Graded on a Curve:
Cream,
1966-1972

Today we remember Ginger Baker who passed away on October 6, 2019 with a look back from our archives.Ed.

Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, and Ginger Baker are the trio collectively known as Cream. Extant for only a fraction of the ‘60s, they still managed a bountiful recorded legacy. USM adds to the recent resurgence of LP box sets by collecting all six entries from their first formation, two studio, two live, and two hybrids of both, onto 180gm vinyl, making the contents of 1966-1972 heavy in dual senses of the word.

Full disclosure: for this writer this one-stop-shop of the original UK supergroup’s half dozen albums holds very little appeal, seeing as everything represented herein was relatively easy to obtain on LP throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, inexpensively and in good condition; personally, there is simply no reason to upgrade. But considering the needs of younger classic rock obsessed vinyl lovers, this collection does handily amass nearly everything from a trio that proved very influential.

Over the years, Cream has been both overrated and unfairly maligned. For starters, this is a highly productive if uneven period in Clapton’s artistic trajectory. The guitarist was creatively budding; if no longer a stern blues-disciple hounded by notions of purity, he was decades away from his transformation into an ultra-bland elder statesman after years of Middle-of-the-Roadism.

Since his ascendency to the Mt. Rushmore of blues-rock string-slingers Clapton has always inspired a pocket of detractors, and while these lobes are amongst those ranking his output post-Derek and the Dominos/George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass as uninteresting or worse, his prime work has persisted in worthiness.

However, Cream was intended to be more than just Clapton and two dudes; indeed, initially called The Cream, a moniker as unappealing as Powerhouse, the handle saddled to the all-star proto-supergroup helping to hook up Bruce and Clapton, their name commented upon the threesome’s stature in the British rock scene.

This hasn’t curtailed cynics from devaluing them as the attempt by blues-rockin’ refugees to remain relevant in the face of encroaching psychedelia, and as their existence progressed, a desire to keep up with the steadily broken ground of the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Suddenly, blues purism wasn’t such a hot commodity. Still, the American music that has lent Clapton an undying muse (if lesser returns) was a major strand in the band’s weave. A substantial portion of their book is covers; others feature contributions from poet-musician Pete Brown.

Of course, it’s tempting to deride Cream for the rise of crummy ‘70s ego-fests and by extension the emergence of rockism in general. Make no mistake, Cream never rose to the level of the Hendrix Experience, but they did complete a massive triangle that if inconsistent and progressively more dysfunctional, was far from sloppy seconds. While the primacy of the guitar in rock’s formula brings ol’ Slowhand to the fore, Bruce’s vocals and bass provide balance, and Baker at his best is a monster behind the skins.

And it’s a reliably good sign when a debut isn’t a band’s finest work. Fresh Cream, released late in ’66, is the sound of development, the ten track UK edition (apparently the version included here, omitting US opener “I Feel Free”) evenly divided between originals and blues swipes, each offering peaks and valleys of value.

Bruce’s “N.S.U.” starts strong as Clapton ditches purism for big blooze licks, “Sleepy Time Time,” co-written by the bassist and his first wife Janet Godfrey, is plagued by the zeal of its delivery. The flighty pop of his “Dreaming” is better, and Baker and Godfrey’s “Sweet Wine” combines power-trio thrust with vocal harmony.

Closing the side is the studio version of Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful.” It’s inferior to the later live offering due to the impossibility of avoiding the borderline minstrelsy in Bruce’s singing. The flip is bookended by instrumentals, the attractive raggedness of the traditional “Cat’s Squirrel” (Bruce hyperventilating into his harmonica) and the concise take of the soon to be notorious Baker showcase “Toad.”

Amid the two is “Four Until Late,” an unusually well-mannered Clapton-sung treatment of Robert Johnson, a torrid reading of the trad “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” and the best of Fresh Cream’s blues cribs in the Skip James chestnut “I’m So Glad.” A promising start, and less than a year later saw improvements in Cream’s overall presentation, but not by as wide a margin as some assessments suggest.

Disraeli Gears opens with a combo punch of hit singles, “Strange Brew” a vibrant blend of melodicism and heaviness, and the undeniably overplayed “Sunshine of Your Love” wielding a gnawing solo and huge kit battering. Psychedelia continues to inform “World of Pain” (like “Strange Brew,” co-penned by producer Felix Pappalardi and his wife Gail Collins) and “Dance the Night Away,” but the utter Britishness of Baker’s turn at the mic on “Blue Condition” just about steals the show.

