The standard narrative concerning Cream focuses almost entirely on four themes:
- Their status as a “supergroup”
- The oil-and-water relationship of Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker
- The integration of “psychedelic” and “traditional blues”
- The instrumental prowess of the band members
The first is a marketing tactic. The second provides gossip fodder and one cause of the band’s early demise. The third is valid, but they certainly weren’t unique in that respect (see Hendrix, Jimi and Bloomfield, Michael). And yes, they were all great musicians, but putting together a team loaded with stars doesn’t guarantee success, as many a former baseball GM has learned after pissing away millions on overrated prima donnas. “Bands consisting solely of John Lennons miss the point: every group needs a Ringo,” opined The Guardian.
The Baker-Bruce feud and Clapton’s inability to stay in any one place for very long put Cream in self-destruct mode from the very beginning, so we should be very happy that during their brief time together they managed to produce three fabulous albums and neither Jack Bruce nor Ginger Baker were arraigned on murder charges. To get three great albums and no jail time from a group consisting entirely of John Lennons was a worthy achievement.
My problem with the standard narrative is that it doesn’t explain what separated Cream from their contemporaries and why they sound different from the rest. When I listen to Cream, I’m knocked out by Ginger Baker’s octopus attack, by Jack Bruce’s often scintillating bass runs and Clapton’s complete command of his instrument, but I’ve been conditioned to expect all that. For me, what really stands out and makes their sound unique has nothing to do with instrumental virtuosity.
It’s the vocals.
Without delving into music theory and boring the fuck out of my readers, we’ll simplify things by thinking of harmony as falling into two categories: symmetrical and complementary. Symmetrical harmony results from the “pleasing proportion of the parts of a thing.” The best example of symmetrical harmony is Lennon and McCartney; the timbre of their voices blend exceptionally well. Complementary harmony places more value on contrast, allowing each voice to retain its distinct quality in the hope that the contrast itself will produce a pleasing effect. With Cream, Jack Bruce’s superior command of the lead vocal role frequently forced Clapton out of his rather pedestrian natural voice and into various forms of falsetto. The two voices don’t blend per se, but complement each other by heightening the contrast.
The opening track on the American edition demonstrates the value of harmonic contrast in multiple ways. “I Feel Free” is a pretty simple song based on the scale resulting from an E7 chord (the key of E with the seventh note flatted, so you use D instead of the leading tone of Eb). The relative simplicity allows for plenty of vocal play, and in the opening passage we hear three voices, with Clapton and Baker establishing the rhythm (bom-bom-bom-ba-bom-bom and the repetition of “I feel free”) and Jack Bruce foreshadowing the melody through some of the sexiest humming you’ll ever hear on record. After Ginger cues the song proper with a few whacks on the toms, we get the mysteriously alluring vocal combination of Clapton and Bruce with tones softened, launching the melody from the flatted seventh to give the pattern an exotic flavor. The lyrics to this passage (“Feel when I dance with you/We move like the sea/You, you’re all I want to know/I feel free”) demanded harmony with a moderately erotic feel, and the Bruce-Clapton pairing delivered big time.
Alas, love is but an island refuge in a cold society, and to intensify that contrast, Cream clears the decks by abruptly terminating the flowing rhythm with a stop-time passage supported by a piano that mimics the sound and cadence of a news bulletin. When Bruce makes his entrance, he seems suspended from the soundscape, a man alone crying out desperately for evidence of humanity in the mechanical flow of daily life:
I can walk down the street, there’s no one there
Though the pavements are one huge crowd.
I can drive down the road; my eyes don’t see,
Though my mind wants to cry out loud.
The transition back to the base arrangement is absolutely brilliant, with Clapton overlaying his falsetto voice with his “Woman Tone” on lead guitar, adding another pattern on top of the original vocal harmonies. As the song proceeds, Cream continues to layer additional harmonic variations, resulting in an astonishingly rich arrangement that beautifully supports Pete Brown’s poetry.
Because of silly British traditions that effectively banned singles from appearing on albums during the 60’s, “I Feel Free” is not the opening track on the U. K. edition. Instead, we get the rather piecemeal arrangement of “N. S. U.” The title abbreviation of “non-specific urethritis,” a sexually-transmitted disease most frequently acquired by bonking or tonguing a broad whose juices are swimming with chlamydia bacteria. Apparently, Clapton picked it up as part of the usual trials and tribulations of rock stardom and Jack Bruce thought it would make for an interesting song title.
