[12 November 2004]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
England was an interesting musical place to be in 1967, as rock’s preeminent pair of power trios laid their respective claims to greatness. On one side, the Jimi Hendrix Experience exploded as brash newcomers and rewrote every rule in the guitarist’s instruction manual; on the other, Cream culled from each member’s distinguished backgrounds and blended a wide array of influences into a sophisticated sonic offering. Although stylistically different in many respects, both groups shared gifted musicians, solid rhythmic foundations, and disappointingly short life spans. While the Experience dazzled the London scene in 1967 with the release of its freshman and sophomore records, (the landmark Are You Experienced, and underrated follow-up, Axis: Bold as Love), Cream countered with Disraeli Gears, a suitable compliment to it debut from the previous year. Now, with a fresh look and an extra disc of bonus material courtesy of the Deluxe Edition treatment, Disraeli Gears can be revisited, taking listeners back in time to that wonderful year of 1967…
Anchored by a handful of songs that were to grow into rock staples, the album is often overlooked as an amazing display of experimentation and contrast. The 11 original tracks are a hodge-podge of sounds, shifting musical genres at dizzying speed, as each band member shines in his own ways. From Jack Bruce’s impassioned vocals to Eric Clapton’s sizzling fretwork to Ginger Baker’s precision drumming, there can be no question as to the group’s pedigree and purpose; Cream was a virtuoso band confident in its collective abilities and determined to follow its musical desires in a variety of directions. Weaving aspects of Delta blues, English blues, jazz, and psychedelic rock together into a cohesive album, Cream proved that music need not be formulaic in order to resonate with power. What makes the album even more remarkable is the liner notes’ mention that it was recorded in six days. Less than a week to produce a recording of this quality? Simply amazing, and a testament to the level of musicianship possessed by the band, as well as the abilities of studio wizard Felix Pappalardi.
The Deluxe package provides generous twin CDs to enjoy; Disc 1 features the stereo version of the original album, while Disc 2 offers the mono version. Each disc also includes bonus material that shows various developmental stages—of the music, and the band itself—including stereo and mono out-takes of “Lawdy Mama” (what would soon morph into “Strange Brew”) and “Blue Condition” (featuring Clapton’s vocals). Of particular interest are the five demos on the first CD. The rough takes of “We’re Going Wrong” and “SWLABR” provide freeze frame moments of Cream in the studio, polishing the songs and finding the proverbial groove. The remaining three tracks are more notable for their musicality: “Hey Now Princess” is highlighted by a fierce duel between Clapton and Baker, while Bruce spits out lyrics as if he were adlibbing; “Weird of Hermiston” plods along as an interesting example of slow Britpop; “The Clearout” grows from a marching band beat into a steady dose of vintage Clapton riffing.
Balancing these demos, Disc 2 offers nine tracks from Cream’s BBC appearances. If listeners can bear the excruciating exuberance of the BBC host, the live cuts (and interview snippets) permit a rare glimpse of the mighty Cream working its way through mostly new material, and getting its musical balance.
Although Cream was to issue only two more albums and ultimately break up before the close of the ‘60s, Disraeli Gears remains a significant part of the group’s creative resume. Three and a half decades ago, the recording was a far cry from the status quo. Now, all these years later, the album and its Deluxe Edition enhancements serve as a fitting tribute to a fine band that was not afraid to indulge itself, in more ways than one.