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Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Cream: Disraeli Gears

CREAM: DISRAELI GEARS (1967)

1) Strange Brew; 2) Sunshine Of Your Love; 3) World Of Pain; 4) Dance The Night Away; 5) Blue Condition; 6) Tales Of Brave Ulysses; 7) SWLABR; 8) We're Going Wrong; 9) Outside Woman Blues; 10) Take It Back; 11) Mother's Lament.

General verdict: Psychedelic blues-rock has never been more catchy, intelligent, AND, most importantly, bittersweet than this.


Few things illustrate that unique magic of 1967 better than the creative process that resulted in the first track on Disraeli Gears. In the beginning... well, not really in the beginning, but somewhere in the middle of the road, there was a Junior Wells / Buddy Guy reworking of the old blues standard ʽHey Lawdy Mamaʼ that they recorded for Junior's 1965 classic LP Hoodoo Man Blues: a cool, upbeat blues-rocker, made somewhat special by the combination of Junior's idiosyncratic harmonica style with Buddy's chuckling-chugging electric guitar. Good enough for 1965 — but not something that couldn't have been recorded in 1964... or even 1963... or...

...anyway, it got picked up by Cream soon after they came together, and was played in much the same variant, only without the harmonica, in concert (you can hear an early version on the BBC Sessions). Nothing special, either — Eric Clapton still in his Bluesbreakers shoes. As they went into the studio in mid-'67 to put it to tape, though, the song had changed drastically, mostly under the influence of several outstanding Albert King singles such as ʽCrosscut Sawʼ. Eric was now in his Albert King period, playing thinner, sharper, edgier leads; but together with Jack, they were already thinking as well about how to make the formula less formulaic — how to latch on to that «frightening» component of classic blues and make it even more explicit. So you get the electric ZAP! ZAP! ZAP! from the rhythm guitar, and you get the don't-mess-with-me gruffness of the bass guitar, and you get the tricky drum pattern that transforms the regular 4/4 into something more somber and ritualistic.

But you are still not quite there, because in the end this ʽLawdy Mamaʼ, as heard on the Live Cream record, is still primarily a blues tune. Enter Felix Pappalardi, a 28-year old freelancer with a keen eye and ear for new trends in contemporary music, and his wife, Gail Collins, a skilled lyricist with a tiny strain of proto-Stevie Nicks in her — and the transformation is complete. A new production style is upon us: echo, fuzz, reverb, «woman tone», all conspiring to turn the song into a mind-bending witchy brew. And with that, come new lyrics, still in touch with the old blues foundation, but just as strongly in touch with the psychedelic era — "she's a witch of trouble..." (old school) "...in electric blue" (new school), "she's some kind of demon" (old school) "...messin' in the glue" (new school). And the vocals? Eric now delivers most of them in a seduc­tively dangerous falsetto, a perfect contrastive fit for the still-ZAPping rhythm guitar. The only thing that still directly ties the song to the past is the guitar solo — a deadpan, though slightly more sharp and complex, Albert King imitation. Everything else has been turned to glittery, otherworldly magic. Take the polish off, of course, and the blues foundation is as plain as day; but why should you want to take the polish off? The old ʽLawdy Mamaʼ played with your feels; the new one takes you to a different reality.

This, in a nutshell, is what's so cool about Disraeli Gears, the only album by Cream that can be directly and unequivocally called «psychedelic» (Wheels Of Fire would only retain bits and patches of this atmosphere, not to mention that Bruce and Clapton were already clearly heading in different directions by that time). Like The Rolling Stones, like The Hollies, like a thousand other British bands sucked inside that vortex in 1967, Cream were entangled in the psychedelic revolution by accident — all they really wanted was to propagate the values of blues (and, to a smaller extent, jazz) music without being hardass-conservative about it; and if you are not being hardass-conservative about something, you will roll along with the times, want it or not.

