Still revered as one of the most pioneering bands of all time, Cream are credited with inventing everything from the supergroup, to jam-rock, to heavy metal, to breakthrough guitar tones. With the new six-LP boxset of their 1966 debut about to hit the shelves, Michael Leonard tells the story of the original album’s genesis and speaks to the boxset’s executive producer, Bill Levenson…
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Chickenfoot. Velvet Revolver. Supergroups don’t always have the greatest names, it seems – a joke or afterthought often seems to do. But the original, Cream,
at least thought about it. They were christened ‘the cream’, as in ‘cream of the crop’. Kickstarting an era when instrumental prowess – over and above songcraft, image or even innovation – was king, Cream had lofty ambitions, too. Yet, just like the real thing, they soured all too quickly.
For the band’s biggest star, Eric Clapton, Cream remains a milestone and a millstone. It ‘made’ him, but also broke him. He hoped it was going to be “experimental and funny and rebellious”, but it ended up “a failed experiment”, a benchmark for battling egos, confused aims and wayward self-importance. Such things happen, it seems, even to ‘Gods’.
“We got into a lot of self-indulgence and a lot of easily pleased people went along with that,” Clapton later reflected.
“It flattered our vanity, and after that, I think we stopped trying.” Even so, Cream remain fascinating…
The trio’s early days are laid bare on the new six-LP Deluxe Edition of Fresh Cream, with stereo and mono mixes of the album, B-sides, BBC sessions, non-UK versions of tracks and even seven new stereo mixes of tracks. It simultaneously highlights Cream’s greatest powers and, perhaps, their biggest failings.
The alliance of Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker was a tricky one. All three knew each other well and wanted to play together again, yes. But on more than one occasion, Bruce stated that he and Baker – when they weren’t fighting – saw Cream very much as a vehicle for progressing their own jazz/improv backgrounds. Eric Clapton had quit The Yardbirds for John Mayall because the ’birds weren’t bluesy enough, but after Mayall? Clapton wanted Cream to emulate the trio of his hero, Buddy Guy.
“It seemed to me you could do anything with a trio,” Clapton said of Cream’s conception, “at least if you were a genius and a maestro like Buddy Guy. I was suffering from delusions of grandeur in that direction.” And, for his part, manager Robert Stigwood was much closer to Clapton than he was to Bruce or Baker (Stigwood would continue to manage EC post-Cream). Yet if Stigwood saw Cream as a way of elevating even ‘God’ higher – to frontman, fashion leader and pop star – he had something of a challenge on his hands.
“Maybe I had something of the technical ability, or was at least heading in the right direction,” Clapton later judged. “But I didn’t have the confidence, or anything like it. I was seeing Buddy Guy and thinking, ‘I can do that’. But, in fact, I’d never really sung in my life. I’d seen myself as the front guy with Cream. But when we got there, the reality was that Jack was easily the best equipped for that role. And that’s how it immediately evolved.”
In the late Jack Bruce’s words: “When we first got together, we had a competition to see who wouldn’t be the singer. I didn’t want to be singer, Eric didn’t want to, either. I guess I lost.”
Full of three already-arguing headstrong characters, Cream’s music was no one-man recipe. Moreover, Fresh Cream was no studiously planned project like The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds or The Beatles’ Revolver.
It was cut on the fly and you can hear that in the tracks on the Deluxe Reissue.
“The sessions start early August 1966, and go to December 1966,” Levenson explains. “Cream had only only been together for a month or two. And the sessions were ad hoc. The first were in Rayrick Studios in London, later renamed Chalk Farm Studio. The band were playing a lot of shows around London, so it was just in and out, whenever they could. Then they moved on to Ryemuse (aka Spot Studios) in Mayfair.
It was all four-track, they were a new band, no-one saw where this was going… There were no ‘album sessions’ as such. Fresh Cream is an indie record, in a lot of ways.” It’s now renowned as a landmark album, but even a cursory listen reveals a band pulling all over the place.
Levenson notes: “There’s obviously the blues element – Spoonful, Cat’s Squirrel, Rollin’ And Tumblin’, I’m So Glad – but there’s this other side that Ginger had been doing with Graham Bond. Toad isn’t really even a song. It’s not psychedelic, it’s not blues, it’s just a drum showcase. Then there’s the Pete Brown (co-written) songs with Jack Bruce. They’re charming, but looking back, they’re peculiar. The Coffee Song, Wrapping Paper, N.S.U.… It’s true, The Yardbirds were also mixing pure pop songs and blues songs, but it’s more odd that Cream started with Wrapping Paper. I can’t think of a weaker song to début with!”
