In May 2005 Cream played a series of reunion concerts in the Royal Albert Hall, the setting for their farewell concert in November 1968. These concerts by the Cream of 39 years on were held whilst I was in Europe on my first overseas holiday ever and yet I did not learn of these momentous events until well after the fact. At the end of the year I bought the double CD set of the concerts and received the double DVD set as a requested Christmas present. These purchases were perhaps as highly anticipated by me as the concerts were at the time, but left me more than somewhat disappointed because the Cream of 2005 were sure as hell not the Cream of 1968.
Somewhere on the DVD Ginger Baker, I think, says something about the band playing their repertoire as the musicians they are in 2005, a very different version of the group that stormed the world in the late 60's, but that this current version was good because it represented a different perspective on their abilities and vision. Something like that. On the evidence of the CD and DVD set, the musicians no longer had the energy and power they had as young men, which is obvious, yet age and experience did not seem to being anything new to the table, except to present Cream as a kind of pub rock covers band; a bunch of 60-somethings who have been around forever and really know the Cream repertoire backwards yet seem to go through the motions for an adoring audience who were simply seeking to relive a vague memory of the barnstorming Cream of old, who defined the lengthy hard blues jam session and made some of the most compelling psychedelic rock of their time.
My position on Cream is, alongside Jefferson Airplane, and the Rolling Stones, they are one of my favourite bands from the Sixties, and along with Dr Feelgood, they are perhaps my two top personal favourites of all time especially since Cream and the Feelgoods were the first two rock bands I discovered on my own and outside of any influences from any peer group.
Back in about 1974 my father book me book called The Story of Pop for my birthday. The book was compiled from a series of part works dealing with the history of rock from the Fifties to the early Seventies. I learnt the histories of the icons of rock, pop and R & B, from Elvis Presley to the Beach Boys, the Stones, the Beatles, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, to the early Seventies superstars such as Bowie, Bolan, Led Zeppelin and David Cassidy. Amidst all of these acts, I found an article about Cream, which was a true revelation about a band I had never heard of before.
At that time Eric Clapton was riding high with his 461 Ocean Boulevard album and I Shot the Sheriff single, with his slightly scruffy image of plaid shirt, jeans and beard, and it was fascinating to read about his prehistory with the Yardbirds, John Mayall and Cream where in particular he was a bit of a dandy, and of course a very flash guitar player. One of the things I noted was that Clapton played a Gibson Les Paul with Cream where he was currently playing a Fender Telecaster.
I read the article over and over, and pored over the photographs, one of which showed the early, almost pre-psychedelic band looking very serious and bluesman-like at a BBC TV shoot, and then later in all their psychedelic peacock finery and Clapton with his "enormous puffball hairdo allegedly grown with the aid of hair restorers." The music sounded astonishing and otherworldly and I became deeply obsessed.
I have no idea when I first heard any Cream music on the radio; but somehow I was familiar with Sunshine of Your Love even if it was not a staple of the kind of pop shows I listened to at the time.
In 1974 Sigma Records was the only record bar in Stellenbosch and it was my habit of a Friday afternoon to hang out at Sigma, flipping through the album covers in the racks, longingly making mental notes of the records I would buy if I had the money. My record collection was minute: two Neil Diamond albums, the Beatles "red" album of greatest hits, and the soundtrack to the British rock 'n' roll movie That'll Be The Day. I just did not have the money to start a serious record collection. Sigma Records represented a world I could gaze at but never be part of and it ate me up, yet I continued with the stupid pastime week after week, compiling my wish lists of desirable vinyl.
Amongst the LP covers on show was the double albums Cream's Cream Live and Heavy
Cream. The first was priced at R6,25 and the latter, perhaps because it was imported or newer stock, was priced at over R7,00. In this day and age it almost seems ridiculous but even those prices were beyond me. Both albums were compilations of hits, but Heavy Cream seemed to be simply studio recordings while Cream's Cream contained live versions of the hits, including the famous version of Crossroads that allegedly had two of the most perfect guitar solos ever. For a long time I could do nothing but long and feast my eyes. I was even too shy to ask the guys behind the counter if I could listen to any of those albums, as one could do in those days.
