John Mayall's Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton: The Making of 'the Beano album'…

John Mayall's Bluesbreakers sitting against a wall, Eric Clapton reading a copy of the Beano comic.
John Mayall's Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton

From the moment of its release in July 1966, no self respecting blues record collection would be complete without a copy of what affectionately became known as the Beano album (so called after Eric Clapton’s show of studied indifference to the album cover photoshoot, ignoring the camera in favour of a comic). But as the band turned up to Decca Studio No.2 for the first day of recording, John Mayall may well have reflected how close he came to having no album at all.

Persuaded to try his luck in London by Alexis Korner, Mayall had come to the capital in January 1963 and formed the Bluesbreakers, who, like Alexis’ own bands, went through any number of line-ups over the next couple of years. To an extent, the first wave of British blues was over; never a pure blues artist, Alexis Korner’s repertoire could just as easily feature Charles Mingus as Muddy Waters, and tragically Cyril Davies, the real Chicago blues flag-waver, had died in January 1964. All the other blues-inspired bands including The Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds and Pretty Things had taken a Bo Diddley/Chuck Berry-inspired pop R&B route into the singles charts.

This left John Mayall foraging for commercial success while staying true to his purist blues sensibilities. Two Mayall-penned singles for Decca, Crawling Up A Hill (May 1964) and Crocodile Walk (April 1965) failed to trouble the charts; a similar fate awaited a live album recorded in December 1964, John Mayall Plays John Mayall, recorded at the Klooks Kleek club in northwest London next door to the Decca studios. “The album was a total dud as far as Decca were concerned,” says Mayall. “So they dropped me and didn’t want any more of John Mayall.”

Aside from the lack of chart success, what was holding the band back as the guitar-driven blues outfit Mayall aspired to was the lack of a lead guitar playing in the style of American blues giants like Freddie and Albert King. Mayall recruited Roger Dean to replace ex-Cyril Davies guitarist Bernie Watson. Both were accomplished players who could knock off some Chuck Berry or T-Bone Walker licks, but Dean was more comfortable as a country player, and neither could get to grips with that signature stinging, single-string blues guitar sound.

On March 28, 1965, during a tour backing T-Bone Walker, the band rolled into Nottingham. It was here that John Mayall gathered his rhythm section of drummer Hughie Flint and bassist John McVie round a jukebox and said “listen to this”. What they heard was Eric Clapton stretching out on Got To Hurry, the B-side of the Yardbirds’ For Your Love. Flint recalled that, “John asked us what we thought – and of course we said that it sounded pretty good. John said, ‘That’s Eric Clapton and he’s just left the Yardbirds. Should we ask him to join?’ To which we replied ‘Yeah.’”

But was Clapton really in the mood for hooking up with another English band? Could he possibly find a way of playing the blues the way he wanted? In a painfully honest interview with Rave magazine shortly after he left the Yardbirds, the guitarist told it from the heart: “I lived as part of the Yardbirds unit yet I was completely out of touch with it. I couldn’t speak and be understood. And they couldn’t speak to me either. We just couldn’t communicate… If I hadn’t left the Yardbirds I wouldn’t have been able to play real blues much longer because I was destroying myself.”

Possessed of a wafer-thin skin, a psychologically bruised Clapton, still only 19 years old, actively considered moving to Chicago, the Mecca of the music he loved, breathed and lived for. Instead, he retreated to the countryside to stay with Ben Palmer, his pianist friend from Eric’s first real group The Roosters. Equally cynical of the music business, Palmer had chucked it all in to restore antiques and make cabinets. Cooking, talking and listening to music gave Clapton the chance to catch his breath while he worked out what to do next.

So Clapton took some persuading when Mayall phoned, but one day, as Flint said, “I got in the van and there he was”. With no rehearsals, Clapton played the first gig in early April and straight away John Mayall knew he had made the right choice: “He was the first guitarist I had heard who had it, you know the elusive ‘it’.” Clapton moved out of Palmer’s place and in with John and Pamela Mayall and their four kids in east London. He shut himself away in a tiny room at the top of the house where he stayed most of the time, listening to selections of Mayall’s vast record collection and endlessly practising the guitar, honing those skills to a fine edge.

