Adventures in vinyl, be it from analog or digital sources, with good music the only common currency.
By Ken Micallef
In the opening scene of the 2014 Ginger Baker biopic, Beware of Mr. Baker, the ruddy-faced, red-haired, perpetually pissed drummer clobbers the film maker with a walking cane, bloodying his face and breaking his nose. The rest of the film is slightly more coherent, Baker offering insights into his perpetually weird world and his days as a member of Cream, the world’s first supergroup.
The British trio that played louder than anyone before them; whose epic improvisations forged the template for the ‘70s bombast that followed; the psychedelic innovators whose torrid blues-rock progressions and Marshall amplifier powered mayhem predated heavy metal; Cream are never cited as an influence by anyone. That would be uncool. Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, and even Pink Floyd bathed in the glory that began with Cream. Except for their 2005 global reunion tour — mostly attended by gray geezers who didn’t notice that Baker consistently lost the beat while bassist Jack Bruce scowled — Cream has gone quietly into rock history, without even a VH1 Behind the Music to celebrate their achievements, fights, and last hurrahs.
That case of “Due Respect, Ignored” continues with the superbly manufactured Cream 1966–1972, a six-LP box set pressed by Pallas in their Diepholz, Germany plant, released in late 2014 without mastering or production credits. Numerous emails to the Universal Music Enterprises publicity department (who graciously supplied the box set for review) turned up a big fat zero. No producer, no mastering engineer is credited for this lavishly produced LP set, though it includes a Roger Dean styled Cream logo on the front, 180-gram pressings, and faithfully reproduced jackets in a rigid pressed-board case. But no liner notes, no snazzy booklet with archival photos, no critical evaluation. Poor Cream.
While Universal (owner of the ATCO label which originally distributed Cream in the US) doesn’t offer liner notes to elucidate the history behind these 50-year-old recordings (it wasn’t all LSD and “flower power,” kids), there’s no denying the individual virtuosity of guitarist/vocalist Eric Clapton, drummer/vocalist Ginger Baker, and bassist/vocalist Jack Bruce. As Cream, they invented a language that rock artists from Jack White to the Black Keys to Alabama Shakes still steal, today’s blues bashers typically attributing their style to the blues greats (Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Junior Wells) while ignoring the music’s transition from blues bars and juke joints to Cream’s renowned performances at Winterland, Fillmore East, Royal Albert Hall and in the studio. Other ‘60s bands — Ten Years After, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Canned Heat — also merged blues with rock, but none came close to Cream’s ferocious instrumental brilliance, their constantly morphing psychedelic songcraft, and the sheer volume of their heroic live shows (Clapton, along with Blue Cheer, pioneered the “Marshall stack,” after all). Cream were HEAVY.
Eric Clapton was rock’s first guitar hero with good reason. As “Clapton is God” graffiti filled London’s tube stations in the mid-‘60s, he recorded with John Mayall & the Blues Breakers, combining the single-note blues burn of Albert, B.B. and Freddie King with a specifically British brand of melodic lyricism. When the engineer for the Blues Breakers’ sessions complained that Clapton’s Marshall amplifier was too loud, Eric replied “That’s the way I play.” Clapton’s innovations resulted in the churning, beautiful solos first heard with the Yardbirds (“For Your Love,” “I Ain’t Got You”) and the Blues Breakers (“Hideaway”), then onto such Cream anthems as “I Feel Free,” “Sunshine of Your Love,” “Strange Brew,” and “Badge” (all played with then-new fuzz and wah-wah pedals) and the sweltering live solos of “Crossroads,” “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” and “N.S.U.”
From his early days with the Graham Bond Organisation (which included bassist/foe Jack Bruce), Ginger Baker was a force — and an explosive personality — to be reckoned with. Modeling his all-limbs-in-motion style after his hero, British big band drummer Phil Seaman, Baker — like Keith Moon — was a ferocious madman whose off-kilter beats and tumbling drum fills were unmatched in rock. The first rock drummer to play double bass drums, used primarily for a tank-like, rolling thunder pummel, Baker was also a drum solo behemoth, though his solos now sound rather crap: no direction, no form, just a lot of fumbling fills and clunky double bass drum rhythms. But the savage force behind Baker’s solos was more mind-blowing than the notes he played. Sweat flying, jaw ajar, his blind stare like a deranged Roman centurion drunk with battle, Baker gave everything in the epic 17:38 drum solo, “Toad.” As a musician originating the rock drumming style with no precedent (similar to Ringo Starr), Ginger Baker was an innovator. His drum fills – “Sunshine of Your Love,” “Badge,” “Those Were The Days” — are unique signatures of loping, time-fragmenting beauty. Baker’s groove phrasing remains startling as in the head-slapping four-bar break of “SWABLR” (She Walks Like A Bearded Rainbow), the backward beat in “Sitting on Top of the World,” the orchestral snare flurries of “Deserted Cities of the Heart,” and the free-form grooving “N.S.U.” (Non-Specific Urethritis). An influence on every drummer from Stewart Copeland to Matt Cameron, Ginger Baker’s drumming remains a colossal beast. Like Clapton, Baker’s art contains a level of lyricism and creativity far beyond the bravado of ‘70s rockers who reveled in “arena rock.”
