Blind Faith
London Hyde Park 1969

Who knows which group, artist or career would be considered today as deserving the title of "great swindle in rock 'n' roll" - or in hip-hop, or whatever genre. Above all else, who knows whether the prevailing criteria of today even contemplate the possibility of something being called a "swindle". In distant times everything was a lot simpler: in the 60s there were the Monkees, who only pretended to play their instruments, their records being the product of the work of the best sessionmen (and one sessionwoman: Carol Kaye on bass) in California; in the 80s, it's Milli Vanilli who come to mind, pretending to sing. But things have changed. On one hand, the fall of a kind of ethics one could call "Puritan-Countercultural" made it possible for one to accept and redefine the role and contribution of studio musicians, from the first album by the Byrds to those albums by the Beach Boys. On the other hand, the fact that the concept of "reality" has morphed into "entertainment" makes the existence of a "reality" that is different from the one that's perceived by an observer (any observer?) an impossibility. So, in these times of "mechanically adjusted voices" (the "autotune" which performs miracles even on those who are deaf and mute) and of whole shows on hard disk (so as to make it possible for the dancers - including the group - to save their breath for what's really important: the magic for the eyes of a screen-enhanced choreography) who could ever dream up a slogan such as the one by Memorex from all those years ago? "Is it live, or is it Memorex?". "But Melissa couldn't tell". (Maybe it's necessary to remind the reader we are talking about audio cassette tapes. If I'm not mistaken, Melissa was singer Melissa Manchester.)

To think that for many years the name Blind Faith was almost synonymous with "big swindle" is quite funny. First, because the name of the supergroup of UK celebrities (or at least, three celebrities plus one) is today unknown to most, but not for reasons of ignominy derived from moral reasons. Then, because the musicians in Blind Faith were among the most serious in the whole United Kingdom. So?

Let's read the dialogue between an objective observer such as the late Timothy White and a member of the group, Steve Winwood. Says White: "(...) the Blind Faith tour was one of the tackiest rock circuses of all time. You opened to a horde of 100.000 in Hyde Park in London in June and proceeded to bend every ear in America near the breaking point for two months cross-country. Though it didn't last long, it was a fairly vulgar spectacle (...)". So answers Winwood: "(...) the show was vulgar, crude, disgusting. It lacked integrity. There were huge crowds everywhere, full of mindless adulation, mostly due with Eric and Ginger's success with Cream and, to a more modest extent, my own impact. The combination led to a situation where we could have gone on and farted and gotten a massive reaction. (...) We did not sound good live, due to the simple lack of experience being a band. We'd had no natural growth, and it was very evident onstage. (...) We had to break up because that was the only way we could get out of the whole mess. And it was a complicated deal (...)." (This dialogue is part of the article titled Steve Winwood, Rock's Gentle Aristocrat, which came out in the US magazine Musician, issue dated October 1982.)

Eric Clapton talked at length about Blind Faith not too long after that experience had come to a close, when - his solo career already in motion, as was the group called Derek And The Dominoes - he was interviewed by Jan Hodenfield for an article which appeared on US magazine Rolling Stone. A bitter conversation, as this brief excerpt makes clear: "Well, it was... it was very frail. That whole thing we did was very transparent. I mean, it's almost not there. And in the context of something like Madison Square Garden where you've got many thousands of people who's seen hundreds of better bands, or, you know, like Hendrixes in the audience. And you've got this fantastically kind of fragile thing on stage (...). The minute you get onto the stage in Madison Square Garden, first thing you think is how to get out. You just battle through, get it over with as quickly as possible. I think I'd still think that now if I was to do that gig today."

If we consider the real reason why the group ended - by nervous implosion provoked by excessive outside pressure - the way the group had started appears even more peculiar: as a peaceful, private artistic holiday for Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood. The former, already acclaimed as "God" on the walls of London at the time of his being a member of John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, was coming out of his intense but draining experience with Cream: the group had brought improvisation to the stage all over the world, but a heavy commercial load and the need for the group to be highly creative every night in a line-up that made the guitar player especially naked to all kinds of judgments had convinced the three musicians it was better to stop. Winwood came from Traffic, a group that - though much-loved - had always remained a "successful cult"; life on the road was not strange to him - his first big break as a singer and keyboard player had been with the Spencer Davis Group, when he was just sixteen; it appeared that the time was right for new experiences. Bit by bit, Ginger Baker, the flamboyant drummer that had been such an important part of Cream, had joined the duo.

A lot of bonus tracks and the precise chronology that together with the exhaustive liner notes by John McDermott are featured in the rich 2001 Deluxe Edition of the only album recorded by Blind Faith, originally released in August, 1969, made it possible to determine with much precision the group's various stages, from informal jam sessions to the first original compositions, from the joining of bass and violin player Rich Grech - a musician who came from the experimental, never much appreciated line-up of the group Family that had recorded the albums Music In A Doll's House and Family Entertainment - to the frantic completion of their album with the help of the former producer of Traffic, and at the time producer of the Rolling Stones, Jimmy Miller.

