Classic Music Review: Wheels of Fire by Cream

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If you’re a sexual being, you’ll love it. If you’re not, you’ll love the musicianship. Click to buy.

My parents may be virulent anti-capitalists, but don’t think they didn’t exact a price for appearing on altrockchick.com.

Each demanded two reviews in exchange for their efforts. My mother’s choices are the most challenging, requiring me to study scores and brush up on a couple of biographies, so they won’t be appearing immediately. Maman and I both thrill at making things difficult for people, so I can’t bitch about someone doing to me what I would love to do in return.

In comparison, my father’s choices are pieces of cake. He will get his wish for a Buffalo Springfield review, just in time for the holiday season. His other choice is the subject of this review, a record that was already steadily climbing to the top of my list. The holdup was I couldn’t decide between Wheels of Fire and Fresh Cream, so my father made the choice for me.

Do not interpret this as a passive response to male demands, as I still believe that the world would be better off if women made all the choices and possessed absolute power to channel male aggression toward its positive manifestation in the form of sexual activity. There’s not a guy on the planet who wouldn’t go for that kind of matriarchy. Guys! We’re talking major win-win all the way around!

And in a truly acrobatic attempt to link the theme I’ve established in my introduction to the subject of my review, I will point out that Wheels of Fire contains some of the greatest fuck-to songs ever recorded. I can easily imagine “Sitting on Top of the World” as the new world anthem for a dominatrix-led society. Come on, guys—what would you rather do at the start of a baseball game? Stand there like a stiff while some no-talent loser takes you through one of the worst melodies ever invented, or get a stiff one as a leather clad mistress struts to home plate, snaps her fingers and fills the stadium with Eric Clapton’s hot guitar licks? Imagine her ample cleavage threatening to burst from her leather corset as she uses her riding crop like a conductor’s baton and orders you to follow the bouncing ball on the Jumbotron and sing along with Jack Bruce. Let your imaginations run wild and think about all the fun you could have during the classically boring pitching change!

Fortunately or unfortunately, Wheels of Fire isn’t totally the soundtrack for the porn film where you get to be the star. It’s an incredibly diverse and exciting album full of surprising and sometimes eccentric twists. Despite personality differences that eventually led to their departure from the scene, Cream was one of best bands ever to grace stage and studio. They covered the gamut from blues rock to progressive, and punctuated their repertoire with quirky experiments and healthy dashes of humor. Not everything they do works, but Wheels of Fire is still an exciting display of their singular and multi-faceted approach to music, and one of my favorite double albums of all-time.

That’s not saying much, by the way. Most double albums are crap, full of filler and artist ego, and often overrated ( The White Album and Exile on Main St. are shining examples). You could also say that Cream cheated by creating a second disc from live performances, and I’ve read some reviews that have dismissed the live disc as rubbish, full of pointless jams.

Oh, bullshit. I want to ask those people, “Are you sure you weren’t listening to ‘Apple Jam?'” I think the cuts on disc two are some of the best live performances ever recorded. Personally, I’m generally fond of jamming, because I like hearing artists explore new possibilities while feeding off each other’s cues. I think much of the problem with rock music today is that the musicians have no clue how to improvise because they never fucking jam.

In the new world order, rock musicians will jam, and they better jam properly or face the consequences!

Wheels of Fire also represents a vast improvement in the recording quality of Cream records. As much as I love Disraeli Gears, I will remain forever irritated by producer Felix Pappalardi’s decision to go with the panning fads of the era that often forced Ginger Baker into a single channel. That’s like amputating an octopus! It’s animal cruelty!

Felix got it right on Wheels of Fire. I can hear Ginger to the right of me, Ginger to the left of me and Ginger in the center. It’s an exhilarating experience all by itself. And while energetic performances like “Toad” draw most of the attention, what I love about Ginger Baker’s work here is his range and discipline. He can pound away with the best of them, but unlike the undisciplined and often random attacks of Keith Moon, Ginger knows when to dial it down. But Wheels of Fire is not all about Ginger Baker. Jack Bruce was not only a great bassist but one of the most underrated singers of all-time. While I’ve never cared a fig for Eric Clapton’s solo career or his non-falsetto singing, he’s at his absolute best here.

