Almost fifty years after the fact, it must become difficult for each successive generation to fully comprehend just how powerful and influential Cream really were at the time this album was released in 1967, an album which was not only the band’s strongest declaration yet, but remains to this day their most authoritative. With its mind-bending cover art by the late Martin Sharp (easily one of the most iconic of the era) and disciplined musicianship, along with Hendrix, Cream were at the forefront of the newly emerging psychedelic rock scene in London, a movement that almost overnight altered people’s perceptions of popular music forever.
Disraeli Gears was the group’s second LP, and this time they decided to bring in Felix Pappalardi to produce, who not only helped to arrange their music (he was classically trained) but was someone who gave the record a more psychedelic feel compared to their debut. But production aside, what really stands out is the high quality song writing and professional playing. This is the album where I like to think that Eric Clapton came into his own, where you will hear some of the songs he is still most famous for today (whether Eric liked it or not after the group had long disbanded).
First up is one of the greatest LP openers of the period, the almost hallucinatory “Strange Brew”, with Clapton on lead vocals. The story goes that when Cream were in New York, they recorded a version of the old blues standard “Lawdy Mama”, which Pappalardi subsequently took and managed to rework into the version we all know and worship today. All the band had to do was write new lyrics and replace the original vocals. Next is the song Clapton could never disown even if he wanted to, the immortal “Sunshine of Your Love”, one of the bands best remembered and most popular tunes, which was conceived originally after Cream went to a Jimi Hendrix concert. Jack Bruce was so blown away that he came up with the iconic riff, whereby Eric and Ginger pitched in to finish it. It was also the song which broke them in America. Along with “Smoke on the Water” and “Stairway to Heaven”, “Sunshine…” would have to be at or near the very top in terms of being one of the most recognisable rock phrases ever.
“World of Pain” is a tune Pappalardi wrote with his wife Gail Collins, which fits in nicely with the record overall. Clapton and Bruce trade vocals, while Ginger Baker thumps away in the distance. Clapton also overdubs some very Hendrix sounding guitars as well, establishing that he had long move on from his days with The Bluesbreakers. “Dance the Night Away” is another quality albeit unusual number, all hovering high-pitched vocals and trippy arrangements. The first side concludes with “Blue Condition”, written and sung by Baker. Now while he was an extraordinary drummer, I can’t say that I’m a big fan of the man’s vocal abilities, to the point where I’m stuffed if I know what this song is even doing on here.
Side two begins with arguably the most psychedelic number of the album, the no doubt chemically influenced “Tales of Brave Ulysses”, where from the first few notes you know that you’re in for something exceptional. Like a lot of Cream material, the song itself is steeped in the blues, but soaked in LSD, which perhaps explains the song’s somewhat dreamy perception altering quality. Clapton’s heavy wah wah is enough alone to give the listener hallucinations, while Martin Sharp’s lyrics have an almost T.S Eliot aspect to them.
The excellence continues with the upbeat and dynamic “SWLABR”, another Bruce/Brown written song, with more of those psychotropic-blues elements the band was by now becoming famous for. “We’re Going Wrong” is a track which for some reason many fans and critics seem divided on. If memory serves me right, Jack Bruce’s marriage was beginning to unravel, and this was his way of expressing that. Personally I find the song rather moving, and mesmeric, not to mention Bruce’s semi-falsetto delivery, which is both brittle as well as touching.
Clapton takes “Outside Woman Blues”, an old Blind Joe Reynolds tune and transforms it into a modern day late ‘60’s hippie-blues. Even Clapton’s strings sound as though they’re dripping with lysergic acid. “Take it Back” is the bluesiest track, something which must have pleased Eric no end, considering his obsession with the art form.
The last track “Mother’s Lament” is a kind of cockney vaudeville jaunt, where all three members join in on vocals, as if to remind the listener that while they were dedicated to the blues, they were still an English group at heart. In fact the whole thing is positively Pythonesque in style and execution.
Nowadays a band such as Cream would be afforded the luxury of taking their time to write, record, and basically do whatever else they wanted in between. Not in 1967 however, as the entire album was recorded in only six days! Imagine any popular artist moving that fast today. Hardly likely I’d say, even in an age of Pro Tools. It would probably take around six days just to set up all the equipment in the studio and organise the necessary catering.
The deluxe edition contains the usual plethora of bonus material, most of which was previously issued on the Those Were the Days boxed set, and BBC Sessions. Still, the demos are intriguing, especially “Blue Condition” (an alternate version with Clapton on vocals), as well as “Weird of Hermiston” and “The Clearout”, two tracks that would later appear on Jack Bruce’s first solo album. So overall, it’s nice to have it all compiled together in the one package. And while they go on to record two more albums, before finally imploding under the weight of acrimony and internal bickering; neither of those records was as concise and accomplished as Disraeli Gears. In one word, indispensable.