RICHARD CLAPTON – Best Years 1974-2014: The 40th Anniversary Collection (Warner Music / Festival)
Review by Ian McFarlane
The 40th Anniversary Collection is an important career overview and probably as close to the definitive Clapton compilation as we’ll ever get (surpassing The Definitive Anthology). Yet it’s still not the perfect sampling of the man’s work for which I had hoped (short of owning and playing everything he has ever released).
Okay, I need to qualify such a contentious remark at the start of a review because don’t get me wrong: this is a magnificent listening experience. I’ve always considered Clapton to be one of the most important song writers this country has ever produced (how does standing next to the likes of Don Walker, Ross Wilson, Neil Finn, Paul Kelly, Ed Kuepper, Nick Cave etc sound like for good company). How can one guy write and record so many great songs? He’s simply a master of his craft, that’s why.
I think part of my bewilderment comes from a personal preference for certain songs not included here and that can be a trap. Many fans will have their personal favourite songs and that’s fine and maybe it’s wrong to get on the back foot here. I do hate that notion of someone declaring “where’s that song… where’s this song… ” I mean, how can you argue with Clapton compiling his own Best Of collection?
Across the 50 tracks on the three music CDs and the 14 songs included on the DVD (first time on DVD for the 1989 concert / TV broadcast / album / VHS release The Best Years of Our Lives) he covers a lot of territory – well, from 1972 to 2014 to be precise (despite the title stating 1974-2014). So Clapton would know his songs better than any fan but this is where even his personal preference can get in the way by overlooking what others might consider to be brilliant songs.
So while I’m on this thread, here’s a sampling of some amazing songs that don’t get a guernsey: ‘I Wanna be a Survivor’ (third single from his debut album, Prussian Blue); ‘Spellbound’ (from the excellent The Great Escape); ‘Solidarity’ and ‘The Heart of It’ (a couple of tracks from his anomalous, keyboard sampler-heavy 1984 album Solidarity which wasn’t a great sounding record but the songs are good); and the original version of ‘Hearts on the Nightline’ (from his 1979 LA album Hearts on the Nightline).
The singer does have ‘Hearts on the Nightline’ covered as he’s picked the 2006 re-recorded, acoustic version from Rewired. Yet the selection included here from Hearts on the Nightline, ‘Sometimes the Fire’ is actually one of the weaker tracks. Clapton’s music always did have a certain West Coast flavour but this vacuous, seven-and-a-half minute track has such a lightweight LA yacht-rock / soft funk feel that it rather detracts from the general flow.
Now that I’ve got that out of the way, what do we have here? Well, simply put – too many classics to mention! But how’s about the gorgeous ‘Blue Bay Blues’ (his ode to sunny Byron Bay), the equally gorgeous ‘Girls on the Avenue’ (his first hit single from 1975), ‘Capricorn Dancer’, ‘Steppin’ Across the Line’, ‘Deep Water’ and ‘Goodbye Tiger’ (both from Goodbye Tiger, widely regarded as one of the greatest Australian albums ever) … and that’s only Disc One.
Disc Two continues with the high quality: ‘Dark Spaces’; ‘The Best Years of Our Lives’; ‘I Am an Island’; ‘Goodbye Barbara Ann’; ‘Glory Road’; ‘Distant Thunder’…
Disc Three is more of a mixed bag; I wasn’t so familiar with his recordings into the new millennium but it’s great to hear the likes of ‘Diamond Mine’ (from 2004’s Diamond Mine) and the haunting ‘Blue Skies’ and ‘Blowing Smoke Up at the Moon’ (both from 2012’s Harlequin Nights). Even the unplugged versions of ‘Katy’s Leaving Babylon’ and ‘Hearts on the Nightline’ (from Rewired) retain the spirit of the original songs (well… a good song is always a good song). Another real delight is the previously unreleased demo of the Richard Clapton / Kerryn Tolhurst song ‘Great Ocean Road’, an absolutely beguiling, plaintive piece. So make no mistake, the very essence of this collection is the high calibre of Clapton’s song writing.
At his most heartfelt, personal and emotional Clapton has the power to draw the listener in and hold his / her attention, even once the song is over. That’s the mark of a truly great song writer. A number of his very best songs are marked with a yearning sense of nostalgia for what was and what might have been. They linger in the heart because they can trigger so many long lost memories in one’s own mind.
The Best Years of Our Lives DVD, recorded in concert on 16 April 1989, captured Clapton and his band at a peak of sorts. Clapton had well and truly made his mark in the live arena by then; he was something of a touring veteran and this shows why he’s still so highly rated as a performer. I have one other beef with this release (groan!). There is the occasional mention in the liner notes, and a couple of band shots, of Clapton’s backing musicians throughout his career but no detailed information. If I were new to the artist I’d really like to know who played that dazzling, mellifluous guitar refrain on ‘Girls on the Avenue’ for example (it was Red McKelvie by the way).
Clapton had a particularly amazing band backing him on Goodbye Tiger that should get kudos for their role in helping to create such an enduring work – Kirk Lorange (guitar), Michael Hegerty (bass), Cleis Pearce (viola), Diane McLennan (backing vocals) and Greg Sheehan (drums), plus guests Gunther Gorman (guitar), Tony Buchanan (sax), Jim Penson (drums) and Tony Ansell (keyboards). And there were many more great local musicians who backed the great man over the years.
Hand in hand with Best Years 1974-2014 is the publication of Clapton’s memoir, The Best Years of Our Lives, which I’m hoping will be a cracker of a read. To finish off this rather rambling review, there’s only one thing left for me to say: “Buy this collection”.