In the autumn of 1966 three seasoned musicians came together to form one of the most influential groups in the history of rock. They were the first band to earn a platinum disc, and over 35 million Cream records have been sold.

Graham Bond Organisation - There's a Bond Between Us
Peter ‘Ginger’ Baker had learned his chops and played the jazz gigs. From Acker Bilk’s successful combo he moved to Graham Bond’s Organization, one of the seminal British blues bands. There Baker worked with John McLaughlin, Dick Heckstall-Smith and Jack Bruce. Legend has it that the irritable redhead forced Bruce out of the band at knife-point. On drums, Baker was trying something new, playing lumbering paradiddles across the tom-toms in African rhythms, rather than sticking to the cymbal ride to snare-drum beat of jazz and pop. His solo with Bond was called Camels and Elephants, and in 1965 it was a must hear for all British drummers.

Jack Bruce - Things We Like
Bruce was a child prodigy who had grown up listening to his dad’s jazz collection, and written a string quartet aged 11. He later took time off from Cream to record his jazz compositions of the time as The Things We Like. Bruce studied cello at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music for a few months before heading south, disappointed by the stuffy attitudes at the college. In London, he took up bass guitar, and was soon in demand. After his ignominious departure from the Bond Organization, he joined the hugely successful Manfred Mann band. Maybe it was fear of Baker that led him to join Cream, more likely it was the desire to work with God, as Clapton was known at the time. Bruce added one of the great voices, and an impassioned harmonica style, to his inspired bass playing.

John Mayall & the Blues Breakers - With Eric Clapton
Clapton was the star of Cream, although he has insisted that the direction of the band had more to do with Bruce and Baker. In 1963, when the Yardbirds offered Jimmy Page the guitar chair he declined, suggesting his eighteen-year-old friend, and fellow former art student, Eric Clapton. The Yardbirds managed to straddle the worlds of pop and blues — no easy feat as successful bands were quickly accused of selling out. But the Yardbird’s chart success dismayed Clapton, who left to pursue his chosen path as a bluesman. He joined John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, bringing his clear, cutting sound to an adoring audience. Fans scrawled the legend Clapton is God all over London. Eric Clapton with the Bluesbreakers is a fine reminder of those heady days. Have You Heard stands as a perfect example of electric blues guitar.

Cream - Wheels of Fire
Ginger Baker first recruited Clapton for the new venture, and then, at Clapton’s insistence, called on Bruce. They started gigging round and about Britain in July 1966. It has been claimed that their extended instrumentals were due to lack of material in those early days. Their few songs were padded out with improvisations that owed as much to bebop as to blues. Bruce turned the bass into a solo instrument, and lured Clapton into uncharted waters. Clapton has since lamented these elaborate excursions, embarrassedly stooping to the popular post-guitar hero cliché ‘self-indulgent’. Fans of this music feel very differently. It only became self-indulgent when the musicians could not connect with the music. When they were absorbed, the three members seemed to unite as facets of the same heady, ascending flourish. Crossroads and Spoonful on Wheels of Fire more than adequately demonstrate this energy, where the whole became far more than the sum of its musicians.

The Kinks - Face to FaceDavid Bowie - Black Tie White NoiseJack Bruce - More Jack Than God
Cream were still half pop band, when they emerged into the glittering light of day, maintaining almost watertight compartments between styles: one pole pop psychedelia, the other blues rock. Their first single, Wrapping Paper, scraped into the British Top Forty in October 1966. It has that blasé English dance-band feel, which was taken to new heights by the Kinks, whose album Face to Face was released that same month. The flip-side of Wrapping Paper was the blues guitar romp Cat’s Squirrel. The next single, I Feel Free is a stand alone classic (recorded elsewhere by Bowie, and again by Bruce over three decades later on the fine More Jack Than God).

Cream - Fresh Cream
The first album, Fresh Cream, broke the band in Britain and reached number 39 in the US. It mixed what would shortly be called progressive rock with blues covers, and there must be a suspicion that lyricist Pete Brown was supplementing his diet with psychedelic substances, which had shortly before been made illegal on both sides of the Pond. Fresh Cream is one of the few 1966 albums that still play well. Clapton’s solos are cleaner and sharper than anything before, each note perfectly placed and emotionally clear. Baker’s drumming is a revelation, a new sound that made him the best known drummer in rock for years to come. Bruce is a brilliant bass player with one of the great voices of the blues. He also played a mean harmonica.

