Friday, March 12, 2010


According to John Tobler’s This Day In Rock (1993), it was on this day in 1965 that guitarist Eric Clapton left The Yardbirds, soon after the release of the “For Your Love” single. (Other sources indicate the date Clapton left was actually ten days earlier, on 3 March, but the date is of little consequence.) Legerdemain holds that even despite the commercial (that is, popular) success of “For Your Love,” Clapton left the group anyway, having played on the track with some grave hesitations (he objected to the use of the harpsichord and bongos). As the story commonly goes, dismayed by the band’s shift from rhythm & blues to pop, Clapton left The Yardbirds (a sort of symbolic protest) and joined John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers. What this means, in abstract terms, is that he sought out and found a new musical environment which allowed him to sound authentically black (the same problem is faced by African-American musicians as well)—authenticity being defined as a function of proximity to the blues.

Clapton’s presumed displeasure with the musical direction of The Yardbirds (“popularization”) conforms to the widespread perception that popularization is what is commonly understood as a “lowering” of musical quality. A useful illustration of this popularization-as-musical-degradation model can be found in Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1979). In this passage, Hebdige is writing about jazz, not the blues, but the point is the same:

As the music [jazz] fed into mainstream popular culture during the 20s and 30s, it tended to become bowdlerized, drained of surplus eroticism, and any hint of anger or recrimination blown along the “hot” lines was delicately refined into inoffensive night club sound. White swing represents the climax of this process: innocuous, generally unobtrusive, possessing a broad appeal. It was a laundered product which contained none of the subversive connotations of its original black sources. These suppressed meanings were, however, triumphantly reaffirmed in bebop, and by the mid-50s, a new, younger white audience began to see itself reflected darkly in the dangerous, uneven surfaces of contemporary avant-garde, despite the fact that the musicians responsible for the New York sound deliberately sought to restrict white identification by producing a jazz which was difficult to listen to and even more difficult to imitate. (46-47)

The argument seems convincing: authentic music (art) is, inevitably, colonized (“compromised”) by white interests for economic reasons. As Andrew Ross has observed, the commercialization of popular music reveals “a racist history of exploitation exclusively weighted to dominant white interests” (No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture 68). Following this line of argument, Clapton’s motive for leaving The Yardbirds was not so much a rejection of pop (which he later embraced, as for instance with “Wonderful Tonight”) as it was yet another instance of white exploitation of black music, as was his later, “commercialized” version of The Wailers’ “I Shot the Sheriff” also an example of such exploitation. If this argument is seen by some as unconvincing, then so must be the common claim that Clapton left The Yardbirds because of the band’s “pop” direction. Obviously the "common-sense" argument has severe limitations.

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