nature of the composition as it seems to end a bar before its time, avoiding definitive resolution; the complementary guitar fade supplies an appropriately gentle exit. While “Woman of 1000 Years” is hardly your typical album opener, it is a compelling experience nonetheless, establishing a mood for the album that asks the listener to shift gears, slow down and take some time to enjoy the magic of music.
Even nice albums need some kick, and Future Games certainly delivers on that score. Christine McVie’s “Morning Rain” gives her a chance to warm up her piano fingers in a percussive role dedicated to reinforcing the solid rhythm established by the ever-grounded pair of Fleetwood and McVie. I love the way this song opens, lulling the listener into believing the root chord is F# before making a move to establish F# as the tension chord demanding resolution to B major. The sweet bluesy guitar licks that highlight that transition make me smile at the cleverness of the ruse as they settle into the solid groove. For a rock song, Christine’s vocal in the verses (supported by harmony) is comparatively subdued, but soon we learn that she’s been saving her vocal chords for the more enthusiastic performance in the bridge (which IS in F#). The contrast between the two vocal styles adds to the appeal of the song, and even more excitement awaits us in the instrumental passages where the guitarists let loose. I also love the way the piece ends, with Christine and the boys reminding us of the song’s essential melodic nature with a nice round of wordless singing. “Morning Rain” is a tasty little piece promising that Future Games will cover a lot of musical ground.
Although I couldn’t find confirmation of the story, the word on Wikipedia (ahem) is that “What a Shame” was added at the last minute because the album submitted by the band contained only seven tracks and the record company wanted eight. The band responded with a single key jam with heavy bass featuring Christine’s brother John on saxophone. I’m glad John picked up a few bucks in the process, but other than executing the piece with due professionalism, the band doesn’t sound particularly interested. If they had to include it on the album, it might have been better to move it back into the fourth slot to serve as a brief intermission between “Future Games” and “Sands of Time.” It’s sufficiently low-key so as not to disturb the nice album vibes (and short enough at 2:16), but . . . really?
Moving onto Bob Welch’s Fleetwood Mac début, “Future Games” makes use of the sustained and major seventh chords we heard in “Woman of a 1000 Years,” in this case producing a slight drone effect with the unifying B-note (Em, Cmaj7, Asus2, B7). However, Welch’s piece features clearer resolution to E minor in the verses and G major in the chorus, hinting at a more definitive theme in the lyrics. Despite the unknowable nature of the future, Welch pulls it off by universalizing the message: playing out future possibilities is something everyone does, whether it’s speculating on the afterlife, the possibility of a relationship with this person or that person, or worrying about disasters that may come our way. “I know I’m not the only one to ever spend my life sitting playing future games” is the theme-within-the-theme, highlighting both the all-too human trait and its inherent danger: playing future games is way to avoid having to deal with the real world and the real people who inhabit that world. “You invent the future that you want to face,” is a deliciously ambiguous line, as it could mean “you have the power to create your future” or “you invent an unlikely future where all your dreams come true and try to live there.” The first is a slogan, the second self-deception, and the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Musically, “Future Games” complements Kirwan’s contributions to the album with its pensive mood and restraint. The band passes up the opportunity to go big in the instrumental passage featuring the guitar solo, using that passage to reinforce the melody before easing into the third verse. Though I think they could have shortened the fade a bit, “Future Games” works on multiple levels, and demonstrates Bob Welch’s gift for melody that would later result in “Sentimental Lady.”
Though the chord structure isn’t as complex as “Woman of 1000 Years,” the flow of Danny Kirwan’s “Sands of Time” is as gentle and mesmerizing as the flow of a mountain stream. The music here alternates between G major and its E minor complement, spiced with a delightful variety of guitar fills, cascading arpeggios and some nifty cymbal work from Mick Fleetwood. The lyrics involve the interplay of darkness and light, as expressed in the verse that opens and closes the song:
The magic of a blackened night
Can go so far but not seem right
Although my love will drive away the sunshine
The magic of a blackened night
The deep ambivalence expressed here—resisting the darkness while love drives you to return to that magical place—feels almost like an inner war between puritanical guilt and pleasure-seeking in “dark” places. The minor key verses ironically express the embrace of the light, but the sadness of the minor key questions the sincerity of that embrace. As in “Woman of 1000 Years,” resolution remains illusive and indefinable. Though the song flows naturally, the inner tension expressed in lyrics and tone add depth and texture to the listening experience—another beautiful piece of work from Kirwan.
