Talking about a revolution: the story of Cream and two years that changed rock

Cream in Central Park, rowing a boat
(Image credit: Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)

The world’s first supergroup, Cream existed for barely two years in the late 60s, and in their lifetime recorded just two full studio albums. You won’t find them featured in any of those chart lists or ubiquitous cheapo-TV The Top 100 Something-or-other shows. Ask most people under 30 about the music of Cream and they’ll think you’re talking about the Liverpool/Ibiza dance club.

Within a couple of days of news leaking out in 2005 year that Cream were playing London’s Royal Albert Hall, all the tickets had gone. At £50-£125 they weren’t cheap to start with, but within a month a web search would find you a seat in the front stalls selling for £1,700, and a restricted-view from the balcony at around £350. A box? Don’t ask.

So what is it about Cream that makes middle-aged men prepared to cash in their life assurance policies to see them play, close to 40 years after the trio played their last shows? 

The simple answer is that Cream pioneered a fusion of rock, blues and jazz that directly influenced an entire generation of musicians and therefore the course of rock music over the next decade. And the legacy continues to filter down. Dave Navarro of Jane’s Addiction is just one contemporary guitarist proud to cite Cream as a major influence.

Before drummer Ginger Baker, bassist Jack Bruce and guitarist Eric Clapton formed Cream in 1966, most British pop music stuck pretty rigidly to a verse/ chorus format, and any instrumental solo was generally confined to repeating the melody. Cream changed all that. 

For example, they took the two-note riff that comprised Willie Dixon’s Spoonful and stretched it from two-and-a-half minutes to six-and-a-half, exaggerated it, and improvised all around it with a dazzling display of virtuoso playing. This wasn’t a new idea, but it was largely confined to jazz – a style that by the mid-60s, as Frank Zappa famously remarked, “wasn’t dead, it just smelled funny”.

The dynamic that propelled Cream hinged on Baker and Bruce’s jazz backgrounds and Clapton’s blues roots. Clapton may not have had the musical knowledge and technique that Baker and Bruce possessed, but he had a God-given gift that enabled the group to justify their audacious name.

“I was full of very big ideas about what I felt we could do,” Jack Bruce explains. “It was sort of rewriting the blues, if you like. It sounds like of presumptuous to say it. I felt it was the possibility of a new kind of language with this band.”

On stage the chemistry within Cream was staggering. “It was as if something else had taken over,” Baker explains. “You’re not conscious of playing. You’re listening to this fantastic sound that you’re a part of. And your part is just… happening. It was a gift, and we three had it in abundance.”

Clapton was more succinct. He called it “blues, ancient and modern”.

More significantly, Cream proved that there was an audience for their music. Their first album, Fresh Cream, released at the end of 1966, went Top 10 in the UK and spent four months in the chart. 

The next batch of R&B musicians forming bands in the wake of The Rolling Stones, The Animals, The Who, the Spencer Davis Group, Them and the rest now had a new direction to follow. And just as they were absorbing the possibilities, in the spring of 1967, along came the Jimi Hendrix Experience with their debut album Are You Experienced?. What had been a wind of change became a gale.

Within a year, fuel-injected blues bands such as Ten Years After, Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, the Jeff Beck Group and Chicken Shack would be reaping the benefit. Further afield, the likes of Traffic, Jethro Tull, The Nice and King Crimson were all noting the implications and plotting a course.

It was the same in America when Cream started touring there in autumn 1967. West Coast audiences had already been primed by the spaced-out jams of psychedelic musical crusaders like The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin and Quicksilver Messenger Service, but Cream simply blew all-comers off stage – they really were that good.

Not surprisingly, Cream focused their attention on the States. They recorded their second album at Atlantic Records’ New York studios. But label boss Ahmet Ertegun, who thought he was getting a British blues band to rival US bands Big Brother & The Holding Company or the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, was aghast at Cream’s new material. He was particularly contemptuous of a song called Sunshine Of Your Love.

“I remember playing it to Ahmet, and he called it ‘psychedelic hogwash’,” Bruce laughs. “Fortunately there were other people coming in and out of the studio where Cream were recording, like Booker T Jones and Otis Redding, and they listened and said: ‘This is good. This is happening’. They saw that riff as something that was musically interesting and commercial as well.”

Sunshine Of Your Love was Cream’s breakthrough in the US. It was their biggest single there, reaching No.5, and remains their best-known song. Ertegun, wisely realising that he was out of his depth when it came to the commercial potential of ‘psychedelic hogwash’, brought in another weirdo who’d been hanging around the studio, Felix Pappalardi, to help shape the band’s sound with producer Tom Dowd for second album Disraeli Gears

Pappalardi – who would later hook up with Leslie West and Corky Laing to form Mountain [best described as a Cream tribute band] – took one of the few bona fide blues numbers Cream had recorded, Hey Lawdy Mama, and twisted it into the surreal Strange Brew.

