The modestly named Cream, as in “cream of the crop,” were just that, at least instrumentally. Guitarist and occasional singer Eric Clapton, drummer Ginger Baker, and bassist/singer/harmonica-player Jack Bruce (also the band's primary songwriter along with poet/lyricist Pete Brown) were former members of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers (Clapton, Bruce) and the Graham Bond Organisation (Bruce, Baker), respectively, and all were virtuosos who were among the best ever on their chosen instruments. Together they comprised a legendary threesome that was only together for 30 productive months during which they revolutionized rock music, primarily with their improvisational stage shows, which influenced countless future musicians. Many people would argue that it was onstage that the band shined brightest, as they jammed with a jazz-like spontaneity that let each musician strut their stuff, a strategy that was extremely indulgent but often spectacular. On record Cream was a far different beast, since the group created fairly concise (and often psychedelic) blues-based pop songs that were then stretched out once the band took to the stage. The band's first single was "Wrapping Paper," an atypical piece of whimsical piano pop that fared none too well, so when Fresh Cream was released in the U.S. that song was replaced with the more successful "I Feel Free." A wise choice given what an excellent psychedelic pop song it is, particularly with headphones where the abundant vocal hooks can be heard most clearly. Catchy vocal hooks also mark "N.S.U.," which is also notable for its jangly guitars, Baker's prominent drum fills, and an excellent Clapton solo. "Sleepy Time Time" is a somewhat generic but solid slow blues, with typically classy playing by each band member, as Cream were one of those rare bands who I simply enjoy hearing play together, such was the enormity of their talent. Still, the songwriting wasn't always there, as "Dreaming" is very '60s, very British, and far too fluffy , unlike "Sweet Wine," a hard rocking highlight (oddly enough written by Baker with Bruce's wife Janet Godfrey, particularly shocking given Bruce/Baker's famous animosity towards one another. Or am I being naive here?). Their heavily amped up, epic take on Willie Dixon's "Spoonful" (not available on the original U.S. version of the album but added to subsequent reissues) provided an obvious template for later groups like Led Zeppelin and The Jeff Beck Group, and indeed this is a mighty fine version, with some impressive jamming, while Jethro Tull would copy "Cat's Squirrel" almost note-for-note on their bluesy debut. "Four Until Late" (a Robert Johnson cover, though it doesn't sound like one) is a fairly forgettable pop transformation, but their frenetic, frantic cover of Muddy Waters' "Rollin' and Tumblin'" fares much better and is the best showcase for Jack Bruce’s harmonica playing on the album (it had also been prominently showcased on "Cat's Squirrel" and “Four Until Late”). Although few songs are more lyrically repetitive, "I'm So Glad" (a Skip James cover) is a classic tune with a jaw dropping solo from Clapton and melodic, powerful playing all around. I wouldn't call Bruce a great singer, but I really like his distinctive tenor voice, which can go real deep or hit high-pitched falsetto notes, while again the band's trippy harmonies prove to be an underrated asset. Anyway, "Toad" is Ginger Baker's famous (or infamous) drum solo showcase, and though it's sorta boring like 90% of all unaccompanied drum solos, it deserves points for innovation (name me an earlier rock-based drum solo song) and influence, negative though that influence may largely be. On the whole, this was a somewhat inconsistent but altogether fine first effort by a band who were still defining their style, which was rooted in blues and pop idioms but whose psychedelicized sound was about to be expanded exponentially.
