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This is the twelfth in a series of Rock & Roll features I'm writing for this site. I'm a rock and roller, so this column is a way for me to feature a different album that I like, from different genres every month.
This month is extra special for all of us fans of classic rock. Not only is Led Zeppelin reuniting in London for a onetime show, but this month is also the 40th anniversary of one of the world's most famous rock and roll albums: Cream's Disraeli Gears. In November of 1967, Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker released their second album right into the heart of the psychedelic era. Not only did it really break them through in the American market and forever change rock and roll, but it gave us one of the most recognizable songs of all time.
I'm a huge Cream fan, if you didn't realize already by the fact that I've written about them a lot for the Soul of Rock 'n' Roll already. I couldn't let this anniversary go by without paying tribute this incredible work.
Although primarily known as some of the best work by Clapton, Bruce and Baker, each of whom went their own directions for many years after Cream broke up, this album is not purely the work of those three. They were indeed a power trio, but without the lyrical contributions of Pete Brown, the stellar production work of Felix Pappalardi and help of many others, it is doubtful it would have had such an enormous impact. It really is the complete package with every part from the musicianship, writing and production, through to the album art and timing of the release that make this album such a seminal artistic moment in rock and roll history.
Cream was painted something like creative blues revivalists (or something like that) by their first release, but they would truly depart from any notion of blues purity with this album. Mixing in a variety of styles from jazz to psychedelic, all while retaining their blues roots and excellent musicianship, it would solidify them as one of the great rock bands of all time.
This departure is evident on the very first song: "Strange Brew". A track with a pretty straight forward blues riff and style, it originally began as another track called "Lawdy Mama" with the riff lifted from Albert King before new, darker lyrics were written by Pappalardi's wife Gail Collins. It's gritty riff takes on a different feel with these new lyrics, both paying homage the blues, but also breaking from it to pursue more psychedelic, personal and deeply artistic paths. Perhaps the best song to get across this new direction though is also the band's biggest hit and a track who's riff is a beginning guitarist's staple to this day. "Sunshine of Your Life" certainly is the band's most famous song and with good reason. With it's fuzzed out progressive guitar licks pulsing behind Bruce's pushed vocals, trading back and forth with Clapton, it's a classic that really set some of the standards for what would evolve into hard rock by 1970. It's a song that really has transcended time, becoming totally timeless, but it's only part of the complete picture.
"World of Pain" expands in new directions as well with it's darker, almost haunting feel to the verses, but slightly more bluesy choruses with very airy vocals that hang over top of the backing rhythm. "Dance the Night Away" is actually a pretty dark song with it's layers of psychedelic and mystic flavors. This song is one of my favorites because it's quite heavy and hits hard rhythmically in the verses, but the lyrics have that haunting floating quality again in their harmonies and the delicacy of the tinkly, even jangly guitar melodies provide a good contrast to the heavier backing parts. "Blue Condition" feels much more grounded after the two more psychedelic tracks that proceed it. It's slow, swaying style though is unique and surprisingly complex, as are it's lyrics, but by comparison to it's trippy counterparts, it's quite relaxed and tame making for a good break in the action. It's a short break though as a trio of psychedelic masterpieces follow.
"Tales of Brave Ulysses" is an epic wah guitar workout wrapped around a mystic and mythological tale. Another one of those trademark Cream songs, it's great musicianship and psychedelic imagery certainly do capture the band's spirit and even more so the spirit of 1967. It's one of those great hard rock songs though, and was influential as a starting point for many of the epic rock anthems of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and others that would follow. "SWLBR" is also both a psychedelic and hard rock classic. Standing for "She Walks Like a Bearded Rainbow" (I don't know what it means either), it has appropriate cryptic lyrics, complete with multiple references to facial hair, underpinning it's gritty rock and roll riff and screaming lead guitar work. The roots of hard rock and heavy metal are embedded in this song as well and it hits with the force one would expect from such a track. "SWLBR" is another one of my personal favorite songs, but if I was going to pick a single favorite track from this album it would be the one that follows it. "We're Going Wrong" has some the the same haunting qualities to it's vocals as "Dance the Night Away" and "World of Pain", with the same mystic flavors as well, but with one distinction. This track is far more visceral and primal with it's jungle-esque drum work, surging style and sense of mystery. The guitar work begins quite simple and straight forward, but it's minimalism is exactly what is needed to put the emphasis on the pounding drums and Bruce's vocal work. As it builds, it seems to sink deeper, becoming more and more pushed before pulling back nearly to silence again. As the song builds again, the effect is heightened by Clapton's minimal, fuzzed out lead work, providing subtle melody as they move towards a pounding finale.
