Wheels

of

Fire

(2 Record Set also now 2 CDs)

Producer: Felix Papallardi

Recorded: Studio - July 1967-June 1968; Live - March 1968 (see each song below for details)

Recording Engineers: Studio - Tom Dowd & Adrian Barber; Live - Bill Halverson, remix by Adrian Barber

Released: UK – 8/68, US – 6/68. Note: also released as separate albums ("In the Studio" [with a gold instead of silver cover] & "Live at the Fillmore") in the UK, and only as separate albums in Australia & presumably in other countries as well.

Highest Chart Position: UK – 3, US – 1. Note: "In the Studio" also reached 7 in the UK.

Cover Art: Martin Sharp

This was the monster album, not just for Cream but the Rock Music industry – it went platinum in the US within a year of release (actually gold, 500,000 in ‘unit’ terms but as it was two records it gets doubled). While the Beatles, Stones, Doors etc had had big sales, they were more acceptable to a wider audience ie a pop overlap. Cream were full on hard rock who could produce catchy riffs: no real glamour (despite the hip promo photos), except for some from shy Eric, just extraordinary musicianship. Even more revolutionary was the inclusion of a live album that comprised only four tracks, two of which exceeded 16 minutes – this only occurred in Jazz! Now the record companies new that hard Rock music was huge – big dollars, especially with small groups playing all the instruments (that very quickly proved to be short sighted!).

The schizophrenia at the heart of Cream is fully exhibited on this album with a brace of catchy, but quite complex, studio songs/arrangements that went down surprisingly well on radio, contrasted with extended jazz jamming on the live recordings. What is obvious is the extraordinary musicianship and creativity both individual and collective.

[While it was released as a double album I am going to review them separately as they are, virtually schizophrenically, quite independent]

"In the Studio"

The huge improvement in sound quality of the Studio recordings is result of: rapid improvement in recording technology, improved skills of the recording engineers in dealing with very loud amplified instruments, more confidence from the producer, more money for recording time which meant more refinement and quality overdubbing. Most of the tracks were recorded/overdubbed in separate sessions including different studios spread over almost a year. It would have cost more to record than all of Cream’s previous recordings combined! But by today standards that would have still been very low cost. It sounded great then and even now its still pretty good, with the production outstanding.

Wheels was Cream’s "Sergeant Pepper" with Felix taking the role of George Martin and becoming the studio fourth member. Jack dominates the creative area with four of his finest songs, Ginger provides three excellent contributions and there are two blues. If one counts the distinctive blues covers as Eric’s contributions, then it’s a pretty balanced creative effort – though Ginger would disagree. The creation of this master work was fraught with tensions as the group was basically breaking up. Still, from the result, it seems to have added something special to Ginger’s song writing and Eric’s, at times, frenetic playing.

On a count back, it contains two unquestionable classics in "White Room" and "Politician" which equals "Gears". It is the strength of the other songs that lifts "Wheels" above "Gears" – there is not one filler. As well it can be fairly argued that "Sitting on Top of the World" and "Born Under a Bad Sign" are genuine rock-blues classics. Their playing is also at a more mature level, especially Eric’s. Only rare albums have the all-round accomplishment contained in "In the Studio".

Track by Track

White Room (Jack Bruce/Pete Brown)

Eric – lead & solo guitars; Jack – bass guitar, lead vocals; Ginger – drums & tympani.

[Recording: Basic - July/Aug 1967, IBC Studios London, Adrian Barber eng; Overdubs - Sept/Oct 1967; Wah-Wah overdub - Jan/Feb 1968, Atlantic Studios NY, Tom Dowd eng]

[23rd Dec 1997: Well I got my original review wrong. The opening is not violas, it is Eric with triple tracked feedback sustained notes. As soon as I read it in Guitar World and listened to the cleaner remaster, it was obvious. My brain had been telling my ears that it was violas or possibly mellotron]

From the opening multitracked feedback guitar notes, tympani in 5/4 and initial lyric, we know this is something very special. Pete’s finest and probably most obscure lyrics, Eric’s wah wah, Ginger’s bass drum and Jack’s singing are all critical elements in the creation of this masterpiece. The drums have never sounded better with Felix spreading them for maximum effect (high-hat hard right, pounding bass drum hard left). Eric has now fully mastered guitar overdubbing and provides a superbly coherent performance, despite the recording time spread, - just wish the ending solo over the driving bass drums could have gone on.

A masterpiece in song and performance terms.

Sitting On Top of the World (Chester Burnett)

Eric – lead guitars; Jack – bass guitar, lead vocals; Ginger - drums

[Recording: Basic - July/Aug 1967, IBC Studios London, Adrian Barber eng; Final - Sept/Oct 1967, Atlantic Studios NY, Tom Dowd eng.]

