Happy Bluesman Records #5: John Mayall’s Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton
John Mayall’s Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton is an album that changed the history of music. It helped to set the British Blues boom in motion, which in turn led to the birth of rock music. Indirectly, this led to a major shift in youth culture and created the hippy movement of free love, peace and psychedelia.
I am not suggesting that this album single handedly changed the whole landscape of music, as to do so would be both lazy and inaccurate. The series of events that led to this shift are varied and complex. But it is clear that British music and specifically British blues music played a key role. And the reality is that in the early 1960s, the success of British blues music hinged on just a few key characters, of which John Mayall and Eric Clapton are two of the most notable.
Although Mayall and Clapton collaborated together only briefly, their musical partnership was significant. And it is captured perfectly on the album, John Mayall’s Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton.
Known affectionately as ‘The Beano Album’ – because the original cover of the album shows a disinterested Clapton reading the ‘Beano’ magazine – this is one of greatest and most important blues albums of all time.
Here then I will be looking at the history of the album, the stand out tracks, and the key reasons it needs to be in your blues record collection:
A Brief History Of British Blues
After the Second World War, Britain became known as the ‘Sick Man of Europe’. Despite victory over Germany, the country was economically crippled and wartime measures like rationing remained. For the youth of the day, life was dull. They lacked opportunities and excitement and felt dissillusioned with life in Britain.
Many fixed on America for inspiration. Their perception of the country was highly idealistic. For teenagers like Eric Clapton, America was a country where life was easy and opportunity and excitement were everywhere.
This led to frustration, anger and depression amongst many British teenagers. They wanted more than they felt was being offered to them in England. And this was how some of them found the American bluesman.
The Bluesman is an interesting cultural figure. He is downtrodden, impoverished and faces discrimination on an almost daily basis. Yet in many ways he is also an aspirational figure. The bluesman is a lothario. He is charismatic, powerful and has almost superhuman skills with the opposite sex. He is skilled, respected in his immediate community and lives a life full of excitement. The bluesman is also always on the move, travelling to new places and gaining new experiences.
The Bluesman’s life was the antithesis of that of a teenager in 1950s England. And so it is perhaps little surprise that characters like Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson became the key source of inspiration for young musicians like Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Jeff Beck, amongst others. The bluesmen touched these young musicians on an emotional level. As author Andrew Kellett has noted in his book The British Blues Network, ‘For a generation of young middle-class British men, the bluesman persona was a tonic’.
Separately, these young men became obsessed by the blues and went to extreme measures to consume as much blues music as possible. They started ordering LPs from the U.S., buying niche magazines and travelling around the country to see the blues played live in bars like Eel Pie Island in London. They began to form a network of avid blues musicians. And they started to copy and adapt the American blues music they were so passionate about. As Keith Richards once put it, every town in Britain in the late 1950s had a small group of blues enthusiasts: ‘Sometimes just four or five guys – the blues freaks!’
John Mayall – ‘The Godfather of British Blues’
John Mayall was a prominent figure within this burgeoning blues scene. Almost 10 years older than those British musicians that would later rise to fame – like Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Jimmy Page – Mayall was one of the first experts on the blues outside of the US. He had studied and listened to blues music for years prior to the scene taking off in the early 1960s. Thus he naturally fell into a mentorship role for guitarists like Clapton and Green.
Mayall had formed the Blues Breakers a number of years earlier, in 1963. This was towards the end of the first British Blues wave, during which The Rolling Stones, Pretty Things and The Yardbirds all rose to fame. Yet whilst these bands were influenced by elements of traditional blues, they were perhaps more heavily influenced by R&B. And they fused these influences with a slightly softer and poppier sound.
Eric Clapton and John Mayall both refused to play this softer style of music. Indeed, when Clapton joined the Blues Breakers, he had only just quit The Yardbirds. He did so abruptly, and in response to the success of the Yardbirds’ hit song ‘For Your Love’. As Clapton told Rave magazine shortly after leaving the band, ‘If I hadn’t left the Yardbirds I wouldn’t have been able to play real blues much longer, because I was destroying myself.’
