The Essay

: an appreciation

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My favourite picture of them

Appreciation of the Individuals

After 30 years it is easy for critics and fans alike to misunderstand Cream’s position in rock music. They were a seminal band who had enormous influence on various streams of music. That influence is now not so readily obvious and with hindsight (the leveler used by the unimaginative) their innovations are too easily missed.

The mid-sixties were an era dominated by the Beatles. It was their success that everybody wanted to emulate. Jack, Ginger and Eric had a different dynamic based on their prodigious instrumental skills. They could emulate the Beatles in the studio by creating clever catchy tunes but with superior instrumental performances. Live was where they instrumental prowess was given full exposure as they did not simply reproduce the studio recordings.

Taken by Jack

It is the schizophrenic nature of the Cream recordings that many find difficult to understand. In the reality of the ‘60’s it was the live performance where bands made money. Playing live was their living and not just a means to promote the latest release, as it is today. That remained their priority: over two and half years they probably had less than a month of cumulative studio time to record 3 1/2 albums (a minimal time to record one CD in this day and age). Records were a means to promote the live performance. A hit song meant higher appearance fees while the record income could be meager after the industry got its chop. Cream only got 3% royalties from their recordings, which was typical at the time. Earnings from recordings have never been transparent and are subject to the accounting manipulations of the companies and management. Live payments were more reliable and could be more easily supervised – Ginger checked the books.

To Cream there was no schizophrenia as the studio was a completely artificial environment for tediously creating pop music. Live performance was the real business and fun. Even so they managed to produce some finely crafted and influential studio works that still resonate today. To modern ears (fans and critics) it is those that retain maximum interest. The live extended improvisational jams, excluding Crossroads, are generally rejected as overblown and self-indulgent. Those descriptions more aptly apply to those critics rather than the radical musical explorations of Jack, Ginger and Eric.

Fresh Cream to Gears

In Britain Jack, Ginger and Eric were generally recognised as the premier players of their instruments and they believed they were. This was not in the pop world as they were still part of the blues underground that was only starting to seriously enter the charts. The songs that broke through usually were reworked i.e. softened, blues based songs, thus Wrapping Paper and I Feel Free. These songs shocked the fans that were hearing their blues based performances and were expecting the same from the records. Cream, however, wanted to be successful in the charts and they knew the blues wasn’t going to do it. Even so the relative lack of success of the first two singles, contrasted with very favourable reviews of and attendance at their live performances, produced a more acceptable blend on Fresh Cream. As fine as the performances were it still didn’t quite hit the mark, plus, they knew success lay in America. Fresh Cream went nowhere there as it was another blues record in a country full of blues records and, also, blues was race music.

Cream’s reliance on instrumental improvisation arose from their reception at the National Jazz and Blues Festival, Windsor, England on 31st July 1966. This was their second live appearance with their as yet limited repertoire. As they extended the jamming in the songs to fill the set time the audience responded with increasing enthusiasm. It was simple maths: to fill 40 minutes with pop songs you needed around 10 songs, if you’ve got only half that number you’ve got to stretch them out. And that was what the audience loved. While Jack and Eric claim that the jamming really started at the Fillmore in August ’67, they were clearly stretching songs earlier than that as shown by "Spoonful" on Fresh Cream. Murray the K found "I’m So Glad" too long!

The jamming was a response to the audience and an outlet for burgeoning instrumental virtuosity. Simply, each of them was pushing the others to greater heights. In those terms it was ego driven but their egos were based on their very real and great talents. Jamming allowed them to explore new musical territory individually and as a group, plus it was exciting. They were definitely not interested in playing the same little tunes the same way night after night as many pop groups did.

March ’67 found them in New York where they appeared on the farcical Murray the K show. Murray didn’t like them but eventually heavily played them on his radio show. The following Disraeli Gears recording sessions were a watershed with their whole sound changing: Eric using greater effects (feedback, fuzz and wah-wah), Ginger’s patterns underpinning and driving every song and Jack showing his full talents as singer, song writer and master bassist. These changes were already well underway, as shown by the January ’67 "Lost Sessions", and only needed Felix's encouragement to go down the path of psychedelic rock. LSD also played a role.

