Derek and the Dominos

Track analysis for “Layla

In retrospect it is easy to think of Derek and the Dominos as just one more assemblage of musicians supporting the star, Eric Clapton. Of all our rock icons who have survived into the 21st century, Clapton is the one who has played with the greatest number of bands (Yardbirds, Bluesbreakers, Cream, Blind Faith, Delaney and Bonnie, Dominos) and has had the most varied array of musicians he has played with, either on his recordings or as a guest artist on others’ efforts. Derek and the Dominos was really the shortest-lived of the bands, producing only one studio album, and never playing in concert with the same configuration that produced the album (Duane Allman being the missing ingredient in the live shows).

And then, of course, there is the fact that “Derek” turned out to be a very transparent guise for Eric, so it is easy to think of this one album as just another of Clapton’s solo albums, with a constantly shifting personnel list playing in the background. To further support this perspective, there is the fact that the title song of the Dominos one studio album, “Layla,” has become the single composition most closely associated with Clapton as a solo artist. The song was re-released as a single, with far greater sales than first time around, in support of a later Clapton compilation package. The by-now famous song was then re-recorded in a drastically altered fashion for Clapton’s Unplugged solo album, in which form it earned Clapton a Grammy for best Rock Song.

In fact, though, Derek and the Dominos was a band with a distinct identity, and their one recorded album was a truly collaborative effort. Bassist Carl Radle, drummer Jim Gordon and keyboards player Bobby Whitlock had all come from the Delaney and Bonnie band. This was a group Clapton had retreated to after the breakup of Blind Faith, specifically with the mission of shedding his guitar god role to become just another boy in the band. So the chemistry was right for these three to act as equals with Clapton, preparing them for a true collaboration. Duane Allman had been appearing as a hot studio guitarist for years, and had made a name for himself as the star attraction of the Allman Brothers, so this was actually the only time in Clapton’s career when he recorded an entire album with another guitarist of comparable ability and stature.

This artistic partnership is reflected first in the composition credits. Only two of the fourteen songs on the double album were written solely by EC. The affecting “Thorn Tree in the Garden” was penned by Bobby Whitlock alone, four of the others were covers of other artists’ material, the title song was co-written with Jim Gordon, and the remaining tracks were all co-written by Clapton and Whitlock. These varied writing credits directly contribute to the strength of the material. All in all, a much stronger collection of songs than would typically appear on a Clapton album.

This same sort of synergy is reflected in the playing on the album. The sense of careful restraint often evident on recordings made by hired studio musicians is totally absent: all of the musicians seem to be totally loose, yet almost telepathically in touch with one another, so that the recorded music seems to be coming from a single unified consciousness, rather than a collection of pieces arbitrarily or artificially put together.

The result of having Allman on the album is phenomenal. The two guitarists’ similar abilities, but different styles, seem to effortlessly blend and complement each other. The overall impression is of a true guitar God, some multi-limbed deity capable of playing an apparently infinite number of instruments simultaneously, appearing at times to be separated into distinct pieces, yet always ultimately revealing its true identity as a single cohesive whole.

Recommended CDs

Album Title: Layla

Original Release Date: 1970

Rating: 5 Stars (Essential)

As you can probably tell by now, I think this is a terrific album. Four out of the fourteen cuts are covers of other artists’ material, but all of the tracks fit together seamlessly — not so much out of any grand design but simply due to the converging interests, sympathies and intentions of the participants. This is one of those fortunate cases where what was originally a double album on vinyl now fits onto a single CD, making the recording exceptional in terms of the quantity of music offered. And even though all of the material is stylistically very consistent, it is not at all repetitious. All of the tracks stand up to repeated listening. The average song length is about five minutes, giving the musicians room to stretch out and solo occasionally, while avoiding the self-indulgent excesses that occasionally plagued Clapton’s previous bands, such as Cream and Blind Faith.

Overall, the album has a very unique sound to it. The music sounds very loose and spontaneous, yet at the same time very focused and intense. Clapton’s and Allman’s guitars are everywhere — playing rhythm, playing riffs, playing breaks, playing along with and on top of the vocals — yet the musicians and singers ultimately complement each other rather than competing, as they often seemed to do in Cream. Allman’s tasteful lyricism balances and influences Clapton’s more dramatic style on guitar. The result is never polished, but always inspired. Some of the songs are pretty, but the tracks are never merely pretty, with the guitars and bluesy vocals consistently adding texture and substance to the outings.

This is a faultless recording, and an absolutely essential addition to any rock collection.


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