- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 20, 2005

Thirty-six years after their wheels of fire skidded to a halt, English acid-rockers Cream are plugging in again for three nights at Madison Square Garden, Monday through Wednesday. The New York concerts follow their recent short stand at Royal Albert Hall in London and the release earlier this month of a double live CD and DVD (review, D4) commemorating one of the most eagerly anticipated reunions in the history of rock music.

Flash back to the mid-‘60s, and the pre-Cream sea of rock music was a fun, but still shallow place for serious swimmers. The tide, however, was about to change.

Regardless of whether it was the work of adoring fans or a crafty record company publicist, all that “Clapton is God” graffiti spray-painted around London in 1966 did the trick. Those cryptic messages on the subway walls helped spawn a legend and reinforced Mr. Clapton’s already lofty opinion of himself.

“My vanity was incredibly boosted by that ‘God’ thing,” he says in the biography that accompanies “Crossroads,” his career-retrospective boxed set. “I didn’t think there was anybody as good [as me].”

Mr. Clapton had already quit the Yardbirds on the eve of their commercial breakthrough because they were drifting too far from the blues. Then, after just one epic, electric-blues album with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, he once again handed in his notice.

And on the third day, God rested. But not for long.

Mr. Clapton was looking for a new challenge — to reinvent the blues while staying true to its basic structure and emotion with some players who could push him to the edge and beyond. So, in 1966 — when most of us were watching “Shindig” and “The Monkees” on TV — Mr. Clapton formed Cream with bassist-vocalist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker.

Mr. Bruce had done time with the Bluesbreakers, the Graham Bond Organization and Manfred Mann, while Mr. Baker’s explosive percussion work had turned heads as a member of Blues Incorporated and Graham Bond. For the next two-plus years, through four albums (not counting posthumous, cash-cow releases) and nonstop touring, Cream spearheaded a psychedelic-blues-rock revolution that shook the popular music world to its core.

The band broadened the focus of the idiom from the pop-rock song craftsmanship of the Chuck Berry/Beatles/Beach Boys axis, to one that thrived on blazing instrumental solos and free improvisation more akin to jazz than rock.

When “Fresh Cream,” the band’s debut, was released in late 1966, it wasn’t just an eye-opener, it was a head-spinner. Incendiary performances of blues numbers such as “Rollin’ & Tumblin” and “I’m So Glad” were juxtaposed with jazzier, more melodic Bruce compositions like “I Feel Free” and “Sleepy Time Time.” The cataclysmic impact of this album landing in record collections next to the likes of Paul Revere and the Raiders and Herman’s Hermits is hard to exaggerate. For better or worse, rock ‘n’ roll would never be the same.

And that was just for openers. The follow-up, 1967’s “Disraeli Gears,” was an even bigger shock to the system, pushing the band deeply into the realm of psychedelic rock. The album cover itself — with the band portrayed Mount Rushmore-like, surrounded by a riot of acid-trip images — foreshadowed a musical journey to unexplored realms “where tiny purple fishes ran laughing through your fingers” and “the rainbow has a beard.” “Sunshine of Your Love,” “Strange Brew” and “Tales of Brave Ulysses,” still pretty trippy today, were mind-boggling in 1967.

“Wheels of Fire” in 1968 was even more psychedelic. Despite boasting some of the band’s best material — notably Mr. Bruce’s surrealistic tour-de-force, “White Room,” and Mr. Clapton’s signature reworking of Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads” — it also presaged Cream’s demise. A double album split between one studio and one live record, it was weighed down with self-indulgent jamming, including Mr. Baker’s 15-minute drum solo on “Toad.”

Mr. Bruce and Mr. Baker fought like cats and dogs onstage and off throughout Cream’s life. Mr. Clapton often found himself serving as referee. He has variously blamed their fighting, a scathing review in Rolling Stone magazine and the impact of listening to the Band’s “Music From Big Pink” (and wanting to do something more in that vein) as prompting his decision to fold Cream. The fact that the Jimi Hendrix Experience had, to some extent, beat Cream at its own game may also have contributed to the decision.

A final, anticlimactic album, “Goodbye,” was issued at the beginning of 1969. It is dominated by three long, live versions of songs that aren’t as good as the studio takes. But the three studio numbers are excellent, including George Harrison’s guest spot on “Badge.” It would have been fascinating to see the band hold together long enough to make one more studio album in this more pop-rock oriented style.

Cream’s recorded legacy ultimately attests to the fact that the improvisational jamming worked much better live than on albums. Indeed, for a few years, Cream became the butt of jokes — such as John Belushi on “Saturday Night Live” trying unsuccessfully to trade away his dog-eared copy of “Wheels of Fire.”

After the split, Mr. Bruce tried hard to find a second Cream, forming power trios with Mountain’s Leslie West and later with Robin Trower. None clicked, nor did his solo offerings. Mr. Baker briefly reunited with Mr. Clapton in Blind Faith, then saw very limited success with outfits such as Ginger Baker’s Air Force and the Baker-Gurvitz Army.

Mr. Clapton — after a few bumps in the road — went on to sell more records than God ever even thought about. No graffiti needed.

Lawdy Mama (take 1) — Cream recorded at least two takes (both can be heard on the deluxe edition of “Disraeli Gears”) of this traditional blues song, which later evolved into “Strange Brew.” Take 1 is rawer and more stompin’.

Steppin’ Out — There’s been no greater gift to classic rock lovers than the opening of the BBC radio tape vaults during the past decade, leading to a wave of “BBC sessions” CDs. Cream’s BBC performance of “Hideaway” isn’t radically different from the way Mr. Clapton did it with the Bluesbreakers, but it’s a treat to hear it with Mr. Bruce and Mr. Baker in the engine room.

What a Bringdown — A Ginger Baker composition from “Goodbye,” this excellent, riff-propelled track has never received its due, probably because it stands in the shadow of Mr. Clapton’s gleaming “Badge.”

Spoonful — This nearly 7-minute workout on Willie Dixon’s blues classic was left off the American album of “Fresh Cream.” It is slightly better than the very good live version issued later on “Wheels of Fire.” The studio version has been restored to the CD, and offers more than a taste of Mr. Bruce’s finest, straight-on blues vocal.

Tales of Brave Ulysses — Mr. Bruce gleefully fractures Homer, shouting about visions of “girls’ brown bodies dancing through the turquoise” over Mr. Clapton’s relentless wah-wah guitar leads. In just 2:46, it tells you everything there is to know about psychedelic rock.

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