Robert Johnson - The Complete RecordingsHowlin' Wolf - Moanin' In The Moonlight
Muddy Waters - The Best of Muddy Waters 1947-1955Skip James - Cypress Grove Blues
Cream took blues back home to America, where it faced extinction in the black community, under pressure from soul music, and had never had much of a following among whites, because of racial segregation. Robert Johnson had sunk almost without trace after a successful race single in the thirties. Cream covered his wonderful, if misogynistic, Four Until Late: ‘A woman is like a dresser, some man is always running through its drawers.’ Their rendition of Spoonful challenges even Howlin’ Wolf’s spirited performances. The homage to Muddy Waters, Rolling and Tumbling, also has a vigour not often found in tidy white blues. Skip James had only recently returned to playing, after a 30 year lapse. Royalties from Cream’s cover of I’m So Glad paid his hospital bills (be warned, the Skip James original features the scratching so beloved of audiophiles). The album also gave a home to a couple of songs co-written by Bruce with his then wife, Janet Godfrey: the marvellous Sleepy Time Time, which provides Clapton with a wonderful backdrop, and the eloquent Sweet Wine Hay, punctuated by a beautiful Baker groove. Both are hippie songs about laying about doing nothing. And what’s wrong with that? Except where you have a ceaseless string of gigs to play, and a clutch of songs to record, of course. Bruce’s N.S.U. gives vent to the same carefree feelings, and builds over a delightfully simple, compelling Baker rhythm.

The Butterfield Blues Band - East-West
Cream came out of the London blues scene, which also nurtured the Rolling Stones, John Mayall’s Bluebreakers and Alexis Korner. But the pairing of Bruce and Clapton came closest to the raw, heartfelt sound of their Afro-American heroes. It is ironic that a British band took the music back to its homeland, not only providing an audience for the neglected old bluesmen, but also for a white scene that had developed in parallel to that in London. In New York, Jimi Hendrix had been unable to find a decent recording contract. He had to travel to England to find success. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band housed two fine white guitarists — Mike Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop. But Clapton was God, and Cream could generate the same kind of excitement as Muddy Waters’ fabulous electric band.

Cream - Disraeli GearsJack Bruce - More Jack Than GodJimi Hendrix - The BBC sessions
Psychedelic pop had higher aspirations, and the second Cream album, Disraeli Gears, tiptoed further into the brave new world of progressive rock. The pleasing single Strange Brew made the Top Twenty just as the Beatles entered the album chart with Sergeant Pepper, in that flower-powered June. The album itself emerged to public view five months later, sporting a paisley acid-doodle cover in gaudy red and yellow. Pete Brown’s often surreal lyrics merged perfectly with the LSD-drowsed psychedelia of 1967, finding expression in both Strange Brew and Tales of Brave Ulysses (‘You thought the leaden winter would bring you down forever, but you rode upon a steamer to the violence of the sun...’). SWLABR having celebrated the ‘many fantastic colours you feel in a wonderland’, comes back to earth with, ‘You’ve got that rainbow feel but the rainbow has a beard.’ It would be too much to ask profundity of psychedelic sensibilities. Having said that, We’re Going Wrong was a potential hippie anthem (Bruce revisited it on More Jack Than God). And we could all play the rudiments of Sunshine of Your Love. Clapton has said that Bruce wrote the melody when he finally got what the fuss about Hendrix was. He was perhaps the last to realize, because he was among the tiny number of Hendrix’s musical equals. Hendrix returned the compliment by including the song in his live act — most notably on the Lulu Show.

Presumably, Ginger Baker urged the band to include the corny Cockney comedy of Mother’s Lament, a genuine music-hall song. The other material was all new and self-penned, save for one track. Outside Woman Blues was attributed to Blind Joe Reynolds. Unbeknown to Cream, the author of this 1929 song was still busking for pennies on street corners in the Deep South. Producer Felix Pappalardi gave a clean, coherent sound to the album. Clapton’s newfound fuzzbox and his famous ‘woman-tone’ are evident throughout. And, of course, Sunshine of Your Love is a classic.

Cream - Wheels of Fire
By this time, Cream were at the top of the rock cred league. They played to capacity audiences the world over. Their third album, Wheels of Fire, placed a studio album alongside a performance at the legendary Fillmore West, in San Francisco. Critic Rob Bowman has dismissed two of the four live tracks as ‘excess incarnate’, which is exactly the sort of language Cream attract. He was labelling Traintime, which is a harmonica and shouting solo by Bruce, very much in the tradition of downhome, roughhouse blues, and Baker’s overlong solo, Toad. Traintime is certainly an assault on the ears. Not the polite, smoothed down blues that some prefer. I love it. I’m also willing to listen to Baker’s prolix solo, but I am a drummer.