My friend Natie Greeff had more money than me and was into buying records, such as Deep Purple's live album Made in Japan, which was in itself an object of desire at the time in the aftershock of the monster hit Smoke On The Water, and I listened to it a couple of times at his house. For some unknown reason he wanted to sell the album – it might have been because he wanted to buy a live double album by Uriah Heep – and offered it to me for R4,00. I managed to scrape together the money somehow and took the record home with me and listened to it enough times to realise that it did not appeal to me all that much. I've owned a few Deep Purple albums over the years, but have never quite loved them as much as theoretically I should have, given my predilections for hard rock.
Somewhere towards the middle of 1974 and after I had almost memorised the article about Cream, and had ogled the cover of Cream's Cream Live often enough so that I dreamt about it, I concluded that I wanted Cream and that the only way I would be able to fund the purchase would be to sell Made In Japan back to Natie Greeff who was kind of nonplussed about my offer but generously agreed to take back Made In Japan for the amount I had paid for it, namely R4,00.
I was flush with cash yet R2,25 short of the amount of R6,25 the album sold for at Sigma and as my birthday was long gone, and Christmas a long way away, and I needed to own the record straightaway, I knew desperate measures would be called for to help me achieve my goal. My parents did not give me any pocket money, I had no job, there was no prospect of any cash gifts and I had nothing more to sell. Thievery was the only option as I saw it.
My father had the habit of leaving small change lying around on a bookcase in the passage of the house we then lived in and I made a calculated guess that he would not know or remember how much there was from time to time, so that I could safely take small amounts that would not be missed. This is what I did over a period of weeks, cautious enough not to be too greedy and to take so much at any given time that the deficit would be noticeable. My dad never noticed anything or at least never let on that he noticed anything, and I soon had the extra R2,25 I needed, all the while praying that on-one else would suddenly feel the burning need to buy the album that had been skulking in the Sigma Records' racks for so long, just because I wanted it.
It was with a fast beating heart and clammy palms that I went to Sigma that particular Friday afternoon anxiously hoping and trusting that the album would still be there and that the price would not have suddenly risen since my last visit. The anxiety was superfluous: the album was right where it had been and the price was still right. I paid my money and I took the album home with me. The pleasure and relief were almost orgasmic.
At home I hid the album in my wardrobe, underneath some clothes as I could obviously not show anyone my new acquisition without explaining where I'd found the money to pay for it. Our house hi-fi was in the lounge and I had some time before managed to buy a pair of cheap earphones that I used when I listened to the few records I had, and to music on the radio, and it was with the earphones that I could camouflage my listening habits and hide that I was listening to something new. When I wanted to listen to Cream I sneaked the record into the lounge when no-one was about and hid it beneath the small pile of LP's there and simply pulled the records out of the sleeves without revealing the cover, when I listened to them. In this way no one knew for a long time that I owned Cream's Cream Live, until a year or two later when I had larger collection anyway and no longer cared whether my ownership of this album was public knowledge.
Cream was the first hard rock, as I saw it at the time, I listened to that was not Deep Purple or Uriah Heep, who I despised anyway, and who seemed to be an unknown quantity to my peer group who followed those two bands, or Led Zeppelin, or Jethro Tull and some progressive prog rock groups like Yes or Audience and Pavlov's Dog, all of whom were popular amongst the teenage boys I knew. Cream did not feature, perhaps because the band was already ancient history by then, and Cream became my secret vice, surpassed only by my discovery of Dr Feelgood who was a contemporary band but beyond the ken of my mates at school.
Cream's Cream is a combination of the two earlier official live albums released by Cream, live Cream and Live Cream Volume II. The first two sides contained songs such as NSU, Sleepy Time Time, and a very long version of Sweet Wine, and the second record had shorter, more concise versions of Deserted Cities of the Heart, White Room, Sunshine of your Love and Tales of Brave Ulysses, as well as a very long version of Steppin' Out (Hideaway.)