Mayall had also resisted any temptation to stray away from the more traditional forms of the blues. And so he and Clapton bonded over their shared love of the American blues masters. Clapton temporarily moved into Mayall’s house with Mayall’s young family and spent hours in the attic, playing his guitar and listening to Mayall’s extensive collection of blues LPs.
‘Clapton Is God’
Prior to Clapton joining the Blues Breakers, John Mayall had struggled to make an impact on the charts. He had recorded 2 singles for Decca Records – ‘Crawling Up A Hill‘ and ‘Crocodile Walk‘ – as well as a live album, John Mayall Plays John Mayall (Live At Klooks Kleek). None of these records were commercially successful and so Mayall was dropped by the record label.
Part of Mayall’s struggle was his ever changing lineup. The Blues Breakers were a band that was in constant flux, and they didn’t have a guitarist that could properly complement the Chicago sound that Mayall was looking for. That was until he found Clapton.
By the time Clapton joined the Blues Breakers, he was already making a name for himself as one of the best guitarists in England. He had been heavily influenced by players like Freddie, Albert and B.B. King, and had the same vocal and expressive style. But he adapted it and made it his own. He played faster and with more aggression. He paired his 1960 Gibson Les Paul with a Marshall 1962 combo – now aptly named the ‘Marshall Blues Breaker’ – to create a heavier and more fiery tone.
Clapton started to attract legions of fans to the Blues Breaker gigs, and it was around this time that graffiti started popping up around London, worshipping Clapton as a divine being. Yet far from satisfying him – this public praise drove Clapton away. In fact, it almost prevented John Mayall’s Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton from being made at all. As Mayall himself observed:
Immediately, people started to idolise what he (Eric Clapton) was doing. And to a certain extent that’s what bugged him the most. He didn’t want to be looked at and inspected. He just wanted to play the way he wanted to play and (for people) to leave him alone
The adulation proved too much, and Clapton quit the Blues Breakers. He travelled to Greece with a band called The Glands, and John Mayall replaced Clapton with a young Peter Green. Sadly for Green at the time, his tenure with the Blues Breakers was to be short lived.
Clapton soon returned from Greece after a rather tumultuous ‘tour’ with his new band. When he landed in Dover on the ferry, Mayall was the first person he called. He asked if he could return to the Blues Breakers, and was quickly accepted back into the band.
John Mayall’s Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton
The band recorded John Mayall’s Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton just a few months later. With Clapton in the band and attracting a new and much larger crowd, Mayall persuaded Decca Records to give him another chance. Happily, they agreed.
The album was recorded over just 4 days. Mayall wanted to ‘capture the sound of the band live on stage’ and so the sessions were spent trying to recreate the raw intensity and feeling of their live performances. At first this proved to be a challenge. As Mike Vernon – the album’s producer recalls:
It took a while to get a sound that everybody was happy with, especially Eric. But everybody had to take on board that we were going into an unknown era, nobody had ever witnessed in the Decca studios somebody coming into the studio, (setting) up their guitar and amp and (playing) at that volume.
Thankfully, Vernon and his team persisted. And in doing so they captured some of the greatest electric blues guitar tones ever recorded. This had an immediate impact on the British public. When the album was released it shot up to No. 6 in the UK album charts, where it stayed for 17 weeks.
Sadly, the configuration of the Blues Breakers didn’t stay together for long enough to enjoy the success. By the time the album was released, Clapton had left the band again, but this time for good. He formed Cream, and was replaced by Peter Green – who later went on to record the album A Hard Road with the Blues Breakers.
