Friday, August 21, 2009


The iconic song, Sunshine Of Your Love, was probably our first introduction to Cream. Released in 1967, it was a fine example of their distinctive modern rock sound – and gave us our first experience of the guitarwork of Eric Clapton. While he had a strong blues background, having come through, among others, an apprenticeship with the legendary John Mayall, at the time we weren’t into categorising what type of sound we were hearing. Indeed, Cream’s sound was so fresh, to pardon the pun, that it defied definition. It was simply Cream, an incredible new music by the world’s first supergroup.

And it’s funny how one automatically associates a lead guitarist with leadership of the group. I always assumed that Clapton was the brains and driving force behind the band. I didn’t pay much attention to the song credits, but had I done so I would have noticed that bass guitarist Jack Bruce features prominently.

The band was formed in 1966, after jazz drummer Ginger Baker, then leader of the Graham Bond Corporation, sounded out Clapton, whom he had met when he was with the Yardbirds. Clapton insisted that Bruce, who had played briefly with Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, also be part of it. It was to be a short but sweet combining of considerable forces at a time of massive creativity in British music. But Clapton was unaware that Baker had earlier chased Bruce out of the GBC at knifepoint!

The name of the group was a product of a bit of conceit – they considered themselves the cream of the contemporary jazz and blues crop.

Fresh Cream

I don’t recall us hearing their debut album, Fresh Cream (1966), at the time, though it certainly featured later on. This contained arguably the first drum solo on a rock album, on Baker’s “Toad”. Other songs included Spoonful, I Feel Free and I’m So Glad – which we would later get into big time on their third and final album, Goodbye (1969). “I’m so glad, I’m glad I’m glad I’m glad.” Add brilliant drums, bass and lead guitar and there it was, a simple, rollicking bit of eccentric rock. And of course Sleepy Time Time was another bit of Jack Bruce magic, encased in classic Cream power rock.

Fresh Cream was ranked No 101 in the 2003 Rolling Stone magazine list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. And it does include some cracking numbers, many of which were produced on the later live albums. The full track list is: I Feel Free, NSU, Sleepy Time Time, Dreaming, Sweet Wine, Spoonful, Cat’s Squirrel, Four Until Late, Rollin’ and Tumblin’, I’m So Glad and Toad.

Released on December 9, 1966, Fresh Cream was recorded between July and October of that year in London and is classified by Wikipedia as blues-rock. It was produced by Robert Stigwood, his first album for his new “Independent” Reaction Records label. Wikipedia says it reached No 6 in the UK in February 1967 and, in August 1968, No 39 in the US. Interestingly, the UK version omitted I Feel Free, which was out on a single, while the US version left out Spooonful. Both songs are on the 2000 CD re-issue, says Wikipedia.

I hope to track down some of these songs off other compilations – I have a battered cassette tape – but it is interesting to note that the title of the second track, N.S.U., a Bruce composition, is an acronym for Non-Specific Urethritis, while also being a make of car in the Sixties. Wikipedia adds that Bruce was “something of a car enthusiast”.

Before going on a quest to find some of these songs, just to note that Clapton played guitar and sang on the album, Bruce played bass, harmonica and was the lead vocalist, while Baker was responsible for drums, percussion and vocals.

Sadly, I have to report all I found was the opening track on the US version, I Feel Free, which shows the band really hit the ground running. This has all the hallmarks of Cream at their peak, including superb backing vocals, I suspect by all three musicians. A Jack Bruce/ Pete Brown composition, the song starts with a single chord being struck followed by some almost Beach Boys-type baa-baa-baas and humming. Then, with the full might of the band – bass, drums, guitar – kicking in, the opening verse is an airy affair, apparently with Clapton leading the vocals. “Feel when I dance with you, / We move like the sea. / You, you’re all I want to know. / I feel free, I feel free, I feel free.” Then, the mood toughens, and Bruce takes over the vocals helm in powerful fashion. “I can walk down the street, there’s no one there / Though the pavements are one huge crowd. / I can drive down the road; my eyes don’t see, / Though my mind wants to cry out loud.” Back in the air, the lads harmonise, “I feel free, I feel free, I feel free”, with Clapton contributing a stunning couple of lead guitar riffs, providing the sort of edge we’d come to love as typical of the Cream sound. Then Bruce returns with a repeat of that previous verse, before the gently harmonised final verse: “Dance floor is like the sea, / Ceiling is the sky. / You’re the sun and as you shine on me, / I feel free, I feel free, I feel free.” It may have been a simple love song, but it was also a pure Cream delight.

I don’t recall the next track, N.S.U., the origins of which were mentioned earlier. However, musically it must have been very strong, because the lyrics seem pretty poor, perhaps underscoring why Bruce recruited poet Pete Brown as a lyric writer. “Driving in my car, smoking my cigar, / The only time I’m happy’s when I play my guitar.” You’ll agree, not a terrific start. It gets worse. “Sailing in my yacht, what a lot I got, / Happiness is something that just cannot be bought.” It doesn’t even rhyme! Just to let you know how poor it got, here are the final two verses. “I’ve been in and out, I’ve been up and down, / I don’t want to go until I’ve been all around.” And: “What’s it all about, anyone in doubt, / I don’t want to go until I’ve found it all out.” Ouch!

Bruce teamed up with one Janet Godfrey to write the next track, Sleepy Time Time, a copy of which I’ve been unable to locate, though I knew it well at the time. Clearly, just from the title, this was a more poetic effort, thanks no doubt to Godfrey. “I’m a sleepy time baby, a sleepy time boy. / Work only maybe, life is a joy.” This was classic laid-back, bluesy Cream. “We’ll have a sleepy time time. / We’ll have a sleepy time time. / We’ll have a sleepy time time. / We’ll have a sleepy time time. / Sleepy time time, sleepy time all the time.” There is a bit more structure in the next verse, but of course this was all about creating something on which to hang a great slow blues. “Asleep in the daytime, asleep at night. / Life is all playtime; working ain’t right.” Later, he confesses, amidst more “sleepy time time” choruses, that, “I have my Sunday, that ain’t no lie. / But on Monday morning comes my favorite cry.” Which was that “we’ll have a sleepy time time”, and this was no cuddly mommy putting her child to bed, I suspect. Think, perhaps, a day spent in the sack with a lover. That makes more sense to me.

I don’t recall the next song, Dreaming, another Bruce composition, but I fear as a solo effort it again suffers a lyric lapse. “Dreaming about my love. / You bring me joy and hours of happiness, / More or less. / I dream my life away.” As I feared, almost illiterate stuff, really. “Waiting for you to come. / Changing my life for you to emptiness, / Meaningless. / Minutes just drift by.” Perhaps if I heard these words in the context of a ripping blues-rock song I’d be less critical, but on their own the pretty much suck. “I don’t care if I get nowhere. / I can just dream and you’ll be there. / What else is there to do?” I really can’t go on.

Sweet Wine, the next track, written by Ginger Baker and Janet Godfrey, I also don’t recall. Again, I trust the music was brilliant, because the lyrics are minimalist. “Who wants the worry, the hurry of city life. / Money, nothing funny; wasting the best of our life.” Then follows: “Sweet wine, hay making, sunshine day breaking. / We can wait till tomorrow. / Car speed, road calling, bird freed, leaf falling. / We can bide time.”

Side 1 ends with the Willie Dixon classic Spoonful, which I’ll look at a little later.

Side 2 opens with Cat’s Squirrel, which we are told is a traditional song arranged by S Splurge. This is an instrumental, with just the words “all right, all right” being repeated as a bridge between sections. Clapton’s arrangement of Robert Johnson’s Four Until Late is sure to be memorable, and again I can’t recall hearing it. The same applies to Rollin’ and Tumblin’, a McKinley Morganfield composition.

As noted earlier, the Skip James song I’m So Glad was a firm favourite. It too relies on a minimum of words, the primary aim being to fashion a song out of a clever melody line. This one works superbly, with Bruce’s bass again the driving force, but always superbly augmented by Clapton’s guitar and Baker’s drums. “I’m so glad, I’m so glad. I’m glad, I’m glad, I’m glad. / I’m so glad, I’m so glad. I’m glad, I’m glad, I’m glad.” This is clever lyric-writing. Similar in a way to the play on the phrase “sleepy time time”, here we have a situation where he’s glad that he’s glad that he’s glad. It creates an interesting ambiguity. However, the verses speak not of being glad, but just the opposite. “I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what to do. / I’m tired of weeping, I’m tired of moaning, I’m tired of crying for you.” After the “I’m so glad” chorus mantra, the final verse: “I’m tired of weeping, I’m tired of moaning, I’m tired of groaning for you. / I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what to do.” The chorus is repeated five times, no doubt to the sound of some incredible Cream musical wizardry.

The album closes with Baker’s Toad, a 5:11 instrumental which, as noted, includes one of the first drum solos on a rock album. Clearly, Bruce’s lyrics notwithstanding, this is an album I’d dearly like to lay hands on.

Disraeli Gears

Cream’s second album, Disraeli Gears, was released in November, 1967, and combines the best of psychedelic British rock and American blues. It contains Sunshine Of Your Love, a tune which anyone who got hold of a guitar would try to play, so infectious were those first few bars. The album was a classic, and I will discuss its contents in more detail later.

A studio album recorded in May, 1967, at Atlantic Studios in New York City, the album was released on December 9 that year. Wikipedia describes it as a combination of blues-rock, psychedelic rock and hard rock. It was short at just 33:39 minutes. Produced by Felix Pappalardi, it was released on Label Reaction in the UK and Atco in the US.

The album, says Wikipedia, reached No 5 in the UK, and was also “their American breakthrough, becoming a massive seller there in 1968, reaching No 4”. Besides Sunshine Of Your Love, Strange Brew was also released as a single. And, says Wikipedia, by this time the group was “veering quite heavily away from their blues roots to indulge in more psychedelic sounds”.

We were political animals from a young age – you had to be in apartheid South Africa, especially if you opposed the system – and so knew instantly that the album’s title, Disraeli Gears, referred to a British prime minister. But how did they arrive at it? Wikipedia says Clapton was discussing buying a racing bicycle with Baker when one of the roadies, Mick Turner, commented that “it’s got them Disraeli gears”. He meant “derailleur gears”, but his allusion to 19th Century British premier Benjamin Disraeli was lapped up by the band. They opted for that for the album title, which was provisionally entitled Cream. What a masterstroke that was!

As teenagers we just loved the complex, colourful cover of Disraeli Gears, which for us epitomised the best in psychedelic art. I learn from Wikipedia that it was designed by Australian artist Martin Sharp, who lived in the same building as Clapton in Chelsea. This formed part of an “artists’ colony, The Pheasantry”, says Wikipedia. Sharp also contributed lyrics to one of Cream’s finest songs. Wikipedia says at Clapton’s first meeting with Sharp in a London club, Clapton said he had some music that needed lyrics, and Sharp wrote out a poem he had composed on a napkin and handed it to him. Thus was born Tales Of Brave Ulysses.

Pete Brown

While Pete Brown had helped with the lyrics on just one song on the first album – I Feel Free – he made his mark in fine style on this second album. Indeed, his role was a major factor in making Cream such an interesting prospect – because suddenly you find lyrics on a rock album written by a real poet. On Disraeli Gears his influence is evident on several key songs. For instance, he worked with Bruce and Clapton in writing the epochal Sunshine Of Your Love. He also co-wrote Dance The Night Away, SWALBR and Take It Back (all with Bruce).

Baker, who now lives in South Africa, wrote the soulful Blue Condition, on which he sings the lead vocals. The opening track, Strange Brew, was written by Clapton, Collins and Felix Pappalardi, World Of Pain by Collins/Pappalardi, Tales Of Brave Ulysses as noted by Clapton and Sharp, and Outside Woman Blues by Blind Joe Reynolds, arranged by Clapton. The amusing Mother’s Lament is a traditional ditty arranged by all three Cream members and has an uncanny similarity to the songs of Michael Flanders and Donald Swann. And then of course there is the Jack Bruce composition, SWLABR. With Pete Brown behind the lyrics, it is evidently an acronym for She Walks Like A Bearded Rainbow. Wikipedia says Bruce’s Take It Back had a strong political slant. He said in a VH1 Classic Albums interview, according to Wikipiedia, that the song was inspired by “the contemporary images of American students burning their draft cards” and he wrote it in “the spirit of rejecting militarism”.

In 2003, the album was ranked No 112 on the Rolling Stone magazine list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. A two-disc version, including demos, take-outs and live sessions from BBC radio, was released in 2004.

This was one of the greatest albums of all time, and I have a vintage vinyl copy just waiting to be listened to, so let’s check out if it was really all that great.

Phew! Wow! Jislaak! Superlatives elude me. This really is an incredible album. I had forgotten just why Cream was dubbed a supergroup. It is not just the combination of a great bassist, drummer and guitarist. As with bands like Crosby Stills Nash and Young, Grateful Dead and many others mentioned earlier on this blog, a key feature of the Cream sound is the vocals of Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton, whether solo or harmonizing.

The album, in a sense, takes the psychedelic rock which the Beatles were starting to dabble with, and gives it the full treatment, without all the orchestral frills. Indeed, the album relies entirely on the basic rock instruments, but combined with incredible arrangements and an uncanny feeling for the power of understatement, achieves sounds that will never be repeated.

Part of the mystique surrounding this album related to its cover, mentioned earlier. But seeing it now, in full size, one cannot exaggerate the impact it had. The three faces on the front, black and white photos singed in oranges, pinks and yellow, are integrated into a psychedelic, colourful wonderland. This was truly an inspired piece of art, and was ably complemented by the collage on the back, which seems to echo the Sgt Peppers cover in so far as it includes images from modern culture, not least Superman. But it primarily incorporates images of the band members, along with a few other influential characters, including, I suspect one Donovan Leitch on the left. The entire panoply of images is encased in a typical London burrough scene of terrace housing.

But without the album the cover would have been irrelevant. Here, suddenly, we had music which pushed the envelope, not in a loud, brash, hard-rock sense, but rather by musically setting out to achieve an entirely new idiom for expression; one which combines the deft touches of sensitive artists with the combined power of electric rock at its pioneering zenith.

