Derek and the Dominos – Layla
“Layla” is widely considered to be one of the greatest rock songs, an epic ballad written and played by guitar greats Eric Clapton and Duane Allman, of the Allman Brothers Band fame. Clapton’s band at the time, Derek and the Dominos, released the song as the first single off the album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs in 1970. Clapton had formed Derek and the Dominos with the other musicians he had played with as a member of Delaney, Bonnie & Friends: Bobby Whitlock playing the keys, Carl Radle on bass and Jim Gordon on drums. The song was inspired by the poem Layla and Majnun, written in the 7th Century by the Persian poet Nezami, which told the story of a man who was driven insane by his love for a princess, who could not marry him as she was married to another man. This paralleled the situation Clapton found himself in at the time – he was infatuated with Patti Boyd, wife of his close friend and former Beatle, George Harrison. Clapton decided to channel his struggles with unrequited love, as well as drugs and alcohol, into the creation of Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, of which the eponymous song is the best remembered. The song is notable for its famous opening guitar riff, played by Clapton, the intertwining duet he plays with Allman (who plays slide guitar), and for its second part, a four-minute piano coda composed and played (on the recording) by drummer Gordon. It is music that showcases the virtuosity and bares the soul of its performers while still remaining radio friendly, like much of the guitar rock of the late 1960s. The song could be labelled almost hedonistic, exceeding seven minutes in time and wringing as much talent from the musicians playing it as possible, in order to fully express emotions and longing. This was a love story like it had never been told before, made possible by the Cultural Revolution of the decade and due to Clapton’s status in the industry.
Clapton emerged from the British Blues scene as a guitar virtuoso, and first made a splash playing for the Yardbirds, nonetheless leaving the band before they had their first hit, because he felt they were compromising their musical style to make it big. Clapton never wanted to remain stagnant on a particular style, and though he is best known for the blues, he was also committed to moving forward musically, playing with several bands, both as a leader and a guitarist. After years of playing both solo and with “super bands” like Cream, Clapton grew weary of the considerable media attention and culture in rock and roll that deified guitarists and made it a constant competition between the top few musicians. Starting his new band and seeking a certain degree of anonymity, Clapton chose the moniker Derek and the Dominos and went as far as removing his name from the credits of the finalized album. Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs could be considered a precursor to the modern concept album – the lyrical and musical content is dominated and unified by one idea, in this situation the pining for the love of a woman the singer cannot be with, and the difficulties in achieving any sort of resolution.
The song Layla best captures this harrowing feeling, with the opening and repeated guitar motif expressing the restlessness that Clapton feels. In simple verse-chorus form in the first part of the song, the intertwining guitar work of Clapton and Allman, as well as the jumping bass line provided by Radle and solid drum work by Gordon drives it forward. The keyboard remains in the background in this section, mostly filling out the rhythm section with chord progressions. Clapton’s riff keeps the pulse of the song, repeating the musical idea over and over, much like one can imagine Clapton has played the thought of being with the woman he loves repeatedly in his mind. Allman’s slide-guitar work is what truly expresses the anguish of unrequited love, escalating above and beyond the normal register (Allman actually used his slide to play notes off the fretboard). The first part of the song is a howling set up; a manifestation of the void not having this woman’s love is creating in the singer’s life. He has this deep secret he cannot bare to share (due to his friendship with Harrison), but it is consuming away at his soul. Struggling with his infatuation with a forbidden love, he begs Layla (Patti) to “make the best of the situation, before I finally go insane. Please don’t say I’ll never find a way, and tell me all my love’s in vain.” The relative simplicity of the lyrics meant that listeners could easily appropriate it, increasing to the song’s popularity as a modern day ballad.
The second part of the song, often referred to as the coda, begins around the three-minute mark. It is completely instrumental, with the drums, bass and guitars working around this emotional piano progression. Allman’s slide guitar dominates the accompaniment, with Clapton interjecting and improvising around him, an interaction that evokes lovers finally uniting. The guitars sky, dip, curve and dance around each other, painting a gorgeous picture in the aural space the song occupies. It is a veritable wall of sound, with no spaces left empty, ever. It is very much in the style of the jam bands of the era, and Clapton was experienced in this genre, with much of his work coming as a blues guitarist, used to the long sessions, scalar improvisation and soaring solos that took a main idea and expanded on it. Through it all, the band maintains its groove despite the softer dynamics to this section in comparison to the first movement, and it is considered by many to be the most beautiful and warming part of the song. Derek and the Dominos had a great chemistry, and Clapton’s band mates understood the difficulties he was going through in his life – Gordon composed the second movement several weeks after the first part of the track had been laid down, inspired by Clapton’s original lyrics and music. It all works and flows excellently, because the band is in such sync with each other, able to shift between styles effortlessly.
George Harrison and Eric Clapton
Layla is the aural manifestation of a man’s emotions – not as raw or guttural, as a blues by Robert Johnson would be, but very much in the same vein of honest and sincere expression of desire and melancholy. This great love song confirmed Clapton’s status as a great singer-songwriter, and was another step towards cementing his place in the pantheon of legendary rock guitarists. For his musicianship, creativity and refusal to rest on his laurels, Clapton, as the old saying goes, is God.