Eric’s SG/ Marshall (dual stacks up flatout!) distorted sound on the opening riff is a great start on a very rock sounding blues even though his solo is classic urgent blues phrasing. Jack shouts it out as only he can do and Ginger underplays superbly. It’s these songs that show how Jack and Ginger subliminally interacted despite their personal antagonisms. A less than reverential version of Howlin’ Wolf’s standard that probably set a standard for hard rock blues covers.

Passing the Time (Ginger Baker/Mike Taylor)

Eric – lead & rhythm guitar, harmony vocals; Jack – bass guitar, lead vocals, Calliope; Ginger – drums, glockenspiel, vocals; Felix – violas, organ pedals.

[Recording: Basic - Jan/Feb 1968, Finish - June 1968, Atlantic Studios NY, Tom Dowd eng]

A very surprising gem from Ginger, showing great song writing skills, and taking the opening vocals (Ah). It is a complex song, with lots of time changes (5/4, 7/4, 4/4, 3/4), beautifully executed. A real studio production job, that is quite hypnotic with its unusual choice of instruments. Jack really lets it rip on bass on the jam, which is available in extended form (+90 sec) on the Gold Disc release and "Those Were the Days".

As You Said (Jack Bruce/Pete Brown)

Jack – acoustic guitar, cellos, lead vocals; Ginger – high hat

[Recording: Basic - Jan/Feb 1968, Finish - June 1968, Atlantic Studios NY, Tom Dowd eng]

An idiosyncratic solo performance by Jack: unusual, daring and brilliant.

[Vinyl side 2]

Pressed Rat and Warthog (Ginger Baker/Mike Taylor)

Eric – rhythm & lead guitar; Jack – bass guitar, recorder; Ginger – drums, recitation; Felix – trumpet, tonette.

[Recording: Basic - Sept/Oct 1967, Finish – Jan/Feb 1968, Atlantic Studios NY, Tom Dowd eng]

Ginger’s second contribution on which he doesn’t sing but recites the words of a weird fairy tale, all in 6/8 time. Jack and Ginger are so comfortable with non-4/4 times. Eric’s solo on the ending jam is frenetic. It’s a fun song that really works especially because of Ginger’s voice.

Politician (Jack Bruce/Pete Brown)

Eric – lead & solo guitars; Jack – bass guitar, lead vocals; Ginger - drums

[Recording: Basic - Sept/Oct 1967, Finish – Jan/Feb 1968, Atlantic Studios NY, Tom Dowd eng]

Another monster riff from Jack that further redefines the 12 bar blues. Eric’s multi-tracked intertwined guitars are harbingers of the sound on Layla. Ginger’s syncopation is pure inspiration (just sit and concentrate on the drums to really appreciate him). A great song and performance all round.

Those Were The Days (Ginger Baker/Mike Taylor)

Eric – lead & solo guitars; Jack – bass guitar, lead vocals; Ginger – drums, marimba, tubular bells; Felix – swiss hand bells

[Recording: Basic – Jan/Feb 1968, Finish – June 1968, Atlantic Studios NY, Tom Dowd eng]

The most straight foreward of Ginger’s songs (5/4, 4/4) with strong lyrics in the Martin Sharp style. Eric contributes more frenetic guitar as if was trying to assert himself in sessions that were being dominated by Jack and Ginger. The various percussion sounds very effectively enhance the sonic texture.

Born Under A Bad Sign (Booker T. Jones/ William Bell)

Eric – lead & solo guitars; Jack – bass guitar, lead vocals; Ginger – drums, tambourine.

[[Recording: Basic - July/Aug 1967, IBC Studios London, Adrian Barber eng; Final - Sept/Oct 1967, Atlantic Studios NY, Tom Dowd eng.]

This is a more orthodox rendition of a contemporary blues standard written by Booker T. for Albert King. This arrangement has been much copied. Its built on a basic riff that gives Jack plenty of room to play around. Eric fills and solos with his distorted, edgy sound while Ginger syncopates around the bass line.

Deserted Cities of the Heart (Jack Bruce/Pete Brown)

Eric – rhythm & solo guitars; Jack – bass, lead vocals, acoustic guitar, cello; Ginger – drums, tubular bells; Felix - viola

[Recording: Basic – Jan/Feb 1968, Finish – June 1968, Atlantic Studios NY, Tom Dowd eng]

Starts like another solo effort from Jack, including a cello and violas bridge. Eric is just contributing electric rhythm guitar, but steals it when he launches into a frantic, unusually distorted solo on the SG. Ginger uses his bass drums to power the song on, especially behind the guitar solo and ending. A great closing track - just short of being another classic!

In the Studio (Vinyl) Gold Cover

[Live at Fillmore]

Updated: 14th Oct 1997, Corrected 23rd Dec 1997

1997 by Graeme Pattingale