Wheels of Fire by Cream

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Wheels of Fire by CreamThe short-lived power trio Cream reached their apex with Wheels of Fire in 1968. This double album consists of one studio LP and one live LP, and it became the first ever platinum-selling double album, showing that the group had fully arrived just before they decided to call it quits. Wheels of Fire was produced by Felix Pappalardi, who also played various eclectic instruments and helped  choose the live material to provide a showcase for each band member. Most of the studio material was recorded in London and New York during late 1967, while the live performances were captured in San Francisco during early 1968.

Cream rarely performed any of their songs before they entered the studio. On Wheels of Fire, the studio material consists of two blues covers chosen by guitarist Eric Clapton along with original material composed by two distinct teams. Bassist and lead vocalist Jack Bruce teamed up with poet Pete Brown to write four of the studio tracks, while drummer Ginger Baker co-wrote three songs with musician Mike Taylor. During these sessions, Clapton did write the acoustic folk song “Anyone For Tennis” (on which he also sang), which was included on limited versions on the album but otherwise released as a single and featured in the movie, The Savage Seven.

The entire studio album was completed before Cream recorded material for the live album. For these live recordings, Pappalardi used a mobile recording studio outside the Fillmore Auditorium and the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, where six shows were recorded. From these recordings, four extended tracks were chosen to fill the second LP. “Traintime” is a showcase for Bruce due to his performance of a bluesy harmonica solo, Similarly, “Toad” features a lengthy drum solo by Baker, much longer than the original recording from Fresh Cream. Clapton’s guitar again shines on the classic blues tracks “Spoonful” and “Crossroads”, with the latter Robert Johnson classic becoming so identified with Clapton that he used the title, Crossroads, for his 1988 box set.


Wheels of Fire by Cream
Released: August, 1968 (Polydor)
Produced by: Felix Pappalardi
Recorded: IBC Studios, London & Atlantic Studios, New York, July 1967 – June 1968
Side One Side Two
White Room
Sitting on Top of the World
Passing the Time
As You Said
Pressed Rat and Warthog
Politician
Those Were the Days
Born Under a Bad Sign
Deserted Cities of the Heart
Anyone for Tennis?
Side Three Side Four
Crossroads
Spoonful
Traintime
Toad
Band Musicians
Jack Bruce – Bass, Cello, Harmonica, Acoustic Guitar, Recorder, Lead Vocals
Eric Clapton – Guitars, Vocals
Ginger Baker – Drums, Percussion, Vocals

 

As an encapsulated package of the best elements of Cream during their duration as a group, “White Room” has become the group’s essential song. Written by Bruce and Brown, the song features a sharp, direct rock beat and a great riff accented by hyper Clapton’s wah-wah guitar. The ethereal refrain section shows the upper range of what this band can accomplish compositionally and the reprise of opening psych-influenced intro is nicely complimented by the sudden return to the hard rock of the outro. Brown’s lyrics have been interrupted as the recollection of a bad acid trip, but certainly leave enough room for interpretation to traverse the decades.

The cover of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Sitting on Top of the World” is a heavy version of a classic 1920s blues song, with Clapton playing the type of blues guitar that Jimmy Page would soon adopt. The album then turns to some of its most original material. Baker and Taylor’s “Passing the Time” is a mulit-part song which starts as odd drum piece before fading into a completely different, psychedelic organ and viola fueled semi-ballad with some vocal harmonizing. A third section gives the song its title as a rock improve which again fades out as the light second section returns to finish the song. “As You Said” features Bruce on acoustic with some cello by Pappalardi and may be the oddest of Cream songs. In close competition for that title is “Pressed Rat and Warthog”, featuring spoken vocals by Baker, which he originally wanted his daughter to record. While on the surface this may seem like a farcical tune, the music beneath the voice rather interesting and dynamic.

The rock returns with “Politician”, which features more of the bluesy, riff-driven music which defined Cream. Clapton recorded two overdubbed “floating” guitars which. crisscross in the stereo mix. “Those Were the Days” continues the rock groove but with unique elements such as the call-and-response vocals and the mythical lyric matter by Brown. The contemporary blues cover of Albert King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign” features a rotating rhythm by Baker, behind the screeching, whining guitars and slow-paced leads by “Slow Hand”. “Deserted Cities of the Heart” is the best song on the second side with a wild, almost funky rhythm but with a jazz/folk fusion, making this one a very rewarding listen and perhaps Cream’s most underrated song.

Wheels of Fire was a raving commercial success on both sides of the Atlantic, reaching #3 in the UK and #1 in the US. However, shortly after the album’s completion, the members of Cream decided that they wanted to go their separate ways. At the label’s urging, they embarked on a “farewell” tour in late 1968 with nearly the entire set consisting of songs from this double album. One final album called Goodbye, another hybrid of live and studio material, was released in early 1969, after the band had dissolved.

