I'll state it right out front: 461 Ocean Boulevard is not a great album. But it is immensely better than anything Clapton had given us in the three years leading up its release in July of 1974. In those three years, we heard nothing but silence from Clapton. Well, we heard rumors that he had become a heroin addict. But outside of the Bangladesh tribute and Eric Clapton's Rainbow Concert in 1973, an unimpressive affair that probably saved our hero's life, we were all left wondering: what happened to "God"? In a 1974 Rolling Stone interview Clapton admitted he was trying to live the life of a secret junkie.
Also, when you're on H the last thing you want is to be bothered by people. A telephone ringing or a doorbell drives you up the wall.
By the time that interview ran, a healthy looking Clapton was on a 23 date US tour to promote an album that would shoot up the charts to #1. His cover of Bob Marley and The Wailers' "I Shot the Sheriff" would also hit #1. What made the difference? Well, Clapton did spend some time working on a farm in Wales. But my guess is Layla probably had something to do with his renewed interest in life. After years of being in love with Pattie Boyd, she finally left George Harrison for him in 1974.
In any case Clapton wanted to get back to work. He didn't have any songs but he wanted to make an album. His manager Robert Stigwood suggested Miami.There, in a studio surrounded by Tulsa musicians and Hellmann's Mayonaise scion Yvonne Elliman, Clapton jammed and jammed until he came up with most of the songs on the album.
To hear these songs in their best light, you need Give Me Strength, The '74/'75 Recordings box set. Not only do you get the original 461 Ocean Boulevard cuts remixed and remastered, you also get seven cuts of Clapton and the band "getting acquainted". I prefer hearing the band knocking out these instrumental jams to what the songs eventually became: three minute numbers like "Motherless Children", "I Can't Hold Out" and "Steady Rollin' Man".
At the end of the day you've got an album with seven covers sung by a man who wasn't yet confident about his voice. ( But , hell, he must have been thinking, if J J Cale can sing on his records why can't I?) Rolling Stone critic Ken Emerson said the album " suffers from timidity" and..."is easier to appreciate than it is to enjoy".
No 461 Ocean Boulevard isn't a great album...but it IS great seeing Clapton standing in the sunshine on the album cover and hearing songs that proved he was very much still alive.