Jack Bruce was an accomplished and confident jazz bassist, vocalist and soon-to-be poet well before joining Cream, which almost didn’t happen when Clapton told him the drummer (Baker founded Cream) would be his nemesis from the Graham Bond Organisation. Bruce’s bass playing remains daunting and illustrious to this day, his flowing, improvisational, melodic lines contrasted by a burly, often distorted tone. A bold vocalist with blaring pipes, Bruce was the obvious choice for Cream’s lead vocalist, but Atlantic Record owner Ahmet Ertegun thought otherwise, preferring Clapton, “The God,” who was really no singer at all. But talent will out.
Another problem: Cream had no songs. They were players, not songwriters. But after their blues-covers-filled 1967 debut, Fresh Cream, the trio’s florid songwriting skills, inspired by everyone from the Beatles and Procol Harum to no doubt, Jimi Hendrix, were off and running, producing a series of psychedelic masterworks.
Cream 1966-1972 contains the group’s complete studio (four) and live (two) LPs brought together in a boxed set for the first time. “Each LP will have exact reproductions of original artwork to retain authenticity, and will be pressed in 180-gram heavyweight audiophile vinyl and contained in a rigid slipcase box,” notes the press release. So far, so good. The artwork is uniformly vivid and well-printed, each album jacket heavy and gorgeous. The vinyl is flat, black and quiet. Each LP is in its own rice paper-like lined sleeve. As there are no credits I assume the masters used for the vinyl transfers are from Cream’s 1997 four-CD Polydor set, Those Were The Days, which included an extensive 48-page booklet containing notes and photos. After the expense of pressing at Pallas, why not use those same liners and photos from Those Were The Days in this larger format package? Give the people what they want!
For this write-up I compared the Pallas-pressed Cream reissues to my original 1960s era plum-and-gold label ATCO pressings, which have lost none of their shine and luster, and outside of original German or UK LPs, remain the standard in Cream pressings.
Following their first single, “I Feel Free,” Cream’s 1967 debut, Fresh Cream, set the tone for group’s mix of blues standards and more eccentric original material, reaching #6 in the UK album charts. Fresh Cream included the band’s amped-up blues fare, including Robert Johnson’s “Four until Late” and Skip James’ “I’m So Glad,” with originals such as “Dreaming” and the showcase, near-instrumental “Cat’s Squirrel.”
Comparing Fresh Cream to my original 1967 British, alternately named Full Cream pressing (Full Cream features a shortened version of “Spoonful”), the mix is the same — same mid 60s ping-pong stereo approach, with decent center fill. The British pressing is more forward, but also more detailed, with better resolution, and overall better depth. It lacks the walloping low-end of the reissue, but makes up for it in clarity. When Jack Bruce plays upright bass, or rides the upper register of his six-string electric bass, it’s very easy to hear on Full Cream. The original British pressing is also forward to the point of ear fatigue. The reissue is warmer and much weightier in general, but buries micro detail. Though I assumed these reissues are from digital masters, they lack the pinpoint definition I usually associated with digital. If anything the reissue LPs are rather muddy in spots. Full Cream sounds like you’re privy to a small band wailing in a club. The reissue Fresh Cream sounds like a rock band in ascension, taking the reins of power, small details be damned.
Before the end of 1967, Cream released the followup LP, Disraeli Gears. Recorded in New York City with producer Felix Pappalardi and legendary engineer Tom Dowd during the band’s first US tour, the sessions broke all the rules. “The band was incredible,” Dowd said. “It was as if ‘I’ve got two of everything here.’ They recorded at ear shattering levels. I never saw anything so powerful in my life and it was just frightening. I don’t think they were cognizant of the fact that they had more tracks (than in the UK). They just went about recording in their own method.”
Disraeli Gears includes such landmark songs as “Strange Brew,” the heavy-mama riffing “Sunshine of Your Love” and the surrealistic, wah-wah drenched “Tales of Brave Ulysses,” all in a brilliant, liquid texture sound that established the template 1000s of bands have emulated. Disraeli Gears is the dawn of psychedelia, the point where hippie chic meets studio wizardy, where Cream’s songwriting comes into high relief, their instrumental virtuosity coupled to majestic songcraft. As an epic document of seminal psychedelia, Disraeli Gears is the Rosetta Stone of rock.
My ATCO copy of Disraeli Gears is closer to the production sound of the British Full Cream. The sound is similar, with excellent resolution and detail, airy treble, and a sweet leading edge to vocals and instruments. Excellent micro detail, and more “hall sound,” though it’s a studio recording. In absolute terms, and compared to modern production the sound is thin. But it’s very dynamic, punchy, with excellent treble and bass guitar definition. Again, the top end has a beautiful shimmer.
