Cream was probably the world's first supergroup. Take the best musicians put them together, stand back, and see what happens. You'd think the concept was created by a record label exec. Actually, it was the brainstorm of drummer Ginger Baker. Baker had been toiling away with several British Blues and Jazz outfits, including the Graham Bond Organization where he played with bassists Jack Bruce. But the two never seemed to get along. Meanwhile, guitarist Eric Clapton had split from the Yardbirds because the band had ditched its Blues/Rock roots and hadbecome "too pop." Clapton began performing and recording with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers. He also made some interesting Blues recordings with future Yardbird and Zeppelin founder Jimmy Page. All the while, Clapton's reputation was growing in quantum leaps.
The "Clapton Is God" slogan began appearing. As Clapton was leaving the Bluesbreakers (he never stayed with any group too long) Baker approached him with the idea of starting a group. Clapton was receptive to the idea. Baker thought any band with Clapton was going to be huge. Clapton even had his own ideas about a band. He thought it should include Jack Bruce. Baker's heart sunk. He could tell Bruce was Clapton's first choice (they had played together in the Bluesbreakers). So he swallowed hard, and not wanting to miss his main chance, agreed that Bruce would be a good choice. In '66 the band began rehearsing in secret.
After several live dates and a BBC appearance "Fresh Cream" was released in early '67. The front cover showed the three backlit, wearing leather jackets and aviator gear. The album had Blues covers and originals but the instrumental jams lead by Clapton were the main attraction. The album also contained "Toad" which probably wasn't the first drum solo but it surely made it a requirement. "Fresh Cream" was a moderate success. But as '67 segued into the Summer of Love things changed. Everything was psychedelic and experimental. The Blues no longer cut it. Jimi Hendrix had arrived and set Rock on fire. During the group's first U.S. tour there was an effort made by their label, Atlantic's ATCO Records, to turn Cream into "The Eric Clapton Experience." There were some hurt feelings, especially by Bruce who had handled most of the singing chores, but nothing came of it otherwise.
In December of '67 Cream launched their classic "Disraeli Gears" (a pun on bike derailers) album. With the exception of "Outside Woman Blues" and "Take It Back" (both exiled to Side 2 even though they were great songs) the Blues feel of the first record was abandoned. In its place were psychedelic songs filled with riff driven, double tracked guitars run through fuzz boxes and wah-wah peddles. The group got songwriting help from Peter Brown (his lyrics were pure psychedelic fodder) and Martin Sharp (who created the album's fantastic cover featuring a photo of the band in a richly colorful and bizarre environment). You could, if you were in the right frame of mind, stare at the cover (under a black light) for hours. It was a sharp contrast to the first record's cover.
Cream's signature song, "Sunshine of Your Love," hit big. It was Bruce's riff, Brown's lyrics and Clapton's guitar. "Disraeli Gears" opened with Clapton singing "Strange Brew." It was a psychedelic Blues stew with a mournful tone and a percussive guitar part that was topped by a wailing solo. Cream also stepped out on "Dance The Night Away" and the classic "Tales of Brave Ulysses." The former was a powerful Rocker and the latter featured Clapton's best uses of a wah-wah peddle - and the lyrics were totally out there. Brilliant.
As a live act Cream built its reputation for extended instrumental improvisation and volume. The volume issue weighed heavy with Baker who was stuck sitting in the back amid the mountain of speakers. Also, bad feelings between Baker and Bruce re-surfaced.
Next up was "Wheels Of Fire," a double album with one side recorded live and the other in the studio. It was easy to dismiss most of the live material as over extended and indulgent. The lengthened version of Baker's drum solo "Toad" is a prime example.
Already, the creaky improv structure was proving dysfunctional. Of course, that didn't stop the record company from releasing "Live Cream" sets long after the group disbanded. The one saving grace of the live material is Clapton's rendition of "Crossroads." Clapton tore into the Robert Johnson song with a vengeance. Lasting about four minutes, the song was tight, focused and featured a brilliant solo. For that song, Cream was "The Eric Clapton Experience." It was easily one of the top three things he's ever done.
On the studio side, things looked much better. Felix Pappalardi, future Mountain bassist, was the producer. A lot of times producers suggest that they were de facto band members. But this was one of those rare cases where it was probably true. He contributed greatly to the record's sound, not only from a production standpoint, but actually playing on tracks. The result was a richly textured recording. "White Room," a pop hit, concluded with an exuberant Clapton solo. "Those Were The Days" and "Deserted Cities of the Heart" were incredible. The latter featured both acoustic and electric guitars along with Pappalardi's special touches.
