Though Universal’s new super-deluxe box set of Derek and the Dominos’ Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (Polydor/Universal 0600753314326) is about as hefty as these packages come, the best of the box set could fit into a standard jewel case. The 40th anniversary collection includes (drum roll, please) 4 CDs, an audio DVD (though not DVD-Audio – more on that later), 2 LPs, a 48-page hardcover book, an art print, badges, pop-up artwork and a scratch-plate sticker. But the best argument for boxing Layla in a package like this can simply be found in the grooves of the 2 LPs or even smaller, pressed on the compact discs within. Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs is still a scorching rock album by a band in the right place at the right time. The 40th anniversary box set dedicated to this potent barnstormer of an album is at once impressive and clumsy, overwhelming and disappointing.
Layla features the sound of an impossibly tight band, sympathetic and attuned to each other, producing a joyful noise. They played the blues, for sure, but with a joy, too, that’s nearly unmatched in the annals of rock. The band was born out of sessions held for George Harrison’s solo debut All Things Must Pass, when Eric Clapton, a Brit, found himself jamming with three American wunderkinds: Bobby Whitlock, Carl Radle and Jim Gordon. Clapton was a restless journeyman, tortured by his personal demons (most significantly, a passion for his friend George’s wife Pattie) but also ever searching for the perfect musical identity, too. He departed The Yardbirds when the group was becoming too pop, and though a blues purist, felt too confined by John Mayall’s ranks. Clapton had his biggest success in Cream, but was losing interest in the somewhat indulgent jams. Through Blind Faith and then with Delaney and Bonnie, Clapton connected with his desire to be a bandmate, but was frustrated when he still wound up the star attraction with the Delaney and Bonnie band. (See the LP title: Delaney and Bonnie and Friends On Tour with Eric Clapton.) Derek and the Dominos, though, for a short time appeared to be the answers to God’s prayer. God, of course, was Clapton, so named by the graffiti artists of London, and God became Derek, leading this band under an unassuming doo-wop style handle. The band’s name itself was a throwback to those simpler times, though their music was far from nostalgic.
The core Layla album is presented in numerous formats in the box set: 2 LPs of vinyl, a remastered CD, and an audio DVD. The latter format is most definitely the ideal way to go! The undisputed master of surround sound, Elliot Scheiner, has created a new 5.1 mix that handily bests the 2004 SACD surround mix by Mick Guzauski and Simon Climie. Scheiner, all too infrequently employed in the present, diminished surround market, has provided a dramatic mix that isn’t a mere wall of sound. It’s a room of sound, a total barrage. The rear channels are used to amazing effect, with pianos tinkling and guitars ringing. Can I ever listen to “Bell Bottom Blues” in stereo again? I’m not sure! Scheiner’s immersive interpretation of Layla deserves a stand-alone release in the DVD-Audio or Blu-Ray Audio format, as DTS and Dolby Digital don’t offer full advanced resolution sound. (Oddly, Universal made Rush’s Moving Pictures available in surround in both formats.) The good news, though, is that anyone with a DVD player and 5.1 setup can hear this mix. Scheiner’s mixes are never subtle but they’re always tasteful and realistic, devoid of gimmicks. Layla is no exception. (One bonus track, “Mean Old World,” has also been mixed into surround and concludes the DVD program.)
But whether in stereo or surround, Layla remains a searing experience. The band was famously joined by Duane Allman, who lent his guitar to twelve songs. Albhy Galuten, a trusted collaborator of Barry Gibb, played piano on one track, a cover of Jimmy Cox’s “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.” Covers were deftly blended with originals by the Clapton/Whitlock team, individually and collectively, and all of the songs feel of a piece. Clapton’s work, including “Bell Bottom Blues” and the title song (co-written with Jim Gordon), was largely inspired by his burning passion for Pattie Boyd, the then-Mrs. Harrison.
Most striking is how well the album appeals to those looking for extended instrumental showcases while still largely adhering to structured songwriting. “Keep On Growing” is one example, a jam that literally grew into a full-fledged song. “Why Does Love Have to Be So Sad” is another, a hard-rocking original that heads straight into jazz improv territory. “Tell the Truth” had morphed from the original Spector “wall of sound” single into a funkier groove with Allman’s presence. The album literally builds to the thunderous storm that is “Layla,” and relaxes with the lyrical “Thorn Tree in the Garden.” In a most rare scenario, the album was actually sequenced, for the most part, in the order that the songs were recorded!
What else does this new box set offer? Hit the jump to find out!