My favourite side was the side of four relatively short versions of Deserted Cities of the Heart, White Room, Sunshine of your Love, Politician and Tales of Brave Ulysses, because the versions were concise and energetic. The biggest revelation of the album, though, was Sleepy Time Time, with a long melodic solo of a sustained intensity that almost boggled my mind. The solo was so tuneful I could, and did, sing along to it; the inventiveness was amazing, and I just could not believe that anyone could play the guitar like that. Now I could understand the "Clapton is God" cult.
I also listened to Steppin' Out (Hideaway) quite bit, mostly because it was just so interesting in a weird kind of way to listen to a piece of improvisation that was just about 15 minutes long. In the Story of Pop article the writer narrates the tale of a gig where one member of the band got so lost in his virtuosity that the other two left the stage without the soloist noticing. There is a long passage in Steppin' Out (Hideaway) where Clapton solos on completely solo, and I believed that it was this example the Story of Pop writer had referred to. Many years later, when I bought a DVD documentary on Cream, made after the historic Royal Albert Hall concerts of May 2005, this fond belief was punctured when Ginger Baker told the story, and Clapton confirmed it, that it was Jack Bruce who was so lost in his playing that he carried on even when the other two had stopped and were watching him. Baker tells this story, not to illuminate the incredible virtuosity of the three musicians, but to illustrate his moan about the manner in which Bruce turned up his bass amplifier to such a level that he could not even hear anyone else, and nor could they comfortably hear their own playing.
I do not quite know why any version of this tale is told to illustrate the alleged overbearing egocentricity in the band as the conventional wisdom, especially at the time, was that Cream was a rock band built on the principles of a jazz band with three awesomely talented and able musicians whose forte was to play with rock ferocity and with great technical facility so that in most instances on stage the band consisted of three soloists improvising at the same time, and feeding off each other. This kind of superior ability was the unique selling proposition of the band. Ultimately it became the albatross when Clapton, in particular it seems, grew tired of the excesses and wanted to return to simpler song structures. The thing is, apart from the elaborate arrangements and extra instrumentation, that is what Cream did with its studio tracks. Cream did not construct elaborate prog-rock suites but stuck to the 4-minute rule.
The side I listened to least of all was the one with the 15 minute Sweet Wine, partly because I just did not get into this version of the song and partly because of the quality of the pressing of the LP that rather too quickly allowed the vinyl on this side to deteriorate into the kind of snaps and crackles that made listening to anything a trial.
On the whole, then, I really grooved to the shorter, energised versions of the hits, and had a kind of hit and miss relationship with the extended improvisations but I truly and utterly adored Cream just from the evidence of this record. In early 1976 we moved to a new house and for a few summers after that I used to tan on the lawn outside the lounge where the hi-fi was, and I used to position one speaker in the window so it could blast out over the garden and invariably I lay in the sunning soaking up rays to the pounding, boisterous blues rock of Cream. I have no ideas what our neighbours thought of my taste in music. They never complained, though.
Once I started my Varsity career I had a job with the Sports Department, working at the box office of the Coetzenburg and Danie Craven Stadiums of the University of Stellenbosch and I suddenly had a lot of cash, compared to my high school years, which could be applied solely to luxuries because I lived at home and my parents paid my Varsity tuition fees and supported me. The cash enable me to expand my record collection at a rapid rate, especially through the bulk purchase or sale records but every now and then I did buy new product as well, including most of my Cream albums. The second impetus to the record collecting spree, was that at the end of my Matric year I won a competition where the first prize was a small hi-fi set with amplifier/tuner, turntable and speakers. Up to that point the only record player in the house was my parents' one, which stood in the lounge. I had my dad's very old medium and short wave valve radio in my room but once I had the new hi-fi, the valve radio went straight to shelf in the garage and I could listen to glorious FM radio and, better still, I could listen to my records in the privacy of my bedroom.
The initial focus of my record buying was blues records, in particular the budget priced albums I found in various Cape Town record shops, and at Stellenbosch record shops when they had sales. The cheap records were less than R2,00 a copy and new, contemporary albums costs either about R6,00 if locally pressed or R8,48 if imported. My sense of value for money made me prefer 5 albums for R10,00 rather than just one or two.
