An Appreciation 'Fresh Cream' was an innovative album whose impact was somewhat overwhelmed by the fiery comet of 'Are You Experienced' and other fine innovative albums released around the time. As an album it is not as tightly focused and as musically integrated as would become the norm for albums over the next year. It is 'triophrenic' and that lessens its appeal today, as well as at the time of its release.
The 'triophrenia' is a product of the fearsomely individual musical outlooks of the members and a lack of a defined musical objective (as far as that is possible in a band!). That really was Cream, with only 'Disraeli Gears' having an integrated, coherent musical entity. Cream were not dominated by one creative individual as with JHE, The Who, Beach Boys and Beatles (taking Lennon & McCartney as combined dominant force). On this album they were searching for a musical identity they could all work within and also achieve success. This produced a variety of styles and musical approaches.
Analysing the album through the sessions provides valuable insights.
Jack had just come from the highly successful singles 'hit' factory of Manfred Mann, Ginger from the unsuccessful recording efforts of the Graham Bond Organisation and Eric from creating one of the pre-eminent white blues albums. This resulted in rather desultory initial sessions as they tried to pull together some original material to maximise their financial returns. There initial original was a slight, even if clever, piece of pop quite out of character with their instrumental reputations. The alternate single was pure pop trivia. In contrast, the B-Side was a blues cover.
The next single showed a clear hardening in approach both musically and instrumentally. Though it is still pop music not rock. This time the B-Side is just as interesting as it shows an even harder musical approach with a prominent drums/bass intro and a lead guitar break that stands on its own and is not merely inserted to atmospheric effect. 'NSU' still retains a pop approach but it is clearly moving towards rock.
The sessions and album swings between these elements: Pop ("Dreaming", "Four Until Late"), Blues ("Sleepy Time Time", "Rollin' & Tumblin'"), proto Rock ("NSU", "Sweet Wine"). In the final session in November/December the three musically key tracks were recorded.
The closer of side one (UK and Australia anyhow) was a piece of heavy Rock called "Spoonful". It was a Chicago blues but transformed into an extended powerhouse performance with a dominating bass line, driving drums, fiery vocals and fearsome guitar playing and sound. This recording resonated widely, including through Led Zepplin and beyond. An original piece of blues based heavy Rock.
Side two contains a reworking of an obscure delta blues. Skip James' simple but unusual song is transformed into an equally unusual pop song, though containing some masterful guitar playing. It was to further evolve over the next two years, culminating in the frenetic and jazz-like rendition recorded at the Forum in October 1968. This reworking opened a new musical door and they began running. Other's also saw the potential of this approach.
Fresh Cream' closes with a relatively long instrumental, indeed a drum solo. The recording of whole song for the express purpose of playing a long structured drum solo was unheard of in pop music (though drum breaks and even 'lead' drums were). This song is pure Rock - a heavy repeated riff by the guitar/bass leading into a guitar solo then into the drum solo. The drums were, surprisingly, well miked up resulting in a clean, clear present and balanced sound -you could easily hear that Baker was playing a double kit. It not only opened up the drum solo in Rock but also the quality recording of the drums and the validity of instrumental virtuosity. Later excesses do not denigrate this achievement.
Ginger came to this album with a reputation as the best drummer in England. Leaving aside "Toad", his performances are restrained and considered. His playing is fine but not showing the excellence of future recordings. This was probably the result of a variety of factors: the ongoing mastering of the double kit, developing the role of pivot between Jack and Eric, the rapid development of the group dynamics and his own technical improvement in the Cream furnace. His finest ensemble performance is on "Spoonful".
Jack was the formerly trained member of the band. Highly skilled, musically and instrumentally versatile, he never-the-less had the lesser reputation. His bass work is also restrained and considered again probably the result of coming to grips with the group dynamics. More critical was his development as a vocalist (from shared lead with Eric to dominant lead) and arranger. The song writing was also strong but much better was to come. "Spoonful" was also his best performance on both bass and vocals with an effective harmonica.
Eric came with a big reputation and he was to be the featured soloist. For this album Baker and Bruce complied as they largely played the dutiful rhythm section. Musically Jack was dominant, because of his arranging skills, but this album was still highly co-operative. Eric's blues covers were inspired ranging from the simple but effective "Cats Squirrel" to the unusual "Im So Glad". He even managed to make a pop piece out of a Robert Johnson song. His playing was pure 'Bluesbreaker Period' that culminated with his majestic playing on "Spoonful".
Cream was to be a furnace of musical and instrumental development for all three members. Over the next 12 months they were to grow and develop to be the pre-eminent virtuosos of their instruments and one of the leading performance ensembles in Rock music. This development rapidly left 'Fresh Cream' behind.
'Fresh Cream' was recorded with minimal studio time and minimum takes, which is both its strength and weakness. More time could have brought a more coherent result but at the loss of spontaneity and excitement. The lack of a real producer was also a serious impediment. Even so, it remains a powerful effort that opened new musical doors for them and many others.
© Graeme Pattingale, 1999