The Sixties. You had to be there.
The lyrics contain nothing about burning sensations when pissing or unhealthy white discharge oozing from the peephole where healthy white discharges often emanate. The song is an expression of the frantic desire to experience all the pleasures life has to offer, which I suppose is how you get N. S. U in the first place. Compared to the tight integration and holistic arrangement of “I Feel Free,” this one fails to blend the individual talents in a satisfying degree, and as an opening track it’s a more-than-questionable choice.
“Sleepy Time Time” is Cream’s contribution to the barely budding sub-sub-sub-genre of “sleep music.” It isn’t nearly as interesting or inventive as The Beatles’ “I’m Only Sleeping,” but these two 1966 records demonstrate the Dylan-influenced movement to explore subjects other than boy-girl romantic encounters. Written by Jack Bruce and wife Janet Godfrey, the piece is primarily an opportunity for Clapton to demonstrate his blues chops, but Baker and Bruce do provide solid rhythmic support and while Jack wrings every bit of feeling out of the rather uninspiring lyrics.
Our next Bruce number has a more interesting melodic and harmonic structure, but “Dreaming” suffers from the juxtaposition to a sleep song and awkward lyrics that don’t sound easy on the ears. “Minutes just dri-ift by” violate the fundamental truth that the short “i” phoneme (ɪ) is generally incompatible with elongation, a problem that could have easily been solved by any number of synonyms: glide, slide, float, sail . . . shit, even “mosey” would have been a better choice. I do rather like the call-and-response leading to the harmonic melding on the verses, but I think the melodic movement and waltz-time would have been better supported by piano than the guitar-bass-drums mix.
“Sweet Wine” resulted from a collaboration between Janet Godfrey and Ginger Baker, which I hope didn’t lead to a punch-up in the studio. This has long been a popular choice of Cream fans, in part due to its assertive opening vocal pattern, and in part due to the extended instrumental section where Clapton lets it rip. Ginger Baker is outstanding here, displaying both touch and power while remaining in full command of the multiple tempos. Still, the fragment that sticks in your memory is the ba-ba/ba-ba-ba-ba/ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba vocal passage, further evidence that much of what made Cream distinctive had to do with their comparatively unusual vocal arrangements.
Though the live version of “Spoonful” that appears on Wheels of Fire provides greater improvisational opportunities due to the additional ten minutes of jam time, the studio version is more than pedestrian, featuring the same hip-thrusting, erotic punctuation you hear in the live version, albeit in smaller doses. I have both versions on my fuck playlists, using the studio version during the foreplay period and the live version for the scratching, biting, slapping, heaving, coming like a waterfall phase. Clapton’s studio solo qualifies as “pretty fucking hot,” and his integration of semi-random low-note sustains with mid-to-high range bursts is the musical equivalent of a lover capable of a multi-pronged erotic attack.
While Cream gets an A+ for that Willie Dixon piece (Howlin’ Wolf’s version earns a C), the results of the four blues covers on that open Side Two yield less impressive results. Cream’s version of “Cat’s Squirrel” sounds like they were just going through the motions; compared to the Tull version, it feels somewhat uptight and lacking in playfulness. As I’ve mentioned oh, about a hundred times over the years, nobody can do Robert Johnson like Robert Johnson, and Clapton’s version of “Four Until Late” barely qualifies as a decent late-night sing along after most of the party-goers have split the scene. Their version of Muddy Waters’ “Rollin’ and Tumblin'” is bloody awful, with Jack Bruce adopting a strange patois somewhere between toothless blues guy and Jamaican drunk.