It was therefore a couple of years before I bought my next Cream product, even if I had the money, and this was the Best of Cream single album, that contains the very best of the studio albums, plus the legendary live version of Crossroad. The compilers had decided to give the punter the heavy blues Cream and the heavy Cream, the greatest bits, and omitted the more interesting and poppy songs that I discovered only when I bought the original albums. There was no Wrapping Paper, or Anyone for Tennis?, or even NSU, but there was I feel Free, I'm So Glad, White Room, Badge (the only tune off Goodbye) and the other usual suspects. The Best of Cream quickly became a favourite that was heavily rotated on my turntable.
The third album acquired in my exploration of the Cream oeuvre was their second album, Disraeli Gears, with a most fascinating psychedelic cover, almost light years away from the fairly sedate cover of Fresh Cream. I believe my copy of Disraeli Gears also came form Sigma Records. This album was even more of a revelation than Cream's Cream because is excellently showcased the different aspects of the band's musical vocabulary, from heavy riffs, to psychedelic pop songs to blues and a weird little Cockney joke song at the end. The best part was that the production was so clear that listening to the album on headphones was a true ear-opener. Here, for the first time I could clearly distinguish between the contributions of the three musicians to the extent that I could simply concentrate on one at a time, and still have a marvellous experience. Disraeli Gears specially illustrated Ginger Baker's busy, intricate and compelling drum technique. Never before had I ever just listened to a drummer on a record, filtering out anybody else. Baker's drumming was so spectacular that one could dot that.
The initial attraction of the album lay in the heavy numbers such as Strange Brew, Sunshine of Your Love, SWLABR, and familiar tunes such as Tales of Brave Ulysses, but after a while I really got into the heavily psychedelic World of Pain, Dancing the Night Away, and, most of all, We're Going Wrong, that starts out as a quiet, broody rumination that slowly builds up to an explosive guitar solo. After Jefferson Airplane, this music is my favourite Sixties psychedelic creations. Power and grace; energy and beauty. These guys were the cream of the crop.
To this day I have never seen a vinyl copy of Fresh Cream, and had to wait until the early Nineties and the CD boom, and the generosity of my cousin Minnette, an air hostess, before experiencing the full delights of the debut album but in the early Eighties I got kind of lucky in finding in a record shop in Cape Town a German label record called I Feel Free, which was a version of Fresh Cream, but with the omission of some significant tunes, such as Sweet Wine and Cat's Squirrel, and the addition of Sunshine of Your Love and Strange Brew. I could now hear for the first time the studio version of NSU (quite astounding) and Sleepy Time Time (a bit twee in the face of the awesome live version on Cream's Cream), and also the weirdness of the atypical Wrapping Paper and The Coffee Song. This album highlighted the weird dichotomy of Cream as being on the one hand a serious blues and heavy group, and on the other hand a typical mid-Sixties pop group with ambitions to have hit singles that could compete in the same market as Herman's Hermits. Clapton allegedly left The Yardbirds because they were becoming too commercial, yet something like Wrapping Paper could have fitted right in with the commercial Yardbirds. Maybe the idea of psychedelia informing the music mitigated this strain of twee pop for Clapton.
I had seen the Wheels of Fire double album in a couple of record shops but was reluctant to pay a double album price for a record that had a number of tunes I already had versions of on the Cream albums I did own, and a number of studio tracks that were unknown quantities. I could not quite see that Wheels of Fire would be value for money. Then I came across the live part of the double album on sale as a single album at Silverstone's record shop in Cape Town. The live set consisted of the very excellent Crossroads and a lengthy version of Spoonful, but unfortunately also a seriously long version of Toad, which did not exactly thrill me, but at the price I would pay for the record, I was prepared to overlook the endless drum solo. As it turned out, I really only listened to the one side of the album. Toad was too tedious and Traintime also did not fire me up. I did not play this album all that much.
The last Cream vinyl I bought was, aptly, Goodbye, the final album in the studio canon, though half of it consisted of live tracks. If memory serves, I bought it on sale when the Stellenbosch branch of Ragtime records closed down and sold off its stock. The live cuts were the most interesting tracks, apart from Badge, the single from the album that I already knew from the Best of ... set, and then there were the baroque, psychedelic studio tunes that sounded like outtakes from Wheels of Fire, and did not advance the Cream cause all that much.