Eric was the first guitarist I had heard who had the elusive ‘it’. - John Mayall

The arrival of Clapton gave Mayall the chance to further develop the band along Chicago blues lines; he also put away his guitar and concentrated on keyboards and harmonica. Almost as soon as Eric joined, they recorded five songs for the BBC radio show Saturday Club including Freddie King’s Hideaway, which Clapton had heard on the 1962 album Let’s Dance Away And Hide Away With Freddy King. But it wasn’t just the music that grabbed Clapton’s attention. On the front cover, Freddie King was clutching a Gibson Les Paul.

Clapton’s first electric guitar had been £10 Kay Red Devil (actually a yellowy/pink sunburst colour which Eric covered in black sticky-back plastic), a copy of another Gibson guitar, the semi-solid ES-335 which Eric played with the Yardbirds, on loan from his bandmate Chris Dreja. But his main guitar during the Yardbirds years was a red Fender Telecaster played through a Vox amp, producing a sound which producer Mike Vernon politely describes as “pissy”.

Then Clapton spotted a magnificent flame-top maple 1958-60 Les Paul in Lew Davis’ music store in London’s west end, and snapped it up for around £120 (which was relatively cheap because the heavy Les Pauls had fallen out of favour in the face of the challenge from the ES-335 and models from Fender, Rickenbacker, Gretsch and Guild). So now he had a guitar whose sound was very far from pissy; its construction and powerful humbucking pickups could drive an amp into uncharted realms of distortion and sustain.

And the amp? Freddie King used a meaty Fender Bassman amp, rare and expensive in the UK, while Clapton’s Vox amp could only be described as limp. The answer came not from America, but from a small music shop in west London. Jim Marshall was the boss, Ken Bran his repairman. Requests from musicians for more powerful amps led Bran to build a UK version of the Bassman. The results when guys plugged in their new shiny Fenders were great; when Clapton plugged in his Les Paul into the Marshall 45 watt 2x12 combo, the result was astonishing – a thick, crunching, creamy sound that trumped anything heard in the States.

Clapton appeared to be settled. He had the right equipment to match his aggressive style, all the records he could absorb and plenty of gigs all over the United Kingdom, playing exactly the kind of music denied him in the Yardbirds – and establishing his reputation as the hottest guitarist on the scene. Audiences at Bluesbreakers gigs were swollen by the arrival of Clapton’s own fan club and it was around this time that the legendary graffiti declaring ‘Clapton is God’ began to appear around London.

But appearances can be deceptive. In his autobiography, Clapton said he was very much torn by the growing acclaim; while naturally appreciating it at one level, even so, “I was a bit mystified by this and part of me ran a mile from it. I really didn’t want that kind of notoriety.”

And run he did, not just a mile, but nearly 2,000 miles. Despite having all his blues ducks in a row, this clearly conflicted and confused young man took off on a hare-brained scheme to flee the pressure by travelling around the world in another band. They got no further than Greece.

It was August 1965, five months into his tenure with the Bluesbreakers. He’d been dossing down at the flat of poet Ted Milton in Covent Garden, accompanied by Ben Palmer, trumpet-player Bob Rae, Bernie ‘Tunes’ Greenwood – who was a qualified doctor and sax player with Chris Farlowe’s Thunderbirds – and John Baily, a singer and psychology student who’d been at Oxford with Bernie. Conceived in a fug of dope smoke, the plan was to tour the world as The Glands, picking up gigs where they could.

By the time this chaotic troupe stumbled into Athens, there had been fights, fallouts, sackings, departures and arrivals. But they secured a gig at The Igloo Club supporting a Greek band called The Juniors. Then tragedy struck. The Juniors were involved in a serious road accident – one member was killed and another seriously injured. The club was going to close, until Clapton stepped in and offered to play with the band to keep them in work. This meant playing from 7pm to 7am, and very soon he was completely exhausted. But he felt he couldn’t let them down because The Juniors were nice guys and their friend had been killed.

Matters got worse when a rival club owner grassed them up to the police for not having work permits, and the hotel manager came calling for the money that the club was supposed to pay him for The Glands’ rooms, but hadn’t. Meanwhile, when Clapton started to play some Yardbirds numbers, it began to dawn on the club owner that this was the real Eric Clapton, an asset worth holding on to by any means necessary. The situation was getting very heavy. Clapton was being prevented from leaving so they had to make a run for it. If they hadn’t, the history of rock could have been very different.

The Yardbirds: (l-r) Chris Dreja, Paul Samwell-Smith, Jim McCarty, Eric Clapton and Keith Relf.