It was a complete package, with no unnecessary frills. The rhythm guitar on the opening track, Strange Brew, sees it clip along at a steady pace, with a thudding bass, galloping drums and incisive lead guitar added to the mix. Written by Clapton and Felix and Gail Collins Pappalardi, you are immediately immersed in the delectable Cream sound which characterises the entire album. Clapton, I suspect, handles most of the lead vocals, his voice having a lighter, gentler timbre than Bruce’s. And a quick perusal of the lyrics off one of the Web’s myriad lyric sites reveals that for about 40 years I have been mishearing a key word on this song. I thought he sang, “Strange brew, girl what’s inside of you”. Instead, after that delightfully understated introduction, the song opens with: “Strange brew - kill what’s inside of you.” Then, as one gets sucked into the melody, Clapton continues: “She’s a witch of trouble in electric blue, / In her own mad mind she’s in love with you. / With you. / Now what you gonna do? / Strange brew - kill what’s inside of you.” But can that be correct? It makes far more sense, with “girl” in place of “kill”. But for now, let’s go with that. Certainly, we are dealing with a woman with a sinister hold on her man. “She’s some kind of demon messing in the glue. / If you don’t watch out it’ll stick to you. / To you. / What kind of fool are you? / Strange brew - kill what’s inside of you.” The first Clapton lead solo on the album kicks in about here and of course it is a beauty – but at the same time there is no attempt to separate his genius from that of the rhythm guys, with the bass and drums being so good it is possible to listen out for them alone and really enjoy what one hears. But what’s that girl up to? “On a boat in the middle of a raging sea, / She would make a scene for it all to be / Ignored. / And wouldn’t you be bored? / Strange brew - kill what’s inside of you.” The song stops momentarily after the word brew, before forging ahead again. It plays out with those words, “Strange brew, strange brew, strange brew, strange brew. / Strange brew - kill what’s inside of you,” accompanied by another fine lead break.

And then the all-time Cream classic, Sunshine Of Your Love, which was written by Clapton, Bruce and Brown. The opening riff, with bass and guitar combining to pour forth those iconic notes, backed by some lovely drumming, provides the platform for the opening vocal gambit, with Bruce at the helm. “It’s getting near dawn, / When lights close their tired eyes. / I’ll soon be with you my love, / To give you my dawn surprise. / I’ll be with you darling soon, / I’ll be with you when the stars start falling.” Pete Brown’s brilliance is instantly on display here, with the lyrics rolling along most poetically. I like, for instance, the image of the street lights closing their eyes at dawn, and of the stars falling. But at this point the song gathers itself for the cracking chorus. “I’ve been waiting so long / To be where I’m going / In the sunshine of your love.” And isn’t that a fine way of describing love’s impact – a suffusion of sunlight? Naturally, Clapton’s lead solo is superb, but again balanced by the Bruce/Baker backing that is never allowed to be subsumed. Oh and of course it is both Bruce and Clapton who handle the vocals here, often singing alternate lines, or harmonising. “I’m with you my love, / The light’s shining through on you. / Yes, I’m with you my love, / It’s the morning and just we two. / I’ll stay with you darling now, / I’ll stay with you till my seas are dried up.” It is a situation most young, red-blooded males dream of – that sense of absolute fulfillment after spending a night with a lover. In my over-active, libido-driven mind, of course, I heard that he’d stay with her till his “seeds have dried up”, which is probably a physiological impossibility, no matter how many times you make love. The song ends with the line, “I’ve been waiting so long”, repeated three times, before, “To be where I’m going / In the sunshine of your love.” With that last word stretched out, Baker’s steady drumbeats give the song a last, persistent finality before it fades.

None of the actual Cream members were involved in the writing of the next track, World Of Pain, which was a Pappalardi, Collins composition. But it too is an absolute cracker, albeit very different in style to most of the others. I’m not sure whether Clapton or Bruce plays the opening acoustic guitar on the song, but it forms the bedrock for a song where Clapton’s electric guitar is wired for wah-wah. Again, the vocal duties seem to be shared, while Baker’s rat-a-tat drumming gives the song a crisp delineation. Bruce’s opening vocals are rich and full. “Outside my window is a tree. / Outside my window is a tree. / There only for me. / And it stands in the grey of the city, / No time for pity for the tree or me.” Again, for 40-odd years I misheard a key word. “There only for me” I heard as “there only four leaves”. It was, in my mind, just a bare tree on a grey day. But now I see it is a companion for the suffering protagonist. Then the haunting chorus: “There is a world of pain / In the falling rain / Around me.” Remember that all the time, Clapton’s understated wah-wah lead is crying alongside that surging bass and inspired drumwork. This was about the existential dilemmas of growing up. “Is there a reason for today? / Is there a reason for today? / Do you remember? / I can hear all the cries of the city, / No time for pity for a growing tree.” With the chorus and first verse repeated, and that acoustic guitar cementing things together, this is a tour de force, despite its melancholy quality.

Jack Bruce had this ability to write songs where the tension just builds and builds, and Dance The Night Away is such a track, with Pete Brown again providing the lyrics. The opening riff is complex, with bass and cymbals again much to the fore, before rollicking drums inject fresh pace. “Gonna build myself a castle / High up in the clouds. / There’ll be skies outside my window; / Lose these streets and crowds. / Dance the night away.” It’s the ultimate escapist dream, with Clapton and Bruce again sharing vocal duties, while Clapton’s lead guitar again soars to dizzying heights. “Will find myself an ocean, / Sail into the blue, / Live with golden swordfish, / Forget the time of you. / Dance the night away.” This was classic Cream psychedelia. “Dance myself to nothing. / Vanish from this place. / Gonna turn myself to shadow / So I can’t see your face. / Dance the night away.” I can imagine that one Jimi Hendrix must have heard this and been inspired. So too Jagger, Richards, Lennon, McCartney and a whole host of others.

The side ends with that Ginger Baker composition, Blue Condition, one which we hear his unique lead vocal style for the first time – and it is impressive indeed. While more straight-forward slow blues, the song is nevertheless a fine piece of music, with the rhythm section as strong as ever. It is worth noting that few, if any, of these songs extend to more than three or four verses. It was about getting quality lyrics and backing them with superb music. “Don’t take the wrong direction passing through / Instead of deep reflection of what’s true, / For it’s a combination of judgments made by you / That cause a deep dejection all the way through.” It is a languid pace as the chorus kicks in. “No relaxation, no conversation, no variation / In a very dark blue, blue condition.” There is a gentle change of gear, before the next verse. “Early rising every day. / You must be enterprising in your way, / For you will hear no laughter, nor see the sun; / Life would be one disaster all the way through.” The chorus and first verse are repeated as this low-key, but key, track draws Side 1 to an end.

The only truly word-heavy song on the album is Tales Of Brave Ulysses, which opens Side 2 and features the lyrics of that Aussie, Martin Sharp, with Clapton writing the music. This was, of course, one of the great psychedelic rock songs of the Sixties, the big opening chords and reverberating bass pulsing alongside a peal of cymbals setting the stage for the meandering opening lines. “You thought the leaden winter would bring you down forever, / But you rode upon a steamer to the violence of the sun.” Isn’t that a superb opening couplet? We are heading for the heat of summer, as the song mutates into a steady rock. “And the colors of the sea blind your eyes with trembling mermaids, / And you touch the distant beaches with tales of brave Ulysses: / How his naked ears were tortured by the sirens sweetly singing, / For the sparkling waves are calling you to kiss their white-laced lips.” A rumbling bass, repeated mini-climaxes and brilliant Bruce vocals are augmented by more Clapton wah-wah wizardry. “And you see a girl’s brown body dancing through the turquoise, / And her footprints make you follow where the sky loves the sea. / And when your fingers find her, she drowns you in her body, / Carving deep blue ripples in the tissues of your mind.” Again, this image of losing oneself in a woman’s body did, indeed, carve deep blue ripples in many a young male mind. But it is here that Baker brings some cymbal symbolism to the song as the song reflects: “The tiny purple fishes run laughing through your fingers, / And you want to take her with you to the hard land of the winter.” Then you are up and riding again through a landscape packed with characters from Greek mythology. “Her name is Aphrodite and she rides a crimson shell, / And you know you cannot leave her for you touched the distant sands / With tales of brave Ulysses; how his naked ears were tortured / By the sirens sweetly singing.” Again, as the lead guitar soars and surges, you can almost feel the sensations described. “The tiny purple fishes run laughing through your fingers, / And you want to take her with you to the hard land of the winter.” It was, is, one of the all-time classics in the history of rock.

Next up was the curiously titled SWLABR, a Bruce/Brown joint venture, which boasts a fast-paced intro with all pistons firing. Filled with strange imagery, Pete Brown obviously had great fun writing these lyrics, while Clapton’s lead guitar and Bruce’s vocals again work superbly together. Indeed, at times that guitar takes on Hendrix-like proportions. As I said, the song is fast and intense. “Coming to me in the morning, leaving me at night. / Coming to me in the morning, leaving me alone. / You’ve got that rainbow feel but the rainbow has a beard. / Running to me a-cryin’ when he throws you out. / Running to me a-cryin’, on your own again. / You’ve got that pure feel, such good responses, / But the picture has a moustache.” The tempo gets more assertive, accentuated by guitar wails. “You’re coming to me with that soulful look on your face, / Coming looking like you’ve never ever done one wrong thing. / So many fantastic colours; I feel in a wonderland. / Many fantastic colours makes me feel so good. / You’ve got that pure feel, such good responses. / You’ve got that rainbow feel but the rainbow has a beard.”

On We’re Going Wrong, a solo Bruce effort, the mood is slower, more moody. Long-lasting, lazy acoustic guitar chords accompanied by interesting, muted Baker drumming, sets this song in train. It is a typical Jack Bruce musical structure, with the tension building as the drumming becomes increasingly insistent. Then, as a mini-climax is reached, things slow again, only for the rebuilding process to resume afresh. Clapton’s lead guitar break is slow blues at its finest, while Bruce’s powerful vocals are emblematic of the full-bodied Cream sound. The lyrics themselves are simplicity personified, in effect merely providing a vehicle for the wonderful bluesy rock music that surrounds them. “Please open your eyes, / Try to realise. / I found out today we’re going wrong, / We’re going wrong.” Kick in with that lead solo, Eric! “Please open your mind, / See what you can find. / I found out today we’re going wrong, / We’re going wrong.” The song, which runs to 3:26 minutes, ends with that last line repeated three times.

The Clapton genius comes fully to the fore on his arrangement of the Blind Joe Reynolds song, Outside Woman Blues, which is the next track. It is a tight, jazzy blues marked by a sparkling guitar riff, and complex, note-filled lead solo. Clapton, I suspect, handles the vocals on what I recall is a somewhat chauvinistic song. “If you lose your money, great god, don’t lose your mind. / If you lose your money, great god, don’t lose your mind. / And if you lose your woman, please don’t fool with mine.” This is woman-as-possession philosophy. “I’m gonna buy me a bulldog, watch my lady whilst I sleep. / I’m gonna buy me a bulldog, watch my lady whilst I sleep. / Cause women these days, they’re so doggone crooked, / That they might make off fore day creep.” I like that linking of bulldog and doggone in one verse. “Well, you can’t watch your wife and your outside women, too. / You know you can’t watch your wife and your outside women, too. / Cause when you’re out with your women, your wife will be at home, / Cooking your food, doing a dirt, buddy what you trying to do?” Clearly this guy wants to have his cake and eat it. But one detects a bit of a conscience creeping in.

If Clapton could do the blues, then Bruce on the next song, Take It Back, shows he can too, and it is that age-old blues instrument, the harmonica, which becomes his primary vehicle of expression on this song, for which Brown again wrote the lyrics. Another quick-fire opening riff is followed by the rasping sound of that blues harmonica, before Bruce lays the vocals on us. As noted earlier, this was a response to the US military draft, and is something I can therefore relate to fully, having been subjected to conscription for the first almost 20 years of my adult life. The song essentially says take that call-up paper and shove it where the sun don’t shine. I still have nightmares about going to my post box and finding a notice instructing me to pick up a registered letter at the post office. This would have been a call-up paper. Initially we were forced to do two years, followed by “camps” of one- or three-months’ duration annually for the following 10 years. My first call-up, which I had deferred, came in 1972. I was finally shot of the affair only in about 1992, as political change finally came to South Africa. But so many of us young conscripts would have subscribed to the sentiments of this song. “Take it back, take it back, take that thing right out of here. / Right away, far away, take that thing right out of here.” The line is drawn in the sand. Now the song changes a gear as the reasons are given. “Don’t let them take me to where streams are red. / I want to stay here and sleep in my own bed. / Need all your loving, long blonde hair, / Don’t let them take me cause I’m easily scared. / Take it back, take it back, take that thing right out of here.” I like the fact that this link to, this need for, a woman’s love and companionship is stressed. The military was all about “the manne – the lads”, and women were symbols of a civvy world which was both disparaged and yet, at a base level, fervently desired. After the verse is repeated, the message becomes even more desperate. “I got this great need, the need to stay alive. / Not ashamed of my creed, I’ve got to survive. / So come on baby, don’t go away, / Just let them save me for a rainy day. / Take it back, take it back, take that thing right out of here.” I’m not sure if this is a phallic allusion in the final verse. “I got this thing, I’ve got to keep it sharp. / Don’t go to places where it won’t shine in the dark. / So come on baby, don’t go away, / Just let them save me for a rainy day. / Take it back, take it back, take that thing right out of here.” Interesting on this track is the use of background shouts of approval and endorsement, similar to those used by Hendrix on a couple of songs.

Some might argue that the final track is an unnecessarily flippant bit of fun, but having grown up with this album I wouldn’t have it any other way. A traditional English folk song, the trio give Mother’s Lament their own unique arrangement, with a piano the only accompaniment. There are, as noted earlier, clear allusions to Michael Flanders and Donald Swann in the vocal treatment, with the Cockney accents providing necessary local colour and character. The song starts with one of the lads asking: “Are we wollin’? / A one-a, a two-a, a free-a, a four ...” Then all three sing: “A mother was washing, her baby one night, / The youngest of ten, and a delicate mite. / The mother was poor, and the baby was thin, / ’Twas naught but an skelingtin, covered wif skin.” It gets sadder. “The mother turned round for a soap off the rack. / She was only a moment but when she turned back / Her baby had gone, and in anguish she cried, / ‘Oh, where has my baby gone?’ / The angels replied …” The tempo now increases, with the piano providing jaunty accompaniment. “Oh, your baby has gone down the plug ’ole. / Oh, your baby has gone down the plug. / The poor little thing was so skinny and thin, / He should’ve been washed in a jug, in a jug.” But there is a bright side to all this. “Your baby is perfectly happy; / He won’t need a bath anymore. / He’s a-muckin’ about with the angels above, / Not lost but gone before.” And that’s the first time I’ve read that last line, which always left me a trifle lost as to its meaning. Anyway the song, the album, ends with one of the lads saying cheekily, in mock Cockney accent: “Thank you, / Do you wanna do it again?”

