Eric Clapton: The Rolling Stone Interview

The guitarist on synthesizers, life after the Yardbirds and the curse of the hit parade

Musician Eric Clapton of the rock supergroup Cream relaxes backstage in Santa Barbara, California on February 24th, 1968. Credit: Ed Caraeff/Getty

When you first came here last year what did you find were people's expectations of you and the Cream?
We seem to be a lot more popular here than I had imagined. I'd heard that we'd been heard of through the underground thing. Yet I really didn't imagine that we'd be this popular. Or that we would be accepted as readily as we were, because an American band like Butterfield can go to England now and just die at all the places. The best reception they got was at the Marquee and that wasn't as good as most English bands would have gotten. In England they're all very uptight about it. They don't want foreigners coming in. They feel very competitive about their music scene and don't want it contaminated by Americans.

Perhaps that's due to some sort of musical inferiority complex in that they know all of what they're doing is really based on the American thing.
It's a very jealous thing. They're afraid of American music being too far ahead of them. They've got this fantasy, they deny it.

Do you think that the song by Scott McKenzie, "Wear Flowers in Your Hair," which had been number one on the English surveys accurately reflects what's happening here?
Not in any way. It is wrapped up in fashion; it's all about fashion. Who cares what people look like?

The audience in England believes that is what it's like, flower power and flower children.
Of course; the British public have been taught that fashion is the only worthwhile thing – they'll throw away thousands of quid a year just buying clothes. That's just what they think about. I could have been taken in by the song if I hadn't come here.

How do the San Francisco and London audiences differ?
To look at? They're not very different. As far as the reception, this is about the best audience. They're so obviously critical. Every little move you make and every little note you play is being noticed, being devoured, accepted or rejected. You know that whatever you do is going to be noticed and you do it right. You got to do your best 'cause they know if you're not doing your best.

Do you prefer playing in front of an audience or in an isolated situation such as a studio?
I get quite bored listening to myself play the guitar because I'm not a very good audience. If there are people there, you go further.

How much does your state of mind effect your playing?
You mean drugs?

No, not really—
Well, we did a couple of gigs in very bad places. We did them up north in England and there was one on a pier. In a ballroom on the end of a pier. It was like twenty years out of date. The whole thing was like being in another era, you know. I couldn't play there at all. There was nothing familiar for me to grab hold of. It was like being stuck in another time. We did another gig in a club which I used to play in with the Yardbirds. It was the same now as it was then. The same audience –— which was very hysterical and neurotic. And when you get on stage and everyone's screaming and shouting – you're going mad trying to get tune. That kind of thing scares me, you know. What I actually prefer to do is concerts. I really like to play concerts, because the whole thing is more relaxed. The audience is seated, they're calmed down, and then it's up to you to build it to any kind of pitch musically. It's much better to work with.

What about the groups you've seen in San Francisco?
I haven't seen any; we haven't had time.

You played with the Electric Flag, not exactly a local group but certainly some reflection of the local scene.
The Electric Flag is just the heaviest thing around. They've got a tremendous rhythm section and Barry Golberg. And Mike Bloomfield who just lives and breathes music. He's one of those people who don't think about anything else. An incredible band.

Have you heard the Grateful Dead record?
Yeah, it's great.

Peter Townshend said he saw the Dead at the Pop Festival, and called them "one of the original ropeys."
Ropey! That means a drag. I don't think the quality of their music is as high as a lot of other good recording bands. People are more concerned with live music, maybe, than with recording. I'm not sure of that. I'm guessing. If the Grateful Dead are one of the best, they're not doing a very good job on record.

What do you think of the guitar playing? Jerry Garcia's synthesis of blues, jazz and country and western, with a little jug band thrown in?
It's very good, and very tight, but it's not really my bag.