The Yardbirds: (l-r) Chris Dreja, Paul Samwell-Smith, Jim McCarty, Eric Clapton and Keith Relf. (Image credit: Alamy)

The moment the ferry home docked in Dover, before they boarded the London train, Eric said he had to make a telephone call. “I lent him the money,” Ben Palmer said later. “He went straight to the nearest phone box and rang John Mayall and got his old job back. It just struck him as perfectly natural – he was back in England and should be back in the band. It never crossed his mind that Mayall might have said no.”

And of course, Mayall didn’t. In Clapton’s absence, other guitarists stepped in, including a brash young kid called Peter Green, who Mayall would have cause to remember. So he had Eric back, but with no guarantee he would stay. Hughie Flint had also been asked to join The Glands in the full knowledge that he was Mayall’s regular drummer. John McVie’s drinking had got him the sack to be replaced by Jack Bruce, who was quickly poached by Manfred Mann, causing McVie to be rehired. There was no sense of stability about the Bluesbreakers at all. The most significant outcropping of all these comings and goings was that Clapton and Bruce got to play some gigs together.

Meanwhile John Mayall’s search for the elusive hit record continued. Over the summer of ’65 he signed with Immediate Records, a new label set up by Tony Calder and Andrew Loog Oldham. With Jimmy Page as the house producer, the Bluebreakers recorded I’m Your Witchdoctor/Telephone Blues, which Immediate put out as a single, and a third track, On Top Of The World, unreleased until 1968, along with a clutch of unremarkable blues noodlings recorded by Page and Clapton at Jimmy’s house, where Eric stayed after a nearby Mayall gig.

Nothing came of the deal with Immediate. Mayall was unhappy with the arrangements, “so I approached Mike Vernon [then a Decca house producer] to see if Decca would give me another chance. Mike said to Hugh Mendl at Decca, ‘You really need to have another look at John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers now they’ve got Eric Clapton on guitar. They are going to be big-time, they’ve got an enormous following, working five or six nights a week.’ Mendl said, ‘If you think it’s the right thing to do, I’ll push it through, go ahead and we’ll get contracts drawn up.’” So Mike Vernon must take all the credit for persuading Decca to take back an artist they wanted nothing more to do with. The company essentially let Vernon get on with it and Mayall says he doesn’t recall ever meeting with a Decca executive.

While that was going through, Vernon had an idea. “They weren’t under contract to Immediate any more and as well as R&B Monthly magazine, me, my brother and Neil Slaven had this little fledgling label called Blue Horizon where we produced 99 copies only, to avoid purchase tax – and we sold by mail order only. We were thinking of starting up another label called Purdah – it was a good name suggesting a veil, hiding the identity of people, but that never happened in reality. We had a record by TS McPhee which didn’t fool anybody – everybody knew it was Tony [McPhee, of The Groundhogs]. People asked us what the ‘TS’ stood for, so I said Tough Shit because I couldn’t think of anything else.

“I said to John and Eric, ‘Before we make this record with Decca, how do you fancy making something for Purdah?’ They thought it was a great idea and decided to do Bernard Jenkins and Lonely Years as a duo, like an old Chicago record. We talked it through and I suggested we just use one microphone. We went into the original Wessex studios in Old Compton Street, up on the third floor right in the middle of Soho. We did it in one afternoon; I think it only took a couple of hours. We put an old microphone on a boom stand and John and Eric set up, Eric a bit further away from the piano, and we moved the mic around until it sounded right and then we said ‘let’s go’. The mic was much closer to the piano/vocal than the guitar, but it didn’t matter because Eric was playing quite loud.”

Clapton had become obsessed with the character of Bernard Jenkins, the title character in Harold Pinter’s play The Caretaker. He bought the script, knew it off by heart and saw the film of The Caretaker, with Donald Pleasence as Bernard Jenkins, several times. With its themes of isolation, inability to communicate and the way the characters attempt to manipulate each other, it all resonated heavily with the complex personality that was Eric Clapton. Back in those early days, musicians have testified that you never quite knew where you were with Eric. He could be your best friend one day and blank you the next, with mood swings that became as legendary as his frequent changes in appearance.

