CREAM — Wheels of Fire (review)

CREAM — Wheels of Fire album cover Album · 1968 · Jazz Related Rock Buy this album from MMA partners
4/5 ·
Circa 1968 there wasn’t a bigger group in the world than Cream. Their first two albums had been adopted as soundtracks to the hippy counterculture’s lifestyle and it was hard to find anyone under the age of 30 that didn’t like Eric, Jack and Ginger. When “Wheels of Fire” hit the record bins it was akin to throwing gasoline on an already blazing bonfire because, despite it being a steeper-priced 2-record set, it not only gave their huge fan base more of the bluesy rock with a psychedelic British twist they couldn’t get enough of, it also showcased yet another of their unique talents; their ability to plunge headlong into the wild, untamed territory of jazz/rock improvisation. Folks who’d had the good fortune to see them in concert knew all about this exciting side of the trio but the average guy and gal loitering on Main Street, USA had never been exposed to this kind of free-form spontaneity and it was an epiphany to millions. The effect it had on music in general is beyond estimation. Disc 2 served notice that if you attended a Cream gig expecting to hear precise replications of “I Feel Free” or “Sunshine of Your Love” you were in for a rude awakening. They were going to go wherever their unpredictable muse led them and their audience could either tag along or stay home and that was a radical attitude to assume. While common sense tells you that such an uncompromising stance would piss off and permanently alienate the majority of a band’s following the exact opposite occurred. They got bigger. Getting a ticket to a stop on their tour became as difficult as reserving a seat on an Apollo moon mission. Cream could do no wrong.

What better way to open a new release than with a top ten hit? Bruce’s “White Room” streaked up the charts like a skyrocket, propelling the album to instant must-have status across the board. It starts with grandiose descending power chords presented in a curious 5/4 pattern, signifying that they were even bolder than before (even if the song’s progression and Clapton’s prominent wah-wah guitar was reminiscent of “Tales of Brave Ulysses” from their sophomore effort.) Similarities aside, a good tune is a gold mine and, in their label’s eyes, this one had dollar signs written all over it. Cream’s confidence in their craft is evident in the track’s unrelenting drive fueled primarily by Baker’s aggressive double-bass drum work. Their fascination with American blues is well-documented but they always managed to put an unorthodox spin on their versions of songs like Chester Burnett’s “Sitting On Top of the World.” Jack’s ovine vibrato is on full display and so is Eric’s impeccable phrasing in his guitar solo. As on “Disraeli Gears” they dabble often in the realm of art rock and Ginger’s “Passing the Time” is the first to appear. A droning 5/4 motif begins this queer duck of a tune, then it fades into a lullaby-ish segment populated by cello, glockenspiel, pedal organ, calliope and Bruce’s restrained crooning before they dive into a hard-rocking jam led by Jack’s roaring bass. Later they reprise the haunting bed-time melody and bring it to a quiet close.

A highlight of the studio half of the album is Bruce’s “As You Said.” The tune’s Indian raga influence is obvious but it’s tinted with a cool jazz hue that surrounds the central melody line. The interplay between Jack’s cello and acoustic guitar playing is hypnotic (Eric took the day off, evidently) and it points out how adventurous they were willing to be. Baker could be downright weird at times but never so much as on “Pressed Rat and Warthog,” a novelty number in which he non-chalantly relates a strange, Lewis Carroll-type tale (eternal apples, anyone?) over a roiling instrumental accompanied by a bright trumpet. (It WAS the 60s, after all.) Following that detour it’s back to the blues with Bruce’s slithering “Politician.” I love the tightness of the group as they place the song’s jazzy riff into a bluesy framework, how Ginger refuses to be conventional in his drumming, how Clapton intertwines his competing guitar rides brilliantly, how Jack’s boisterous bass dexterously avoids cluttering the track and how his sleazy vocalization coils around the melody like a snake. Baker’s “Those Were the Days” is another eccentric tune full of unusual kicks and accents with Swiss hand bells, tubular bells and marimba tossed in to add exotic flora. Their bullish take on “Born Under a Bad Sign” by Booker T. Jones follows and it’s a heavy steamroller. The cut’s riff-driven current is strong and constant as a trade wind as Ginger lays down an improbable but punchy rhythmic foundation below Bruce’s authoritative voice and Eric’s soaring licks. They end Disc 1 with another of Jack’s jazzy concoctions, “Deserted Cities of the Heart.” It opens with an engaging theme in a 15/8 time signature that smoothes out into standard 4/4 on the chorus but it’s Clapton’s brittle but ferocious guitar lead that always catches my attention. It’s not an easy song to pigeonhole but then neither was Cream.

Producer Felix Pappalardi had the wisdom to tape the band’s appearances at San Francisco’s Winterland and Fillmore venues in March ’68 and in doing so permanently altered the direction of music. The impact Disc 2 of “Wheels of Fire” had on an entire generation can’t be overstated. Live recordings never sounded so clear and it was revolutionary. What other concert cut gets more airplay on classic rock radio well over 4 decades later than their rendition of Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads”? It possesses one of the best if not THE best rock guitar ride ever because it’s concocted totally impromptu without forethought yet it flows like the Mississippi River. Whether they’ll admit it or not, most guitarists would kill to be able to play that fluidly on the spot. But it’s their nearly 17-minute performance of Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful” that stunned the planet. The tune’s initial going is distinguished by Bruce’s passionate singing and then they do what they did so well. The epic instrumental movement they develop isn’t led by any member in particular. They’re a three-headed organism with one heart. A trinity of raw inertia. Six minutes in they double the beat and rev up the intensity, unleashing the mesmerizing nature of jazz vamping while maintaining an acute awareness of crucial dynamics. Then at just the right moment they float back down to earth and end with a flourish. (And the music world uttered a collective “Wow!”) Jack’s extravaganza of blues shoutin’ and harp mauling, “Traintime,” can be a test of endurance but it still remains a testimony to his lung capacity and no one can dispute his all-out commitment to the task at hand. Baker’s “Toad” is 16:15 of everything you ever wanted in a drum solo and more. Roll up Gene Krupa with Joe Morello, add a dash of Keith Moon and Buddy Rich and you’ve got the Ginger Baker show. It’s not something you want to sit through often but you gotta admit, the man’s a monster on the tubs.

Not only did “Wheels of Fire” climb to #1 on the album chart and hold that position for four weeks, it was the first platinum-selling double LP in history. THAT’S what I call carving a niche. But this review is supposed to emphasize its jazz-relatedness and, in that respect, it was significant for more reasons than just impressive sales. Improvisation had been a fundamental part of jazz since its inception so it certainly wasn’t invented by Cream but what they accomplished on stage (whether they meant to or not) was to draw that inventive aspect into the regimented universe of rock & roll, freeing the genre from the restraints of note-for-note recreations of a given act’s popular ditties. This album’s success proved to the stuffy, conservative record moguls that the public was ready for something challenging and, by doing that, Cream paved the way for musicians to expand their horizons exponentially.
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