It’s much more difficult to comparatively evaluate the fourth blues cover (“I’m So Glad”) because the differences between the Skip James original and the Cream version can only be measured in light years, and the differences extend far beyond the obvious fact that Skip James was one guy with a guitar recorded through seriously limited recording technology. Skip James’ version is an incredibly moving lament, a dramatic monologue of a man struggling with the ambivalent signals from his love interest and attempting to find refuge in denial of his true emotions; his efforts are doomed to fail and he knows it. Instead of trying to mimic the original, Cream wisely shifts the perspective from personal anguish to the anguish that arises from living in an other-directed society where you have to keep up appearances. While it seems that Skip James was trying to convince himself that everything was all right, Jack Bruce’s repetition of “I’m so glad” sounds like he’s trying to convince others (perhaps the girl, perhaps his friends) that he’s got it handled. The haunting voices of others and their judgments are mirrored in the eerie background vocals that accompany the verses; while Jack mumbles to himself, he “hears” the voices of judgment in the background. Though Cream’s version follows (for the most part) the same chord structure as the original, the vocal arrangement adds an entirely different dimension to the interpretation. Any comparison is meaningless; the two versions might as well be completely different songs.
Fresh Cream ends with Ginger Baker’s signature number, “Toad.” Forget about it and go straight to Wheels of Fire for the real version.
I was hardly surprised to learn that Rolling Stone ranked Fresh Cream #101 on their 500 greatest albums list, since Baby Boomers tend to overrate nearly everything that came out during their formative years. I would label it “a solid début portending great things in the future,” but there’s way too much filler to justify such a lofty ranking. What Fresh Cream tells us is this: that the band members proved they were top-flight musicians who could put their differences aside in the name of professionalism; that they were more successful than most in the melding of traditional forms with modern sounds; and that their approach to vocal arrangements was an unexpected strength that clearly separated them from their contemporaries.
Not a bad start for an experiment doomed to fail . . . but those three albums were worth the strain.
Over the seven years of this blog’s existence, I’ve noticed one telltale feature in the music criticism dished out by the big names in the field.
It is loaded with testosterone.
One data point in support of that theory is the curious truth that the vast majority of music critics are men, employed by competitive, for-profit enterprises. That combination by itself would lend street-level credibility to the theory that there’s a lot of virtual dick-waving going on in the field of music criticism, but it’s only a tantalizing clue that would never meet the standards of proof required by any credible legal system on earth.
Due to my insatiable sexual appetite and the desire to become the best fuck in bisexual history, I keep up on the scientific literature having to do with sexuality, including the impact of both estrogen or testosterone on the sex drive. When it comes to testosterone, there are several common beliefs that qualify as complete bullshit, particularly the notion that too much testosterone automatically results in toxic masculinity or chest-thumping syndrome. A relatively recent scientific study published by PNAS provides ample evidence that the manifestation of testosterone has less to do with uncontrolled aggression and more to do with seeking status in the pack: “These findings are inconsistent with a simple relationship between testosterone and aggression and provide causal evidence for a more complex role for testosterone in driving status-enhancing behaviors in males.”
There’s plenty of evidence of status-seeking behaviors in the work of male music critics: exaggerated language designed to anger or delight the reader, depending on the reader’s opinion of the music; the arrogant dismissal of contrary opinions; and, above all, the overuse of superlatives and absolutes. The critical response to The Who Sings My Generation is typical:
- “The hardest rock in history” (Christgau)
- “The most ferociously powerful guitars and drums yet captured on a rock record” (Unterberger)
- “The Who Sings My Generation became the blueprint for much of the subsequent garage rock, heavy metal, and punk.” (Kemp)
Mr. Christgau, How do you measure “hardest?” If you have access to an ultrasound machine, you can measure the hardness of a dick, but what’s the objective measurement of “hardest” in music? And where’s your evidence to support the claim of “the hardest rock in history?” Did you test all the rock records in history for hardness? On what scale? And Richie, where’s your measurement model concerning “ferocious power?” And Mr. Kemp, can you cite any evidence at all that shows that garage rock, heavy metal and punk bands first listened to The Who Sings My Generation before stepping on stage or into the studio? If not, why use the term “blueprint?” One would have to assume that the critics in question had instant recall of all the relevant rock albums when they generated this bullshit, a highly questionable premise indeed.
Fact: The Who Sings My Generation establishes the blueprint for 69% of The Who’s subsequent work. You’ll hear Keith Moon’s manic drumming, power rock enhanced by melody and harmony, Townshend’s aggressive guitar style, John Entwistle’s championship-level bass and evidence of Roger Daltrey’s immense potential. What’s missing from the album is Pete Townshend’s misguided yearning to create grand statements through full-length and mini-operas, making The Who Sings My Generation one of their least pretentious works. As debut albums go, it’s certainly top-tier, but like all debut albums, there are songs that work and songs that are pure album filler. The lyrics range from decent to pretty darned awful (Townshend gets songwriting credit but tried to pin the lyrical shortcomings on manager Kit Lambert). You can hardly hear John Entwistle at times, particularly on the original mono recordings (except for the title track), and The Who ain’t exactly The Who without a healthy dose of Entwistle.
