With so much manufactured music today, pop idols crowned by popular vote on TV, hip-hop stars trained by P. Diddy, and INXS exorcising their ghosts through reality shows, it’s hard to imagine a band forming that is literally comprised of the best musicians at their respective instruments. Yet that is exactly what occurred in 1966 when the best drummer recruited the best guitarist who suggested the best bass player and Cream formed to unleash their virtuoso performances on the world. Journalist Dave Thompson, who has previously written books about Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Cure, and Kurt Cobain, examines the origins of the band and its influence on musical history in Cream: The World’s First Supergroup.
Looking back on the mid to late ’60s in England, it is difficult to imagine how so many unknown artists could eventually blossom into legends that shaped the course of musical history. The camaraderie of that early time, when Eric Clapton played one-off sessions with Bill Wyman and Jimmy Page, when Ritchie Blackmore was a neighbor down the street, when Jeff Beck almost convinced Keith Moon to play with him instead of Roger Daltrey, when the Beatles were hanging out in the audience watching the Stones before they had restored the “g” in their name, it’s amazing to consider now, after all these icons have achieved their place in history. Think of you and about 15 or 20 of your friends from high school… now imagine the lot of you irrevocably and inarguably change the course of music history. That’s what happened in the era covered in this book.
Thompson covers in detail the various bands that Clapton, bass player Jack Bruce, and drummer Ginger Baker played in prior to forming the seminal group and then, starting with the announcement of Cream’s formation just after England’s 1966 World Cup victory, he exhaustively chronicles each song they recorded and more than 300 concerts the band played in its brief two-year career.
Of particular interest is the examination of Jimi Hendrix’s influence on Cream and Clapton in particular. Once again, artists of the day worked amazingly fast. Thompson details that Hendrix arrived in London in late September 1966, in late October 1966 he recorded his first single Hey Joe and in late December 1966 he wrote Purple Haze. Thompson writes: “if one were to remove those 10 weeks from the time stream, it would not only alter history, it would change the face of everything we have listened to since then.” During his first weeks in London, manager Chas Chandler had the young guitarist sit in with several bands but told Hendrix to take it easy, to lay low, “to save the real thing until the Cream gig.” Hendrix played two songs with Cream and changed the lives of everyone in attendance, even the supergroup themselves. Jack Bruce related: “it must have been difficult for Eric to handle, because he was ‘God’ and this unknown person comes along and burns.” Hendrix showed Clapton that he could expand his repertoire from straight blues into any area his talent would take him.
Cream were known for this talent, but it would ultimately crush them. The band’s skills were widely recognized, to the point that the audience would accept anything, without question, just because those three geniuses on stage created it. Hendrix’s bass player, Noel Redding, theorized: “The things that killed Cream were the same that killed Jimi. If one person had booed while Jack was tuning his bass, or Eric hit a bum note, then they’d have known that people still cared about what they played. Instead, they were allowed to get away with everything, until finally it didn’t matter what they did. And the moment they realized that, it was the end.” Jack Bruce expressed a similar realization when he recalled a concert where Cream walked on stage, swept away by a tidal wave of feedback, and the crowd, instead of recoiling in horror, loved it. On another night, the guitar amplifiers went down and the crowd reveled to drum and bass alone. And on still another night, the microphones died and the band played an instrumental set to thunderous applause. It simply didn’t matter what the band did, because the members’ reputations as virtuosos had pre-disposed the audience to accept whatever they heard as genius.
Cream: The World’s First Supergroup is an entertaining read, not solely for musicologists although the thorough documentation of record labels, recording sessions, discography notes, and band genealogies certainly make it a valuable reference tool for the academic. However, contemporary pop audiences accustomed to the debaucheries of music biographies like Motley Crue’s The Dirt, and the ubiquitous Led Zeppelin text, Hammer of the Gods, will be sorely disappointed with the lack of sordid details. There are no shark incidents here, no needle injections of Jack Daniels. Drug abuse is mentioned as side notes and groupies and sexual freedoms are tossed aside just as casually in this decidedly PG-rated book.
There is one almost hidden and easy to overlook point in the book, however, that challenges everything we hold dear about Cream and that should be discussed. Critics and taste-purveyors like Rolling Stone magazine would have society believe that the late ’60s groups were the height of artistic credibility. In fact, Rolling Stone often seems to not realize that any decent music has been made since the mid-seventies. In their “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” issue, only two songs out of the top 25 were released after 1975. Out of the 500 songs listed, only 82 were released after 1980 while the 1960 to 1969 period alone had 202 entries. Cream’s 1968 single Sunshine of Your Love is ranked at number 65. White Room and Crossroads also make the list.
In spite of all the accolades the group has received over the years, including the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, Thompson points out that in 1966: “To those observers who most cherished the utopian ideals of the counter-culture, Cream were phonies. Where other bands experienced natural births, Cream were a mere composite, pieced together with scientific methodology and unparalleled condescension… united not because they liked one another, but because they liked one another’s stature. No less an admirer than Pete Townshend was willing to accuse, “the machine created Cream. It really did.”
Thompson doesn’t follow this point any further than this brief mention, his task is in recalling the glories of the band, not questioning our anointment of the group, and certainly not in comparing its genesis with our current manufactured pop stars. In fact, in his introduction, Thompson declares his aversion to making statements when he writes: “It is the writer’s duty to tell the story; it is the reader’s right to draw his or her own conclusions.” Even though Thompson doesn’t continue this train of thought, it’s an interesting discussion to have, to argue over a beer, while antagonizing aging hippies.
Thompson’s book does an admirable and enjoyable job of documenting the brief career of one of rock’s greatest bands. The author provides volumes of evidence, interviews, and an encyclopedic knowledge of rehearsal tapes and demo versions of songs. He points out the internal strife that drove the band and ultimately destroyed it. And in the process, he documents an amazing time in music history and the dozens of voices that were just getting started at the time, but which we now hold so dear.