Pappalardi also got Clapton to pile on the overdubs like they were going out of fashion [actually they were just coming in] and play around with newly invented gizmos like the wah-wah pedal. But Cream were not really paying much attention to Britain. They were embarking on series of record-breaking tours of America. They demonstrated that cracking the US is a long, arduous task, but that if you stick at it the rewards are immense.

America proved to be Cream’s downfall, too. The relentless touring there poured petrol on the sparking, volatile relationship between Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce. Relentless touring of America didn’t do much for the band’s playing, either. The intensity of their live shows proved impossible to maintain, with or without artificial stimulants. Minus inspiration, the jams became tedious.

What made it worse was that the audience didn’t know the difference, and often didn’t care. Cream could stand on stage and tune up and audiences would go bonkers; what they actually played seemed irrelevant. 

One night Cream took to the stage amid a howl of accidental feedback, and received an immediate standing ovation. On another night they effectively played an instrumental set when the vocal mics failed, and still received rapturous applause, and got the same slavish response at another show when Clapton’s guitar sound went down and the audience heard the set played by just bass and drums.

Tracks for Cream’s third album, Wheels Of Fire, were recorded in brief gaps between tours and, despite Pappalardi’s best efforts, struggled to repeat the spontaneous fluency of Disraeli Gears. What boosted Wheels Of Fire was a second, live disc comprised of four tracks displaying Cream’s individual and collective virtuosity, warts and all.

The double album was confirmation that Cream were two distinct bands in the studio and in concert. It was also confirmation that Cream were now superstars in America. Wheels Of Fire spent five weeks at No.1, and became the first double album ever to go platinum in the US. But even before it was released the band had announced that they were splitting up. 

“We were touring in Texas when Eric came up and said: ‘I’ve had enough’,” according to Baker. “I said: ‘Yeah, man, me too’.”

But they weren’t allowed to leave America before a lucrative farewell tour there and the Goodbye album, plus material for a couple of posthumous live albums that enabled the record company to keep milking Cream.

Bruce dived into a solo career, starting with the excellent Songs For A Tailor. Clapton linked up with Steve Winwood from Traffic to form another supergroup, Blind Faith, only to find Baker sitting on the drum stool when he got there. Despite the group’s best intentions, Blind Faith were hyped beyond expectations. Almost inevitably, they imploded after debuting with a free concert in Hyde Park and just one album and tour.

So, given their achievements, why are Cream not as revered and put at the same pinnacle of rock history as, say, Jimi Hendrix – who they outsold many times over in the 60s? One of the reasons is, well… Hendrix. He arrived in Britain just as Cream were launching their first album. In fact one of his first appearances was joining the band on stage at the Central London Polytechnic.

But good though the Jimi Hendrix Experience were, they did not have the collective brilliance of Cream. However, Hendrix had a panache and a sense of showmanship that Cream did not possess. 

Clapton did not squat on his haunches and thrust his guitar at the audience, flick his tongue suggestively at young ladies, or play guitar solos with his teeth. On stage Cream were largely static in front of vast banks of Marshall speakers, focused on their music.

Hendrix also scored several hit singles that ensured a media profile. Cream had a couple of Top 20 singles. They sold shedloads of albums, which of course was far more lucrative, but it meant their TV appearances ended to be on late-night BBC2 shows. 

And after the summer of 1967 they concentrated on America, playing only a handful of British shows before their London Royal Albert Hall farewell concert. Cream also did not play any of the legendary festivals [their management turned down Monterey without even telling them]; they concentrated on headlining their own shows. Which again made financial sense, but limited the band’s profile.

And apart from their farewell concert there’s virtually nothing of Cream on celluloid apart from a specially filmed show in an empty Speakeasy Club that resurfaces from time to time. 

There’s no shortage of Hendrix DVDs, however. At the time, of course, Cream did not need to worry about their profile. Their gigs were standing-room-only pretty much from start to finish. And in America their albums sold in huge quantities.

“I think we were one of the early heavy metal bands without knowing it,” Eric Clapton has said. “After we disbanded, Led Zeppelin filled the void.”

He is not wrong. Jimmy Page and manager Peter Grant followed Cream’s progress in America very carefully, learning many lessons that they would then improve upon. Baker was an acknowledged influence on John Bonham; like Bruce, John Paul Jones had a broad musical talent; and you can argue about whether Clapton or Page is the greatest British guitarist until the drum solo finally ends.

Led Zeppelin recorded their first album just one month before Cream played their farewell gig at London’s Royal Albert Hall in November 1968. Jimmy Page has stated that he intended Zeppelin to be “a marriage of blues, hard rock and acoustic music topped with heavy choruses.” Enough said.

Hugh Fielder

Hugh Fielder has been writing about music for 47 years. Actually 58 if you include the essay he wrote about the Rolling Stones in exchange for taking time off school to see them at the Ipswich Gaumont in 1964. He was news editor of Sounds magazine from 1975 to 1992 and editor of Tower Records Top magazine from 1992 to 2001. Since then he has been freelance. He has interviewed the great, the good and the not so good and written books about some of them. His favourite possession is a piece of columnar basalt he brought back from Iceland.