Disraeli Gears (Polydor ‘67) Rating: A
Led by Eric Clapton's wah-wahed guitar, Ginger Baker’s thunderous double bass drums, and Jack Bruce’s distinctive vocals and brilliant bass playing, Cream were rock's first "power trio." With major assists from new producer and future Mountain man Felix Pappalardi, legendary sound engineer Tom Dowd, and lyricist Pete Brown, Disraeli Gears significantly ups the power from Fresh Cream, as the band expands their psychedelic palette in delivering some of the best songs from the "Summer Of Love." The most famous song here is the slightly overrated but still mighty fine “Sunshine of Your Love,” whose deathless riff helped invent heavy metal, while the catchy “Strange Brew” (a rare Clapton vocal spotlight with catchy riffs and a stellar solo) and the strangely mythical duo of “Tales Of Brave Ulysses” and “SWLABR” are also rock radio favorites that are classics by any measure ("SWLABR” - an acronym for "She Walks Like A Bearded Rainbow" - despite some truly ridiculous lyrics). Simply put, these were arguably the heaviest rock songs to date, with Eric's often multi-tracked wah wah guitar in overdrive. Elsewhere, “World Of Pain” and “Dance The Night Away” are excellent album tracks, the former low-key yet effective, with trippy harmonies and several solos from Clapton at once (Dowd at his multi-tracking best), the latter a major highlight notable for its exotic Middle Eastern guitar tone and haunting harmonies. Bruce is also at his vocal best on the slow building but dramatic “We’re Going Wrong,” on which I also love Baker's drum fills in the background. Alas, Baker's “Blue Condition” and their jokey take on the traditional “Mother’s Lament” are novelty numbers for which the term "filler" was coined, while “Outside Woman Blues” and “Take It Back" are enjoyable but fairly generic blues rockers (regardless of how psychedelic or poppy the band got, most of their songs were still firmly rooted in the blues). Still, though some of these songs haven't aged as well as the band’s mighty reputation, at their best Cream were indeed among the cream of the late '60s crop, and the majority of Disraeli Gears shows the band at their absolute best. Classic album cover, too, as Martin Sharp's flamboyant flower power cover art perfectly conveys the "far out" appeal of the psychedelic late '60s.
Wheels Of Fire (Polydor ‘68) Rating: A-
More than any of their other albums, Wheels Of Fire, arguably the band's bluesiest and most experimental album, provides the most all-encompassing look at what Cream was really like, in all their glory and with all their faults. Along with Disraeli Gears, disc one is their best studio side on record, beginning with "White Room," a rare song that's recognizable from the very first note. Arguably Cream's greatest classic, "White Room" is distinguished by its haunting cellos (provided by Pappalardi, who brought so much to the table this time it was like he was the fourth band member), Bruce's memorable falsetto vocals, Baker's titanic drum fills, and best of all Eric's seemingly possessed wah wah guitar outbursts. "Sitting On Top Of The World," a Howlin’ Wolf cover, is a plodding yet heavy take on the blues that's a good showcase for Eric's playing before the overall quality dips somewhat on the next three songs. I must confess that at first I hated "Passing The Time," which I immediately dismissed as a typically eccentric bit of British whimsy from Baker (the band's weak songwriting link). However, after awhile I came to at least like the song's mid-section, with its bustling groove and catchy chorus. Continuing, "As You Said" is a stripped down, experimental (cellos, acoustic guitars), and mostly successful (if also quite eccentric) Bruce showcase with an almost classical feel. "Pressed Rat and Warthog" is a largely forgettable spoken word piece from Baker that’s almost salvaged by its explosive (albeit too short) outro, but the ship gets righted on "Politician," another powerful blues plodder (this one written by Bruce/Brown) with memorable bass riffs and wailing guitars, while "Those Were The Days" is a melodic Baker number (his third song on the album, all co-written with Mike Taylor) with a nice chorus, an excellent guitar solo, and flashy drum splashes from Baker. It's hard to take any Albert King song and make it your own, but that's pretty much what Cream does on "Born Under A Bad Sign," while "Deserted Cities Of The Heart" (great song title; author Lewis Shiner evidently thought so) ends the studio side in style, with a galloping groove, exotic Middle Eastern aura, and yet another spectacular guitar solo from Clapton. Disc 2 is a different story altogether from the concise psychedelic and blues based studio excursions previously presented, comprised as it is of four extended live workouts. Actually, "Crossroads" is also rather concise, and it's easily the highlight of the side if not Cream's entire career. This legendary rendition of the Robert Johnson song is notable for not one but two justifiably famous solos from Clapton, whose playing is flat-out ferocious. Unfortunately, two of the other three live songs show off the group’s pompous weaknesses as much as their obvious strengths. Ultimately, Cream's biggest influence may have been the way they changed the rules of the game for live rock performances, as they upped the bar on musicianship while also increasing indulgent tendencies everywhere. When it clicked for Cream the results were truly inspired, as evidenced by the majority of “Spoonful,” a blistering blues rock warhorse that at times approaches heavy metal and which holds up here for an often-outstanding 16+ minutes, though it does drone on a bit and meander unnecessarily. The album’s weakest link, “Traintime,” is a skippable 7-minute showcase for Bruce’s harmonica playing skills (he's plenty competent but no Paul Butterfield), while “Toad” starts off as a massive jam before quickly devolving into an extended Ginger Baker drum solo that’s only semi-interesting and seems to go on forever. Really, how exciting can a 16-minute drum solo be? It was performances such as these that caused Rolling Stone to lambaste the band for such overindulgent bombast. Eric Clapton agreed and their uneasy truce was broken, the band's brief but enormously influential career seemingly over far too soon. P.S. I almost gave this album an A rating on the grounds that it’s obviously superior to Fresh Cream (it’s far better produced, for starters). However, after re-listening to it I decided that it’s simply too flawed to deserve such a high rating, even if its best songs make for truly essential listening.