On the BBC Radio interview included on the Fresh Cream reissue, Clapton explains that he wanted Cream to “surprise people: not just be accepted as a blues band [but] more than that”. A surprise, Wrapping Paper certainly was. The hazy Bruce/Brown jazz number bombed and Clapton himself actually disliked it. Then again, Clapton had no songs of his own to offer. Ginger Baker later judged Wrapping Paper as: “the most appalling piece of shit I’ve heard in my life”.
“It’s telling that I Feel Free was the second single,” notes Levenson. “That’s more blues-ish, but it’s also a real powerful song.”
I Feel Free, although another Bruce/Brown composition, certainly has endured and among its four versions, the new Deluxe Reissue of Fresh Cream features a vocal-less mix of I Feel Free, which highlights just how tight a trio Cream were. Yet throughout Fresh Cream, Clapton is not credited with writing anything.
Bruce’s lyric in N.S.U. – “The only time I’m happy’s when I play my guitar” – seemed to suit the guitarist’s mindset. In an early Rolling Stone interview, Clapton opined: “That’s where I want to be at: where I just don’t ever have to play anything but improvisation.”
What was that Clapton said about flattering his own vanity?
Under the influence – Eric and Jimi
As Cream developed, Eric Clapton become increasingly influenced by the rising Jimi Hendrix. But even with the same hair and exact same wah-wah pedal, it seemed Clapton couldn’t really compete…
On 1 October 1966, Cream accepted a request that a young Jimi Hendrix – in the UK only weeks – come and jam at a Regent Street Polytechnic show. It didn’t turn out to be much of a trading-licks session, though. Jimi came on and absolutely nailed Killing Floor, while Clapton watched in awe. According to folklore, EC told Jimi’s manager, Chas Chandler, backstage: “You never told me he was that fucking good.” Intentional or otherwise, “[Jimi] definitely pulled the rug out from under Cream,” Clapton later admitted. “I told people like Pete Townshend about him and we’d go and see him.”
Clapton and Jimi became friends and, yes, Eric suddenly had a curly perm. Townshend remembered, after he and EC compared notes: “What Eric did was… peculiar. He said, ‘Well, I’m going to pretend that I am Jimi Hendrix!’”
After Jack Bruce had experienced a full Jimi show, Clapton remembered: “After the gig, Jack went home and came up with the riff [Sunshine Of Your Love]. It was strictly a dedication to Jimi. And then we wrote a song on top of it.”
When Cream toured the USA in early 1967, Clapton bought his first wah pedal, a Vox: “They said that Jimi had one, and so that was enough for me. I had to have one, too.” Bill Levenson reckons: “You can hear the influence right away in Cream’s February 1967 demos. There was definitely sounds of Hendrix in there, sounds of Townshend, the Jeff Beck Group, too. They were all trading off each other.”
Building the boxset
Comprising six LPs, plus a 64-page hardcover book (unpublished photos, studio worksheets, original label images and an essay by US critic David Fricke), this Deluxe Edition boxset of Fresh Cream is nothing if not ‘full fat’. Bill Levenson is used to it, though: he compiled Clapton’s Grammy-winning Crossroads vinyl boxset, first issued in 1988. But this Fresh Cream project involved a great deal of work, even for him, as he tried to capture the best source material of the day, but also with a critical ear on whether it really adds to Cream’s legacy 50 years on.
“We had to go a long way into the vaults – it was complicated,” Levenson says. “There’s the vault in New York, from Atlantic records, 60s tapes. Polydor UK had their vaults. And Germany had a sizeable vault, too. So we dug into all three and found the best of everything. There were some surprises, just in quality. Some of the tapes in Germany hadn’t been touched in 50 years and were in better shape than the sources we’d normally rely on.”
Even Cream collectors will be excited by some of the inclusions, in particular the mono mix of the whole album. “The mono version, apart from coming out as a limited edition in Japan a few years ago, is really hard to find,” explains Levenson. “That’s the one everyone gravitates towards so far, because it’s got a very cohesive mix. The album in stereo [for a long time, the only version available], they’re still feeling their way. I mean, how do you do a four-track record in stereo? It was done a lot, of course, in the 60s… but I don’t think the guys really nailed it.
“Then there’s extra tracks from other releases – the versions of Wrapping Paper and The Coffee Song, things that appeared on the Scandinavian album. Then there’s the original US version of the album, with that particular running order. Plus the EPs from France. And those were alternative mixes.
