Eric Clapton’s Songs: The Backstories

Eric Clapton’s Songs: The Backstories

In interviews that have taken place over the years, Eric Clapton has sometimes told the story behind a song he recorded or discussed his inspiration for a song he wrote. But, he hasn’t always spoken of his best-known songs or biggest hits and some of those recounted below are a bit eclectic.

Here are the backstories behind some of Eric Clapton’s songs, in many cases in Eric’s own words:

Eric: “Warner Brothers wanted another ‘Layla’. I thought, ‘well, if you sit down and write a song in a formatted way, it’s not so hard.’ You think ‘What was “Layla” comprised of? A fiery intro modulated into the first verse and chorus with a riff around it. I had this stuff in my head, so I just juggled it around, and Mick Jones (of the group Foreigner) came in to help tidy up. He was the one who said ‘You should put a “Badge” middle in there’. So, we did that. Although it sounds like a cold way of doing it, it actually took on it’s own life.”

This track was written by Eric Clapton and George Harrison in December 1968. George was putting the lyrics on paper and Eric, reading it upside down, misread the musical term “bridge” as “badge.” The name stuck. Ringo Starr was also present and contributed the lyric “The swans they live in the park”.

Eric Clapton said he wrote this song during a tropical storm on Antigua while looking across the water to the island of Montserrat. “I thought I had discovered three new chords that man didn’t know about. But actually, they’re just ordinary chords, which I found out when I tried to show them to someone – a keyboard player – and he told me what they were and that they were very normal. But to my ear, they created an atmosphere and I began to sing in the atmosphere that was already existing. And again, it was quite a specific set of circumstances I was talking about a lost love.” (From a 1998 BBC interview)

Eric Clapton: “Babyface was one of those great catalysts for me. I’d seen him on TV doing his thing with acoustic guitar and I was thinking, ‘this is a guy who’s in the R&B world, he’s a producer and yet he knows how to get that minimal thing and make a small sound really powerful.’ And when I heard the song, I put it on in my car and was driving around listening to it about 200 times without stopping. And I just knew it was a hit. I’m the guy that used to hate the idea of pop songs and I was so against that for myself. But when the music is that good, I start to become okay about it. And this really was an opportunity it would have been childish to walk away from. And there’s only one guy I knew that would make it absolutely right and that was Babyface”. (From Guitarist, February 2003)

Eric Clapton wrote “Circus” in 1991 after the death of his young son, Conor. It is about the last night Eric spent with his son, which was at a big American circus. Clapton said writing this song (and other songs inspired by Conor) helped him get through a very difficult patch in his life following Conor’ss death. Eric Clapton first performed “Circus” (then called “Circus Left Town”) on the MTV Unplugged program on 16 January 1992. It was left off the official album. Eric regularly performed this song in concert from 1992. However, it did not appear on an album of his until 1998’s Pilgrim.

Eric Clapton: “The last night I spent with Conor, we went to the circus. We went to see one of those huge things that they do in America where they have three rings going on at the same time. You’ve got clowns and tigers and everything. They don’t do anything in half measures. They just pile it all in. Plus, they’re trying to sell you things at the same time. I mean it was an amazing thing. After the show, we were driving back to New York and all he could remember, all he could talk about was this clown. He’d seen a clown with a knife, which I didn’t see at all. Some clown was running around brandishing a knife, which was something quite frightening but he liked it — I mean it excited him. And so that is in the lyrics. But, and I suppose what I was doing, I was remembering, I mean paying tribute to this night with him and also seeing him as being the circus of my life. You know – that particular part of my life has now left town.” (From a 1998 BBC interview)

Contrary to popular belief, “Cocaine” is an anti-drug song written by J.J. Cale. Eric Clapton: “It’s no good to write a deliberate anti-drug song and hope that it will catch. Because the general thing is that people will be upset by that. It would disturb them to have someone else shoving something down their throat. So the best thing to do is offer something that seems ambiguous – that on study or on reflection actually can be seen to be ‘anti’ – which the song “Cocaine” is actually an anti-cocaine song. If you study it or look at it with a little bit of thought … from a distance … or as it goes by … it just sounds like a song about cocaine. But in actual fact, it is quite cleverly anti-cocaine.” (From the Best of Everything Show with Dan Neer) Eric Clapton has also commented, “that’s an anti-drug-song. The fans only listen to the refrain: ‘She don’t lie, she don’t lie, cocaine.’ But it says, ‘If you wanna get down, down on the ground, cocaine.’ It’s sad how young people destroy themselves with drugs. I hate listening to my old records, which I did stoned or drunk.” (From Stern Magazine, Germany, 1998)

