Saturday, February 16, 2019

Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton – A Legendary Album

My copy of the album
If you know electric blues, then you are surely familiar with the classic album Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton. It is one of the great blues rock albums in history, a record that helped to set a precedent for blues rock guitar. There were no hit songs from the record, and chart placement was not especially memorable, but none of those things mattered to those who loved the record.

The album, by John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, is a classic 12-bar blues style of music, with five original songs out of 12 total tracks, including two instrumentals. The arrangements were sparse – lead and rhythm guitars, bass, drums, keyboards, harmonica, with horns added to some of the cuts.

Blues Breakers* was recorded in March 1966 at Decca Studios in West Hampstead, London, with Mike Vernon producing and Gus Dudgeon as engineer. The album was essentially a showcase for guitarist Eric Clapton and was an accurate representation of what the Bluesbreakers sounded like in live shows. Bandleader John Mayall was already established in the British blues scene, and Clapton was well-known after stints in the Roosters and more importantly, the Yardbirds. Bassist John McVie, (later, the 'Mac' of Fleetwood Mac) and drummer Hughie Flint, were solid, veteran players, rounding out the band.

Clapton left the Yardbirds in March 1965, unhappy that the band had moved away from the blues toward pop material. One month later, he joined Mayall, a bluesman who wanted the talented Clapton to play blues with him. Clapton started gigging with Mayall, and the magic happened quickly.

Their live shows were exciting, lively, and characterized by an inspired Clapton playing very loudly. He was stretching out and playing what he wanted to play, and Mayall was only too happy to let the then 19-year-old guitar star step out and show off his remarkable ability.

Fans from his Yardbirds days joined with new fans and the crowds loved what they saw and heard. Signs began popping up in London: 'Clapton Is God.' It was a great band with some of the best players in England, and with the addition of Clapton, a top guitar slinger, Mayall had what he wanted – a blues band with serious chops.

Besides the inspired playing of Clapton, his equipment became an important point. In the Yardbirds, he had primarily played a red Fender Telecaster through a Vox AC30. The combination worked for him in his previous band, but he wanted something different for the Bluesbreakers, equipment with more punch.


Gibson Custom Shop 2011 Reissue of
the Clapton 'Beano' Les Paul.
Clapton was a fan of American bluesman Freddie King, and the song Hideaway. Clapton saw an album cover with Freddie King holding a Les Paul and he went looking for one of his own. The story is he found a used 1960 sunburst Les Paul Standard (the year of this guitar has been debated**) that he bought for a reasonable price. He also asked West London music shop owner Jim Marshall to build him a combo amp that he could more easily carry around (one that would fit in the trunk of his car, according to the stories.) 

The result was Marshall's first combo amp, a 45-watt tube unit with two twelve-inch speakers, labeled the Marshall model #1962, later dubbed the Bluesbreaker amp***. The point of this amp with its lower wattage was to crank up the volume, causing the sound to break up and, along with the Les Paul and its PAF humbucking pickups, produce a rich, warm, natural overdrive that was perfect for what Clapton was doing. ****



Armed with his new equipment and a new opportunity to play the music he wanted to play, the Bluesbreakers began to take off. Although Mayall had lost his recording deal with Decca, house producer Mike Vernon, who had seen the new lineup of the band play live, convinced the company to take another chance on them. Shortly before the Decca sessions took place, Vernon also convinced Mayall and the band to record two songs for his own fledgling label, so he knew what Clapton wanted in terms of recording, and he knew what to expect from this band.

Mayall wanted to capture as closely as possible, the sound and feel of their live shows – not easy to achieve in a recording studio. Other artists and producers had attempted this with poor results, but Vernon thought he knew how to pull it off. The operative word for Clapton in the studio was 'loud', and although Decca engineer Gus Dudgeon had a hard time wrapping his head around the concept, they went with it.