What have you seen in San Francisco that would improve a scene like London?
As far as attitudes are concerned. There is less competition and more encouragement here from musician to musician. Music thrives wildly in England because they are jealous of someone else's success. They're jealous so they have to do better. Here you're encouraged. Everybody digs everybody else and they don't hide it. In England they could use a little more maturity; the English music market has been bred so long on immaturity, in the press and music papers they are concerned with nothing else but top 40 and music doesn't really matter. There isn't one English music newspaper that covers the whole field of music; they're all cut up in a little bunch. They could use, from San Francisco, a little more open-mindedness about music, to grow up about it. Music isn't any more a three year thing. It's not related to "overnight successes" and things like that; it's grown out of that. The people behind it —– the managers, and the people who make their bread out of it –— have got to learn that and grow out of it as well. Musicians are not half-wits anymore.

What do you feel about the charts?
Personally I don't think they're amoral, you know, musically. I think they're anti-music and anti-progress. They're obsolete.

Are they really detrimental to the groups?
It brings the whole thing down to a very immature level. I mean, the chart is there to serve one purpose —– to indicate to everybody what is best and what is worst. But it really doesn't go that way, because good music idiomatically is good, and bad music is bad and it really doesn't matter what people say about it. It doesn't matter what people's tastes are. People can go out and buy a record, you know, like an Englebert Humperdink record, then everybody can say it's the best record available. Which is rubbish. Doesn't mean to say because it's popular it's the best music.

How much do the charts hang up the musician?
Well you see, in principle it's still not a bad thing if it were on a small scale. If the charts weren't so overwhelming then it wouldn't be bad. It'd be like those occasional little polls they have for the best musician, and so on, and it's be all right. But the thing is everybody nowadays is brain-washed to accept what the charts say as right.

So there is no room for anything else. There is no room to play good music. I mean, we may be doing it now, but it's only just changing. Up until now there was no room to be able to play without making a single. You had to make a hit single to be able to go out and play somewhere. Otherwise you were just rejected. The hit single is a lever. I mean, everyone says —– We'll do a commercial record for the first one. We'll get a hit and then when everyone likes us, we'll do what we want. That's what a hit single up until now has been for. You make something that's really crappy and formulated and stereotyped that will get to No. 1, and then when you're there you say, look everybody, this is what we're going to do now. I don't think that should be necessary. I can see that it has been necessary, but I don't think you should waste any of your time doing that kind of thing.

Is there anyone doing what he wants to do?
Yeah. I guess there are quite a lot of people. But you see it isn't easy to know what you want to do anymore. Because everyone is so screwed up by the presence of the hit parade that it's not really clear in their minds what they want to do. They've been hammered into thinking what is right and what is wrong and it's not really clear in their minds. They are not that many people who are really straight enough to know. I mean, if you're going to consider it from a business angle, at the moment the public isn't getting any kind of value with records. Singles are too expensive for what they are and LP's are too expensive for what they are. What I would like to see is an LP for the price of a single and an Extended LP for the price of the present LP. That may never happen. It's optimistic dreaming maybe, but that's what I would like to see. I think it would be much better for the public. I mean, with a single – what have you got? You've got the A side and the B side and if you're lucky, in three weeks' time you might still like it.

What we're doing now is simply concentration on LP's. And if by accident a single should some out of an LP session, then we'll put it on the market. Whereas before you'd have two sessions; you'd conscientiously go to an LP session or you'd conscientiously go to a single session. And single sessions are terrible. I can't make them at all. They're just like – you go in there and the whole big problem is whether it's commercial. That is the problem. No matter what the music is like, it's got to be commercial, it's got to have a hook line, you've got to have this and that and you just fall into a very dark hole. I can't take it a'tall.

What we eventually would like to get into is using LPs in place of singles. Record an LP every two months, or every month and record an extended LP which would be on 16 rpms. Do that twice a year. That would be like a complete concert.

Locally you are known as one of the world's top blues or rock guitarist. Do you think that they've found you lived up to this?
Everybody seemed to be pleased. I haven't met any major criticism of our group. Musically we seem to have done very well.

