Fresh Cream: Still fresh, fifty years on

‘Fresh cream’ has not always been a wholesome excuse for youths and festival-goers to discreetly purchase cream whippers and nitrous oxide. Rather, it was a phenomenon induced by UK power-trio Cream and their first LP. On December 9th 2016, it will have been fifty years since Fresh Cream was released. Despite its age, it has not become any easier to discuss the band’s potential genre categorisation without sounding like a tosser – psychedelic, progressive, blues, and art rock are a few contenders. Cream’s later LPs, Disraeli Gears and Wheels of Fire, are generally considered to be the group’s finer works, with Wheels of Fire becoming the world’s first double album to go platinum. However, the influence that Fresh Cream had over the music scene at the time of its inception, and that which it continues to have fifty years on, should not be overlooked.

The supergroup was comprised of a peculiar amalgamation of talent, with hot-tempered and unpredictable drummer, Ginger Baker, having trained predominately in jazz styles and methodology; bass player and vocalist, Jack Bruce, beginning his career as a classical cellist; and guitarist Eric Clapton’s veins pulsating with a homage to Chicago blues (among other things). This intensity of talent is thought to have created conceptual tensions and fighting within the group, but I think we ought to consider the wars as just. Regardless of anything, they’ve resulted in a beneficial influence over the economy and quality of rock, fracturing the pop-infused trajectory of the ’60s music scene.

Fresh Cream begins with ‘N.S.U’ and its lyrics “What’s it all about, anyone in doubt, I don’t want to go until I’ve found it all out”, foreshadowing the daredevilry and rudimentary boldness of the rest of the album. Bruce’s vocals possess a captivating strength which infuse poignancy into even the less poetic lyrics (I refer you to the track ‘Sleepy Time’). Side one of the LP is, in general, less impressive than side two, but is redeemed by the intensity of Clapton’s undisciplined and powerful riffs in ‘Sweet Wine’, and their take on Willie Dixon’s ‘Spoonful’, as first recorded by blues royalty, Howlin Wolf. This is probably my favourite number on the album, and is a more complex and intriguing take than Wolf’s. Baker’s steadiness, Bruce’s soulful harp and Clapton’s intense twangs and licks establish a greater dimension to this classic 12-bar blues track and reflects the ability of the group to manipulate genre expectations in unprecedented ways. Clapton’s blues background (picked up from former projects such as The Yardbirds), is indulged in another cover, ‘I’m So Glad’, which was originally a Skip James tune released in 1931. Cream injects the track with their brand of new wave improvisation, whereby the clashing power of the members liquefies into a strange and captivating mixture of their visions and proficiency as individual players.

Side two of the album is a more faithful depiction of Cream’s brand, hinting at moments of genius improvisation, as well as some moments which feel as if they go for far too long (Baker’s symbol -dancing-solo in ‘Toad’, for example). ‘Rollin and Tumblin’ projects the classic fusion of rock and blues, as Bruce substitutes his cigarette for a harp and puffs away, while Baker seems to explode into white-heat across the drum-kit. Even though it’s not necessarily as neat as others on the album, ‘Rollin’ and Tumblin’s oscillation between 140-160 BPM reflects the group’s deviance from the predictability of the ’60s-pop beats of their time, which tended to drift between 60-120 BPM. (Note: I’m reviewing the original UK release of the album, and therefore will not be including some tracks on side two, including ‘Wrapping Paper’, which Ginger Baker considers to be the ‘most appalling piece of shit’ he’s ever heard).

Clapton’s talent has been formally recognised in his induction into the ‘Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’ three times, and his robust strumming had immense influence over a plethora of genres, including folk-rock group Fairport Convention, observable in their number, ‘Tam Lin’ which was released in 1969. Though perhaps more importantly, it was at Cream’s tour of ‘Fresh Cream’ that a young Jimi Hendrix joined the band on stage and had his first international performance. Hendrix tackled a track, ‘Killing Floor’, which even Clapton had not dared to do, and thus began his ascendancy to fame.

After a vigorous two year fling, Cream disbanded in 1968, much to the disappointment of those who were stuck on the psychedelic trip that Cream had crafted. The emergence of psych/prog/art rock spearheaded by Cream, paved the way for Krautrock groups NEU! and Can, as well as The Jeff Beck Group, David Bowie and more contemporary bodies like Thee Oh Sees. Whether it be for the reverberating riffs and groundbreaking use of the ‘wah-wah’ pedal, or their influence over the counter-culture, Cream’s legacy is deeply entrenched in the spiral groove of music history, which all began with the not-so-humble and in-your-face LP, Fresh Cream.

If you’re into Cream or think that you might be, may I suggest that you tune into Garageland and Pojama People (PBS 106.7fm) for a good dose of heavy psych rock, or perhaps The Juke Joint (PBS) or Astral Glamour (RRR 102.7fm) for some more blues and blues-rock easy listening.

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