Too Good: Derek and the Dominos, “Bell Bottom Blues” (1970)

A track can have extraordinary impact in many different ways. Here is a way that depends on a sense of limited access. Perhaps the experience I am about to describe can no longer be had in the age of universal digital availability of music. I can only say I’ve found it to be a durable hook.

The effect is specific to an awesome track that for some reason is almost never played on the radio or elsewhere, and when it is played, isn’t identified. The track is distinctly better than all the tracks that are repeatedly played and identified, so that when it comes on you feel like you have stumbled into a place where they play music you’re usually not allowed to hear. You’re deeply surprised and humbled, even. (This assumes you don’t own the album and don’t know what album to look for.)

We speak of “music of the gods” so loosely now! But if due respect for the gods were restored, the phrase could refer to this situation.

One such track for me was, and still is, “Bell Bottom Blues,” which was bottled up for quite a while on the strangely slow-selling Derek and the Dominos album. The best of the several brilliant hooks that lift it above the quality of music I’m usually allowed to hear is the lead guitar figure introducing each line of the verse.[1]

“Bell Bottom Blues” 1

Eric Clapton plays the multiple parts—more than two, I reckon, but it mostly sounds like two. It consists of scattered notes of an F chord leading up to the B of a G chord in part #1, supported by fully consonant harmony notes in part #2. (It helps the too-good-to-hear effect that I can’t tell what some of those notes are–I don’t know how to reproduce them.) The F and G chords these notes define are a normal IV-V fanfare leading up to C, the first chord of each verse line and the key the verse is in. But how shall we describe the dynamic fullness of that guitar figure? Though it chimes brightly, especially when the two parts strike the same note (I think this occurs on the next-to-next-to-last note), I wouldn’t say that “chiming” is the main quality. Ending on the sweet major third of the G chord to which the two parts twine their way, it sort of gently bursts like a juicy grape. A gleaming golden grape.

The sonic beauty of this wouldn’t be completely unexpected if you’d been listening to George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, which is where Clapton and his cohorts had been playing just previously. The lineage of the song design goes back at least to Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (The Beatles, 1968). And you knew since “Politician” (Cream, Wheels of Fire, 1968) that Clapton would gladly throw multiple lead guitar parts together, let the serendipitous chips fall where they may. But the juiciness of this particular hook is unparalleled. It sounds special also because it seems to be at a crossroads of genres, transcending them all—you couldn’t drop it into a regular blues, rock, pop, or country track. Thus it lifts the whole song up to a unique high seat in music heaven.

Solo acoustic version? Bad idea. Listening to the song with these figures removed would be like looking at Sharbat Gula (the all-time favorite National Geographic photo subject, the “Afghan Girl”) with her eyes removed.

Correlatively, hearing this song is like actually meeting Sharbat Gula! Which the Afghans would not ordinarily allow . . .

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[1] Here’s another: in the first line of the refrain, two perfectly placed words at the end go beyond what everyone would have settled for, a sovereign songwriter’s move that makes Clapton’s appeal richer and more real:

Do you want to see me crawl across the floor to you

“Bell Bottom Blues” 2

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About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Arrangements and Sounds, Rock Aesthetics and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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