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1968 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 45th anniversary of 1968 albums.

 

Disraeli Gears by Cream

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Disraeli Gears by CreamRock’s first “super group”, the British trio Cream was only together for a few years in the late 1960s with only four albums to their credit. However, they left a strong legacy and cast a huge shadow of influence on the genre that became known as classic rock. Perhaps their signature work, 1967’s Disraeli Gears fused the core genres of jazz and blues with a heavy dose of sixties pop and just a touch of psychedelic flourishes. The album was also the American breakthrough for the band, reaching number 4 on the charts, and elevating Cream’s popularity to the upper level among their contemporaries in the “second British invasion”.

Bassist and lead vocalist Jack Bruce was classically trained and had played in Manfred Mann’s band along with various jazz bands with drummer Ginger Baker prior to Cream’s formation in 1966. Guitarist Eric Clapton was already a “legend” in the UK (but Disraeli Gears introduced him to a vast amount of the American audience), and was encouraged by the management at Atlantic Records to become the “front man” of the band. Clapton did begin singing lead vocals on a few songs but was content to leave the bulk of those duties to Bruce.

The title of the album is based on a inside joke, after one of the band’s roadies mis-pronounced the bike part “derailleur gears” as “disraeli gears”. It was recorded in New York during May 1967, and produced by Felix Pappalardi, who also co-wrote a couple of the tracks along with his wife Gail Collins. The record company was disappointed at the lack of American success by Cream’s 1966 debut Fresh Cream and had requested that the band record in New York so their “top guys” could directly supervise the sessions. Pappalardi helped bring the band’s song into a more “modern” realm while maintaining the blues core.


Disraeli Gears by Cream
Released: November, 1967 (Reaction)
Produced by: Felix Pappalardi
Recorded: Atlantic Studios, New York City, May 1967
Side One Side Two
Strange Brew
Sunshine Of Your Love
World Of Pain
Dance the Night Away
Blue Condition
Tales Of Brave Ulysses
SWLABR
We’re Going Wrong
Outside Woman Blues
Take It Back
Mother’s Lament
Primary Musicians
Jack Bruce – Lead Vocals, Bass, Piano, Harmonica
Eric Clapton – Guitars, Vocals
Ginger Baker – Drums, Percussion, Vocals

 

The album begins with one of the “Strange Brew”, one of the more popular songs from the album which was constructed in a very unique way. The song was originally called “Lawdy Mama”, a straight blues song that evolved from a Buddy Guy riff converted from shuffle to straight time. Pappalardi and Collins took a tape of a live performance of the song and overlaid a a pop melody with new psychedelic-influenced lyrics, making the song a “strange brew” of pop and pure blues with Clapton maintaining the original riff and Albert King style guitar solo.

Another very interesting mix come in the song “World Of Pain”, which starts as an almost fifties style ballad but with very interesting bass progressions and wah-wah guitar overtones, before breaking into a more harmonized sixties groove in the chorus. “Dance the Night Away” is driven by a lush 12-string riff along with a folk-influenced melody, harmonized vocals, and mystical lyrics. This may be the band’s furthest wandering from their blues core.

On the flip side, “Sunshine Of Your Love” is the undeniable rock anthem from the album. It was written by Clapton and Bruce along with poet Pete Brown, and is driven by an infectious 10-note riff that has become one of the most recognizable in rock history. That riff was originally developed by Bruce after seeing the Jimi Hendrix Experience for the first time in London. The fat guitar tone itself has become renowned as the best example of Clapton’s late sixties “woman tone”, with Baker holding it all together with an African influenced drum progression.

The second side of the album begins with “Tales Of Brave Ulysses”, with lyrics inspired by Homer’s Odyssey penned by artist Martin Sharp. This melodramatic narration alternates between calm, minimalist vocal parts and more frenzied musical jams. Clapton fused an uptempo song he was working on inspired by The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City” with Bruce’s slow bass progression, making the overall affect very unique.

“SWLABR” is a fun song with lyrics by Brown, which compare a woman with the “Mona Lisa”, only to lyrically deface her image later on. The song’s title is an acronym for “She Walks Like A Bearded Rainbow” and contains some of the finer upbeat musicianship by the band members. “We’re Going Wrong” was written by Bruce in total and features Baker using Timpani drum mallets. “Outside Woman Blues” is a standard blues song written in the 1920s, which Clapton updated with a slightly rock-oriented arrangement. The album concludes with a couple of unusual tracks – “Take It Back”, which features Bruce on harmonica, and “Mother’s Lament”, an old music hall song which features three part harmony by all of the band’s members.

Cream had a very straight-forward, muscular, and funky sound at a time when the trends were moving towards the more artistic soundscapes of “the summer of love”. With the release of Disraeli Gears in November 1967, Cream was a band primed for the big time. They followed in short time with 1968’s Wheels of Fire, but within a year that had decided to disband after some planned farewell concerts and a farewell album.

