I’m going to make a bold statement. In 1965, Eric Clapton invented not selling out in the modern rock and roll context. He did so when he quit The Yardbirds due to their release of a pop song called ‘For Your Love’ because he did not want to play pop music. To my knowledge, this is the first instance of a rock and roll musician turning down money and fame for the sake of musical integrity.
Now, I could be wrong. I’m aware of that even as I make the bold statement I made above. The problem is identifying when selling out became an important concept in rock music or popular music in general. Then, identifying who was the first to reject selling out.
It is likely that those two events we need to identify are the same. One possibility is that they are not and it originated in magazines and critical circles, or in a tangential art form and some rock musician decided to take up the cause. The other possibility is that someone just did it. Then people recognized it as not selling out.
As far as I know, Eric Clapton, who happens to be badass, quitting The Yardbirds was the moment. It’s when people recognized someone in rock and roll turning down money and fame for the sake of musical integrity and that musician gaining respect for it because it was seen as an admirable thing to do.
First, let’s establish the original, the quiet badass, Sixties Clapton. Next let’s define selling out and figure out what we know about the matter. Then I’ll tell the tale of when Clapton did not sell out. Finally, we’ll consider whether or not this is the moment, the patient zero, for rock and roll’s integrity.
- Sixties Clapton
Eric Clapton was born in 1945. His father was a soldier from Quebec while his mother was a schoolgirl from England. After his father went to war and then back to Canada, he was raised by his grandparents. As a child he thought his mother was his sister and his grandparents were his parents. When he was 9 years old he found out that was not the case. Talk about the blues, or so the legend goes.
Clapton got his first guitar at 13. A few years later he began really applying himself to the instrument. He would play long hours as a kid. He would record himself and listen back to it, then repeat that process until he played the song perfectly. By 16 he was turning heads with his guitar playing and starting to play gigs locally. He attended art school briefly, as so many 60s English rockers did, but was dismissed after a year because he was so focused on music.
Fast forward to 1963 and he has joined The Yardbirds. Through the 50s and even earlier American rock and roll and blues would find its way to English shores and young boomers were eating it up. Often, and especially in the case of blues, it was music that might not have even been popular in America. In England, rock and roll was largely disliked by the WWII generation. Blues was occasionally considered valid music, being thought of as folk music.
By the early 60s, England, and much of Europe, had clubs dotting the landscape playing rock and roll and blues music. America was not even aware of it and wouldn’t be until the “British Invasion.” The Yardbirds were one of these bands, particularly the blues oriented type.
These were islands of American music occupied by English teenagers. They formed a network of where they would trade records and chords and bandmates. In this growing underworld once Clapton joined The Yardbirds they were one of the best and most popular. They even recorded a live album with blues legend Sonny Boy Williamson.
Eric Clapton was a legendary player around that scene. He gained a reputation for his loud, sustained, yet technically perfectly reproduced blues licks. It was during this time he developed the nickname slowhand. The reason is because when he would play, if a string broke, the audience would start to clap slowly until he put a new string on, at which point the song would take off again.
Hundreds of bands across that big island of Europe playing “Train Kept A-Rollin.” Dozens on dozens of clubs, bars, and basements occupied by British teenagers playing American blues and rock a little louder, a little faster, and with an English accent.
Of all these bands The Yardbirds stood out as both among the best and most popular while also being widely regarded as authentic in its approach to the blues. This was largely the case because Clapton was just so damn good people, an underground legend; even old people couldn’t help but take notice after they’re breakout live album Five Live Yardbirds.
Then, in February of 1965…
- Selling Out
Let’s take a minute to talk about selling out. To know who the first to do something was, we have to know what it is that they did. Now dictionary.com defines sellout, for our purposes, as
–Informal. a person who betrays a cause, organization, or the like; traitor.
–Informal. a person who compromises his or her personal values, integrity, talent, or the like, for money or personal advancement.
Here’s another thing. It places its origins as an 1855-60 Americanism. It seems unlikely that Eric Clapton invented something whose name is over 150 years old. However, the original context of selling out is in the political realm. Before the civil service act and countless reforms during the 20th century the political culture of the US was one of often fairly open corruption.
Sell out was the term for people who betrayed their party or the cause they rode in on for some reward. The reward could be money or a job from some corporate or moneyed, or even criminal, entity aligned with the other party or side. It could also be any number of kickbacks or favors from others in politics.
Furthermore, we’re not talking about selling out but selling out in the modern rock and roll way of looking at it. Since rock and roll was not really a thing until the 50s then that’s obviously the earliest point we’re talking about.
Selling out did not become a concept important to rock and roll until really the later 70s. This became the case because of two things. First, because rock bands had started making disco songs due to the mainstream popularity of the genre and the rock crowd was becoming increasingly hostile to disco it became risky for bands to go disco.