“White Room” is a fantastic opener on multiple levels, a rich tapestry of sound and power. The opening passage, shifting from 5/4 to one measure of 3/4 is intensely dramatic, with Pappalardi redeeming himself on viola, combining with Clapton to create that intense and memorable wail over Ginger Baker’s timpani. As the song progresses, there are so many wonderful sounds filling my headphones I can hardly keep up: Jack Bruce’s confident vocal, the falsetto in the chorus (there seems to be some debate whether that’s Jack or Eric), Ginger’s precise and powerful drumming . . . each of the parts are superbly played and tightly integrated into an absorbing mix. One point I do have to make here has to do with Eric Clapton’s use of the wah-wah pedal, which was the shiny new toy of the period. After listening to Clapton here, I’m convinced that most of the other guitarists who went with the wah-wah did it to disguise their substandard talent, leaving a lasting impression of the device as a period gimmick. But what a difference it makes when the guy using the pedal knows how to play! Clapton makes the wah-wah an expressive extension of the guitar, one that heightens the bends and deepens the blue notes. Eric is really on top of his game throughout this album, but this is one of his best.

The lyrics are surreal, describing more mood than story. Written by poet Pete Brown, who collaborated with Bruce and the others on several Cream songs, the imagery here is as sharp as you’ll hear in rock music:

In the white room with black curtains near the station
Black roof country, no gold pavements, tired starlings
Silver horses ran down moonbeams in your dark eyes
Dawn light smiles on you leaving, my contentment

I’ll wait in this place where the sun never shines
Wait in this place where the shadows run from themselves

“Sitting on Top of the World” is not only the theme song of our erotic future, but an old blues classic covered and modified by a panoply of blues and folk artists over the years. Cream’s version most resembles Howlin’ Wolf’s but is a thousand times more sexy. Clapton is fab throughout and extremely sharp on the solo, but Jack Bruce’s bass is what gets my attention, a riveting combination of rhythm and melodic counterpoint full of surprising turns and touches. There’s something about a great bass that sets my clitoris all a-tingle, and this song is a fabulous accompaniment to sex, with or without a partner.

The mood changes drastically with “Passing the Time,” as we move from blues to what would later be called progressive rock. This is one of three Ginger Baker contributions on this album, all in collaboration with the late Mike Taylor, an eclectic composer indeed. After an Eastern-influenced bash opens the song, we shift continents with the appearance of calliope and glockenspiel, later supported by a mournful viola. The mood created is drawing-room with an undercurrent of humor. Ginger’s lyrics describe a woman trapped in a house by the cold winter while her man is traveling. The music and lyrics of the verses allow us to picture her sitting prim and proper in the parlor, perhaps sipping tea, as she keeps a stiff upper lip and appearances going. Suddenly there’s a break into dissonant rock with off-key vocals repeating the words “passing the time” with only short departures to “I will survive,” “everything fine” and “drinking red wine.” The dissonance reflects what’s really going on in the woman’s soul beneath the façade: she’s going fucking mad with ennui. While many commentators pass over this little gem, I think it’s a brilliant little vignette with music and lyrics combining to shine a light on a very human experience.

“As You Said” is all Jack Bruce except for a little hi-hat from Ginger. I realize it may be my kinky nature, but I find this song incredibly erotic. The song is played in open tuning, which makes it a bit easier for Jack to use chord sequences out of the norm, like the D-C-Ab movement just before the vocal. He also takes great liberties with the scale, often remaining on a D2 and allowing his voice to explore notes without being restricted by the full chord. He also plays the cello, using it primarily to deepen the root but also adding some splash of counterpoint to the vocal and moving up to the cello’s higher range to strengthen the upward movement of the chorus. It’s an intensely dramatic arrangement on many levels and one my top two or three favorite Cream songs.

