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The first of the supergroups, a term which the music press loved but musicians hated, and the blues outfits who paved the way for Led Zeppelin and so many others, Cream wee formed in 1966 by Jack Bruce (vocals, bass, plus keyboards, harmonica and cello in the studio), Eric Clapton (vocals, guitar), and Ginger Baker (occasional vocals, drums) and disbanded two years later. After years of speculation, they reformed for a handful of gigs in Britain and America in 2005, but have since made it clear that those would be the last.
'I Feel Free - Ultimate Cream' was a compilation issued as a curtain raiser to those shows in 2005 - in three formats. There was a double CD containing one disc of studio tracks and one of live material, and a limited edition triple CD which added further live cuts, some BBC sessions and archive interview material. This review concentrates on the single set, a 79-minute package featuring 22 studio cuts and one live.
While they were a band that were noted for improvisation and stretching numbers out to quarter of an hour or more, they were equally capable of condensing everything into a brisk three minutes or less. Bruce sang lead vocal on most tracks, and also wrote the majority, sometimes with lyricist Pete Brown or other collaborators, with Clapton and Baker only contributing occasionally - also with collaborators.
'Wrapping Paper', their first single (No. 34, 1966), is a short and rather restrained song with quite a catchy piano, even cello on the break, and jazz-influenced vocal harmonies. It's pleasant in its own way, but hardly an indication of things to come. Clapton and Baker hated it, the latter calling it 'the most appalling piece of s*** I've ever heard in my life.' They hit their stride with the next two singles the following year. 'I Feel Free' (No. 11) and 'Strange Brew' (No. 17) were both pretty short and sweet, but had a foot in both psychedelic pop and blues camps. Clapton's guitar started to make an impact, and he took lead vocal on the latter.
A batch of songs from the first album are also included, namely veteran bluesman Skip James' 'I'm So Glad', Baker's 'Sweet Wine', and 'N.S.U.' The latter is said by some to be the name of a German sports car which Bruce was particularly fond of, and by others to be short for 'non-specific urethritis', an STD which Clapton apparently had at the time. Take your pick - and the lyrics, by the way, do briefly mention a car (if only as it rhymes with guitar), but not venereal disease. Like the singles, the two latter are semi-poppy, with that blues element stopping them from sounding like out-and-out bubblegum. All the same, they never quite had that spark or the infectious riffs that made contemporary singles by The Rolling Stones, The Move, The Who and others such out-and-out classics.
'Sunshine Of Your Love' (No. 25, 1968), one of the first great guitar riff-based records of the late 1960s, must be among their most fondly-remembered moments. It's the first of five tracks from the 'Disraeli Gears' album to be found here, alongside the wistful 'World Of Pain', 'Tales Of Brave Ulysses', with Clapton's sturdy wah-wah guitar, 'SWLABR', and 'We're Going Wrong'.
Next come seven of the nine studio tracks from the 1968 'Wheels Of Fire' album. 'White Room' (No. 28, 1969), is quite an epic. A simple yet powerful, almost spooky intro played, I'm assuming, on mellotron, leads into some mournful lyrics and classy wah-wah guitar, with the intro cutting in again later on. And like a number of other tracks on here, there's something inexplicably catchy about it in a peculiar, very uncatchy way. The first few times I heard it, I thought it was rather dull - and then suddenly it clicked, until it became one of my favourite Cream moments of the lot. 'Sitting On Top Of The World' is basically a slow blues, in effect more or less a 12-bar in disguise. It's quite similar to the style which Gary Moore would later more or less make his own. Both these songs, by the way, are the longest on offer here, each clocking in at around five minutes.
'Passing The Time', has a deceptively gutsy guitar intro that veers into a quiet, almost fairylike atmosphere with what sounds like a music box, cello and harmonium, where Bruce sings the melody note-for-note. Then a more raucous guitar and drums section comes in to accompany the title repeated over and over again, cross-fading with the music box etc section until it ends. It's one of the strangest tracks of all here. 'Politician' is another song which relies heavily on the guitar riff as a backbone, with again a vaguely 12-bar blues chord structure underneath. That's followed by 'Those Were The Days', which needless to say is nothing to do with the contemporary folk ballad by Mary Hopkin of that name, but another psych pop-meets blues workout with hand bells vying with the guitar for attention. 'Born Under A Bad Sign', co-written by Booker T. Jones (alias the front man of soul band Booker T and the MGs, goes back to blues territory, while 'Deserted Cities Of The Heart' is similar, but given added colour with a couple of short slow passages featuring violas as well as Clapton's soloing.