And there we have it, the cream of Cream. Except that, a bit like those early Jethro Tull albums Stand Up and Benefit, there was a second equally good bit of Cream to come, in the form of their next album, Wheels of Fire.

Wheels of Fire

Their third album, Wheels Of Fire, was another brilliant creation. Released in 1968, it features the song White Room, which got me truly hooked. Those opening lines – “In a white room, with black curtains, at the station …” – set the scene for a powerhouse of a song on which Baker’s drumming is again superb. However, I note from Wikipedia that the original was a double album, with one disc comprising just live songs from their Winterland tour. We only heard the studio half of this album. Now there’s something to track down, because it was here, evidently, that Cream pioneered the rock “jam” session at live concerts – something which numerous heavy groups would repeat in the 1970s.

And it too boasted psychedelic cover art – but this time only in blacks and silvers. Wheels of Fire (In the Studio) had a silver cover, and the Live at the Fillmore version had a gold version of the same art.

The key role played by the “fourth Cream member”, Felix Pappalardi, is comparable to that of producer George Martin for the Beatles. I notice that on this album he played viola, brass instruments, bells and organ. Apart from White Room, another Bruce/Brown gem, the studio album comprises Sitting On Top Of The World, Passing The Time, As You Said, the delightful Pressed Rat And Warthog (a bit of Baker craziness), Politician (Bruce and Brown again on a song we could identify with given our political bent), Those Were The Days, Born Under A Bad Sign and Deserted Cities Of The Heart (the two Bs again). Significantly, Clapton was not involved in composing any of the above.

The live section comprises Crossroads, Spoonful, Traintime and Toad, their playing times ranging from 4:14 to 16:48 minutes. I’d love to hear those long, live jam sessions which were among the first by a blues-rock group, and followed in the jazz tradition of giving each musician a solo slot in which to improvise.

Recorded between July 1967 and April 1968, Wheels of Fire was released in July 1968, and in total runs to 84:23 minutes, which is a fair wadge of Cream. The album was a great success, reaching No 3 in the UK and topping the charts in the US. Wikipedia says it became “the world’s first platinum-selling double album”. In 2003 the album was ranked 203 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

The sleeve art was again by Australian pop artist and cartoonist Martin Sharp and, says Wikipedia, it garnered the New York Art Directors Prize for Best Album Design in 1969.

Just looking at the personnel and instruments played on the album, well the studio half anyway, this is clearly a more complex product musically than its predecessor. As noted earlier, the “fourth member” of Cream, Felix Pappalardi played viola, brass instruments, bells and organ. Jack Bruce did the lead vocals and played bass, cello, harmonica, calliope, acoustic guitar and recorder. Clapton’s guitar and vocals sufficed, while Baker supplemented his drumming with percussion, bells, glockenspiel and vocals.

But let’s take ourselves back to 1968 and arguably one of the greatest rock albums of all time, whatever Rolling Stone says, by giving that old vinyl copy a spin.

Ah yes, a classic – and also the point where Jack Bruce really starts to assert his own, personal genius, contributing nearly half of the songs (in conjunction with Pete Brown) and doing the bulk of the vocals, his voice a key part of the total Cream sound.

One good thing about the In The Studio part of Wheels of Fire is that the back of the cover contains detailed, and hence informative, notes on who played what on each track. Thus we know that on White Room, the opening track and another Bruce/Brown composition, the “extra” sounds heard are Baker’s tympani and Pappalardi’s violas. The song, of course, starts with those towering chords, with the lead guitar soaring even higher, before Bruce lays into the vocals. “In the white room with black curtains near the station. / Blackroof country, no gold pavements, tired starlings. / Silver horses ran down moonbeams in your dark eyes. / Dawnlight smiles on you leaving, my contentment.” Isn’t it great to see Pete Brown’s lyrics as poetry? This was surely one of the finest song-writing pairs in the history of rock. Bruce rises an octave or so for the chorus: “I’ll wait in this place where the sun never shines; / Wait in this place where the shadows run from themselves.” As a young teenager, hearing lyrics like this just had to get you interested in the creative possibilities of the English language. It is at the end of the opening verse that Clapton’s wah-wah lead really starts to come to the fore, providing the perfect foil for Bruce’s brilliant vocals. “You said no strings could secure you at the station. / Platform ticket, restless diesels, goodbye windows. / I walked into such a sad time at the station. / As I walked out, felt my own need just beginning.” That is great poetry. Restless diesels – locomotives eager to be on their way. Goodbye windows – through which pre-departure gestures are made. The chorus, in that higher octave, continues the theme. “I’ll wait in the queue when the trains come back; / Lie with you where the shadows run from themselves.” With Clapton’s lead wailing and howling beautifully, Bruce resumes: “At the party she was kindness in the hard crowd. / Consolation for the old wound now forgotten. / Yellow tigers crouched in jungles in her dark eyes. / She’s just dressing, goodbye windows, tired starlings.” Brilliant! He lassoes earlier images and puts new animals in her eyes. The song is in three parts, with the bold opening chords repeated midway and again after the final chorus: “I’ll sleep in this place with the lonely crowd; / Lie in the dark where the shadows run from themselves.” But just as you think the song is about to end, it receives a fresh jolt, enabling Clapton to conjure some more extraordinary improvisation on a song that runs to just under five minutes.

The next track, Sitting On Top Of The World, is of equal length (4:56 minutes) and was written by Chester Burnett. A slow blues, the opening rhythm shapes are again overlaid by magical lead guitar as the melody gradually evolves. “One summer day, she went away; / Gone and left me, she’s gone to stay. / She’s gone, but I don’t worry: / I’m sitting on top of the world.” Again, the lead guitar flows alongside Bruce’s vocals, while Baker’s drumming is just a continual exercise in perfection. “All the summer, worked all this fall. / Had to take Christmas in my overalls. / She’s gone, but I don’t worry: / I’m sitting on top of the world.” After this verse, a lengthy guitar-led jam session ensues, before the band regroups. Our protagonist is clearing out. “Going down to the freight yard, gonna catch me a freight train. / Going to leave this town; worked and got to home. / She’s gone, but I don’t worry: / I’m sitting on top of the world.” Another fine Cream effort.

Then the album starts to get a trifle unorthodox, first with the song Passing The Time, which is a Baker, Mike Taylor composition. Here a chorus of voices alongside thumping bass and drums surges ahead, seemingly directionless … only for it to fade and the dulcet sounds of a glockenspiel, above the gentle surge of Pappalardi’s pedal organ, to emerge. Then Bruce, his voice gentle and soothing, lays it on us. “It is a cold winter, / Away is the songbird. / And gone is her traveller, / She waits at home.” Here, I confess, I always heard “away is the summer”, followed by “and God is a traveller…” Seems I was wrong. The next verse, again beautifully sung, goes: “The sun is on holiday, / No leaves on the trees. / The animals sleep / While cold North wind blows.” Alongside these vocals runs a beautiful violin-like sound which I gather is Bruce’s calliope, which along with Baker’s glockenspiel give the song its character. “The snowflakes are falling, / The roof a white blanket. / There’s ice on the window pane, / She waits alone.” As I write it is mid-winter in sunny South Africa and even here in Port Elizabeth, arguably further south than Cape Town, it is pretty damn cold. “She sits by the fireside, / The room is so warm. / Her children are sleeping, / She waits in their home.” All three members actually contribute to the vocal effort, making for a sublime piece of work, but all is not peace and quiet, because at this point the song returns to the heavy, raw rock sound with which it opened, accompanied by the words: “Passing the time. / Passing the time, everything fine. / Passing the time, having the wine. / Passing the time, drinking red wine. / Passing the time, drinking red wine. / Passing the time, drinking red wine. / Passing the time, everything fine. / Passing the time, drinking red wine. / Passing the time, everything fine. / Passing the time, wine and time rhyme. / Passing the time.” Those lines (I heard white wine, not red) may appear plodding, but couched in this interesting Cream musical ménage they do just the trick. But as the frenetic rock sound fades, so that glockenspiel and organ re-emerge, with the soothing vocals intoning: “It is a long winter, / Away is the summer. / She waits for her traveller / So far from home.” The next verse is again repeated, reinforcing that sense of tranquility. “She sits by the fireside, / The room is so warm. / There’s ice on the window, / She’s lonely alone.”

Jack Bruce really starts to run away with the album with the last track on Side 1, As You Said, which according to the sleeve credits doesn’t feature Clapton at all. Bruce, who wrote the song with lyricist Brown, plays acoustic guitars, cellos and does the vocals, while Baker is enigmatically credited with “high hat”, whatever that’s supposed to mean. Anyway, it is a classic Bruce composition which showcases his wonderful use of the acoustic guitar as arguably the most expressive of all the instruments. I would not know the song by its title, but the lyrics are an instant reminder. With acoustic guitar and cellos whirring along, Bruce’s inimitable vocals kick in. “Let’s go down to where its clean / To see the time that might have been. / The tides have carried off the beach. / As you said, / The sun is out of reach.” Again, it is a song of ascending plateaus, with the guitar chords building layer upon layer through each verse. “Let’s go back to where its clean / To see what year it might have been. / The roads have carried off the smiles. / As you said, / To judge them at the trials.” That cello takes over, kicking up a considerable rhythm as the song unfolds. “Let’s go back to now that’s bad / To see the time we might have had. / The rails have carried off the trains. / As you said, / Ill never come again, again, again, again.” There are strong hints here of what Bruce was to produce on his seminal first solo album, Songs for a Tailor, which was also a firm favourite.

Side 2 launches with another piece of Ginger Baker fun. Pressed Rat And Warthog, written with Mike Taylor, is the sort of whimsical song that helped make Cream the powerhouse it was. It may well have employed a parodied Cockney narration by Baker to tell its bizarre story, but in the end it evolves into one of the band’s finest works. The album sleeve credits Bruce with playing basses and recorder, with Clapton with guitars, Baker with drums and recitation, and Pappalardi with trumpet and tonette. Bass and trumpet kick matters off with a slow, lazy rhythm, over which Baker intones: “Pressed rat and warthog have closed down their shop. / They didn’t want to; twas all they had got. / Selling atonal apples, amplified heat, / And pressed rat’s collection of dog legs and feet.” This is a drum-driven song, naturally, so as it progresses Baker picks up the baton (or drumsticks) and lays down an enthralling rhythm, superbly backed by the others. The story continues: “Sadly they left, telling no one goodbye. / Pressed rat wore red jodhpurs, warthog a striped tie. / Between them, they carried a three-legged sack, / Went straight round the corner and never came back.” There is some lovely wordplay here. “Pressed rat and warthog have closed down their shop. / The bad captain madman had told them to stop / Selling atonal apples, amplified heat, / And pressed rats collection of dog legs and feet.” I confess I never heard about “the bad captain madman” in my youth, so it’s great finally to meet him. “The bad captain madman had ordered their fate. / He laughed and stomped off with a nautical gate. / The gate turned into a deroga tree / And his pegleg got woodworm and broke into three.” With the wind instruments howling out that powerful melody, and Baker hammering away, the first verse is repeated. But all this is really only a prelude to arguably one of Cream’s greatest songs.

Bruce and Brown were again the geniuses behind Politician, which opens with that famous bass riff, ably supported by the Clapton lead guitar and Baker’s drums: daa-da, daa-da, da-da-da-da daa-da. “Hey now baby, get into my big black car. / Hey now baby, get into my big black car. / I want to just show you what my politics are.” Simplicity itself, the song provides a wonderful vehicle for some bluesy rock which, despite just the three instruments used, is incredibly rich in texture. “I’m a political man and I practise what I preach. / I’m a political man and I practise what I preach. / So don’t deny me baby, not while you’re in my reach.” It naturally has a strongly chauvinistic slant, as do so many of the great blues songs – often deliberately ironic. “I support the left, though I’m leaning, leaning to the right. / I support the left, though I’m leaning to the right. / But I’m just not there when it’s coming to a fight.” There is an obvious allusion here to political power and the influence it buys with attractive women. “Hey now baby, get into my big black car. / Hey now baby, get into my big black car. / I want to just show you what my politics are.” Notice, it’s all about his agenda, his politics. What she thinks is irrelevant. With two lead guitars blasting away, the song becomes almost too frenetic ahead of that final verse, but is none the less an all-time classic.

The Baker, Taylor combination cooks up another fine meal on the next track, Those Were The Days. Quickfire opening chords and cymbal-backed drumming gets the recipe started and it isn’t long into the song that the distinctive Swiss hand bells, played by Pappalardi are heard. This gives the song a medieval quality, or maybe older, since this is about a civilization, Atlantis, that was, as Donovan once noted, antediluvian. “When the city of Atlantis stood serene above the sea, / Long time before our time when the world was free, / Those were the days.” Apart from the drums, Baker also contributes marimba and tubular bells, while Jack Bruce handles the lead vocals, with Clapton backing him and also providing some excellent lead guitar. “Golden cymbals flying on ocarina sounds, / Before wild Medusa’s serpents gave birth to hell / Disguised as heaven.” Then the chorus: “Those were the days, yes they were, those were the days. / Those were their ways, miracles everywhere are they now? / They’re gone. / Those were their ways, yes they were, those were their ways. / Those were the days, yes they were, those were the days.” It is about here that Clapton steps up to the plate and sears the hair off your head with one of the great lead breaks in rock history. Then the song changes pace. “Tie your painted shoes and dance, blue daylight in your hair, / Overhead a noiseless eagle fans a flame. / Wonder everywhere.” Some more great lyric writing, and Pete Bruce not even involved. Anyway, with cymbals slashed and cowbells a tinkling, the song winds down with the chorus repeated. Another Cream cracker.

But the band still remembered their blues roots, and Born Under A Bad Sign, by Booker T Jones and William Bell, affords the opportunity for them show their expertise on a straight blues-rock number. Bruce’s vocals are again powerful, while the song reveals just how perfectly in tune Baker’s drums are; they are like another musical instrument alongside Clapton’s guitar and the never-stagnant Bruce bass. “Born under a bad sign. / I’ve been down since I began to crawl. / If it wasn’t for bad luck, / I wouldn’t have no luck at all.” As a teenager struggling to discern the meaning of life, these words, I’m afraid, struck some sensitive chords. “Bad luck and troubles my only friend. / I’ve been down ever since I was ten.” After that opening chorus is repeated, they get down to the nitty-gritty of his malaise. “You know, wine and women is all I crave. / A big bad woman’s gonna carry me to my grave.” After the opening verse is repeated, the song concludes with: “Born under a bad sign. / I’ve been down since I began to crawl. / If it wasn’t for bad luck, / I wouldn’t have no luck. / If it wasn’t for real bad luck, / I wouldn’t have no luck at all.” It plays out with the opening line repeated before fading.

