Life at 33 1/3: War of the titans

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Cream: Wheels Of Fire (Polydor/Atco)

Cream live was hard to stomach.  They would start the song and stay on it just about long enough for you to recognize it before they left the whole thing and turned into three egomaniacs fighting for people’s attention through endless improvisations that had more in common with monologues than team work, until one of them finally remembered that they were a band and the song they were supposed to be playing and re-introduced its main theme briefly before they grinded to a halt.

Same procedure in every song they played.  Except for the intros and outros they all sounded the same.  Cream was plodding.  Some songs could last for days.  It was the late sixties.  People were out of their heads, high on drugs and low on sanity.  They probably thought this was the future of rock’n’roll.  Luckily it was not.

Truth is, the three individuals in Cream couldn’t stand each other, at least Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker couldn’t, and all three wanted to be the star.  On stage it turned into a slogging match.  All wasn’t boring though.  There were moments when the huge power house machinery did shine, and indeed it does on the version of “Spoonful” found on “Wheels Of Fire”, a 16 minute ride that actually catches fire.  We used to play it on full volume at parties at the time, and if the girls protested (which they always did, girls didn’t like Cream) they were told to shut up.

As a studio band Cream was easier to deal with.  “White Room” which opens the studio-album, is a blessing.  A fat, suggestive, punchy piece of heavy riffing, Baker’s rattling almost-but-not-quite-out-of-control drumming, Bruce’s throaty vocal and Clapton’s excellent use of wah-wah turns it into one of the huge classics of the late sixties.

The rest of the studio recordings may not match the many highlights on “Disreali Gears” (from 1967), but they do come close.  You get the same eccentric mix of groove, heavy blues and cockney-pop.  Clapton’s riffs and distinctive solo-runs sit firmly against Jack Bruce’s voice and extraordinary bass playing.  And Ginger Baker’s flamboyant, unorthodox drumming is simply awesome, caught in all its muscular glory by a producer who knew what he was doing.

All the best in the trio comes into its own on the studio cuts of “Wheels Of Fire”.  The live-album I hardly play for obvious reasons, and you can count on one hand the number of spins I have given the 16 minute drum solo monster “Toad” since 1970.

The cover art of the original release was black print on aluminium foil, an expensive, but impressive solution.  Unfortunately the foil got that worn out look very fast.

“Wheels Of Fire” is a double album, but you could actually buy the studio- and the live-album separately in individual covers at the time.  They did the same to Jimi Hendrix’ “Electric Ladyland”, and that was even stranger.  Maybe Polydor thought the potential buyers were so short on cash that they would be tempted to buy a cheap EMI album instead of the expensive Polydor doubles?  Whatever the reason, those single-album versions turned into collector’s items and they are very hard to find these days.

“Wheels Of Fire” was the last album Cream made while they were a band.  “Goodbye” (1969) was as the title suggests a goodbye, and consists of stray studio left-overs and live recordings.

Released: July 1968

Produced by: Felix Pappalardi

Disc One (In the Studio)

Side 1

1. “White Room” (Jack Bruce, Pete Brown) 4:58

2. “Sitting on Top of the World” (Walter Vinson, Lonnie Chatmon; arr. Chester Burnett) 4:58

3. “Passing the Time” (Ginger Baker, Mike Taylor) 4:37

4. “As You Said” (Bruce, Brown) 4:20

Side 2

1. “Pressed Rat and Warthog” (Baker, Taylor) 3:13

2. “Politician” (Bruce, Brown) 4:12

3. “Those Were the Days” (Baker, Taylor) 2:53

4. “Born Under a Bad Sign” (Booker T. Jones, William Bell) 3:09

5. “Deserted Cities of the Heart” (Bruce, Brown) 3:38

Disc Two ( Live at the Fillmore)

Side 3

1. “Crossroads” (Robert Johnson, arr. Clapton) 10 March 1968 at Winterland, San Francisco, CA. (1st show) 4:13

2. “Spoonful” (Willie Dixon) 10 March 1968 at Winterland, San Francisco, CA. (1st show) 16:43

Side 4

1. “Traintime” (Bruce) 8 March 1968 at Winterland, San Francisco, CA. (1st show) 7:01

2. “Toad” (Baker) 7 March 1968 at The Fillmore, San Francisco, CA. (2nd show) 16:15

Personnel:

Jack Bruce – vocals, lead vocals, bass, cello, harmonica, calliope, acoustic guitar, recorder

Ginger Baker – drums, percussion, bells, glockenspiel, timpani, spoken word on “Pressed Rat and Warthog”

Eric Clapton – guitar, vocals

Felix Pappalardi – viola, bells, organ, trumpet, tonette

Tom Dowd – recording engineer on disc one

Adrian Barber – recording engineer on disc one, re-mix engineer on disc two

Martin Sharp – art

Jim Marshall – photography