Monday, June 30, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Cream: The Legendary Sixties Supergroup


In the pantheon of influential 1960s rock bands, Cream still loom large forty-six years after their split. Formed in 1966 by Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, and Ginger Baker, their career lasted a brief three years, but the studio albums and live work they left behind have continued to influence generations of musicians and fans. They were the first bonafide supergroup, bringing together three players who were considered to be the best at their respective instruments, and they showed that virtuosity could go hand in hand with high-quality, well-crafted pop songs, as well as providing a framework for dazzling onstage improvisations that were almost free-form jazz in nature. Cream were one of the first bands, after the Beatles, that I became obsessed with as a teenager, especially once I started playing guitar. Thus, I had been on the lookout for a definitive book on them for as long as I could remember.


In this book, veteran Melody Maker journalist Christ Welch, who interviewed Cream extensively during their heyday in the 1960s, has written a comprehensive overview of their career. Published in 2000, the book covers their entire 1960s career, as well as their 1993 reunion for their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. Welch draws upon his interviews with the three band members from 1966 to 1968, as well as more recent interviews with Bruce, Baker, former roadies Ben Palmer and Mick Turner, and others. Even with the lack of contemporary interview material from Clapton, Welch manages to make the story cohesive and comprehensive. I bought this book in 2000 when it was released and have read it many times, but for the purposes of this review I've read it again in order to have a fresher perspective on it.

Beginning with short biographies of each of the band members, the story of Cream's coming together in the summer of 1966 is traced through their various musical apprenticeships and the bands they were a part of leading up to their formation. By setting up the main story of Cream in this way, the reader is able to see how each member honed their skills and grew their reputation to the point that their forming Cream was indeed a big deal in 1966. From here, Welch tells the story of their career from the beginning, when he was present at their second-ever rehearsal at a school hall in London, to their first gig at a small club (the Twisted Wheel in Manchester) before their debut performance at the Windsor Jazz and Blues Festival. What's striking about the overall arc of Cream's career is how their management, which they constantly questioned at the time (and which they still cite as a source of problems to the present day) was short-sighted enough that the band were sent out to play a series of one-nighters at small clubs all over the UK and Europe, barely earning more than they did in the previous bands. This was despite the fact that they quickly built up a reputation and a large and devoted fanbase who clamored to see them. As Ginger said, "there were as many people outside the venue as there were inside...sometimes more!" However, it was when they made their way over to the USA that things really took off for the band; forced to play longer concerts and fill up the time they were allotted, they began stretching out and improvising onstage, creating a new genre of heavy rock, and blowing minds and earning devoted fans all across the country. As their popularity rose, so did their earning power and they ended up becoming one of the highest grossing concert acts of the still nascent 1960s rock scene. Somehow, while being worked literally to the brink of exhaustion by manager Robert Stigwood, they managed to cram in recording sessions when possible and produced three excellent albums: their 1966 debut Fresh Cream, and their two classic albums: 1967's Disraeli Gears and 1968's epic Wheels of Fire. However, by the time of their marathon US tour in the early part of 1968, the cracks that were had been present from the beginning (namely, the earlier issues/feuding between Bruce and Baker) and the grueling and punishing pace of the tour led the band to split at the height of their popularity. After wrapping up the year with two farewell concerts in London, by early 1969 and the release of their final album, Goodbye, Cream were no more. Apart from the 1993 reunion and the London and New York concerts they played in 2005 for an actual reunion, that's been it for the band.

In addition to the story of the band, there is a chapter in the middle of the book that features a more detailed look at each member of Cream, focusing on their talent and influence. Since each section is written by a fellow musician (including Dave Gregory, the superb guitarist from XTC who wrote the section on Clapton), it delves a bit more into the equipment and technical set-ups they each used. As a musician myself, I really enjoyed this but I can see where it might be more than what is necessary for a more casual or non-musician reader. There is also a detailed diary of Cream's entire career at the end of the book, listing in chronological order all of their recording sessions, concert, TV, and radio appearances, and record releases. These are punctuated by recent comments from Baker, Bruce, Palmer, and others who were there at the time. It's a nice section to have, especially for putting into perspective just how many concerts they played (around 275!) in their all-too-brief career. Finally, throughout the book there are some really nice photos, not only of the band, but of various tour posters, memorabilia, records and record sleeves, and more.

If I have a criticism of the book, it's that I feel that Chris Welch is a bit too close to the subject and thus writes with a slightly less than unbiased view. It is, of course, always nice to read a book written by a true fan of the subject, but the best of these authors will be able to detach themselves a bit and maintain a somewhat critical eye, realizing that not everything produced by the artist, no matter how talented they are, is worthy of praise. While Welch is by no means sycophantic or wholly laudatory of Cream, on the whole he is overwhelmingly positive about nearly everything, such that the few times he does offer any criticism, minor as it is, it ends up being a bit jarring.  In addition, the reliance on his 1960s interviews makes some sections of the book seem very "cut and paste." However, at the same time, the book raises several excellent points, ranging from how Stigwood used Cream and their unexpected success (and the financial rewards that came about as a result) to finance his true passion, the Bee Gees. Also, the obsession by Atlantic Records to record the band live throughout 1968 forced Clapton to change his gear and settings in order to accommodate the limitations of the recording equipment...as a result, the gorgeous, miles-long sustain and feedback he had throughout 1967 (listen below) was gone. As a result, while his playing was still otherworldly, his tone and attack changed slightly for the worse. The dispute over songwriting credits and publishing royalties, especially given what was agreed upon at the inception of the band, receives substantial discussion throughout the book, enhanced by extensive comments from Jack Bruce's songwriting partner Pete Brown. It is nuggets like these that elevate the book beyond a simple band biography and really shed additional light on the inner workings of the band, as well as the issues that brought about their eventual downfall.

Cream as they sounded best, in 1967, when Eric had sustain that would last you for days and they played with absolute abandon

While rather brief by the standards of many band biographies, coming in at just under 200 pages, this book is still well worth getting and reading for any fan of Cream, and despite its minor flaws, stands as the definitive book of their career. For more in depth looks at the individual members, I would direct the reader to hunt down copies of each of their autobiographies (which I've linked to in the first paragraph of this review). But if you want the most detailed story of Cream as a band, this book is where you'll find it.

MY RATING: 7.5/10

2 comments:

  1. The reason Cream started playing longer songs (Fillmore West) was that the jam-loving SF audiences urged them to "just play". The first night they opened for the Airplane. The second night, the Airplane cancelled.

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    1. Yes, that was part of it. The other part of it was that they were used to playing short sets back in the UK and the San Francisco crowds expected longer, more improvisational sets (like the Airplane and Dead would play)...Cream didn't have enough songs to play that long, so they stretched them out to compensate. And we all benefited from it :)

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