Side two begins sturdily with “Tales of Brave Ulysses,” its fervent imagery and wailing wah-pedals followed by Brown’s goofy-assed lyrics during the psych-boogie of “SWLABR,” but “We’re Going Wrong” is basically saved by Baker on the tom drum. A cover of Blind Joe Reynolds’ “Outside Woman Blues” and “Take it Back” swing the pendulum toward the blues with fairly minor results, the pair leading to the throwaway Music Hall closer “Mother’s Lament,” easily the least interesting cut in Cream’s discography.

Wheels of Fire form ‘68 stands as the requisite double set. The first two sides are studio and the others document live excursions from March of ’68 at Winterland and Fillmore West. It has ample and in some cases excessive amounts of Cream’s ingredients; the psychedelic bombast of “White Room,” the stoner-rock blues of “Sitting on Top of the World,” the near Toytown milieu and raucous midsection of “Passing the Time,” and Bruce’s excellent cello on “As You Said.”

Some decry Baker’s “Pressed Rag and Warthog,” but the oddball medievalist climes carry a certain charm for this correspondent. “Politician” and a cover of Albert King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign” (per Atco’s suggestion) have the big riffs, Baker’s “Those Were the Days” is more than filler and Bruce’s “Deserted Cities of the Heart” closes the studio album in uptempo territory.

The live cuts present a sharp contrast. Side three is a spotlight for Clapton, his burning passages in the transmogrification of Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads” justly lauded. And at almost three times the length, the live “Spoonful” is preferable to the ’66 version. It’s in the blustery harmonica of “Traintime” and the ludicrously long drum solo of “Toad” that Wheels of Fire’s quality suffers a bit.

Just a bit, one might ask? Well, the live “Toad” is often the scapegoat for Cream’s creative ills, but it’s really not so simple. To follow Sturgeon’s Law, 90% of every art-form is irredeemably bad, and of the practitioners on the positive side of this assessment most undergo abrupt shifts or gradual declines as they cross over to the larger percentage. Not Cream; they get better as a band in direct relation to a propensity for excess, and Wheels of Fire is therefore most emblematic of their essence.

But not so fast; ‘69’s Goodbye is frequently scorned as a mercantile move, and at six songs in 30 minutes, split evenly between live and studio, it can be hard to argue. Folks do make allowances for the excellent Blind Faith-foreshadowing “Badge” as co-written by Clapton and George Harrison (who adds rhythm guitar under the pseudonym L’Angelo Misterioso); instead, the gripes can focus on the supposed subpar performances from the stage of The Forum in Los Angeles.

Except that “I’m So Glad” roars like a champ and the slower moving hazy density of “Politician” and “Sitting on Top of the World” are essentially the template for a rather stoned strain of heavy rock. Bruce’s mauling bass is turned way up, there’re loping guitar tangles galore, and Baker is a thundering behemoth. Plus, Bruce’s “Doing That Scrapyard Thing” sounds like a Mickie Most production from ’67, and Baker’s “What a Bringdown” is remarkably multifaceted (and melodic) for a contractual obligation.

The cash grab effectively begins with the two posthumous live volumes, though in fairness both are of interest and the first is quite useful; excepting closer “Lawdy Mama,” a studio leftover of “Strange Brew” in embryo with different lyrics, Live Cream consists entirely of readings from the debut, which might seem odd until one is reminded that later Cream concerts are regularly diminished as extended bouts of showoffery.

Cut in ’68, Live Cream is unsurprisingly looser and more aggressive than the sources, which is beneficial to “Sleepy Time Time.” But Live Cream, Vol. 2 underscores the poles of conception illustrated by Wheels of Fire. Live, “White Room” and to a lesser extent “Sunshine of Your Love” are inferior, at least on record; standing in front of a stack of speakers and admiring the band’s taste in threads would’ve undoubtedly made a difference, and yet most of the first side (from Oakland Coliseum in October ‘68) hints at eroding inspiration.

But it’s not a wash, as the Winterland tracks improve the scenario, particularly “Tales of Brave Ulysses” and a culminating run-through of “Steppin’ Out.” Significantly expanding the version found on John Mayall’s Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton, it’s a treat. It also lends an itch to watch Scorsese’s Mean Streets.

The title of this set aside, Cream ended in November of 1968, the guitarist and drummer convening supergroup Mk II, the likeable and less-blues situated Blind Faith with Steve Winwood and Ric Grech as the bassist released the enjoyable Songs for a Tailor; there was also the Ginger Baker’s Air Force to consider.

But that’s the next chapter; in terms of Cream’s initial narrative (naturally there was a reunion) virtually everything is harnessed via 1966-1972. Nary is an edit, revision or omission observed, their absence in the instance of this vinyl box especially fitting.

FRESH CREAM,
B
DISRAELI GEARS,
B+
WHEELS OF FIRE,
A-
GOODBYE,
B+
LIVE CREAM,
B+
LIVE CREAM, VOL. 2,
B-

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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