Just as Side 1 closed with a virtuoso Bruce/Brown track, so too does the second. Deserted Cities Of The Heart, on which Bruce sings lead vocals and plays bass, acoustic guitar and cello. With Clapton and Baker on guitar and drums, Pappalardi chips in on the viola. The song starts with fast-paced acoustic guitar, backed by that cello. Completing this great musical texture feast are Bruce’s superb vocals. “Upon this street where time has died. / The golden treat you never tried. / In times of old, in days gone by. / If I could catch your dancing eye.” The song seems to stagger on the final line of the chorus: “It was on the way, / On the road to dreams, yeah. / Now my heart’s drowned in no love streams, yeah.” With the rhythm chugging along, a lovely viola solo lifts the mood before we enter a new domain. “The street is cold, its trees are gone. / The story’s told the dark has won. / Once we set sail to catch a star. / We had to fail, it was too far.” It is great poetry, evoking a mystical time in a distant past. After the chorus is repeated, another lovely verse: “I felt the wind shout like a drum. / You said, ‘My friend, love’s end has come.’ / It couldn’t last, had to stop. / You drained it all to the last drop.” Then that chorus again, with the final line repeated. “It was on the way, / On the road to dreams, yeah. / Now my heart’s drowned in no love streams, yeah. / Now my heart’s drowned in no love streams, yeah.” By now we are chugging to a frenzied end, with Clapton’s guitar tearing away, before the song again quietens, with the strings again asserting their calm. “On this dark street the sun is black. / The winter life is coming back. / On this dark street it’s cold inside. / There’s no retreat from time that’s died.” The chorus ends with a real staggering of bold chords and thundering bass. “It was on the way, / On the road to dreams. / Now my heart’s drowned in no love streams, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. / Now my heart’s drowned in no love streams, yeah. / Now my heart’s drowned in no love.” That booming bass drum and slashing cymbals bring a brilliant album to a conclusion.

But of course that was not the end of Wheels of Fire. We did not have disc two, Live at the Fillmore, which I have only discovered since starting this project. As with their debut album and Goodbye, their last, I do not have access to this, but will at least record what’s on it, and where possible track down a track or two. Classed as Side 3 of the double album, it opens with the Clapton arrangement of Robert Johnson’s Crossroads (4:14 minutes), recorded in San Francisco on March 10, 1968. This is followed by Willie Dixon’s Spoonful, recorded the same night and running to 16:48 minutes. Fortunately, I have picked up a copy of the Best of Cream (1969), which has both these songs on it, and will give them a quick blast shortly, although these are obviously not the live versions.

Side 4 opens with Bruce’s Traintime, recorded in San Francisco on March 8, 1968, followed by Baker’s Toad, recorded there on March 7.

While labelled “Live at the Fillmore”, Wikipedia notes that only Toad was recorded at Fillmore West, with the others recorded live at the Winterland Ballroom. Another snippet: Wikipedia says original album pressings list Traintime’s author as John Group, but this was in fact a pseudonym for Bruce during his Graham Bond Organisation days, with whom the song was first recorded in 1965.

My old cassette recording leaves much to be desired, but the Best of Cream version of Crossroads is no doubt the same one recorded live for Wheels of Fire. And it is a Clapton tour de force. His lead guitar is used, Hendrix-like, as the melody maker, driving the Robert Johnson song along at a manic pace. This is live Cream at its best, with the rhythm lads pulling out all the stops as Clapton shows he is indeed a fine blues vocalist. “I went down to the crossroads, fell down on my knees. / I went down to the crossroads, fell down on my knees. / Asked the lord above for mercy, save me if you please.” All the time, Clapton’s guitar pours out its insistent energy. “I went down to the crossroads, tried to flag a ride. / I went down to the crossroads, tried to flag a ride. / Nobody seemed to know me, everybody passed me by.” If it was blues rock like this that he hankered for, few can blame Clapton for feeling Cream, especially on the more Bruce-dominated album tracks, was a bit too fancy for his taste. This was raw-energy blues-rock and it is cracking good stuff. “I’m going down to Rosedale, take my rider by my side. / I’m going down to Rosedale, take my rider by my side. / You can still barrelhouse, baby, on the riverside.” The song gets even more energised as the final verse bursts forth. “You can run, you can run, tell my friend-boy Willie Brown. / You can run, you can run, tell my friend-boy Willie Brown. / And I’m standing at the crossroads, believe I’m sinking down.” And of course with those final words the song ends with a flourish of notes flying off steel strings, and then amplified electronically, sending them surging forth into the ether, backed by great drumming. Not for nothing is Clapton cited for “lead and vocals” as the crowd goes crazy.

The “Best of” version of Spoonful is shorter than the live one on Wheels of Fire, and Bruce’s harmonica, in tandem with more excellent lead guitar by Clapton, is a hallmark of another superb blues tune. But just how Bruce would have played the harmonica live while also attending to bass duties is a mystery, unless he used one of those Dylan-type harmonica holders. But then a blues harp requires all sorts of hand-shaping to get those distinctive muffled sounds. Anyway, this is a studio version and it starts with beautiful bass backed by haunting harmonica. The Willie Dixon song has a magnificent melody built around the simple device of its dominant lyric: “That spoon, that spoon, that spoonful.” With bass, harmonica and lead guitar all howling out that line, it makes for a particularly pleasing sound, while Bruce’s vocals more than do justice to the great song. I confess again, I never really knew what that opening line was, so here goes: “Could fill spoons full of diamonds, / Could fill spoons full of gold. / Just a little spoon of your precious love / Will satisfy my soul.” Great! It’s one of those love songs where nothing he does can quite match the power of love. I also never heard the next bit properly, no matter how well Bruce sang the words. There is a change of tempo as he launches into: “Men lies about it. / Some of them cries about it. / Some of them dies about it. / Everythings a-fightin about the spoonful.” Then that, well that spoon section. “That spoon, that spoon, that spoonful. / That spoon, that spoon, that spoonful. / That spoon, that spoon, that spoonful. / That spoon, that spoon, that spoonful.” Without it, the song is nowhere. With it, all the pieces fall into place. And on the next verse, Clapton really kicks some butt with the lead guitar. “Could fill spoons full of coffee, (blast of lead guitar) / Could fill spoons full of tea (another blast). / Just a little spoon of your precious love; / Is that enough for me?” After the chorus is repeated, the final verse, again with attendant lead guitar fury. “Could fill spoons full of water, / Save them from the desert sands. / But a little spoon of your forty-five / Saved you from another man.” What that is about I can’t say, but I have a horrible sense that a forty-five is a gun and that a shot fired took a life and “saved” her from another man. It is in the logic of the blues for this sort of thing to happen. This is one of the all-time great Cream songs. There are times when just the bass and harmonica hum along hauntingly; others where the Clapton guitar and that harmonica touch the spot jointly. It is a veritable blues-rock classic. How it sounds on Wheels of Fire I’ve yet to discover, but clearly that live half of the double album is a real treasure.


At the time, Jack Bruce was widely considered the word’s best bass player, Clapton the greatest guitarist (after Hendrix, who was in another league altogether), and Baker the best drummer. Bruce’s unique playing style is perhaps best epitomised on Badge, the forceful, thrusting song which is probably the pick of Cream’s final album, Goodbye, which was recorded in late 1968 and released the next year.

Three of the six songs were live recordings and three studio recordings, among them, Badge. Significantly, since I have singled Bruce out for his musicianship on this song, it was in fact Clapton and George Harrison, who wrote the song. Interestingly, Harrison also played rhythm guitar on it. The two musicians were to team up on other occasions in the 1970s, most notably on Harrison’s famed Concert for Bangladesh.

I recall the cover well, with the three dressed in silver suits and holding top hats. The live songs were all long, typical Cream jam sessions recorded at The Forum, Los Angeles, in October 1968: I’m So Glad, Politician and Sitting On Top Of The World. The other studio recordings were Doing That Scrapyard Thing and What A Bringdown, a Ginger Baker composition.

Goodbye was recorded in October 1968 and released in March, 1969. Again produced by Pappalardi, it was ironically, since it was their final album, the band’s only release to reach No 1 in the UK. It peaked at No 2 in the US.

Although I grew up with this album, I no longer have a copy to hand. But there is a version of Badge on that “Best of” album, and, having been alerted to Harrison’s role, it is amazing how instantly his influence can be discerned in the song’s structure. That opening bass riff is as distinctive as ever, but it must be remembered that Clapton was the other songwriter, and he naturally plays a key roll on lead guitar, and, I suspect, on lead vocals. “Thinkin bout the times you drove in my car. / Thinkin that I might have drove you too far. / And Im thinkin bout the love that you laid on my table.” With that bass still surging along, the song continues: “I told you not to wander round in the dark. / I told you bout the swans, that they live in the park. / Then I told you bout our kid, now he’s married to Mabel.” The sudden halt and lavish lead break that follows have all the hallmarks of Harrison, as does the change: “Yes, I told you that the light goes up and down. / Don’t you notice how the wheel goes round? / And you better pick yourself up from the ground / Before they bring the curtain down, / Yes, before they bring the curtain down.” Completing the circle, the song returns to its lower key norm: “Talkin bout a girl that looks quite like you. / She didn’t have the time to wait in the queue. / She cried away her life since she fell off the cradle.” Indeed, looking at the personnel listed on Wikipedia, it seems it might even have been Harrison’s guitar heard on Badge, since he plays rhythm guitar, although he is credited on the album as L’Angelo Misterioso (mysterious angel, perhaps?).

How great it would be to hear this gem again, and to listen out for Bruce’s piano and Hammond organ on Doing That Scrapyard Thing and What A Bringdown. Oh, and one possible answer as to how Bruce played harmonica and bass simultaneously on live shows. It seems that Felix Pappalardi plays bass on What A Bringdown, while also playing piano and mellatron on this album. Surely he was the fourth Cream member and deserves wider credit for his contribution.

That the band broke up as quickly as it did, given the massive egos of the tree musicians, is not surprising. But in their time together, they gave us a rich, unique couple of dozen songs that will remain as beacons in the annals of rock history. Interestingly, Wikipedia notes that the band Yes played a supporting gig during Cream’s famous last live concert in late 1968 – which for me is symbolic, a kind of handing over of the baton to a new generation of superstars.

While much acrimony still seems to exist between the members of Cream, despite their successful reunion concerts in 2005, with Jack Bruce generally fingered as the “tricky customer”, there can be no doubting his pivotal influence in the band, and in particular his and Peter Brown’s brilliant compositions.

Two live albums followed in 1970 and 1971, but that, essentially, was that, until their 2005 reunion as old toppies, still incredibly gifted, but essentially on a nostalgia trip – which also happened to be incredibly lucrative.

But in their heyday in the late 1960s, Cream were simply brilliant, a prime example of the sort of quality that was emerging in that great flowering of creativity that occurred in the wake of the Beatles. In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine ranked Cream at No 66 on their list of the 100 greatest artists of all time. I’d probably have them in the top 10.

But that wasn’t the end of our involvement with Cream. A solo album by Jack Bruce and a couple of songs by Clapton continued to enthrall in the early 1970s, even as they competed with that new generation of musicians.

Jack Bruce

Jack Bruce (born May 14, 1943) was a couple of years older than Eric Clapton (born March 30, 1945), which possibly explains why he assumed the leadership role. But of course both these precocious and prodigious talents were kids compared to Peter Edward “Ginger” Baker, who was born on August 19, 1939, in Lewisham, South London. But, despite his later exploits as a band leader with Ginger Baker’s Airforce, there was no way he would be able to assert control over Bruce and Clapton.

John Symon Asher Bruce was born at Bishopbriggs, East Dunbartonshire, Scotland. Wikipedia describes the genres he was involved in as blues-rock, psychedelic rock, jazz fusion, hard rock and acid rock As noted earlier, he played bass, double bass, piano, guitar, harmonica, Hammond organ and cello.

While I don’t intend going into full detail about his life, it is interesting to note that he was also associated with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and even Ringo Starr and Frank Zappa. But, as I suspected, Wikipedia says he was “most famous as a vocalist and the bass guitarist for the 1960s rock band Cream”. It adds that he was “hailed as one of the greatest and most skilled bassists of all time, his improvisational skill and utterly unique, free-spirited approach to composition and performance would forever change electric music. His pioneering, full-toned, free-wheeling playing on the electric bass revolutionised the way the instrument is used and influenced the playing of countless bassists to today, including Sting and Jaco Pastorius.”

And, as I suspected, Wikipedia says he was born to “musical parents”, but because they “moved around a lot” he attended no fewer than 14 schools. He took up jazz bass in his teens, and studied cello and composition at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. He played in a dance band “to support himself”. But his jazz influence was unacceptable to the academy and, says Wikipedia, quoting an interview he gave, he was offered an ultimatum to quit jazz or leave the academy. “I left college,” he said.

So how did a young jazz bassist end up leading the world’s first supergroup? Well, Wikipedia says he toured Italy playing double bass with the Murray Campbell Big Band, then in 1962 “became a member of the London-based band Blues Incorporated, led by Alexis Korner, in which he played the double bass”.

And who did he meet there? Why organist Graham Bond and drummer Ginger Baker. In 1963, those three and brilliant guitarist John McLaughlin formed the Graham Bond Quartet, playing blues, rhythm and blues and bebop. And, due to session work, Bruce switched to electric bass, just as McLaughlin was dropped from the band. It became the Graham Bond Organisation after a personnel change, playing mainly R&B, and released two albums and several, not very successful, singles. It was during these days, as noted earlier, that the hostility between Bruce and Baker emerged, leading to Bruce quitting the group in August, 1965.

Bruce then cut his first solo single, I’m Getting Tired, for Polydor Records. While not successful, Wikipedia says it is “considered a collectible”. His next step was to join John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, which is where he encountered Eric Clapton. A short sojourn here, says Wikipedia, “did sow the seeds, especially in the improvised live performances, of his future musical direction”.

But then he went all commercial. I never knew that he then joined Manfred Mann in 1966, and “tasted his first commercial success” when they scored a No 1 hit with the single, Pretty Flamingo. Mann is quoted as later saying that Bruce barely needed to rehearse, being able to “play the songs straight through without error”. But he found greater simultaneous challenges when he worked with Clapton on three songs for an Electra sampler album, What’s Shakin’, says Wikipedia. Two of them, Crossroads and Steppin’ Out, followed them to their next band, Cream.