And that was where I left off with Cream until I started buying CD's and duplicated a portion of my record collection.
The first Cream album I duplicated was Disraeli Gears, bought at the independent record shop Outlaw Records in Hout Street, Cape Town. The digital version of a well-beloved LP was a revelation all over again. The remastering gave a much improved stereo effect with cleaner sound, devoid of the crackles and pops of the vinyl, and allowed me to luxuriate even more than previously in the amazing playing of the three principals. Even better: each time I played the album the quality was the same as on the previous occasion; there was no deterioration. I fell in love with Disraeli Gears all over again.
My cousin Minnette is an air hostess for the South African Airways and about 1992 she started flying overseas and later that year, or perhaps early in 1993 she asked me to give her a list of CD's I wanted but could not find in South Africa. My list included Going Blank Again, the then latest album by the contemporary "shoegazing" style band Ride, Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti, and Fresh Cream. The other albums I could probably have found locally but Fresh Cream was elusive, being neither contemporary nor particularly legendary. Led Zeppelin's back catalogue is probably a perennial money-spinner but the debut album from Cream would nowadays be a relative obscurity.
Anyhow, Minnette brought back the three albums I've mentioned, of which Fresh Cream was the most welcome and ultimately the most played. I knew most of the tracks already, but the exciting newbies were the studio versions of Sweet Wine and Cat's Squirrel. Sweet Wine I knew from the lengthy live version on Cream's Cream but I had never heard Cat's Squirrel before. The nice thing about the CD is that it included Wrapping Paper and The Coffee Song, which weren't on the original record.
In about May 1993 there was a burglary at my flat and the thieves stole my amplifier, CD player and half of my CD collection, including the Disraeli Gears CD and fortunately left behind Fresh Cream. At the time my CD collection was so small, perhaps 100 albums, that I could keep the whole lot of them in two shoeboxes. For some unexplained reason the thieves took only the one shoebox. My collection was decimated and my heart ripped out to the extent where I had nightmares about the loss for years and years afterwards.
Fortunately it was not too difficult to rebuild the core of the lost collection, included buying another copy of Disraeli Gears. In quick succession I bought a budget album called Sunshine of Your Love, which is was just the second half of Cream's Cream and on the Internet CD track database the album was fortuitously listed as Live Cream II, and Live Cream, and Goodbye. In short order I rebuilt my Cream collection in the digital medium.
In around 2002 I came across The Best of Cream CD in a Cash Converters shop in Wynberg. This CD was more or less the equivalent of The Best of .. vinyl album I'd bought so many years before, and was a tad superfluous since I owned most of the albums from which the tracks had been drawn. I bought the CD because the completist urge collectors have.
Around that time I read about a new double CD compilation called Cream at the BBC, part of an extended series of similar named releases by a number of famous Sixties and Seventies bands. The review said that the album consisted of nothing more spectacular than versions of Cream favourites recorded for various BBC sessions during the band's heyday in accordance with accepted BBC practice at the time and that the versions were not particularly different or more interesting than the studio versions as these songs were not in the form of the extended "blows" for which Cream had become famous. If you owned the studio albums, you pretty much had similar but better versions of the BBC tracks.
So, when I saw the Cream at the BBC album in HMV in Oxford Street, London, in 2005 I passed it by as not being good enough value for money for a South African shopping in England at a time when a British Pound cost a cool ten South African Rand. These days I regret my failure to splurge out. After all, if one is truly a fanatic, such an album must be in the collection.
However, during the same overseas trip I finally again came across the CD version of Wheels of Fire, for a more competitive price than the BBC session, and I promptly bought it. Now I owned CD versions of the entire official Cream catalogue, latter day compilations excluded, and could die in peace. The previously unheard studio tracks were a bit of a mixed bag for me. Of course White Room and Born Under a Bad Sign were well-known, but Politician and especially Deserted Cities of the Heart were revelations, more so because they were much more subtle and intricate ( Politician had such incredible overdubbed guitar parts) than the hard charging live versions I loved so well. The other psychedelic pop type songs were improved variants on the Disraeli Gears' blueprint, with the added extra of Felix Pappalardi, but on the whole were less satisfying than the earlier album, perhaps because so much of it sounded too much like trickery for its own sake, without depth or even anything particularly interesting in the lyrics, tunes or playing and I guess it is telling that these tunes have never become Cream standards.