In a stunning turn of events, Danny seems to go full country in the introduction to “Sometimes,” with Christine McVie’s down-home piano and sweetly picked guitar leading the way. The first impression is more early Eagles (gasp!) than Fleetwood Mac, but the mood shifts to something with a melancholy flavor once Danny inserts a minor chord into the mix and John McVie fills the empty spaces with deep, penetrating bass. Danny then steps into the role of jilted lover, remembering the good times while throwing his aching back into his work to help push the emotional pain to the sidelines. The song straddles the line between classic sad song and defiance of sadness, expressed both in the lyrics and in the surprisingly muscular guitar fills. Although not as deep or complex as his other two contributions, don’t let its subtlety fool you: “Sometimes” is first-rate songwriting by a very talented songwriter.
The one contribution on the album I could have done without is Bob Welch’s “Lay It All Down,” a rather pedestrian attempt at blues-influenced gospel with the usual “just like the good book said” crapola. Thematically it’s a weak fit; I suppose one could argue that it maintains the connection with the earlier model of Fleetwood Mac, but that was then, this was now, and this song flat-out sucks.
Fortunately, Future Games ends on a high note with Christine McVie’s “Show Me a Smile.” Songs written by parents for their children generally don’t grab me because of the latent sentimentality, but there’s one verse that lifts this song out of the maudlin and into the reality that a child’s future is likely to result in disappointment:
Take everything easy
Show me a smile
Soon you’ll be a man
My little one
So have fun while you can
Or there’ll be none
Carpe diem, my child, because in this life . . . you’re on your own.
The song anticipates Frank Black’s obsession with the soft-LOUD dynamics that defined the Pixies and a generation of grunge bands. Its use in grunge became a tired cliché after a while, but here it has meaning—the mother’s tenderness and the mother’s anxiety both operating at full capacity. I have never been a parent, and don’t ever want to be a parent, but my parents tell me they are permanently wired to nurture me and keep me safe from harm (and they do!). Christine captured that dynamic beautifully, carefully balancing her vocal so that she never goes too soft or over the top. The music is equally supportive of that balance, with luscious arpeggiated guitar, lead guitar fills and splashes of piano guiding us gently through the verses, and John McVie delivering serious punch with his bass during the louder passages. “Show Me a Smile” ends Future Games by underscoring the album’s essential beauty.
Look. I don’t know what the hell was going on with music critics in 1971 . . . both Rolling Stone and The Village Voice were anti-Establishment rags back in the day, so for all I know Nixon was behind it. What I do know is that Future Games is an album full of enchanting songs and well-designed arrangements that deserved much more respect than it received at the time.
It’s a damn nice album!
We’d just returned from a lovely vacation to Chile, and after taking a day to sleep off the jet lag and pisco sour/vaina hangovers, we visited my parents to hand out the traditional gifts and share the traditional pictures. Show over, we sat down at the dinner table and my beloved old fart father immediately got on my ass.
“I think you’ve given Clapton short shrift,” said Dad.
There was no response from his usually loquacious child. From a father’s perspective, he saw a daughter with a quizzical look on her face and assumed he needed to elaborate on his original statement.
“I know you don’t like his solo work, but geez, there’s still the Blues Breakers album, Fresh Cream, Derek and the Dominoes . . .”
“Earth to Sunshine, Earth to Sunshine. Hello, Sunshine!”
The term of endearment yanked the daughter from her reverie, and looking directly into her father’s eyes, she asked the question that had initiated the break from the here-and-now.
“What’s a shrift?”
“You said I gave Clapton short shrift. What’s a shrift?”
“It’s a—uh—hell, I don’t know—it’s just a phrase.”
“I’m going to look it up.” I returned to the dinner table in less than a minute, accompanied by Merriam-Webster.
