Though valued mainly for his distinctive electric guitar sound as a lead guitarist in several legendary bands as well as his long solo career, British superstar Eric Clapton is also a fine singer-songwriter capable of success in various genres from pure blues to blues rock and classic rock. His '80s output tended to emphasize Clapton's more pop-oriented songwriting in lieu of his acknowledged traditional blues background, which may have led some to discount his work of the era as a bit slight. Here's a chronological look at Clapton's best tunes of this period, which shine consistently as high-quality '80s pop rock.
On a typical Eric Clapton solo album, listeners could usually expect a handful of blues covers alongside a few originals, sometimes written by the artist and sometimes written with or plucked from other songwriters. That pattern has largely persisted throughout Clapton's career, but "I Can't Stand It," from the 1981 album, Another Ticket, gives sole songwriting credit to Clapton himself, and it's a solid pop/rock effort through and through. At its best, Clapton's solo work strides in on a modest, laid-back groove and depends heavily upon catchy riffs and bright melodies. Perhaps much of the artist's pure blues past falls to the background on tunes like this, but that's really only a small thing to complain about. Pleasing '80s rock.
Anchoring 1983's less commercially successful Money and Cigarettes record, this particular track represents Clapton's ability to select memorable songs from other songwriters. Co-written by Troy Seals, one of the brothers in the pop music family that so generously gave us soft rock duos like Seals & Crofts and England Dan & John Ford Coley, this song boasts a likable country rock and folk rock sound that fits Clapton's solo persona like a glove. The "I get off on '57 Chevys" hook will hit you over the head with its warm familiarity if, like me, you happen to have forgotten it over the years. This is high-quality good-time music without stooping to any of the corny, condescending levels of an... ahem, artist like Jimmy Buffett.
As the leadoff single from 1985's Behind the Sun, this song marks the first time Clapton truly jumped into the popular '80s stream of synthesizer use. It also signaled a heavy production hand - from fellow English superstar Phil Collins - that may have left some purist fans feeling betrayed. After all, Texas songwriter Jerry Lynn Williams - who would supply a number of strong compositions to Clapton in the near future - was brought on board by Clapton's record company, Warner Bros., to boost the artist's commercial appeal. Still, by virtue of a groovy bass/synth riff that repeats throughout and, of course, some nifty guitar playing from Clapton himself, this track still shines. Even better, Clapton's vocals are in fine form here.
Clapton gets downright soulful on this, the second single from Behind the Sun, not that he hasn't shown plenty of capability of that earlier in his career. Still, the rock guitar riffing combines favorably here with elements of blues, soul and R&B, and the result is a solid '80s single with wide audience appeal. Of the many songs Clapton ultimately wrote about his tumultuous relationship with Pattie Boyd, the former Mrs. George Harrison, this one best reflects the bittersweet nature of the beginning of the end of the pair's marriage. Sometimes personal pain can lead to great music, as the annals of classic rock have taught us again and again. As in "Forever Man," Clapton takes every opportunity to let his guitar do the weeping.
The riff that serves as the foundation for this sturdy rock tune ruled 1986-1987, appearing memorably as the showcase soundtrack accompaniment to Martin Scorsese's The Color of Money. It also happens to serve ably as both the lead-off track and single from a very deep mainstream rock record called August. Again, Collins aids his friend in the production department, but even one of the slickest '80s solo artists cannot get in the way of the bevy of great compositions dotting this album. Co-written with another legend, the Band's Robbie Robertson, this song avoids the dullness of some all-star efforts, and I remember it fondly as one of the tunes I couldn't stop listening to when I first got into classic rock radio as a teen.
7. "Miss You"
In terms of being a pop songwriting craftsman, Clapton truly reached his peak on August, collaborating not only with Collins and Robertson but also with bassist Nathan East and Phillinganes to forge wonderfully accessible pop/rock. Even better, Clapton proved that he could seamlessly combine his scorching lead guitar style with horns and '80s keyboard-laden production. This track simply has it all, except perhaps the approval of Clapton's purist blues fans. Even so, it doesn't seem particularly arguable that this song doesn't glimmer with songwriting talent, professional gloss, and genuine soul all at the same time. But then Clapton has always been a true professional, especially because he refused to stick with just one genre.
Speaking of outright soul music influence, Clapton takes a Lamont Dozier composition here and turns it into a tour de force showcasing not only his guitar playing but also his underrated vocals. This track makes the most of a great groove, employing horns and joyous backing vocals to set the atmosphere. Despite the presence of keyboards, saxophone and the obvious production hand of Collins, this works as a prime example of the best of what '80s mainstream pop/rock had to offer. The killer chorus alone may be enough to cement this one as a genuine classic: "Somethin' inside of me keeps on tellin' me to run (Run)/Whatcha gonna do to me (Do to me)?" Even so, the premium ingredients don't stop there by any means. Great, timeless stuff.
Jerry Lynn Williams returned as major songwriting contributor for Clapton's late-1989, somewhat revivalist blues rock release, Journeyman. Released in early November of that year and therefore making most of its impact in terms of singles success in 1990, this was an immediately popular landmark album of 1989 that bookended Clapton's decade quite well. Because of that decade overlap issue, I'll select only two tracks from a very deep album to spotlight here. Having said that, "Pretending" is awfully hard to pass up, functioning so well as a guitar workout for Clapton and also fitting the artist's vocal and artistic style of this period. Clapton proves here that song selection by an artist can be as important as songwriting prowess.
Journeyman certainly produced bigger hit singles than this sleeper track, but I'm not sure it features a better overall song than this one. Pleadingly bluesy in its approach and heavily dependent on an arpeggiated guitar style from Clapton during the verses, this tune was not released as a single for some crazy reason. Still, that perhaps makes its inclusion on this list all the more legitimate, as I have no doubt it served as an album track favorite for eager purchasers of the album. Williams may not be known by name for the many great songs he lent over the years to various pop/rock artists, but he certainly should be. Clapton made the most of this association, and the guitar rock beauty of this song helped make Journeyman what it became.