Long ago and far away when I was 14,
there was a tiny elite at my age who worshipped “the blues”. They bought
Paul Butterfield’s “East-West” when the rest of us bought “Revolver”, they
always carried a stack of John Mayall-LPs around and exchanged confidential
information. Their hair was longer, and quite often they had access to
electric guitars. I felt pangs of envy, and also a disturbing curiosity.
What was it they knew that I didn’t?
I never managed to familiarize myself with the coolest of
these albums, and quite often I would quip that I preferred “East West” by
Herman’s Hermits over the Butterfield-recording (knowing perfectly well that
they were two completely different tunes bearing the same title). The quip
always sparked dismay. It was a joke of course.
I listened to Mayall a lot. There was stuff going on in
there that nailed your attention, even within the narrow blues frame (well,
I thought it was narrow) these guys could fly. Not a very ground-breaking
observation as the musicians involved were among others Eric Clapton, Peter
Green, John McVie, Mick Fleetwood and Mick Taylor - caught just seconds
before they turned into monster stars. But I do admit that I liked the other
bands they played in much, much better: Yardbirds, Cream, Blind Faith,
Fleetwood Mac, Rolling Stones. I was no purist. John Mayall was.
In hindsight we know his importance to the electric blues
and blues-rock of Great Britain. Even more than Alexis Korner, Mayall, with
his jazz background, his goatee and his whining voice, was the motor of the
underground. He saw greatness in these young and gifted talents and
cultivated them with love and enthusiasm. He knew perfectly well that they
were just passing through. No hard feelings.
Contrary to the later guys passing through the
Bluesbreakers’ revolving doors, Clapton already had a name for himself. He
left the Yardbirds in frustration when Graham Gouldman’s “For Your Love”
turned them into pop stars in the spring of 1965. He wanted to play the
blues. So he jumped ship. It was an immature reaction as Yardbirds never
sold out but turned into a bold and exciting rock band after he left.
As for Clapton’s purism, he is reading a comic book on
the “Blues Breakers”-sleeve, and at the time of the album’s release he had
already left for rock music’s first super group, Cream (they would make
their live debut a week after the “Blues Breakers”-album’s release).
But the off- and on-engagements with Mayall through 1965
and 1966 was of great importance to him. The blues frame made him relax and
Mayall offered him generous space to develop his guitar playing and search
for his own sound. After the Yardbirds he’d been a little boy lost. Now he
Mayall offered his soloists a broad canvas to paint on,
and Clapton got more than his share. He was the only member of the
Bluesbreakers-incarnations that became a serious threat to Mayall himself.
People came to hear the guitar god, not old goatee. Decca placed Clapton’s
name on the cover knowing that it would sell records. Mayall certainly must
have had second thoughts about that, Clapton wasn’t even in the band
But “Blues Breakers” was a commercial success, Mayall’s
first ever, and turned him into a rock star in his own right. During the
following years a number of his albums hit the Top 10.
The most sensational thing about “Blues Breakers” is
Clapton’s guitar playing. The arrangements are all your typical electric
blues with Mayall’s screeching voice and seasick Hammond center stage. But
Clapton tears himself loose and delivers blistering solos that represents
the dawning of a new era in British rock and also signals the birth of the
guitar hero, Clapton being the first of them all.
Although he moves inside the blues there is an
individualistic freshness here that bleeds into rock. Clapton’s tour de
force is the six minute “Have Your Heard”, where he delivers what many
regard as the best guitar solo ever in the history of human kind.
You will find brilliant stuff on Mayall’s post-Clapton
albums too - “A Hard Road”, “Bare Wires” and “Blues From Laurel Canyon” to
name a few – but none of these caught the zeitgeist like “Blues Breakers”
did. That album holds its own and is up there with other 1966 classics like:
“Revolver”, “Blonde On Blonde”, “Pet Sounds”, “Aftermath”, “Face To Face”
and “Freak Out”, “Fifth Dimension”, “Buffalo Springfield” and... “East-West”
(not the Herman’s Hermits recording).
Released July 1966
“All Your Love” (Otis Rush) – 3:36
“Hideaway” (Freddie King/Sonny Thompson; interpolating “The Walk” by Jimmy
McCracklin) – 3:17
“Little Girl” (Mayall) – 2:37
“Another Man” (Mayall) – 1:45
“Double Crossing Time” (Clapton/Mayall) – 3:04
“What’d I Say” (Ray Charles; interpolating “Day Tripper” by John Lennon/Paul
McCartney) – 4:29
“Key to Love” (Mayall) – 2:09
“Parchman Farm” (Mose Allison) – 2:24
“Have You Heard” (Mayall) – 5:56
“Ramblin’ on My Mind” (Robert Johnson/Traditional) – 3:10
“Steppin’ Out” (L. C. Frazier) – 2:30
“It Ain’t Right” (Little Walter) – 2:42
John Mayall – lead vocals, piano, Hammond B3 organ,
Eric Clapton – guitar, lead vocals on “Ramblin’ on My Mind”
John McVie – bass guitar
Hughie Flint – drums
Alan Skidmore – tenor saxophone
John Almond – baritone saxophone
Derek Healey – trumpet
Gus Dudgeon – engineer
Mike Vernon – producer
March 1966 at Decca Studios, West Hampstead, London, England