Cream – Wheels of Fire
That loud sound you hear is the thunder of White Room, the opening track of Wheels of Fire, that quintessential 1968 double album by power trio Cream, released 50 years ago today. From here, the record twists and turns in many directions in the studio, from other solid originals penned by bassist Jack Bruce and writing partner Peter Brown such as Politician, As You Said, and Deserted Cities of the Heart, to heavy blues covers of Howlin’ Wolf (Sitting on Top of the World) and Albert King (Born Under a Bad Sign), as well as Ginger Baker’s somewhat bizarre spoken word Press Rat and Warthog. And that’s only the first record, subtitled In the Studio.
The second album of the set, Live at the Fillmore (named as such despite the fact that three of its four songs were recorded at the Winterland Ballroom), features Cream’s live exploits, showcasing Clapton’s blistering guitar work on the Robert Johnson classic Crossroads and the excessive 16 minute drum solo madness of Ginger Baker on Toad. Despite the fact that Cream were coming apart at the seams, Wheels of Fire displays the band at their peak, both in the studio and on stage. It became the first platinum selling double album, and rose to #1 in the US and #3 in the UK with White Room (reaching #6) and Crossroads as singles which continue to endure as radio staples.
The group, with producer Felix Pappalardi, began work in recording studios in the summer (London) and fall (NYC) of ’67. However, due to Cream’s relentless touring schedule they had difficulty achieving a solid album, so they returned to the studio in January and February of ’68. It was then they decided to order a mobile recording studio to be delivered to the Fillmore West and Winterland Ballroom to record six live performances and make it a double album. The unused material from those shows would comprise the later Live Cream and Live Cream Volume II releases.
For most of the albums I celebrate in these pages, I read through both contemporary and latter day reviews in order to glean some perspective. But more often than not I come away with an eyebrow raised at what I perceive to be the arrogance of critics who look for any reason to lambast an artist. Maybe that’s Professional Music Critiquing 101: counterbalance record company hype. Maybe I’m just ignorant of how this works. Yet here we are, 50 years on, and if you liked this music 20-50 years ago, chances are you still do. I certainly do.
But Jann Wenner in his 1968 critique in Rolling Stone (see link below for the full, embarrassing review) heard White Room as nothing more than a carbon copy of Tales of Brave Ulysses and couldn’t imagine why they chose to repeat it. I’ll grant that there are similarities, but how was that anything new to rock or blues music? He also suggested it was “unfortunate” that they recorded the contemporary blues hit, Born Under a Bad Sign because, he wrote, Jack Bruce didn’t have a good voice for blues. He also wrote that his harmonica playing was “amateurish.” Wenner did like the live Crossroads, Spoonful, and oddly enough, Toad (a “fine number”), and somehow concluded that the album “will be a monster” despite his misgivings which outweigh his praises.
Stephen Thomas Erlewine in his AllMusic review describes Wheels of Fire as a “dense, unwieldy double album.” He continues:
…it’s sprawling and scattered, at once awesome in its achievement and maddening in how it falls just short of greatness. It misses its goal not because one LP works and the other doesn’t, but because both the live and studio sets suffer from strikingly similar flaws, deriving from the constant power struggle between the trio.
To me, that power struggle was a major part of what made Cream great, as well as the main reason they unravelled almost as quickly as they began. And, perhaps that’s the type of information people like Wenner didn’t have in 1968. They were young, ego-maniacal, substance abusing, brilliant musicians at or near their creative peaks. They made loud, urgent, volatile, indulgent music, and there was no way they were going to maintain that level of output (the old animosity between Bruce and Baker would even quickly resurface during their brief but highly lucrative 2005 reunion).
They had decided to split during the studio recording sessions that spring and held on for a farewell album and tour the following year. But Wheels of Fire, along with another “sprawling and scattered” double album by a well-known quartet later that November, captures the essence of 1968 through rock and blues music as well as or better than anyone else – at least to someone like me born after the fact who can only view it through the lens of history.
Side One (In the Studio):
- White Room
- Sitting on Top of the World
- Passing the Time
- As You Said
- Pressed Rat and Warthog
- Those Were the Days
- Born Under a Bad Sign
- Deserted Cities of the Heart
Side Three (Live @ Winterland & the Fillmore West):