The reissue is bigger, warmer, less defined, and somewhat midrangey overall. Balanced again to the subjective thinness of the ATCO LP, I could see how the casual listener would prefer the reissue. It’s warm, it’s big, it’s weighty. But it obscures macro and micro detail. If you’re a purist, you’ll want the original, but if you simply want a clean presentation with modern bass weight, the reissue is your ticket.
Wheels Of Fire
Tiring of each other but evolving in the studio, Wheels of Fire found Cream moving away from the blues and towards a progressive style highlighted by odd time signatures and orchestral instruments. Non-stop touring in the US gave Wheels of Fire the band’s first chart topper – and it was the world’s first platinum-selling double album. Wheels of Fire comprised one studio album including the Jack Bruce and Pete Brown penned top ten single “White Room,” with the other side a mishmash of live material including lengthy readings of “Sitting on Top Of The World,” the epic “Crossroads” and “Spoonful.” The studio cuts, “Deserted Cities of the Heart” and “As You Said,” are moody, brilliant, acoustic tinged classics.
My ATCO Wheels of Fire pressing again, has that silvery, shimmering edge to treble transients and great dynamic range. Showing the fast advance of technology in the 60s, the sound is now fuller, bigger and more in your face with exceptional dynamic range. Baker’s bass drums and Bruce’s six-string bass are well-defined, and the stereo pan is more natural than on previous Cream LPs.
But here is where the reissue takes the prize. Offering that same shimmering treble edge, the reissue adds a fatter, fuller and warmer presentation with no loss of detail. The sound is more immersive with a similar airy feel to the top end. Well done Universal!
Cream disbanded in 1968 after less than two and a half years during which time they rewrote the rule book for rock, both in terms of touring and studio albums. Their collective imagination was only matched by the Beatles and the Stones, but with their instrumental virtuosity to the fore. Around the edges of the live selections that crept into their LPs were the seeds of the bombast, of the endless, pointless solos that would be the calling card of ‘70s arena rock. But Cream could still produce magic as on their last studio album, Goodbye.
Again mixing studio with live tracks, Goodbye featured one of Cream’s greatest songs, “Badge.” A marvel of overdubbing, songwriting, and guitar work, the Clapton/George Harrison penned track features Harrison on rhythm guitar, credited as L’Angelo Misterioso. A classic pop rock song that inspired everyone from Badfinger to the Raspberries and countless others, “Badge” features one of Clapton’s greatest solos, background vocals from the entire band, and a sliding tape malfunction that adds a note of queasiness near song’s end.
The reissue Goodbye is clean sounding, but somehow distant. As if the band is slowly disappearing before your speakers. Overall, the LP lacks romance and presence. Does the original sound better? I do have an ATCO copy of Best of Cream, which includes “Badge.” Here, the music is warmer sounding, lush, and with excellent decay of drums and guitars. But there’s still a “hole in the soul” effect.
Live Cream and Cream Live II
With more money to be made but no music forthcoming from Cream, ATCO released two rather anticlimactic live LPs in 1970 and 1972. As live LPs recorded in the ‘60s go, the sound is excellent overall. You can hear the blues band Cream once were, and the sloppy, self-indulgent, 20-minute soloists they were becoming. Live Cream also included the unreleased studio cut, “Lawdy Mama,” recorded during the Disraeli Gears sessions. Clapton had heard early pressings of The Band’s Music from Big Pink, and the writing was on the wall. Fade to black.
Post Cream: Eric Clapton was DOA after his dope days were done (“Lay Down Sally” will never equal “Layla”); Baker lent his great talents to Fela Kuti and later, solo mainstream jazz efforts; Jack Bruce remained eclectic, often recording for innovative New York label American Clave, remaining outspoken to his dying day. Cream was a musical phenomenon, emblematic of the inventive 1960s, whose sum total as musicians was perhaps greater than the individual efforts that followed.
If you were to search for the original ATCO pressings of these six LPs, the cost would surpass the $199 Cream 1966-1972 typically brings. Cream 1966-1972 is a beautifully made set, and the sound overall is quite good. Better than can be expected for pure digital transfers, if indeed that is the case. But as the live albums are rather uninspiring, my money would be on German pressings of the studio LPs, the absolute best-sounding pressings of these essential recordings.
In 2006, Cream received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of their influence on modern music, and all that psychedelic, drug-taking, booty-shaking, riot-inducing paraphernalia the ‘60s was supposedly all about. Cream was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993. Their worldwide album sales are estimated at 17 million. Ginger Baker, now 75, still tours to maintain his polo ponies for riding and walking canes for head-smashing.
About the Author
Raised in the Deep South, educated as a commercial artist, Micallef is also a regular contributor to Autodesk’s lineshapespace.com online business magazine, where Smart Buildings, Industry 4.0, and the Internet of Things provide grist for the mill of future design and cloud-based and 3D manufacturing.
Ken’s current rig includes Shindo electronics, DeVore Fidelity and Snell speakers, a Kuzma turntable and various cartridges.
Financial Interests: Ken contributes to several music-related media outlets including Positive Feedback Online and Digital Audio Review.