For Mike Vernon, “Lonely Years was the finest effort Eric ever put on record. It just sums up exactly what Eric was about at that time – that real down-home feel. That record was the closest I came to a real Chicago sound. As I said, we only [initially] pressed 99 copies, but in three months we sold 1,000. I think I actually sold the masters to Immediate funnily enough; I was quite friendly with Tony Calder. Decca didn’t know what was going on – there was no need for them to anyway.”

Lonely Years sums up exactly what Eric was about at that time – that real down-home feel. - Mike Vernon

Praise for the record came from an unexpected source; Paul Oliver raved about it in Jazz Monthly. Oliver was normally associated with an older posse of critics, journalists and academics who felt they had found the blues and it was their domain, their property. And, says Vernon, they felt that “these young, white, long-haired buggers had no right to it. But I was not so dim-witted as to think that John Mayall and Eric Clapton were not the real thing, to think they were just a nasty smell that would go away next week. It actually became an extremely pungent nasty smell for a very long time and thank God for it.”

It would prove important for the upcoming sessions for the Beano album that Vernon had this experience of recording the headstrong guitarist under his belt. The deal with Decca was struck and it was agreed to forget about the singles market and go for a studio album. But, says Mayall, “I wanted to capture the sound of the band live on stage.”

It was very much the thinking of the times that the only way to express the true excitement of a blues or R&B band in full flight was to record them live. And for sure, anybody who heard The Graham Bond Organisation live with Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker and Dick Heckstall-Smith would have been battered into the wall of a small club by the sheer ferocity of the music. But this was extremely difficult to capture on vinyl. Live albums had been released – R&B from The Marquee (Alexis Korner, 1962); Rhythm And Blues At The Flamingo (Georgie Fame, 1964) and of course John Mayall’s previous effort, none of which came close to capturing the live experience for the record buyer. A more successful release (although like all the others, not commercially) was Five Live Yardbirds, recorded at The Marquee in 1964 with Clapton on guitar.

Both Mayall and Vernon wanted the same for the new album, because Vernon knew how extraordinary this band was on stage with Hughie Flint and John McVie providing a solid, swinging platform from which Clapton could soar. But Vernon knew this would not be easy to pull off in a studio, “because the acoustics of live venues vary so much from studios. And back then studios had written rules about ‘you can’t do this and you can’t do that’ coming from men in white coats – until Gus Dudgeon arrived and then it was all tight trousers, bright socks and sneakers.”

After being sacked from numerous jobs, Dudgeon started as a tea boy at the Decca studios, and despite having no experience at all, he progressed to sound engineer after demonstrating that he knew how to use and repair a tape recorder. In 1964, he was the engineer on The Zombies’ hit She’s Not There and Mike Vernon soon spotted a kindred spirit. But, as the band set up to record, even Dudgeon became worried.

Vernon describes the set-up in the Decca studio as they went in for the first day of recording: “If you can imagine the control room window looking into the studio. Immediately opposite is the drum booth, enclosed from about shoulder height, if you are sitting at the drums, across the sides and over the top. John McVie was sitting to the right of that with his amp in front of the board with the bass drum behind it. To the right of the control room was where the organ was set up and where John had the vocals. We dressed up the vocals with reverb, delays and things like that. So bass, organ, drums – that was all fine.”

Well, not so fine from Hughie Flint’s point of view: “I was told to play on the hi-hat as much as possible, not to do crash cymbals unless absolutely necessary”.

The real problems began when it came to the guitar. “We all knew,” says Vernon, “that the guitar would be the main issue – except Gus who hadn’t seen the band play live, and he had a real shock when Eric arrived, plugged in, turned everything on and started playing. Gus almost fell over. He looked at me and I knew exactly what he was thinking – ‘Jesus Christ, we’re gonna have to turn that down’ and of course that’s when the ‘discussions’ started. It was never an argument, but it was definitely a ‘discussion’ about how the hell we were going to record this. The sound was going everywhere because it was so loud. The studio wasn’t that small, you could get a brass section and background singers in there as Tom Jones had done.”