In 2005 I ventured into a different media for another fix for my Cream addiction. I bought the DVD version of the November 1968 Cream farewell concert at the Royal Albert Hall, something I'd always thought would be beyond my experience. Yet not only did this DVD contain the original 59 minutes long version broadcast by the BBC, it has an extended version of the concert footage, with extremely plummy and pukka voice over and archive interview footage with the three band members. This was exciting stuff indeed but also quite flawed in that the Tony Palmer documentary is shot in the typical experimental and avant garde style of the time, where the viewer is forced to watch Ginger Baker flailing away while Eric Clapton is playing a blistering solo. We see lots of Jack Bruce's face in close-up, or Ginger Baker bashing away, and lots of shots of the back of Clapton's shirt, but very little of him playing. This makes for very frustrating viewing, and after maybe two screenings, I resorted to treating the DVD as a live album playing in the background when I do other things. Watching the damn thing was just too frustrating.
The interview snippets are probably the best visual material on the DVD as they give a bit of insight into the workings of the musicians' minds and a good glimpse into what was fashionable to wear in about 1967 when the interview inserts were filmed, if the hairstyles are anything to go by. Clapton tells and demonstrates how achieves his celebrated "woman tone" and demonstrates licks. Baker informs us quite nonchalantly that he no longer practices his drumming technique and shows us a few of his tricks. Bruce simply gets mystical and ethereal about what he does without demonstrating too much bass guitar technique.
The best use of the Cream Farewell Concert DVD is to contrast the performances on it with that of the reunited band's Royal Albert Hall gigs in May 2005. Of course the band members were in their 20's back in the later Sixties, full of energy and attack, and the performances crackle with the vigour of a band at the top of its game, a group that is breaking up only because the individuals not longer see eye to eye on various matters, are tired of incessant touring and would rather go out at the top than keep on milking it for it's worth for as long as they can.
In 2005 the three guys are older, more staid, less adventurous and obviously no longer have the strength or stamina to stretch out for as long as they did back in 1967 or 1968. this is understandable from a Jack Bruce who had been sickly for a long time, or Ginger Baker who was already in his mid-sixties, but Eric Clapton is the major disappointment for me. The main problem is that his playing style has changed so radically over the years, from the blazing, hard-charging, sustaining and feedback inflected Les Paul style to the Seventies laid-back Fender Stratocaster style where every solo is a blues solo, and even if it almost hurts me to say so, the solos on the CD or DVD of the 2005 concerts are invariably technically excellent but not very interesting. The solos actually detract form the tunes, they are unnecessary breaks in the action that do little to enhance the tune or the performance. I did not expect Cream 2005 to sound exactly like Cream 1968, or that they should soullessly replicate the old live versions of their best loved tunes, but I did expect more fire and brio, more life. The three guys clearly enjoyed themselves on stage in 2005, and made a ton of money for such a keenly anticipated reunion, but bring nothing of value to their back catalogue. Cream sounds different but different is not necessarily good. They do play tunes that were never or seldom performed live back in the day, but this is almost little more than novelty for its own sake when you can't bring those songs to life.
I was very keen on acquiring the CD and DVD of the 2005 Royal Albert Hall concerts but quickly realised that I would not be watching or listening to them all that much. In fact, the last time I truly listened to the tunes was on a walk on a West Coast trail. I'd downloaded the tracks on first CD of the double set onto my cellphone and tried to mitigate the tediousness of a section of the trail by listening to Cream while I trudged along on the soft beach sand in the heat of the day, wondering how soon I would be able to down an ice cold Windhoek Lager. The music helped some but I could not help but wishing I were listening to Disraeli Gears or Fresh Cream instead.
Sometimes one's heroes should remain the faded old archived legends they were when you first heard of them and investigated them. The Cream of 1967 was well nigh perfect. By 2005 the Cream had gone sour.