Cream were indeed the best of the rock musicians in Britain of the time, three people who could do about anything and had the amazing songwriting of Jack Bruce to guide them. Bruce was also a brilliant bass player, carving out melodies and then running laps around himself on the bass neck; Eric Clapton had previously played in many other famous English bands (John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Yardbirds, etc.) and he was more than up to the task of playing any kind of tunes Bruce could compose; Ginger Baker was a madman drummer for sure, sounding at times like two people playing at the same time and along with Bruce adding a layer of free jazz atmosphere to the proceedings. Cream were the first recognizable “power trio” as well, proving that three really good musicians is all you need to make rock n’ roll vital as long as each person is playing to max capacity and singing multiple harmonies. They are also most successful “supergroup” in rock history, proving artist collaborations of different styles can produce unpredictable results.
In a way, I hesitate to review a band like Cream, because they didn’t have too many albums and pretty much everyone agrees which albums by them are the best. But hopefully, my thoughts will add something to the many other reviews out there already.
Jack Bruce – Bass, lead Vocals
Eric Clapton – Guitar, vocals
Ginger Baker – Drums, vocals
1966 – (4 / 5) – Fresh Cream
1967 – (5 / 5) – Disraeli Gears
1968 – (4.5 / 5) – Wheels of Fire (studio album)
1968 – (3 / 5) – Wheels of Fire (live album)
1969 – (3.5 / 5) – Goodbye
Fresh Cream – (4 / 5)
The first Cream album is a mix of several kinds of music, as should be expected because each of the bands players play in their own special universe. Firstly, they make the blues sound very alive and more entertaining than many bands of the era. Covers of Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful” and “Rollin and Tumbling” are fine examples of a band that plays well together and brings a huge amplification to their sound which for its time sounded louder and more spaced out then most. While rooted in tradition, the blues sound of Cream had a lot in common with jazz music as well, as there is a lot of “room” in their music to improvise. Secondly, openers “I Feel Free” and “Wrapping Paper” (the latter of which was only on the first pressing of the album as it was deemed “too soft” of an opening track for the album in the USA) have a lot in common with the vocal harmony groups of the late 50’s and early 60’s, as they represent a kind of melodic eloquence that most blues bands lacked. “Dreaming” also displays this quality of happy melancholy, and is one of lead singer Jack Bruce’s defining tunes. “Sleepy Time Time” and “Four Until Late” are examples of songs that any band of the era good come up with and are easily skippable on repeat listens.
Lastly, Cream gives their own take on how to transform rock music further than just simple twelve bar blues with a couple of key tracks. “Cat’s Squirrel” beats its riff into submission, while staying in perfect control it threatens to veer off the tracks at any moment with an internal repetitious and wild nature. “I’m so Glad” is one of the band’s signature tunes (expanded upon in a great way on subsequent live versions) and is also repetitious to the point of submission, reaping the title of the song over and over again (the original version of this song was recorded in the early 1930’s). “N.S.U.” sounded like little else of the time, again dynamic with its loud wails in the chorus and thoughtful lyrics: “happiness is something that just cannot be bought”. It all ends with “Toad”, one of the earliest examples of a drum solo as a song, played eloquently by Ginger Baker but honestly, not something I listen to that often. Showing off every side of the band extremely well, Fresh Cream is a debut full of promise and potential that proves the band can play just about any kind of music they want to. I’ll give them this – none of it is boring even 50 plus years later.
Greatest Tracks: Dreaming, Wrapping Paper, Cat’s Squirrel, N.S.U.
Disraeli Gears – (5 / 5)
Cream’s second album is the one that people tend to obtain first, and most people would agree it’s quintessential. It shows the band moving far past traditional twelve bar blues into psychedelic rock territory, but it also shows a kind of poetic nature that made the group stand out as the wise elders of the mid-1960’s rock bands. Lyric samples such as, “Is there a reason for today?”, “The rainbow has a beard”, and “Tiny purple fishes run laughing through your fingers” are exemplary of this, and abstract phrasing has rarely worked so well within the confines on rock music. Part of this may have been due to many outside writer’s credits on the record, including Gail Collins, Pete Brown, Martin Sharp, and Felix Pappalardi; truly the band was a “supergroup” in many ways on this record. The album is perfectly sequenced, leading with two great lead singles on each side of the record and then following them up with more dreamy, experimental tracks.
On the accessible side, opener “Strange Brew” is perhaps the defining twelve bar blues rock song of the era, as Eric Clapton’s arpeggiated chord changes are strangely addictive and he sings falsetto through the entire tune. “Swlabr” combines the start/stop nature of the groups more progressive leanings with a driving rock riff that is never straightforward but very catchy. “Tales of Brave Ulysses” is the most mysterious track that seems to transport the listener back in time while telling them a demented story that may seem profound but makes little sense, while “Sunshine of Your Love” is the best example of Clapton using Bruce’s descending bass lines as fodder for his distorted electric guitar showoffs (and when you can play as good as Eric Clapton, why not show it off?).
In the deeper cuts, “Dance the Night Away” has another one of those Cream choruses that defies the rules of vocal harmonies, not to mention chord changes that sound like they shouldn’t work but somehow do. “Blue Condition” lets Ginger Baker get a song credit with a kind of turgid blues ballad that stomps along like a drunkard stumbling down the sidewalk. “World of Pain” and “We’re Going Wrong” nearly lose all traces of rhythm with their ethereal melodies that transport the listener to the clouds. “Take It Back” is a catchy, albeit traditional blues rock tune that shows how the band easily pump out blues number after blues number if they felt like it; the same is true for their cover of Blind Joe Reynolds’ “Outside Woman Blues”. These great supporting album tracks bring a sort of lazy and relaxed vibe to the record that stands in contrast with the upbeat rocking singles.
