Crows Nest: Allen and Unwin 2014. 337 Pages
Reviewed by David Mayocchi, September 1st, 2014
The Best Years of Our Lives is Richard Clapton’s account of his roller-coaster life in the fast lane of Australian popular music. With a recording career stretching back to the early 1970s, he has a lot to draw on.
The book opens in the mid-sixties as Clapton the young fan spends a day with The Rolling Stones in Sydney, having bluffed his way into their inner circle . After he finishes school, Clapton heads to London (by ship), where he witnesses the late-sixties rock scene in full swing, catching performances by Eric Clapton with Cream, Peter Green with Fleetwood Mac and The Rolling Stones in Hyde Park. A run-in with the police and expired visa find Clapton relocating to Berlin. There the penniless would-be musician is unexpectedly rescued by hippies who decide to support him so he can concentrate on song-writing.
The second stage of Clapton’s story begins in 1972 upon his return to Australia. The quality of his song-writing is immediately recognised and he’s signed to Festival Records, releasing the album Prussian Blue in 1973. It does not chart. Pressured for a hit, he writes The Girls on the Avenue a song that saves his recording career and brings fame, though not financial reward. In 1976, Clapton wins an Australia Council grant that provides an airfare to Berlin. Just days after landing, he writes three of his best songs, Goodbye Tiger, Deep Water and Down in the Lucky Country. Upon his return to Australia the following year, Clapton records these songs with a crack band and undertakes a major tour on the back of the Goodbye Tiger album’s success. Tales of a fairly sordid life on the road start to emerge as alcohol and drugs enter and start to dominate Clapton’s life and those around him.
Clapton’s career has amazing momentum and his memoir provides a account of the partying and craziness that occurs as his song-writing and recording career takes him around the world over the following decade. Clapton is clear that life as a musician involves lots of hard work. Weeks spent in the recording studio trying to get a particular drum or guitar sound, or later fine-tuning the mix. This isn’t the focus of his memoir though, which instead seeks to “shine a light on the funny and/or interesting stories”.
Around 1990, the partying and narrative ends as marriage and children change Clapton’s life and focus. The final chapter provides Clapton’s insights into the recording industry today. Still a music fan, he finds things to praise and much that is dull and colourless – music that imitates rather than creates, music that’s perfected by the computer not musicians. It’s a thoughtful piece of writing that deserves to be widely read.
Entertaining and episodic rather than insightful, The Best Years of Our Lives is an unfiltered and fast-paced account of the behind the scenes world of one of Australia’s best known rock musicians.