“‘Shrift’ means ‘a confession to a priest,” and ‘short shrift’ means ‘barely adequate time for confession before execution.’ Now that we’ve gotten rid of the death penalty in most civilized parts of the world, the meaning has morphed to give something or someone ‘little or no attention or consideration.’ So, you were saying . . . ”
“You’ve given Clapton short shrift.”
“You’re right. I’ve given Clapton short shrift.”
Dad narrowed his eyes to communicate suspicion. “Wait a minute. What’s going on here?”
“What do you mean?”
“You never say I’m right. What are you up to?”
“I’m not up to anything. You mentioned some Clapton albums—which one do you want me to do?”
“It’s gotta be Blues Breakers. When that album hit the streets—I can’t begin to describe what an impact it had on every guitar player I knew. Within a few weeks, all the bands in town were messing around with “Hideaway” and “Steppin’ Out,” trying to get the riffs down, trying to get that sound.”
“I’ll do Blues Breakers. Sounds like fun.”
Dad narrowed his eyes again. “What the fuck? Why are you being so goddamned agreeable all of a sudden?”
“Dad, you didn’t have to work that hard to get me to do another John Mayall album.”
He finally managed to put two and two together. “You were planning to do that album all along, weren’t you?”
“First thing on my to-do list when I came back!”
“So I really didn’t win, did I?”
“No, dad,” I said with a sigh. “I wish you’d just accept the fact that you belong to an inferior gender and that you’ll never, ever win.”
“Yes, please do,” added my mother.
Before I shower Eric Clapton with encomia, allow me to point out that there were a few other guys who had something to do with making Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton (BBEC from now on) one of the most enjoyable blues records around. The rhythm section of Hughie Flint and John McVie is rock-solid, handling the in-flight rhythm changes featured in several tracks with relative ease. Many of the rhythmic changes appeared in the original version of the cover songs, but here they help enhance a pattern of sonic diversity that characterizes the album, where each track serves as one tile in a multi-faceted mosaic of varying dynamics, tempos, instrumentation and recording approaches. Blues Breakers has far more diversity than the typical blues album, and if you ever get into an argument with someone who claims the blues is a highly limited form of music, this is the album you want to use to counter that argument. In the right hands, blues is a happy marriage of the familiar and the unexpected, and Blues Breakers reminds you of the innate flexibility and extensive possibilities of the genre.
Though Clapton has garnered well-deserved attention for his contributions, much of the credit for the album’s timeless listenability goes to the master of ceremonies, Mr. John Mayall. Doing his best imitation of Peter Sellers, Mayall played multiple roles—songwriter, arranger, organist, pianist, lead singer, harmonica player, second guitar, facilitator—and he was also the guy who thought it was a good idea to bring in a horn section on a few tracks to strengthen the links to Chicago blues. His unflagging enthusiasm for the music infuses the album with energy while setting a high bar for excellence in execution.
And speaking of excellence . . . BBEC was more than Eric Clapton’s coming out party. When you listen to the track that convinced Mayall, McVie and Flint that Clapton would be a good fit for the band (The Yardbirds’ “Got to Hurry”), you hear a highly competent, comparatively nimble lead guitarist who has obviously spent some time studying the work of the great blues guitarists—a solid performance but hardly game-changing. On BBEC, the power and clarity of his sound is shocking, especially when considered in the context of his times; the only comparison I can offer is the early solo work of Louis Armstrong with the Hot Fives, where the cornet sounds like full-on sunshine breaking up a dark, cloudy day. Just as jazz would never be the same after Armstrong, Clapton’s work here redefined and expanded the role of lead guitarist, leading to multiple generations of guitar heroes (and a whole lot of wannabes). The sound from that Les Paul plugged into a prototype Marshall on overdrive was stunning in itself, but even more importantly from a musical perspective was the quantum leap in Clapton’s phrasing skills—like the great lead singers, he frees himself from the tempo and plays to the feel of the song instead of always trying to be a good student and hit the right notes at the right time.
One note about the source recordings: the album was recorded during the time of transition from stereo to mono. The original album came out in mono; there was a stereo release in selected countries a few years later. I personally don’t think you get all that much from the stereo version, as Mike Vernon did a fabulous job producing the album, but they’re your ears, so go with what sounds best to you.
