Classic Artists: CREAM
director: John Brewer
review by Paul Higson
Twelve pages of minutes at meetings I am used to, but 12 pages of notes for a review? I shouldn't be confessing that lest the resulting review doesn't reflect the labour. What on earth was I swotting up for? Many born between 1965 and 1972 are fascinated by the psychedelic era, the 'summer of love' and its later influence on and embrace of glam. Those who toddled obliviously through it feel robbed but clearly also subconsciously have a feel for it from hidden haunters which prick us to life every time we see those colours and hear those sounds. Some of those too young to remember obsess about the era and immerse themselves in it in a way that they experience it better than those who actually lived it. Many more of us are pranged and tickled to keep going back while inevitably forced to accept the current day. I'm a counter-cultural lunatic who spreads himself too thin, so I am still looking at spending the remainder of my days rediscovering Cream, Love, The Byrds, The Move, et al. It is impossible to keep up with the new never mind the old. The big question about Cream to the unknowing, is why so short a stay, why so little work, given that they were so great? There is an emphasis on their flaring up and burning out in this new double DVD set Classic Artists: Cream, but flash bangs are not that unusual. Today it is worse. The next big thing is not given the opportunity to become the next big thing because the hyper-kinetic children writing for the music press are looking for the next big thing after them. Guerrilla musicians run wild with their instruments turning out a fantastic first album, only to then mope into a bigger studio for the second collection, this time of mediocrity. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Kasabian follow up jewel packed treasure chests of a first album with second outings that are largely lackadaisical, but which have a handful of inarguably good tracks that will predictably become the singles. Second album syndrome is the fault of the artist. So cool one minute, they are soon poked into place by the big new label and do what they are told, while presented a false picture of transgression. Flail or cuss if you like, its not going to convince us you will be any bigger ten years from now. Cream were a different thing entirely, and yet the same. Indisputably, they were three great musicians, playing fantastic music, unfolding fabulous lyrics.
The DVD is unsatisfactory. Two hours of old men talking and when the music is incorporated it is toned down to enable the narrator to bung in more facts. It is fed to us in relatively chronological fashion, but there does seem to be some dancing around with the dates at times. A documentary about a great band in an era of marvellous music in which the music itself is subdued or sampled only lightly is simply not on. Weinerworld had it right with Glitz, Hitz And Blitz: The Very Best Of Sweet, interspersing the history and interviews with footage of complete numbers. If the rest of the Classic Artists series is like this it can stay away from me. The information is detailed and the journey is complete but the facts belong in a book. If I were not jabbing the trivia into the notepad most of it would have rushed in one ear and disintegrated against resident memory. In 2005, Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker reformed for a short series of concerts, 37 years after their rancorous split, and are interviewed here separately for the DVD. There is a bit of wow that all the original members of the gang were back together but they were three not seven, it should never have been that big a job. Three has repeatedly proven the magic number. The Police, The Jam, The Skids, Nirvana, Babes In Toyland, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs (for one album at least) and The Young Knives. A drummer and two guitars is all that you need to produce a lot of terrific sound. Cream began it.
Contemporary journalist, Chris Welch steers a lot of the memories, there in the day, very much there now. There is so much information chucked at the viewer that if you have no grounding in the band you could get lost in it. Clapton began with a blues band called The Roosters and, like many garage acts, it spawned members to more than one great band of the period, spilling musicians also into Manfred Mann. Jack Bruce was playing cello and Ginger Baker was a stick furious jazz drummer, which probably had a lot to do with his junk habit. Ginger Baker was playing Ronnie Scott's and was sacked for selling smack to Tubby Hayes. Good mate, Charlie Watts felt so sorry for Ginger that he resigned from the Alexis Korner Blues Incorporated to provide him with a role. The band had a pop rock and jazz blues divide. Jack Bruce saw them and wanted in, pushing in live, the band challenging him by playing a ballad with the maximum of changes in it. Bruce kept up with them and proved himself too brilliant to shrug off. They played the Ealing Blues Club, with Graham Bond on board, then the Twisted Wheel in Manchester. Graham Bond cribbed several of the players for the Graham Bond Organisation including Baker and Bruce, and Bruce adapted to the enthusiastic rock scene by converting from double bass to bass guitar. Bruce experimented consistently, wanted to bring the bass centre stage with the lead guitar and proceeded to drive his band-mates mad. Or at least infuriate the irrational one with the heroin addition who threatened Bruce in one break from a live set with the words "I'm going for a piss. Don't be here when I come back." That same night Bruce's grandstanding was followed by an excitable departure from the venue with Bruce at the wheel during which, according to Baker, "he missed a lamp post by a fag paper." Baker is bitter and acerbic and the most entertaining for it. He left the Graham Bond Organisation and sold a song to The Who, which went on the B-side while a Graham Bond song, Substitute, turned up on the A-Side.
