Slowhand: The Life and Music of Eric Clapton review – the sinner not the songs

The guitarist’s disastrous personal life, rather than his music, is to the fore in Philip Norman’s new biography

“Get the wogs out! Get the coons out! Keep Britain white!” Not an exhortation from an English Defence League rally but part of a 1976 on-stage rant by Eric Clapton, who had recently scored a No 1 single with a cover of Bob Marley’s I Shot the Sheriff and whose musical raison d’etre was his love of black American blues.

The usual explanation for Clapton’s outburst is that he was drunk – but then, once he’d swapped a heroin habit for two bottles of brandy a day, around 1973, Clapton was almost always drunk until he cleaned up in the late 1980s. The profound gulf between Clapton’s outburst and his musical inspiration remains a puzzle – was Memphis blues giant Howlin’ Wolf, with whom the guitarist cut an album in 1970, also a “coon”? – but it is one unexplored in Slowhand, the latest biography from Philip Norman to document what he calls, peering through the prism of 1960s rockocracy, “music’s tiny topmost echelon”, meaning primarily the Beatles and Stones.

Clapton’s outburst, never recanted, remains a stain on the character of one of British pop’s great figures. With the Yardbirds and John Mayall in the mid-1960s, his blues guitar earned him graffiti status as “God” (his “Slowhand” nickname arrived not as ironic tribute to his lightning fretboard skills, but from his clumsiness with broken strings).

Subsequently mainman of Cream, Clapton fused blues with psychedelia to dazzling effect on pieces like Strange Brew, established the template of “heavy’ rock, and was overshadowed only by Jimi Hendrix. Handsome, rail thin and with a sartorial panache to match his playing, Clapton epitomised the acid-fried Chelsea dandy – his time lodged in the King’s Road’s “Pheasantry”, alongside artists, gangsters, supermodels and chancers, makes for compelling reading.

Clapton’s graduation from pot and acid to cocaine and heroin led first to creative decline and then isolation. After going solo in 1970 (first as Derek and the Dominos) and releasing what would become his anthem, Layla – he spent three years holed up in his Surrey mansion, close to the village where he had grown up, doing smack with teenage aristocrat Alice Ormsby-Gore, a pre-Raphaelite beauty who would die of an overdose in 1995.

Clapton’s re-emergence, with him now hooked on the bottle, brought million-sellers like 1974’s 461 Ocean Boulevard, whose mix of California soft rock and manicured blues has remained a successful calling card, but no relief from his romantic obsession with Pattie Boyd, wife of his friend George Harrison, for whom he had written the pining Layla.

Customarily portrayed as a stormy love triangle, the Harrison/Boyd/Clapton affair proves more mundane on examination. At one point Harrison pimped his wife (subject of the Beatles’ swooning Something) to Clapton so that George could hit on her younger sister Paula, a plan that backfired when Paula became Eric’s lover.

Harrison emerges from Slowhand with his saintly halo as badly dented as the trophy Ferraris that Clapton repeatedly crashed. Harrison, always at his grumpiest when he had been “meditating”, prompted the Boyd sisters to joke: “What’s he into this week, Krishna or cocaine?”

Clapton with Pattie Boyd at the premiere of Ken Russell’s film version of The Who’s rock opera Tommy in London, March 1975.
Clapton with Pattie Boyd at the premiere of Ken Russell’s film version of the Who’s rock opera Tommy in London, March 1975. Photograph: Michael Putland/Getty Images

When Clapton finally won Pattie, his passion proved shortlived. He had always “wanted the unavailable”, as one later crush put it, only to lose interest when he had won it. His womanising – not just with ever-available groupies – soon resumed, leaving Boyd forlorn. Clapton’s behaviour turned to casual cruelty, flaunting conquests to her face – “Can’t you see I’m in love with this girl … leave us alone” – and bragging of a pregnancy with Italian actress Lory Del Santo while Boyd struggled with IVF treatment.

The son born to Del Santo died in an accident in 1991, inspiring the heartfelt Tears in Heaven. Subsequently the sober Clapton married, had three daughters and sold cherished guitars to help finance the Antigua-based addiction centre he founded. He has also followed the traditional millionaire rocker’s transition to hunting and fishing squire, acquiring designer shotguns rather than Stratocasters.

Does Clapton’s troubled childhood help explain his poor behaviour and assorted addictions? Finding, at nine years old, that your mother is in reality your grandmother – one who endlessly indulges her charge – and that your actual mother abandoned you at two to raise a separate family overseas would leave scars on any psyche.

Ultimately one must trust the art, not the artist (Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes… voice your choice), and here Norman disappoints. His analysis of Clapton’s music is cursory and cliched (there is no discography to even mention those London Howlin’ Wolf sessions), and no analysis to justify Clapton’s inclusion in that bogus “topmost echelon – names that provoke instant, excited reaction in every country and culture”, a category for which, say, Bob Marley makes a better fit. Slowhand fails to drive one back to reassess either the highs or lows of Clapton’s career, be it his caustic brilliance with Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, the tedious live recordings with Cream, the patchy venture of Blind Faith, dull solo albums like 1989’s Journeyman or the engaging acoustic sessions of 1992’s Unplugged. That’s another book entirely.

Slowhand by Philip Norman is published by W&N (£25). To order a copy for £22 go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99


Neil Spencer

The GuardianTramp

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