With Vernon's acute sense of the importance of letting Clapton do what he wanted, and Dudgeon reluctantly going along, the Bluesbreakers spent four days recording twelve songs. Four were Mayall compositions, one by Clapton and Mayall, and seven covers, including Ramblin' On My Mind, Clapton's first recorded lead vocal. The result of Clapton's Les Paul and Marshall, played loudly, and the method of microphone placement, (Clapton told Dudgeon to mic him from across the room) produced a spectacular tone that resonated with guitarists everywhere (and still does to this day.)

The album was released on July 22, 1966, and to Mayall's surprise rose to #6 on the UK charts. It quickly became known as 'The Beano Album,' with the cover photo of the four members sitting on a stone step with Clapton ignoring the camera and apparently absorbed in a Beano comic.

It was a great album for listening, and it caused a revolution in the blues/rock world, as guitarists everywhere salivated over the spectacular tone achieved by Clapton. It helped to launch the combination of the Gibson Les Paul and the Marshall amp as an important equipment requirement for rock and rock/blues guitarists.

Author Harry Shapiro wrote in May 2018 in John Mayall's Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton: The Making of 'the Beano album'…, on Louder Sound.com:

"Clapton detonated a neon explosion of noise and notes, cutting, biting, trebly and harsh – angry, passionate, a firestorm of blues runs, intense yet controlled, a music caught in the crosshairs of a young man’s frustration and anger and gripped by a psychic disturbance that he felt could only be exorcised through a Gibson/Marshal combo."

Shapiro quoted guitarist Steve Hackett, of Genesis and other bands:

"Tremendously influential for me. A quantum leap forward in terms of sound, finger vibrato control and the level of distortion, treble and aggression."

Said Joe Bonamassa in the same piece:

"This was a change-your-life sort of record."

Bruce Eder on AllMusic.com, wrote: "…perhaps the best British blues album ever cut."

Michael Gallucci, writing in July 2016 on Ultimate Classic Rock.com said the record was:

"… a deft move that helped ignite the era's infatuation with blues-based rock music," and: "Every guitarist who's ever played a Gibson Les Paul with warm, stinging fluidity owes a debt to this album."

Shapiro wrote that:

"… the success of the Beano album propelled the blues above ground. It gave birth to the British blues boom from which came bands that went on to lay the foundation stones of international arena rock: Cream, Fleetwood Mac and Led Zeppelin."

"It was one of the greatest - if not the greatest - albums of the British blues boom, and the one which set in motion the rise of the guitar hero," wrote Graham Reid in June 2016 on Elsewhere.co.nz.

Chris Jones wrote in 2007 on BBC.co.uk:

"But to this day, from the first rip into to the final chord of the ‘Beano Album’, as it came to be known, remains just about the defining argument as to why Clapton really was once, God."

All of this is high praise for an album recorded 53 years ago. This record has stood the test of time – it is still a great album, featuring the unforgettable playing and tone of Eric Clapton, his Gibson Les Paul Standard, and his Marshall 'Bluesbreakers' amp.

Author's notes: 

* Although the band was known as John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, (one word) the album was called Blues Breakers (two words) with Eric Clapton.

** Descriptions of the features of Clapton's guitar lead many to label it a 1960 model, while others suggest it could have been as early as a 1958. His guitar was stolen in late 1966 and was never recovered, although Bonamassa claimed in this 2016 Guitar Player.com story that he knows where Clapton's 'Beano' guitar is. He also says the guitar is a 1959 in this Guitar World story.

*** Apparently, opinions differ as to the wattage of this amp. Several sources list it as 45w, while others contend it was a 30w.

**** Some sources suggest that Clapton used a Dallas Rangemaster Treble Booster, but there is no definitive answer to that question.















Larry Manch is an author, teacher, guitar player, freelance writer, and columnist. His books include: 'Twisted Logic: 50 Edgy Flash Fiction Stories''The Toughest Hundred Dollars & Other Rock & Roll Stories','A Sports Junkie''The Avery Appointment''Between the Fuzzy Parts', and 'Jonathan Stephens Is Just A Kid'. His books are available in paperback and e-book.

He writes about sports for Season Tickets, food and travel on Miles & Meals, and music/guitars on The Backbeat.


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