Where do you get your energies?
Well, it's a vicious circle thing. I mean, if I hadn't ever played an instrument then I wouldn't ever need to play one. But now that I've been playing, I need to play. I'll make it more clearer: When I come off the stage, you know, I've just expressed myself as much as I could that particular time. And I know that if I've got a gig the next day, that somehow or other I've got to store up enough energy to play the next day. It's like, you know, you spend it, then you get it back again, then you spend it, then you get it back again. You've got to do this. It's like a basic reaction that goes on subconsciously the whole time ... I'm taking note of things, I'm expressing myself about them. It's almost forced a lot of the time when we have to work really hard.

Who do you feel are the best groups in the British scene, excluding the Beatles and Rolling Stones who aren't performing any more?
Yes, recording music has become so far out that you can't relate it to live music at all. I don't think you have to. If you're curious about performers, the Pink Floyd is one I like very much among live groups.

What about the Who?
I haven't seen them for a long time, but that did impress me at one time, that kind of act.

Aside from that thing.
If I can't see the Who, then I'm not really bothered and I won't listen to them very much. They're tight and they're all very heavy, but musically I don't think they are going in a very extreme direction. They stick to their records and things like that.

What does the Pink Floyd do?
Very strange group. The nearest thing you would have to them here –— well, I can't even think of a group you can relate them to. Very freaky. They're not really psychedelic. They do things like play an hour set that's just one number. They are into a lot of electronic things. They're also very funny. They're nice, they really are a very nice group. They're unambitious and they give you a nice feeling watching them. They're not trying to put anything over.

What do you think about Jimi Hendrix?
I don't really want to be critical about it. I think Jimi can sing very well; he just puts it around that he can't sing and everyone accepts it. I think he can sing very well. I also think he's a great guitarist. I don't like to watch him too much 'cause I prefer to listen to him.

When he first came to England, you know English people have a very big thing towards a spade. They really love that magic thing, the sexual thing. They all fall for that sort of thing. Everybody and his brother in England still sort of think that spades have big dicks. And Jimi came over and exploited that to the limit, the fucking tee. Everybody fell for it. Shit.

I fell for it. After a while I began to suspect it. Having gotten to know him, I found out that's not where he's at, not where he's at at all. That stuff he does on stage, when he does that he's testing the audience. He'll do a lot of things, like fool around with his tongue and play his guitar behind his back and rub it up and down his crotch. And he'll look at the audience, and if they're digging it, he won't like the audience. He'll keep on doing it, putting them on. Play less music. If they don't dig it, then he'll play straight 'cause he knows he has to. It's funny. I heard that here he came on and put on all that shit in his first set and people were just dead towards it. And in his second set he just played, which is great.

He had the whole combination in England. It was just what the market wanted, a psychedelic pop star who looked freaky, and they're also still hung up about spades and the blues thing was there. So Jimi walked in, put on all the gear, and made it straight away. It was a perfect formula. Underneath it all, he's got an incredible musical talent. He is really one of the finest musicians around on the Western scene. If you just scrape away all the bullshit he carries around you'll find a fantastically talented guy and a beautiful guitar player for his age. I just can't take it all, all the plastic things.

Who started the hair thing?
I guess Dylan started it. It's funny, 'cause it's gone into a fashionable thing in England. I did it 'cause I liked Dylan's hair. I went and had my hair curled. Then Jimmy came on with curly hair, and his band did it to complete the image, and everybody else did it 'cause they dug Jimmy and other people did it 'cause they dug me, I guess. It became quite a trend in England to have curly hair.

What was the first experience with music that you can remember, other says that Humpty Dumpty, where you asked yourself, "What's happening on that radio?"
Chuck Berry did that. "Schooldays" and then "Johnny B. Goode." I got into that. I was around 16 or 17, heavily when I was 17, by myself. I learned from records.

I guess, everybody who's played a string instrument has had an influence on me. All the Indian musicians I've heard and all the blues musicians I've heard have influence me. There are lots of other idioms I haven't even touched on, fields of music I haven't even been near. There's also influences I've got from people who don't play string instruments. There's a blues harmonica player called Little Walter Jacobs who plays really good harmonica. He's influenced me a lot because you can transfer what he's doing to a guitar.