“And then there’s seven new mixes that were done in London. It’s just another perspective. Then we also included the early and alternate versions, plus everything we could find from the BBC session recordings. We know there was more recorded for the BBC, but we just can’t find the sources. One session has definitely gone missing; others, the BBC have just lost track of. The BBC was notorious for allowing things to get lost! The intent was to find everything, but after a year or so, you just have to give up.”
There’s inevitably duplication of tracks issued before, but often over differing territories and certainly not on vinyl, apart from the original releases. Levenson accepts that some superfans will already own much of the actual material, but he believes that it’s never been put together as a whole so well for the vinyl lover. “There’s a lot of redundancy there, but it’s there for a reason. I’m happy – to me, as a package, it really holds up.”
The Cream catalogue
More Cream is hopefully getting the Deluxe vinyl treatment…
Cream only released four proper albums – Fresh Cream, Disraeli Gears, Wheels Of Fire (a half-live double) and the posthumous Goodbye (a ‘mop up’), but the speed of change back then was immense. “That’s why the sound of Cream varies so much,” says Bill Levenson.
“There’s no resemblance, in terms of sonic template, in what they were doing in late ’66 to mid ’68. It’s two lifetimes as we know it now.” Disraeli Gears (featuring Strange Brew, Sunshine Of Your Love, Tales Of Brave Ulysses and recorded in the spring of 1967, six months after Fresh Cream) is the acknowledged psychedelic masterpiece from the catalogue, but Bill Levenson explains: “They did have a more concentrated session, but it wasn’t longer than seven or 10 days.”
There have been Deluxe double CD editions of both Disraeli Gears and Wheels Of Fire before, but rarely on vinyl. Is more now planned? “I’m going to assume we’ll look at Disraeli Gears and Wheels Of Fire again,” says Levenson. “There is live stuff that has never been released before – Scandinavian radio from early 1967, material from the final swing of the 1968 USA tour.
“Unfortunately, there’s no more tapes of the Fillmore recordings used for Wheels Of Fire. Everything’s been used now, on Wheels Of Fire and Live Cream I and II. There are some great bootlegs out there: there might be a way of releasing them officially. So there is a broad plan… but nothing settled. The only thing I know is people are still very interested in all this. And understandably so.”
Fresh Cream in context
It’s probably fair to say that Cream remains, even 50 years on, the most fascinating era in Eric Clapton’s career. His ‘God’ rep in select circles was earned with Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, but his Cream cuts helped launched the notion of an Atlantic-straddling ‘guitar hero’.
Fresh Cream may not be the trio’s most rounded work, but it is a fascinating start. When better songs started flowing from Disraeli Gears onwards – only a few months later, in reality – Cream became one of the hottest draws in late-60s music, and many believe that the band still represents the pinnacle of Eric Clapton’s recorded work. Jack Bruce still believed so in 1997.
“I think that, musically, Cream was his high spot so far,” Bruce told Forbes. “He was so good! He would be playing this shit that really took you to another place.”
Yet Clapton himself was never as vocally enthusiastic. He has since called Cream a “failed experiment”, and also “a glorious mistake. It ended up being a wonderful thing, but nothing like it was meant to be.”
From the perspective of someone who studies Clapton’s back catalogue closer than EC probably does himself, Bill Levenson offers: “I would never attempt to speak for Eric, but I think the relationship of the players probably colours his opinion of what they left behind. I would never say it was a ‘failed experiment’.
“I can only speak personally. When Fresh Cream came out, I was 12 years old… and I missed it. But I did get Disraeli Gears, so went back to Fresh Cream immediately. So I’ve known the album for 50 years, it’s just in my DNA. I sometimes find it hard to place in context, because what I hear is just a great record.
“This is the record, for me, that opened me up to all the other British blues bands. Everybody. Before the Mayall record, though I sure got that soon after. Fresh Cream set the template for me. It may not be fantastically recorded, but it’s just so well executed. It’s become as familiar and comfortable as any other landmark, be it Revolver or Rubber Soul, or Are You Experienced. Influence is a funny thing, when everything is moving so fast.
“It was a week-by-week event. Fresh Cream pre-dates Are You Experienced. Then Are You Experienced just pre-dates Disraeli Gears… one after another.
“It was an incredible time. It’s hard to pinpoint the Big Bang, y’know? But… it starts with Fresh Cream as well as it does with anything.”