Eric Clapton with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers
Rutlish School Merton Park 1966
I was recently emailed by an associate regarding memories from many years ago, when Eric Clapton came to play in the field next to my home in South West London. The email included this photo.. could this have been taken that night? Yes, I think it could. I also recently watched some interesting stuff on Youtube discussing the whole Clapton / Mayall / Beano Album era, and I realised that this was really an historic period, and I was, in a limited way.. there. So I thought I'd jot down down a few notes. And here we go...
On June 18, 1966 I was 15 years old. My 16th birthday would be in the July coming up. But I had just left school.. Rutlish Grammar School in Merton Park, Surrey.. the same school that Prime Minister John Major had left around the time I arrived. I hated school. Went in in the top stream and rapidly sunk to the bottom. Didn't mind the first year.. basic French, Physics etc, but after that.. only saved by the art lessons, some English, and playing very bad second violin in the school orchestra, conducted by "Froggy" Howard, who sold me my first solid electric guitar. Anyway...
While at said school, around the age of thirteen, I got my first guitar and got into my first group.. The Stonewall Blues Band. (Way before the Stonewall gay movement). We were listening to all the early British beat groups, such as the Animals, Yardbirds and Rolling Stones, who were all playing variations of the blues and R&B. We used to rehearse in my family's front room on a Saturday morning.. my parents were tolerant. Mum used to bring in orange juice for refreshments.
One of our history teachers at school.. Mr Tyrrell, I think, was a bit young and trendy. He knew people. And one day he announced that for the entertainment at our next school fete, he was booking John Mayall's Bluesbreakers.
Wow. We were young, but not stupid. Well we were pretty stupid, but that's not a thing you work out until much later. But we were aware enough to know that John Mayall and his band were the hottest ticket in town, and featured that guy from the Yardbirds, Eric Slowhand Clapton. I already knew him from the Yardbirds album "Five Live Yardbirds" and it sounded good. Couldn't really work out what he was doing, but it was exciting, and that would do. So the buzz went round school. I personally promoted the theory that he could play so fast that you couldn't see his fingers. Gives you an idea of where my musical maturity was at the time. (Note.. 15, remember).
Now... the school fete was held, every year, in the Old Rutlishian's Recreation Ground, which was a field which just happened to be right next door to our house in Merton Park. The previous bit of excitement had been when the athlete Chris Chataway had run the four minute mile there. We stood on our coal bunker so we could see over the fence and cheered him on, excited by the presence of TV cameras. I'd been to the fete before, a few times, and enjoyed the rides. I remember a feature called "Dick Emery's Water Otter". You paid your sixpence to go in the tent and see an old metal kettle.. water 'otter.. get it? We thought it was great.
So on that Saturday afternoon I was there early, decked out in my best mod gear. I wasn't really a mod.. kind of paid lip service to it really.. a checked shirt, some conservative hipsters and a black cord jacket which I thought looked rather smart. I was probably presentable, without running to the Carnaby Street excesses of some of my schoolmates. Around 5 pm a little red van, (a Bedford Dormobile or maybe a Comma) rolled into the field, and drove round a couple times, presumably looking for the venue. It eventually stopped outside the tent which was, indeed the venue. Out stepped (fell) John Mayall, John McVie, Hughie Flint and Eric Clapton.
Little Mick's eyes widened slightly. These people were famous, whoever they were. And one of them was probably Eric Clapton. The van doors were opened and gear was unloaded. A huge Hammond Organ with John Mayall painted on the back. Various amps and drums etc. Cor. After a while I sussed out who was who, and the skinny bloke with the sideburns was probably Clapton. An amp was onstage. Not actually a famous "Bluesbreaker" type Marshall combo, but a little 2 X 12 speaker unit, on a chrome stand, angled back, with, I think, "Univox" on it? Someone will correct me. And I watched the skinny guy with the sideboards open his guitar case and take out his guitar.
I was expecting a Telecaster. That was what I knew. I'd seen Jeff Beck playing one with the Yardbirds, and various other players. But this guitar was weird. It looked sort of old fashioned, like an old jazz guitar, but with pickups. OK.. so much to learn.
The place was now filling up, mainly with young guys about 17 - 20 years old. Bigger than me. I watched Mayall happily quaffing pints and chatting with people. (I wouldn't have known what to say to him). Clapton meanwhile was hanging around alone, leaning against a tent pole and looking moody. He was wearing a stripey shirt, (untucked), blue denims and white plimsolls with no socks. I did gigs dressed like that for years afterwards - I thought I'd get that right at least.
The place continued to fill up with people, and the show began. By now it was so packed that I literally couldn't wedge myself into the audience in front of the stage, and ended up watching the entire show from just to the side, towards the back of the stage. I remember that they played two full one hour sets. They started with "Crawling Up A Hill" which I knew from the "Live at Klooks Kleek" album. I believe they played "What'd I Say" "Stormy Monday" and "Parchman Farm". Beyond that I don't remember.. the Bluesbreakers album was yet to be released, so I wouldn't have known any of that material. It was loud, relentless music.
I think I drunk half a pint of beer and generally embarassed myself in various ways. I don't remember anything after the show.. I probably just toddled home.. it wasn't far.
I'd left school rather prematurely having failed to get enough O Level exams to stay on, but that was fine with me. I'd already got myself a job, and went straight off to be an assistant engineer at Advision Studio in the West End. In the short time that I was there we did sessions with Graham Bond and Jimmy Page amongst others. And my big hit.. tape op on the international hit single "Winchester Cathedral". You've probably often wondered who supplied the metal waste bin for the singer to sing into to get that old fashioned tinny vocal tone. Yes I was that gofer.
But the big time didn't last. I soon got fired for general ineptitude, and my Mum marched me up to the City to get me a proper job in a proper office. I was there for two years, bored out of my brains, but at least I was able to save up and get my first Gibson and Marshall, and, indeed, form the band Killing Floor with my friend Bill.
And so the years passed, and I got out and played the guitar as much and in as many places as I was able. But the Old Ruts Fete was always there somewhere in the back of my mind. I knew it was special at the time, and now 54 years later I still know it was special, and it's a good memory.
I saw John Mayall a few more times, with Peter Green, which was always excellent. When Green left I phoned John for an audition, but I left it far too late and then woke him up on a Sunday morning! He probably still holds that against me. Another time I was one of his roadies at the Albert Hall, and yet another time I watched his house burn down during a brush fire in Los Angeles. So our paths have crossed in strange ways. Later we played a festival in Germany with him - I thought he was very good.
I saw John McVie a few times with Fleetwood Mac at the Nags Head in Battersea, where I remember him struggling to get his 4 X 12 cab up the twisting pub staircase. We've all paid our dues.
EC lives quite near here.. about six miles. Never calls.. not even a post card. I actually did a charity show a few years back where he'd done my spot the night before, so at least I can say we've both worked for the same money. I do genuinely rate him as one of the greats.. back in the day there was no-one close to him. Over the years I think he's created a volume of work which is unsurpassed.
So thanks to Eric, John and the lads for that night back in 1966. Glad it all worked out for everyone. And keep rockin'.
Mick Clarke, Rockfold Studio, April 2020.
Thanks to writer Christopher Hjort for the photos and the inspiration to write this piece. Christopher Hjort at Amazon
Original photo source 40 Below Records Instagram.