For roughly five years in the late '60s, from his departure from the Yardbirds to the demise of Derek and the Dominoes, Eric Clayton electrified the world of blues and rock. Many guitarists were forging their own styles at th time, yet at the peak of the golden age of the rock guitar, Clapton was the instrument's platinum idol.

His sheer technical wizardry, melodic invention and intensity of feeling were never equaled. His "sound" -- and overdriven amplified distortion -- became a standard. His phrasing -- flowing blues lines, accented by angular turns and rhythmic somersaults -- redefined blues and rock styles. He could improvise for 20 minutes, with a breathtaking sense of imagination and structure. Then, he could take a short, 12-bar blues solo and make time stand still.

During these years, Clapton's playing was featured in various settings. The strictness of his early work with John Mayall's "Bluesbreakens" was abandoned fro the extended, improvisational forays of Cream. Blind Faith down played the instrumental fireworks, and his playing became more subtle and lyrical. His brief stint as a sideman with the "down home" music of Delaney and Bonnie found its ultimate expression with Derek and the Dominoes, in which blues and rock, faintly tinged by country, brought out all the fire of Clapton's musicianship.

After Derek, Clapton went into selfimposed exile, from 1971 to 1974, during which he stopped recording and appeared on stage only three times. It seemed that Clapton was intimidated by his own "superstar" image and its pressures.

When he reemerged in 1974, with the record "461 Ocean Boulevard," this intimidation had produced frightening results. His meek solo work and plodding material were whimpering protests against the hysteria of his past. He relied more on his modiocre backup musicians, and his pale vocal work was a poor substitute for his once-blazing guitar. The records which followed were similar in "feef" and quality. In fact, his version of "down home" music began to sound merely "down and out."

Clapton's newest record, "backless" (RSO-RE-1-3039), is no exception to this trend, with its stale compositions, lacklster playing and lack of commitment from the musicians.

At times, Clapton almost seems to be mocking the brilliance of his former work. "Early in the Morning" is a slow blues lacking all the sparkle and intensity that his playing once had. The guitar solo is dull and technically feeble, and he appears to be afraid of letting himself go. "If I Don't Be There in the Morning" is vaguely similar to the Rolling Stones at their raunchiest, but Clapton stuters and stumbles along with a roughness that is incomprehensible.

Most of the songs are equally rough -- static rhythms and lifeless, monotonous, melodies. They a re a combination of blues, rock and country but they lack a sense of direction and wallow in a sea of musical indecision. Songs like "Promises" and "I'll Make Love to You Anytime" have some interesting moments which go unpursued, and the entire projecy is dampened by a "care less" attitude. If Clapton gets any more laid back, he might as well be laid out.

This attitude is most pronounced in his choice of backup musicians. Where musicians such as Ginger Bishop, Jack Bruce and Steve Winwood once supplied the challenge and excitement that forced him to play at his best, Clapton now, apparently, prefers the security of being surrounded by accompanists who abilities are competent but uninspired. In the blandness of Jamie Oldaker's druming and Dick Sim's keyboards, Clapton's current shyness has found the perfect home.

"Backless," like much of his recent work, featured Clapton's vocals at the expense of his guitar. He has a smoothly "gruff" singing style that is mildly distinctive but hardly dominant enough to sustain an entire record. With Cream, he wisely chose to limit his vocals to material that was suitable to his abilities. Songs like "Badge" and "Crossroads" were also musically rich so that their strengths always covered his vocal weaknesses. With his present material, Clapton is struggling with himself, and his songs and his vocals never got off the ground.

Eric Clapton appears to be renouncing his style and image in his newer music. While he has felt the need to do so in the past, he always managed to offer something exciting and different. Now, he is merely regressing. If he decides to reenter the musical ferment, rock music should be all the richer for his presence.