Hello there! In this week’s blog we will review two exceptionally beautiful and haunting songs: Something by the Beatles; and Layla by Derek and the Dominos. However, we first need to explain why we are comparing what appear to be two completely different songs.
Something and Layla: What’s Going On?
Those of you who follow this blog know that my style is to contrast the original version of a song with one or more covers of the same song. It should be very clear that Something and Layla are absolutely not two versions of the same song. Something was written by George Harrison and performed by the Beatles; and Layla was co-written by Eric Clapton and Jim Gordon, and was performed by Clapton’s group Derek and the Dominos.
So why would I compare the two songs in this post? The connection is the following. It turns out that both songs were written by two different men about the same woman, and they were written just over one year apart.
In the remaining sections I will describe the circumstances behind the tunes, and the very poignant personal relationships behind these two songs.
George Harrison and Something:
In their early days, the Beatles were playing a mixture of covers and original Lennon-McCartney songs. For example, their early British album Please Please Me contained eight Lennon-McCartney songs and six covers.
However, fairly quickly the Beatles albums began to consist solely of original tunes. The vast majority were written by Lennon and McCartney, and they would have Ringo sing one of the songs. In addition, once George Harrison began writing in earnest, they would include a couple of George’s songs on an album.
However, Lennon and McCartney were such prolific song-writers that George always felt that he had to exert significant pressure to get his own songs recorded. George was also convinced that John and Paul considered his songs to be rather weaker than the best Lennon-McCartney tunes.
However, by the time of the final Beatles album, the 1969 Abbey Road, George’s songwriting had dramatically improved. His contributions to that album – Something and Here Comes the Sun – are stunning, and many consider them to be two of the finest songs on that album. In fact, once the Beatles broke up, George had accumulated so many of his own songs that he released them in a three-record album, All Things Must Pass!
George Harrison wrote Something as a tribute to his wife, Pattie Boyd. Harrison had met Pattie in 1964 when she had a one-line part in the first Beatles film, A Hard Day’s Night. At that time, Boyd had a successful modeling career, and had appeared on the cover of Vogue.
Here is a photo of Pattie Boyd and Twiggy from about 1972. This photo was taken for the Italian issue of Vogue – oh boy, this brings back memories of the 70s!
Apparently George must have been pretty smitten with Pattie, because when he approached her on the film set he is reputed to have said,
“Will you marry me? Well, if you won’t marry me, will you have dinner with me tonight?”
At that time Pattie had a serious boyfriend, so she rebuffed George’s first offer of a date. However, not long afterwards they did have their first date, Pattie moved in with George in 1965 and they were married in January 1966. Here is a photo of George and Pattie in the mid-60s.
The song Something represents a beautiful combination of melody and lyrics. The lyrics are actually quite simple: a man expresses his love for a woman, enumerating several small details – her smile, her style, the way she moves – that endear her to him.
Something in the way she moves
Attracts me like no other lover
Something in the way she woos me
I don’t want to leave her now
You know I believe and how
Somewhere in her smile she knows
That I don’t need no other lover
Something in her style that shows me
I don’t want to leave her now
You know I believe and how
George Harrison’s guitar work on Something is haunting and memorable. The guitar licks mesh perfectly with the lyrics, and together they produce a warm glow in the listener. Richie Unterberger of AllMusic describes “Something” as “an unabashedly straightforward and sentimental love song”
John Lennon stated that Something was the best song on the entire Abbey Road album, and the song was the first George Harrison composition to comprise the “A” side of a Beatles single, where together with the flip side “Come Together,” it went to #1 on the pop charts around the world.
Since its release, Something has been covered more times than any Beatles song except Yesterday. So here is the audio of Something; the video includes clips of the Beatles together with their wives.
Isn’t this beautiful? In addition to George’s lyrical guitar work, the song also features some subtle but impressive drumming from Ringo. And here is a live clip of George Harrison performing the song at the August 1, 1971 Concert for Bangladesh at Madison Square Garden.
The Concert for Bangladesh was one of the first big multi-celebrity rock concerts for charity. Harrison organized it after his good friend Ravi Shankar told him of the plight of starving refugees from the Bangladesh Liberation War. The concert was a major success and the resulting triple album sold like hotcakes. However, due to dodgy accounting practices, tax issues and poor management, relatively little of the money raised ever reached the starving Bangladeshis.
While the other Beatles dabbled in Eastern philosophy, for George it was a central element of his life. He became a student and lifelong friend of Ravi Shankar, and spent a great deal of time practicing yoga and studying Eastern mysticism.
By all accounts George Harrison was a wonderful guy — he was sincere, loyal to his many friends, and a dedicated social activist. His friend Eric Idle of the group Monty Python said that Harrison was
“one of the few morally good people that rock and roll has produced.”