Goodbye (Polydor ‘69) Rating: B+
Well, before going their separate ways there was the matter of this album, which cobbled together 3 live songs along with 3 new studio songs, reversing the format of Wheels Of Fire (the live songs come first this time) but not nearly as satisfyingly. Fact is, at a mere 6 songs clocking in at barely 30 minutes long, Goodbye doesn't give listeners much bang for their buck, which is a shame as some of the stuff here is really good. The live versions of "I'm So Glad" and "Sitting On Top Of The World" are outstanding, in fact, the former far more expansive 9+ minute version (a favorite of Eddie Van Halen) fast and furious (Cream at their unleashed best), the latter containing some of Clapton's greatest soloing, which also highlights a rock solid if hardly revelatory rendition of "Politician." On the studio side, Bruce's "Doing The Scrapyard Thing" is an annoying throwaway, but Baker's jazzy but busily rocking "What a Bringdown" is surprisingly substantial, and the band breaks out one final A+ caliber track with "Badge." Written by Clapton with George Harrison (credited as L'Angelo Misterioso for legal reasons) and featuring a rare Clapton lead vocal, this concise song contains an indelible piano aided melody and climaxes with a classic wailing guitar solo. Alas, fine though some of its songs are, the hodgepodge that is Goodbye doesn't exactly cohere together as an album, which is what happens when a band quits on their record company I guess. Really, this album only exists due to the insistence of Cream manager Robert Stigwood, whose slave driver methods exhausted the band and played no small part in their breakup. Still, fans of the band will want this goodbye souvenir since it contains some notable songs and performances that aren't readily available elsewhere.
Live Cream (Polydor ‘70) Rating: B
Stigwood wasn’t done milking his meal ticket, so he quickly followed up Goodbye with the first of the two volumes of Live Cream, neither of which the band themselves had anything to do with. Featuring four live versions of Fresh Cream songs and one insult of a studio track, Live Cream is a patchy affair that’s worth getting only if you're a big fan of the band who likes long jams (“N.S.U.” and “Sweet Wine” run 10:12 and 15:14, respectively). The best song here is probably “N.S.U.,” on which the vocals sound quite good (they’re usually a little too rough on the live stuff), while Baker’s pounding drums and Bruce’s nimble bass runs provide the fast-paced foundation for Clapton to fiercely strut his stuff. “Sweet Wine” is also extremely effective if over-long, and it provides a good example of the band’s chemistry and overall live strategy. The beginning and end of the song are recognizable as the pop nugget from Fresh Cream, but most of this chaotic, spontaneous performance sees each band member doing his own (often seemingly unrelated) thing, all the while trying to hold the whole "song" together. Although they too often play as separate individuals rather than as a cohesive unit, and there are some sections where things get bogged down, they’re so tremendously talented that they still manage to hit some transcendent, incendiary peaks along the way. Elsewhere, “Sleepy Time Time” doesn't change the original much beyond adding a couple of minutes and a fiery Clapton guitar solo that makes it superior, unlike “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” which likewise adds a little length but is noticeably inferior to the version on Fresh Cream. It is “Lawdy Mama,” however, that shows what a lazily assembled compilation this really is. Basically, this studio take on the traditional song simply uses the backing track to “Strange Brew” and adds different lyrics, which is all the more puzzling given that the band had an altogether different and far superior version still in storage (this stellar version eventually appeared on Clapton’s box set Crossroads). I guess Stigwood and company cared more about their bank accounts than about enhancing the Cream legacy, a pity as once again there’s some prime stuff within an album that overall is a disappointment. I could also complain about the dubious decision to take songs solely from the weakest of the band’s three proper studio albums, but since it's the jamming that’s the band’s live bread and butter that doesn’t really matter. Instead, my issue is that there was better material available and that the necessary time wasn’t spent to sift through it, as this obvious “cash in” compilation could’ve been better.
