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 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 to 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 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 separated them from their contemporaries.
Not a bad start for an experiment doomed to fail . . . but those three albums were worth the strain.