Why frantic? Because the managers of Clapton, Baker and Winwood (Robert Stigwood being the manager of the two former Cream members, Island owner Chris Blackwell of the former Traffic) had already planned a remunerative tour of the States. Atlantic (in the USA) and Polydor (in Europe) had already announced the release of an album, to coincide with the tour. We know what happened: trying to satisfy the impossible request for a "new Cream" the group had to add to the repertoire a few tracks that had been part of that impossible-to-be-replicated group. At that point, it was inevitable for Clapton and Winwood to split the group.

It was a pity, 'cause the album had demonstrated beyond all possible doubts that the relationship between Winwood's muse and Clapton's guitar could produce rich fruits. While Rick Grech's bass had played the part with diligence (and maybe a pinch of shyness?), the real surprise had been Baker: always easy to recognize, true, but with a maybe unexpected flexibility in his being ready to serve Winwood's compositions. Winwood - keyboard player, guitarist and singer - had proved to be the most decisive part of a band that - quite differently than expected - had appeared to be more similar to "a new Traffic" than to "a new Cream". Winwood's vocals had proved a great match for the tight rhythm of Had To Cry Today and - thanks also to his Hammond B3 - had given gospel accents to Presence Of The Lord, Clapton's composition which was destined to become a classic. The cover of Buddy Holly's Well All Right had been a lighter moment, while Baker's Do What You Like, besides good solos by guitar and drums, had showed Winwood's Hammond halfway between Mike Ratledge and Jimmy Smith, almost an anticipation of the solo featured in the Traffic track The Low Spark Of High-Heeled Boys. Traffic came to mind on the first track of side two, Sea Of Joy, sporting acoustic guitar and violin. Can't Find My Way Home, with two acoustic guitars and drums played using brushes, went straight into the "classic song" category.

The 50' of the live concert are really all there is on the DVD. It's obvious that given the musicians' past appreciation of the group's career asking them for a contribution was out of the question; but the "extra materials" are really poor: we have the I'm A Man promo by the Spencer Davis Group, the promo of Hole In My Shoe by Traffic, and a brief excerpt of Cream's I'm So Glad taken from the famous Farewell Concert; we also have a tiny, absolutely useless piece by Family; a few words by Winwood; two brief excerpts from those interviews with Clapton and Baker from Farewell Concert; there's also a discography of the four musicians up to Blind Faith. All in all, not much, really.

The first scenes bring to mind those old pictures: we see Marshall amplifiers (just a few), a P.A. by WEM (with that red logo), an RMI electric piano, Ludwig drums with double bass drum, Fender Jazz bass, Hammond B3 organ; instead of his usual Gibsons, Clapton plays a Fender Telecaster with a Stratocaster neck. Something funny? After three songs, Winwood leaves the electric piano and goes to the organ, taking with him the only mike stand at his disposal. The group members were nervous for sure: a crowd of 100.000 (we see Donovan, in white, and dark sunglasses; and - if you blink you'll miss him - Mick Jagger), first group concert, new songs.

Clapton is the one that appears to be the most ill-at-ease: the more the expectations, the more insecure he looks; he appears to be more fluid playing on such atypical things as Can't Find My Way Home or on "lighter" stuff such as the group's cover of the Stones' Under My Thumb; quite a surprise, he looks not too sure about the rhythmic accents of Traffic's Means To An End. Grech knows quite well he is "the fourth member", so rather than to lead, he follows; there are some precious close-ups of his face that show his satisfaction when he "locks" with Baker's drums, or the vibrations of the fourth string when he pushes harder. Baker is Baker - but it's a fantastic, educational thing to watch him negotiating rests, accents, with Winwood, head always turned to the left (Clapton is in the back); we also have some close-ups of his shoes on the bass drum pedals; there's also a (unexpected) passage for cymbals at the end of the second verse in Can't Find My Way Home which reminds us of how colossal were his achievements; all his rhythmic framework - on this piece, and the others, too - is always conceived and played with a lot of clarity. In those keys, singing some "beautiful bum notes" is practically inevitable, but Winwood is his usual brilliant self; nice comping on piano and organ, nice solos.

First track is Well All Right, just to get the right feeling. Then we have Sea Of Joy, without the violin solo. A nice blues, Sleeping In The Ground. Winwood on organ in Under My Thumb, where Baker looks like he's having tons of fun. Can't Find My Way Home is maybe the best piece here - check Winwood counting, and directing the dynamics. Do What You Like has a nice organ solo, and a brief one by Baker (what happened to the guitar solo?). Even without the wha-wha pedal, Presence Of The Lord is ok. Then we have the already mentioned Means To An End. In closing, Had To Cry Today is the perfect mix.

All things considered, an absolutely indispensable document (especially so for those who don't know what we're talking about).

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2006 | Apr. 28, 2006