Any other guitarists?
At first I played exactly like Chuck Berry for six or seven months. You couldn't have told the difference when I was with the Yardbirds. Then I got into older bluesmen. Be cause he was so readily available I dug Big Bill Broonzy; then I heard a lot of cats I had never heard of before: Robert Johnson and Skip James and Blind Boy Fuller. I just finally got completely overwhelmed in this brand new world. I studied it and listened to it and went right down in it and came back up in it. I was about 17 or 18. When I came back up in it, turned on to B. B. King and it's been that way ever since. I still don't think there is a better blues guitarist in the world than B. B. King.

But is he your primary influence?
No. He covers one field, the best of one field. I am more influenced at the moment by Indian music, not structurally, but in its atmosphere and its ideals. Not the notes; I don't ever intend to start playing the sitar or playing the guitar like a sitar, I've just opened up my mind to the fact that you needn't play with arrangements and just improvise the whole time. That's where I want to be at: where I just don't ever have to play anything but improvisation.

What about the other Kings, Albert and Freddy?
Albert is great because he's still recording and going strong. Freddy, I haven't heard about in a long time.

You did one of Freddy King's numbers with John Mayall.
That was not because I dug his number so much, but because it fitted in with what I was playing. I didn't like "Hideaway" too much. I don't like his instrumentals too much actually. He never does too much when he does instrumentals. He plays best when he's singing.

Who's influenced you as a person?
The first two people I think of are from the music field. That's simply because it's the world I live in. The first one is Mike Bloomfield. His way of thinking really shocked me the first time I met him and spoke to him. I never met anyone with so many strong convictions. And Dylan really turned me on. He's a really brave man —– speaking out, you know. Those are two really the biggest influence 'cause they're just very believable. I believe in those two guys more than a lot of things.

Are you interested in Country and Western music?
Not what most people would term Country and Western. I'm interested in Hillbilly music and genuine bluegrass. I'm not interested in the pop, surface stuff. My favorite musician is a guy called Roscoe Holcum, who is a bluegrass banjo picker who just plays on his own. He calls it "the high lonesome sound." Too much. He plays very, very fast, bluegrass style. I like the Carter Family. I don't like the plastic music that comes out of Nashville these days.

Were the Yardbirds your first group?
No. I played with two amateur groups before that, in my spare time. One called "The Roosters" and one called "Casey Jones and the Engineers." I didn't stay with either of those bands for more than two weeks. It was more like jamming. Then I got offered a professional job with the Yardbirds.

From the inception of the group?
About two weeks afterwards. I was with them a year and a half. They weren't too keen to have it known that I'd left. People leaving groups in those days was dirty.

Why have they had such a long succession of guitar players?
The guitar players who play with them don't like them. I was fooled into joining the group, attracted by the pop thing, the big money and traveling around and little chicks. It wasn't until after a year and a half that I started to take music as a serious thing. I just realized I would be doing it for the rest of my life and I'd better be doing it right. I was playing what they wanted me to play.

After the Yardbirds?
I intended to pack up playing all together. I was kind of screwed up about everything. Playing with a group like that puts you in a very strange frame of mind. You lose a lot of your original values. I laid up for a couple of weeks with a friend. Didn't do much and then I got offered a job with John Mayall whom I'd always admired because of his integrity. If I was going to join anyone, it might as well be him. I played with him for about a year and a half too. Then I really got into my music and developed it more than I'd ever done before, 'cause they take it seriously. Then I just decided I wanted to go further than that band was going. They were stuck to their thing, which was playing Chicago blues. I wanted to go somewhere else and put my kind of guitar playing in a different context, in a new kind of pop music context. I thought that music was more valid than Chicago blues for me, 'cause rock and roll is more like folk music, contemporary.

Would you characterize what you're doing now as more rock than blues?
Yes.

How did you get Cream together?
We knew each other from our respective bands. When Jack was with Manfred Mann and Ginger Baker was with Graham Bond.

Your first date was at the Windsor Festival, wasn't it?
Yes. We had decided we wanted to play with each other more than anyone else in the country and formed a band. Completely co-operative. We just did it. It wasn't very hard, it was easy. Putting it together was hard because we had no idea what we really wanted to play, we just knew we wanted to play together. We had no idea of what kind of material to do and for a long time it was hard to find a real direction. We did a lot of other people's numbers. Jack couldn't get that many songs out. There are a couple of the blues and rock and roll numbers we still do, only by choice and not by force.