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1967 Images

Part of Classic Rock review’s Celebration of 1967 albums.

 

Fresh Cream by Cream

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Fresh Cream by CreamThe British blues-rock trio Cream was, perhaps, the first to be deemed a “super group”. Their 1966 debut, Fresh Cream was produced by Robert Stigwood and includes a true fusion of genres brought together by the already vast experience of three young musicians. These genres ranged from a hybrid of blues to hard rock with just a tad of psychedelic rock, and were often combined with lyrics drawn from a variety of contemporary and historic subjects and figures. Although the group would not have a long career together, the music they produced in the late 1960s would cast a net of influence which would reverberate for decades.

Drummer Ginger Baker employed a strong jazz style and improvisation he honed when he frequently performed lengthy drum solos in various groups during the early 1960s. He is also noted for using a variety of other percussion instruments and for his application of African rhythms. Bassist and lead vocalist Jack Bruce got his start in London with Blues Incorporated, in which he played the double bass. The band, (which later also included Baker) played an eclectic mix of bebop and blues. Bruce eventually switched from double bass to electric bass as the band morphed into The Graham Bond Organization, a more dedicated rhythm and blues group, which released two studio albums and a few singles in the early sixties. Guitarist Eric Clapton got his major start with the Yardbirds, where his reputation as a blues-influenced guitar legend grew quickly. In fact, after the band took a more commercial turn in 1964 and began to get a measure of international success, Clapton left the Yardbirds to join the far less commercial John Mayell and the Bluesbreakers.

In July 1966 Baker, Bruce, and Clapton founded Cream and began playing a live set which would provide the material for Fresh Cream later that year. While grounded heavily in blues, the album touches on all of the member’s collective experiences along with a dab of the newly formed genre of psychedelia. In the process, the album opened the door to all kinds of serious and experimental rock music that was to come.
 


Fresh Cream by Cream
Released: December 9, 1966 (Reaction)
Produced by: Robert Stigwood
Recorded: London, July-October 1966
Side One Side Two
I Feel Free
N.S.U.
Sleepy Time Time
Dreaming
Sweet Wine
Spoonful
Cat’s Squirrel
Four Until Late
Rollin’ and Tumblin’
I’m So Glad
Toad
Band Musicians
Jack Bruce – Lead Vocals, Bass, Harmonica, Piano
Eric Clapton – Guitars, Vocals
Ginger Baker – Drums, Percussion, Vocals

 
“I Feel Free” was Cream’s breakthrough single as a band. It marked a multi-genre confluence, led by a capella vocals in the verse before breaking into a full-out rock tune with melodic lead vocals by Bruce. The song was only included on the American version of the LP, replacing “Spoonful” from the British version. This cover of Willie Dixon’s classic “Spoonful” is a gem of a blues jam on Fresh Cream with dueling guitar and harmonica leads on top of an ever-intensive rhythm in the song’s mid-section. Bruce’s vocals are at their height here as are Clapton’s guitar licks.

The odd and intense “N.S.U.” (which allegedly stands for the venereal disease “non-specific urethritis”) is complete with driving guitar and drums and a whining, wailing vocal line. “Dreaming” is a ballad with a psychedelic twist, featuring a vocal duet by Bruce and Clapton. The calm, strummed guitar chords are right out of the late fifties, giving the song a nice nostalgic mood.

“Sleepy Time Time” is the album’s first hint at the updated, traditional blues which they return to time and again. The song was co-written by Bruce and his wife Janet Godfrey who also co-wrote “Sweet Wine” with Ginger Baker. This latter song has a much more pop-rock feel, almost bubblegum pop with its nonsensical vocal signature line.

CreamThe second side begins with a signature rendition of the traditional instrumental “Cat’s Squirrel”, with Bruce again pulling double duty of bass and harmonica (along with some ad-libbed scat vocals in the middle). “Four Until Late” is lighter arrangement of a Robert Johnson song, with Clapton taking lead vocals, while the much more intense blues of McKinley Morganfield’s “Rollin’ and Tumblin'” is surely more satisfying to the connoisseurs of that great genre.

The remake Skip James’ early 1930s spiritual “I’m So Glad” is perhaps the band at their best on this debut album, combining complex rhythm guitar riffs along with a funky bass line, intense, jazzy drums and a fast-based bluesy guitar lead, all topped by an excellent hook and well delivered, melodic vocals and harmonies. The album completes with “Toad”, an instrumental featuring a long drum solo by Ginger Baker. This was well ahead of its time, replicated years later by John Bonham and countless other drum “Superstars” of the 1970s.

By the end of Fresh Cream, the critical listener is left wanting more, a true testament to the album’s quality. Further, although less than half the tracks on the album were totally original, the album as a whole was tremendously original. It set a strong template for the legendary “classic rock” genre which was to come in subsequent years.

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1966 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 45th anniversary of 1966 albums.