Cream

TrackAlbum / Single
BadgeGoodbye
CrossroadsWheels Of Fire
I Feel FreeReaction 591011 single
NSUFresh Cream
Sitting On Top Of The WorldWheels Of Fire
Sleepy Time TimeFresh Cream
Strange BrewDisraeli Gears
Sweet WineFresh Cream
We're Going WrongDisraeli Gears
White RoomWheels Of Fire

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Contributor: Rob Millis

We don’t need any biography or introductions. We all know that this concerns Eric Clapton (guitar/vocs), Jack Bruce (bass/harmonica/ keys/vocs) and Ginger Baker (drums/vox), right? Let’s roll our sleeves up and get on with it.

For me, 25 years down the line of first hearing Cream (I was fourteen and had just bought my first electric guitar; Dad – unlike most fathers who would have been extremely concerned by such a purchase – went delving into a cupboard and pulled out his cherished copy of Wheels Of Fire and set about playing it to me) and that wonderful thing of how taste changes over the years, one thing that struck me is that I shall try and keep this Topper 10 to focussed material. There are an awful lot of ponderous workouts on Cream live recordings that serve to fuel the “lots to answer for, that band …” naysayers. Cream were so much more than that: exciting, raw, new – even.

Not that the naysayers’ criticisms aren’t without some basis: Cream were three musicians that liked to push the boundaries and this too easily teeters over the edge into the abyss of self-indulgence. Let me be the guide and I’ll find the stepping stones through it.

Peter Viney will like this: we’ll start with a single. I Feel Free from 1966, a deceptively poppy and melodic tune with vocal harmonies but a monster guitar break in the middle, just like “we” (I wasn’t around yet but if the BBC Home Service can be allowed to continue their annoying trait of talking present tense about historical events, so can I) had become excited about through Clapton’s Mayall period.

Lots of people were confused by this and the (awful) Wrapping Paper single; after all, hadn’t EC so publicly left the poppy Yardbirds to focus on his love of the blues with Mayall? But this was new music – much of it written by Bruce and lyricist Pete Brown – a fusion of pop sensibility rather than strict roots music structures as a backdrop, with the opposite stance in the instrumental parts: raw, bluesy statements at ear-splitting volume rather than the twangy variation on the vocal melody that had come before. Not unlike I Feel Free were NSU, the opening cut from Fresh Cream and Sweet Wine. Poppy vocals, harmonies and a guitar break that would slay a dragon. Not that the blues was entirely forgotten – Sleepy Time Time is a lovely slow workout to cater for EC’s purist fans and Bruce’s harmonica tour de force came in the shape of Rollin’ And Tumblin’.

Fast forward to 1967 and the Summer of Love. Psychedelia. Afghan coats, afro hairdos. Cream were all over that and Disraeli Gears is right up there with the best of them. For many the definitive LP; if a little muddy sounding compared to the crisp production of the debut. Or so I thought for years until I heard a Mono copy of the album which sounded killer and I strongly urge anybody who has never heard a mono version to try and do so – it really is as if somebody has taken the cotton wool out of your ears.

Though Jack Bruce gets huffy about the song really being something else changed at the last minute (it was to be an arrangement of the blues song Lawdy Mama and came out as so on the retrospective Live Cream), let’s have Strange Brew as our first cut from Disraeli Gears. Albert King styled guitar from EC who also takes one of his earliest large-exposure vocals. I was adamant that we either had this or Sunshine Of Your Love and I chose Strange Brew. If you have ever been in a guitar shop on a Saturday afternoon you’ll understand why. Tales Of Brave Ulysees was a fine period piece with much of the then-new “Wah Wah” pedal about it, but White Room would follow in a similar, albeit more refined style so instead we’ll close our look at Disraeli Gears with We’re Going Wrong – a slow, minor key moody number – for two reasons: Clapton’s trademark “woman tone” guitar (for nerds: the neck pickup with the volume turned up but tone rolled back) and I think one of Bruce’s finest vocal performances. I saw Bruce years ago with Funkadelic organist Bernie Worrell in the line-up and still get goosebumps at recollection of their rendition of it.

Work, work, work – the constant touring didn’t help Cream as tiredness as well as personal differences being multiplied by the same three people spending month after month in hotels, on planes and buses – and the old Bruce/Baker love-hate scenario that predated the band flaring up at will – but some great performances came out of their 1967-68 live performances. Though you can apply the guitar shop bore rule also to Crossroads (their uptempo romp through the old Robert Johnson chestnut) it is too exciting and spirited to ignore, so we’ll begin our choices from Wheels Of Fire (2LP; half live at the Fillmore East, half studio recordings) with it and then move to the studio recordings. White Room is a vital track (and having left out Sunshine Of Your Love this had to be in) and with it I would put Sitting On Top Of The World – a Howlin’ Wolf blues – just for that primal honk that opens the song; never since has a guitar chord sounded so gruff and impenetrable. Great vocals again from Jack Bruce; let him be added to the list of Scots like Frankie Miller, James Dewar and the like who all show that north of the border they certainly have the pipes.