Consider this: The Who Sings My Generation “was later dismissed by the band as something of a rush job that did not accurately represent their stage performance of the time” (Wikipedia). Couple that with another annoying piece of data that the album was out of print in the U. K. for twenty-two years. Townshend and Daltrey didn’t embrace the album until a series of remixes appeared beginning in 2002 after they started fretting about whether or not they’d saved enough money for retirement. So, let’s cut the testosterone-driven hyperbole, ignore the boring male bluster about greatest, best and biggest, and explore what The Who Sings My Generation is all about.
If you’re looking for proof that this is one of the greatest début albums of all time, you’ll be sadly relieved of that delusion after listening to the first three tracks. All three could have fit nicely into the go-go scenes from any Austin Powers movie, which is as backhanded a compliment you’ll ever see. “Out in the Street” is a pepped-up traditional blues number delivered in a hip mod tempo with decent girl group harmonies and avant-garde guitar from Townshend (they’ll appropriate the shimmery strummed intro for the later release “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere”). Roger Daltrey sounds completely out of his league on the James Brown tune “I Don’t Mind,” and its only a warmup for a greater sacrilege later in our program. “The Good’s Gone” opens with the so-1960’s jangle of a Rickenbacker and moseys along at an unexciting pace with a poorly double-tracked vocal from Daltrey dripping with forced attitude. The go-go-dancers of the period would have danced mindlessly to all these songs (after all, they were paid to do that), so I suppose they have period value . . . but opening an album with three of your weakest offerings isn’t the best way to build the fan base. The first two songs do remind us that The Who had a solid grounding in blues and R&B, an essential education for any serious rockers. That foundation enabled The Who to become one of the great power rock bands, ensuring that their music was rooted in the erotic component of R&B and blues.
But what placed The Who in the upper echelons of rock music is that they weren’t a one-trick pony. They were one of the few bands to really master two forms of rock: power rock and melodic rock. Later they would meld the two in dramatic fashion in songs like “Behind Blue Eyes,” but at this stage, they were just beginning to explore and expand their melodic skills. The first song demonstrating this talent is the simple but catchy tune, “La-La-La Lies.” The song itself is pretty straightforward pop song that The Who take to another level through Keith Moon’s choice to emphasize the toms in a shuffle pattern that sounds like slowed-down skiffle with a Motown kick. While Moon is holding up his end of the bargain, Townshend and Entwistle combine for some luscious choral harmonies in the chorus and finale, and Daltrey sounds perfectly comfortable in the role of earnest, frustrated lover.
“Much Too Much” is a song that isn’t sure which direction it wants to take, in large part due to Daltrey applying too much tough-guy attitude over a background of sweet harmonies. I tend to tune him out and focus on the rhythm section, where Keith Moon holds things together with restrained (for him) tom and cymbal work. Though later in the timeline he would sometimes become a parody of himself and eschew structural support for bursts of madness, on My Generation you can appreciate his remarkable talent and stunning range of attack.
The title track comes next, and when I originally reviewed “My Generation” on Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy, most of my commentary had to do with the utter stupidity of famous line, “Hope I die before I get old.” Well, I still think it’s a fucking stupid sentiment on multiple levels, but let’s put that aside and focus on the music. Roger Daltrey’s stuttering vocal is one of the most compelling vocals I’ve ever heard, capturing the uncertain rebel rejecting adult rules and regulations while having no solutions to the conflict other than a childish wish that the old farts would just fade away—James Dean’s angst set to rock music. And then there’s Entwistle’s bass emerging from the limitations of mid-60’s recording technology, earning himself the big solo after flattening us with some incredibly nimble bass runs. And though you may not pay much notice to it with Daltrey and Entwistle garnering most of the attention and Keith Moon letting loose, Pete Townshend should win the best supporting actor award for serving as the rough glue that holds it all together through his no-bullshit rhythm guitar attack.