George Harrison died of metastatic lung cancer in November, 2001. His ashes were subsequently scattered in the Ganges River near Varanasi, India. In 2004 Harrison was posthumously inducted as a solo artist into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Eric Clapton and Layla:
Early in his career, Eric Clapton was extremely restless. While still in his teens, his blues guitar work with the Yardbirds and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers had spawned a cult following in Britain. Graffiti proclaiming “Clapton is God” appeared in London underground stations.
Being acclaimed as a rock god was the last thing that Clapton desired. He wanted just to be part of an ensemble of talented musicians who could perfect their craft in relative anonymity. Unfortunately, his high hopes that the blues supergroup Cream would fulfill these ambitions went unrealized.
Although Cream received tremendous acclaim for their blend of blues and hard rock, personal tensions within the group were exceptionally high. Clapton found himself caught in the middle between drummer Ginger Baker and bassist Jack Bruce, who loathed each other. In addition, Clapton was convinced that the group often ‘skated’ on their great talent, frequently turning in sub-par performances.
Cream broke up after about three years, and Clapton once again found himself searching for a group. He formed Blind Faith with Steve Winwood and Ginger Baker, but that lasted for only one year and a single album. At that time Clapton began sitting in with the group Delaney and Bonnie and Friends.
In mid-1970, Clapton learned that several members of that group intended to break away and form their own band. So he assembled keyboardist Bobby Whitlock, bassist Carl Radle and drummer Jim Gordon from Delaney and Bonnie, and formed the quartet Derek and the Dominos. The group began recording an album in Miami with producer Tom Dowd.
At some point Dowd invited Eric to attend a concert by another group he produced, The Allman Brothers. Following the concert, Clapton and lead guitarist Duane Allman sat around and jammed for the remainder of the evening. To Clapton, Duane Allman was like a musical soul-brother. Each was a virtuoso guitarist who paired a deep affection for the blues with stunning creativity. Allman then sat in for roughly half the songs on the Derek and the Dominos double album.
Clapton’s personal life during this time was pretty much a mess. He had serious dependency issues with both alcohol and heroin. To make matters worse, he had fallen hopelessly in love with Pattie Boyd, the wife of his best mate George Harrison.
The centerpiece of Derek and the Dominos’ one double album was the painfully raw love song Layla. The song tells the story of a man who is tormented because he is hopelessly in love with a woman. He pleads with her that she will “ease my worried mind … before I finally go insane.”
What’ll you do when you get lonely
And nobody’s waiting by your side?
You’ve been running and hiding much too long.
You know it’s just your foolish pride. …
I tried to give you consolation
When your old man had let you down.
Like a fool, I fell in love with you,
Turned my whole world upside down.
Layla, you’ve got me on my knees.
Layla, I’m begging, darling please.
Layla, darling won’t you ease my worried mind.
This intensely personal song was written by Eric Clapton to Pattie Boyd. Clapton was inspired to write Layla by Persian classical poet
Nizami Ganjavi’s The Story of Layla and Majnun, …The book moved Clapton profoundly, as it was the tale of a young man who fell hopelessly in love with a beautiful, unavailable woman and who went crazy because he could not marry her.
Clapton eventually played his song for Pattie, and told her that Layla expressed his love for her. At that time Boyd did not return his affections. However, the marriage between Harrison and Boyd was a troubled one, and according to Boyd a series of extramarital affairs by Harrison had weakened their marriage. Eventually Harrison’s affair with Ringo Starr’s wife Maureen was the final straw.
Harrison and Boyd split up in 1974. Boyd then moved in with Clapton and they were married in 1979. At left is a photo of Eric and Pattie in the 70s.
Now in most cases, if your best friend has an affair with your wife, this would surely mean the end of your friendship. However, George Harrison appeared to be rather tolerant of this situation; he was a guest at Eric and Pattie’s wedding, and he and Clapton continued to be best friends. They hung out together, collaborated on various songs, and occasionally appeared together on tours or benefit concerts.
By the way, here’s an interesting fact. At Clapton’s wedding to Pattie, George, Paul and Ringo all jammed with Eric at the reception. Clapton had not thought to invite John Lennon, as he knew that Lennon was in New York at the Dakota, and Clapton assumed he would not be interested in traveling to the wedding. But Lennon said he would have attended if he’d been invited. Wouldn’t that have been amazing — the Beatles might have played together one last time!
Alas, the love story between Eric Clapton and Pattie Boyd did not have a happy ending. Clapton continued to struggle with serious dependence on both alcohol and drugs, particularly heroin, during this period. In addition, Boyd claims that Clapton had several extramarital affairs, including one in 1986 with Italian model Lory del Santo that produced a son, Conor. In 1988 Boyd and Clapton divorced.
