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Psychedelic music began in Britain with the release of the iconic 'Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band' and the first Jimi Hendrix Experience album, both in the summer of 1967. That autumn they were joined by the Rolling Stones' 'Their Satanic Majesties Request' and Cream's 'Disraeli Gears'.
All the aforementioned albums came to the genre by slightly different routes. Whereas the Beatles and the Stones came from bands who had made several years' worth of pop singles and were now pushing the envelope out in new directions, the two three-piece acts were born out of a new approach to the blues. In Cream's case, it was not just Eric Clapton's roots in the blues, but also former classically-trained cellist Jack Bruce's grounding in jazz as well as his ear for a snappy tune which made him probably the most pop-conscious of the three. (In 1966 he was briefly a member of Manfred Mann, long enough to play bass on their No. 1 'Pretty Flamingo'). He and drummer Ginger Baker had been seminal members of the jazz-rock Graham Bond Organisation. So a fusion of all three talents was bound to result in something interesting, if not spectacular. (And although Bruce and Baker couldn't stand each other as people, they still stayed together for two years - and reformed briefly 37 years later).
Ironically, although they were one of the acts which helped to shift the emphasis in pop and rock from 7" singles to albums, the first two of these eleven tracks were hits. 'Strange Brew' is more or less a 12-bar blues, faintly disguised in one of Clapton's early riffs as he sings of a woman ready to lead a man astray into her wicked ways. Don't blame them for the lyrics on this one, as they were written by producer Felix Pappalardi. It might be noted that Cream were still novices as songwriters, and generally called in assistance from others on the lyrical front, particularly contemporary poet Pete Brown, and artist Martin Sharp, of whom more later.
'Sunshine Of Your Love', a Bruce-Brown-Clapton collaboration, is founded on one of the most recognisable guitar riffs of all time. Reportedly inspired by Hendrix, the latter loved it so much that he also adopted the number and would frequently play it live. Like most of the other songs, the lyrics don't mean much, but as an early example of what made Clapton one of the most revered guitarists of all, it's a fine piece. Also, for a group who were noted for lengthy improvisation when on stage, as their live albums would demonstrate, it's kept relatively short. At a pinch over four minutes long, it's easily the longest track on the whole album.
'World Of Pain' features mainly Bruce on vocals, a melancholy song as befits the title. 'Don't take the wrong direction passing through, instead of deep reflection of what's true', it introduces some colourful wah-wah guitar. The same instrument adds plenty of substance to 'Dance The Night Away', another of Bruce's songs. Although the guitar work is nothing like the blues, it has that wonderful shimmering, ethereal quality which one doesn't normally associate with Clapton.
The spotlight then turns on Baker for 'Blue Condition', which he wrote as well as sang. His vocals are not that wonderful, being rather growly, but they fit the downbeat mood of the song well. By the way, on my copy of the CD, the drums seem practically confined to the left-hand channel, which can sound a little uneven when listening on headphones (which I find is always the best way if possible - I pick up on so many little details on the recordings of just about anything that I never did years ago). Something to do with the mastering, probably - I'll spare you the technical babble on something I know very little about, but reviews elsewhere suggest that some people do feel passionately about these things and will only accept the highest quality mastering and remixing. Me? Life's too short...
'Tales Of Brave Ulysses' is probably the most lyrically interesting number of all. Based on one of Sharp's poems, as the title suggests it is based on Greek mythology, Ulysses and Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. What to make of lines like 'tiny purple fishes running through your fingers' is up to you. Too many acid trips or too much staring at groovy wallpaper? Never mind, it's complimented by more of Clapton's super wah-wah guitar work.
'SWLABR' (She Walks Like a Bearded Rainbow) is more trippy fare from Bruce and Brown, and a rather less than romantic lyric. Right, chaps, would YOU serenade your other half with 'You've got that pure feel, such good responses, You've got that rainbow feel but the rainbow has a beard.' I wouldn't either. But with that strong bass and guitar riff, and more wonderful wah-wah work, you can forget the words.
'We're Going Wrong' is a dreamy, rather mournful, slightly ethereal number written by Bruce on his own. One of the weakest tracks, it highlights the fact that his virtuosity as a multi-instrumentalist was not necessarily matched by his songwriting skills. It's also another where the drums dominate one channel, thus sounding a little lopsided.
After that, it's a relief to revisit more basic blues on the next two. 'Outside Woman Blues', written by little-known veteran bluesman Arthur Reynolds, makes up in spirit what it may lack in adventure. 'Take It Back', written by Bruce and Brown, was apparently inspired by the attitude of young Americans towards the call-up in Vietnam. 'Don't let them take me to where streams are red, I want to stay here and sleep in my own bed.' With Bruce's impassioned vocals complemented by his gutsy blues harmonica, for he it's one of the best tracks. Surprisingly it rarely appears on Cream anthologies.
Finally comes the most forgettable track of all, 'Mother's Lament', an Edwardian music hall ditty about a poor mother whose undernourished baby has gone down the plughole while being washed. I knew that would cheer you up. Baker leads this raucous knees-up singalong around the piano. Funny, or a total waste of time? You decide - but if you think the latter, don't worry, it lasts less than two minutes.
One of the best jokes in rock history. A roadie told Baker that he wanted a bike with Disraeli gears. He actually meant derailleur gears, but Baker fell about laughing. 'That's a great album title,' they all agreed when he told them.
DESIGN AND ALTERNATIVES
Martin Sharp's splendidly groovy psych front album cover design is without doubt one of the very best of all time, and is perhaps singlehandedly as a good a reason as any for lamenting the virtual disappearance of the 12" long player. A squiddly little CD cover just does not look the same, does it? The CD I have is undated but was probably pressed in the 1990s and has only a very basic track listing on the inlay plus a collage on the back, but I'd hazard a guess that the more recent reissue probably has a more generous booklet.