I wanted to capture the sound of the band live on stage. - John Mayall

So what to do? If the idea was to capture the live sound of the band, then so be it. Clapton was going to play exactly as he did live – which was loud. In fact, although Eric had more recording experience than anybody else in the band, he was quite sniffy about recording the blues in a studio at all – he much preferred to do live recordings to capture the passion on the night. So Vernon had to find a way round this. “We had him turn the amp towards the wall and angle it slightly towards the control room,” he says. Then we put half-transparent boards up all around it and put a microphone around two feet from the amp. Then we draped a huge great blanket over the top of the stack and over the mic in an attempt to actually keep the sound in there. So when they started playing, it sounded reasonably akin to how they sounded live. But the guitar was in everything. We recorded on four track, so when you opened up the drums, you definitely had guitar in it, same with the bass and vocals. But John actually did some of the vocal tracks over again, so the guitar didn’t become an issue.

“The reason for angling the amp was to make sure all the sound didn’t come straight out into the room, otherwise we would have stood no chance at all. We had no more isolation rooms that were usable. Or actually we had one room at the end of the studio with a door and a glass window that doubled as a vocal booth and a tape store room, but if we’d put it in there, Eric wouldn’t have really heard his amp – then he would have needed to wear headphones and he didn’t want to do that. He said, ‘I want to play as if I’m doing a gig. I want to be standing right next to the amp. I want to be able to hear what I’m doing and what everybody else’s doing.’ A tall order in 1966. Gus was going, ‘We can’t do this man, we can’t do it. We’re not allowed.’ So I said, ‘Come on, we need to work together with these guys and we’ll get a great sound and when we do, they’ll play and it will be wonderful.’ It took a while to get a sound that everybody was happy with, especially Eric. But everybody had to take on board that we were going into an unknown era, nobody had ever witnessed in the Decca studios somebody coming into the studio, set up their guitar and amp and play at that volume. People in the canteen behind the studio were complaining about the noise. Normally they would never hear it, but it was travelling round the studio complex. People were coming down to the studio to see what was going on.”

What about the songs? Vernon recalls, “We probably didn’t do as much planning for the album as we should have done. My discussions were directly with John, he chose the material.”

John Mayall: Bluesbreaker-in-chief

John Mayall: Bluesbreaker-in-chief

The album was supposed to reflect the stage set at the time, and with its mixture of Chicago blues covers and Mayall compositions, for the most part it did. The Bluesbreakers had a large contingent of followers at the Flamingo Club; a posse of black American GIs who, as fans of Jimmy Smith, were into the organ-driven bands of Georgie Fame, Brian Auger and Graham Bond. More appreciative of the organ than Clapton’s guitar, Mayall wanted to include the sounds of Mose Allison (Parchman Farm) and Ray Charles (What’d I Say).

Vernon had his doubts about the second one: ‘I do remember saying that I wasn’t too keen on doing What’d I Say. You’re up against a Ray Charles record, which was pretty huge. But John said they did it live and people liked it and it gave Hughie a chance to do a drum solo, which under my breath I said, ‘Oh no’. But I don’t think it was Hughie’s idea. He didn’t see himself as a solo drummer, unlike Aynsley Dunbar [who replaced Flint after Clapton left], who would play drums by himself all day.” Looking back, Hughie Flint says, “I was a bit apprehensive about doing the solo on the recording because I was conscious of the fact that on stage you can get away with anything and it sounded fairly exciting… but I wasn’t that happy with it at the time. I was never a great soloist.’”

Double Crossing Time had been recorded for Immediate before Christmas ’65 with John Bradley on bass, brought in quickly to replace Jack Bruce who jumped ship to Manfred Mann on the promise of vast riches which never materialised. Both Mayall and Clapton were a bit pissed off about this, and together wrote Double Crossing Mann, later changed to Double Crossing Time, with Clapton’s solo dubbed on later during the recording of the album.

One song which definitely did not feature on stage was Robert Johnson’s Ramblin’ On My Mind – Clapton’s debut vocal on record. He later told American music journalist Peter Guralnick, ‘‘I don’t think I’d ever heard of Robert Johnson when I found the record… I was around 15 or 16 and it was a real shock to find something that powerful… What struck me about Robert Johnson’s record was that it seemed as if he wasn’t playing for an audience. It didn’t obey the rules of time or harmony or anything. It led me to a belief that here was a guy who really didn’t play for people at all, that his thing was so unbearable for him to have to live with that he was almost, like ashamed of it, you know? This was an image really that I was very, very keen to hang on to.

“I’d been singing and playing in that style for so long, it was really just a question of turning the tape machines on. The leap came in accepting that this thing was going to go onto plastic and would be recorded. Accepting that took a lot of convincing from John who really kept having to tell me that it was worth it.”