The previously-used label “eccentric” certainly applies to Ginger Baker’s “Pressed Rat and Warthog,” musically a strange combination of British countryside and Cream dramatics. I have no idea what the song is about, though for some reason I’m oddly happy when the bad captain madman’s wooden leg gets woodworm and breaks into three. I may have to put this song on my “Guilty Pleasures” list without comment, for my reaction is inexplicably positive. Perhaps Ginger’s narrative makes me feel like I’m a little girl, cozy in bed listening to a fairy tale, but not one of those boring fairy tales where you know how it’s going to end halfway through. The nonsense is rather relaxing in a curious way.

There’s no doubt what Cream is talking about in “Politician.” The feel of this song crosses the thin line between sexy and sleazy, and appropriately so. Which reminds me, why are sleazy chicks sometimes hot, but sleazy guys are always used car salesmen? I’ll have to do a study! Anyway, this song kicks ass, and I love hearing dueling Claptons in my headphone, especially on the instrumental passage, which is the highlight of the song for me.

I usually skip “Those Were the Days,” as I’m automatically turned off by any song that mentions Atlantis. When I do listen to it, I focus entirely on Ginger Baker’s drumming, which is top-of-the-class. I also vastly prefer Albert King’s version of “Born Under a Bad Sign” to Cream’s, which sounds unnecessarily choppy to me. The studio album ends with a pffft with “Deserted Cities of the Heart,” a pffft that has more to do with the jittery structure of the song than Jack Bruce’s strong vocal and Ginger Baker’s command of the kit.

The live album doesn’t start out well for me, because as I mentioned in my review of Robert Johnson, I feel the original perfectly captures the existential experience of the song and the eerie loneliness surrounding the individual at the moment of choosing a life direction. Cream’s version is competent (except for Clapton’s vocal), but it’s simply too intense for this song. I know I will get violent disagreement from many readers on this issue, but hey, been there, done that.

The opposite is true of “Spoonful,” for I vastly prefer Cream’s studio and live versions to Howlin’ Wolf’s, which is more of a finger-snapping experience than the all-out grinding fuck you get from Cream. The way they snap off that main riff with such hip-thrusting punctuation captures the essence of this Willie Dixon number on every level, all of which are erotic levels. Jack Bruce belts out the vocal with anticipatory passion, then shifts to a run of double-time bass fills that create tension with Ginger’s slow, sexy beat and encourages Eric to fucking fly at about the four-minute mark. They all match each other’s intensity at that point; at about six minutes, Jack is playing almost frantically and Eric and Ginger are locked in a call-and-response daring each other to push it further and further. It’s almost like Jack Bruce is the behind-the-scenes instigator of it all. At the halfway point, Eric shifts to a staccato attack and Jack backs off for a few seconds to give Eric room to maneuver. The speed of his picking at the nine minute mark always causes my eyebrows to shoot up in amazement. At about ten minutes he frigging explodes in bursts of wails, attacks, riffs . . . then once again softens the dynamics to move to a sweeter tone.  Jack starts to stir things up again while Ginger holds back, letting the others figure out the direction. Then Eric finds it with a high-speed riff that gets Jack moving and Ginger pounding toms and cymbal centers. At about 12:30, Eric very subtly starts to echo the main riff to let the guys know where he’s heading, and drops down seductively to the lower strings while Ginger and Jack build up speed. At about 13:30, we land home on the main riff so smoothly we don’t even realize the wheels have touched down. And people call this “pointless?” My only explanation is that there are too many people out there who got a “Needs Improvement” score on their report cards in the category, “Plays well with others.” If you can’t collaborate, it’s hard to appreciate collaboration.

