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The Story of Eric Clapton’s Glossy, Misunderstood ‘Behind the Sun’

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Often overlooked and generally derided, Eric Clapton‘s Behind the Sun tends to challenge your expectations, and even your memory, today.

No, Clapton wasn’t sent hurtling toward a plasticine MTV sound by new producer Phil Collins. In fact, the most overtly glossy items on Behind the Sun – which was released on March 11, 1985 – were added later, after Warner Bros. rejected an early version of the project because it wasn’t commercial enough.

“They said it had no singles and no relevance to anything else that was out there, and I needed to wake up and get with what’s going on,” Clapton remembered in a talk with the Edinburgh News. “Instead of getting arrogant and outraged, I did the shrewd thing.”

In other words, he tacked on three tracks produced by Ted Templeman and Lenny Waronker and written by Jerry Lynn Williams – all of which now stand as the most dated elements of Behind the Sun, even if Clapton, at least at the time, talked about them with equal enthusiasm.

“Now, I never wanted hits, I never wanted to have to deal with that,” he told Q magazine. “But faced with the prospect that [Behind the Sun] would be a flop, that it would be hard to promote and that it was self-indulgent, I agreed to re-record a third of it. So, Warners sent me some Jerry Williams song, which I really loved, and off I went to Los Angeles. There, in the studio, I met [keyboardist] Greg Phillinganes and [bassist] Nathan East. They’d been hired to play on the songs by the president of Warner Bros., Lenny Waronker. I thought they were great.”

Fast forward, however, and the reggaefied soft rock of Williams’ “See What Love Can Do,” the rather generic “Something’s Happening” and the middling hit “Forever Man” remain the least interesting of the album’s songs. Warners tried to dress them up with some very big stars (including several members of TotoLindsey Buckingham and Lenny Castro, among others), to no avail. Over-processed, and too on-the-nose, they managed to essentially sink Behind the Sun (at least critically) all on their own.

As such, Collins received the blame for these overcooked items, which were really served by Templeman and Waronker. If anything, Collins is actually underused on Behind the Sun. Other than the charming opener “She’s Waiting,” which finds the ex-Genesis frontman, there’s little of his big drum sound that’s so closely associated with his work from this period.

Listen to Eric Clapton Perform ‘Tangled In Love’

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Collins is a far more important presence as producer. On his tracks, the addition of keyboards is far more tastefully applied, the musical camaraderie more apparent, the singing more nuanced – and so the songs (save for the slightly unfocused “It All Depends” and a pointless cover of the the ’60s R&B staple “Knock on Wood”) are far stronger. “Tangled in Love” couldn’t have come from any other decade, to be sure, but listen to the way Clapton’s voice intertwines with Marcy Levy’s. It stands up to any era.

Still, so much was different about this project – from record-label interference to technology (Clapton used a new Roland guitar synth, overdubbing solos in a radical departure from his core sound) to mandatory music videos. “It was fun,” Clapton recalled of the “Forever Man” video shoot in Crossroads: The Life and Music of Eric Clapton. “But it goes against the grain for me. It’s a concession to the star-making machinery.”

So Clapton slipped in something like the album-closing title track. Recorded in a duo setting with Collins, it’s almost impossibly gorgeous. For all of its contemporary feel, the project actually found small, important ways to reference an earlier time, right down to Clapton’s choice of familiar collaborative voices like Donald “Duck” Dunn (whose bass leaps out on the song), Jamie Oldaker and Chris Stainton.

That final moment with Collins also pointed to a more personal depth. Where much of Behind the Sun was born of big-label avarice, the two artists shared something deeper. Left to their own devices, they might have made a more complete album.

“I met Eric in the late ’70s when I was working with John Martyn, and we became firm friends. We were kind of country neighbors” while living outside London, Collins told Billboard. “I used to gravitate to his house pretty much every day. We used to go to football together, we played music, played pool and billiards into the night, did lots of naughty things. … It was great fun.”

Listen to Eric Clapton Perform ‘Behind the Sun’

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Together, they provided the best moments on an album that actually found Clapton engaging again with his instrument for the first time in years – something he hinted at during his recent sideman work on Roger WatersThe Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking.

Clapton’s turn on “Tangled in Love,” for example, is a vista-revealing wonder. He’s by turns titanic (on the eight-minute “Same Old Blues”) and raw (“Just Like a Prisoner,” a desperate cry about his failing marriage to Pattie Boyd) as Behind the Sun actually turns into this unlikeliest of things: a showcase for some of the most complete soloing Clapton had done in ages.

“It was very character building for me, to have to face that,” Clapton admitted in Crossroads. “And I am grateful for that situation. It lopped a lot off my ego, and gave me a taste of humility – which I may have been in great need of.”

The gold-selling project brought Clapton back to the U.K. Top 10 for the first time since 1976’s No Reason to Cry, giving the guitarist just his fourth U.S. Top 40 hit of the ’80s with “Forever Man” – hardly a representative moment. That’s partly to blame, to be sure, for the relative obscurity of Behind the Sun.

Listen closely today, and the album – so frequently torn apart for its gimmicky ’80s production – finds Clapton in the middle of a creative rebirth. The truth is, Clapton hadn’t played this much, this forcefully, or this consistently on a studio record in forever.

“At the end of the day, people will say that Behind the Sun and [its 1986 successor] August are really Phil Collins records,” Clapton later told Rolling Stone. “Fine, if that’s all they can hear, they’re not listening properly. I’m in there with as much as I got.”

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