For around £36, you can obtain a deluxe 2-CD set, including various outtakes, alternative versions, BBC sessions and so on. At about half that you can probably pick up a 12" picture disc which, word has it, is of atrocious sound quality but will look cool on the wall, especially if framed - preferably a wall which doesn't catch the sun in summer, of course. Copies of the original mono and stereo releases on vinyl are still out there, but at a price, especially if it's on the shortlived Reaction label which saw the initial 1967 release - subsequent issues on vinyl and CD are on Polydor. A spot of googling revealed not only T-shirts but also an acoustic guitar painted with the design.
Is it a genuine rock classic, or absurdly overrated? While flawed, hence the four stars, and despite a rather ungenerous 33 minutes playing time, this album undoubtedly remains one of the landmark records of its age. Cream's career was short (unless you count the brief reformation in 2005) and not exactly sweet, but they did help to blaze a trail with this one. If you don't know it, you should give it a listen. And if it's just the basic music you want on a CD, it should give you change from a fiver. For a piece of musical history, that can't be bad.
[Revised version of review I originally posted on ciao]
If history has taught us anything, it's that waging a land-war against Russia is futile, and that rock supergroups are almost never 'super'. Yet while Mother Russia sits safely unconquered, there is one band that stands out in the annals of music history that managed to take the moniker 'supergroup' and not only live up to it, but proved to be the zenith of all participants' careers.
When Cream formed in 1966, guitarist Eric Clapton already possessed a fearsome reputation as a guitarist, having played in both the Yardbirds and John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, earning him the rather blasphemous nickname 'God'; for a time, though, he did wield the instrument like someone with supernatural powers. Drummer Ginger Baker and frontman Jack Bruce had both featured in the lesser known Graham Bond Organisation, and Cream's debut album had been a well-received strong blues-rock effort. Could they keep up the tempo in the psychedelic summer of 1967 with their second effort?
In short, yes. Cream's monumentally arrogant name is actually deserved, as they managed to almost effortlessly fuse their heavy blues rock sound with more experimental and trippy motifs to match the vibrant, splattered album sleeve. Opening with the double salvo of their signature songs 'Strange Brew' and 'Sunshine of Your Love', the unfamiliar listener might be forgiven for thinking that this record might well be a flash on the pan. But as thrilling as the riff-based, bluesy muscle-flexing of these two songs is, there is much more on offer throughout. 'World of Pain' is as mournful as the title suggests, with Jack Bruce showing his trademark vibrato and falsetto. Clapton spices things up with some (for then) new wah-pedal effects. What's also great about this album is that it is littered with hidden nooks and crannies; careful listens will throw up previously-unheard details and runs in corners of the mix. God, as they say, is in the detail.
'Dance the Night Away' is embroidered with all manner of Eastern-influenced flourishes, a relatively new feature in western music, introduced almost single-handedly by Beatle, and close friend of Clapton, George Harrison. It grooves and shimmers, with Clapton making his guitar sound more like an over-driven sitar and it is immediately obvious that this is Cream at the height of their powers. The band are tight, and the ideas flow as easily and naturally as the music. 'Blue Condition' slows things down, and sounds like one long hangover. More 60s psychedelia is encountered on 'Tales of Brave Ulysses', which might just be the strongest track on here. It possesses that rare gift I call 'sonic landscaping', which, while I run the risk of sounding utterly pretentious, is where the music conjures up vivid mental images beyond the lyrics. Maybe this is something unique to me, but it really does make me think of the clear Aegean waters and wonders of Greek mythology. Anyone else? No, OK I'll shut up about it now...
'SWLABR' stands for the utterly drugged out 'She Walked Like a Bearded Rainbow', whatever the hell that means. Perhaps it means nothing. Perhaps it means everything. It was the 60s, so take your pick. All I know is that it shows Bruce and Baker forging a mighty performance as the rhythm section; it must have sounded awesome live. 'We're Going Wrong' is another falsetto part from Bruce, and this does grate a little, I must admit. But 'Outside Woman Blues' and 'Take It Back' feature the band back at doing what they do best; blues-rock with acid-tinged edges. Then it all ends on a very silly note, with a cautionary tale about how best to bathe skinny babies on 'Mother's Lament', which is good for a giggle once or twice. It's not in keeping with the rest of the album but shows a light hearted side to them next to their complex jazz beats and Clapton's fiery riffing and solos. Only the Jimi Hendrix Experience rivalled them as a power trio, and this record really does hold its own against Hendrix's firestorm of a debut, released the same time as Cream were recording this. Its influence is apparent throughout.
This is a terrific blues/psyche rock album, and one of the very best releases of the decade, and indeed since. While the performances and song-writing are at a pinnacle here, it is somewhat marred by its lousy recording. This is hardly a real dig at the band though, as they were only doing what they could with technology and production techniques available at the time. It is a shame though that Ginger Baker's drumkit sound so muffled and muted. A quick look at a live performance shows just what a monster he was at the drumstool.
This can be bought for a few pounds on Amazon, and there is also a deluxe edition that includes numerous out-takes and live cuts, though these are more interesting than essential. It was also released in mono and stereo, which allegedly differ quite substantially. I can't really comment though, as I only have a mono copy and don't really have the money or inclination to fork out for a slightly different mix. My advice would be to pick one and go with it.
Cream were short-lived, which is both a blessing and a curse. They released only a handful of albums, but this meant that they never lapsed into being safe or repetitive. For me, neither Baker, Clapton or Bruce ever managed to do anything better since Cream, despite Clapton going on to become a household name (I find a lot of his solo work quite dull, to be honest). Eddie Van Halen once said that they all sounded quite lost without each other, and he's right. The chemistry and musicianship here is excellent.