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In rock and roll history, there are some bands that have obtained legendary, even mythic status. The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead etc... each with careers that span multiple albums and often a decade or more. Then there is another group of rock groups that achieved this massive status is an almost impossibly short amount of time. The Sex Pistols were only around for one album and even Jimi Hendrix was on the scene for only about 4 years at most and yet both had a huge impact on rock and roll... And then there is Cream. This legendary collaboration between Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker was together for less than 3 years, but has had an impact on rock music as big as any of the other bands I mentioned, and arguably, as big as any band in history.
I remember my first experiences with Cream as hearing "White Room" on the radio and thinking: "Wow, that's one heck of a good song..." (or something similar but far less generic and ridiculous sounding). At the time, I didn't even know anything else by the group, that it was Clapton on guitar or even the band's name, but it still left a lasting impression. When I started playing guitar is when I rediscovered Cream, mainly because it's more or less an unwritten rule that new guitarists try to learn the riff to "Sunshine of You Love", another great song. Apparently that was enough to make me seek out their music and become a lifelong Cream fan. To this day, I continue to find new things amongst their relatively short list of recordings that I like and they've easily become one of my favorite bands of all time.
There has been so much written about Cream already that trying to discuss their sound is a bit of an uphill battle against what has already been stated. It's also an uphill battle just because of the group's genre defying diversity. Maybe I'd call their music hard edged, progressive, psychedelic, blues rock... if I really had to label it, but that is really a bit of a mouthful. I think sheer creative diversity is part of what continues to inspire me about the music of Cream. There are definite blues elements throughout, but the sound is huge with overdriven guitars. There are also psychedelic, jazzy and improvisational elements that push the progressive boundary and at the same time, there are some darn good, more straight forward, rock tracks in their catalog as well. Few groups can tackle so many different areas and pull them off, while still searching for new musical creativity.
As a blues rock band, Cream is a pretty good one, although not really in the mold of more traditional blues outfits. Look at tracks like "Spoonful", "Rollin' and Tumblin'", "Lawdy Mama" and "Born Under a Bad Sign", all blues, or at least blues based, covers that show the band's interest and aptitude in that genre. Even their own "Strange Brew" is based on a riff by blues great, Albert King. "Spoonful" has a bit of subtle jazz in it's rhythm and although Clapton's guitar licks are blues based, there are spikes of tonal color, both in screeching treble and feedback, and that droning, pounding bass. These things really push their take on this Willie Dixon song into something new that is far more expansive and progressive. "Rollin' and Tumblin'" seems to go the other direction in it's frantic and more minimalist, blues stomp, all gritty and earthy, but it is also electric with energetic vocals, harmonica and rough guitar licks. There is bits of blues feel in many of their other tracks, like the swaggering "Outside Woman Blues" or the swinging "Take it Back". Both seem to owe more than a little something to the blues genre, but also aren't really contained by it. Of course, no discussion of Cream as a blues band would be complete without including their fiery and massive live take on Robert Johnson's "Crossroads". A track that has become a bit larger than life in it's own right, it's a pushed blues stomp on steroids that grinds and erupts with one of the most classic guitar solos of all time.
All these songs show a band that is heavily based in the blues, but is not necessarily a blues or blues rock band as that is only one aspect of Cream. If you listen to any of Cream's more progressive tracks alone, it might have you convinced that they were far from a blues band.
Start with the track I mentioned as one of my earliest memories about the band: "White Room". Epic and grandiose in it's hard rock riff, cryptic, psychedelic imagery and lyrics, with wah guitar interwoven throughout, it is one of those classic rock tracks that is instantly recognizable. This track, along with other psychedelic explorations like "Tales of Brave Ulysses", "SWLABR", "Dance the Night Away" and "Those Were the Days" are great examples of Cream's artistic side, right in line with the psychedelic movement of the late 60s. These songs show the band not only delving into the experimentation of the time, but also into the musically progressive. I'm especially fond of the dark foreboding "We're Going Wrong", which in it's haunting vocals, thundering drums and subtle guitar parts, is miles away from straight forward rock and blues. There is also the decisively twisted "Politician", with it's wonderfully disjointed riff, that is also a step away from more traditional rock ideas, moving away from fluidity, towards more progressive rhythmic concepts. Also, of course, there is "Sunshine of Your Love", a song that pretty much speaks for itself as it's a bit of a psychedelic staple.
