Cream was the first rock ‘n roll band I ever truly loved. The first time I popped Disraeli Gears into the CD player of my Jeep in high school, Eric Clapton’s twirly guitar and the delicious beat between bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker hooked me immediately, and it was a deep hook that didn’t come out until years later. I loved them because they sounded so different from what I’d heard before: definitively 60s but with a more orderly improvisational bent (if that makes sense), psychedelic but with a knack for killer riffs. And I thought they were cool: Jack Bruce and his smoking bass, Clapton’s Gibson SG dubbed “The Fool,” and Ginger Baker… was Ginger Baker. With Bruce’s passing late last year, and because he was the reason I took up bass guitar, I finally decided to buckle down and do what I told myself I would for a long time: compose an Artist Overview of the group most responsible for wetting my thirst for exploring the world of popular music.
Cream weren’t the first supergroup; that (dis)honor belongs to Blind Faith. Sure, all three cut their teeth on the British blues circuit with groups varying from John Mayall to Alexis Korner to Graham Bond to the Yardbirds, but despite the retrospective eminence awarded to Bruce and Baker, only Clapton was revered as something of a powerhouse (which, funnily enough, was the name of a short-lived group in which Clapton and Bruce jammed with the likes of Steve Winwood, who’d join the former and Baker shortly after Cream’s demise to establish Blind Faith). Still, only Clapton would come out of the ashes to have a successful solo career, as Bruce leaned more towards art-rock the likes of Procol Harum with Songs for a Tailor, and Baker veering into jazz-fusion with his monstrously large Air Force.
I wasn’t alive in the 60s (thank you, Jesus), but I have to say I’m pretty skeptical about the talk nowadays of how popular they were, and that their breakup sent shockwaves through the music stratosphere. They were a good group, yes, but their problems were myriad. Producer Felix Pappalardi had such a hard time quelling beefs between the bandmates—particularly Bruce and Baker, whose relationship apparently remained antagonistic for decades, possibly until Bruce’s death—that there were rumors about bringing in Traffic’s Steve Winwood as a fourth member to mitigate the tension. (Brief note: Pappalardi also produced guitarist Leslie West’s first album, entitled Mountain, which would become the name of the band the two formed along with drummer Corky Laing, achieving moderate success with single “Mississippi Queen,” and for some reason earning themselves the title of a Cream doppelganger.) But besides the stressful environment, Clapton quickly grew disillusioned with stardom, feeling that his work was being praised because of his ability to play loudly and quickly. In fact, that’s largely how the band made their name—long, loud, live jams that, in their later days, weren’t so much coordinated efforts between an undeniably talented trio so much as competitive horse races to see who could exhaust the others. Some people insist the best part of Wheels of Fire is the live disc, and with the exception of “Crossroads,” I challenge any of them to record themselves sitting still through Baker’s infinity solo on “Toad” and with a straight face tell the camera he’s enjoying it. Finally, the truth of the matter is that none were very good songwriters. Their albums were glutted with forgettable covers (“Four Until Late”) and ornate psychedelic trash (“Dance the Night Away”), and not one of them, especially the band’s Beat poet Pete Brown, could pen a decent line. When they weren’t dealing with nonsense lyrics, the only discernable theme that ever came through was a desire to escape the facelessness of city life, but even that I chalk up to Brown’s hippie leanings. They definitely scored a few (“Sunshine of Your Love” and “White Room” and “I Feel Free”), but other than those, the casual listener will find little of interest, and only devoted fans could find anything to love in something as unusual as “Passing the Time,” and I am one of those.
You’ll notice that I didn’t bother including their reunion album, though if you’ve paid attention to anything I’ve written so far you’ll see I’m not the biggest advocate of their live game, not to mention that adding forty years to their age isn’t the best recipe for lively, genuine performances. Among the clusters of best-ofs cluttering used record shops, I’ve reviewed the three you’re most likely to run across and the one you should actually get. No reviews of the all-inclusive Those Were the Days, which is only worth it if you’re a diehard who doesn’t own any of their shit and wants to pick up a bunch of middling extra material—including throwaway demos and even a beer commercial—that never made it to a studio album. I’ve also excluded Deluxe Editions, which with rare exception I find to be complete scams.