Second, the punk movement had begun rejecting the excesses of rock. The punk movement rejected and chastised long guitar solos, stage costumes and theatrics, celebrity lifestyles, and things like commercials, sponsorships, and playing gigs in Vegas.
Now, The Who made an album called The Who Sell Out where they posed with pictures of baked beans and Frank Zappa called in album We’re Only in It for the Money where they satirized the Beatles psychedelic period. So selling out was something in the 60s but it wasn’t really seen as something that was particularly important. Up until the mid-60s it was more or less why would you not “sell out?” It was called making more money. Hence, chubby Elvis in the white sparkly suit singing in Las Vegas. Of course he became the bloated caricature; he didn’t really realize he had an option not to.
So somewhere between Elvis making dozens of awful movies and Frank Zappa calling the Beatles sellouts something must have happened to make selling out at least somewhat widely regarded as a negative thing. Somewhere in the early to mid-60s is the moment we’re looking for.
- Clapton is God
It was the early sixties and a 19 year old Gary Gouldman was working a day job and playing in one of the many young rock bands of early 60s London. At the time, bands were primarily playing covers of American rock and blues songs. But Gouldman, inspired by the dramatic success of The Beatles writing their own songs, started taking a stab at it. He came up with a song called For Your Love.
His manager at the time recognized how good the song was and wanted to shop it around. In fact, he even wanted to give it to The Beatles. Pursuant to that goal he booked Gouldman’s band at a Christmas gig where The Beatles were playing. The Beatles didn’t get a chance to consider it but there was another band playing the venue, The Yardbirds.
The Yardbirds and their manager Giorgio Gomelsky heard the song and took it up. The Yardbirds were a liked and respected band, among the most in fact. But the British Invasion was like the California gold rush. There was more money than these teenagers could imagine across that sea and The Yardbirds were looking for their first real hit.
The manager and the band, led by bassist Paul Samwell-Smith were enthusiastic about the song. Eric Clapton wanted nothing to do with it. The reason was because it wasn’t the blues, in any way shape or form. Tensions would rise within the band, even more than what existed already, and Clapton lost the battle for the blues in a landslide.
The song itself is a simple list of all the things that you would do for the love of someone. The Yardbirds recorded the song with an eastern flair. It began with harpsicord almost sounding like sitar and burst into a bongo laced list of all the things that can be done for love. Harpsicord, bongos, but no guitar. The bridge is the only place that has any guitar in the song.
Personally, I like For Your Love. It’s a good song. It’s early psychedelic. It’s early eastern. It contains unconventional instruments. It contains many elements which would explode just a few years later, present in legendary albums like the Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper’s. As great as the song was, it wasn’t the blues.
Clapton dutifully played on the bridge. The song was released in February of 1965. The moment it was released Eric Clapton resigned from the band. He played a few more gigs and in early March he was gone.
For Your Love went on to be a hit. It brought fame and money to the band and its members. But a different guitarist was now playing with the band, more on that later. And Clapton was on to other things, more on that later as well.
Regarding his resignation Clapton recalled.
“I started wondering if I was a freak…They all wanted the simple things of success and the charts, and what was wrong with that? ‘What’s the matter with you?’ Why don’t you want this?’ And I began to think that I was really crazy.”
It just didn’t make sense at the time. Why be in a rock band if you don’t want to be rich and famous? Why do anything if you don’t want to be great at it? At the time, making a lot of money was thought of as what it meant to be successful, that it was synonymous. Clapton, in my opinion was the first in modern rock and roll to reject fame and money for the sake of his devotion to the music he loved.
This was an incredible risk. To pass on the goldmine of the British Invasion for the sake of something you’d never get credit for sticking up for. Of course, it all worked out. But young Eric had no idea. For all he knew he was leaving what would become a huge pop band to work in shops around London for the rest of his life. All for the sake of an insane devotion to the purity of a music from a place he’d never been to from people he’d never seen dealing with situations he’s never dealt with and using words he didn’t use.
This was incredible. This was badass. It was borderline irrational. But what’s rational about a white London teenager spending hours upon hours learning to perfectly play guitar along to old records from musicians sometimes elderly or dead, of a race he’d never seen and whose plight he couldn’t understand? It wasn’t rational. It was faith. It was passion. It was a little bit ego. It was, ironically, for love.
It was the first instance of a rock and roll musician doing what has since become so important to rock and roll, I would argue more important to rock than any other genre of music perhaps ever, not selling out.
Upon his departure Clapton recommended Jimmy Page as his replacement. Page was one of the top session guitarists at the time and a good friend of Clapton’s. His stint as a hired hand was too lucrative to give up and Page referred The Yardbirds to Jeff Beck.
