By the time Cream’s finale was released on this day 50 years ago, the group had been disbanded for just under two months. There was nothing sudden about it; it had been announce prior to the release of their previous album, Wheels of Fire, that they would split after a forthcoming farewell tour. As with that previous record, Cream would utilize live recordings mixed with studio tracks on their final release.
The first three tracks on Goodbye were taken from their performance at L.A.’s Forum near the end of that tour in October 1968, while each member contributed a new song to be recorded in the studio to fill out the album. The release spawned one single, Badge, which reached number 18 in the UK and 60 on the US Billboard Hot 100. The song was co-written by L’Angelo Misterioso, a.k.a. George Harrison, who misread Clapton’s writing of the word “bridge” on Clapton’s then-untitled song while working across a table from him. As Harrison would later describe it, an intoxicated Ringo Starr then walked into the room talking about swans in the park. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how a beloved classic rock song was written!
Contemporary reviews were mostly positive, though the production was criticized by some. Yeah, those live tracks are loud. But Cream was a loud, distortion drenched band on stage. And by the end, Baker and Bruce were at each other’s throats while all three were playing over each other in live performances. To which I say, so what? It’s part of who they were, as well as a factor in their dissolution. They were a combination of a really good studio band who brought the thunder live, and when it was done, it was done. Within a few months Jack Bruce would release his first solo album, Songs for a Tailor, while Clapton and Baker would team with Steve Winwood and Ric Grech in Blind Faith. Then along came the 70’s…
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):
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):