Sunday, 14 July 2013

If I don’t take a chance... August (1986) by Eric Clapton

By 1986 Eric Clapton was in need of a comeback, he’d had a number in his career but this was different. Much like the late Robert Palmer he had stumbled in 1983 with the brilliant, but critically panned, Money and Cigarettes (1983) which had featured such blues luminaries as Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn (formerly of Booker T & the MG’s and latterly of the Blues Brothers Band)  and Ry Cooder performing an album of throwbacks and standards - sadly the markets weren’t biting as horror of horrors it was also a sizable commercial failure. It was back to the drawing boards and, like many other artists from the 70s he decided to embrace the technology and rhythms of the 80s pop scene. 

His first foray, Behind the Sun (1985), I would hazard, was something of an experiment or a dabble if you will... despite being produced by Phil Collins and featuring a stellar cast it just wasn’t a very good record (at least to my mind). But then in 1986, everything came together for one of his most bravura, upbeat and admittedly period pieces August (1986). Once again, using the production, drumming and arranging skills of Phil Collins and Tom Dowd (Rod Stewart) and a crack team of session musicians which feature Michael Jackson’s keyboardist Greg Phillinghanes, the Brecker Brothers and Nathan East Clapton recorded one of my favourite albums of this vintage year of music. 

Whilst not as musically polished as the classics from this year such as So by Peter Gabriel, Graceland by Paul Simon or Back in the High Life  by Steve Winwood, it is a carefree set by a group of consummate and expert musicians who were out to record a hit record, and they were not unrewarded. Whilst, like his previous album, it was regarded disdainfully by critics it was to become his most commercially successful album, driven largely by the opening track ‘It’s in the way that you use it’ which had featured on the blockbuster sequel to ‘The Hustler’, ‘The Colour of Money. This is not to say that the rest of the album is a dud by any means, and, whilst it might not be mentioned on any ‘greatest’ lists the tracks are listenable, addictive, well played and well produced. 

Overlooking the opening hit, which, as a number of critics point out is incongruous with the rest of the album, the second track, Run, co-written by the legendary Motown composer Lamont Dozier has a lustrous opening hook (almost Nile Rodgers in quality) backed with a driving horn section and some very admirable percussion from Collins - incidentally it also contains some of Clapton’s best vocals of his career. 

Everyone in the mid 80s clamoured to do a duet with Tina Turner and here the album does not disappoint with a hard driving, sassy number ‘Tearing us apart’ featuring harsh vocals from Clapton and Tina Turner’s idiosyncratic voice, making up for Clapton’s short-falling in this area as well as some brilliant synth work from Greg Phillinganes (who is excellent throughout the album). This would prove to be a real concert favourite throughout the extensive touring of the album between 1986-1987. 

The Robert Cray penned ‘Bad Influence’ is the next track and one of my real favourites on the album, especially for the awesome saxophone solo from the late Michael Brecker and the trumpet support from Randy Brecker. It has a great rhythm, tempo and structure and I am surprised that it was not released as one of the singles from the album it’s so catchy, even if it is something that might not have sounded in keeping with the club tracks that were gaining so much airplay during this period. 

The drum machine led ‘Walk Away’ is anthemic, subdued and sounds like something that might appear near the closing credits of Miami Vice. It is a little synth for my liking and doesn’t really play to Clapton’s strengths. It has a real Collins stamp on it and sounds like it could have been placed on his, frankly, overrated But Seriously... (1989) album. ‘Hung up on your’ love is frantic, slightly derivative from Dire Straits, but perfectly okay nothing more although the chorus is quite enjoyable. 

Next comes my favourite song on the whole album, and one that enjoyed a substantial amount of airplay on my student radio show (Raiders of the Lost Charts, 2007-2008). It is an exultant, upbeat number full of brass and backing vocals and bridged by one of Clapton’s popiest, but ever-so-great solos which he was known to lend as a guest artist yet had never really appeared on one of his own records. I cannot speak highly enough of this track, it always brings a smile to my face when I am down and is full of subtle nuances that make for a great record. It is a track that I defy anyone who hates the rest of this album not to like! 

Track 8, ‘Hold on’ is a rather uninspiring anthem that sounds like it was left over from a Collins session for his blockbuster No Jacket Required (1985) and can be skirted over quickly, followed by heavy rocker, ‘Miss you’ which once again, whilst a perfectly good track is more filler than killer. Luckily this is more than made up for by a classic Clapton track, ‘Holy Mother’, which would become something of a concert favourite and probably the most musically accomplished cut on the album. The track harks back the golden age, to albums like Boulevard 461 and Slowhand, it has wonderful backing vocals and that signature wailing guitar that Eric is so famous for. 

‘Behind the Mask’ comes next, the only hit single from the album, a cover of a song originally recorded by Japanese electronic band Yellow Magic Orchestra in 1979, with additional lyrics by Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones (the song was recorded during the artist’s Thriller sessions but never made it on to the album). It must be admitted, as was pointed out to me on Twitter by @matthewsydney, that it sounds somewhat dated but this doesn’t stop it being a cracker of a track which will have you - like Clapton - asking the question ‘Who do you love?’. 

The last number, ‘Grand Illusion’ is a throwaway, and to my mind should not have been includes as the ending of ‘Behind the Mask’ provides a natural point at which to close the album, especially on a rousing note!

 As stated above, whilst this album will never be up in anyone’s top 20 list (except perhaps mine), it certainly isn’t as bad as the critics will have you believe and contains some of Clapton’s finest solos, most exultant moments and easily the most danceable tunes of his long and varied career... so what are you waiting for, take a chance and find out for yourself. 

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