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Sunday, September 3, 2017

Cream: Fresh Cream


1*) I Feel Free; 2) N.S.U.; 3) Sleepy Time Time; 4) Dreaming; 5) Sweet Wine; 6) Spoonful; 7) Cat's Squirrel; 8) Four Until Late; 9) Rollin' And Tumblin'; 10) I'm So Glad; 11) Toad; 12*) The Coffee Song; 13*) Wrapping Paper.

In 1965, Eric Clapton left The Yardbirds because, instead of playing the blues, they decided to play pop. In 1966, Eric Clapton left John Mayall's Bluesbreakers because they played nothing but the blues — and joined a supergroup whose first album was far poppier than anything Eric had ever been previously engaged in. Inconsistency? Not really; more like a case of self-deception, when, in any situation where his creative ambitions felt stiffed and strangled by his subordinate position, his first instinct was to break free, regardless of the context.

Cream was the first band in which Clapton was an equal partner, though, as of yet, far from un­disputed leader. Leaving aside the immensely talented and artistic drummer — who, despite all the immense artistry, was still only a drummer — Cream reflected the vision of Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce in more or less equal proportion. One might even argue that it was primarily Jack's project, since during all two years of Cream's existence, Bruce was both the primary songwriter and singer, in addition to all the magnificent innovations in the sphere of bass guitar playing that he contributed. But even if Eric did not write much, he was the driving wheel behind the reima­gining and modernizing of most of the blues covers they played; and with the minimal guitar-bass-drum setup that they had, most of the melodic power behind the songs ended up coming from Clapton anyway, let alone all the experimentation with guitar tones, effects, and various studio trickery. As we look back at this from half a century of experience, it becomes clear that much of this experimentation had to do with the spirit of the times rather than Clapton's own inquisitive nature — back in 1966-68, it was clearly important to him to keep up with the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Pete Townshend, and other guitar innovators. But even a conservative musical talent, when linked to the proper spirit of the proper time, can sometimes work marvels. (I mean, hell, look at Ted Nugent around 1967!).

Anyway, here is what they wanted to do. Eric Clapton wanted to continue playing the blues, albeit in an admittedly more experimental manner, exploring new technological possibilities of the electric guitar. Jack Bruce, who had just finished a brief stint with Manfred Mann, got interes­ted in exploring the artistic side of pop music and how a decent pop hook with commercial poten­tial could be combined with intricate jazzy flourishes and bits and pieces of improvised freedom. And Ginger Baker, fresh from the Graham Bond Organisation (where he'd already managed to spoil his relationship with Jack one year earlier), just wanted to play a drum solo.

All of them got their wishes fulfilled on Fresh Cream, a record that seems slightly confused and misdirected in the overall context of 1966, but, like so much from that era, charming and exciting regardless of — or maybe even because of — said confusion. The three songs that sometimes bookmark its later CD counterparts at both ends are very indicative here. ʽWrapping Paperʼ, the first single Cream ever released, is a fluffy piece of vaudeville jazz with Jack at his purriest and Eric more noticeable as a syrupy provider of backing harmonies than a guitar player — a song that Ginger apparently hated and that they never ever played live, but one of those adorable Jack Bruce whimsical bits that still manages to weave an atmosphere of tenderness, sadness, and con­templativeness, even if they probably released it mainly to confuse the audience. ʽThe Coffee Songʼ is an outtake that was only released on the original Swedish edition of the album, but later began to be attached to many CD pressings — written by British musicians Tony Colton and Ray Smith, it is a slow, semi-humorous folk-pop song with exactly one musical phrase that was pro­bably tried out by Jack, Eric, and Ginger just for the sake of finding out which musical formulas they could or should tackle.