Fresh Cream (Atco ’66): Clapton claims they cut “Wrapping Paper” to prove they weren’t just a blues band, and the amount of pop here—from opener “I Feel Free” (on the original US, but not UK, release) to “Sweet Wine” to forgettable drum opus “Toad”—proves that heartily. One could argue that their covers of standards (“Spoonful,” “Four Until Late,” etc.) show otherwise, but mixed with Jack Bruce’s whistle-clean yelp they sound as innocuous as any Beatles co-opted number. And considering that Ginger Baker, excruciating asshole he is, hasn’t ever considered Cream to be blues or rock or anything, must have made the listener nearly fifty years ago wonder just what Cream were. Fledgling supertrio probably wouldn’t have been the first thing to come to mind; Graham Bond Organisation splinter cell with an Albert King kick, maybe. More likely a sloppier, more abrasive Beatles without the gift of chemistry between its leading men. Perhaps that’s why they brought in George Harrison for a ditty their fourth time out. Drum solo length: 3:27. B PLUS (**)
Disraeli Gears (Atco ’67): This was the first album I ever fell in love with, but I’ve come a long way since 17 and recognize this for the wah-wah washing it is. Aside from the psychedelic, Albert King-inspired “Strange Brew,” the drug-induced retelling of the “Tales of Brave Ulysses,” and the inimitable, stuttering riff of “Sunshine of Your Love,” this isn’t quite the classic nostalgic types want to believe. It’s an improvement over the by-the-numbers shuffle of Fresh Cream, but it’s not without its turds: Ginger Baker’s drawling “Blue Condition” rounds out side one on a sour note, and “We’re Going Wrong”—despite being included on numerous best-ofs—features a swirling lick with Bruce’s faulty falsetto. They score one for a contained version of “Outside Woman Blues,” and I’d like to give them the rollicking “Swlabr,” but then I’d have to concede to ‘poet’ Pete Brown’s inscrutable lyrics. And those lyrics pop up in all sort of head-scratching combinations: “And I can hear the cries of the city / No time for pity / For the tree or me,” “You’ve got that rainbow feel / But the rainbow has a beard.” No wonder that considering their disregard for words, then, that lore has it the meaningless album title materialized not as a reference to British politician/writer Benjamin Disraeli, but from an idiot roadie making a mispronouncement while watching a bicycle race: “’Ey chaps. Look at ‘em disraeli gears.” Drum solo length: 0:00. B PLUS (***)
Wheels of Fire (Atco ’68): How could the supposedly Biggest Band in the World resist the temptation of the double album? Well, they did, at least if you think double albums only count if half the shit isn’t excruciatingly long live cuts no one asked for—16-minute version of “Spoonful,” anyone? Or how about an equally long “Toad” featuring a Ginger Baker drum solo that’s probably still going? A shame there’s so much excess, because cut for cut this is their strongest set: the menacing march of “Politician,” from which this blog may or may have not stolen its handle; the “Tales of Brave Ulysses” superior remake “White Room”; a competent cover of Albert King’s crown jewel “Born Under a Bad Sign”; the surprisingly decent acoustic cut “As You Said,” where Bruce seems to have a genuine emotion; even “Pressed Rat and Warthog” with Baker’s idiotic poetry and Pappalardi’s French horn; the underrated and oft-forgotten “Deserted Cities of the Heart”; and “Crossroads,” the one good live jam that fully displayed, no holds barred, Clapton’s domination of the guitar. I give this one the edge because you can shut off the second disc after “Crossroads.” And you should, unless Dave Matthews or Phish aren’t masochistic enough for you. Drum solo length:13:08. A MINUS