Eric Clapton wrote this song as a tribute to some of the music he heard as a youth. “Writing that song was just simply tuning back in to music in my teens. I was listening to folk music and the more I listened to that, I got deeply moved and influenced by bluegrass and Appalachian music, especially the sort of field recordings that were available. In the old days, you used to be able to go buy records on a label called Folkways. They’d have unknown people on there just playing five-string banjos, people who probably just recorded in their homes. They would just have this incredible power and sound. It was unsophisticated and crude and raw. Writing that song was tuning back into that part of my musical heritage.” (From a 1998 BBC interview)

When asked to name his favorite “Clapton song” during an October 1999 interview for the US VH1 show, Flix, Eric Clapton said it was “Golden Ring”. The episode of Flix was dedicated to the Rob Reiner film, The Story Of Us, for which Eric composed the soundtrack. He said he picked “Golden Ring” as his all-time personal favorite because it is obscure and people don’t know it and it’s about marriage (the theme of the movie). Eric wrote “Golden Ring” during the 1978 sessions for Backless. In the tour program for his 1979 North American Tour, he had this to say about it: ” The best thing that happened on Backless were the things that happened at the time. I got away with one song on there, “Golden Ring”, which I think is the strongest song on the album, because I wrote it because I was fed up with the general sort of apathy of everyone involved, and I just thought, ‘Well, I’ll take a song in there and whether they like it or not, we’ll do it, they’ll learn it and record it and we’ll put it on the record and that’s that!’ And that kind of conviction carried the thing through. I spoke with Don Williams* just before Christmas and I told him I liked his album and he said “Golden Ring” was his favourite track too, because it was the only one that came through with any kind of feeling, with strength. And if you listen to it, there’s virtually nothing to it. Songs like that are caused by situations, but situations of that extremity don’t happen every day, thank God.”

*Don Williams is an American Country & Western performer and writer. Eric Calpton admired his music and covered “We’re All The Way” on Slowhand (1977).

Eric Clapton: When I was about 14, I saw Big Bill Broonzy on TV and that was an incredible thing. Because maybe if I’d just heard it, it might not have had the same effect. But to see footage of Broonzy playing Hey Hey, this was a real blues artist and I felt like I was looking into heaven. That was it for me and then, when I went to explore his music, the song that always came back to me was an incredible version of Key To The Highway. That was the one that I thought somehow would, like Crossroads, capture the whole journey of being a musician and a travelling journeyman. (From Guitarist, February 2003)

Eric Clapton wrote “Layla” in 1970 for Pattie Boyd Harrison. He had fallen in love with her although she was married to his good friend, George Harrison. In the song, he was trying to tell a romantic story about what was actually happening in his love life at that time but disguise it a bit by bringing in elements from The Story of Layla And Majnun. It is an epic poem written in the 11th or 12th century by the Persian poet Ganjavi Nizami. In Persian, “Layla” means night and “Majnun” means madman. A friend had given him a copy of the poem as they saw the parallels between Layla and Majnun and Eric Clapton and Pattie Harrison. Eric has said, “As a song just in itself I don’t think it’s got much going for it to be honest with you. I mean there’s a structure and there is a melody, but historically where its at in the scheme of things, at the end of the ’60s with the kind of bands that were coming into being, with the way that music was changing, and with the historic little bit of life history, you know with me and George and Pattie, that it got a life of its own”. (From a 1998 BBC interview)

“Layla” was performed in its original electric-style from 1970 through to 1992. Clapton never considered trying to revamp it until his performance on MTV’s Unplugged. He said at the time, “I thought it was a great opportunity to just take ‘Layla’ off on a different path and put it to a shuffle. Making it acoustic denied all the riffs which, I think, naturally became jazzier. I sang it a whole octave lower, which gave it a nice atmosphere. Andy Fairweather-Low and I were at my house doing some pre-rehearsal. I just picked up the guitar and said ‘What do you think of this?’ It just happened. It clicked straight away.” (From June 1993 Guitar World)

Let It Rain had its genesis in a song Eric Clapton wrote with Bonnie Bramlett called “She Rides”. They started writing the song while on the road with Delaney & Bonnie & Friends and later went into the studio to finish it. The track came off so well that they abandoned the original words and thought up a new set of lyrics to go with the music. “She Rides” became “Let It Rain”.

While Eric Clapton was in Los Angeles, California in 1991 writing music for the film Rush, he penned this song in a state of loneliness. Eric said, “You can get a lot of very strange vibrations coming in from the outside and doing something with the film industry. I really wrote that song to try to kind of cheer myself up. I felt like an English exile trying to beat the odds.” (From June 1993 Guitar World)

This intimate song was first performed at the taping for MTV’s Unplugged on 16 January 1992. It did not make it onto the official album. Eric Clapton has said the song expresses the “up side” of losing his son. “He gave me something … what it might have been like to look in my father’s eyes … because I looked in his eyes.” He continued, “I had a kind of revelation about my son. It’s a very personal matter but I never met my father and I realized that the closest I ever came to looking into my father’s eyes was when I looked into my son’s eyes. So I wrote this song about that. It’s a strange kind of cycle thing that occurred to me and another thing I felt I would like to share.”

