I had stepped away from my blog for a bit when the 50th anniversary of Jackie Lomax’s 1969 album Is This What You Want? came and went. It wasn’t a great album despite its connections, but there is one standout track that I want to acknowledge. Sour Milk Sea is a fairly well known song to Beatles fans despite the fact that it wasn’t on any of their albums (unless one counts The Esher Demos). I’ve mentioned it before, on the White Album‘s 50th. Written by George Harrison, who also produced the Lomax album for the Apple label after recording his own demo, in my mind its rightful place was on the White Album as a proper full-on Beatles song. Perhaps this post is an attempt at excising the topic from my mind so that I can just enjoy Lomax’s very good version.
Sour Milk Sea was written by Harrison during the Beatles’ retreat with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi at his ashram in Rishikesh, India in early 1968. He drew inspiration for the song from a picture depicting a Hindu theme regarding “the geological theory of the evolution of organic life on earth.” The Sour Milk Sea represents a fallow period between Earth’s evolutionary cycles. The point of all of it being, in order to evolve we must seek God through meditation.
While the thematic influence is from the East, Sour Milk Sea is not raga rock. No sitar, no tablas. This is straight forward 1968 British blues rock, and what a backing band Lomax had here: Harrison and Clapton on guitars, McCartney on bass, Ringo on drums, and Nicky Hopkins on piano. The Hammond organ is uncredited. This was the first Harrison written song that he gave away to another artist. It’s also the only song to feature more than two Beatles on someone else’s recording.
I wrote ‘Sour Milk Sea’ in Rishikesh, India…it’s based on Vishvasara Tantra, from Trantric art…It’s a picture, and the picture is called ‘Sour Milk Sea’ – ‘Kalladadi Samudra’ in Sanskrit. I used Sour Milk Sea as the idea of – if you’re in the shit, don’t go around moaning about it: do something about it.
-George Harrison, from his autobiography I Me Mine
If your life’s not right, doesn’t satisfy you
You don’t get the breaks like some of us do
Better work it out, find where you’ve gone wrong
Better do it soon as you don’t have long
Get out of sour milk sea
You don’t belong there
Get back to where you should be
Find out what’s going on there
If you want the most from everything you do
In the shortest time your dreams will come true
In no time at all makes you more aware
A very simple process takes you there
Looking for release from limitation
There’s nothing much without illumination
Can fool around with every different cult
There’s only one way really brings results
Side A: Sour Milk Sea
Side B: The Eagle Laughs at You
An interesting “outfake,” a mashup of the Lomax instrumental track with the Harrison Esher Demo vocal:
Continuing with my makeup homework, this album has been a fan favorite since the day of its release 50 years ago. There was a great deal of anticipation for the group’s followup album after the Crosby, Stills & Nash release the year before earned the group a Grammy for Best New Artist. Neil Young’s addition to the group only increased expectations. Certified gold 14 days after its release, Déjà Vu eventually attained septuple platinum status.
All four produced it, but Neil is only on half the tracks. His addition to the group might be looked at as a blessing and a curse. There’s no doubt he was, and still is, a prolific songwriter. But things were, and perhaps always have been with this quartet, a little off. Nash has stated Young recorded his songs alone in L.A., then brought them to the band in San Francisco for their contributions. Additionally, there was a dark undercurrent at the time: Nash and Joni Mitchell had split, as had Stills and Judy Collins. Much worse, Crosby was mourning the loss of his girlfriend Christine Hinton, who had recently been killed in a car accident. The stress of their personal lives spilled over into the studio, and as a result of all of these factors it took six months to record the album.
Though I think it’s a great album, I can feel that separation between Neil and the others when listening to it. Helpless and the Country Girl suite sound like they should be on solo Neil records despite the harmonies from the other three, much like Neil’s contributions to the third Buffalo Springfield album were basically solo efforts. Déjà Vu spawned three Top 40 singles: Woodstock, Teach Your Children, and Our House. While I don’t dislike these tracks, they are probably my least favorites. I’m partial to Stills’ 4+20 and Carry On, Neil’s Helpless and Country Girl, and Crosby’s title track. All four would take advantage of this album’s commercial success by following it with fantastic solo albums very soon after.
Last fall I visited a friend in L.A., and we took a drive up into Laurel Canyon so I could play shameless tourist. Laurel Canyon Blvd. has to be one of the more dangerous and busy roads I’ve been on, and by the time we pulled into what was at one time Joni Mitchell’s driveway I felt so conspicuous that I jumped out of the car and quickly had my friend snap a picture before we split in a bit of a rush. The result was a photo of me standing in front of the gate, but without the house, a.k.a. Our House, in the frame. A palm to forehead moment.
March 1970: Delaney & Bonnie and Friends – On Tour with Eric Clapton
This live album encapsulates so much of what is, to me, good about music from 1970. It just sounds like everybody on stage is enjoying themselves to the hilt, which is why even George Harrison joined the tour for a few gigs. (His performances, credited under the pseudonym “L’Angelo Misterioso,” are available on the super-deluxe-crazy-expanded-four disc release from 2010 which contains multiple shows.) The album and tour may have received a boost from Clapton’s association with it, but the rock ‘n boogie ‘n Southern gospel blues on this recording stands on its own merits. It’s also quite amazing to think that this coming together of various musicians spawned much of Harrison’s All Things Must Pass as well as Clapton’s Derek and the Dominos lineup on Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. Not to mention the cross-pollination with Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour and Dave Mason’s solo debut, Alone Together.
Fun trivia: The photo used for the album cover is a Barry Feinstein pic from Dylan’s ’66 U.K. tour. Those are Bob’s feet sticking out the window of the Rolls-Royce.
Random fact that has nothing to do with this post: I’ve got music on YouTube playing as I write, letting it go to whatever is “Up next.” I had no idea the full-length version of Rare Earth’s Get Ready is over 21 minutes long. Or that there even was a full-length version other than what I’ve heard on the radio all my life.
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):