Hence, Disraeli Gears, an album whose very title came along by accident (a mispronounced take on derailleur gears from one of the band's roadies) and probably left stupefied even all those people who are quite familiar with the history of 19th century Britain, let alone those who are only capable of getting an association with Israel or just stare at the title with complete bewilder­ment. A record with its own unique sound, influenced by many but reproduced by none; a record that feels slightly wiser, more introspective, more restrained, more ironic, than most of its com­petition (including both The Beatles and Hendrix); a record where the combination of a modest, but brilliant blues guitarist, a melancholic, but hard-working jazz bassist, and an eccentric, but iron-disciplined drummer brought about an almost mathematically perfect formula for the ultimate Apollonian psychedelic experience — as opposed to the typically Dionysian psychedelic experience of just about everybody else (Beatles excluded, but The Beatles' brand of psychedelia was generally much lighter and more «child-like»).

It will probably also go down in history as the single least generic-12-bar-blues-oriented project that Eric Clapton has ever been involved in — although I, for one, would not necessarily judge this as an obvious virtue. Altogether, there are but two standard blues tunes here, and we have already seen the miraculous transformation undergone by ʽStrange Brewʼ. The other one, ʽOutside Woman Bluesʼ, remains more traditional: lifted by Eric from a 1929 record by Blind Joe Reynolds, it even preserves the original's distinctive slide guitar riff playing off the vocal lines, although application of the «woman tone» still gives the phrase a much more psychedelic flavor. However, everything else has been reworked: a new syncopated rhythm guitar track (also based on the same ZAP! technique as ʽStrange Brewʼ), Jack's free-flowing jazzy bass, and Ginger's calm, disciplined, but complex drum rolls that keep drawing attention away from the string players — generic 12-bar blues had rarely been this exciting.

On the whole, however, Disraeli Gears is more of a landmark in the evolution of hard rock (and, consequently, heavy metal) than generic blues-rock. While it may be hard to observe the direct influence that Hendrix had on succeeding waves of hard rock bands (for most of whom he was more of a symbol/mascot than a guitar teacher), the direct influence of something like ʽSunshine On Your Loveʼ can hardly be denied — we can probably find dozens of songs that had adopted its riff as their foundation (at the moment, the clearest example in my head is Black Sabbath's ʽN.I.B.ʼ, but I'm sure there are others). In fact, the very art of the «massive», «elephantine» riff driving the song probably originated with ʽSunshine Of Your Loveʼ — we can find plenty of great rock riffs in previous years, but I have a hard time thinking of one that would boast this kind of thickness, stability, sheer epicness: the slow, lumbering, brutal monster at the heart of the song that makes all of its other aspects look insignificant in comparison.

The difference between Cream and Sabbath, though, is that Sabbath would use slow, lumbering, brutal riffs to construct slow, lumbering, brutal moods: ʽSunshine Of Your Loveʼ, in comparison, is really a romantic tune, one that never pretended to expressing any other feels than love and longing and yearning and... okay, that line about how "I'll stay with you 'til my seeds are dried up" does suggest something pretty physical, but still, the odd disbalance between the innocent lyrics and the ominous riff (it really used to creep me out a bit when I was little) remains an intriguing feature. Perhaps Jack and Eric still felt uncomfortable, at that point, to be writing songs about sex that would openly and unequivocally state so — a taboo soon to be broken with ʽWhole Lotta Loveʼ and the like — and so it came about that one of the heaviest numbers of 1967 took on the guise of a nearly elegiac, romantic serenade.

