Tuesday, August 24, 2010

August 24: Derek And The Dominos, "Layla"

Artist: Derek And The Dominos
Song: "Layla"
Album: Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs
Year: 1970

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While in many cases, it takes a handful of records from any band before they gain any notoriety, there are a few isolated instances where for one reason or another, a band will release a single record and be absolute legends for that effort.  This may be due to the music being so far ahead of its time, or perhaps due to some sort of event surrounding the record, or it may also be due to the combination of musicians playing together.  However, though they are very few in number, there are also a handful of songs in music history that have become so large, that the song itself eclipses the performers who were responsible for its creation.  When a song achieves this status, there is no question that it has become one of the most important and influential songs in history, and yet there are always a number of reasons why a song finds itself in this place.  While one cannot deny the exceptionally high level of musicianship within the makeup of the band, it can be argued that 1970's Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs has become far bigger than the band that created the record: Derek And The Dominos.  Filled with some of the most memorable songs ever written, few records can boast as brilliant a fusion of so many different musical styles, all executed with a precision that is rarely found elsewhere in any genre.  Though every song on the album is a fantastic musical achievement, none of them can compare to the magnificent musical display that has become one of the most treasured songs in music history: 1970's "Layla."

From the moment that "Layla" begins, it is already iconic, as there are few, if any guitar riffs that even come close to the instant distinction that one finds here.  Played by one of the most powerful and unlikely duos in history, the guitar work here is courtesy of none other than Eric Clapton and the late Duane Allman.  While Clapton does a great job on the lead riff, it is the undertones from Allman that make "Layla" truly soar, and it is he who stands as the most stunning musician on the track.  Furthermore, while the main riff is absolutely brilliant and unforgettable, the fact of the matter is that the riff is almost lifted verbatim from a T-Bone Walker vocal recording (which is likely why Clapton re-worked the song for his over-hyped Unplugged performance).  Even with this in mind, one cannot deny the force and presence of the riff, though one similarly cannot ignore the lengthy, lamenting coda that follows the verses.  Stretching out over nearly four minutes, the movement was orchestrated by Jim Gordon and played him along with Bobby Whitlock and Carl Raddle on bass.  Playing in a stunning contrast to the first half of the song, this helps to re-enforce the duality of the feelings expressed through to vocals on "Layla."  The fact that both parts of the music have etched their way into music history each in their own way makes one wonder whether these could have been two separate hit songs, as the combined power of the legendary riff and timeless refrain push "Layla" into a musical category all its own.

Working in perfect balance with the duality of the music, the vocals, sung by Eric Clapton, stand as perhaps the finest of his entire career.  Finding the ideal middle-ground between his blues-based roots and the soulful, rocking mood of the music, Clapton completely commits to the vocal, and there are few tracks in history that can compare to the raw and unguarded sound that he brings here.  Though later in his career, Clapton wrote other songs of pure heartbreak, it is almost impossible to argue that he was ever more soul-bearing and outright tortured as one finds on "Layla."  The song itself is a not-so-subtle cry to Patti Boyd, the then-wife of Clapton's friend, George Harrison, and though rather questionable in motive, Boyd and Clapton would marry nearly a decade after the song was released.  Clapton holds back nothing in the lyrics of "Layla," and he seems to even take a few "shots" at Harrison with lines like, "...I tried to give you consolation, when your old man had let you down..."  However, he also brings some of the most simple, yet beautiful sentiments on love with phrases like, "... please don't say we'll never find a way..."  Regardless of the "true" recipient of the songs' words, "Layla" has become one of the most universally recognized songs of longing ever composed, and even more than forty years after being released, on nearly every level, the song remains unsurpassed.

Truth be told, it is hardly surprising that when one teams Eric Clapton with Duane Allman, the results remain one of the most enduring and endearing songs ever recorded.  While Clapton absolutely tears across the track with an aggression and soul that he rarely matched, it is the slide-guitar work of Allman that is the highpoint of the track, though this point is often lost in the hype and ego that has surrounded Clapton over the decades.  Furthermore, the second half of "Layla" remains the epitome of true musical beauty, and even after hundreds of listenings, the piano and guitar passages do not fail to convey the emotions as perfectly as they did on the first experience.  This is in many ways the "magic" that is "Layla," as it almost defies description how well the song has held up over the decades, and why there are simply no other songs in history that can even remotely be compared to this extraordinary musical achievement.  Not surprisingly, the song has rarely been performed live since the short-lived era of Derek And The Dominos, and Clapton himself once said of this fact, "...'Layla' is a difficult one, because it's a difficult song to perform live. You have to have a good complement of musicians to get all of the ingredients going..."  Along with having the right musicians, "Layla" also brings a raw level of emotion that has rarely been matched elsewhere, and it is the combination of all of these elements that makes Derek And The Dominos 1970 song, "Layla" such a phenomenal moment in music history.

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