What does "Disraeli Gears" mean?
It's a pun; it doesn't mean anything. In England there is a big thing on racing cycling and on the back wheel, fixed to the hub you have a gear with ten gears, called a "derailer." That's the pun. We were just in a car one night kicking up puns, like Duke Elephant and Elephant Gerald, and "Disraeli Gears" just came up and I said that would be a good name for the record.

Who's your producer?
Felix Pappalardi. He's been working mostly on the folk scene, people like Joan Baez and that. He was just around Atlantic City and said he wanted to do it and we wanted him.

What kind of guitar and amplifiers do you use?
A Les Paul, a modern one. A solid one. Same pickups, more or less the same neck, just a different body than the 1958 ones. It's obviously not as good a sound as the old ones, 'cause they've got vintage, like old wine. I haven't got any old ones still intact, they've all gotten broken, warped. When a guitar is that old you've got to be careful. There's a maker, I think it's Hagstrom or someone like that, that's copying the old Les Pauls, but I wouldn't buy one.

Amps, and how do you set them?
Two 100-watt Marshalls. I set them full on everything, full treble, full base and full presence, same with the controls on the guitar. If you've got the amp and guitar full, there is so much volume that you can get it 100 miles away and it's going to feed back – the sustaining effect – and anywhere in the vicinity it's going to feed back.

Strings?
Fender rock and roll.

What differences do you find in attitudes between the young bluesmen here —– like Bloomfield or Butterfield for instance —– and in England, like John Mayall?
The blues musician usually is a fanatic; that's the common denominator among blues musicians, they're fanatics. In England they are a lot more so 'cause they're divorced from the scene and don't really know where it's at. They don't really know what it's like to be a blues musician in America. Like Mike Bloomfield does; they are all romantic about it and have a lot of ideals and notions. A lot of ego gets mixed into it and they think they're the only guys playing real music.

Would you characterize yourself as a blues musician?
No. I don't think I really represent the blues any more. Not truly. I have more of that in me and my music than anything else, but I don't really play blues any more.

What kind of things do you want Cream to do?
Nothing more ambitious than being as musically as free as we can. You can't even guess where that will take you musically. I don't know where I'll be in the next year. I know that I have to become more free and not get tied down with labels or playing like other people or even being influenced by other people.

Are you interested in chance music?
No. I'm too far into my guitar to pack it up and twiddle knobs.

Remember Mike talking about a Moog Synthesizer? Does that kind of device interest you?
No. In actual fact a Moog synthesizer would put me out of the action. If everyone uses them there won't be any more me or Jimi Hendrix or anyone like that. If you take it that far, you can buy a computer that will play all the music you want. Press a button and it will improvise for hours on end.

What's the role of a musician in England?
In the last couple of years, the role is one of more than being a musician. There is this big thing about you're going to influence the young. For some incredibly uncanny reason, a musician is more important than a politician these days. Because that is true, the role of a musician is a drag. You don't have to be that intelligent to play music; you don't have to have moral responsibility. There's no reason why they should have, they're only there to play music and people should leave them like that. Because so much responsibility is attached, it's too much, a drag, too much public opinion placed on a musician. What I'm doing now is just my way of thinking but if it gets into a paper somewhere, people will say that what I'm saying is the way they ought to think. Which is wrong, because I'm only a musician. If they dig my music, that's great, but they don't have to know what's going on in my head.

That's because of the Beatles.
Yeah.

In London they used to say "Clapton is God."
Wow! It's still going on! Yeah, that was going on —– well, when nothing else was happening in England except me, which was a pretty weird period, you know. Like there was nothing much in the charts and I'd just left the Yardbirds and had joined John Mayall and it was like our band, the John Mayall Band was the only one playing like the Chicago blues. And at that time it had just began to become fashionable – a lot of people grabbed hold of my name and started using it, you know – and people were starting to write "Clapton is God" all over the place without really knowing what they were talking about, Very funny. Very strange.