Mountain - LiveMan - Live at the Paget Rooms, Penarth
Clapton fronts a long, long version of his trademark Crossroads (Robert Johnson’s Cross Road Blues). This would be the highpoint of live Cream, if it were not for the excellent Spoonful which follows it. Here is the very peak and pinnacle of that self-indulgence which now makes Clapton cringe. At the time, it seemed like the threshold of a new musical form, but the truth was that almost no-one else could let go enough to find such selfless ‘self-indulgence’. At times the musicians seem to fuse in a sort of meditative ecstasy. Producer Pappalardi recruited guitarist Leslie West into his own Mountain and came near with live versions of Nantucket Sleighride. Accidentally turned into a two-guitar band, epic stoners Man managed pretty well on Live at the Paget Rooms. And, of course, Hendrix managed it regularly live. Listen to Machine Gun on Band of Gypsys, if you don’t believe me. Rare gems that should not be hurled before hungry porkers.

Eric Clapton - 24 Nights
The studio sides gave Cream their second big hit, White Room, a litany of longing: ‘I wait in this room where the sun never shines.’ As he often did, Pete Brown skirts high poesy: ‘Silver horses ran down moonbeams in your dark eyes.’ Years later, while playing with Bruce, lightning fast drummer Billy Cobham explained his realization about Baker’s decision to hinge the song on a single, hard snare beat instead of cluttering the space with a paradiddle. The song was nicely remembered by Clapton on 24 nights.

Booker T. & the MG's - The Best of...Albert King - The Very Best of...
Wolf’s version of the 1930s Mississippi Sheiks hit, Sitting on Top of the World entered the repertoire here, as did Booker T’s wonderful Born Under a Bad Sign: ‘If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all.’ The great blues-soul guitarist Albert King had already had a hit with it, too.

Jack Bruce - Collector's EditionJack Bruce - Cities of the Heart
The often empty mystique that is prog, based on a quick flick through the Greek Myths, developed in Baker’s Those Were the Days, where both Atlantis and the Medusa find mention. Ever inventive, Brown provided a simple, compelling description of our leaders with Politician. Baker provides an irresistibly thuggish crawl for the cynical lyric: ‘Hey now baby, get into my big black car. I want to just show you what my politics are.’ Bruce has revisited this excellent song many times, starting with a fine live version on Cream’s next album, Goodbye. But check it on The Jack Bruce Collector’s Edition — with percussionist Mark Nauseef; and on Cities of the Heart with Gary Moore cutting away over Baker’s thumping drums.

Jack Bruce - Things We Like
The tensions were tearing the band apart. Huge financial success and fame were difficult enough, but Clapton wanted to go back to the blues, and Bruce was busily fulfilling his jazz ambitions with Dick Heckstall-Smith, Jon Hiseman and John McLaughlin. The Things We Like was no fusion album — it was straight ahead jazz, pure and clear. Baker was itching to play some African music, and his heroin habit did not help. Nor did Clapton’s.

Cream - Goodbye CreamJack Bruce - Cities of the HeartJack Bruce - Collector's Edition
Goodbye Cream would fulfill their contractual obligations, but it was a mix of solo pieces — Clapton working with his chum George Harrison (called L’Angelo Mysterioso on their co-production Badge), Bruce contributing the eccentric Doing that Scrapyard Thing (my favourite track at the time. I longed for my own ‘mongrel piano’), and Baker even adding vocals to his own What a Bringdown, the lyrics of which coast the edge of a breakdown: ‘Moby Dick and Albert making out with Captain Bligh’. Clapton’s final acid-trip piece was Anyone for Tennis, with a co-opted lyric of some subtlety, but no remaining trace of hippie optimism. The live pieces, recorded at the Los Angeles Forum on 19 October 1968, are a marvel, despite the sundering personal dynamics of the band. They revisit Skip James’s I’m So Glad, from Fresh Cream, add a savage version of Politician, and finish with a stunning Sitting on Top of the World — Clapton’s solo equalled only by Gary Moore at Bruce’s fiftieth birthday bash, Cities of the Heart. There is another take with Clem Clemson from the same birthday gigs on The Jack Bruce Collector’s Edition.

