While American audiences obsessed over four mop-topped Liverpudlians called the Beatles, some British rockers were becoming equally fascinated by American blues music. They studied it, learned to play it, and put a distinctive British stamp on it. Then they sold it back to America on pressed vinyl. The three members of Cream were among those who mastered this trans-Atlantic transaction.
Guitar royalty Eric Clapton had just quit The Yardbirds the year before Cream was formed because he wanted to play more blues. First Clapton made a quick stop as a member of John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers. But by the end of 1966 he was ready to put together his own band.
He’d recently met drummer Ginger Baker, who was at the time playing blues-inspired tunes with the Graham Bond Organisation and looking for an exit. Baker brought bassist Jack Bruce into the mix – at Clapton’s insistence, even though Baker and Bruce were famous for their quarreling -- and Cream was born.
Music executive Robert Stigwood, Cream’s manager, was just setting up an independent record label. He made Cream’s debut, Fresh Cream, the company’s first project. (Nearly its last project, too. Reaction released only three full-length albums: two by Cream and one by The Who.)
True to the band’s mission, the record included some blues covers in addition to original songs by Bruce and Baker. “Four Until Late,” Clapton’s only vocal lead on the album, is by blues great Robert Johnson. Bruce’s ambling bass line and harmonica riffs give this cut an irresistible motion, in spite of Clapton’s rather noncommital singing. Dig that mouth-harp solo at 1:13.
Fresh Cream was released in the U.S. and fared pretty well. But the second album, Disraeli Gears (1967) really solidified Cream’s name in America. It hit No. 4 on the U.S. charts. Its singles, “Sunshine of Your Love” and “Strange Brew,” are still standards of classic rock.
But this album is chock-full of great stuff. Don’t forget “SWLABR” by Jack Bruce and poet/singer Pete Brown. The title apparently stands for “She Walks [or maybe Was] Like a Bearded Rainbow.” Psychedelia, anyone? Although Bruce wrote the music, it’s arguably Clapton’s aching ax-playing that takes this track to another level.
With Reaction Records defunct, the band signed with Polydor for their third album, Wheels of Fire (1968). It was a smash. This became the first double album ever to go platinum. It also hit No. 1 on U.S. album charts.
Wheels of Fire is actually two albums released as a set (they were also available as two single records in some markets): one recorded in the studio and one live, with tracks from San Francisco venues The Fillmore and Winterland.
Side 2 of the studio disc started with “Pressed Rat and Warthog,” one of two collaborations between Baker and jazz pianist Mike Taylor for the album. British literary critic Peter Stothard once described this song as “part Wind in the Willows, part dirty Scottish canal life.” It’s a ballad, in the folk sense of story-song. But instead of singing, Baker speaks the bizarre tale of two unfortunate merchant animals as if to children around a campfire. Producer Felix Pappalardi provides the mournful muted trumpet.
In their short time together, Cream existed largely as a jam band, and their performances were legendary. And while they did release some live material officially, bootlegs were rampant.
Dazed and Cream is, by many accounts, the best-produced of the illicit live captures. As one mega-fan put it on his Clapton-devoted website, “The jams are simply beyond human description.” Some of the tracks were recorded at the Detroit Grande Ballroom in 1967, and some at Winterland in 1968.
From the first venue is “Toad,” an instrumental previously released in studio version on Fresh Cream. In fact, it goes back farther than that. Baker had originally called it “Camels and Elephants” when he played it with the Graham Bond Organisation. It was unheard-of at the time for a drummer to solo during a rock song.
There’s a wildness about live “Toad” that’s missing from studio “Toad.” And it’s not just the distortion in the band’s sound equipment and/or the bootlegger’s recording equipment. The tempo is a hair slower than it was on Fresh Cream, encouraging the musicians – especially Clapton – to express themselves more freely, bending the notes and rhythms as they feel them.
By 1969 it was clear to all three players that Cream had run its course. Baker and Bruce were forever at odds, and Clapton felt like the individual members did more showing off than true group playing. So they planned their farewell album, aptly named Goodbye. It had three live tracks and three from studio.
“What a Bringdown” is by Baker, but the vocals are shared by Bruce and Clapton. One of the best things about this cut is the meter in the instrumental sections, alternating 6/8 and 2/4 (count eighth notes: 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2, 1-2), right out of Afro-Cuban music. When the verse starts, the meter changes to a steady 3/4. No surprise that the drummer wrote this thing.
Although Clapton and Baker played together briefly in the band Blind Faith, the only other time all three musicians performed as a trio was at their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993. They did three songs that night.
Until 2005, that is. In what is perhaps the most straightforward title in rock history, Royal Albert Hall London May 2-3-5-6, 2005 was a recording of exactly what its name describes. (You can also watch it on DVD.)
Some critics complained that their playing wasn’t as free and jamming as on earlier live recordings. Gee, really? The fact that they hadn’t worked together seriously in 35 years had an effect? Not to mention their ages and the intense expectations of fans longing to recapture their own 1960s youth. There’s a time to complain and there’s a time to be thankful for the miracle of one more chance to hear great artists. Jack Bruce died in 2014, so there are no more chances.
It’s only fitting to end with some blues. This is Cream’s 2005 performance of the Muddy Waters song “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” which they first did on their debut album in 1966. That opening duet between harmonica and guitar makes me glad the Brits fell in love with the blues.