The One Moment That Ruined Eric Clapton's Career

Nowadays, we all know that, thanks to the Internet, a single comment is enough to completely destroy a celebrity's career.  But even back in the murky depths of the 20th century, when not every moment was documented on our phones and ready to be immortalized within seconds, it was more than possible for word to spread of celebrities' terrible takes and horrible opinions in such a way that they would have a permanent effect, and leave a lasting stain on their reputations.

This was certainly the case for Eric Clapton, whose image has never fully recovered from a single incident that occurred all the way back in 1976. The guitarist and songwriter rose to prominence in the 1960s as a member of the Yardbirds, whom he joined in 1963. He later played with Jon Mayall & The Bluesbreakers. In 1966, Clapton joined Ginger Baker's Cream, a supergroup that cemented Clapton's position in the rock and roll firmament and set him up for a long and prestigious solo career in the decades that followed. Clapton became close with the biggest bands of the day, including The Beatles, for whom he provided lead guitar on the White Album classic "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." But while these achievements are still remembered, as recently as 2018 he was being remembered for something else entirely. An article for Inside Hook, titled "Remembering Eric Clapton's Roseanne Moment," opens as follows: "Eric Clapton is a racist hack."

Clapton's 1976 racist diatribe

Clapton re-emerged in headlines towards the end of 2020 thanks to a poorly-judged collaboration with the Irish songwriter Van Morrison, releasing a song, "Stand and Deliver," which is purportedly an anti-lockdown anthem in the vein of a number of songs Morrison has released throughout the Coronavirus pandemic. Clapton's current prominence has led to the re-examination of one shameful incident from more than 40 years ago.

On August 5, 1976, Clapton was performing at the Odeon music venue in Birmingham, England, where, according to Snopes, the guitarist shocked the audience with a string of racist comments and anti-immigrant rhetoric. There was no recording of the concert, and, as such, the exact wording of Clapton's diatribe can't be confirmed. Excerpts circulating recently present what he said as a single, sustained outburst, but Snopes points out that many of those in attendance claim his remarks came as a series of short interjections between songs, and that, as he was also obviously drunk, much of what Clapton was saying was garbled and incoherent. But the British music press ran with the general message: Clapton warned the audience about the danger of "foreigners," claimed that the British fascist Enoch Powell was a "prophet," and that England should "send them all back."

Snopes says that, in the years that followed, Clapton repeatedly dismissed his remarks — he was drunk — but has failed to truly apologize, and has even maintained his support for Powell. 

Context and reaction

The Guardian points to the outrageous hypocrisy behind Clapton's comments: "Clapton's career was based on appropriating (B)lack music, and he had recently had a hit with Bob Marley's 'I Shot the Sheriff'." But it was also the wider political context of 1970s Britain that made Clapton's comments so pernicious. Britain was experiencing a spate of racially-motivated attacks and murders, while the National Front, a fascist party formed in Britain in 1967, had enjoyed recent successes in the north of England, winning 40 percent of the vote in a local election in the town of Blackburn.

Those in the British music scene moved fast to stem the tide of fascistic comments within rock and roll music — David Bowie, under the influence of cocaine, had also made his far-right sympathies clear in interviews. The Guardian reports that the photographer and journalist Red Saunders penned an open letter, signed by a number of colleagues and music-lovers, which read: "Come on Eric... Own up. Half your music is (B)lack. You're rock music's biggest colonist... We want to organise a rank and file movement against the racist poison music... we urge support for Rock against Racism. P.S. Who shot the Sheriff, Eric? It sure as hell wasn't you!"

As the BBC reported, Rock Against Racism emerged as the definitive activist moment of the era, organizing several concerts between 1976 and 1982 (pictured above: Paul Weller) to promote diversity and challenge racism throughout the British music scene.