A Review of “Layla” by Derek and the Dominoes

I once saw a concert from the early nineties on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fojLReBKuSo) where Eric Clapton, having just finished another song, laughs along with his audience then turns to face his band mates with his back to the crowd. He toys around with the lower notes of the guitar, as though checking if it was in tune, but in reality he holds the suspense steady. The camera zooms in on him and, barely visible, is the smallest and yet the most shit eating grin on his face, because who wouldn’t smirk like that if they were about to play this song. He calmly turns around to face his audience and strums a chord that gently expands into the tension, soothing it all away. And there, right when we are at our most receptive, he suddenly fires the iconic opening riff with such starling loudness that the bassist actually jumps back in fright, only to start laughing and shaking his head at what Eric has done. This moment, to me, truly encapsulates what this song is. Because that bassist is not alone; in another time and place, that was my reaction too. Back when music was still new to me and all I knew was that I loved Eric Clapton’s work, I’d never once heard of “Layla”. Going through his “Best of” album, I checked its list of songs and, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a song with a tiny, dorky-looking title “Layla”. Thinking they would save his most bombastic tunes for last, I figured that piece would be as small as its name. In other words, I was ready to hear and then forget whatever unremarkable creation it would be. Oh man, but I laugh about that now. I sat there, expecting nothing, even prepared to be unaffected, when the song began with a bang that made me fly 3 inches straight out of my chair, hands locked in claws before me from my surprise at what the song was producing. Because, the truth is, no matter how many years have passed since its creation or how many times it’s been played, Eric Clapton and Duane Allman hit every single note they could have ever possibly needed to create one of the most powerful, monumental and just plain epic songs ever written.

It starts off by firing out the sharp, exotic notes of its opening riff at us in a stream so continuous that they seem to mold into each other, like the issue of bullets from a machine gun, shocking the hell out of us with their burning twang. Then the song drops down into deeper, lower notes, power chords with the same sharpness of the main riff, fitting in immediately. They’re played with a steady beat, like the sturdy bedrock that supports a skyscraper, slow and deep enough to help us calm down and recover from the song’s first move. It’s as if the song is saying “Yeah. I know I just rattled you. So, tell you what, take a minute and pull yourself together”. As much as they stabilize us though, through our instincts we know a reprise of the riff is coming and right from the start, the deep power chords climb inexorably higher and higher to return us to the song’s initial, fiery potency. The riff is gunned at us again, still with enough power to make us spasm. Now we are totally locked on to the song with no desire to be distracted. Somewhere in our stunned brain we manage to reason that the same process will be played a third time. We are not quite wrong.

Like the shaking of a rocket taking off, the drums kick in underneath the melody to mark the true start of the song, and Eric Clapton replays the riff at a higher and much more beautifully glorious pitch that our astonishment leaves us gasping. Then, instead of the portion that steadied us before, Eric plays his highest note yet before working his way back down in a contracting zigzag of high and low notes. These notes convey the aching sadness that Eric was experiencing ,while still sounding so wonderfully awesome that the song is, in those first few seconds that a person listens to it, the definition of epic excitement.

By now we have been totally flattened by the song’s majesty and what it has done so far alone would stand the test of time. Then, just when we think it can’t get more intense, Eric takes it all up a notch even further by playing an even higher note. And the song soars like a bird in flight. By now the song has surprised, us caught us, taken us on the ride of our lives and completely blown us away. And it’s only been 24 seconds. Thankfully the song doesn’t push itself any more, (saving its highest notes for the solo), as all we have been through already has brought us close to our breaking point, and, preserving its intensity, the song repeats what it’s done from where the drums began. The band plays the riff only two times before the end of the intro to make sure it never loses its power. However, the intro is so well constructed it forms an intricate circle that could not simply be stopped at the end of a particular repetition. So, to get out of the intro, Eric plays a note, a half step bend, that mingles the desolation of his unrequited love for Pattie Boyd and also mirrors our own jaw dropping awe at all we’ve just heard. It trails off, creating an opening for the verse to enter through, and more importantly, slowing everything down. This pause does not diminish the song, as we are entranced by it now, and it finally gives us the opportunity pick up the pieces and regain our footing.

Now, then. Eric Clapton’s singing. I honestly felt that his singing hit a very false note when compared with the sublimely well-written and played guitar intro with its hoarse scratchiness. With time though, I’ve gotten used to it, and even now appreciate how its hysterical desperation channeled the emotional state he was in at the time. Besides, I can’t blame the man: the guitar is so good that even decent vocals look bad next to it. His first words, have a possessive quality to them that is unfortunately sometimes true to life. “What’ll you do when you get lonely/And nobody’s waiting by your side?” Eric calls out, an attack that chauvinistically insinuates that “Layla” somehow could not survive without him. The upside to these pushy lyrics is that they’re infused with the one thing this song is made for: drama. If the lyrics were lackluster after that intro it would kill the song. Indeed, guitar here is much simpler and quieter, letting the lyrics provide this segment of the song with passion. Halfway through the verse, the drums start up and the chords pick up speed, alerting us that the song is soon going to kick back into high gear. The second verse ends with Eric hoarsely screaming a drawn out “Layla” at top volume with a choir backing him up, just to add to the tremendous amount of feeling the song is channeling. This howl brings us back to the level of fire of the riff, which seems to emerge out of the wall of sound created by the choir, anchoring the song with its finely wrought rhythm. The lyrics of the chorus start to give us an idea of what is truly going on here, since the first verse could have meant anything. The last line of the chorus, “Darling won’t you ease my worried mind” is sung with the same desperate howling quality as the first “Layla,” giving the chorus a proper ending right as Eric’s half step bend rises up with it, returning us to the verse. Here, the verse gives us both some backstory for the song and explicitly proclaims the subject’s love for “Layla.”