Cream split in 1968 and further live performances were added to some final studio recordings to finish a fourth LP, Goodbye. It’s got to be Badge to round off the Topper Ten – that irresistible song written by Eric and George Harrison (L’Angelo Mysterioso) who I’d bet good money played the chiming guitar in the middle. It just sounds like George, repaying the favour of While My Guitar Gently Weeps.

There you go. Yes, I’ve avoided lengthier live stuff and forgotten both The Coffee Song and Falstaff Beer. Will await the cries of “What? No mention of Pressed Rat & Warthog or Anyone For Tennis!” with baited breath.

Ginger Baker’s official website

Jack Bruce – the official website

Eric Clapton official website

Cream Discography

Cream biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #163

9 Comments

  1. David Lewis
    Jan 11, 2014

    Superb list. My own top ten includes Anyone for Tennis (it sounds to me what would happen if The Kinks and The Beatles combined).

    It never occurred to me that George might be playing on Badge (one of the greatest songs ever). But that movement is all over side 2 of Abbey Road. (Though Clapton himself uses a similar riff in White Room). I suspect George may have played his black tele or his psychedelic strat.

    • Rob Millis
      Jan 11, 2014

      David (above), I suspect that rosewood Telecaster too, and the Leslie cabinet that Eric gave him as a birthday present around that time!

      Ian (below), it IS fact that George played on Badge, but “rhythm guitar” is the only credit. I’m guessing it was specifically that chiming part he played as it is his style to a tee: as David says, you only have to listen to the suite side of Abbey Road, particularly the end of the “One Sweet Dream” snippet in You Never Give Me Your Money.

      All – thanks. Was expecting some flak for my Cream tastes, particularly hatcheting any lengthy workouts and Sunshine of Your Love!

  2. Ian Ashleigh
    Jan 11, 2014

    Great list Rob, can’t argue with any of it.

    I thought it was fact that George Harrison plays on Badge which was to be called ‘Bridge’ until someone at the record company misread the handwriting.

  3. Peter Viney
    Jan 11, 2014

    You knew this was coming, Rob … Wot! No Sunshine of Your Love? I don’t want to hear a kid pick it out in a guitar shop either, but it is a hugely influential song. Or perhaps “riff.”

    But I prefer “strange Brew” too.

    • Rob Millis
      Jan 12, 2014

      Quite – Strange Brew cannot be blamed for In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.

  4. David Lewis
    Jan 12, 2014

    For what it’s worth, here’s my 10, prepared before I knew Rob was doing one (I’ve written ‘I must always ask the moderators’ on the board 150 times).

    Badge (Goodbye)
    Sunshine of your Love (Disraeli Gears)
    Tales of Brave Ulysses (Disraeli Gears)
    We’re going wrong (Disraeli Gears)
    Anyone for Tennis (single)
    Crossroads (Wheels of Fire)
    Politician (Wheels of Fire)
    White Room (Wheels of Fire)
    I feel free (Fresh Cream)
    Deserted Cities of the Heart (Wheels of Fire)

  5. David Lewis
    Jan 12, 2014

    Ian: Harrison had written the musical direction ‘Bridge’ on top of page 2 and someone misread it, and thought it the title.. Appalling handwriting apparently.

  6. Peter Viney
    Jan 12, 2014

    Coming up on the outside track here … Wrapping Paper. (Sorry, Rob!) OK, Ginger hated it. Ginger tells everyone Eric hated it too. But … if Mama Cass had recorded it as a follow up to Dream A Little Dream Of Me (written in 1931) people would have loved it, though complained that it was far too similar to the previous record. New Vaudevilla Band? Bonzo Dog? Some Lovin’ Spoonful? They could all have done it. The problem of course is that it sounds absolutely nothing like Cream. Maybe they were trying out the backing vocals which then adorned several singles. Were the vocals just Jack and Eric? I often doubted it, but never pursued it. That whimsical mood suited the time, see Traffic with Hole in My Shoe too. I put it on this morning and have left it on replay for twenty minutes.

    But Anyone for Tennis sounded nothing like Cream either, and if you play Wrapping Paper followed by Anyone For Tennis they fit together fine. Nice viola from Felix Pappaladi too. And Doin’ That Scrapyard Thing follows well too. There’s an alternate “pop-psych only” Cream playlist waiting! Strange Brew, NSU and I Feel Free could be on it too. Maybe Tales of Brave Ulysses, but the strength of the riff fits in with a “Cream as we know it” list.

    • Rob Millis
      Jan 12, 2014

      Peter, re: pop psych only – frankly I’d have had Those Were The Days on my list over (yawn) White Room but for ten songs to educate with, it seemed churlish.

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