There’s no denying that Eric Clapton was among the best guitar players in rock music during the late ’60s and early ’70s. Sure, I’ll bet he can still play just as well, but he’s certainly mellowed out since then, so it’s the recordings from those earlier years that still stand as the finest examples of his talent. And I enjoy listening to his playing from those years in all its forms: with the Yardbirds, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Cream, Blind Faith, Derek and the Dominoes, and solo. Many great moments, give or take some weaker material here and there. His later solo stuff doesn’t do as much for me, but there are still a few gems along the way.
But if I had to pick one song from among all of those recordings as my favorite, despite a few very close runners-up (no, it’s not “runner-ups” — don’t get me started…just ask my English-teacher friend Michelle), it would be “Badge,” from Cream’s final album, 1969’s appropriately titled Goodbye. “Badge” is actually cowritten by George Harrison (apparently with a few drunken lyric contributions from Ringo Starr as well), so I’d have to place it among George’s best songs as well. (He also plays rhythm guitar on the song.) Interestingly, there’s very little guitar in the first part of the song, but it’s got a very cool, understated rhythm, thanks to Ginger Baker, with great piano and Jack Bruce’s prominent bass carrying this section. And then comes my favorite part of the song, right after “now he’s married to Mabel”: the bridge, I guess it would be, played by Harrison. (Actually, I’m having a little trouble confirming that it’s him with 100% certainty, but I’ve always assumed it to be George, since it sounds very similar to parts he played both on Abbey Road and on Ringo’s single, “It Don’t Come Easy.”)
A short analysis of that guitar part’s sound: What gives it that unique quality is something I discovered recently when reading recording engineer Geoff Emerick’s Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles (an incredibly insightful book that every Beatles fan should read). It turns out that interesting sounds can be created by running them through a Leslie speaker cabinet — traditionally used for organs, it features a rotating speaker in the upper part of the cabinet that results in a “Doppler effect.” Emerick first used it in a nontraditional way with the Beatles by sending John Lennon’s voice through it in part of the song, “Tomorrow Never Knows” (in the final verse, when he sounds more detached). I suspect that Harrison then experimented with using it for his guitar in a number of songs and liked the effect — resulting in that quavering tone found in “Badge.”
But back to the song: that guitar bridge is transcendent, and alone makes the song a classic — but then Clapton kicks in with his stunning guitar solo on top of that, and combined with the great backing vocals, makes “Badge” one of the great songs in rock. It’s a mere 2:43 in length, so each “section” of the song is only a minute or so in length, but it packs quite a punch in those short spans, even if it doesn’t make a lot of sense lyrically. It’s one of Cream’s shortest songs, as they tended to like extended jams, particularly in their live material — just goes to show that as much impact can be made by keeping a song short and concise. The only drawback being that you don’t get to enjoy it for as long — but you can just play it again and again to make up for that…