The Otis Rush piece “All Your Love” serves as a good warm-up number, delivered in a slower tempo than the Rush original and without the horn support that makes Otis’ version an incredibly sexy dance number. Without the horns and the more assertive drums of Rush rendition, it falls upon Clapton to shoulder the load, and he starts out with straight-up supporting fills in response to Mayall’s vocal. His moment in the sun is counter-intuitive—he gives his nimble left hand a rest and gives us a deliciously slow, lingering arpeggio in the luscious, thick tone made possible by the Les Paul-Marshall combination. The sound is so fascinating that Clapton actually slows down, falling behind the beat, savoring each and every note like he’s sampling a vintage Château Margaux, letting each sustain fully run its course until the full chord slide that heralds the ending of this magical moment. The band then shifts to double-time, where Clapton snaps out of his sonic reverie and lets it rip.
“All Your Love” is just the foreplay that leads to the orgasmic experience of “Hideaway,” the Freddie King number that inspired young Eric to take up the guitar. Both the original and the tribute are instrumental masterpieces designed to brighten your mood and get you to shake your fanny, legs and whatever else you’ve got. The essential difference between the two is in the attack—Freddie takes a more laid-back approach, leaving more room for the rhythm section to drive the song, whereas Clapton sees it as his opportunity to leave it all on the field. After years of intense practice and deep study of guitar and scales, and following the ultimately dissatisfying experience with The Yardbirds, Clapton finally found someone in John Mayall who was more than willing to give him the chance to release his incredible potential. On “Hideaway,” Mayall made sure that the rhythm section (Mayall on organ, McVie on bass, Flint on drums) provided a solid foundation while doing nothing to draw attention to themselves, rather like the foundation of the house that does its work with invisible efficiency. This is Clapton’s moment in the spotlight, and he fucking nails it.
The solo integrates the prominent patterns of the original, all presented with more oomph thanks to the Les Paul-Marshall sound. The first verse is pretty close to Freddie’s version, but Clapton’s greater dexterity is clearly audible in the additional notes contained within the runs and the quick full chord downslide that doesn’t appear in the original. At this point, I’ve already concluded that the teenage guitar players of my dad’s era who wanted to emulate Clapton after hearing “Hideaway” were the most hopelessly naïve human beings our species has ever produced: they simply didn’t have a fucking chance. In the second verse, Clapton follows Freddie’s lead and clips his notes; the difference is that Clapton not only varies his attack but produces a greater number of notes to clip. When we arrive at the “catchiest” phase of the song, Clapton plays the slower boogie-woogie variant riff with absolute precision, letting the fat sound carry the load. When we return to the verse structure, the two versions take different paths, with Freddie staying down low and Clapton letting it rip. On the next verse, Clapton plays tribute to the original by duplicating the partial chord attack but while Freddie disappears into the rhythmic support role, Clapton uses those bars to add a set of very tasty riffs. Mayall’s band executes the boogie-woogie stutter on the next segment with greater precision than Freddie’s combo, with Clapton backing off to reproduce the main theme. At this point, Freddie repeats the first verse pattern whereas Clapton launches an all out assault that leads to some of the sweetest high note bends on record, finishing up with yet another extraordinary rush high on the fretboard. I invariably want to scream when this piece ends because it’s so damned short (a little over three minutes) and like a great orgasm, I wish the experience would go on forever.
In the Mayall original “Little Girl” we hear some of the best band work on the album, spiced with a couple of in-transit duets that knock my socks off. The first is the opening duet featuring Mayall on organ and Clapton on lead where they match each other note for note before heading in separate supporting directions. The second comes at the start of Clapton’s solo, when John McVie steps out of the shadows and supports Clapton’s pizzicato attack with some of his own before both guys start flying all over their respective keyboards. McVie remains prominent for the rest of the song, and lo and behold, Hughie Flint slipped in some shimmering cymbal work while Mike Vernon wasn’t looking (Vernon had allegedly instructed Hughie to stick to the high hat). All things considered, “Little Girl” is probably the best ensemble number on the album.