The brass contributions of Alan Skidmore, Johnny Almond and Dennis Healey deserve honourable mentions. “I used to see Jimmy and Alan Skidmore in the jazz clubs, so I brought Alan into the recording,” recalls Mayall. Many of the original Chicago blues bands used horns both on stage and on record – and Mayall himself had used Nigel Stanger on sax for the previous live album. But the white blues purists were aghast. Mayall had little time for “people pretending to know your music better than you do. We were learning from people we admired and being as true to the music as possible.” Even so, on his next album, Hard Road, Mayall felt constrained to write in the sleeve notes: “I would assure our followers that I have no intention of augmenting the Bluesbreakers in the future [with horns], except for recording purposes.”

Although Dudgeon was by no means another stiff in a white coat, Mayall says, “He was still used to having the material properly arranged and thought out, whereas I was much more seeing things from a jazz perspective where there is improvisation, a long running jam session and an exploration of the music.” So, as Vernon says, no arguments as such, but the producer took charge of the room and smoothed out all the wrinkles. “We worked very hard,” he says. “It was very scary and it didn’t always go the way we wanted. But we persevered and over four days or so we got it.”

So what did they get? Well, what Mayall didn’t get was any long-term commitment from Clapton. By the time the album was released in July, Eric had jumped ship for Cream. Looking back, Mayall says he was not that put out, because as with the music, he took a jazz band leader’s view of musicians: “I was finding my way with different musicians. Don’t forget, Eric had left once already. I was used to people leaving, they were much younger than me and all finding their feet. Peter Green was the next in line, that was a no-brainer. New musicians change the dynamic in a good way, you have a new impetus.”

Mayall never saw the album as the route to taking the band to the next level. “You would be foolish to think an album would do that,” he says. “I have never recorded albums in that way – more as stepping stones. The priority is to produce some good blues music and get it down the way you want it, but where it goes from there is anybody’s guess.” So it came as massive shock when the album shot to No.6 in the UK album charts at the end of July and stayed in the charts for 17 weeks.

This was unprecedented for a British blues album and helped pave the way for other triumphs of the British blues boom era, because it demonstrated that blues sells. But why are we still talking and writing about this album 50 years on?

Cream: Jack Bruce, Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker.

Cream: Jack Bruce, Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker.

Although Flint acknowledges that the band played well on the album, “it was Eric who shone”. The album was a unique moment in time – a combination of Mayall’s intellectual sincerity and Clapton’s savage intensity and emotional truth that ripped through all the key solos. It’s commonplace with cultural phenomenon of the past to say, “it’s hard nowadays to imagine the impact that X had at the time”. But it really isn’t that difficult when you hear Hideaway, Steppin’ Out, Key To Love, Double Crossing Time and, of course, the monumental Have You Heard. Clapton detonated a neon explosion of noise and notes, cutting, biting, trebly and harsh – angry, passionate, a firestorm of blues runs, intense yet controlled, a music caught in the crosshairs of a young man’s frustration and anger and gripped by a psychic disturbance that he felt could only be exorcised through a Gibson/Marshal combo. The simple skeleton framework of the blues allows acres of freedom inside – like a musical Tardis. According to Neil Slaven in his original sleeve notes, Clapton made time stand still – and while Eric the Time Lord roamed free and uninhibited, we mustn’t forget the massive contribution of Mike Vernon and Gus Dudgeon in capturing on record the sound of Eric Clapton at the top of his game.

So you can listen to that album now and marvel at the dexterity and confidence of the guitar playing. So what else? American blues had been around the UK for about a decade; big name blues artists had come from the States; Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies had made the first steps to promote live British blues; real blues hounds had bought imported albums from the States, while Pye International had released albums in the UK by Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters. But it was all still very underground; the success of the Beano album propelled the blues above ground. It gave birth to the British blues boom from which came bands that went on to lay the foundation stones of international arena rock: Cream, Fleetwood Mac and Led Zeppelin.

The album also gave young white blues wannabees permission to play the music. Blues artists had toured in the UK backed by British bands, but as Sonny Boy Williamson famously said of the Yardbirds, “they really want to play the blues badly, and boy do they play the blues badly”. British efforts to ape their American heroes sounded weak and anaemic – and worse, as if they were treading sacrilegiously on holy ground.