Finally, there's ʽI Feel Freeʼ, their breakthrough single in the UK that loudly and proudly announ­ced Cream's arrival not as a hardcore blues-rock supergroup, but as a blues-based psycho-pop ensemble — replete with colorful flowery outfits and wildly frizzed hair, as seen on TV (and might I add that Eric cut a pretty dashing figure those days with that hair). This is where Jack introduces his «clean» falsetto, weakly backed by Eric, and the entire song gets by on the contrast between the chilled-out, spaced-out chorus of "I feel free" and the nervous, almost hysterical verses — the impression being that the cool drugs that the singer is on keep on wearing down by the end of each chorus, and that he has to pop a few fresh ones before the next one starts. This is also the true beginning of Eric's «woman tone», which he may have perfected in direct response to Bruce's falsetto — though the genius of that guitar solo is that for the last bar he drops the woman tone altogether and forces a «wake-up» wailing shriek from the guitar instead, so as to properly prepare the transition into the next hysterical verse. This is Cream at their finest, a song that could have, perhaps, been written by anybody with a bit of talent, but could never have been played so perfectly by anybody other than those three. (And, for the sake of justice, pay close attention to the nimble bass picking style on the verses).

ʽI Feel Freeʼ was clearly an anthem — the title alone says it all — but when it came to recording a whole LP, the band still seemed to be somewhat locked in on the «single-based mentality», since there is hardly any material on Fresh Cream that would rival ʽI Feel Freeʼ in terms of grandness and, well, sense of purpose. Most of its songs fall into two categories: pop ditties writ­ten by Bruce (or Baker), and blues covers largely controlled by Eric, though sometimes also by Jack. The pop ditties, since they are completely original, seem more important: ʽN.S.U.ʼ and ʽSweet Wineʼ in particular are quite catchy and energetic, but even in the studio they give the impression that the most important thing about them is how they begin in fluffy mode, then sud­denly transition into dark improvised sequences, then return to fluffy mode like nothing happened. On stage, when they would be extended into 10-to-20-minute long jams, this was made even more obvious — the main themes would simply look like mere excuses for jamming; here, the main themes take on more importance, but still, what are you left with at the end of ʽSweet Wineʼ? Are you left thinking "hey, these serious blues-jazz dudes just wrote a song that goes ʽbap-pa, pa-doo-bap-pa, pa-doo-bap-pa pa-pa-doo-baʼ! Cool!"? Personally, I am left thinking "man, it's really bizarre how this silly bap-pa pa-doo-bap-pa song turns into such an evil scary deep jungle voodoo jam in the middle, and then goes back to being silly! And, more importantly, how these two parts have so absolutely nothing to do with each other!".

But this is Cream for you — you either have to deal with the fact that many of their songs consist of logically incompatible parts, or this band is not for you. Of course, if one of these parts sucked, that would be a different matter. But the fact is that Bruce and Baker write catchy pop themes, and then Eric comes in and starts doing his bad-acid-trip solo schtick, and I tend to think about it the same way I'd think about a master surrealist hooligan sneaking in after dark and ruining the half-ready masterpiece of his master expressionist colleague, only to have the colleague come in the next day and restoring the canvas to its former shape. Which, come to think of it, is a pretty awesome analogy if both colleagues are from the big leagues.

In a way, it also works for songs like ʽSpoonfulʼ, which begins as if it belonged to Jack, with his strong post-Chicago harmonica blowing, massive bass, and wicked singing — well, not exactly Howlin' Wolf, but in some way, Jack gets even more excited and entranced when singing about the joys of that lovin' spoonful than old Wolf. Then, midway through the song, Clapton takes it away from Jack with a solo that sounds like a three-headed Cerberus attack from Hell — heavier and angrier than almost anything at the time, and, I would say, with more darkness and evil lurking within those overtones than on any given Hendrix tune; not until Jimmy Page unleashed his own demons onto the world with his early Led Zep recordings did electric blues guitar begin to sound that mean once again. By the time the solo is over, Jack has to struggle to regain full control over the song, and he never quite manages to do that, since, once aroused, that lead guitar is fairly hard to tame back, you know.