In a way, Disraeli Gears is not Cream in its most representative form, as it cuts out most of the excess qualities they show on other albums. It works better as a distillation of the band’s sound, as none of these songs run past five minutes but almost any of them could jam on for double their length. As most people’s first Cream experience, Disraeli Gears is dangerous in that it is so formally perfect with no real weak tracks that it makes it all seem too easy; no other Cream album is as consistent as this one. Rarely does any rock album achieve this mix of taking a genre (blues rock) and morphing and changing it in so many subtle ways that it never gets boring and opens the door to endless diversions for future artists to explore. It’s a very short album too, as a whole its only 33 minutes long, and by closing with the silly throw away English three-part harmony traditional “Mother’s Lament”, it leaves us wanting more. But hey, isn’t that what great rock albums should do?
Greatest Tracks: Sunshine of Your Love, Tales of Brave Ulysses, World of Pain, Dance the Night Away
Wheels of Fire (studio album) – (4.5 / 5)
Cream’s third record is the band at its most expansive, as each song has plenty of time to squeeze of their collective ideas out. For example, songs such as “Sitting on Top of the World” and “Those Were the Days” would simply not have been possible on previous records as instead of being driven solely by melody, the music has multiple ideas thrown in the internal structure of the music just when you think you have a song figured out. “As You Said” is the best example of a song created by a BAND that is in complete control of its facilities. “Passing the Time” abruptly changes in the middle of the song to a completely different idea in a different tempo, showing off an early version of progressive rock ideas that would influence art-punk bands such as Talking Heads and Television ten years later.
The band is still blues rock, but songs such as “Politician” are mutated blues, as swampy and evil as the music as ever sounded. At its core, Cream has always been about moving rock music forwards and I definitely believe if the band would have continued to expand its style, they would have been unstoppable. Certain ideas such as “Pressed Rat and Warthog” are perhaps failed studio effect heavy experiments (these guys did not surpass Hendrix or The Beatles when it came to being ‘far out’) and “Born Under a Bad Sign” is simply a normal blues song, elegantly performed. The albums two best songs beat into submission any other band in 1968: “White Room” takes the descending bass approach perfected on Disraeli Gears and smashes it together with the gentle harmonies of the debut album; “Deserted Cities of the Heart” stands as the best closer the band ever did, with an attitude the blows away and other rock acts of the era and adding a heavy, distorted sound that would shape the hard rock of the 1970’s. The first part of Wheels of Fire (the studio album) gets a very high, well deserved 4 ½ out of five rating.
Greatest Tracks: Deserted Cities of the Heart, White Room, As You Said, Politician
Wheels of Fire (live album) – (3 / 5)
…. but the meandering live second half gets only a 3 out of five.
Unfortunately, the band decided to throw on another complete record of live songs that vary in quality. I personally don’t pull out this part of the record too much, as two of the live songs, “Spoonful” and “Toad”, were far better on the band’s debut record and are extended into these fifteen minute versions that show everything that is wrong with Clapton’s version of the blues. Random guitar noodling and soloing is not my thing, and I much prefer to listen to Cream when the songs are compact as they never really made any tunes over six minutes that I cared for (with a couple of obvious exceptions). “Crossroads” is the only classic song on here and even that song is a cover, so to put it harshly, who cares if it is good? Anyone can cover a song, and the band’s tendency to repeat themselves is evident here. “Traintime is the only original song on the live part of WOF, and it is a decent harmonica driven tune but nothing to compare to the genius of the first part of the record. I can understand if people would think I am being too hard on this part of WOF, but in all honestly with all of the other great original songs the band had, I find it hard to care about long drawn out versions of their favorite cover songs.
Greatest Tracks: Crossroads
Goodbye – (3.5 / 5)
Goodbye, obviously the final Cream record since every member of the group has gone on to other projects – Jack Bruce to a solo career, Clapton to Derek and the Dominoes, Ginger Baker to Blind Faith – is more like a fun EP than a studio record. The nearly ten-minute version of “I’m So Glad” shows just how far the band have come since their debut album in only three years, and may stand as their best recorded live jam. The intricate playing by each member of the group matches anything the Jimi Hendrix Experience ever did for sure. “Politician” and “Siting on Top of the World”, each from the last studio record Wheels of Fire, are almost as good but each are somewhat marred by a shabby live production quality; it should be noted that this rough-demo type style worked for “I’m So Glad” but does hurt the other two live tracks. This is spoken by someone who got to see Bruce play “Politician” live with Vernon Ried, Martin Medeski, and other beautiful musicians in his Rainbow Road project a couple months before he passed away, so maybe I am a bit spoiled 😛
There are also three studio tracks, and they all have something to save in them. “Badge” is a lovely pop concoction that shows that there was still potential left in this band’s sound if they had somehow stayed together of regrouped. “What A Bringdown” shows Ginger Baker at his best as well, with a song as good as “Blue Condition” to his cannon, while “Doing that Scrapyard Thing” is a lesser, more forgettable track. At this point in the band, I’m sure all three tunes would have still KILLED live. A better idea in retrospect might have just released a total live album, including these new songs and incorporating the last half of Wheels of Fire, thereby letting WOF be cemented as its own studio record totally? I guess in hindsight, everything sounds simple. Taking it how it is, Goodbye is a fine little record that showcases where the band could have gone if they hadn’t split up. The potential was mid blowing, but there are more thought provoking scenarios here than actual life changing music.
Greatest Tracks: I’m So Glad, Badge, What a Bringdown