What I really like about the psychedelic and more advanced rock tracks from Cream is that although they definitely fit in with the 60s era feel, they also exhibit more of a progressive rock feel with interesting rhythms and advanced, although also subtle licks. They are more than just psychedelic, but a blend of styles and advanced musicianship used to create unique artistic statements... and are just some great rock and roll songs as well. Again though, this is only one aspect of the band as they also have some pretty great, more typical rock songs in their catalog as well.
"I Feel Fine" is a catchy, hook laden number complete with hand clapping and one of my favorite guitar leads. "Dreaming" is an aptly named dreamy pop track with a swirling arrangement and harmonizing vocals and there is also Clapton's collaboration with George Harrison, "Badge", another infamous track. With a great riff and a style that pauses for dramatic effect before launching into a soaring chorus and guitar leads, it's easy to see why it's such a popular track to this day.
When you combine all these aspects of the band together you end up with an incredibly musically diverse group that shows tremendous creativity (and this is only a small section of their music that I've mentioned). Even in their less than successful songs, like the roughly vocal "Mother's Lament" and the 5 minute (15 plus live) drum explosion of "Toad", neither of which overly favorites of mine, they still push creative boundaries and the songs themselves are pretty good. This creativity is part of why I am continually drawn to Cream. In the short time they were together, they explored music in more new directions than some bands do in their entire career. That kind of dedication to creativity is what being a musician and an artist is all about in my mind.
That isn't the only reason I'm a fan though, or why this band has had such an impact on me personally. A large part of it comes from how so much of their music was based in improvisation, especially live.
In the 1960s, Cream would take the power trio and make it a vehicle for their own improvisations on stage, often stretching out songs and taking independent paths once the initial framework was established, much like jazz. Their live shows have since become part of rock and roll legend. Unfortunately I never got to see them play live (even on the reunion tour), but they still really inspired me both as a fan and a musician. I'm a big supporter of improvisation in rock and roll and music in general. In fact, I believe that improvised creativity can be a thousand times more expressive, honest and authentic than crafted songwriting and studio production. It makes sense that I would be into a band that was so heavily devoted to improvisation and in fact, Cream is one of the bands, along with Led Zeppelin and a few others, who's music really helped form this opinion in my mind and continues to reinforce it.
I would say that their musical creativity and openness to new stylistic ideas, along with their devotion to improvisation are the two major reasons that I hold Cream in such high esteem and I'm sure that is part of why a lot of people do. There are also the facts that they have a high level of musicianship (each of the three is an amazing musician in his own right) and their heavy blues sound would be pushed forward to form a new genre. Along with bands like the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Jeff Beck Group and Led Zeppelin (and a few others), Cream virtually created hard rock. Less than a year later this genre would be taken to heart by bands like Black Sabbath, forming the roots of heavy metal. Laying the groundwork for these new genres and probably also has a little something to do with why Cream is considered by so many to be rock and roll royalty... just a little.
For me though, it will always be more about the music. Pioneers of hard rock or not, Cream made some great, immensely creative music that pulled from blues primarily, but also jazz, the psychedelic and more progressive musical ideas.
This article is my tribute to Cream, discussing a little about why I'm such a fan of this band, and probably why so many other people are as well. If you're just now coming to this band, then hopefully I've sparked your interest enough for you to go check out their albums, (there are really only 4) and see what you think. If you're a long time fan of the late great Cream like I am, then hopefully I've further fueled your passion for the band and maybe inspired you to take a look at their music from a new angle.
There will be more to come about Cream in the future at the Soul of Rock 'n' Roll. November 2007 will mark the 40th anniversary of the release of what many consider their pinnacle album: Disraeli Gears. Keep an eye out as I'm sure I'll be doing a feature on that album, one of my all time favorite rock and roll albums, when the time comes.