Cream is good at a number of things; unfortunately song-writing and recording are not among them. However, they are fantastic performers and excellent musicians. Their latest recording, Wheels of Fire, a two-record set inside a silver jacket, proves all this.
One record is subtitled "In the Studio." The set begins with a Jack Bruce original, "White Room," which is practically an exact duplication of "Tales of Brave Ulysses" from their Disraeli Gears album, including the exact same lines for guitar, bass and drums. The lyrics are not much to speak of and it's very difficult to imagine why they would want to do this again, unless of course, they had forgotten that they had done it before. The Sonny Bono-ish production job adds little.
"Sittin' On Top of the World," a Howlin' Wolf song, is a fine slow blues, done much closer to the original than the familiar speeded-up version by the Grateful Dead. The song is a good vehicle for Clapton, but that's about it. Wolf's ballad-style singing and melody is far superior to Bruce's. (Those interested in comparisons might want to pick up Wolf's Real Folk Blues LP on the Chess label, and compare the two, and then compare that comparison to what the Electric Flag did with Wolf's "Killing Floor," also on the same record. The Flag wins.)
"Passing the Time," a soft sad-circus tune with various instrumental paraphernalia thrown in, is a stone bore. The transition from verse to chorus is absolutely absurd. Ginger Baker stands out on glockenspiel. Of all of Jack Bruce's compositions in this release, only one of them is good, "As You Said." The structure is thoughtful and pleasant. Clapton is totally absent from this cut; Ginger Baker uses only his high hat and Bruce plays acoustic guitar and cello. The way they play back and forth and with each other, each on the melody together, is musicianship worthy of their reputation.
"Pressed Rat and Warthog," a Ginger Baker poem recited to a good background of drum rolls and Clapton's chording, is a track open to individual taste. It's nice, but not what you want to get the album for. The trumpet solos spoil whatever mood was trying to be evoked by their superfluous ness and obviousness.
It is unfortunate that the group chose to do "Born Under a Bad Sign," that fine blues that Booker T. Jones wrote for Albert King. King's guitar solo can hardly be improved, although Clapton does do it with his own style. The real mistake is that Jack Bruce doesn't have a good voice for blues, but he chooses to try it out on one that is currently popular in an exceptionally fine original version. His throaty breathing is just plain wrong. Ginger Baker also ought to learn that knocking on a cowbell and woodblock does not make a song funky.
There is really only one good side to come out of the studio, and that is "Politician," a track which really gets to the heart of Cream's very real problem. Because only rarely do they have a good original song to work with, their standard procedure is to put a strong rhythm and chord structure behind it and sort of recite the lyrics, spoken almost rather than sung because there is no melody. The trouble with this studio LP is that confronted with this problem — and their predilection to use miserable originals rather than revive a good blues — they have chosen to add layers of superfluous instrumental work. This is particularly ironic in that Cream is the group that initiated the concept of a trio with only the three essential instruments really commanding a piece.
What makes "Politician" the most successful is that, although it is not a song of much merit, they don't muddy it with a lot of meaningless studio garbage, but use the studio to overdub two more guitar parts. In "Those Were the Days," half of it is studio garbage and the other half is the driving drum-bass-guitar combination.
Disraeli Gears had this same problem of paucity of material. In that previous release they had three good originals, used a few good blues, and for the rest of it wailed with only three instruments, so that despite the lack of good original material, it was still fine listening. It took only four days to do Disraeli Gears "from stem to stern," as their producer, Felix Pappalardi, has put it, and several weeks for the studio work in their new release. Disraeli Gears was far better.
Fortunately, however, the other record in this set is "Live At The Fill-more" where it was recorded several months ago. For one thing, it at least proves that you can do an excellent live recording of a rock and roll group (something, amazingly enough, none of the San Francisco groups have yet done, despite the popular belief that their sound is designed for live performances).
By and large, the live performance is excellent. Jack Bruce is not very good with a harmonica and it amazes me why he plays it at all. His solo on "Traintime" is loudly amateurish. If they had dumped this cut and put in three of the studio sides ("Sittin' On Top of the World," "As You Said," and "Politician"), we would have one really fine record instead of a set that is 1¾ good and 2¼ mediocre.
"Toad" is a fine number; the live performance is much better than the previously recorded studio version. Here Clapton really displays his superlative chording and rhythm abilities. Ginger Baker's long drum solo is pretty good, on the whole. His tendency to be sloppy is not evident, and he gets moving quickly and sustains the tension well (though he nearly loses it once when he seems to have momentarily choked and come out of it with a few repetitive minutes).
The really fine side of this whole business is the one with "Crossroads" and "Spoonful." This is where Cream really shines because it is where they are at: live, without superfluity of any kind, and into the blues. Clapton is a much better blues singer than Bruce, and his vocal on "Crossroads" is a relief. The tune is Clapton's showpiece, and he does it just like he's supposed to. It's far and away the best cut on the album.
"Spoonful" only really gets going about a third of the way into it. The only criticism I have about this cut is that Jack Bruce's bass-playing is much too busy when he should be the bottom of the sound. On the other hand, he and Clapton really move. The way they do it as a trio is excellent: Clapton and Bruce get going into their "rolling and tumbling" groove, making it madly through the record while Ginger Baker is playing vertically, walking along at just as mad a clip. This is the kind of thing that people who have seen Cream perform walk away raving about and it's good to at last have it on a record.
Anyway, the whole bundle comes in a double-fold packet with this exploding, psychedelicized imitation Saul Steinberg (of the New Yorker) cartoon mural on the cover and a totally tasteless Ken Kesey-ism on the inside.
The album will be a monster.