The process is repeated, and in the third verse the narrator ups the ante to prevent the need in his voice from becoming routine, saying he could go insane, completely convincing us of the intensity of  his feelings with how sincerely worn out he sounds. Melodrama it may be, but if there was ever a time and place for intensity of feeling, it’s this song. He ends the final verse by pleading for her to answer him, begging her “don’t tell me all my love’s in vain”.

We never do hear if he gets any or not, the appropriate ending for this song, since it is a story of unrequited love.  Ending it on such a note rounds out its subject matter and gives a clear picture of a time and place in Eric’s life. The outro starts as Eric and company sing the chorus twice back-to-back, but the second time he goes through it, he sings the first “Layla” without drawing it out as he normally does. This apathetic, run down feeling hangs over the rest of the chorus even though he sings it with all his previous passion. It’s the feeling a man only gets when he still wants what he wants, and even pursues it with the same sound and thunder as before, but simply starts to slow down from the inside out as he sees that what he wants is beyond him. In this case, he starts to see that he will never get any answers from his darling Layla and when the full meaning of this finally sets in, all that’s left for him is his despondent, hysterical sense of loss. The song could have made a mistake here and dropped the ball, and as sad as a bad or even average ending would have been, the start of the song would have still secured its place in our minds. But the men who made the song made no mistakes. Instead, they left it to Duane Allman, the man who came up with the riff in an act of improvisation, to handle the outro and he creates a solo so energized and alive that it carries the already amazing song to another realm entirely, giving it, for a one brief and transcendent moment, the power of a sweeping instrumental film score. It plays through a basic pattern that it builds around for the rest of the solo then fades for a spell to make room for the deep-throated chanting of men in the background, there to enhance this last spectacle. Then it fully takes over and pulls us along as it shifts from side-to-side, climbing ever higher, ever more beautifully sad and purely epic. The lower notes at 2:45 make the outro into something inclusive that sweeps all of us up with it on its journey to the end of emotion, saying, through its choice of notes, that we’ve all been where Eric was at. This choice is wise, since it helps us follow the song as it goes beyond a normal human’s ability to feel, into the sheer, despairing desire Eric felt, flying into the sky at 2:58 with a note that is the epitome of unrequited love’s pain.

After that, Duane’s slide guitar simply goes beyond human hearing range (he found a way to make it play notes that it wasn’t even made to do) and sublimates into the song, like emotions metamorphosing into a new outlook on life, as they all do. With it gone, the riff returns for a moment only to evaporate too. The riff is Eric’s wild love at first sight for Pattie Boyd, and as soon as the madness of the solo passes, under it Eric rediscovers his initial feelings for her one last time, as they were when he first felt them. The half step bend rises, and it takes away everything with it, releasing it for good and for all. Eric finally understands that “all of his love is in vain” and so, it gently leaves his being.

That’s when the piano coda begins, to bookend the song. The first time I heard the song fall into another gear in so abrupt and drastic a manner (it’s basically an entirely separate song), I got completely stuck inside from bafflement. I listened for a minute then started doing something else; I still do. It’s just so long and contrasts so sharply with all that preceded it that I didn’t want to listen to it for a long time. Even when I did I was only half listening, but now I see it’s that kind of music. It lulls its audience with the gentle mourning of its rhythm, running through the same melody and altering it slightly each time it cycles through it, each time climbing higher and higher as the emotion gradually dissipates from Eric’s being. For this is Eric’s depression and sadness after he truly understands that he has no chance with Pattie Boyd, reflecting the time it takes for him to make peace with his pain and get catharsis. When I figured that out, I also saw the true importance of the coda; it prompts the same process in us, slowly dissipating the huge quantity of energy we have just imbibed, which would have otherwise continued to boil inside us, endlessly occupying our thoughts. It does this anyway, of course, even if you listen to all 7 minutes of the song, but the coda is there to take the edge off of it so we can return to normal quicker than Eric did. It’s a lovely little piece, in its own right. It just takes repeated viewing to warm up to it.

What is the “Layla” experience? Oh man I have more words for it than I can count. It’s a rush of pure energy that just keeps giving and giving. To me this never really was a love song; the love song would be the unplugged version, which Eric wrote many years later. No sir, this is an epic song, a song of soaring and unbelievably powerful emotion. This is a song for an action sequence in a movie, with a hero doing amazing deeds at fantastic speed, leaving us open-mouthed with amazement. I have resolved to eventually drive a convertible into the sunset with the roof down, while wearing sunglasses and playing this song out of the deck. Even though its overwhelming high is never again as powerful as it was the first time we hear it (it can’t possibly be), the initial experience of its fierce twanging will always remain seared into the brain, to contain emotion forevermore. Hopefully you’re in a good position to catch it when it arrives, like I was.

By: Gabriel Cole