Eric's previous album, Another Ticket, had been successful but had somehow ‘marked time'. He agreed with many friends that it lacked a blues feeling. Without that, Clapton was directionless. There was a feeling throughout the Clapton camp that new energy was essential… and it took a sober Eric and a wise producer like Dowd to realize it--and act. Dowd’s pedigree was impeccable, and Eric respected him; his production experience dated back to thc days of the famed Stax label which produced legendary names like Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Booker T and the MGs and Aretha Franklin. He had produced the Allman Brothers and knew all about blues feeling.
Eric decided for the first time in his life to fire virtually the entire band on the spot. Chris Stainton, Gary Brooker, Henry Spinetti and Dave Markee were on their bikes. Only the star guitarist Albert Lee remained, partly because his style complemented Clapton’s work---and also because having such a lauded player in the band was quite a coup for Eric. ‘I'd always used the old maxim of giving people enough rope and letting them cook themselves,' says Eric, 'rather than calling a halt to it at an early stage. But down at Nassau, we'd tried every method there was to record a couple of songs. It wasn't happening.' After two weeks they had hardly got one track complete. 'I said nothing to the musicians. In the old days, I used to let people make mistakes because I hadn't got the guts to say: "This is wrong."'
Advice given by counsellors at the American clinic where Eric had dried out played a key part in his decision to fire the band. 'They had kept telling me that if something bugged me, I should be assertive about it. If I wasn't happy with situations, I should say so rather than bottle it deep inside, or moan about it, or resent it. So firing the band was partly me exercising that advice purely for the sake of it, being decisive for the first time in my life.'
He amazed himself with the ferocity of the decision.
‘I gathered them all together in one of the little chalets near the studio. I told them there was nothing personal, they were a great band for touring with and going on stage with, and nice people to be around. But because I'd been out of the studio for so long and this album we were preparing was so important as a result, I said I didn't think they were up to the standard required. I said I'd have to bring in some professional studio people, so there was no point in them being there any more. They'd have to go home. I added that I'd give it some time before thinking whether or not I would bring them back into the working situation on tour.'
For Clapton, who treasures friendships, it was the most momentous decision allied to his career since he had kicked heroin. ‘It was a terrible thing to have to do, and it was probably over the top,' he reflects. But it was the right move for him at the time. 'They were my mates. They'd been working for me through my years of drunkenness, and they'd seen a very sloppy individual who was almost incapable of making any rational decision whatsoever. And here I was, making a decision which concerned their working lives. They must have thought that I was actually flipping out.' Dave Markee and Gary Brooker took it particularly badly, but Clapton's friendship with his old fishing companion Brooker continued.
Chris Stainton went back to London and sent Eric a postcard to Nassau. ‘I think you've done the right thing,’ Stainton wrote wryly, 'and it was a bloody long audition.' As a result of that postcard, says Eric, Stainton was immediately rehired. 'He forgave me immediately and saw the whole thing for what it was. There was no doubt about that band being lethargic. It would have been very difficult to get the album done in the time required. I'm a blues guitarist, and that just wasn't a good blues band.'
The firing of the British musicians was at least as important psychologically to Eric as it was as a musical decision. 'With those guys, I'd been trying to get a band together with that unique British feeling. I'd be able to hide and continue losing myself within it---just a band of mates, doing pub gigs and village halls as well as the bigger concerts. I was after a feeling. But when I remembered what they'd told me in the clinic, about being assertive, I realized I was fooling myself to carry on. Firing the whole band, it left me back on my own. I'd employ musicians who suited me. It was the restart of my solo career, really.' Significantly, when Roger Forrester flew into Nassau to be told of the firing plan, he asked Clapton if he wanted him to deal with the practical problem of telling the band. Forrester had become accustomed to pulling Eric out of awkward situations: the gullible guitarist was always committing himself to ideas and projects that needed Forrester's veto and action at the eleventh hour. 'No, I'll deal with it,’ Eric said. There was a stunned silence when he broke the news to them. 'They were all very, very shocked.' For Clapton, that moment emphasized a dominating part of his character: come drugs or drink or shyness, he could usually apply a streak of ruthlessness when it meant survival.
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