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"Cream were always a jazz band; we just didn't tell Eric."
So says bassist, Jack Bruce, of one of the few supergroups who ever actually lived up to the hype of being truly super. And he's right, and it's one of the reasons why Cream still sound so weird and almost out of place today. While Cream regularly get labelled as a psychedelic blues rock outfit, the main reason they attracted so much attention is because while their repetoire did contain rock songs and blues numbers, they were songs played by a jazz band, which is what gave Cream an edge, flavour and identity all of their own that hardly anyone has been able to match.
Released in 1968, at the height of their popularity, 'Wheels of Fire' had a tough act to follow. Their previous album, 'Disraeli Gears' was a stone-cold slab of pure brilliance that really defined the phrase 'all killer and no filler'. As a power trio, they were only rivalled by Hendrix and co., but with their unique jazz-flavoured rhythm section they had a way of approaching the blues like no other band. 'Wheels of Fire' demonstrates this more than any of their other records, as it is the second disc of this double set that really showed what they were capable of, at least in terms of sheer musicianship.
Splitting the album into a studio half and a live half, it gave them the chance to offer the record buying public at least a glimpse of what they were really all about, and that was the live performances. The studio album follows in the vein of 'Disraeli Gears', with heavy psychedelia mixign with a certain pop sensibility, underpinned by a jazz section. 'White Room' is a tale of mental woe, a theme that often pervades their work (see 'What a Bringdown' and 'World of Pain'), with Ginger Baker kicking the crap out of his drumkit with all the grace of a black-belt ballet dancer. And I always liked 'Politican', with Bruce sounding utterly sleazy over the demonic guitar riff, as he entices some hypothetical young thing into his limousine to show them the ways of modern politics. Profumo scandal, anyone?
While footage of their live performances does exist, and while it can never do a gig justice, it is clearly obvious that this band was LOUD with a capital LOOOOUDDD. But they didn't just do noise for the sake of it - they took the blues and injected a polyrhythmic jazz angle into it, but just so happened to play it at several thousand Watts. One of their most well-known tracks, their amped up, sped up version of Robert Johnson's 'Crossroads' can be found on here, and is played with a furious energy that predates the crunchy metal riffing that the likes of Sabbath would soon distill into a whole new genre. They take blues standard 'Spoonful' and take it on a journey inside out and upside down that goes on almost forever. If there's a complaint to be had here, it's that these songs don't translate quite as well onto plastic as they would if you were really there, which is true of many a live recording. The energy is palpable, the skill blinding (especially by Ginger Baker, who might be mad as a teapot full of tadpoles but is one of my all time favourite drummers), but it loses some of its dimension in that you just can't see it all happen.
'Toad' is probably the only drum solo I can ever stomach to listen to all the way through - I can watch them happen live or on DVD (sometimes), but Baker turns the drumkit into a whole new instrument, it's almost melodic. I'd never normally recommend something with a 15 minute drum solo, but it's more of a polyrhythmic jazz exploration than anything else. If you're not into jazz, stay away from this band, the whole lot is peppered with it. But then I quite like jazz. Nice.
This double set can be picked up on amazon for not too much money, and is a great way to see what the group were capable of both in the studio and on stage. Perhaps not the best starting point - I'd strongly recommend 'Disraeli Gears' first, but a worthy successor to it and another piece of evidence to show that they really did deserve their monumentally arrogant name.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 White Room
2 Sitting On Top Of The World
3 Passing The Time
4 As You Said
5 Pressed Rat And Warthog
7 Those Were The Days
8 Born Under A Bad Sign
9 Deserted Cities Of The Heart
Disc #2 Tracklisting