Unfortunately, it’s also one of John Mayall’s most regrettable compositions. This is one of two rescue songs on the album, both written by Mayall, and both display to varying degrees the obtuseness of the unenlightened men of the era who never really got their heads around the immense socio-cultural impact of The Pill. “Little Girl” is the worst offender, and how you measure its offensiveness depends entirely on whether or not you insert or omit a comma between the words “love” and “child.”
I’m gonna give you a love, child, you won’t feel bad again
I’m gonna give you a love child, you won’t feel bad again
Since the magical effect of one fuck is unlikely to last a lifetime, the more plausible interpretation dispenses with the comma, because when you have a kid, well, it’s a lifetime kind of thing. Here are the full lyrics, sans comma:
You’re gonna be mine, little girl, you’ve been through 18 years of pain (2)
I’m gonna give you a love child, you won’t feel bad again
You’ve been mistreated, little girl, but I swear, I swear it’ll be outgrown (2)
I’m gonna give you a love child, something you’ve never known
You’re gonna be mine, little girl, even if I can’t have you by my side
You’re gonna remember the love child, that made you satisfied (2)
Wait . . . what? Let me try to get my head around this. You’re going to cure my PTSD—no doubt the result of a lifetime of male-initiated abuse—by knocking me up and then hitting the road? So, going through the physical trauma of childbirth and becoming a single mother with non-existent self-esteem and no source of income is supposed to make me feel better? Really? You really think that? Well, sonny, you better hit that fucking road right now because I’m about to kick your nuts so hard you’ll never make an appearance inside any woman’s pussy as long as your sorry ass inhabits this earth . . . which I hope won’t be for very long.
Even if you insert the comma, it really doesn’t change the interpretation much. Any man who thinks he’s such a stud that he can transform a woman’s future with a one good fuck is a narcissistic asshole who deserves a good whack in the balls as much as the love child guy. We have too many of those assholes in the gene pool already.
Mayall does much better when he changes the subject to the cherished Southern tradition of sending black men to jail on little more than a racist whim. “Another Man” is extreme Delta style—harmonica, vocal and hand clapping, no guitar. The song conjures up the image of a man crouching in the cotton fields sharing the latest news with his friend once the overseer is out of sight—“another man done gone . . . he’s on the county farm . . . I didn’t know his name” are all the words we need to put the story together, a tale of intimidation and oppression where your best chance of survival means knowing nothing and saying less. We’ll hear a second exploration of this theme on Side 2 with “Parchman’s Farm,” but this is a brilliant little piece by Mayall that earns him partial forgiveness for whatever the hell he was thinking when he wrote the words to “Little Girl.”
“Double Crossing Time” was allegedly written in response to Jack Bruce’s sudden flight to Manfred Mann. Rock star gossip aside, Mayall does an excellent job tinkling the ivories, with just the right amount of touch and sensitivity to the rhythmic flow. Clapton opts for a contrasting aggressive approach, bursting out of the background with a screaming solo featuring exceptionally long sustains. Mayall’s vocal mirrors Clapton’s anger, resulting in a solid and intense performance that probably helped them get over the Bruce fiasco pretty quickly.
Producer Mike Vernon really didn’t want Mayall to do “What’d I Say,” feeling that going up against Ray Charles was a losing proposition—and he really resisted the idea of a drum solo for Hughie Flint. Hughie wasn’t keen on the idea either, but Mayall argued that the song always elicited a positive response from a live audience. If that’s the case, they should have done a live recording, because this piece goes nowhere in the studio. Mayall is competent on the organ, and Hughie’s solo isn’t that bad, but it lacks the exciting spontaneity of the Ray Charles original.