We are swamped with bootlegs of rock bands. It was a curse at the time, but they now provide treasured mementoes of halcyon days. But bootlegging equipment was in short supply back in the sixties, and even Cream’s authorised live recordings fall far short of Brian Eno’s standard, so little remains of this musical phenomenon. The last items of authorised music are two albums called, unpoetically, Live Cream and Live Cream Volume II.

Cream - Live Cream Vol.1
Live Cream houses four tracks from Fresh Cream and an additional studio version of Lawdy Mama to the tune of Strange Brew. The live tracks were recorded in San Francisco in March 1968. All have a rather thin drum sound — so, wind the bass up on your amp — and the sort of bass and guitar romps for which the band was famous.

Cream - Live Cream Vol.2
On Live Cream II the last three tracks were recorded at the same gigs as Live Cream, and the first three that October across the Bay in Oakland. Shorter pieces, but played with the same musicianly exactness.

Cream - At the BBC
That refuge for sixties music, the BBC, has also unearthed material from its vaults. These tracks fall half-way between the exuberant live performances and the more considered studio pieces. Of the 26 tracks, four are interviews with Eric Clapton. The other pair were probably too busy giggling, if not dismissed as God’s sidemen. Strange days.

Cream - The Very Best of...Cream - Fresh Cream
Cream - Disraeli GearsCream - Wheels of Fire
Cream - Goodbye CreamCream - Live Cream Vol.1
Cream - Live Cream Vol.2Cream - At the BBC
Cream - The Alternative AlbumCream - Disraeli Gears [deluxe edition]
For a quick introduction, try The Very Best of Cream, but be warned that it ignores the live material. If you are new to Cream and like blues, then start with Fresh Cream. If you like sixties pop — the Stones, the Who, the Kinks, the Beatles — try Disraeli Gears. If you like loping guitar solos, or have a bebop inclination, get hold of Wheels of Fire. Goodbye Cream is well worth having, as are the live albums and the BBC. For collectors there are one or two outtake and live albums available, including Alternative Takes and the rare Klook’s Kleet. There is also a de-luxe version of Disraeli Gears with an additional 29 tracks. Which is exciting, until you realize that eleven of them are mono versions of the original album. You get about three extra tracks in amongst the alternative versions, and some of the BBC tracks. But it is relatively cheap for two discs.

Cream - Fresh Cream [gold edition]
Sadly, the remastered Fresh Cream clips the bonus tracks from earlier re-releases — Wrapping Paper and The Coffee Song. The earlier out-of-print Gold Edition has both on. The next new repackage probably will, too.

Cream - Farewell Concert
The band were also filmed, and Cream Farewell Concert 1968 gives both the gig at the Albert Hall and a documentary, which chops the tracks up with posh commentary (grandpa, did people really speak that way? Yes, love, they did), and some amusing interviews. Well worth having, but avoid the video version, which is just the documentary. And try to keep your temper during the annoying swinging camera effects.

Blind Faith - Blind FaithJack Bruce - Songs for a Tailor
Pete Brown & Piblokto - Things May Come and Things May Go But the Art School Dance
				Goes on ForeverGinger Baker - Ginger Baker's Airforce
Baker and Clapton formed Blind Faith, with Traffic refugee, and genius, Steve Winwood, and Family bassist/violinist Rick Grech. They produced one fine album, but grew tired of audiences screaming for those old Cream pieces. Bruce made some fine solo albums, continuing his collaboration with lyricist Pete Brown, starting with Songs for a Tailor. Brown, in turn, decided to take to the stage and formed the Battered Ornaments, who sacked him and wiped his vocals from their album. Undeterred, or at least only slightly slighted, he created Piblokto, and recorded Things May Come and Things May Go, But the Art School Dance Goes On Forever. Ginger Baker formed Air Force, and travelled to Nigeria to explore the African polyrhythms that had so inspired him. All have continued to record, producing much fine work along the way.

In 1993, Cream played together for the first time since 1968, at their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2005, they announced their second live reunion, at the scene of their farewell concert — London’s Albert Hall.

more musics on this site

Read these other pieces on this site: guitarists blues more blues hendrix bio.

links to other websites

The Official Jack Bruce web site.

The Official Eric Clapton web site.

The Unofficial Eric Clapton web site.

Ginger Baker - The Drum Thing: The Peter Edward Baker Story.

Chrome Oxide Music Collectors pages - Cream.

Absolute Lyric website - Cream.

February 2005