Disraeli Gears was a landmark rock album much under appreciated. It fully incorporated guitar effects as an integral part of the song not simply as a sonic effect. The first single was "Strange Brew" but it was the B-Side psychedelic "Tales of Brave Ulysses" and its wah-wah that had the impact. It was the first recorded use of the effects pedal. Jimi’s first released recording using it was "The Stars That Play with Laughing Sam’s Dice" (rec May & July ’67). Cream had performed Ulysses, at least, on BBC radio in May. "Sunshine of Your Love" was also important as it represented the key to a new Rock Music: heavy bass/guitar riff, underpinning driving drums, power vocals and a catchy hook. The material, and the guitar especially, were blues based but undergoing renovation into a new form. It was a model that new rock groups would study and absorb. Arguably it was the start of Heavy Metal Rock and that is just a statement of fact, not a criticism.

Unfortunately Gears was not released until November/December 1967. By this time Jimi had released his first two albums and Gears was viewed in their collective shade. A mid-year release would have had, at least, greater artistic and critical impact. It appears that the misguided record company moguls believed that the blues of Fresh Cream was more marketable (it did sell steadily during ’67) than the psychedelia of Gears. Hendrix’s success showed how they misunderstood the fans or, in modern terms, misread the market place.

Ice Creams instead of cigarettes?

The Golden Period

Cream returned to Britain with new material and more adventurous sound. Over the next few months they would continue to develop that sound but not in song form. Their avenue remained through the intense creativity of improvisation in performance. The ongoing schedule of appearances and limited studio/rehearsal time played its role. It is interesting that the basic tracks for Sitting on Top of the World, Born under a Bad Sign and the first version of White Room were recorded during July-August before the US tour. The early version of White Room is enough to show that they were in their mature golden period.

Their performances in March impressed enough people to ensure a big reception for their US tour starting in August. Bill Graham had been told enough to book them as the headliners for ten nights of two shows. The Fillmore audience wanted jams and they found that these three Englishmen were the best. They floored not only the audience but many musician’s as well (Garcia, Kaukonen, Cassidy, Lesh, Bloomfield, Santana among many as well as jazzmen, who often demeaned but they took note). The impact reverberated through the burgeoning rock music industry: instrumental virtuosity was viable and the audience enjoyed it! For many of the musicians the impact on their own playing was simple – they had a lot of work to do. As Leslie West succinctly put it: "When I heard Eric I knew I had to shit or get off the pot".
For most pop people Cream was jazz, for Jazz people Cream was threatening. Jazz could always claim a technical superiority to pop music but with Cream and Hendrix that case was marginalised. The Gary Burton Quartet (Burton – Vibes, Larry Coryell – Guitar, Steve Swallow – Acoustic Bass, Bob Moses – Drums) was on the bill and after hearing Jack, Steve Swallow converted to electric bass guitar. He was the first of many as Jack had proven that the bass guitar was for virtuoso performance, but with the advantage of being loud. The ripples generated by Cream and Hendrix reached its peak in 1969 when Miles Davis went electric.

Fillmore Theatre from the Light Show stand

After the Fillmore shows the tour became a grind of one nighters as they criss-crossed the States and played anywhere for $3,000 a show. By the end of October, the stresses of such touring began to take its toll. A good rest, time to write and work up new material was what was required but, instead, more touring of UK and Europe which exacerbated tensions. Another rushed visit to the states found them exhausted when they returned to the UK on Christmas eve. And that was to be followed by an even longer and more arduous tour of the US, beginning in February, which destroyed them.

By the start of the ’68 tour, most of the Studio recordings for "Wheels of Fire" had been laid down. The studio sessions were dominated by the ever-combative Jack and Ginger, with Eric asserting himself via slashing solos. It was their masterwork, which was to be complimented by a live disc recorded over a series of concerts in March. Those incendiary performances marked the end of their golden period as their relationships and musical creativity rapidly degenerated as the tour rolled on.