On the other hand, the only completely Clapton-controlled blues song here is one of their weakest: the cover of Robert Johnson's ʽFrom Until Lateʼ, for some reason, is re-conceived as a limp, piti­fully friendly hoedown dance number, with a weak Eric vocal, a so-so harmonica solo from Jack, and no lead guitar whatsoever. Much better is their ʽRollin' And Tumblin'ʼ, which they cover with two specific purposes: (a) build a perfect showcase for Jack's harmonica playing (if there was ever a song to which the metaphor of having rough, brutal sex with a mouth harp could be applied without hesitation, it is this song) and (b) show that the three-piece Cream can have a kick-ass noisy rave-up that would put the five-piece Yardbirds to shame (for about two minutes, they sound like they are going to explode or at least drop down dead any second). And as for Skip James' ʽI'm So Gladʼ, well, there's creativity for you — they took an old acoustic blues number and turned it into yet another incarnation of ʽN.S.U.ʼ/ʽSweet Wineʼ, with a psycho-poppy falsetto-laden sung section and an almost completely unrelated acid blues improv section. (On a very generous note, Eric made sure that old Skip got all the royalties from the song, despite it having almost nothing to do with the original — guess he didn't really have the business sense of a Jimmy Page).

As for the great and inimitable Ginger Baker, I am not entirely sure if ʽToadʼ marked the first ever apparition of an extended drum solo improvisation on a «pop» (rather than jazz) record, but I do believe this is the earliest example known to me, and while no sane person, I think, can be a devoted fan of the drum solo genre, this particular solo — still reasonably short, as compared to later live versions — is symbolic, as it formally places the drummer on equal footing with the rest of the team, and is perhaps not so great per se as simply to remind us of the immense role that Ginger plays on all these songs, from the opening thunderous beats of ʽN.S.U.ʼ and right down to the last closing fill on ʽToadʼ. So he started a bad tradition — from now on, every half-assed drummer thought it his God-given right to place a boring drum solo somewhere on an album — but, like all great people who start bad traditions, he is somehow not to be held responsible for it. Anyway, ʽToadʼ is OK, though tough-going hard rockers will probably never choose it over ʽMoby Dickʼ, because, you know, which do you prefer — a drummer impersonating a toad or a drummer impersonating a whale that choked on its own blubber?

With all the confusion and the somewhat uncertain experimentation and the lack of coherence in song structure, Fresh Cream is the sound of a band that seems poised on greatness, but does not yet properly understand how to nail it. They want to do some blues, and some pop, and some of that new-fangled psychedelic stuff, and show off their individual and collective skills, but they cannot yet properly construct a unified message from all those constituents. Nevertheless, as a creative mess, Fresh Cream remains cool — I will still take its disjointed brilliance over the coherent mediocrity of, say, 90% of contemporary American psychedelic bands any time; and in terms of the sheer number of terrific Clapton solos or unforgettable Bruce vocal hooks it can proudly stand its ground along with Disraeli Gears and Wheels Of Fire. Consequently, the rating is an unquestionable thumbs up. (But some points have to be docked for Jack allowing his wife to pen those crappy lyrics for ʽSleepy Time Timeʼ and ʽSweet Wineʼ. Didn't anybody tell him women cannot be trusted with such delicate jobs? Next thing you know, they'll start singing about free men in Paris, stoned soul picnics, and wuthering heights, oh my!).


  1. Wow? No comments for the Grossvater of all heavy power trios? Not even MNB chimes in? Shocking! If it doesn't sound all that heavy or revolutionary any more, it's because every last bit of hit has been digested and assimilated by everyone from Hendrix to Black Sabbath to the soundtrack of Casino. But it still sounds good!

  2. This has got to be one of the top 5 all, not the album, but this review. That paragraph on Sweet Wine is just too priceless. In fact, reading this whole review feels like listening to the album itself. Agreement or disagreement seems trivial and frivolous. The joy of the shared experience...Unbeatable. Thanks, sir!

  3. I mostly agree with you here, but I do have to listen to this album a few times again after probably not doing so for 10 years now.... I need to listen to "spoonful" in particular to see what you mean. Great review!