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Friday, March 25, 2005
Tales Of Brave Ulysses
When Cream announced that they'd be reuniting for a series of four concerts at Royal Albert Hall, London on May 2, 3, 5 and 6, 2005, I wrote a kind of flippant, wiseguy article about it.
Now that the dates approach, and I've been getting a lot of Google hits from people actually looking for Cream information, and the concerts long ago sold out, I thought it'd be time for a serious artist profile on Cream, just in case Jack Bruce or somebody Googles themselves. Plus, they have to be seriously considered among the elite top few influential bands in rock.
So all kidding aside, this is important history.
Cream was (and will be again for 4 nights) a trio; Jack Bruce on bass and vocal, Eric Clapton on guitar and vocal, and Ginger Baker on drums.
They were the first to exploit, on a large scale, the possibilities of what is now called the power-trio format. Their hugely amplified blues-rock also provided the template for heavy metal; early metal pioneers like the power-trio Blue Cheer and power-trio-with-vocalist titans like Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin owe debt to Cream. The only contemporary power trio one could mention in the same breath would have been the Jimi Hendrix Experience. I'll leave it to others to argue about which trio was more influential and important; there's a lot to argue.
While Eric Clapton obviously is the most well-known name, especially among younger music fans, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker contributed equally to the unit. Clapton, though already something of a hero in England after his stints in they Yardbirds and John Mayall's Bluesbreakers (which also featured Jack Bruce for a spell alongside Clapton), was still largely unknown in America before Cream; the Yardbirds' first chart single in the States was the post-Clapton "For Your Love". Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker had both played in the Graham Bond Organization, a British R&B band that had a very jazzy flavor, drawing from its members prior jazz experience.
As Cream, their aim was to extend beyond rock's barriers; to explode the notion of a 3-minute song to be replicated onstage note-for-note, verse-for-verse. In some respects, they incorporated the notion (if not explicitly the sound) of jazz improvisation onto the previously strict blues/rock structure; at their absolute best, they took what still remained blues for the most part into the far outer reaches; with Clapton's extended acid-blues guitar, Baker's consistently jazzy and busy drumming, and Bruce's strong, confident vocals (which undoubtedly informed Ozzy Osbourne's early singing, among many others) and songwriting, Jack Bruce/Pete Brown compositions being a big part of the band's repertoire.
Fresh Cream, their Dec. 1966 debut, remains precisely that; a fresh take on amplified blues, here amped to previously unthought-of heights, yet also remaining true in places to pure pop structure: "I Feel Free", their first UK hit (not featured on the original UK album) is a catchy concise piece of under-3-minute pop; yet it features the loud chugging of the band beneath an excellent, almost exotic harmony. "Spoonful" (left off the original US release in favor of "I Feel Free"), a Willie Dixon original, is where Eric Clapton took his first steps towards what may well be immortality; this extended psychedelic blues largely defines what Cream was all about. Ginger Baker got a showcase with "Toad", one of the very first extended drum solos on a rock record, which is primal and intense; awe-inspiring in its incessant, original ferocity.
The late 1967 release of Disraeli Gears, the band's masterpiece, is what truly cements their legend as recording artists; their concerts were something else. Disraeli Gears is where it all comes together in lysergic glory; much of the album still turns up on classic rock radio, including their first US smash (#5 on Billboard) "Sunshine of Your Love", the acid fantasy with killer chords "Tales Of Brave Ulysses" and the beguiling psychedelic pop of "Strange Brew" All are familiar tunes to most rock listeners; "Swlabr" and "World of Pain" are also among their finest moments. All were originals; the album also features a couple of blues covers. The album art is a classic as well; an acid collage that teeters between ecstasy and nightmare. It peaked at #4 on the Billboard chart.
Wheels of Fire followed in 1968. This ambitious double album reached #1 in America, and yielded another big hit, "White Room" (#6), a radio staple to this day. In addition to presenting the latest new material from the band, it was also an effort to convey the mammoth Cream concert experience; one disc was done in the studio, the other were concert recordings from San Francisco (the American acid rock Mecca at the time).