The End

The tensions within the group spiraled out of control as the early ’68 tour progressed with each at each other's throats. Wheels was basically in the can and they had gone as far as they could in live performance without major restructuring. Naively, Eric also took to heart some simplistic and vicious criticism in the pages of Rolling Stone. Somewhere in Texas at the end of March, the guitarist looked at the leader and said he’d had enough and the leader concurred. They enforced a break in April but to no avail.

They staggered on, denying what they had privately decided but when it was proposed to extend the tour even further they officially called it quits. They returned to the New York studios in June to finish off the studio sides. It was an even more acrimonious session during which Tom Dowd thought, "they might kill each other". The sessions were now basically under the artistic direction of Jack and Felix as the final overdubs were completed. It should have ended there but management convinced them to take one final tour to promote Wheels and really milk the big venues.

Wheels of Fire was released in August to critical acclaim and market success. Stigwood now envisioned a final two record set repeat. It was not to be as the three were no longer on talking terms. Jack was looking to a solo career, Eric a change in musical direction and Ginger to a good rest.

The final tour was mercifully short 22 shows (19 venues) from October 4th to November 4th plus two farewell concerts at Royal Albert Hall on 26th November. For this tour they each stayed at separate hotels, arrived in separate limos and used a fixed set list.

All the shows were in the big venues and were sold out. Naturally the music suffered as they just played it out. Unfortunately it was these performances that received the most critical attention. Four shows were recorded for the album, of which the Forum performance shows they could still cut it as the three released tracks are among their very best.

December saw the final studio sessions with only three songs (one each) being completed. The double album had become a single. The ill feeling continued for many years but time has soothed the damage with even Ginger and Jack working together amicably during the ‘90s.

What Went Wrong?

Cream was never destined to last as long as the Stones or the Who or even the Beatles. They had conceptually started as a "Buddy Guy" style blues band and ended up closer to "Ornette Coleman". In the studio they also evolved from blues based to fully blown studio Rock. None of them had expected that and ultimately they couldn’t collectively manage it. The inner contradictions that generated their fierce creativity were also their downfall.

Pete Brown puts the case that the addition of keyboards could have saved them. But which keyboard player? No, their legacy is as it is and we have no right to fantasize for any more

Measuring that legacy is difficult but there are some enlightening figures available. The final mega-tour was a model that has been emulated ever since. It covered large venues in a short a period as possible for a minimum $25,000 (1968 $!) a show ($68,000 for Madison Square Garden with 22,000 fans). The SG guitar had been a solid seller for Gibson but from 1968 to 1970 sales more than tripled and Jack achieved similarly improved sales for their EB3 bass for 1969 and ‘70. They received their Platinum discs for Wheels of Fire at the Madison Square Garden gig and Sunshine of Your Love also went gold. 1969-70 consolidated Rock music as a very big business which Cream had a major role in creating. Many others, like Led Zepplin, were to achieve greater wealth from Cream's pioneering work.

How many guitarists, bassists and drummers were changed, fired up or given a kick start from hearing Cream?

For the individuals, Cream was a two edged sword. It had brought them fame and some measure of fortune but at considerable physical and emotional cost. It took almost a decade for each of them to recover their equilibrium and cast off their substance dependencies. Eric became a superstar and multi-millionaire, Jack settled into an idiosyncratic but always interesting solo career and Ginger eventually preferred his non-musical activities, especially polo but is still a master drummer.

Each of them can still produce music of power and finesse when the mood takes them. But they can never reproduce the magic of Cream as that was a different era and they were a lot younger. Lets just enjoy what they’ve left us and hope the record companies will release some more live stuff!

Will They Reform?

Well, I’m torn: I’d love to see them*, of course, but would it be of any real musical value? It’s their decision and it’ll be made on musical/personal grounds, as there is, thankfully, no overwhelming financial imperative.

* Probably wouldn’t even get to Australia!

Appreciation of the Individuals

PS: There's a glaring visual error on this page if you know your Rock History! Email me if you see it or want to find out what it is.

That's not the Sheriff!

Added 31st December 1997

Latest update: 22nd April 1998
Corrections: 10th June 1999

1997 by Graeme Pattingale