Cream was formed, as noted earlier, in July 1966, at a time, it must be noted, when even the Beatles were only starting to find a truly independent rock style. Here were three guys who brought blues and jazz into the rock mix, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Wikipedia says Bruce played a Gibson EP-3 electric bass with Cream “and became the most famous bassist in rock, winning musicians’ polls and influencing the next generation of bassists”

As noted earlier, he also wrote most of Cream’s original material, with lyricist Pete Brown, including the hits, Sunshine Of Your Love, White Room, and I Feel Free.

Just how successful were Cream? Well Wikipedia says that by 1968 they had “grossed more than the next top six live acts of the day added together (including Jimi Hendrix and The Doors). They topped album charts all over the world, and received the first platinum discs for record sales …”

Then, of course, with Bruce and Baker still irreconcilable, the group dissolved after a final tour.

But Bruce had been a busy lad, even while with Cream. Wikipedia says he recorded “an acoustic free jazz album with John McLaughlin, Dick Heckstall-Smith and Jon Hiseman, and released it in 1970 as Things We Like. This album was a precursor to the jazz fusion boom in the early 1970s, and more recently, it has been sampled by many hip hop artists”. Well there’s something well worth getting hold of, I’m sure.

As observed earlier, it was his first solo album, Songs for a Tailor, which had us enthralled in the early 1970s. Wikipedia says he worked with musicians in virtually all the genres –heavy rock, jazz, blues, fusion, avant-garde, world music, and R&B – and produced “a long line of solo albums”.

And all of his solo albums have a common theme, says Wikipeida, “melodic songs with a complex musical structure, lyrics by Pete Brown, usually based around a core band”. He still indulged in longer improvisations on his live albums, however.

So what of Songs for a Tailor? Wikipedia says it was released in September 1969 and featured saxophonist Heckstall-Smth and Hiseman. And, it was a “worldwide hit”. I’ll get back to this album in a jiffy, but just to note that Wikipedia says he then moved into jazz fusion, working with the likes of McLaughlin and drummer Tony Williams. A second solo album, Harmony Row, from 1971, was not as successful as Songs for a Tailor.

But you know, by now we’d lost track of Jack Bruce. Sure his great work with Cream would live with us forever, but we failed to follow his career as he formed blued-rock group West, Bruce and Laing in 1972, or any other of the moves he made in subsequent years. Wikipedia is replete with a full history of his life’s work, and it is no doubt a sublime and formidable contribution. But it reads like too many other biographies of great musicians from the 1960s, who failed to keep bands together for very long, and fell into bad habits. I read that “by 1979, his drug habit had reached such a level that he had lost a lot of his money”. He married a second wife, who “organised his career from a business standpoint”.

Musicians have to survive. Bruce, it seems, formed numerous partnerships with other musicians, inlucing Jon Anderson and Bill Cobham. But it is a sad reflection of how he must have struggled that, says Wikipedia, in 1986 he re-recorded I Feel Free and released it as a single “to support an advertising campaign for the Renault 21 motor car”. He also worked with Clapton on a solo album between 1986 and 1992, Somethin’ Else, which “received belated, but widespread critical acclaim”. And in 1989 he teamed up with Baker for another solo album, A Question of Time. A band, Bruce, Baker and (blues-rock guitarist Gary) Moore scored a Top 10 hit in the UK in the mid 1990s, but the Bruce-Baker dynamic soon terminated that.

It was in the late 1990s that he worked with, among others Ringo Starr (alongside Peter Frampton). Working with Kip Hanrahan’s three-pieced Latin rhythm section, Bruce in the early 2000s also hooked up briefly with Clapton, performing Sunshine Of Your Love on the album, Shadows in the Air.

He was diagnosed with liver cancer in 2003, and in September of that year had a liver transplant, which was nearly fatal, after his body initially rejected the new organ, says Wikipedia. But by 2004 he was well enough to perform at a Rock Legends concert in Germany.

Then, as we all know, in May 2005, he, Baker and Clapton reunite as Cream for “a series of well-received concerts at London’s Royal Albert Hall, released as the album Royal Albert Hall London May 2-3-5-6 2005, and New York’s Madison Square Garden”.

At the time of writing, now well into his late 60s, it seems he is still out there making music. But for us, as young teenagers, it was that first solo album, Songs for Tailor, which represented our first taste of Jack Bruce as his own man. Let’s give it a blast.

Songs for a Tailor

I had forgotten. I hadn’t fully realised. But this is one of THE great albums in the history of rock. It makes sense. Jack Bruce, a wizard songwriter (ably backed on all the tracks by lyricist Pete Brown), finally gets to make his first solo album. So it has to be packed with very special songs, and it has to have Bruce’s personal stamp, with that bass guitar of his especially prominent.

Anyway, enough of this gushing, let’s see what the Wikipedia oracles have to say. Well, first, just to put this into context, it seems that although his first solo album to be released (in September, 1969), Songs for a Tailor was not necessarily his first solo album. Because Things We Like (which I’ve not heard) was recorded in August 1968, but only released in December 1970. From then on he released solo albums on a regular basis – in 1971, 1974, 1975, 1977 … Well, things start to stagger about here. There was an album in 1983, and another, recorded in 1987 and released in 1993.

Classified as “pop” – can you believe it? – and rock, Songs for a Tailor only runs to 31:32 minutes, but what a magnificent half hour that is. Released on Polydor and produced by Felix Pappalardi, Wikipedia is its usual thorough self and offers some gen on the album title. It seems it is a “tribute to Cream’s recently deceased clothing designer”. Indeed, the cover photograph shows a sensitive-looking Bruce wearing a fine white and cream paisley shirt, no doubt a product of that designer. But what of the album itself, you may ask. Well, Wikipedia says while it “displayed more of the musician’s diverse influences than his compositions for Cream”, it “did not chart as highly as his work with that band”. It did, however, reach No 6 on the UK album chart, but only 55 on the Billboard “Pop Albums” chart.

And such is the fickle world of rock music reviewers. Wikipedia says it has “not been universally critically well-received, with a notable negative review by Rolling Stone on its first release”. But it adds that it is “generally acclaimed and is considered among Bruce’s best albums”. As I write this, I just need to mention that we first got “into” the solo Bruce sound thanks to the last track on this album, The Clearout, which featured on one of those many compilation LPs which did the rounds in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This was a driving, humdinger of a thing, which I’ll return to later. The point is that on the strength of it alone – and there is a welter of other great stuff here – the album should be acclaimed. But it seems people are not easily satisfied. Because Wikipedia says even poet Brown’s lyrics were “particularly divisive, with one notable critic singling them out for praise while others have been more generally critical”.

But back to that album title. Wikipedia says it is a tribute to Jeannie Franklyn (known as “Genie the Tailor”). She “designed wardrobes for Cream and was also the girlfriend of Fairport Convention guitarist Richard Thompson”. In 1969, it says, she wrote a letter to Bruce asking him to “sing some high notes for me”. The letter reached him on May 14, 1969, the days she was killed in a car crash in Fairport’s touring van. Bruce received her letter on his 26th birthday. It is small wonder it had a profound impact on him.

As noted earlier, Bruce had a blues and jazz grounding, but Wikipedia says he also studied Bach and Scottish folk songs as a child. Indeed, as I listened to this album, traces of Celtic folk music are evident. Also, as I listened, I found it hard to categorise what exactly I was hearing. It was a finely honed eclectic mix. Indeed, on its reissue as a CD in 2003, Music Week called it “an impressive effort defying musical categorization”. But be sure there is a great fusion here of blues, jazz, rock and folk, with a bit of psychedelia thrown in for good measure. And Cream’s loss was solo Bruce’s gain, with Weird Of Hermiston and The Clearout, says Wikipeida, “originally penned for possible inclusion on the 1967 Cream album, Disraeli Gears”.

As I suspected, this album was Bruce’s finest solo effort. Wikipedia says it was “the most successful album of his solo career”. In England, especially, it “proved influential, described in 2001 by the BBC as a ‘seminal’ work.

So what did the early critics not like? Well back then, in 1969, Wikipedia says Ed Leimbacher of Rolling Stone called it a “disappointment” and “a patchwork affair lacking in any unifying thread, a shabby misfit made up of a shopworn miscellany of jazz riffs, rock underpinnings, chamber music strings, boringly baroque lyrics and a Bruce bass that (leaves) … everything distinctly bottom heavy”. There may be some merit in that last comment, but then again is it not the prerogative of a great bass player to give us precisely that: bass-led music which, I might add, often comes out of the top frets of the instrument and sounds like a lead guitar. Indeed, much of the thrill of this album is to be found in that rumbling, rambunctious bass. And it seems Rolling Stone magazine itself later revised its opinions. Wikiipedia says in 1971 (just two years later), Lloyd Grossman, writing in the same magazine, termed it “a stunning recording with more than an ample amount of beautiful songs and excellent singing and playing”. Here is someone with a bit of generosity of spirit; someone who is prepared and willing to be surprised and uplifted by new and innovative sounds. In 1975 he was still raving about it, saying Songs for a Tailor was “so outstanding that his other albums almost always suffer by comparison”. I wouldn’t know. This, for me, was it. And perhaps it’s better that way. I heard Bruce at his prime and will always treasure his sound based on this single album.

And it seems I’m not alone. Wikipedia quotes Rolling Stone writer David Fricke, 20 years after the event, in 1989, saying that Jack Bruce would “flirt with self-indulgence in the pursuit of the unconventional”, adding that his solo output was “underrated”. Another more recent view, that of Allmusic, is that Songs for a Tailor is “picture perfect in construction, performance and presentation”.

I certainly agree with the “self-indulgence” claim. But of course that is what gifted musicians and songwriters are. It is their vision that must be brought to fruition. But what of that partnership with Pete Brown? Wikipedia says, following his major contribution to several key Cream songs (as noted earlier), the lyrics on this album are “typically poetic and heavily inspired by literary themes”. We’ll get to that shortly, but I should note at this point that when I heard this album in my teens, most of the lyrics went by unheard in the sense that I made no effort to follow their logic. Some key phrases stuck, but there was never an attempt to sit down and hear precisely what was being said. It was sufficient to realise that what you were hearing was well-written verse, and not some stilted, over-written waffle by a semi-literate, which I am afraid all too often is the lot of certain rock bands. So it is the lyrics I’m particularly keen to unpack in this my first real look into the heart of this album.

The opening track, Never Tell Your Mother She’s Out of Tune, relatively short at 3:41 minutes, is an immediate signal that this is going to be nothing like the Cream albums. First of all, there is a lot of brass, and it is a complex, brassy, bass-driven intro which gets the album off at pace. And instantly you realize afresh what a great voice Jack Bruce had. “When I hear that big black whistle they blow / I feel inside it’s time for me to be going / Fortunately baby I’d already gone before.” Bass and brass rise and fall as this complex melody unfolds. Interesting for me here is that I’m seeing that opening line for the first time – never really heard it before. Indeed that applies to the whole opening verse. Where he sings “fortunately baby”, I was hearing “Bo Didley baby”. Bizarre. Anyway, the song continues: “When they say I’m worth ten pieces of coal / and you shouting hey what about when you are an old man / Fortunately baby I’d already locked the door.” The lyrics really were lost as one got into the general sound, which was so rich in an altogether new rock-jazz texture. “They say there are men who are blue like me in the stars / Beards for the weird and bars for bizarre guitarmen / Fortunately baby I’d already joined the force.” There is a fine sax solo about now, as that bass continues to thunder along, with the song flattening out, to the accompaniment of large brass blasts, for the next verse. “Good time train well it does not need any track / It wins the race to the place where I’m gonna pack up / Fortunately baby I’d already grabbed the sky.” The experts will one day analyse this, but I must say it does seem to lack the poetic simplicity of Brown’s Cream work. “All the days that the road has spent on me / Judges shout you must slave to be a freeman / Fortunately baby I am never coming back.” I do like that line, though – “slave to be free” is very clever. The song runs down with the words, “Good time train, good time train...” While I barely heard an electric guitar on the track, we are told by Wikipedia that there was one, played by L’Angelo Misterioso, which was the pseudonym George Harrison gave himself while working with Cream. And that writer, Fricke, loved the song, with Wikipedia quoting him in 1989 as calling it “wacky, brassy” and an “enigmatic Bruce-Brown (delight)”.

You rarely heard a piano on Cream’s albums, but it plays a prominent role on this album, which is certainly marked by consummate musicianship, not least the piano which opens the next, slower, track, Theme For An Imaginary Western, which runs to 3:30 minutes. Written by Bruce, Brown and Peter Constantine, this is a quieter, more reflective song, and a far better showcase for Brown’s lyrics. Here, too, you get that gradual building up and release of tension which marked some of Bruce’s Cream songs. The rhythm guitar is also prominent, with Bruce’s bass still leading the assault. And of course his bluesy vocals are again superb. “When the wagons leave the city / for the forest, and further on / Painted wagons of the morning / dusty roads where they have gone / Sometimes travelling through the darkness / met the summer coming home / Fallen faces by the wayside / Looked as if they might have known …” A higher plain is reached. “O the sun was in their eyes / and the desert that dries / In the country towns / where the laughter sounds.” The brass and piano are still prominent on this beautiful, almost country ballad-like piece. “O the dancing and the singing / O the music when they played / O the fires that they started / O the girls with no regret / Sometimes they found it / Sometimes they kept it / Often lost it on the way / Fought each other to possess it / Sometimes died in sight of day.” So what was it all about? Well, it is cited as one of the “notable” songs on the album by Wikipedia, which quotes Allmusic as describing it as “Bruce’s greatest hit that never charted”. Allmusic said it has a “fresh, rootsy sound” thanks to Bruce’s “overdubbed piano and organ parts” and the “country-tinged lope of the rhythm section”. The song features, says Wikipedia, in the 2006 book, “1001 Songs: The Great Songs of All Time and the Artists, Stories and Secrets Behind Them”. It calls it an “elegant, masterfully constructed piece of jazz-rock”. But no light is cast on the lyrics, which it calls “opaque at best”. I could go on. Suffice it to say that it is the lyric construction, alongside that innovative musical score, which really makes it the great song it is. Interestingly, Wikipedia says Felix Pappalardi, who produced the album, later covered this song when he was bassist-singer for Mountain, even performing it at Woodstock in August 1969 with this band (of whom I did not know), a few weeks before the release of Songs for a Tailor. Another fine band from the time, Colosseum, also played it, their drummer Jon Hiseman, also featuring on this album.

