The story of Eric Clapton and “Layla” has always bothered me because to understand it is to understand how fallible and crazed any of us can be when it comes to love. We understand that our rock gods are human, but there’s something about Clapton falling in love with the wife (Pattie Boyd) of one of his best mates (George Harrison, a freakin’ Beatle, man!) and then writing a whole album about it, that is just unsettling. Is this something tawdry writ epic? Or is this something epic that has the wafting aroma of tawdriness?
Polyphonic takes on the behind the scenes story of this rock masterpiece and rewinds several centuries to the source of Layla’s name: “Layla and Majnun,” a romantic poem from 12th century Persian poet Niẓāmi Ganjavi based on an actual woman from the 6th Century who drove her poet paramour mad. Lord Byron called the tragic poem “The Romeo and Juliet of the East,” as unrequited love leaves both Majnun and Layla dead after the latter’s father forbids her to be with the poet.
Eric Clapton heard of the poem from his Sufi friend Abdalqadir as-Sufi (formerly Ian Dallas), and so when he wrote a slow ballad about his unrequited love for Patti, “Layla” made perfect sense as a name.
The song might have stayed a ballad–think of Clapton’s slowed down version from his MTV “Unplugged” special–if it wasn’t for Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers. The two had yet to meet, but were aware of each other. Allman had grabbed Clapton’s attention with his fiery solo work at the end of Wilson Pickett’s cover of “Hey Jude”:
When Clapton and Allman did meet, the two set to jamming and Allman made the history-changing decision to speed up Clapton’s ballad and use a riff taken from Albert King. “Layla” was born. Allman’s bottleneck slide style met Clapton’s string bending, and the track is a conversation between the two, where no words are needed.
“It’s in the tip of their fingers,” says engineer Tom Dowd, listening to the isolated tracks in the video below. “It’s not in a knob, it’s not in how loud they play, it’s touch.”
Over this, Clapton delivers his desperate lyrics, sung by a man at his wits end, much like Majnun of the poem.
And then, that coda, which takes up half the song. Drummer Jim Gordon was working on the piano piece for a solo album in secret. When Clapton discovered Gordon was recording on the sly, he wasn’t angry. Instead he insisted it be added to the end of the rocking first half. The song is a perfect balance between frantic rock and romantic ballad.
But in the real world, “Layla” didn’t do the job. Clapton played the album for Pattie Boyd three weeks later, and though she understood its beauty, Boyd was embarrassed by its message.
“I couldn’t believe I was the inspiration for putting this together,” she said in an interview. “I didn’t want this to happen.” She was also mortified thinking that everybody would know exactly who “Layla” was about.
“It didn’t work,” Clapton recalled. “It was all for nothing.”
The song was a flop in the charts, especially as it was cut in half for the single. It would find its audience three years later when the full version appeared on both a Clapton anthology and a best of collection of Duane Allman’s work. Finally it rocketed up the charts, and it’s kind of stayed in classic rock playlists ever since.
And as for Boyd, she actually did leave George Harrison in 1974 to marry Clapton in 1979, a marriage that lasted 10 years. Not all marriages last. The original flame dies out. It’s just that, in “Layla”‘s case, the flame is there every time the needle drops into the groove.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.