'Crossroads', the sole live track here, is Clapton really giving full rein to his love of Robert Johnson's songs and soloing on the guitar as if his very life depended on it. It also makes one wonder why he wasn't given more lead vocals - apart from the obvious fact that Bruce was older, a more dominant personality, and if observers are to believed, always regarded Cream as HIS band, but that's another story.
'Anyone For Tennis' (No. 40, 1968) is another gentle pop number with strings and what could be either organ or flute. Sung and co-written by Clapton, this is really their forgotten single - and apparently they all wished it had been long forgotten. On the other hand, the one that most people remember is the mighty 'Badge' (No. 18, 1969), which has always been my favourite Cream song. Co-written by Clapton and George Harrison, who share guitar duties, it's almost like two songs welded together. The words were made up almost off-the-cuff one evening while the musicians were socialising at home, with one or two lines said to have been contributed by an equally drunken Ringo Starr (who should thus perhaps have been allowed a joint writers' credit). 'Badge' does not occur in the song, but came about as Clapton had written the word 'Bridge' above the appropriate section, and in their cheerfully alcohol-fuelled state they misread it and thought it made a great title.
That and the two subsequent tracks are taken from the appropriately-named 'Goodbye' album. 'Doing That Scrapyard Thing' is another oddly out-of-character song. Almost insanely catchy, it starts off with a few chopping piano chords, followed by organ and a chirpy tune with more daft lyrics (like how when he was young his parents gave him a mongrel piano, he spent all his time inventing the cup of tea, or balancing zeppelins on the end of his nose - you what, pal?) and a general air of heavy duty whimsy that wouldn't have made it sound out of place on one of the later Beatles albums. Finally, 'What A Bringdown', another of Baker's writing contributions although sung by Bruce, is again quite catchy in a subtle kind of way, and ends with some interesting bells effects and stabs on the keyboard, the latter courtesy of Bruce - producer Felix Pappalardi plays bass.
The 12-page booklet includes photos and a detailed retrospective note about the band, referring in the last paragraph to the impending 2005 reunion, as well as a detailed track listing that mentions recording and original release dates and instruments played. Pappalardi, by the way, played not just bass, but also violas, mellotron, trumpet and Swiss hand bells on various tracks, as well as co-writing 'Strange Brew' with his wife Gail and with Clapton. (Sadly he was shot dead in 1983 by Gail, who was found guilty of 'criminally negligent homicide').
In a way, Cream were almost two different bands. In the studio, they were almost a pop band, though making very inventive recordings with a nod to the blues and adding unusual instruments to the basic format, while on stage they were the godfathers of many another three-piece act who would stretch out two or three songs into tedious jamming that could last all night. If you're new to the band and want to investigate further, I'd recommend this to start with. And in fact, unless lengthy and sometimes self-indulgent solos on lead guitar, bass and drums are your thing, this is probably the only Cream record you will ever need. As with the one and only album by Blind Faith, the shortlived band subsequently formed by Clapton and Baker, I didn't care for a lot of their stuff at the time, but over the years I've grown to love it. Not every number here is a classic, but on balance it's a more or less unqualified five stars from me.
[Revised version of a review I originally posted on ciao]
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Wrapping Paper
2 I Feel Free
4 Sweet Wine
5 I'm So Glad
6 Strange Brew
7 Sunshine Of Your Love
8 Starange World
9 Tales of Brave Ulysses
11 We're Going Wrong
12 White Room
13 Sitting On Top Of The World
14 Passing The Time
16 Those Were The Days
17 Born Under A Bad Sign
18 Deserted Cities Of The Heart
19 Crossroads (Live At Winterland)
20 Anyone For Tennis
22 Doing That Scrapyard Thing
23 What A Bringdown