Eric Clapton has also said that at the time he wrote “My Father’s Eyes” and “Circus” he didn’t have the guts to record them and thought it may have been an inappropriate thing to do. On top of that, he said couldn’t find a way to arrange “My Father’s Eyes” – to put it into the proper setting – so it took him several years to believe that it was okay to present this song in a way that wasn’t going to embarrass anybody. “This was the hardest song to record on that album (Pilgrim). It was the last one that I could let go of. I found ‘Circus’ a lot easier to let go of. ‘My Father’s Eyes’ went through five incarnations and I would veto it each time because at the time it was purely from an artistic point of view that I said, ‘It’s too fast. It’s too jolly. Or it’s too sad.’ Now I actually think, subconsciously, I just wasn’t ready to let go, because it meant — on some level — letting go of my son.” (From May 1998 Guitar World). “My Father’s Eyes” was retired from Eric’s live concert repetoire in 2004.

Note: In “My Father’s Eyes”, Eric Clapton uses the word toerag. “Toerag” is a British slang term, meaning a foot covering for those too poor to afford socks, or alternatively a tramp, vagrant, or a worthless person. Eric said he used the word “toerag” because he was trying to paint an endearing picture of himself.

Jack Bruce once claimed in an interview that Ginger Baker wrote this and that it was named after a sexually transmitted ailment (non-specific uritinitis) that one of the band supposedly had at the time. The liner notes from the album Fresh Cream, however, give song writing credit to Jack Bruce!

The “feel” of this song and “Inside Of Me” from the same album was deliberately borrowed from Curtis Mayfield as a way for Eric Clapton to say thanks for the inspiration. “I was playing guitar and Simon (Climie) was playing keyboards and we just created an atmosphere and instantly the words were coming into my head because the mood evoked all of the circumstances that had been happening for the past few years … not judgmental … it states what had had been happening in a very gentle loving way. This was an actual event in my life where people were saying to me ‘Look you’ve got to get out of this. You’ve got to let go. You’ve got to move on.’ There was an endless vicious circle of make-ups, break-ups, make-ups, and it went on for years and it was going nowhere. It was very painful but I was obsessed with the notion that it would come to fruition if I just stayed there long enough. I’m sure we’ve all been there – but this time for me it was different. That’s another one of the things where I can say that if I just stay there it will come good and it didn’t.” Eric Clapton continued, “We used drum loops … turned to technology when we ran out of things to do and needed a place to start. We would say something like ‘uh, well, um, have you heard the new Usher single?’ And from there we’d just copy the drum program, dicker with it and play along with it. That’s how the song “Pilgrim” was born. We came up with a drum program that was derived from a hit – I can’t remember which one – we changed it a little and then wrote the words.” (From a 1998 BBC interview)

This was the first complete song (words and music) that Eric Clapton wrote. “That song was a true statement of what was happening in my life at the time. I had somewhere to live. I was actually having a good time after leaving Cream, feeling very secure. I was in a great frame of mind.” (From Marc Roberty’s “Complete Guide to the Music of Eric Clapton”)

“Revolution” was the first single from Eric Clapton’s 2005 CD, Back Home. In an interview, he was asked what the song was about. Eric replied, “I just started making up crazy words. And I don’t really know what I’m writing about. It’s kind of about some fictitious character who’s a combination of lots of different people I know who are just dissatisfied with the way things are. It’s not really any kind of, it’s not really a statement about anything. I don’t know what it is.”

This song was recorded very early in the Pilgrim sessions. Eric Clapton believes this song is as good as anything he’s ever done before. In fact, it became the standard for the rest of the album. “Lyrically, it is about a specific person. My impulse for writing the song was initially very manipulative. I was always toying with the idea that when she’d hear this song there would be a reconciliation or something. It had a purpose. Then it started getting vindictive and at some point I started feeling like the lyrics were becoming too melodramatic. I realized that the way to save it was to bring it back to talking about me and that maybe I’m an unavailable person. Maybe it’s me that’s unavailable. That whole thing in the song about just drifting from town to town and not really being able to fit in, takes the blame off somebody else and places in on myself.” (From May 1998 Guitar World)

Eric Clapton said “Sick and Tired”, which honors Stevie Ray and Jimmy Vaughan, was done for fun. The riff came first and I just thought of the Vaughan brothers. I told Simon (Climie) to program a shuffle and exaggerate the back beat so it would sound like a Texas-style groove. I began improvising silly lyrics and thought ‘Well, I might as well make it a song now.’ Its a spoof, really. (From May 1998 Guitar World)

This instrumental was named after and dedicated to the yacht that Eric Clapton chartered while on holiday in 1991. It was one of the first songs he started to write after his son’s death. It was a way for him to start the healing process.