That first power rock masterpiece is followed by their first melodic rock masterpiece, “The Kids Are Alright.” I reviewed this previously as well, and I am absolutely sticking to my original perspective: “Another melodic rock classic, this story of mild teenage angst is sheer delight. Validating The Count Basie Effect that tells us that the simplest choices are often the best, the opening chord—a pretty run-of-the-mill D5—was voted the second most distinctive opening chord after (duh) “A Hard Day’s Night” on Rock Town Hall. The melody moves beautifully and gracefully through the scale, and the harmonies sound so good they almost put me into a waking dream state of pure ecstasy. Keith Moon’s relentless attack gives the arrangement rock song credibility by tempering the sweetness, and Townsend’s supporting guitar gets right to the edge of lead guitar orgasm without crossing the line into explosion, leaving that pleasure for the listeners. And where did this diamond land on the US Charts? #106. Shee-it.”
Right when things are beginning to move along swimmingly, The Who completely, utterly and unreservedly blow it by giving us another cover of James Brown—and not just any cover, but the ultimate James Brown melodramatic masterpiece, “Please, Please, Please.” Daltrey is so far out of his league here, it’s embarrassing—kind of like pitting the Boston Red Sox against the local Pee Wee League team. In every film I’ve seen of the Godfather of Soul performing “Please, Please, Please,” the audience is in a state of rapture, uncontrollably screaming in orgasmic delight. The only screaming I can imagine coming from the audience in response to The Who’s version is “We want our fucking money back!” Without a doubt, this is one of the worst examples of white guys trying to go black and failing miserably.
In protest of this appalling act of musical debasement, I give you the real “Please, Please, Please.”
The Who return to sanity with “It’s Not True,” a bouncy little number with provocative lyrics desperately in need of a punch line. The first two verses give us a series of outrageous accusations made against the narrator, giving us the impression that valuable insight lies ahead:
You say I’ve been in prison
You say I’ve got a wife
You say I’ve had help doing
Everything throughout my life
I haven’t got eleven kids
I weren’t born in Baghdad
I’m not half-Chinese either
And I didn’t kill my dad
Nice set-up, but the deflating conclusion is that narrator denies all the rumors and reminds us that spreading gossip isn’t a very nice thing to do. Thanks for the tip and thanks for nuthin’!
Skipping lyrical challenges entirely, “The Ox” is a hyper-speed romp where Townshend, Moon and Nicky Hopkins take a simple blues progression and deliver an exciting performance with faintly ominous overtones. I can understand why The Who rarely played this tune live (it’s just your standard three-chord progression) but the sounds they created in this piece served as a scratch pad for musical ideas that will manifest themselves in later works. The stop-time segment where Nicky Hopkins’ piano takes over presages the more dramatic passages in “Baby O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Townshend’s mastery of the lower strings is on full display here, and he will go on to use that talent to strengthen the bottom of Who classics like “I Can See for Miles” and “Summertime Blues.”
That blast of energy is followed by the only Townshend lead vocal on the album, “A Legal Matter,” a song I covered in the MBB&B review. In short: melodically similar to The Stones’ “The Last Time,” ludicrously sexist, but I find no flaws in Townshend’s vocal and guitar work. And speaking of legal matters, the closing track “Instant Party (Circles)” wound up in High Court, the center of a copyright dispute between producer Shel Talmy and the band. As it’s not much of a song in the first place, I think this is a classic example of misguided male aggressiveness, where men fight about trivial things like who’s the best quarterback in history or which team’s cheerleaders have the biggest tits. Who gives a fuck? Who’s the judge? Those cheerleaders are never going to fuck you, so what’s the point?
All which brings us neatly back to where we started. I think part of the reason many (not all) male critics engage in hyperbole is because men are generally uncomfortable of expressing emotions other than anger and the thrill of victory. Instead of telling us how the music made them feel (which is what music does—makes us feel) they have to filter those emotions through the testosterone factory in their nuts to retain membership in the pack.
I’ll tell you how I feel about The Who Sings My Generation: I was excited to pick up so many clues of their future direction in the music, absolutely enthralled by their unique sound, deeply impressed by the potential on display, thrilled by their melodic and harmonic flights, wet and sassy when they kicked ass, and I’m still fucking pissed off about “Please, Please, Please.”
There, that wasn’t so hard, was it?