Reviews

Cream: Royal Albert Hall, London, May 2-3-5-6, 2005 [DVD]

Lou Friedman

After a long absence, God... err, Eric Clapton has returned, and along with Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce, has resurrected the deity known as Cream.


Cream

Royal Albert Hall, London, May 2-3-5-6, 2005 [DVD]

Label: Rhino
US Release Date: 2005-10-04
UK Release Date: 2005-10-03
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Hell froze over.

What other logical explanation can there be for three strong-willed, talented, and stubborn individuals to reunite after a 37-year hiatus (save for one Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction)? When Eric Clapton, who was still friendly with both Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker, threw out the idea of the trio known as Cream reuniting to do a few shows at the last venue they inhabited before their acrimonious split, Bruce was all for it. Baker was not, initially -- quite reluctant, in fact -- but eventually, he came around. (It was he and Bruce who were most at odds when the band was together.) So after a few tentative meetings and one major blowup during the first week of tour rehearsals, B, B, & C were able to resurrect their simpatico (of sorts) which made them one of the most unique bands in the late '60s.

Cream's last shows in 1968 were at the Royal Albert Hall in London, so it was just that the reunion shows should be held there as well. The band took over a year of rehearsals to be able to get the stamina level up to do four shows in five nights, each running 2:15. And when the three were satisfied with how they sounded, they booked May 2, 3, 5 & 6 of 2005 at the Hall to bring back memories of acid-filled days of blues-jazz hybrid, with rock and roll being the glue that held it all together. Certainly older and wiser, the three took the stage for those four amazing evenings and played their guts out. (The band then flew across the pond to do three nights in the last U.S. venue they played in 1968, New York's Madison Square Garden in October, 2005.)

With only a long horizontal bar of psychedelic light patterns flashing throughout the show as their visual support, Cream proved that it was all about the music. What the DVD shows is highlights from those four nights in London. Each song has the night it was taped on the screen right at the beginning. Otherwise, it's a straight-ahead concert movie. Shots of the band are interspersed (infrequently, thank goodness) with shots of the crowd, all of whom were smiling. Baker, Bruce and Clapton were each attentive to giving the other band members lots of shout-outs, and the whole DVD became one big musical love fest.

This is not to say that it was sappy or wimpy by any stretch of the imagination. The music was as powerful as it was in the '60s, save for the sobriety. Clapton has never ever played this good since the early days of his solo career. Bruce's bass and Baker's drums were spot on, and Baker's solo turn on "Toad" wasn't as painful to watch as most drum solos tend to be. What he lacks in power, he makes up for in smarts and style. Bruce and Clapton's vocals were just fine (hey, they are 37 years older than when they first started this), and the song selection was a Cream fan's dream. The only notable omissions from the set list (the same set was performed in the same order all four nights in London) were "I Feel Free", "Strange Brew", and "Tales of Brave Ulysses". (That last one was added to the set list for the New York shows.)

Watching Clapton solo is the biggest treat of the film, and "Stormy Monday" just proves that when the man is motivated, he is STILL one of the best rock guitarists around. His work on "Badge", a song the band never performed live before the London shows, is simply phenomenal. Bruce hits all the right notes on bass and vocally (a little straining is forgivable), and Baker kept things rather fluid and kept his tangents to a minimum. The astonishing thing, by comparison to those shows in the '60s, is the actual interplay between the three parts. Opener "I'm So Glad" brought smiles to all three faces -- and they weren't just for show. The troika seemed to genuinely ENJOY being together on stage, which reflected in the music, and came shining through for those four lucky audiences who were a part of this whole spectacle.

Extras on the DVD are minimal. There are extra performances of "Sleepy Time Time", "We're Going Wrong", and "Sunshine of Your Love", and there are excellent interviews with all three band members. But this is not about finding extra goodies -- it's all about resurrecting a sound and an attitude.

There might be some nitpicking about the three being more restrained than they were back in the old days. But all three gents are up there in age, and to get through something like this, where old egos had to be shoved aside and a lengthy show needed a year to rehearse, some things are going to be sacrificed. What wasn't sacrificed was the power and the essence that Cream was able to conjure up as though they hadn't had a 37-year hiatus. Cream fans, curiosity seekers, and '60s diehards will find little fault with watching their heroes recreate the sounds that dared to be different at the time. Baker, Bruce, and Clapton have astonishingly proved that with enough willpower and moxie, you CAN go home again.

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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