In honor of Jack Bruce’s recent passing, and as a companion piece to my tribute to the late bassist, here’s my take on the ten best Cream songs. This list is offered with one caveat: it’s mostly going to avoid the ones everyone knows, so we’ll assume it’s more or less a given that the cream of Cream’s crop necessarily includes “Strange Brew”, “Tales of Brave Ulysses”, “Crossroads” and especially “Sunshine of Your Love”.
These ten selections, some more obscure than others, are chosen to represent the songs where Cream was most focused, most locked-in, and most original. As such, many of the trio’s blues covers or blues-influenced homages (whether more paint-by-numbers like “Spoonful” and “Rolling and Tumbling” or more inspired like “Born Under a Bad Sign”) don’t rise all the way to the top. When Bruce, Eric Clapton, and Ginger Baker were properly locked in, they not only used the blues as a successful point of departure, but they carved out a unique — and oft-imitated but seldom matched — blend of psychedelia and proto-prog. The frenzied “Deserted Cities of the Heart” is a scorching hand grenade of a song, planting a signpost of where rock had come and where it was headed.
Cream took the British Invasion’s obsession with blues masters as far as it could (should) go, using their power trio pyrotechnics to blend a distinctly English sensibility (“Wrapping Paper”, “Mother’s Lament”) with a more American rock ‘n’ roll aggression, which itself was a triumph of traditional music combining blues and folk, along with a more experimental edge influenced by jazz and the avant-garde (“SWLABR”, “Those Were the Days”).
In short, Cream went from wearing its influences on their paisley-colored sleeves to becoming one of the more influential ’60s outfits, all in a matter of years. If it was over too soon, it can’t be said that these three men failed to reach their considerable potential, taking their chops and ambition as far as possible, considering the egos and animosity forever lurking behind every note played.
10. “Dreaming” (Fresh Cream, 1966)
If any single song on Cream’s debut album functions as a calling card, “Dreaming” does the trick nicely. The harmonies, the execution, the confidence: a two-minute tour de force. It remains a revelation to hear the drums so forward in the mix: there is a reason legends like Neil Peart always make sure to name-check Ginger Baker as an unshakeable influence. Nevermore would the time-keeper be relegated to mere grunt work as time-keeper and occasional embellishment; after this, drums could be on equal ground. And if Baker revolutionized things to the extent that interminable drum solos became a de facto part of every rock concert in the ’70s and beyond, so be it.
9. “Dance the Night Away” (Disraeli Gears, 1967)
Jack Bruce’s falsetto. Clapton’s shimmering notes are like an acid trip underwater. Baker, busy as ever without managing to overwhelm. This is a disarmingly simple gem that showcases the individual brilliance of each musician and the ways they could work collectively in the service of a song. Only the Beatles, circa 1967, were combining curiosity and confidence with such precision, and the results are utterly original and enduring.
8. “Passing the Time” (Wheels of Fire, 1968)
A song that seldom (if ever) gets singled out for approbation, all one need do is listen to rock music between 1969 and 1970-something to appreciate its influence. The slow/fast time shifts, the implementation of more “exotic” instruments (cello, glockenspiel), the presentation, which pulls right up to the abyss of pretension and scoffs — we are a long way from the blues covers of the debut. Wheels of Fire creates a single, post-psychedelia and pre-prog sound. It neatly splits the difference between bright-eyed exploration (circa ’66-’67) and weary and/or opportunistic art-rock. As ambitious as anything the group ever did, it is also tight, concentrated, idiosyncratic, and typically distinctive.
7. “Stepping Out” (Live Cream Vol. 2, 1970)
Eric Clapton getting his God on. Yes, it goes on too long, and yes, it’s indulgent, and yes, there are (many) people who played the blues better, and yes, this will get you a speeding ticket if you crank it up while you’re on the highway, and yes, of course, it was featured in the epic final scene of Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets.
6. “We’re Going Wrong” (Disraeli Gears, 1967)
A lot of people (understandably?) assume this was Clapton’s group and that he was the lead vocalist. Of course, it was Jack Bruce, the thinking man’s Golden God, who is singing virtually all these indelible songs. This is without question one of his finest moments, unvarnished and without effects (or forced effect); sheer talent, total commitment, and unmitigated emotion. Oh, and Baker brings the sweet pain with his subdued maelstrom, and Clapton transcends the blues-based heroics in favor of raw, plaintive expression.