Rock progressed at a blinding clip in the mid-Sixties, with future classics popping out on record store shelves every month. But by early December 1966, the Beatles, Stones, Dylan and the Beach Boys had already released their latest masterworks in the spring and summer, leaving room for the mighty Cream – rock’s most exciting act, for a time – to claim the spotlight.
They were the first power trio, with Eric Clapton on guitar, Jack Bruce on bass, harmonica and vocals, and resident madman Ginger Baker at the kit. They were also the first supergroup. Clapton hailed from the Yardbirds and John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, Bruce and Baker from the Graham Bond Organisation, with Bruce having scored a hit with Manfred Mann as well.
And, crucially, they were the first rock band to feature a virtuoso player on every instrument when they unleashed their debut, Fresh Cream, 50 years ago, on December 9th.
Then again, this wasn’t just a band belonging to the rock medium. “I thought of Cream as sort of a jazz band,” Jack Bruce said, “only we never told Eric he was really Ornette Coleman.” As Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid – who worked with Bruce in various projects – put it, Bruce “combined the worlds of blues, rock, and jazz music,” an enthusiasm the bassist shared with Baker and Clapton.
The latter had left the Yardbirds because he thought them too pop-oriented, and wanted to pursue the blues. As for Baker, he remarked, “I’d rather play jazz – I hate rock & roll.” Then again, what Cream were doing wasn’t typical rock.
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“I’d seen Buddy [Guy] live and it was unbelievable,” Clapton told Uncut in 2004 of one of his key inspirations at the time. “He was in total command and I thought, ‘This is it.’ So yes. That’s where the idea came from. It seemed to me you could do anything with a trio.”
Up until this point, rock bands could feature gifted players. The Yardbirds, for example, had Jeff Beck in at his peak form. But never had an emphasis been placed on virtuosity on every instrument in a rock band. Which is another way of saying that no band had a lineup of players like Cream. This was a time when people commonly referred to the band as “The Cream” – as in, the best instrumentalists in the rock world.
Speaking to Rolling Stone in 2010, Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters remembered his first exposure to the band as “an astounding sight and an explosive sound.”
“I remember Ginger Baker was insane back then, and I’m sure he still is,” Waters continued. “He hit the drums harder than anyone I’ve ever seen, with the possible exception of Keith Moon. And Ginger hit them in a rhythmic style all his own that was extraordinary. Eric Clapton we don’t have to talk about – it’s obvious how amazing he is. Then there’s Jack Bruce – probably the most musically gifted bass player who’s ever been.”
Bruce’s bass playing blended a James Jamerson–like fluidity with Charles Mingus’ compositional approach to the instrument, with his underpinnings to Clapton’s guitar excursions almost functioning as songs unto themselves. At the drums, Baker had the panache of a Max Roach, but with more power than any rock drummer had yet demonstrated. As for Clapton, this was the period where he was one of his instrument’s leading innovators, always with a mind-bender of a molten blues solo at the ready.
Bruce, Baker, and Clapton were so good individually as players, that the feeling at the time was that they might not be able to jell as a unit.
“Any doubts about the Cream’s ability to perform as a group and not three star soloists was dispelled by their sensational set,” Melody Maker opined in a brow-wiping review following an early gig at London’s Klooks Kleek.
There was a lot of anticipation at the time as to what these three musicians would be able to do together. Expectations were sufficiently high that a July 31st English gig – more than three months before the release of Fresh Cream – was described as a moment that “thousands had been waiting for.”
When these thousands helped make debut single “Wrapping Paper” a minor hit – despite the fact that the Cream were never a band oriented around a single approach – Melody Maker gushed, “The much publicised, talked about, raved about, and listened to group – the Cream – are in the charts.”
But it was their non-singles that were more exciting. On their early BBC airshots, Cream were loud to the point that British studios could barely contain them. Fresh Cream, meanwhile, with cuts like covers of Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful” and Skip James’ “I’m So Glad,” did things to the blues that no one thought possible: amplified the sounds of the Delta to make them almost overwhelming in their attack upon the human eardrum, with solos and group interplay to rival an A-list jazz ensemble.
Fresh Cream‘s song structures were relatively tight, compared to how Cream – the “The” was dropped once it sank in that no one could hang with these guys – were later to stretch out. But it was the debut album that was the ur-text of the power-trio lineup, the hard-rock jam band, the all-virtuoso band, the proto-metal blues band.
Speaking about a Cream gig to No Depression, Jorma Kaukonen, the Jefferson Airplane’s resident ax-master, said, “I never saw anything like it. The whole show was mind-boggling, just powerful, and no one was more animated than Ginger. I just dug what Eric Clapton was doing with traditional blues. In my opinion, no one transliterated the music of the masters into the power trio format better than Eric and his pals. Hendrix was monumental. I just dug Clapton more. What Eric was doing was important to me. He was probably the first person to make me want to use a wah-wah pedal.”
The connection between the mighty beast that was the Cream and the LSD-laced West Coast “softer” bands might seem a tenuous one, but Cream was teaching bands how to think onstage, how to improvise.
Fresh Cream was poppy in parts, with “Sweet Wine” and “Dreaming” being downright tuneful. That was more an indication that the band could impart some melody to their more frantic madness, while other cuts like Bruce’s album-opening “N.S.U.” and the traditional “Cat’s Squirrel” were utter hell-raisers, tight bursts of deep blues fury.
Alas, that fury would leak out into inter-band relationships, and less than two years later, the band would play their final gigs in late November 1968 at London’s Royal Albert Hall. Given the intensity of their music, it’s not exactly a shock that that particular burning torch wouldn’t have a long life.
“I used to like to watch Cream until they got sad, and fucked up,” Pete Townshend said at the time, an obvious note of wistfulness in his voice for an act whose likes no one would see again, save in a spate of imitators. The assorted members of the crop, as it were.