Pattie Boyd claims that in addition to Something, George Harrison wrote I Need You about her. And Pattie says that apart from Layla, Eric Clapton’s songs Bell Bottom Blues and Wonderful Tonight were written about her. Holy crap, what a terrific list of songs, all inspired by the same person! If Helen of Troy is celebrated as ‘the face that launched a thousand ships,’ we need a similar accolade for Pattie Boyd!
Here is the audio of Layla by Derek and the Dominos, from the 1970 double album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs.
The first half of the song is highlighted by some of the most memorable guitar licks ever recorded. They are the joint product of Eric Clapton and Duane Allman, who plays bottleneck slide guitar. Both artists are absolutely scintillating on the high notes; for the first three minutes of the song, Eric and Duane trade soaring and beautiful riffs. I get chills down my spine listening to two of the greatest guitarists in history, right at their prime, producing such thrilling music together.
The remaining four minutes of the song is an extended instrumental coda, featuring drummer Jim Gordon on piano, together with Clapton and Allman on guitar in the background. The harmonies on the second half of this song are also hauntingly lovely. Although Gordon is credited with writing the piano coda, keyboardist Bobby Whitlock claims that the melody was actually composed by Rita Coolidge, Gordon’s girlfriend at that time.
Initially, the piano part was a totally separate song from Layla, but when Gordon played it for Clapton, Eric was quite impressed. The group then recorded it with Gordon playing piano, Clapton on acoustic and slide guitar, and Duane Allman on electric and bottleneck slide guitar. Producer Tom Dowd then spliced the original song and the piano coda together, to produce the final version of Layla.
Here is live video of Eric Clapton playing Layla at a concert at Madison Square Garden in 1999.
Clapton is in great form here. He starts by strumming a few random guitar notes to titillate the crowd, then launches into the beginning guitar riff from Layla as the audience leaps to their feet. Once you hear the initial unforgettable guitar lick, you are off and running. After you have heard the song a few times, it is easy to forget just how much pain and suffering is packed into the song’s message.
As Layla is now celebrated as one of the great iconic blues-rock songs of all time, it is a total mystery to me that the album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs experienced rather disappointing sales when it was first released. Some have suggested that this might have resulted from the fact Eric Clapton’s name did not appear on the album’s front cover. Somehow, this sounds like a weak explanation to me. All I know is that I immediately purchased the album and nearly wore out the grooves listening to the songs.
Layla was re-issued as a single in 1972, when it did much better, making it to #10 on the Billboard Hot 100. Over time the reputation of Layla has risen steadily, and it was ranked #27 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
One thing I would say is that the two halves of the song seem rather incongruous to me. Don’t get me wrong – both are fascinating and memorable. However, the piano coda strikes me as sweet and lovely, in deep contrast to the wrenching, agonizing pain expressed in the first half of the song.
In January 1992 Eric Clapton recorded an acoustic concert for the MTV series Unplugged. He included an acoustic version of Layla, and here it is. Note that Eric introduces it by slyly inviting the audience “See if you can spot this one.” It takes the audience a few seconds to catch on.
Clapton’s performance at this event was a great success. His Unplugged album was nominated for several Grammys. Layla and other songs from the Unplugged concert featured some impressive and creative acoustic licks from `Slowhand,’ as Clapton is known to many admirers.
In addition to the acoustic version of Layla, the program included my favorite version of his song Running on Faith, plus a lovely version of Tears in Heaven. The latter song was written by Eric when his four-year-old son Conor died after falling from the 53rd floor of an apartment in Manhattan. Clapton’s song Tears in Heaven is truly beautiful — it’s simultaneously devastating and dignified. The album and DVD of this concert were best-sellers, and Clapton’s appearance was one of the highlights of MTV’s Unplugged series.
As a result, Eric now includes the acoustic version of Layla in many of his live concert appearances, where it seems to be quite popular. However, not everyone was thrilled by Clapton’s acoustic Layla. My friend Glenn Gass claims that Clapton’s Unplugged version of Layla converts one of the most painful songs of unrequited love and yearning into just another bland folk song. He says “It’s like listening to ‘Crossroads’ played on the autoharp.” So – having seen it, what do you think?
I’m happy to say that starting in 1982, Eric Clapton checked himself into Minnesota’s Hazelden Clinic for treatment for his chemical dependency issues. After a couple of stints at Hazelden, he conquered his addictions and appears to have been clean and sober ever since.
Clapton has since founded a drug treatment facility called the Crossroads Centre in Antigua. In order to provide funds for the Centre, Clapton organized a Crossroads Guitar Festival. That event has been held five times, with performers hand-picked by Eric. It has been a phenomenal success both musically and as a fund-raiser.
Clapton has also auctioned off a number of his personal guitars. Don’t bid on these unless you have very deep pockets – Clapton’s favorite Fender Stratocaster guitar `Blackie’ (shown above) sold at auction for just under a million dollars!