But ultimately, what makes Disraeli Gears truly lovable is that behind all the professionalism, behind all the psychedelic flavor, behind all the innovative riffage, behind all the fluctuation between bluesy, jazzy and poppy structures lies a sensitive soul. Fresh Cream, for all its merits, was an album that was hardly endowed with a lot of personality — it was too much of a «let's take all those awesome influences and take it from here» record, a starting point that showed promise but did not yet fully deliver the goods. Disraeli Gears is where Jack Bruce arrives as a successful artist, and the entire team (not just Eric and Ginger, but also Pappalardi, Gail Collins, and lyricist Pete Brown) rallies behind him to help maintain and solidify that personality. Disra­eli Gears is not a concept album, but it is an escapist album — like Piper and like Electric Ladyland, it is busy constructing its own alternate universe for you to take refuge in when the going gets too rough. In this world of pain, see, we're going wrong, so take it back, take that thing right out of here and dance the night away. With some tales of brave Ulysses, if possible.

For that matter, ʽDance The Night Awayʼ, to me, is unquestionably the best song on the album today — not ʽSunshineʼ, not ʽUlyssesʼ, but this unabashedly poppy, and also unbelievably sad ode to disillusionment and reclusiveness. The verse melody, punctuated by Eric's power chords and Ginger's resounding tom-toms, has the protagonist blindly circling around, bumping into corners — then, in the chorus, Clapton launches a guitar rocket across the sky, reaching higher and higher with each new refrain until it finally (probably) disappears out of view somewhere beyond the horizon: "dance myself to nothing, vanish from this place" indeed. It's one of those brilliant combinations of words and music where sadness and joy are so tightly intertwined that you can offer half a dozen different emotional interpretations of what is going on, from orgasmic to suicidal; not even the best psychedelic music of 1967 could consistently contain that many different layers of meaning.

Songs that are less ambivalent can still retain a degree of uniqueness: ʽWe're Going Wrongʼ is a deeply internalized lament, musically engineered in such a way as to picture a genuine emotional thunderstorm — Ginger's ferocious pouncing, Eric's angry power chords and desperately high-pitched blueswailing solos — over a slow, almost ceremonial tempo and vocals that suggest an atmosphere of deep mourning rather than tumultuous aggression. Nowhere near as explicit in its bleakness as, say, contemporary Doors material, ʽWe're Going Wrongʼ manages to build up a wall of dreariness that is just as successful (if not as titillating) as ʽWhen The Music's Overʼ. And maybe the song is not even about the end of the world — maybe it is about the end of a romance, or about the future of Cream themselves — but who could doubt that "I found out today we're going wrong" could not be applicable to every single year so far after 1967, especially when set to those deep earth rumblings generated by Eric?

In short, there is no better way to summarize that awesome mix of colorful psychedelia and existential sadness scattered throughout Disraeli Gears than with the chorus of ʽSWLABRʼ: "you've got that rainbow feel — but the rainbow has a beard". Even the band's sense of humor has a bitterness to it: they let us down gently, with the twin funny pack of ʽTake It Backʼ and ʽMother's Lamentʼ, but ʽTake It Backʼ is funny-hysterical and ʽMother's Lamentʼ is, after all, a moral tale with a sad-happy ending. (Come to think of it, ʽMother's Lamentʼ is just the traditional folk root of ʽDance The Night Awayʼ — "your baby is perfectly happy, he won't need a bath anymore" sits in the same house as "gonna dance myself to nothing, vanish from this place"). This is what separates great psychedelia from run-of-the-mill psychedelia — mixed emotions, no straight answers, an overall subtle intelligence that lets you look at the same song from different angles and shape it in accordance with your own inner world.

Personally, I have not always loved this album — I grew to appreciate it quite gradually, as compared to instant loves like The Beatles or Creedence Clearwater Revival — but even at the tender age of 10-12 I could feel there was something very, very special about it, some sort of odd magic that was not there in anything else I'd heard. That magic was never properly recaptured, though small traces of it can be found on Wheels Of Fire and some of Bruce's early solo albums; apparently, it took a lucky star alignment to produce Disraeli Gears. And this, precisely, is what makes me feel so angry inside whenever I (occasionally) see people dismissing the record as too boring, too bluesy, too unadventurous, too derivative — I mean, just because Clapton refused to maniacally let loose with feedback à la Hendrix or Syd Barrett, preferring cleaner and more restrained tones, does not mean that he was incapable of conveying comparable depth of feeling; and just because Jack Bruce's artistic personality was not as bent on self-destruction does not mean that it was incapable of reaching the same levels of high tragicness. In some respects, I would say that Disraeli Gears relates to Are You Experienced? and the like in the same way as Pet Sounds relates to Revolver — a «cleaner», «calmer», more lyrical take on worldly (and otherworldly) issues that prefers to blow your mind in a subtler, less obvious manner. Strange brew, kill what's inside of you — or, at least, rearrange some of it.