Eric Clapton didn’t invent blues guitar, nor was his playing especially innovative, borrowing as he did so heavily from the likes of Freddie King and Otis Rush. But as a young, white musician playing the way he did on that album, he signalled to thousands of budding guitar players that they could embrace the blues as their own, to recast it in their own image and move the music on while still acknowledging the wellspring, the crucibles of the inspiration. Weak and anaemic blues this was not – and as a legacy offshoot, Eric revitalised the fortunes of Gibson guitars and made the Gibson/Marshall combo the de rigeur blues rock rig.

Eric turned more people of my generation onto the blues than anyone else. - Gary Moore

One guitarist among many deeply influenced by the album was Gary Moore. “Eric turned more people of my generation onto the blues than anyone else,” he said. “That fantastic intro [the opening notes of the first track, Otis Rush’s All Your Love]. I was round this guy’s house, I was 14 and I couldn’t afford to buy the album. He lent it to me and obviously he never got it back. I wore that record out. I didn’t go out after that; that was basically the end of my childhood.” All Moore did after that was stay indoors and play guitar. The cover of his multi-million-selling album Still Got The Blues features two photos: the bedroom of a young boy practising guitar and the adult Gary still practising and still inspired by the Beano album lying on the floor. Another convert was Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett. “Every time they bring out a new version of this it finds its way into my collection,” he says. “Tremendously influential for me. A quantum leap forward in terms of sound, finger vibrato control and the level of distortion, treble and aggression. I got to work with Brian May and he brought in some records to remind us what we were all about. He put on Key To Love and he said, ‘It’s almost as if Eric can’t wait for the changes.’”

But the impact was not only felt in the UK, it made its way to the States, the home of Clapton’s heroes, too. Says Joe Bonamassa: “This album in particular taught me how to play British blues, especially the solo on All Your Love and the solo on Double Crossing Time – one of the greatest blues guitar solos ever. The tone was magical. The fire he puts in that solo is unbelievable.

“I was probably 10 or 11. I started playing when I was four and I was playing classical music up until about the age of eight. I’d already done my first gigs before I heard this. This was a change-your-life sort of record. I was really into Free, Jeff Beck, Led Zeppelin, Rory Gallagher. And with Clapton I was listening to a lot of his 70s work, Derek And The Dominoes and a little bit of Cream as well. But my father goes, ‘Eric was in this band with John Mayall called the Bluesbreakers. He doesn’t sing that much, but it’s the playing.’ He put it on and whoah. At first it didn’t sound like the Eric I knew because I’d been listening to Eric, post-Gibson. I was used to that Further On Up The Road tone. So this was like a shock.”

Speaking to some American contemporaries, we get very similar stories. One said that if you wanted to get into a west coast blues band, the audition piece was Hideway and you had to be able to play it note for note.

Arguably, though, the impact of the Beano album was even more wide-ranging than establishing the credibility, popularity and commercial potential of white blues guitar playing. For millions of music fans like myself, it was the gateway, the portal to the whole back story of the blues. I’d never even heard of Eric Clapton when my cousin brought the album round and said, “put this on”. Pushing aside the pop singles that normally adorned the record player, I duly obliged, heard the opening salvo of All Your Love, and that was that. I went digging around to find out who Johnson, King, Charles and Dixon were and the rest is a lifelong love of the blues.

And again, the impact in the States was no less dramatic. The Rolling Stones are often credited with alerting young white audiences to their blues heritage by name-checking Muddy Waters in interviews. But it was this album above all others (even the work of Paul Butterfield and Canned Heat) that raised that awareness and ultimately led to a resurgence in the careers of many black blues artists who hit hard times as their music was overtaken by soul and Tamla Motown.

But final word goes to Mike Vernon. Ask him why, 50 years on, we are still talking about this Bluesbreakers album and he laughs. “Because it’s a fucking great album, that’s why.”

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Harry Shapiro

Harry Shapiro has been a writer, journalist and editor for over forty years specialising in all aspects of drug use and addiction and also popular music – rock, jazz and blues. He has  an extensive portfolio of books and articles – from popular biography and books for young people through to peer-reviewed academic journal articles. He is also the Director of DrugWise, an online drug information service, and active in the world of tobacco harm reduction through the Global Forum on Nicotine. He is the author of Jimi Hendrix: Electric Gypsy, Eric Clapton: Lost in the Blues, Waiting for the Man: the Story of Drugs and Popular Music and many other titles.