❉ ‘Fresh Cream’ unpasteurised, with Universal’s exhaustive deluxe edition of the supergroup’s debut.
Here’s a bit of brain training for you. We Are Cult reader. Go look up the official Top 40 singles chart, and count the sheer number of grandiose-sounding “featuring” credits that are the norm in the charts. Hopefully it won’t take longer to read than this review, but it might be on a par. You know the sort of thing, Main Act/Dance Producer ‘Featuring’ Guest Vocalist 1 and Guest Vocalist/MC 2 and possibly Guest Vocalist/MC 2’s Mother/Pet Ocelot/Chiropractor. Poor Drake. He must need an itinerary just to keep up.
There was a time in pop music, a simpler age when singers were simply singers, groups were simply groups. It didn’t matter how big they were, there was a sort of enforced modesty to credits in those days, with guest spots usually uncredited cloak and dagger efforts due to knotty recording contracts. Those ‘featuring’ credits only really popped up on jazz records to highlight a soloist.
In 1966, seismic change was afoot in music. The doors of perception were opening for many due to the proliferation of LSD-25 that began to soak through London, and the powerful velocity and cultural change of the times. A new paradigm began to form, based on instrumental prowess and sheer volume. A buzz rumbled through the smokey underground of jazz and blues clubs about a group, three young cats at the top of their profession that had joined together to create something awesome. Not just a group, but a new type of group, a supergroup. A supergroup rather immodestly called Cream.
Cream were that rare thing, a pompously-named trio that actually lived up to their name. Jack Bruce’s deadly soul howl and mountain range-levelling bass was enough of a force in its own right, but combined with the wild tub-thumping of the original swivel-eyed madman drummer Ginger Baker it was elemental. Their reputation as a fearsome, and highly combustible rhythm section was legendary in the jazz clubs from their previous time done in assorted bands together. They also had a well-regarded young guitarist who was a bit newer on ‘the scene’ (people loved saying ‘the scene’ in those days). Some Johnny-Come-Lately, called Eric Clapton.
Clapton, only 21 years old but already a veteran of the Yardbirds and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers was a moody, sharp-dressing lone wolf with a lacerating blues sound. His reputation as a killer lead player meant that he created a vacancy for a guitar hero in every band he walked out of. Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Peter Green and Mick Taylor all sprung up in his wake. Everybody wanted a piece of him. On his arrival in London that Autumn, superfan Jimi Hendrix made a bee-line for an audience with Clapton pretty much as soon as he was through the customs gate. Imagine what all this must do to the ego of a 21 year old, to find out that people were graffiti’ing walls to say you were God.
Despite all this attention, Clapton was the quietest, most unassuming member of the band, acting as a buffer and peacemaker between Bruce and Baker, who respected each other musically and played together like a dream, but did it through a thick cloud of hostility and outright mutual loathing. When they made their live debut, Swinging London didn’t know what had hit it. From now until their eventual collapse in late 1968, they furiously blazed across the globe in a supernova of fuzz and bludgeoning improvisation, inadvertently creating heavy metal, much to their collective dismay, as ironically none of them had much time for the music they’d inspired.
Debut album ‘Fresh Cream’ slopped from the churn in December 6th 1966. Of Cream’s four albums, it’s generally ranked in the lower reaches of their recorded output, marred by the poorly-separated, muddy stereo mix that became the standard way of hearing it through countless muffled reissues. Any bad press is a little unfair, as ‘Fresh Cream’ is more often judged what it’s not, than for its contents. It’s not the live excesses of their later shows, or the crunchy stoner-psychedelia of ‘Disraeli Gears’, or the proggy strains of ‘Wheels Of Fire’. The powerful but quirky songwriting of Bruce and poet Pete Brown is in its infancy, and the blues influences dominate, but ‘Fresh Cream’ is a remarkably concise opening salvo. Universal’s exhaustive deluxe edition makes it ripe for reappraisal.
Firstly and most importantly, any complaints of weak sound are thrown out by the mono version of the album found on CD1, a crushing blast of pure, dense power, from the thundering tom-tom intro that opens N.S.U. through to Baker’s showcase Toad. The stereo still sounds empty by comparison, but the mono mix renders it totally irrelevant.
It’s also a reminder that there was much more to Cream than shredding and showing off. N.S.U. might be power rock, but Brown’s playfully daft lyric, mischievously chanted by Bruce, hints at Dada. Sleepy Time Time is monolithic slow-sludge-blues driven by Bruce’s breathy vocal. Dreaming, meanwhile, is a sort of 1930s music hall ballad, albeit as heavy as a particularly dense alloy. Sweet Wine is somewhere between a crunching riff-fest and a murmured meditation on the stresses of city life. It also represents Cream’s first brush with psychedelia, as Clapton (perhaps with an eye on Yardbirds successor Jeff Beck’s solo on Shapes Of Things) overdubs a wash of howling feedback over the top of his blazing lead break. The blues covers such as Spoonful and I’m So Glad are fantastic performances, but the least inventive thing on offer, despite Bruce’s uniquely Scottish take on the blues. Then there is the startling version of Muddy Waters’ Rollin’ and Tumblin’ – a white knuckle ride of scathing guitar riff, harmonica, and Baker’s runaway train drums. There’s no bass, no noodling, just pure attitude. It basically invents The White Stripes several decades early, and makes them seem positively subdued by comparison.
Cream’s early development is charted exhaustively here. All three discs are stuffed with alternative mixes, out-takes, and some lo-fi but feral BBC sessions, including one version of Sweet Wine where Clapton gives up soloing altogether and opts for hypnotically droning Bo Diddley riffing instead. Abandoned material like The Coffee Song (a B-side, despite the band’s attempts to bury it) and You Make Me Feel are fun diversions, but are also blind alleys. Evergreen single I Feel Free is the moment where Cream’s motoring groove, concise harmonies, and trippy lyrics truly gel for the first time. An earlier version with humming where lyrics should be is basically pretty much there, in exactly the way that most bands’ out-takes generally aren’t, while a BBC session crackles with excitement. But let’s also hear it for their unloved debut Wrapping Paper, a dreamy, witty, surreal vaudevillian shuffle that often gets a bad press for sounding nothing like the band that recorded it, when it’s in a quiet way one of their best.
There’s a lot of duplication here, and the overall effect can be a bit numbing when listened to in one go, but for Cream fans this is ‘Fresh Cream’, fully pasteurised. Just don’t bother with the anaemic stereo version. Put on the mono mix, and feel the plaster shake.
❉ ‘Fresh Cream (Deluxe Edition)’ is released on 27 January 2017 by UMG as a 3-CD + 1 Blu-Ray Audio featuring a 64-page hardback book, new sleeve notes by respected Rolling Stone writer, David Fricke, alternate and new stereo mixes plus several, previously unreleased BBC sessions. Order here: https://cream.lnk.to/FreshCreamCD
❉ A special 6LP 180g Vinyl edition of Fresh Cream will also be released in April 2017. Order here: https://cream.lnk.to/FreshCreamVinyl