Side 2 opens with a bright horn combo, the intro to our second rescue song, Mayall’s “Key to Love.” Unlike “Little Girl,” the guy isn’t itching to saddle a broad with a kid, but seems more like the hanger-on who thinks the babe will eventually change her mind and spread. My main quibble here is that the horns bury a brief Clapton solo, which contradicts the notion of Clapton as featured artist. Next up is a version of Mose Allison’s adaptation of Bukka White’s “Parchman’s Farm,” a euphemism for the Mississippi State Penitentiary. It’s actually John Mayall’s adaptation of Mose Allison’s adaptation, as Mayall chooses to drop the key closing line in Allison’s version where the convict admits he killed his wife and replace it with a repetition of the closing line of the first verse: “ain’t other done no man no harm.” I suppose that could imply “but I have done women harm,” but Mayall’s translation clearly calls out the injustice of the too-frequent occurrence of the innocent black man winding up in jail. Mayall’s musical interpretation is actually light-hearted, a speedy run through the spare tale featuring high-speed harmonica—and I love hearing John Mayall defy the physiological limits of human breathing as he attacks a harp.
The horns that open “Have You Heard” are absolutely first-rate, featuring a marvelous high-end tenor sax solo from Alan Skidmore that stretches the scale and threatens to go free-form from time to time. The horns shift to unison in Stax mode during the second verse, and unlike “Key to Love,” they balance out Clapton’s fills without drowning him out. When Clapton steps up for his solo, he is in full command of the instrument’s voicing, expressing all the pain and anguish of lost love with a combination of soul-ripping attack and high-end bends. This would compete with “Little Girl” for best ensemble piece on the album had the horns actually played with the rest of the band, but I will compliment Mayall and Vernon for some damned solid post-production work.
Eric Clapton’s debutante moment also featured his first lead vocal. Unfortunately for those who like their triumphs to arrive free of flaws and disappointments, Clapton chose to do Robert Johnson’s “Ramblin’ on My Mind,” a song requiring far more vocal talent than Clapton would ever develop. I appreciate his deep admiration of the King of the Delta Blues, but I wish he’d chosen a different way to express that admiration. Nobody does Robert Johnson like Robert Johnson.
Fortunately for the listener, Clapton steps away from the mike, grabs his Les Paul and leads the band through Memphis Slim’s “Steppin’ Out.” Here there can be no comparison to the original since Memphis Slim was a piano player, so Clapton has only the musical structure to guide him on his journey. He takes a spirited approach in contrast to the late-night naughty tone of the original, with a dazzling variety of bends, off-rhythm phrasing, licks within licks and complete command of the blues scale. Of the two songs on the album mentioned by my dad as practice pieces for budding guitarists, I think “Steppin’ Out” is the more useful lesson because of its relative faithfulness to the blues scale. Master the opening riffs and you’ve learned half of two blues scales (C and G) in one sitting! And guess what? If you keep moving your fingers up or down a fret and play the same notes, you have the essence of all the major blues scales! Amazing! It would be a really good idea if you took the time to master all the scales in their entirety and ponder how the structure of the scale gives a song a certain feel, but if you just learn the two scales on the intro, I guarantee that you won’t embarrass yourself the next time you jam with the gang and someone shouts “Blues in C!” And with lots and lots of practice, you may be able to duplicate Eric Clapton’s agility and broad understanding of music just about the time old-age arthritis sets in. Good luck!
I don’t know if it’s true that no blues album would be complete without a least one Little Walter number, but I’d be fine with that criterion. “It Ain’t Right” was a high-speed rocking blues Little Walter put together when his Chess mate Bo Diddley was making a name for himself in rock ‘n’ roll circles, and the Mayall version is pretty faithful to the original. The guitar on both versions is a frantic, barreling boogie riff that requires tremendous discipline, fast fingers and intuitive knowledge of the fretboard—a difficult proposition indeed. Clapton, of course, nails it with ease, committing himself fully to the supporting role. Mayall has a great time trying to emulate one of his harp heroes, and manages to get pretty damned close to a very high bar.
Wow! This was fun! BBEC is certainly an uplifting experience, an album of good vibes, great energy and best-in-class musicianship. John Mayall is all about the music, and I always approach a Mayall album with a positive orientation because I know he’s going to give it all he’s got and bring in musicians willing to do the same. And though I abhor the whole Clapton-is-God thing as much as he does, his performance on BBEC changed musical history, so the adulation is somewhat understandable . . . but I think the story is much more meaningful if we attribute the result to the hard work and absolute dedication of a living, breathing human being.