But, before going any further, who are the other musos on this album? Well there’s lots of brass, with Harry Beckett and Henry Lowther on trumpets and horns, Dick Heckstall-Smith (whom we encountered earlier) and Art Themen on saxophones, Hiseman and John Marshall on drums, Harrison and Chris Spedding on guitars, John Mumford on trombone, Pappalardi on percussion and vocals. And, of course, Jack Bruce who merely contributes organ, bass guitar, guitar, piano, cello, keyboards and vocals.

So it is Bruce himself whose piano again launches the next track, Tickets To Water Falls (3 minutes). High notes assail the ear then slow to a halt, before drums and very low bass, backed by chirpy rhythm guitar surge forward, only to again slow and restart the building process. Now the vocals, insistent, kick in. “I bought you tickets for the waterfalls / and you poured away all the change / Trained your bicycle to dance / told it tales of window boxes and people with locks / While you filed away the time / and lost the place in the river.” Those last few words are stretched, as the song again changes tempo, and a lovely lead guitar solo is unleashed. But things reassemble for the second verse, Bruce’s voice again in fine fettle. “Couldn’t do anything about the days / But I helped with some of the nights / You worked my blisters to the bone (we loved that line) / playing songs of tiny men and bridges in wine / While you led the time astray / and lost your head in the rainbow.” Of course this is psychedelic stuff. That was what the era was largely about. What it did, this mood, was free writers like Brown to really experiment with verse. “You never saw anything glittering / but you had to melt it down / I made your rivers all run dry / soaked them up with train timetables and carpets of lies / And I listened to your smile / and found my place in the morning.” Don’t underestimate the role of the piano here, or the understated lead guitar.

Then to one of the weirdest titles in rock, Weird Of Hermiston (2:24 minutes). But is it, as Wikipedia suggest, “horror-infused”? Again, a piano, and guitar, spray notes that descend down the scale before hitting a slow, bluesy bass and drums. This was one song where the lyrics were always fairly easy to hear. “I’m going to a wedding dressed in black / I’m going to a party, won’t be back / And I’m not going with you . . . no . . .” After that rather chilling pronouncement, the tempo rises. “Trees are no longer a comfort / Messages sad in the wires / My hair is hung down with the blackest of rain that I’m feeling.” Listen out here for Bruce’s bass, because there are areas where he plays at double-time, if that’s the term – two notes in the place of one. It is a bit of bass history being made, I suspect. Anyway, the song resets. “I’m going to the river, wash my tears / I’m going to the mountains, cool my fears / That I’m not going with you . . . no . . .” Again, we are catapulted forward by a riotous rhythm. “Skies are no longer a comfort / Leaves turning black with the autumn / The corn is hung down with the heaviest weight that I’m feeling.” That is clever writing, transferring the image of hanging corn to his mood. And clever, too, is the choice of colour he wears to wedding and funeral, though what it symbolizes, apart from a sense of dislocation, I’m not sure. “I’m going to a funeral dressed in white / I’m going to a nightclub, to sleep with night / And I’m not going with you . . . no . . .” Again, we forge forward. “Love is no longer a comfort, / Fantastic times are forgotten / My heart is hung down with the saddest of rain that I’m feeling…” In a way, I suppose, this song hints at an end of innocence. The happy-go-lucky years of the 1960s will be replaced by an unknown, probably less free, 1970s. Indeed, if one traces rock’s progress (retrogression?) since then, while there have been many peaks, there has also been far too great an emphasis on commercialism and ego. The late 1960s seemed to be a golden age of art for art’s sake. It wouldn’t last, and this song, for me, seems to reflect that mood, even though it makes no direct reference to it. But what of that title? Well I could find nothing more on it, but just to recap that this, and The Clearout, were considered for Cream’s 1967 Disraeli Gears, but were deemed, says Wikipedia, as not being commercial enough. Bruce was pissed, and in liner notes to the Cream box set Those Were The Days, recalls that Atlantic executives knocked the song as “psychedelic hogwash”.

Hogwash? Heard today, you realize that all these songs are marked by that one thing most modern groups fail to achieve: originality. I’ve given a fair number of modern groups the grace of my limited attention, and with few a exceptions have failed to find much to excite my imagination. This was never the case with someone like Bruce in his prime. A song like the next track, the last on Side 1, Rope Ladder To The Moon (2:54), is simply an object lesson in how to create something entirely new and fresh. It works on all fronts, being firstly a radical change from the songs which preceded it. Suddenly it is the steely sound of strummed acoustic guitar strings which inject new life. Listen out for the sustained bass note, followed by quicker ones, as the bottom is filled in alongside more understated drumming. Bruce’s vocals are again spot-on. “You asked me to a party / to a house just by the moon / You gave me silver loving / the end was all too soon.” Fittingly, given its quasi-acoustic nature, this is the first song on the album where strings are liberally used. “You asked me to the theatre / in a place quite near the sun / You gave me golden sunbeams / your act was all in fun.” We are now set for that ascent to Earth’s satellite. “Rope ladder to moon!” That last note is sung lovingly alongside that of a cello, or suchlike – a highlight of the song. I don’t think these lyrics were meant to be taken too seriously. Brown was having a bit of fun around a basic Bruce melody. “You asked me to a meeting / in a cottage in the snow / You gave me central heating / I can’t forget the glow.” Yet each verse paints a crisp picture. “You asked me to a weekend / down by the stormy sea / You took me to a ceremony /and the sacrifice – was me!” I think the word “me” is repeated as the acoustic guitar, backed also by a piano, keeps the song incisive. “You asked me to a stormcloud / up near the rainbow’s end / Then you threw away the ladder / and gave me to your friend.” Indeed, Dylan at the time might have appreciated Brown’s writing, which in a way resembles his own. “You took me to a prison / and you said its chief was me / Then you locked me deep inside you / and threw away the key.” Again, as strings, guitar and piano pour forth their magic, we conduct our final ascent: “Rope ladder to the moon!”

As with Side 1, the second side also starts with some dense brass alongside the rest of the rock panoply, with piano again prominent. Indeed, as rhythm guitar cracks alongside the omnipresent bass, the brass instruments flare our intermittently. But what was The Ministry Of Bag (2:49) all about? “It’s all blues and no dinner / at the Ministry of Bag / The steaks are getting thinner / the office is a drag.” This had an almost Pythonesque quality, the sort of crazy zaniness for which the English are rightly renowned. “It’s all hills and no mountain / in the cupboard of the Few / The soda has no fountain / the coal gets in the dew.” Here the brass again flails out its couple of note bars. “It’s all chief and no father / down the avenue of lane / The soap has lost its lather / the loves gone down the drain. / It’s all time and no future / at the Department of Breath / The clothes ain’t made to suit you / the peas are boiled to death.” I hadn’t fully heard that before. It’s truly a great bit of scathing satire really about a society losing its way. “It’s hang the girls and young men / on the ropes of tweedy mind / The speedy sneaky tonguemen / have left them all behind / It’s all tripe and no liver / at the cafe of the Neat / The cooks jumped in the river / the menu smells of feet.” Yes here the lyrics are readily heard, and with good reason, because, despite its rather raucous, brassy, sound, like the electric Dylan, Bruce knows the lyrics play a key role. “It’s all swamp and no mosquitoes / along the stripes of pin / The boots have all the vetoes / and the bags to put them in.” The song, having thundered dizzily along, ends with the first verse repeated, alongside some lovely, jazzy guitar. “It’s all blues and no dinner / at the Ministry of Bag / The steaks are getting thinner / the office is a drag.”

Inevitably, that assault is followed by something far more subtle, in the form of He The Richmond, a 3:36-minute song which apparently has Shakespearian allusions. Certainly the title has an olde worlde feel to it. Again, acoustic guitar, quickly strummed, is joined by drums and bass, providing interesting textural qualities. Bruce’s voice brings in a folk-rock dimension. “There comes an affair in the tides of men / When you can’t go back again / Yes there comes a darkness in the affairs of light / When you can’t hold back the night / So you go where your mind will keep / Where the rain plays the restless to sleep / On the notes of a broken piano.” It’s great poetry, and I’m only seeing it now for the first time. The song follows a similar formula to his other acoustic-based compositions, fragmenting at this point as he sets off at a tangent. “O the rivers and the seas and you that ride them forever / They called my name to your dark-eyed ranks to leave them never / Yes my name it is written in the sand / And it can’t escape your sweeping hand.” That, again, is an excellent image, is it not? The name, written by a lover in the sea-sand, can equally easily be swept away by that same hand. This, I guess, is about the ebb and flow of life. “There comes a time as tides must come / When they leave, take some, leave some / Yes there comes a wave in the seas of men / When you can’t swim back again / So you go where your mind will keep / Where the wind lulls the restless to sleep / In the beams of the broken headlights.” Notable in that final section are the vocal harmonies on what is another superb musical arrangement. But where the title fits in, I have no idea.

On the album sleeve, the next track, is titled 3a – Boston Ball Game, 1967 – and 3b – To Isengard – and the one runs into the next. The former starts with some turbulent bass, joined in turn by percussion, drums and trombone. There are complex vocal harmonies here, with the notes in brackets forming one narrative and others, the other. (Hey when) Well hello there baby / (the time comes) if you hate it / (will you) hate it so much / (won’t you) Why not leave it / (keep your head) maybe try like me too? / (In the games) We who were your fathers / (of the) Have shared out all / (sunshine?) tomorrow’s sunshine.” The second verse follows the same pattern. (Well that) Time is passing baby / (time has come) if you let it / (and you) it will make you / (can't do) do what they want / (what you want) Maybe be like them too / (now your mind) Those who were our fathers / (is not) Peer from inside their towers / (looking) looking …”

There is a breathless, unrelenting build-up of tension before the song transforms into an acoustic guitar-driven masterpiece, To Isengard. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings has only recently been truly popularized thanks to the movies, but was also part of our upbringing. With two acoustic guitars, one strummed, the other plucked, and again some superb bass guitar, the mood is set. “And so our time is fields of sleep / And so our bed is endless deep / And so the waves are grass in sun / And so our time has just begun / And so our love moves much too fast / And sun and sleep can never last / love is lost / last / but one ... but once.” The sonorous, almost soporific, tale continues. “The time was ours we never cared / For soaring flights that eagles dared / The air was full of peaceful birds / Your eyes were moist unspoken words / And so our love moves much too fast / And sun and eyes can never last / Fire is lost / last / but one . . . but once.” But this is a long song, 5:28 minutes, and somewhere, after being lulled almost to sleep, one is shocked to your senses by a sudden change of mood, as tight lead guitar, bass and drums interject. “Over the hills the good times / are sitting under grey clouds / And the sound of the love songs / Is being lost in the crowds / of the magical lessons / that you taught me from the walls / I forgot all the path ways / and I remembered the falls / remember . . .” I was reminded of early Pink Floyd on this track, as the first truly psychedelic lead guitar sound makes its masterful entrance, and delights throughout with alien feedback and wah-wah effects. Indeed, the lengthy improvised instrumental section at the end of this song is a highlight of the album. It breaks through the bass-driven comfort zone and explores the depths of the musical galaxy. It also prepares one for the powerful finale.

As noted earlier, we had heard The Clearout on a compilation album beforehand, but in the context of this LP, its arrival as the denouement is ideal. It starts with staccato drumming, with bass and lead guitar kicking in to establish the powerful rock melody. “You say you don’t want me (dah-dah!) / Well I don’t want you to go / You say you don’t need me (dah-dah!) / You shut my hair in the door / You say you won’t have me / You’re leaving my wound all sore.” It was a right rollicking rock song which would have made ideal Cream fare. It fares well enough here, though, as the chorus kicks in: “Breakfast is goodnight / Yesterdays are old meals now / Time’s ripe for clearout (clearout!).” This is a bass guitar-led tour de force from Bruce, who really gets the thing screaming (in a low-register sort of way) like a wounded African buffalo. “You say you can’t eat it / Well I don’t have any food / You say you can’t face it / Well I’m not in any mood / You say you don’t need it / You’re leaving my head all chewed.” Then that excellent chorus again, before the band rejoins for a final assault. “You say you can’t stand it / well why don’t you let it sit (we loved that) / You say you can’t dig it / yet you’ll never let me quit / you say you can’ t use it / you won’t find a better fit.” Again, it was all about the sound textures which Bruce and his band achieved.

This was one of the great rock albums of all time, in my view, full of a rich diversity of sounds, images, colours and textures. The final word, perhaps, should go to Fricke (mentioned earlier) who questioned whether “anybody … writes songs like that anymore?” A good point. Where are the Jack Bruces, the Jimi Hendrixs, the John Lennons, the Janis Joplins, the Pete Townshends of today?

Eric Clapton

But what of Eric Clapton who, expert guitarist that he was, as the youngest must have battled in the company of Bruce and Ginger Baker during the Cream era?

Of course throughout the 1970s, his name cropped up regularly, notably in association with Harrison and Dylan on various concert stages. He also had a brief success with I Shot The Sheriff, a reggae song, and in the 1980s made a bluesy folk song about his child’s death. We got into one of his solo album at the time, Layla, but not much else. But let’s see what the Wikipedia oracle has to say.

Clapton is your archetypal global rock legend, but for us he only really had those few years of super fame, as the brilliant electric lead guitarist for Cream and Blind Faith. On the back of that, he built a future career which, judging by the sheer scale of the Wikipedia essay on him, has been substantial.

I’ll try not to bore with superfluous detail, but I’m sure there is much that we, as one-time devotees of Slowhand, as I think they called him, should know.

First, he was born Eric Patrick Clapton in Ripley, Surrey, on March 30, 1945. We need to know, I suppose, that he is a CBE (what that entails will no doubt be furnished later) and that for his work as a blues-rock guitarist, singer, songwriter and composer, he is the only person to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame three times - for his work with the Yardbirds, Cream and as a solo artist.

Wikipedia says he is “often viewed … as one of the greatest guitarists of all time”, and was ranked fourth in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time and 53 on its list of the Immortals: 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.

So this guy really established himself as a rock icon. He was also, says Wikipedia, “an innovator in a wide variety of genres”, including blues-rock with John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers and the Yardbirds, and psychedelic rock with Cream.

His chart-topping hits also included Delta Blues, pop and reggae, with Bob Marley’s I Shot The Sheriff. And the “hit love song” Layla, performed with Derek (Eric) and the Dominos, I discover, was one of his most successful recordings.