The band returns to more well known territory with their take on Blind Willie Reynolds "Outside Woman Blues". Although it's a pretty straight forward blues track, the riff between verses, doubled on bass, has both a hard rock touch and a progressive rock twist adding some unique color. "Take it Back" is probably the song closest to Cream's first album, although that could be debated. A bit of a swinging blues stomp, the group channels their inner bar band with Bruce wailing on harmonica and the track is complete with background cheers. This song really demonstrates that although they are exploring new territory on this album, they haven't forgotten where rock and roll, British blues and their own band, began. The album closes with a interesting sing along with exaggerated British accents and tinkling piano. Although perhaps not the one of their easiest tracks to listen to or one of their most rockin', "Mothers Lament" does have a uniquely corny and amusing British charm and ends what is actually a relatively dark album, with a lighthearted note.
There's more to this work than just the music in my mind though. Here's a few interesting historical tidbits that add to the albums legend and make it all the more complex by giving you a glimpse at some of the details surrounding it's production.
Although it has it's roots in the blues, it's a very psychedelic album that fits in well when it was released: after the infamous Summer of Love. It was actually recorded in April and May of the same year though, before the Monterey Pops of June 1967 and the epic Hendrix performances that show is known for. Recorded in only 6 days across two sessions, they were originally overseen by Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records. Ertegun apparently initially dismissed "Sunshine of Your Love" completely, instead thinking that the band's original takes of "Lawdy Mama" were more the way to go. It wasn't until producer Felix Pappalardi was brought in that "Lawdy Mama" morphed into "Strange Brew", the band's more eccentric side was encouraged and songs like "Sunshine of Your Love", "Tales of Brave Ulysses" and "SWLBR" were embraced. I find this especially interesting because Ertegun had already been instrumental in so many famous artist's careers and would go on to become a driving force behind getting Led Zeppelin into the market. Had he remained the sole producer of Cream though, one of the most well known classic rock songs of all time might never have been part of this album.
It's also interesting to note that like I said in part of my opening of this piece, many more people were involved than just the three musicians in the creation of these songs. Poet Pete Brown co-wrote four of the tracks, with Pappalardi and his wife co-writing two others. Along with that, it was actually Martin Sharp, who also had a hand in the album's psychedelic, "Sgt. Pepper esque" cover art, who gave "Tales of Brave Ulysses" it's lyrics. The band sounds entirely comfortable in the songs though and plays them well with plenty of fire and passion. Although it may have been a number of different people who brought these songs to fruition, it is certainly the performances of Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker that really make them great.
I really can't say enough about why I like this album so much. From open to close it's a fantastic complete work (even with the somewhat corny ending), capturing not only the great creativity of this band, but the atmosphere and time in which it was written. The songs certainly have a style and flair that puts them right in that Summer of Love period, but they don't necessarily sound dated. Still, the amount they have been branded by the psychedelic era will differ to each person's ear. For me, these songs are such classics that it's hard to think of them as anything but just that...classic.
That's really how I feel about the entire album... it's a classic... and so I feel it's time for Cream fans to unite and celebrate Disraeli Gears this month, on it's 40th anniversary. Lets turn it up and rock out to one of the best rock and roll albums of all time.
If this is your first real impression of the late great Cream, then this album is a good place to start, but you can also start with the one that predates it: Fresh Cream. This one might have a few more well known tracks, but both are excellent. Really all the band's albums (all 4 major releases) are great, but I don't think I'd recommend Wheels of Fire or Goodbye as albums for Cream beginners.
Newcomer, or long time fan though, maybe it's time you picked up a new copy of this album. I highly recommend the Deluxe Edition of Disraeli Gears released around 2004. A two disk set, the first has the original album, remastered in stereo including outtakes like "Lawdy Mama", a version of "Blue Condition" with Clapton on vocals, demos of some tracks and a few other demos that were released later during one of the three's solo careers (Bruce's I believe). The second disk contains the album and outtakes in mono, which might not mean much to many, but is highly sought after by collectors, and stripped down live takes from three different sessions on the BBC. There's also extended liner notes and some great pictures of the band including some good shots of Clapton sporting a ragged afro.
Overall, a reissue worth picking up as I think the outtakes, demos and BBC takes make it worth checking out. Definitely a must have album for any rock and roll enthusiast though in whatever format you find it.
You can by the Deluxe Version directly from Amazon here: Disraeli Gears