In just two years, Cream released a staggering four albums, each of which would go on to have a profound effect on Rock’s present and future landscape. According to Jack Bruce, it was Ginger Baker’s idea to form a group. “Forming Cream was absolutely Ginger’s idea” he explained. “He asked Eric (Clapton) to join and then Eric suggested that they get me to sing and play bass.” And yet despite past animosity between Bruce and Baker, according to the drummer “It was total magic immediately. We were three people made to play with each other.”
Rather than recreate the sounds of their blues idols, as John Mayall and Fleetwood Mac were doing, Cream preferred to reinterpret the songs which had inspired them. One of their first creations, the Bruce and Pete Brown penned “Wrapping paper” was issued as a single (backed with “Cat’s Squirrel”) in October 1966, followed by another single in December, the upbeat “I Feel Free”. However neither tune truly represented what the band were into, or their immediate direction.
Fresh Cream, recorded in only ten days, was the group’s debut, and was an eclectic mix of blues covers by Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson and Skip James, as well as a handful of originals. It would reach an impressive number 6 in the UK charts, quite a feat considering what competition they were up against.
We open with the rigorous “N.S.U” (apparently a reference to a particular venereal disease known as “non-specific urethritis”), a highly charged number and one of the very first songs Bruce had written specifically for the group around the time of their initial rehearsal. The ballad “Dreaming”, another Bruce tune, has a somewhat wistful psychedelic charm to it, while “Sleepy Time Time”, co-written by Bruce and his wife Janet Godfrey, and the Baker/Godfrey co-write “Sweet Wine” are both very different in terms of style and arrangement. The former being more of the sort of progressive blues the band was already becoming famous for, while the latter has more of a pop-rock flavour to it, almost bordering on the commercial.
Willie Dixon’s classic “Spoonful” gets a menacing English makeover, and one that would remain in their repertoire until the group’s final show in 1968. Bruce is in fine vocal form as is Clapton’s twin guitar assault.
Side two gets going with a highly energetic arrangement of “Cat’s Squirrel”, followed by Robert Johnson’s “Four Until Late”, featuring Eric on lead vocals, is more laid back, and reminiscent of some of the material Clapton had been playing with John Mayall. The rollicking “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” has the band paying tribute to Muddy Waters, before a superb rendition of Skip James’ “I’m So Glad”, where all three musicians are firmly locked in place and in perfect simpatico with one another – even if the chorus can get a tad repetitive, the sheer energy and enthusiasm is enough alone to retain the listener’s attention.
We end with the instrumental “Toad”, a song (for want of a better word) containing one of rock’s first extended drum solos (for better or worse), of the sort which would easily have given John Bonham an idea or two. Yes it’s self indulgent, but so what. If guitarists are allowed to noodle away for hours on end, then why not drummers?
Often overlooked due to its more popular follow up, Disreali Gears, Fresh Cream is an absolute gem of a record. The UK edition left off their first two singles, instead choosing to focus on more blues oriented material, a wise decision at the time, considering that genre’s ever growing popularity amongst English (and American) youth. Today, for a band to rehearse, record, then tour in such a short space of time would be unheard of, much less impossible of. But that they did. And by the following year, Cream were well on their way to becoming one of the most celebrated ‘supergroups’ of the 1960’s.