What is it like to have that?
I don't know because I don't know what the image is.

When you look into their eyes you must get some interesting feedback.
Yeah, and most of the time it's pretty disappointing. A lot of that kind of appreciation I get is usually for like what kind of shoes I'm wearing tonight. I don't think I've had that many people on the same wave-length as me – you know, appreciating me for the same reason that I appreciate me. I really can't see into their minds to see if the image is one I would like or wouldn't like. I'm basically against that anyway. There's very funny things that would go on – like, at one gig I would wear a red military jacket and for some reason I'd play and everyone would suddenly get knocked out. And then we'd do the next gig a couple of weeks later somewhere else and everyone in the audience would be wearing red military jackets. And I'd have a mustache and be wearing a green suede jacket and everyone would be going – What have we done wrong? That's the kind of thing it usually amounts to.

It's not that big you see. If I was in the position of someone like Dylan or Lennon, then I'd have to be more careful. People at most hardly ever say they like music, they hardly ever say they think I'm a good guitar player. No one has ever sort of yet committed suicide because of me and it probably will never happen. So I mean, I'm not that much of an idol for me to think I have any responsibility, you know. So, unless anything drastic happens, I don't think I'll ever have to worry about that.

How do you feel about the sexual implications?
I admit, I have tried it. I've tried it like —– when I was with the Yardbirds I did do it all the time. It was an obviously novel thing to try and do. You come out of school, you know, and you get into a group and you've got thousands of chicks there. I mean you were at school and you were pimply and no one wanted to know you. And then there you are on stage with thousands of little girls screaming their head off. Man, it's power! ... whew! But when you find something else that can occupy your mind a little more – like when you find that you're actually into playing the guitar, then I don't think you could do both things. I couldn't do it now mainly because I don't have the time to stop and think about it. If I was doing that, leaping around, then I'd just play chords. If I want to play and do something which is a conscientious effort to do, then I can't do anything but stand still and think about what I'm doing.

Do you go through hassles at the airport when you get back to London?
No, we're not on that scene at all. We don't interest the kids under 18. Did you mean fans?

No. I meant being searched for drugs – due to the special notoriety musicians now have in England for being dope fiends.
Oh, yes. We get searched every time we go back to England. They never make it clear they're looking for drugs. But you can never pick the brain of a customs inspector. They might let you through sometime and might search you another time. He might let you through with a brick of hashish sometimes. They don't make it clear what they're going to do. They're unpredictable. They might yet you through with a big block of hashish and get you another time because they think you think you can get away with it all the time.

What hits you the most about San Francisco?
The first thing that hit me really hard was that the Grateful Dead were playing a lot of gigs for nothing. That very much moved me. I've never heard of anyone doing that before. That really is one of the finest steps that anyone has taken in music yet, aside from musical strides. I get that sums it up, what I think about San Francisco, what the Grateful Dead are doing. There is this incredible thing that the musical people seem to have toward their audience: they want to give.

That ought to make an incredible headline in England.
Shit! That's the most incredible thing, man. Whenever I do any kind of interview in London, I'll say a complete paragraph, all of which will make sense as a paragraph, but someone will take three words out of it and put it on top and making it controversial. In some Irish paper I was asked if the Beatles would ever play on stage again. I went into this flowery thing about how the Beatles, if they did, would be incredible because they would put on a circus and it would be an incredible thing. I said they wouldn't just go on and only play, it would probably be very difficult for them. The paper put as a headline "Clapton thinks the Beatles couldn't play on stage." That always happens.

Out of this, "Clapton shits on London."
It's gonna happen. It's great now because musicians now are so tight among each other that they go "fuck" about if they read something that they don't think is right. Like George Harrison reads something that I say about him that he doesn't believe to be true, he doesn't believe it, 'cause I'm not going to say anything shitty behind his back. The English music papers aren't taken seriously. The drag is the kids might think it's true.

Anything else to get over?
I'd like to give everyone my love, and say hello to Auntie Flo and the kids.