Clapton wanted to form a new band, a 'super-group' in the words of others. Baker accepted, but there was a condition, which might have been Baker's word, and that condition was that the third player be Jack Bruce. Baker would suffer Bruce again to work with the young guitar genius. Robert Stigwood was their producer and former Rooster Ben Palmer became road manager by default following a confusing job interview with Stigwood, Palmer had really been looking at being their driver. He was their road manager until the end. They played a secret gig on my first birthday and took a mix of covers and original songs through the college circuit and on one-nighters. Bands toured heavily but hung on to locations for spells once they had a level of fame or were in a genre were house bands were of a more consistent finding. They released the album Fresh Cream with a similar mix of covers and original songs. They begin writing songs but lyrically they are looking for something special and recruit poet and jazz circuit familiar Pete Brown. The first fallacy is exposed. It wasn't a trio after all; the magic was down to a foursome. Jack Bruce and Pete Brown wrote the first A-Side, Wrapping Paper and it was an embarrassment. Baker was shunted up the B-side with a composition of his own, Cat's Squirrel. Wrapping Paper was "the most appalling piece of shit I've ever heard in my life! I was totally against it!" barks Baker, "Wrapping Paper was the birth of Bruce/ Brown." Bruce and Clapton rectified that with the Tom Dowd produced Sunshine Of My Love and Ginger will begin the first of his regular series of gripes around the music, here that he was responsible for the American Indian tom-tom intro. Then it is the 4:4 stepped up to 5:4 on White Room that he demands be known was his idea.
None of the three can be denied their part in the sound and none of the four in the success. I Feel Free became their biggest hit, both in their hands and in classic covers by others. Jack was immensely clever in making his songs producer proof, arranging the songs so that only an engineer was needed. The documentary takes us to American and into Disraeli Gears and due credit to the producer Felix Papadoudi. Cream would tour the US extensively through the remainder of their short existence and the UK gigs became a rare event. The film becomes a list of concerts with no footage, only stills of the buildings. They had begun at small venues in the UK and by the time interest had grown they were expending themselves anywhere but here. One of those priceless returns is detailed in a marvellous poster for a 1967 gig at the Tulip Bulb Auction Hall, Spalding, Lincolnshire, where they were billed alongside the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band, Move, Pink Floyd and Zoot Money And The Big Roll Band, on a ticket priced £1.00 (and you could pay at the door). In London they find themselves under threat from a rival trio, fronted by Jimi Hendrix, but Baker scoffs. Cream were three master instrumentalists, the Jimi Hendrix Experience had a great front man, but Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding were in his opinion no more than a "mediocre rhythm section."
The real threat was from within, worn out by the touring schedule, worn down by personal differences. And so it continues, through the announcement of the split, the platinum selling Wheels Of Fire, the remaining concerts and the final tidying up exercise that was the Goodbye album. The story doesn't end there but has pit-stops in 1993 (a live performance as they entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) and their return to the Royal Albert Hall in 2005. There were doubts they could do it, Clapton physically sound, but the others look knackered. Bruce appears small and frail, his jacket stained in the unfortunate lighting looks like the aftermath of a snail dance. Baker has serious problems with his vertebrae. "The whole of my spine is fucked, in the words of William Shakespeare." But, no fear, they rock.
The second disc begins as a hodgepodge of left over interviews, though not without entertainment value. Baker blames Bruce for everything including his heroin addiction, genital warts and the milk bottle stolen from his doorstep. At his African homestead, the camera stays on him as he thrashes a drum kit for eight minutes... hypnotising the viewer... not bad for a drummer. Ben Palmer proves quite the raconteur with a terrific nine-minute tale of The Roosters and a scary job in Greece working for an unpleasant club owner. It led to the near abduction of Eric Clapton and the band having to think clever and run zigzag to escape the heavily apparent peril. Tony Palmer is another excellent storyteller and his account of the farewell night at the Royal Albert Hall, which he directed the filming of for the BBC, is comically rendered. Paul Jones, too, has a good story well told.
Sixty-one minutes into the second disc (174 minutes into the overall package) and, finally, we get to see complete performances by the band in 1967. There is 16mm footage of them performing 'live' at the Revolution Club, London that November, though as there is no adverse noise or cutting away to an audience the numbers can be assumed to be filmed pre-crowd. Spoonful, Tale Of Brave Ulysses, and Sunshine Of Your Love take up the 17 minutes, with only the intro to the latter mysteriously lost. The band is dressed to cool kill and sound amazing and the colour on the footage is to be cherished. N.S.U. follows in black and white footage from the Swedish television show, Onkel Theatre, a bit of pre-recorded bouncily edited and quirky fun, as stand-up a video promo as anything coming along 20 years later. The trio appear to be really enjoying themselves in a theatre. To close, there are two colour-recorded performances from German television's Beat Club at opposite ends of the year, allowing them a loud costume change. I Feel Free and Strange Brew, again fantastic, though the moustache and beard free young Clapton morphs from shot to shot, looking invariably like Paul Whitehouse, John Craven and the Edge. If only there were more filmed performances available and the makers broke up the lengthy verbal history a little more with them.