Goodbye (Atco ’69): Be warned, ye who would comment here: no Cream fan in his right mind considers “Badge” to be one of Cream’s best, and not because it’s not an original—it’s because it’s a George Harrison song that, whodathunkit, sounds like a George Harrison song. This is a useless album consisting of three new songs and three live ones, the live ones eating up 2/3 of the running time, the whole shebang cobbled together in the wake of the band’s implosion for a quick cash grab to feed the booze, dope, and heroin habits at least two of the boys knew would last a lot longer than the viability of their commercial careers as superstars. LEMON
Live Cream, Volume I (Atco ’70): Five songs, four from ’68 and the other from ’67. “So there’s ‘Sunshine of Your Love,’ right? Or maybe even ‘White Room?’” Erm, no, but how does a ten-minute rendition of “N.S.U.” sound? Or perhaps a fifteen-minute “Sweet Wine?” Hey! Where are you going? LEMON
Live Cream, Volume II (Atco ’72): Six cuts including tunes you want to hear: “White Room” and “Sunshine of Your Love” and “Politician” and “Tales of Brave Ulysses.” The performances? Probably better if you were there, and not as excessive as the first volume, except, of course, for the 13:38 “Steppin’ Out.” B PLUS (*)
Strange Brew: The Very Best of Cream (Polydor ’83): Of all comps available, this is easily the best. With only “Anyone for Tennis” being the one strange track and the tossed in “Spoonful” as the album’s caboose (and this reviewer’s disdain for the oh-so-popular “Badge”), this includes all their greatest stuff without an essential missing or a completely left-field inclusion. You want forty-odd minutes of primo Cream without long solo slogs? This is it, buddy. A PLUS
The Very Best of Cream (Polydor ’95): Despite some downright bizarre choices—“Anyone for Tennis” or “We’re Going Wrong” or “Those Were the Days”—this doesn’t leave out a single track any self-respecting Cream aficionado would include—any gripes you have about missing items are your own particular fetishes. Me? I would’ve traded “Those Were the Days” for “As You Said,” but what’s clear is clear: there are 20 tracks here and only half are really good, the rest okay to mediocre to shitty. And this is the most popular ‘best-of.’ How’s that for titans of classic rock? Would you have to scrape so much to fill a Zeppelin disc of greatest hits? A
20th Century Masters – The Millennium Collection: The Best of Cream (Polydor/Universal ’00): 11 cuts as opposed to Strange Brew’s 12, and trades out “Born Under a Bad Sign,” “Swlabr,” and “Anyone for Tennis” for “N.S.U” and “Sweet Wine,” with the first two subtractions unacceptable. Preferable to Gold, inferior to The Very Best of Cream. B PLUS (**)
BBC Sessions (Polydor ’03): If you’re the peculiar sort of fellow desperate for decent live Cream, look no further. Sure, the sound quality isn’t always great (“Crossroads” suffers in particular, but you’ve already got that one), but being in-studio helped curb the excess that plagued their self-indulgent arena performances. On every track they display a raw energy they couldn’t always capture for the albums, improving the sometimes lackluster studio versions: “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” takes on the huff-and-puff of a locomotive, “I’m So Glad” achieves catharsis in its trancelike recitation, and “Politician” picks up speed and drops a new superbly slimy verse: “Well, I run this country, and I run that one over there, too / So come on, baby, let me show you how I’m gonna run you.” 22 cuts not counting the four Clapton ‘interviews,’ this could double as a best-of if only numbers like “White Room” had been slipped in. A MINUS
Gold (Polydor ’05): Along with The Very Best of Cream, this is the one you’re most likely to encounter, but I would recommend avoiding it in favor of any of the others. 29 tracks, 21 of them studio (of the 35 in total from albums) and 8 live. The only reason to buy this is if you want as much Cream as possible for the lowest price, but you’d honestly be better off collecting their first three studio albums or springing for the career-collecting Those Were the Days. Also along with the others, this includes the non-album “Anyone for Tennis,” which must have been thrown in by compilers as some sort of obscure inside joke. B PLUS (*)