Another key component of the box set is a 13-track bonus disc, also available as one half of the 2-CD Deluxe Edition. This disc chronologically covers the periods both before and after the album proper, which was recorded in August to October 1970 in Miami, Florida. It can be fairly considered a companion to the “Alternate Masters, Jams and Outtakes” disc included in the 20th Anniversary Layla box set, and begins with “Mean Old World,” an outtake heard in three versions on that 1990 disc (which contains other material not reprised here). It then picks up with the Dominos’ first recorded appearance under that name, a 45 of “Tell the Truth” b/w “Roll It Over” produced by Phil Spector and recorded during the All Things Must Pass sessions. Dave Mason of Traffic joined the band on these two tracks. It’s unfortunate that this single’s original mix by Spector is still MIA. John Jansen’s 1987 mixes have been utilized instead. “Tell the Truth” still remains a fiery rave-up while “Roll” has a pronounced Harrison/Beatles influence! The centerpiece of this disc is a 4-song mini-set performed by the Dominos for Johnny Cash’s television show in November 1970. These tracks, including “Matchbox” performed with Cash and guest Carl Perkins, display the Dominos directly acknowledging their predecessors.
The remaining six bonus tracks all hail from sessions intended for an aborted second album, recorded in April and May 1971 at London’s Olympic Studios. The group was fracturing at the time, and session reels have revealed rough mixes of around a dozen songs in various states of completion, plus a few jams and remnants of three original Jim Gordon compositions. The five near-completed songs (“Snake Lake Blues,” “Evil,” “Mean Old Frisco,” “One More Chance” and “Got to Get Better in a Little While”) have all appeared on CD in the past, but they have been newly remixed by Andy Johns for this box. “Got to Get Better” appears in a jam session and a tighter take; Bobby Whitlock returned to “Got to Get Better in a Little While” to add vocals and keyboards in 2010. His additions to the track appear here for the first time. Good as these six recordings are, they prove that Derek and the Dominos was a case of lightning in a bottle; the Olympic sessions just couldn’t recapture the magic.
CDs Three and Four are devoted to the 1973 2-LP set In Concert. Four tracks have been added from the 1994 set Live at Fillmore East, which was drawn from the same shows of October 23 and 24, 1970 at Bill Graham’s late, great New York venue. (Be aware that In Concert and Fillmore East each utilize different performances of certain songs.) Needless to say, the band is firing on all cylinders on these electric cuts.
Ashley Kahn (well known for books on Miles Davis and John Coltrane) provides most of the text in the lavish hardcover book included in the box. It’s a good, long read, copiously illustrated and including track-by-track analyses of the songs. Derek Trucks of the Allman Brothers family also contributes a short essay. The book could easily be sold as a stand-alone product as it’s both a compelling read and a fine complement to the album. Kahn astutely points out that the Dominos were competing with themselves for the attention of the record-buying public. Upon the time of Layla’s release in December, Delaney and Bonnie’s On Tour had only been in shops for six months or so. Clapton’s self-titled solo album arrived in August, as did Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen, featuring Radle and Gordon. All Things Must Pass, the album that birthed the band, was just released in November.
And then there’s the giant box that houses all of this good stuff. The cumbersome package isn’t elegantly designed, but rather is a slipshod repository for the various items within. It opens via a magnetic strip on the front to reveal 3-D pop-up artwork of the Emile Theodore Frandsen de Schoenberg cover painting, “La Fille au Bouquet.” But the cardboard pop-up seems flimsy, and is such that the box cannot be left open without being held. The replica ticket stubs, “Derek Is Eric” badge and pins are just thrown into the box with no dedicated compartment. The CDs are housed along with the vinyl in an LP-gatefold package, but removing the CDs from their slots was a frightful task. When first opened, the discs were in various locations and the DVD had actually disappeared; it had fallen deep down into its slot. In order to access it, all of the five discs had to be removed and the folder turned upside down until the disc could be reached. Needless to say, the discs are left scratched and scuffed. This packaging isn’t an effective means of storage and isn’t even particularly attractive. Collectors have shown a willingness to pay high coin for Super Deluxe editions of a favorite album; shouldn’t those boxes double as objects of art, worthy of the music’s intrinsic value and the cost? Similar sets have offered foam cushions within the box, or jewel cases in slotted trays as alternatives. The reckless nature of the packaging is the only stain on an otherwise exceptional array of material.
Bill Levenson has stated his intention to make this 40th Anniversary Super-Deluxe Edition of Layla a complement to the 20th Anniversary set he also produced. He’s succeeded to that end, eschewing a substantial amount of material on that set in favor of introducing a splendid surround mix and another handful of unreleased tracks, primarily those Johnny Cash Show performances. This edition also includes the long-unavailable In Concert. Of course, this means both box sets – plus 1994’s Live at the Fillmore East – are essential for collectors wishing to have all of the commercially-released Dominos output.
But before the 50th Anniversary edition is contemplated in 2021, can Universal promise to give Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs a sturdy, well-designed and attractive home safe for its contents? A gourmet meal might have many delicious foods on the plate, but any fine diner will tell you that it’s all about the presentation. The same goes for music, which after all is the food of love! A Super-Deluxe Box Set may have a lot of wonderful content but it’s only as good as its presentation. It’s time to up your game, Universal. I’m beggin’, darlin’, please, won’t you ease my worried mind?