While I’ve often said I’d love to hop into the time machine and jump back to the Swinging Sixties to engage in free love and unrestricted smoking, I would have to impose certain conditions.
First, I’d simply have to change the color scheme. Jeez, will ya look at the Disraeli Gears album cover?!! Obviously the result of bad acid, too much acid or a combination of the two. Hot pink, neon orange and chartreuse are simply not my colors, nor can I imagine whose colors they would be. Only after looking at the colors on Disraeli Gears, Axis: Bold as Love and dome of the other cover art from the period can you truly appreciate what The Beatles did for fashion, taste and mental health with the cover of The White Album.
Second, I’d have to implement certain limitations on the recording producers and engineers of the time, restricting their excessive use of experimental panning, which became a too-frequent occurrence once stereos became the norm. It drives me crazy that Ginger Baker’s drums on Disraeli Gears are always panned to the right channel instead of their proper position in dead center. When you have a drummer with eleven arms and four legs capable of complete command of the drum kit, you want it dead center to increase the stereo effect of the variegated sounds of cymbals, snare, toms and bass. Shit, the other two guys are so good there’s no way Ginger’s going to dominate the proceedings, so let the skinny guy shine!
Even with the questionable engineering choices and the horrid cover, Disraeli Gears remains a superb album, fifty-or-so years after its release. Clapton has a few good turns at the mike and on the fretboard, Jack Bruce sings and plays with confidence and command, vocals and, even if Ginger is sitting in the wrong place in my headphones, his drumming is super.
“Strange Brew” is a perfect opener, in part because it’s so disarming, in part because it’s so well executed, and in part because it’s so flat out sexy. It’s always on one of my fuck playlists on my boudoir iPod because if that groove doesn’t get you in the mood, you’d better see your doctor or your shrink. Clapton dominates this song, playing both lead and rhythm guitar with perfect restraint and delivering a smooth lead vocal marked by frequent glides up to his falsetto range (where he sings better anyway). The music is derivative, but I love the lyrics (written by producer Felix Pappalardi and his wife, so I’ll forgive him in part for his panning dogma):
She’s a witch of trouble in electric blue,
In her own mad mind she’s in love with you.
Now what you gonna do?
My research indicates that “Strange Brew” was a modest hit, but “Sunshine of Your Love” was a monster. One has to give credit to the listening public of the time for getting into a song with such sophistication. The famous riff is hardly one of your out-of-the-box runs, and Ginger Baker’s drumming (emphasizing beats one and three instead of two and four in the early verses) defies expectations. Jack Bruce, still one of the most underrated lead vocalists in history, delivers a killer vocal with the right amount of heat and passion, to say nothing of his command of the bass. And Clapton, well, Clapton just kills it here, with his now iconic “woman tone” and a lead guitar solo based on the old standard “Blue Moon” that takes the song to another level. Needless to say, this is another fabulous accompaniment to the erotic arts.
“World of Pain” represents a shift from the sexual to the meditative, a transition that Cream handles with ease. The decision to alternate lead vocals between Bruce on the main verses and Clapton on the transition was frigging brilliant, as it gives the song a melancholy quality that strengthens the image of that lonely, single tree “as it stands in the grey of the city.” Ginger Baker demonstrates here than he can do finesse as well as frantic.
It’s followed by “Dance the Night Away,” which turns out to be nothing more than a slot-filler, but fortunately Ginger Baker steps to the mike in the next song, “Blue Condition.” He doesn’t have much of a voice, but it’s perfect for this morose song in the way that Ringo’s limited vocal capacity was perfect for the songs assigned to him on Beatle albums.
“Tales of Brave Ulysses” is Cream in their psychedelic mood, with Clapton demonstrating his new toy, the wah-wah pedal. This is more of a period piece, one of those 60’s songs with apparently meaningful lyrics loaded with symbolic images that people probably tripped out over while consuming various illegal substances. It’s certainly a compelling bit of music, but too ornate for this girl. Much better is “Swlabr,” the B-side to “Sunshine of Your Love.” Here the band gets to kick some ass and Jack Bruce delivers a spirited vocal. The title is an acronym for “She Walks Like a Bearded Rainbow,” so it fits the 60’s ethic of strange combinations very nicely.
Next is “We’re Going Wrong,” a track that is worthwhile primarily for Ginger Baker’s drumming. His precision patterns and ability to respond to the song’s varying dynamics are proof he worked pretty well with less-than-inspiring material.
It wouldn’t be a Cream album with at least one tip of the hat in the direction of the blues, so we have “Outside Woman Blues” up next. Of course, Clapton dominates, more with the tones and precision of his guitar work than his vocal. Clapton was a seriously anal lead guitarist during this era, searching for the right tone and notes with the same level of obsession that Flaubert applied to his search for “le mot juste.” The obsession certainly creates a clear and distinctive style, but there are times when I’d like to hear him fuck up a bit just to let us know he’s human.
But I love his picking in the opening riff of “Take It Back,” a song perfectly designed for Jack Bruce’s vocal range, timbre and incredible ability to nail the mood of each and every word in a line. The party atmosphere background reinforces our image of the Swinging Sixties as one big acid-laced, fluid-dripping party, and give us the impression that the band members were able to put aside ongoing tensions in their relationships and have a good time. That perception is reinforced by “Mother’s Lament,” a wicked bar song about a baby getting sucked down the drain that all three sing with great gusto.
Cream left the scene way too soon, with only four studio albums to their credit. Unfortunately, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker were the Noel and Liam Gallagher of their time, in constant conflict. Clapton never showed much hesitation about ending relationships that weren’t working for him, so there wasn’t a lot of glue there to hold them together. While it’s certainly not uncommon for group dynamics to go sour in a band (just ask Yoko!), these guys had rare complementary talents that begged for at least one or two more collaborative efforts.
Sigh. Well, at least we have what we have. And maybe someday they’ll release a super deluxe version of Disraeli Gears . . . in solid black.