Cream's internal problems were so bad the band was ready to call it quits. But the record company pleaded for one more album. The result was "Goodbye Cream." The cover had them in matching silver suits and holding top hats. What's going on here? This single album repeated the blend of live and studio material. Most of it was OK, if disappointing. The outstanding track was Clapton's "Badge." Written with George Harrison it was another Clapton high point. This was Harrison's payback for Clapton's work on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps."
Following the break up, Bruce released a solo LP that failed to do much except provide Mountain with "Theme for an Imaginary Western." Clapton and Baker spent less than a year in Blind Faith. After Blind Faith, Baker created an equally short-lived Ginger Baker's Airforce before joining Bruce on the oblivion express. Of course, Clapton went on to other adventures including a stint with Delaney & Bonnie and Friends before taking a swing with Derek & The Dominoes. When that failed to garner the expected commercial success, Clapton set out on a solo career.
There is something to be said for quitting while you're ahead or at least relevant. That's what Cream did. Fast forward thirty-seven years. Cream re-formed for shows at London's Royal Albert Hall. A tour followed. Baker and Bruce were civil, realizing this was probably their last shot at the brass ring. And they played like it. But Cream was still Clapton's show. "Cream - Royal Albert Hall" documented those first reunion concerts with a selection of hits and Blues covers (remember they started as a Blues band).
Usually when Cream's name is mentioned it's in reference to Clapton - and to a far lesser extent Baker and Bruce's mutual loathing. But in '07 Bruce learned he could draw attention, and death threats, all on his own.
At the time of Led Zeppelin's London reunion concert Bruce was quoted saying, "Cream is 10 times the band Led Zeppelin is." OK, no big deal - just a personal opinion. Where Bruce stepped over the line, according to Zeppelin fans, was when he labeled Zep's music "crap." A firestorm ensued. Bruce first tried to dismiss the whole thing as "just a bit of fun." Months later, after having time to reflect, Bruce came to a realization. "People like me tend to forget that with YouTube and Twitter you can't say anything without it getting around the world."
1966 Fresh Cream
1967 Disraeli Gears
1968 Wheels of Fire
During the '60's, and into the early '70's, Eric Clapton never stuck with a group for very long. This fact caused great consternation among the lesser lights who were counting on Clapton to be their meal ticket. By the time Cream formed, Clapton had been with the Yardbirds and John Mayall. He played two years or less with each. And Cream was no different.
"Fresh Cream" is a basic Blues-Rock workout with Clapton picking up his Yardbirds sound from a couple years earlier. It has Rocked up Blues covers ("I'm So Glad," "Rollin' And "Tumblin'"), originals ("I Feel Free") and Ginger Bakers brief (five-minute) drum solo "Toad."
With the arrival of Jimi Hendrix and the whole psychedelic scene, Cream tossed the Blues in the backseat and joined the parade with "Disraeli Gears." The music was a radical departure. " Strange Brew," "Dance The Night Away," "SWLABR" and the ultimate psychedelic feast, "Tales of Brave Ulysses," catch the spirit of the times while still being great Rock songs. The album has a couple dead-in-the-water ballads and some Blues oriented songs with the best being Bruce's "Take It Back." Of course, overshadowing all of this was another Bruce song, "Sunshine of Your Love." It became a mega-hit.
Along the way Cream garnered a reputation as an exciting improvisational live act. "Wheels Of Fire" is a half-live/half studio double album. The studio portion is an equal to "Disraeli Gears" with "Deserted Cities Of The Heart," "Those Were The Days" and "White Room." The latter, one of Cream's best songs, features a blazing Clapton solo.
With the exception of Clapton's "Crossroads," the live set is a self-indulgent mess. First, there is a labored sixteen-minute version of Willie Dixon's "Spoonful" but that's OK compared with what follows. There's nearly seven minutes wasted on "Traintime" featuring Bruce on harmonica. And to round things out the live version of "Toad" is pushed past fifteen minutes. In concert this sort of thing is all right. Drum solos are perfect for bathroom breaks. Nobody, except former Santana drummer Michael Shrieve, has publicly admitted making it through the whole thing. But then, he's a drummer.
"Goodbye Cream" takes all the worst traits of "Wheels Of Fire" and condenses them to one album. There are live versions of songs from "Fresh Cream" ("I'm So Glad") and "Wheels Of Fire" ("Politician" and "Sitting On Top Of The World") plus an original by each member. Of the original material only Clapton's "Badge" is worth mentioning - a great song with The Beatles' George Harrison on rhythm guitar.
Two "Cream Live" albums were released in a relentless effort to separate fans from their money but enough is enough. The Cream box set does a good job of covering essential Cream but "Disraeli Gears" is still THE album.