“Traintime” allows Jack Bruce to show off his harp skills, and while competent, he’s not Charlie Musselwhite or Paul Butterfield, but I love the way he goes quiet on the harmonica and the song fades perfectly into the opening thrust of “Toad.” The opening passage of this masterpiece of percussion is a simple but incredibly effective rock riff to get one’s blood going; the next passage hangs on the root note and gives Ginger time to warm up before ending with the diminuendo that opens the gates for him to take center stage. Things really get interesting a little over four minutes in when he starts to work the cymbals with an incredibly deft touch then fades into to rim shots and high toms. Here I like focusing on his bass drum as it gradually shifts to three long beats followed by three quick beats, a rhythm he punctuates on the high toms, then the low toms take over and he begins a complex interplay with foot and hands that sounds physically impossible. At about seven minutes he speeds up his attack while creating more notes on the toms and the rims, then starts beating the fuck out of those toms and driving the crowd into a frenzy. Once they’re like putty in his hands, he pauses with a cymbal crash then does full rolls from end to end, restoring command and quiet. Ginger then gets a little jazzy with some interesting kicks then starts a soft roll on the low toms with bursts across the drum spectrum just short of the nine-minute mark. His off-beat variations on the toms and bass drum here are definitely physically impossible, so I just assume that Ginger is now possessed and go with it.

He then plays a rather jolly riff, a funky beat with almost a military flavor at ten minutes, then creates a dazzling series of rolls and stutters that again drive the crowd wild. His subtle work with the cymbals here is pleasant and melodic as they seem to glide over the rolls of varying duration to a buildup at the thirteen-minute mark that is pure intensity. How he manages to punctuate this section with snare hits is beyond me. Just before the 14-minute mark he backs off the cymbals and starts the most intense roll of the piece, beginning in low volume and steadily ramping up the intensity like an engine on high speed. From out of nowhere he does this high-pitched combination of rolls on the high toms before ending the solo with four strong bashes. That moment when Eric and Jack come in gives me the tingles every fucking time I hear it. Drink! Cigarette!

I’ll close this review with a suggested playlist of the fuck-to songs on Wheels of Fire and their appropriate usage in sexual interplay. This playlist has been tested on live participants (my partner and me) and is guaranteed to give you and your partner a night to remember . . . if you’re up to it. See if you can outlast Ginger Baker at the same level of intensity . . . after you consult your physician.

Song Purpose
White Room Entrance and posing for your lover. The drama of the piece and the strong beat are perfectly suited for those very special erotic occasions.
Sitting on Top of the World Foreplay. Sit next to each other, lover within reach. Have a drink, have a cigarette, kiss, touch, throw in a nipple pinch here and there.
As You Said More serious foreplay. Deep kissing and gazing into each other’s eyes.
Politician Pull back slightly and keep her on simmer with more teasing foreplay until she starts climbing all over you.
Spoonful Time to fuck!
Toad Continue fucking. Repeat the last two numbers as long as necessary or possible.

Oh my god! My father is going to read this!

3 responses

  1. […] Cream, Wheels of Fire […]

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  2. The best, most perceptive review of this great album I have ever read. The last section is fucking brilliant. I wonder what your Dad DID say….another album ARC is making me want to hear again – preferably not alone.

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    1. It was an inside joke: both parents are fully aware of my sexual proclivities. In fact, my mother lent me her copy of “Story of O” when I was fourteen and I’d expressed curiosity about it. There was a period when I wrote erotic-specific posts on Sundays, and I did a four-part series called “My Erotic Biography” or something like that where I covered my development from puberty to dominant female, a story that ended about a year before I met my partner. Both parents gave me feedback on it. My mother liked the writing but disapproved of my exhibitionism (the French prefer subtlety to full exposure, and the bio did contain nude pictures of me). My dad just said, “Cool!” After getting comments from readers that the sexual stuff was making some people from my music audience uncomfortable, I moved all the posts to an erotic blog on Tumblr, which I deleted about six months ago.

      Even if it weren’t such a damned sexy album, it’s still a great musical achievement on many levels.

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