It is here where persistent arguments about the Cream legacy enter the picture. On the one hand, the studio disc presented some fine new material; the Bruce/Brown "White Room" and "Politician" and the fine Albert King cover "Born Under a Bad Sign" On the other hand, Ginger Baker gets three songwriting credits on the album, none of which come up in a discussion of Cream's greatest moments. The live disc is even more controversial. In the post-punk world of musical economy it became fashionable to deride the 17-minute long "Spoonful" and the 15-minute "Toad" as classic examples of rock indulgence and show-off playing.
Mortals after all, there is some validity to this argument; Wheels of Fire is an album even Cream fans probably don't play in one sitting much anymore. But a careful listen will reveal what was common wisdom in the 60's; like jazzmen, Cream would use the beginnings and endings of the song as motifs, and the long (long) middles as improvisatory space. On "Spoonful" this is a revelation; psychedelic blues approached like jazz; a seemingly impossible feat turned into touchstone. On "Toad" the detractors have ammunition; even there, however, if you approach this 15 minute drum workout sympathetically, it delivers some powerful moments of virtuosity, in the good sense of the word.
Regardless of how well the album conveyed Cream's vision, there was no denying that in 1968, the band was at its height of popularity. So credit must be given to them for recognizing that their mission to liberate the blues from its structures had now become confining in itself; Clapton in particular had developed new musical interests he wanted to explore. So Cream announced its intentions to disband; a farewell tour of the US and UK followed, and in November 1968, Cream ceased to be a unit.
A final album was released, the aptly titled Goodbye, which reached #2 in 1969. A mix of live and studio cuts, it comes across as a hodgepodge, but nontheless contains some of Cream's greatest moments. "Badge" a collaboration between Clapton and new best friend George Harrison features one of the most breathtakingly beautiful guitar solos ever recorded; Bruce supplies one of his best basslines ever. "Badge" points towards the 70's Clapton sound; heavier rock, less blues. Bruce and Clapton shine on the extended live Skip James tune "I'm So Glad", and the Brown/Bruce "Politician" is another extraordinary live cut.
Polydor would subsequently release two live albums, Live Cream Vol.1 in 1970, and Live Cream Vol. 2 in 1972. Vol. 1 consists of 4 Fresh Cream tracks, given the elongated Cream treatment, and the concise "Lawdy Mama" Vol. 2 features similar workouts of material found on the later three albums, plus a 13-minute "Stepping Out". For those wishing to explore the live Cream in all their amped-up improvisatory glory, these are the best places to start. Vol. 2 benefits from a superior song lineup and better sound, although Vol. 1 is a good listen, too. The band sounds like it is constantly morphing in sonic shape, as each player moves from background to foreground and back again. Those who find Cream indulgent won't be swayed by these. Those who find Cream inspirational will find these spellbinding. Both charted in the top-30.
Clapton and Baker would next appear in Blind Faith, the supergroup formed with Steve Winwood of Traffic and Rick Grech of Family. Jack Bruce has worked ever since Cream, and although he has never approached the commercial success of Clapton, he has always remained an interesting musician, dabbling in everything from folk, jazz, blues. Cream producer Felix Papillardi formed Mountain with Leslie West and Corky Laing; Bruce then essentially replaced him in West, Bruce, and Laing. Baker has also kept busy both with solo projects and a lot of session work. Clapton's further adventures are well-known.
Clapton, Bruce, and Baker reunited only once, back in 1991 at the Rock 'N' Roll hall of Fame induction. Whether they can pull off these shows in a manner that ultimately adds to their legend remains to be seen. Of all possible 60's reunions though, this has the potential to be the most interesting. It's hard not to root for them.
Too expensive for me, i wish they wouldnt charge the price of a weeks holiday in the med for these things...Post a Comment