Live Cream Volume II (Polydor ’72) Rating: A-
Shameless Cash In Volume II appeared two years later and was a definite improvement over Live Cream. Though it lacks Pappalardi’s exotic embellishments, “Deserted Cities Of The Heart” gets the album off to a rousing start with a darker, heavier, more chaotic version than the excellent studio original, while “White Room” is also powerful but is vastly inferior to the amazing original, and “Politician” is predictably solid but the version on Goodbye is better. Fortunately, each of these versions are relatively concise, as this is a far more song-oriented collection with a much better song selection than Live Cream. Also, there are no harmonica solos or half-baked studio recreations, and the band plays like they mean it and are focused throughout. “Tales Of Brave Ulysses” is still not up to the classic studio standard from Disraeli Gears, but this version is really good in its own right, and “Sunshine Of Your Love” actually gives the original a run for its money, even if maybe it slightly overstays its welcome. The group interplay on this one is phenomenal, as Bruce is an absolute beast on bass, Clapton is unleashed in full “God” mode, and Baker pounds away with due diligence. Lastly, the album’s lone really long song is a winner, as Cream stretches out “Steppin’ Out” (which had originally appeared in a much shorter version on Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton) for 13:39, which is mostly warranted as Clapton solos extensively and has rarely sounded better. On the whole, given the circumstances this rather surprisingly is a consistently compelling live album, but I can’t help but feel that better editing of both Live Cream albums (along with Goodbye) could’ve resulted in a single stellar package, which would’ve been far preferable.
The Very Best Of Cream (Chronicles ‘95) Rating: A
Replacing the now out-of-print (and arguably better using the “less is more” argument) Strange Brew: The Very Best Of Cream, this is a generous 20-track sampling of Cream’s best songs, with few surprises. At their best the band created some transcendent music, and songs such as “Sunshine Of Your Love,” “Tales Of Brave Ulysses,” “SWLABR,” “White Room,” “Crossroads,” and “Badge” deserve to endure for all eternity as the breathtaking classics that they are. Though Clapton’s brilliant guitar playing and the thunderous rhythm section of Baker and Bruce has rarely been equaled, this collection also serves as a reminder to listeners how limited the group’s output was, since even some of their biggest hits reek of the time worn ‘60s. I could also quibble about inclusions (“Wrapping Paper” and “Anyone For Tennis,” for example, though both whimsical singles were likely included because they’re without a proper album home) and omissions (“World Of Pain” and especially “Dance The Night Away”), but by and large I agree with these chronologically sequenced selections. Whether you’re a casual listener looking for an introduction to the band or a hardcore fan who only wants to hear Cream at their very best, this aptly titled compilation will likely do the trick. Though this set hardly contains any examples of their live prowess (aside from “Crossroads”), that’s certainly understandable given the time constraints, and what is here should be all that most people will need from the studio side of this groundbreaking band, who for all their talent never made a truly undeniable album (even Disraeli Gears, their best album, is significantly flawed), in part because they were only together for a mere 30 months. Still, the band’s pioneering live extemporizations and creative studio concoctions made them “musicians musicians” worthy of the utmost respect, and few argued when they were deservedly inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame.
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