One thing I see is that Clapton wasn’t born into wealth. Wikipedia says his mother, Patricia Molly Clapton, was just 17 when he was born, while his father, Walter Fryer, 25, was a soldier from Montreal, in Canada. Remember, Clapton was born near the end of the Second World War, and it seems his father “shipped off to war prior to Clapton’s birth and then returned to Canada”. So, says Wikipedia, “Clapton grew up with his grandmother, Rose, and her second husband Jack, believing they were his parents and that his mother was his older sister”. Quite a bizarre scenario.

While his grandparents’ surname was Clapp, his actual maternal grandfather was Reginald Cecil Clapton. His mom, remember just 17 years his senior, then married another Canadian soldier and moved to Canada, leaving Eric with his grandparents in Surbiton. And how did one of the world’s great guitarists start his musical career? Much like many others. He received an acoustic Hoyer guitar, made in Germany, for his 13th birthday. But, says Wikipedia, the action on the instrument was so bad he almost gave up playing. But he persevered, and was “influenced by the blues from an early age”, listening to blues artists on a Grundig Cub tape recorder.

And where, after school, does a future rock legend further his studies? At art school, of course. Wikipedia says after leaving school in 1961, he studied at the Kingston College of Art but was “dismissed at the end of the academic year because his focus remained on music rather than art”. He was already busking in Kingston, Richmond and the West End of London, and joined his first band at the age of 17. It was an R&B outfit called The Roosters, and he stayed with them from January till August, 1963. In October that year he did a seven-gig stint with the Engineers, says Wikipedia.

The stage was set, as the 1960s evolved into arguably the most important decade in the history of modern music, for Clapton to play his key part in developments.

Remember at this stage it was still all about rock and roll. The Yardbirds, which Clapton joined in 1963, was a “blues-influenced rock and roll band”, and he worked with them till March 1965. Here, says Wikipedia, he started fusing Chicago blues and the sounds of guitarists like Buddy Guy, Freddi King and BB King into his own style. He “rapidly became one of the most talked-about guitarists in the British music scene”. In March, 1965, as Clapton was leaving the band, they had their first major hit, For Your Love, on which Clapton played guitar.

Ah, and so to a bit of rock folklore. Wikipedia says Yardbirds rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja recalled that “whenever Clapton broke a guitar string during a concert, he would stay on stage and replace it. The English audiences would wait out the delay by doing what is called a ‘slow handclap’”. One Giorgio Gomelsky, Clapton said later, arrived at his nickname, Slowhand, as a pun.

His departure from the Yardbirds, it seems, would be a recurring problem with Clapton. Wikipedia says it was precipitated, ironically, by the success of For Your Love, which was written by “pop songwriter-for-hire Graham Gouldman”. His sin was he had also written hits for “teen pop outfit Herman’s Hermits and harmony pop band The Hollies”.

Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck. Names to conjure with. Wikipedia says Clapton suggested Page replace him, but Page was happy as a studio musician at the time. He mooted Beck. But the three only played together much later, including on an album, Guitar Boogie.

Clapton spent just a few months with Mayall, from April 1965, before visiting Greece with a band, The Glands, which included pianist Ben Palmer. But by November he was back with the Bluesbreakers, and it was now that “his passionate playing established Clapton’s name as the best blues guitarist on the club circuit”. The “immensely influential” album, Blues Breakers, was only released after he had left the band, this time for good.

And, for those guitar fiends, it seems he now swopped his Fender Telecaster and Vox AC30 am for a 1960 Gibson Les Paul Standard guitar and Marshall amp. I just thought you should know.

July, 1966, saw the formation of Cream, with Peter Green (later of Fleetwood Mac fame) joining the Bluesbreakers. Wikipedia concedes that, with Cream, Clapton developed as a singer, songwriter and guitarist, “though (Jack) Bruce took most of the lead vocals and wrote the majority of the material with lyricist Pete Brown”. The band, playing at clubs around the country, “established its enduring legend with the high-volume blues jamming and extended solos of their live shows”.

But there was serious, I means serious, competition out there. Wikipedia says in early 1967, “Clapton’s status as Britain’s top guitarist was rivalled by the emergence of Jimi Hendrix, an acid rock-infused guitarist who used wailing feedback and effects pedals to create new sounds for the instrument”. It adds that “Hendrix’s arrival had an immediate and major effect on the next phase of Clapton’s career, although Clapton continued to be recognised in UK music polls as the premier guitarist”. You be the judge. I’m not knocking Clapton, but whereas he was still playing electric lead guitar, Hendrix had really discovered a whole new musical world which no one will ever find again. It’s as simple as that.

Wikipedia say that “in 28 months, Cream had become a commercial success, selling millions of records and playing throughout the US and Europe. They redefined the instrumentalist’s role in rock and were one of the first blues-rock bands to emphasise musical virtuosity and lengthy jazz-style improvisation sessions”.

But this success, as noted earlier, was coupled with the aforementioned tensions among all three members, which “eventually led to Cream’s demise”.

It is worth noting that George Harrison’s co-writing of Badge, with Clapton, which occurs on Goodbye, “was preceded by Clapton playing on Harrison’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps from the Beatles’ White Album”. And, as I’m sure I’ll discover when I return to Harrison’s solo career, it seems Clapton played on his first solo album, Wonderwall Music, released the same year as the White Album, but was not credited for contractual reasons. As noted earlier, the two played together a lot in the 1970s.

Then followed Clapton’s short spell with Blind Faith (as recorded on an earlier posting). But by now, says Wikipedia, he was “tired of both the spotlight and the hype that had surrounded Cream and Blind Faith”.

So, of all things, he toured “as a sideman” with US group Delaney and Bonnie and Friends, while also playing “two dates” with Lennon’s The Plastic Ono Band. Included was a gig at the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival in September, 1969, which became the album, Live Peace in Toronto 1969.

It was Delaney Bramlett who “encouraged him in his singing and writing”. He then used “the Bramletts’ backing group and an all-star cast of session players (including Leon Russell and Stephen Stills)” to record his first solo album, titled simply, Eric Clapton. Ah, and so to another legend. It seems this album, which I did not hear, included J J Cale’s After Midnight, which reached No 18 in the US.

Oh, and his ties with Harrison continued, as he worked with him on his triple album, All Things Must Pass, in early 1970.

He took Bobby Whitlock (keyboards, vocals), Carl Radle (bass) and Jim Gordon (drums) from Delaney & Bonnie and forged a new band, first called Eric Clapton and Friends. The later name Derek and the Dominoes, it seems, was a happy accident. Wikipedia says another provisional name, Eric and the Dynamos, was misread as Derek and the Dominos. But in a biography, Wikipedia says, Clapton disputes this, saying the name came from Del and the Dominoes, with Del a nickname for Clapton. Del and Eric were then combined.

Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs

And so to Layla and its origins. Poor Harrison. It seems Clapton became infatuated with his wife, Pattie Boyd, but she “spurned his advances”. This inspired the material for the Dominos’ album, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs.

On Layla we find Clapton finally grappling with the issues which have driven most great blues songwriters – and invariably they have to do with women. Wikipedia says the title track, Layla, was “inspired by the classical poet of Persian literature, Nezami Ganjavi’s The Story of Layla and Majnun, a copy of which his friend Ian Dallas had given him”. Given his longing for his good friend’s wife (in itself a rather sick situation), it seems this book contained the tale “of a young man who fell hopelessly in love with a beautiful, unavailable woman and who went crazy because he could not marry her”. We’ll give the album a spin shortly, but first a bit about it.

Wikipedia says Clapton worked in Miami with Atlantic Records producer Tom Dowd, who had worked on Disraeli Gears. The two parts of Layla, the song, were recorded in separate sections, with the opening guitar section recorded first and the second section “laid down several months later”. And drummer Jim Gordon “composed and played the elegiac piano part”

Duane Allman

Joining the musicians mentioned earlier was one Duane Allman, guitarist for The Allman Brothers Band. Dowd also produced the Allmans, and had engineered a meeting between Clapton and the band which ended in an all-night jam session after an Allmans Miami concert. So we’ll be looking out for Duane’s slide guitar on songs like Tell The Truth and Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out. But he was not with the band – because of Allmans commitments – for songs like I Looked Away, Bell Bottom Blues and Keep on Growing. However, says Wikipedia, he was back for the recording of Hendrix’s Little Wing, the title track and the final track, Thorn Tree in the Garden.

Wikipedia says Allman’s “incendiary” slide-guitar is a “key ingredient” of the album, noting that many critics believed Clapton worked best in tandem with a second guitarist. The album, says Wikipedia, “showcased some of Clapton’s strongest material to date, as well as arguably some of his best guitar playing, with Whitlock also contributing several superb numbers, and his powerful, soul-influenced voice”. We’ll see.

But the rigours of rock music were taking their toll. The band was shocked, while recording, to learn of the death of Jimi Hendrix, just eight days after recording their version of his Little Wing. As noted in the posting on Hendrix, on 17 September 1970, one day before Hendrix’s death, Clapton had bought a left-handed Stratocaster, which he had planned to give to Hendrix as a birthday gift.

And for one who eschewed popular fame, it seems Clapton was somewhat peeved that the album, according to Wikipedia, “received only lukewarm reviews”. Without Allman, the band did a US tour and, despite a “blizzard of drugs and alcohol”, this produced a solid live double album, In Concert, which I have not heard. But the band soon disintegrated, and the tragedies continued when Duane Allman died in a motorcycle accident on October 29, 1971.

Of course the story of Clapton’s future career now starts to sound like that of most other rockers, with one band after another being formed and splitting up, so nicely parodied in the Monty Python sketch about the white wine sauce. Indeed, the fate of drummer Jim Gordon sounds almost Pythonically bizarre. An undiagnosed schizophrenic, Wikipedia says years later he murdered his mother “during a psychotic episode” and was jailed and later moved to a mental institute where he remained at the time of writing.

Reading about Clapton’s later career is like raking over the coals of one’s own adolescence. There I was in early high school, while Clapton had withdrawn in 1971 to his home in Surrey to “nurse his heroin addiction”, according to Wikipedia. He rejoined the rock set in August 1971 for George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh, but passed out on stage, was revived, and continued playing!

They were a close-knit group, the London rock legends, and the Who’s Pete Townshend, in a bid to help his mate kick his addiction, in January 1973 organised a comeback concert for him at London’s Rainbow Theatre. In 1975, Clapton would play the role of The Preacher in Ken Russell’s film of Tommy.

Oh and then, having chiselled Pattie Boyd away from his mate George Harrison, by 1974 they were finally together, getting married in 1979. No longer taking heroin, Wikipedia says he was now “starting to drink heavily”. Anyway, another band ensued, recording 461 Ocean Boulevard in 1974, which I’ve not heard. But it was his version of Marley’s I Shot The Sheriff which gave him his first No 1 hit and, says Wikeipdia “was important in bringing reggae and the music of Bob Marley to a wider audience”. We were certainly part of that audience, and would cherish the work of Marley through much of the second half of the 1970s.

Pattie Boyd

Clapton was still creating good music at this point, albeit that we only really followed it via those hit singles in the mid-1970s, including the somewhat schmutzy, Wonderful Tonight, which Wikipedia says was also a song inspired by Pattie Boyd, and that second JJ Cale cover, Cocaine. This song was a huge hit in South African discos at the time.

And it is at this point that Wikipedia drops a bit of bombshell. I had not known that during an August 1976 concert in Birmingham, “Clapton provoked a controversy that has continued to follow him when he made pointed remarks from the stage in support of British politician Enoch Powell’s efforts to restrict immigration to the UK”. For a man steeped in the blues, with its African American origins, I find this bizarre.

The 1980s saw useful collaborations with the likes of Jeff Beck and Phil Collins, but his personal life was still messy. Wikipedia says that in 1984, while still married to Boyd, he had an affair with Yvonne Kelley. Their daughter Ruth was born in January 1985, but her existence was only revealed to the public in 1991. Clapton and Boyd got divorced in 1988 after he had had another affair, this time with Italian model Lori Del Santo. Their son, Conor, was born in August, 1986.

Tragedy continued to follow Clapton, with fellow guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan and two road crew members dying in an August 1990 helicopter crash while on tour with him. But most of us will best remember the single Tears In Heaven, which along with his Unplugged album, garnered him six Grammys in 1991, and was written after Conor, now four, fell from the 53rd storey window of his mother’s friend’s New York apartment. A grieving Clapton co-wrote it with Will Jennings, says Wikipedia.

And yes, folks, finally, in the 2000s, Eric Clapton seems to have found a happy, stable relationship. Wikipedia says he married Melia McEnery, of Columbus, Ohio, on New Year’s Day, 2002 and they have three daughters, the youngest born in 2005. Melia is 31 years his junior.

Wikipedia reminds us that Clapton also had a hit with her version of Dylan’s Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door, and that he played lead guitar in a nearly 7-minute version of the song during the 1992 Dylan 30th anniversary concert in New York. Also on stage were the likes of guitarists George Harrison, Neil Young, Roger McGuinn, Steve Cropper, Tom Petty, and Dylan.

Wikipedia is replete with tales of his music successes in the 1990s, as he returned to his blues roots, and picked up another Grammy in 1997 for Change The World. He worked with, among others, Carlos Santana and BB King.

But, before his aforementioned marriage, it seems the old hand was not averse to finding romance with a new generation of stars, in this case Sheryl Crow, with whom he performed at a Central Park concert in 1996.

And remember, as rock legends grow older, so do their mates, and the rigours of their lifestyle really start to take their toll. So it was that Clapton had to organize a Concert for George at the Royal Albert Hall in November, 2002, following the death of George Harrison a year earlier from cancer.

Then, of course, there was that May 2005 Cream reunion series of concerts at the same venue and later at Madison Square Garden, New York.

The story continues. There have been more concerts and lucrative and productive partnerships with musicians young and old. Clapton, the youngest of the Cream trio, has certainly showed that with sheer willpower he was able to drag himself through decades of struggle where weaker mortals may have, and often have, foundered completely, and in so doing he has carved out a unique niche in the history of rock music.

And one of the amazing facts in his life is surely that he, too, came from a broken home. Wikipedia says journalists finally tracked down his father, Edward Fryer’s family in Canada and discovered that he lived the life of a drifter and died in Ontario in 1985. But he too had been a musician, playing piano and saxophone. He had married several times, and his several children never knew he was the father of Eric Clapton.

And he keeps on rolling. Wikipedia says Clapton has been working with Steve Winwood, his former Blind Faith partner, performing across the US as recently as June 2009.

