In another life, or another decade, Cream no doubt would have enjoyed a far longer career than they actually did. That they came together at all is in itself something of a minor miracle, considering that Jack Bruce (bass) and Ginger Baker (drums) weren’t exactly on the best of terms to begin with, having already performed and recorded together as part of The Graham Bond Organisation, a proto jazz fusion group who were at the forefront of the newly emerging London R&B scene in the early 1960’s. Though despite their antipathy toward one another, Eric Clapton was somehow able to convince the pair to form a trio, do a few gigs, maybe even write some songs, and see what happened.
Released in 1968, Wheels of Fire was the band’s third album and a double LP to boot. As their friend and producer Felix Pappalardi later recalled: “The whole studio album was completed before we did the live album. The more we got into the studio album the more necessary it was to do the live one. The studio stuff became very electric so I wanted the live Cream right there where you could get at it, Cream as a trio without the arranging and the electronics. I presented it to Atlantic in this exact way.”
“White Room” is one of the band’s finest compositions and arguably the greatest opener to any rock album ever. Bruce’s commanding lead vocal is sustained by Clapton’s wah-wah guitar and Baker’s ingenious 5/4 time keeping. The lyrics, written by Pete Brown, are also a highlight. “Sitting on Top of the World” is all heavy blues, reminiscent of what Led Zeppelin would be doing just a year or so later. Baker gets all sentimental on “Passing the Time”, until about half way into the song they unexpectedly break out into a desperate sprint, as if being chased down a mountain by a sudden landslide. “As You Said” is classic Bruce, and an indicator of where he would soon be heading as a solo artist.
Composed and recited by Baker, “Pressed Rat and Warthog” is a strange animal indeed, like Wind in the Willows set to hard rock. Pappalardi plays trumpet and flute, just in case the listener might be wondering, proving that he was more than a mere producer but also a talented musician as well. On “Politician” Bruce and Brown take a cynical stab at the political establishment. Clapton’s guitars criss-cross each other from one speaker to another, while floating around the room. Good thing I’m not on drugs. Or maybe I should be when listening to this music. Actually you may need to be on at least something to get through “Those Were the Days”, yet another Baker tune, and one which I can’t say adds all that much to the record. Not so their cover of Albert King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign”, on which Clapton’s subtle though vicious lead guitar complements Bruce’s expressive vocals perfectly. The Bruce/Brown collaboration “Deserted Cities of the Heart” is not only a fantastic song title, but also a fine conclusion to the studio side of the album as a whole.
As for the live portion of the record, much of it I can either take or leave. The first side roars off with one of Cream’s (and Clapton’s) most definitive and memorable performances, their inimtable interpretation of Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads”, an exciting four minute tour de force which Clapton has since rarely bettered (not that he himself would probably agree with me). Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful” gets an extended and largely improvised workout, although at sixteen minutes it perhaps tends to stretch the listener’s tolerance just a little, no matter how impressive Cream’s instrumental skills are. The seven minute “Traintime” has Jack blowing his harmonica like some old bluesman of yore, while “Toad” has the trio pushing their collective imaginations to the absolute limit. Baker’s near tribal drum solo I’m sure must have been an exciting event for those in attendance, but like the majority of drum solos, doesn’t really translate all that well when sitting in the comfort of your living room while slowly sipping on a pint of Guinness.
Despite its flaws, Wheels of Fire is an album that has managed to weather the ravages of time incredibly well. Double LPs are often never easy affairs, and can be difficult to live with. Certainly this is one of those albums which must be heard from A to D in order to appreciate it in full as far as what was going on in their heads at the time. Because with any luck, it may do your head in, just as it once did mine. And by the way, need I mention the front cover?