Eric Clapton said, “I do like to stretch the musical boundaries, as much as it feels comfortable to do. And I believe just about anything that’s ever been written can be put into a blues or an old R&B framework. And that’s why I was interested to see how ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ could be approached. I mean, Johnny Guitar Watson did a version of ‘Embraceable You’ that’s one of the most soulful things you’ll ever hear, so I knew it can be done. I’d actually heard a couple of gospel guys from Tulsa do a version and I thought, ‘Well, if they can do it …” Eric Clapton’s version of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” can be found on the live CD, One More Car, One More Rider (2002).

One day in late 1966, Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce were playing riffs and trying to come up with some new material at Bruce’s flat. The jam went on until the wee hours of the morning and they still had not come up with anything striking. All of a sudden, Bruce played the now-famous bass riff. But all Eric could come up with was a tired look out the window and said “C’mon Jack, it’s getting near dawn.” Jack remembered that the next time he got together with Pete Brown and wrote the song with those words in the very first line.

Felix Pappilardi, the producer on Cream’s album Disraeli Gears, had broken up with his girlfriend and was drawing mustaches on photos of her. SWLABR is the acronym for “She Was Like A Bearded Rainbow”.

Tears In Heaven was recorded for the soundtrack of the film Rush. Its first public performance by Eric Clapton was on 16 January 1992 during filming for Eric’s episode of the MTV show, Unplugged. Eric Clapton said, “My question was ‘Will I see you again?’ In a sense, it wasn’t even a sad song. It was a song of belief. When it talks about there will be no more tears in heaven, I think it’s a song of optimism … of reunion. What was worrying me was I hope to God we didn’t meet up in some kind of heaven hotel lobby and just walk by one another,” Eric recalled. (From the 5 April 1998 Australian 60 Minutes interview). He has also said that “The timing was perfect, because they needed a song about loss and I had plenty of them. ‘Tears’ was actually in a very embryonic stage when I was approached and I completed it for Rush. I needed the film to finish it, because otherwise, I probably would have let it go. It was also a good opportunity for me to write about the loss of my son and have somewhere to put it, to channel it, because it didn’t look like I was going into the studio in the near future. I really wanted to be able to say something about what happened to me and the opportunity that this movie presented me was excellent, because it meant that I could write this song and express my feelings and have it come out quickly. After the song was done, I thought that it would be nice to put it out as a single as well.” (From June 1993 Guitar World). Eric Clapton’s song “Tears In Heaven” is on the soundtrack for the film Rush (1992) and live versions can be found on Unplugged (1992) and One More Car, One More Rider (2002). “Tears In Heaven” was retired from Eric’s concert repetoire in 2004.

Eric Clapton wrote the song while waiting for his first wife, Pattie, to get dressed for a night out. They were on their way to a party hosted by Paul and Linda McCartney in honor of Buddy Holly’s birthday. They were running very late and Pattie insisted on trying on every outfit in her closet to find the perfect one. She kept coming downstairs wearing something new and Eric kept telling her, “You look wonderful. Can we go now?” Eventually, he became tired of this and picked up a guitar to keep himself occupied and wrote “Wonderful Tonight”.

“Wonderful Tonight” holds the distinction of being the “most issued” song by Eric Clapton. The original version appears on no less than 5 Clapton albums: Slowhand (1977), Timepieces (1982), Backtrackin’ (1984), Crossroads (1988), The Cream of Eric Clapton (UK – 1987, US – 1995). Different live versions of the song appear on Just One Night (1980), 24 Nights (1991), Crossroads 2 – Live In The Seventies (1996), Superstars In Concert (1996 – a compilation of live recordings from various Prince’s Trust Concerts), Blues (1999), Saturday Night Live 25 Volume 1 (1999 – a compilation of live recordings from the US television show) and One More Car, One More Rider (2002). Some of the above versions have also been issued as extra tracks on CD singles or on compilation recordings by various artists. Another live version of “Wonderful Tonight” was included on the video of In Concert: A Benefit For The Crossroads Centre At Antigua (1999).

Eric Clapton wrote this song after finding out about Princess Diana’s death and it turned into a tribute to his long-time manager, Roger Forrester. “I had my daughter staying with me during the summer and I went around to the news agents on the Sunday morning and it was on the front page that Princess Diana was dead. All this stuff started coming up like it did for everybody. For me, it was like a compilation of feelings that go back to every loss that I’ve ever experienced. And I had this feeling … and I didn’t want it to get pinned onto this event. I wanted to actually place it somewhere where I felt it really belonged. And so I took it to a relationship that I have been involved with, myself, for the last 25 years, which is with my manager. And I took this feeling and put it in this song for him.” (From the March 1998 Rock Daily on-line interview)

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