14 comments:

  1. "I have a hard time thinking of one that "
    Purple Haze. Of course the two songs are not nearly the same, but for the rather gradual development of hardrock/heavy metal that one plays the same role. I've always suspected that that development had a lot to do with the improvement of amplifiers.

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    1. I agree, if you've heard some of the early TV/radio performances of Purple Haze, the amps have almost no overdrive or crunch, and it sounds tinny and weak.

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  2. "ʽMother's Lamentʼ is, after all, a moral tale with a sad-happy ending. (Come to think of it, ʽMother's Lamentʼ is just the traditional folk root of ʽDance The Night Awayʼ"

    Yeah, but I still can't listen to it without thinking of Tears in Heaven. Morbid Music Hall Cretins!

    I think the biggest innovation of this record is the creation of a true lead-rhythm guitar attack. Throw in a heavy bass and you've got the template for every 70s hard rock band. The fact that it's one guy playing both guitars makes it that much cooler (and harder for said gentleman to replicate live).


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  3. Not only Pete Townshend and Keith Richards were highly impacted by Jimmi Hendrix, Eric Clapton was moved too. Once upon a time fans thought he was God but in 1967 the real God was performing in UK. Cream was very good. But for the eternity, to share with the exo civilizations, Hendrix is the Artist to highlight.

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  4. This album was a favourite of me and my late father when I was a kid, so it'll always have a special place in my heart. (He died of cancer when I was 7.)

    I actually particularly like the cover of "Outside Woman Blues". I never get tired of the back-and-forth between intricate guitar-bass counterpoint and that thunderous unison.

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  5. Blues rock might be one of the biggest abominations in music, but this album is pretty good.

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  6. In 18 years of trying, I've never found this album to be interesting, big hit aside. But you sure are hard to argue with; and I still gain insight from your review.

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    1. Oh good, I thought it was just me. Mind you, it is a good album, I have just never been as blown away by it as many seem to have been.

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  7. If you love Dance The Night Away, you’ll love Fairport Convention‘s first album

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  8. A decent enough fuzzed-out psych-pop-blues album, but kind of dry and pedestrian compared to the best psychedelia of the period. Certainly The Doors, Pink Floyd, Jefferson Airplane, The Yardbirds, The Rolling Stones, and the 13th Floor Elevators did tripped-out music with far more character at around the same time.

    “SWLABR,” “Tales of Brave Ulysses,” “Sunshine of Your Love,” “Strange Brew,” “World of Pain,” and “Dance the Night Away” are all good tunes though, but when I hear them I find it difficult to forget that Mountain would eventually do a similar shtick to much better effect some time later. The rest of the album is pretty bland and forgettable. Unfortunately, this is about as good as Cream would ever do. I rank DG as about equal to Fresh Cream and marginally better than Wheels of Fire.

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    1. 'but kind of dry and pedestrian compared to the best psychedelia'

      utterly nonsensical

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  9. having relistened to the album recently and honestly—George is completely right and I still do not get how any fan of psych musick would dismiss this album and Cream in general

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  10. Songs with a riff similar to "Sunshine of your love": Cocaine, In a Gadda-Da-Vida, Rice Pudding (Jeff Beck). But those are not really Heavy Metal. Hmmhm ... maybe Speed King, the chorus is a bit similar ... but played much faster.

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  11. I believe the lyric is "'til my *seas* are dried up."

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