Among the many musicians who influenced him, Wikipedia says Robert Johnson had a major impact on his guitar playing. In a book, Discovering Robert Johnson, he called him “the most important blues musician who ever lived”.

Wikipedia features a lengthy section on Clapton’s guitar preferences, and includes one interesting snippet about how come the Hard Rock Cafes came to build up their “gigantic collections of memorabilia”. It seems Clapton was a regular at the original HRC in Hyde Park, London, and in 1971 gave them a signed guitar to designate his favourite bar stool. Pete Townshend, then donated one of his guitars, with the note: “Mine’s as good as his! Love, Pete.” The collection grew from there.

And, like all good, older musos, in 1999 he gave $5 million to a treatment centre for drug and alcohol addicts raised from the auctioning off of his guitar collection. He has continued to support the Crossroads Centre in Antigua.

Wikipedia’s essay on Clapton is immense, and includes just about every collaboration he has had with other musicians. I shan’t go into all these, but it is worth looking in more detail at the 1976 anti-immigration remarks which got him into so much trouble. It seems Clapton was “visibly intoxicated” at that Birmingham show, when he said Britain was in danger of becoming a “black colony”. Wikipedia says he was quoted as saying Enoch Powell was right … “we should send them all back. Throw the wogs out! Keep Britain white!” One wonders, however, whether this wasn’t a drunk rocker taking a bit of ironic licence, in a sense parodying the narrow-minded likes of Powell. I remember, and Wikipeida mentions it, that David Bowie got into hot water about the same time for “some explicity pro-facism remarks”. Again, Bowie was probably just stirring the pot and keeping his name in the headlines. Wikipedia says these incidents were “the main catalysts for the creation of Rock Against Racism”. Wikipedia quotes an apologetic Clapton, from an October 1976 interview, as saying “I just don’t know what came over me that night”, adding that “the whole thing was like Monty Python”.

But a more politically astute Clapton, in 2004, it seems still had a grudging belief that Powell was not entirely wrong, telling Uncut magazine that he was “outrageously brave”. Clapton’s views, however, seem more geared to preventing the exploitation of immigrants, who he says are brought in “as cheap labour and then put in ghettos”. The same year he told Scotland on Sunday “there’s no way I could be racist – it makes no sense”. Yet still, in 2007, Wikipedia says he told The South Bank Show that he did not believe Powell’s views were racist. It’s a difficult road to walk for someone not steeped in the Machiavellian world of politics – even if one of Cream’s earliest songs was called Politician.

Despite rubbing many people up the wrong way, Clapton was awarded the Order of the British Empire for his services to music in 1994. This was promoted to a CBE in 2004. Some of his many other awards and accolades have already been alluded to. Among them a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006 as a member of Cream.

The Clapton story is awesome in its extent. Because I have not yet touched on his film and television contributions. Here Wikipedia lists dozens of credits dating back to 1973.

But let’s finally get back to the one seminal Clapton “solo” album that had any real impact on our lives in the 1970s, Layla and other Love Songs.

Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (back cover)

Let me be blunt. I have never particularly enjoyed Clapton’s solo stuff. Down the decades, there were those stand-out singles mentioned above, whether covers of JJ Cale and Bob Marley, or his occasional self-penned hit.

Just why he did not strike a receptive chord came to me fully when listening to this double album. The problem Clapton had is that he is not a great songwriter. Neither is he a decent vocalist. It is one thing to be one of the great lead guitarists of all time, but it takes fine songs with a good melody and lyrics, sung with the sort of assurance that Jack Bruce brought to Cream, to make a song work.

I found with Layla that on several of the longer tracks I kept wanting them to come to an end. With two guitars generally wailing away, they become repetitious and frankly, simply raucous. Even more irritating is you hear, probably Clapton, at various point making wooh! sounds as more and more fairly aimless guitar notes, whether his own or Allman’s, assail one. And, as noted earlier, a key problem is Clapton’s weak lead vocals, which range from a whiny wail to an almost shouted attempt at being assertive. Bobby Whitlock, who co-wrote several of the tracks, is little better, which is why the album ends, not with a bang, but a whimper, as Whitlock’s attempt at a subtle, folk-song-like tune at the end, Thorn Tree In The Garden, is characterized by a plaintive, rasping voice and fairly ordinary acoustic guitar playing.

Bruce’s genius move was to bring in the lyric-writing abilities of poet Pete Brown. Whitlock does not have the same touch, as a couple of verses from this song attest. “There’s a thorn tree in the garden, if you know just what I mean, / And I hate to hurt your feelings but its not the way it seems, / ’Cause I miss her.” Uninspired, I’m afraid. “She’s the only girl I’ve cared for, the only one I’ve known. / And no one ever shared more love than we’ve known. / And I miss her.” And I can’t go on.

But let’s start at the beginning. I Looked Away is a Clapton/Witlock composition, and while there are the inevitable searing lead breaks, it hardly sets one afire. Again, it is all about weak lyrics, songwriting and singing. Consider the first verse. “She took my hand / And tried to make me understand / That she would always be there, / But I looked away / And she ran away from me today; / I’m such a lonely man.” No more, please!

Bell Bottom Blues, the next track, is a Clapton solo composition, and features on a Clapton hits cassette I picked up in the UK for ₤3.99 in 1990. A slow blues, this at least is fairly well sung, with some excellent lead guitarwork. But let’s check those lyrics. “Bell bottom blues, you made me cry. / I don’t want to lose this feeling. / And if I could choose a place to die / It would be in your arms.” Certainly this relates to the “assorted love songs” theme of the album. It is a song about a weak man entirely at the mercy of a strong, wily woman. We’ve most of us been there. “Do you want to see me crawl across the floor to you? / Do you want to hear me beg you to take me back? / I’d gladly do it because / I don’t want to fade away. / Give me one more day, please. / I don’t want to fade away. / In your heart I want to stay.” Away, stay, day. You go figure. Then follows: “It’s all wrong, but it’s all right. / The way that you treat me baby. / Once I was strong but I lost the fight. / You won’t find a better loser.” It is really quite pathetic. However, he later gets a wee bit assertive, telling this girl in her bell bottoms: “Bell bottom blues, don’t say goodbye. / I’m sure we’re gonna meet again, / And if we do, don’t you be surprised / If you find me with another lover.” Take that! Then, however, he seems to crawl back into his shell. “I don’t want to fade away. / Give me one more day please. / I don’t want to fade away. / In your heart I long to stay.”

And so to Keep On Growing, another Clapton/Whitlock effort. This starts with fast-paced rock, replete with slide guitar and it is all a bit too heavy, with the drums especially jarring, as are Whitlock’s vocals when he joins in. At 6:22 minutes it is one of those tracks which you just wish would end. “I was laughing, / Playing in the streets, I was unknowing; / I didn’t know my fate. / Playing / The game of love, but never really showing; / I thought that love could wait.” Inauspicious indeed. “I was a young man and sure to go astray. / You walked right into my life and told me love would find a way / To keep on growing, keep on growing, keep on growing.” And it just gets crapper. “I was standing, / Looking in the face of one who loved me, / Feeling so ashamed. / Hoping, / And praying, lord, that she could understand me, / But I didn’t know her name.” Can you stand any more? “She took my hand in hers and told me I was wrong. / She said, you’re gonna be all right boy, oh just as long / As you keep on growing, keep on growing, keep on growing. yeah, yeah, yeah.” No more, I say!

The first side ends with a song I first grew to love when I heard it on a live Jose Feliciano album. This maestro blind guitarist and singer more than did justice to Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out. Written by Jimmy Cox, the version is a slow blues, but while the lead guitar is again good, it is the strained, ineffectual vocals which again let the side down. The lead vocals just fail to hold the song together in any meaningful way. There is no focal point, except in areas where the guitar is particularly inspired.

So to Side 2, which starts with something called I Am Yours, a Clapton/Nizami thing, whoever Nizami is/was. Here at least is a bit of variation, with an acoustic guitar discernable. But again, weak vocals/lyrics let the thing down badly. “I am yours. / However distant you may be, / There blows no wind but wafts your scent to me, / There sings no bird but calls your name to me. / Each memory that has left its trace with me / Lingers forever as a part of me.” After this gem is repeated a few times, the song ends with the profound, “I am yours”.

Anyday, the next track, runs to 6:37 minutes, and it really tests your patience. Another Clapton/Whitlock disaster, it is again guitar heavy, with all the beauty of the slide guitar lost in the mad rush to put down as much noise as possible. Again, the vocals range from insipid to shouted, neither of them appealing. Again, I suspect, the genesis of the problem lies in the lyrics. “You were talking and I thought I heard you say / ‘Please leave me alone. / Nothing in this world can make me stay. / I’d rather go back, I’d rather go back home’.” Say, stay. You go figure. But let’s go further. “But if you believed in me like I believe in you, / We could have a love so true, we would go on endlessly. / And I know anyday, anyday, I will see you smile. / Any way, any way, only for a little while.” Smile, while. Not great, is it? And it continues in similar turgid vein, so I’ll leave it right there.

The final track on Side 2, Key To The Highway, is by Chalres Segar and Willie Broonzy, and runs to a full 9:47 minutes – and again it is forced well past its usefulness. After a somewhat lengthy intro, during which no one seems to want to start singing, finally Clapton sings the first line, before basically swallowing the rest of the lyrics as his voice practically fades away. The bottom line: he is not a vocalist. He cannot hope to make up for this shortcoming by piling on the electric guitar sound, no matter how competent. It remains a weak substitute for real musicianship. Analysing his vocals, I believe the real culprit is that he does not sing with the feeling of a real bluesman, even if it is affected. Adding insult to injury, it is on this track that, during lengthy jam sessions, we are fed all these woohs and whoops, as if what we are listening to isn’t simply a monotonous noise.

Two sides down, two to go. Tell The Truth, the opening song on Side 3, is again a Clapton/Whitlock effort marked by the same weak vocals. It too is over-long, at 6:45 minutes. The song muddles along, with vocalist Clapton showing all the charisma of a slug. How sad. But I suspect the lyrics make an even sadder picture. “Tell the truth. Tell me who’s been fooling you? / Tell the truth. Who’s been fooling who?” Hardly poetic, but let’s see where he’s going. “There you sit there, looking so cool / While the whole show is passing you by. / You better come to terms with your fellow men soon, cause...” Wait for it … “The whole world is shaking now. Can’t you feel it? / A new dawn is breaking now. Can’t you see it?” And isn’t this profound? “It doesn’t matter just who you are, / Or where you’re going or been. / Open your eyes and look into your heart.” And this final gem: “Hear what I say, ’cause every word is true. / You know I wouldn’t tell you no lies. / Your time’s coming, gonna be soon, boy.”

Then I loved this attempt at writing lyrics with a bluesy, semi-literate feel. So the title is Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad. Not “have to be”, because African Americans don’t know grammar, man. Again, it runs to nearly seven minutes. The major flaw? Weak lyrics and vocals and a lack of subtlety and variation in the guitarwork. Quantity is no substitute for quality. The irony about the title is that as it is repeated like a mantra, they do seem on occasion to forget themselves and sing “have” instead of “got”. It’s hard to be an authentic black bluesman, man. “Got to find me a way / To take me back to yesterday. / How can I ever hope to forget you? / Won’t you show me a place / Where I can hide my lonely face? / I know you’re going to break my heart if I let you.” Way, yesterday. Place, face. You go figure. And so the title is repeated as the chorus, before another gripping piece of lyric-writing. “Like a moth to a flame, / Like a song without a name, / I’ve never been the same since I met you.” Flame, name, same. “Like a bird on the wing, / I’ve got a brand new song to sing, / I can’t keep from singing about you.” It is all just forgettable waffle.

I hoped that the first track on Side 4, a cover of Hendrix’s Little Wing, would provide scope for some virtuoso guitarwork from Clapton. I mean here was a Jimi classic, one of those gentler songs where he really explored the nuances of the instrument. But what do we get on this album? A sort of anthemic version driven by a series of big, bold chords. Instead of subtley, we get a bludgeoning.

The next song’s title, It’s Too Late, is a truism. By now the album is irredeemable. A Chuck Willis tune, at least there is an attempt here at adding some spice by way of variation. It is a quieter slow blues with an almost country feel, but again Clapton’s vocals are weak and unappealing.

And so to the much-vaunted title track, Layla. I remember the song well, and always listened to it with a sense of, well it’s a Clapton song so it must be good. But it’s not. Not really. Indeed, it has many of the same failings as most of the other songs on this album. Co-written by Clapton and drummer Jim Gordon, the song is, as noted earlier, in two parts. The distinct opening guitar riff launches this fast-paced blues rock, but it is the hoarse, rasping vocals which again let the thing down. The arrangement is also clumsy and repetitious. Okay, so this is a song of yearning for George Harrison’s wife, Patti, who somehow has become Layla. Apart from the name being repeated at the start of each line of the chorus, I have never heard what it was actually about, so hear goes – and don’t expect literary fireworks. “What’ll you do when you get lonely / And nobody’s waiting by your side? / You’ve been running and hiding much too long. / You know it’s just your foolish pride.” Ouch! I wonder what his friend George thought of that. “Layla, you’ve got me on my knees. / Layla, I’m begging, darling please. / Layla, darling won’t you ease my worried mind.” The barbs, indirectly aimed at Harrison continue. “I tried to give you consolation / When your old man had let you down. / Like a fool, I fell in love with you, / Turned my whole world upside down.” And so the whole sordid saga continues, in that hoarse, unspecial voice. After the chorus is repeated, the following: “Let’s make the best of the situation / Before I finally go insane. / Please don’t say we’ll never find a way / And tell me all my love’s in vain.” It was, sadly, another turgid, uninspired effort. However, if there is a glimmer of light to be found on the album it is in the second half of this 7:10 minute track. Piano-led, it is quieter and even includes a touch of acoustic guitar. Not mind-blowingly beautiful, but pleasing in the way post-Peter Green Fleetwood Mac can be soothingly enjoyable.

But that, sadly, after the anticlimactic Thorn Tree finale, is that. Not, in my mind, a great album. Clapton clearly required the services of a great songwriter in the Bruce-Brown mould to bring out his undoubted talents. Perhaps he discovered that as the years went by… Certainly he had those aforementioned solo hits and did sterling work maintaining a high profile in the cutthroat world of popular music, earning accolades aplenty along the way.

But for me, the real Clapton was the young man who poured his soul into Cream and Blind Faith. Inspired by the prodigious talents of Jack Bruce, Steve Winwood and later George Harrison and Bob Dylan, Clapton was freed to take electric guitar playing to wonderfully lofty heights. That is how I’ll best remember him.

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