Stand Out Songs
Most of the songs on John Mayall’s Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton are covers of earlier blues, jazz and R&B songs. They include tracks played by artists as diverse as Freddie King, Mose Allison, Otis Rush and Ray Charles. Yet although there are only a few originals on the album, the Blues Breakers created an altogether different sound with their interpretations of these songs. Their sound was heavier and more intense. It was like nothing that had been recorded before.
In my opinion, the album features some of Eric Clapton’s best guitar playing. His lead guitar playing is sublime, and has a power and ferocity to it that is almost unparalleled in his later career. Choosing just 3 songs from the album proved tricky, but after much deliberation my top 3 tracks are:
1.) Steppin’ Out
This instrumental cover of the song ‘Steppin’ Out’ by Memphis Slim, embodies the approach that Mayall and Clapton took on John Mayall’s Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton. Throughout the album they recognise and pay tribute to the blues greats that inspired them, whilst at the same time taking their own approach to the material.
On Steppin’ Out they took Memphis Slim’s originally jazzy composition with horns and piano and turned it into a fiery blues composition, with Clapton playing all parts of the song with his heavy blues rock tone. The track features some of the best guitar playing on the album and is my favourite song on the record.
As mentioned earlier, the line up of the Blues Breakers was constantly changing. And not long before John Mayall’s Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton was recorded, the band included Jack Bruce on bass. Bruce’s time with the band was limited. Much to the displeasure of both John Mayall and Eric Clapton – he left to join Manfred Mann. As a response to Bruce’s disloyalty, Mayall and Clapton wrote the song ‘Double Crossing Time‘ but initially named it ‘Double Crossing Mann’.
It is a song that illustrates the way that Mayall and Clapton were able to combine a more traditional blues piano sound, with Clapton’s fiery guitar playing. The song also features what I think is one of the best guitar solos on the album.
Freddie King had a profound influence on Eric Clapton as a young man. So the story goes, it was the image of Freddie King holding his Les Paul on the album cover of Let’s Hide Away And Dance Away With Freddy King that prompted a young Eric Clapton to go out and buy a Les Paul of his own.
Clapton paid tribute to King with his cover of the famous instrumental ‘Hideaway‘. In many ways, Clapton stays true to the original. But he also puts his own twist on the song, by adding more distortion to his sound and aggression to his playing. I think it is one of the best versions of the song ever recorded.
John Mayall’s Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton started the second wave of the British blues movement. It was a movement that quickly gathered a huge amount of momentum. The album helped to catapult Clapton into stardom and caused an explosion in the popularity of blues and blues rock music. The effects of this were both immense and far reaching.
Guitarists like B.B. King and Muddy Waters gained new levels of stardom both in the U.S. and abroad. They were granted accessed to prestigious venues like the Fillmore East, from which they had previously been banned. It was the first time that musicians like King played in front white audiences.
John Mayall’s Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton didn’t bring this change around single handedly, but it played a significant part. The album also set the standard for British blues and has almost come to define the sub-genre.
Prior to the ‘Beano’ album, no-one had played loud, overdriven guitar with as much intensity as Clapton. His guitar playing on songs like ‘Steppin’ Out‘ and ‘Double Crossing Time‘ was unprecedented. It changed the way that musicians approached the instrument and inspired a whole generation of guitarists. As Gary Moore once stated:
Eric turned more people of my generation onto the blues than anyone else…I was round this guy’s house, I was 14 and I couldn’t afford to buy the album. He lent it to me and obviously he never got it back. I wore that record out. I didn’t go out after that; that was basically the end of my childhood.
It is in part the revolutionary nature of the ‘Beano Album’ that makes it so famous. It was at the forefront of the British blues movement that went on to produce some of the best blues bands and blues guitarists of all time. Yet the album is not merely significant because of its historical importance. Even today – over 50 years after the album was recorded – it highlights some of the best electric blues playing ever recorded.
And it is for this reason alone that John Mayall’s Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton should be in your record collection.
P.S. If you enjoyed reading this article, please share the love 😁 Thank you!