Jeff Beck became a guitar legend. He took the eastern and psychedelic and pop direction the band was taking and rolled with the punches. Beck incorporated various pedals and scales into his rhythm and lead playing and made psychedelic pop band a guitar band by sheer force of his talent. No matter what the song or the genre you can’t help but notice the guitar playing in these songs, few of them bluesy and even fewer actual blues.
Beck eventually left to a successful solo career and Jimmy Page took over as lead guitarist. Yes, if you’re not familiar with The Yardbirds, this lucky band at various times had Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page playing lead guitar for them. Page had a good run although most would say the band peaked with Beck. When the band broke up they still had some tour dates. Page recruited some musicians and they played the gigs as The New Yardbirds, a temporary name. The musicians he recruited were Robert Plant, John Paul Jones, and John Bonham. This was Led Zeppelin’s first tour.
So obviously, things worked out for The Yardbirds, and for rock and roll in general.
Clapton joined a not particularly well known bluesy bar band called John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers. He left and played with another small band. Then he came back to the Bluesbreakers. They recorded an album called Blues Breakers – John Mayall – With Eric Clapton. His wild devotion to the blues would finally pay off.
Clapton, armed with a Les Paul guitar and a Marshall amplifier, mowed over all ears in his path. The full, sustained, forceful tone was a powerful medium through which he overwhelms listeners with an encyclopedic knowledge of blues licks. It was all the passion, the tension, the rhythm and emotion of the blues, but gone are thin, tin, squeaking, timid electric guitar sounds that technology and taste forced on the blues for so many years. Instead it was the loud, aggressive, dirty, and menacing sound of modern technology playing the ancient songs. It was a dozen contradictions in perfect harmony.
Clapton was sad, stressed, tense, doubtful, and he wasn’t crying about it, he was exercising it. It was the sound of blues that could not be ignored. It was heartache without pity. It was worry without mercy. It was young Clapton. It was the sound of a shy young man who had experienced trauma, betrayal, and abandonment, and doubt as well, through the force of his talent and determination showing the world he was right, showing them why the blues was obviously something you’d sacrifice anything for.
The world responded. The album became very popular. The legend of Eric Clapton would spread far and wide. Around London various people would spray paint “Clapton is God” on things. Clapton would be regarded as one of the world’s most respected and influential guitarists from that album up until today.
He eventually went on to form Cream where he would embrace the psychedelic sixties but not as a pop band, as a blues band, ever the purist, even when not. Songs like Crossroads, White Room, and Sunshine of Your Love took Clapton to new heights, particularly in the US. For the rest of his life, if Clapton was involved with a project people were interested. This was so much the case that when he returned to his roots with the band Derek and the Dominoes part of the promotion for the album was the phrase “Derek is Eric” just so people knew Eric Clapton was involved, therefore it must be great.
The reason I like telling this story is because I don’t think people realize how badass 60s Clapton was. I feel like many people my age or older think of Clapton as “Tears in Heaven” or “Cocaine.” Both are great songs. Clapton was great in the 70s and 90s (like most great 60s musicians he disappeared in the 80s, a terrible decade for anything authentic), but that’s not my Clapton.
It’s hard to explain to people who aren’t familiar with 60’s Clapton. His music wasn’t chill, nor was it gentle. You couldn’t hum it or gaze at a sunset while listening to it. You can’t relax to 60s Clapton, you have to sit up, you have to listen. It’s the sound of a young man. A young man with incredible musical abilities, but a young man all the same. He was a young man with the same anxieties and stresses and worries of any young man, but who had fallen madly in love with the blues.
Clapton to me is not the elder spokesman, the heartbroken acoustic player, or the chilled out superstar. Clapton to me is anger, arrogance, ferocity, and devotion. He’s someone who risked everything that all his peers were searching for out of bizarre commitment to the purity of a genre of music he only knew from old records he listened to. Clapton to me is a shy, stressed out, betrayed, angry young man whose quiet smileless façade was exposed as a thin cover for a volcano of powerful emotions every time he plugged in his guitar.
So I assert, Clapton invented not selling out in the modern rock and roll context, even more dramatic because unlike all who followed, there was no precedent for that being rewarded. Clapton was the original punk, a true badass, a purist and a hero, unbreakable.
I like to imagine Clapton being there for those sessions of For Your Love. He was hearing those lyrics over and over again. I can’t help but think the words were taunting him, almost narrating his departure. Surely dozens and dozens of times he had to listen to that track of a man who would do anything for the person he loved, any impossible thing for that love. That’s exactly what Eric Clapton did for his love, for the blues, and in doing so invented not selling out.
by Zack Goncz
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