Cream: Strange Brew
GW When did the group begin to stand on its own?
BAKER When Cream started to get going, our manager, Robert Stigwood, was paying a lot of attention to the Bee Gees. He would be taking out huge ads in [the British music magazine] Melody Maker for them, while the Cream would get a two-line mention. Stigwood was convinced that the Bee Gees were going to be the biggest hit of the Sixties. I don’t think he really started to get behind Cream until Fresh Cream was released in the U.S. by Atco. When the first album went into the charts in America—albeit at something like No. 198 or whatever— Stigwood was flabbergasted. Eric, Jack and I were convinced. We knew what we had. But I don’t think Stigwood came around until he saw that we might actually make some money.
It was pretty obvious that Cream was something special. I had been playing the circuit for three years with the Graham Bond Organization, and we would draw an average of 800 people for a big pub gig. When we went out with Cream to the same places, there was suddenly 1,500 people. The places were packed solid and there was often as many people outside gigs as there were inside. The venues just weren’t big enough to let all the people in.
GW What was the first original Cream song developed by the group?
BRUCE When Cream got started, I began to think about writing singles. I was very enamored of the Beatles, like everybody else at the time. I was impressed by what they were doing with their twoand- a-half-minute singles. However, what I came up with instead was “N.S.U.,” which was pretty freewheeling. It was unusual because of the length between the verses, but I was quite pleased with it.
GW Besides writing original material, you were also busy reinterpreting a series of blues masterworks, which became a major component of Cream’s repertoire.
BRUCE Because of the interaction between the three of us, our version of the blues just naturally took on a different structure. “I’m So Glad,” written by Skip James, was one of the first examples, and certainly Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful” was something that we made our own.
At that time, bands like John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and Fleetwood Mac were trying to recreate the sounds of Chicago blues. Doing that was completely valid, but it was just something I didn’t want to do. Those original blues records had been done so well, which meant you could only ever be second best. But, if you treated those songs with a great deal of love and respect, you could remake them into your own. When we later got to meet people like Muddy Waters in Chicago, they were knocked out by our approach and how highly we regarded their music.
GW How did lyricist Pete Brown, who was responsible for the words of songs like “Sunshine of Your Love” and “Tales of Brave Ulysses,” become part of the creative team?
BAKER We needed someone to help us with songwriting, and Pete Brown immediately came to mind because I had played some gigs that fused jazz and poetry. As the jazz players sat onstage, the poets would come up and read their work in front of the audience. Pete Brown was one of the poets I really liked.
BRUCE Yeah, I was sort of given Pete Brown by Ginger. Ginger and Pete were at my flat, trying to work on a song, but it wasn’t happening. My wife Janet then got with Ginger, and they wrote “Sweet Wine” while I started working with Pete.
PETE BROWN I received a call from Ginger, who said that his group had completed a song but needed to have words. I didn’t really like rock and roll at that time. I didn’t even like the Beatles—I just couldn’t understand it. I was an avid jazz and blues fan. I had loved the Graham Bond Organization because it was made up of all these elements that I enjoyed.
Based on my admiration for the Organization, I went to see Cream, not knowing what I was about to get into. I knew something about song form, not very much, but I had listened to a great deal of music and developed good ears. Jack played me his song, and I understood the shape and rhythmic organization. I proceeded to unload every cinematic image that I had ever stored into this song. For some reason, he actually accepted it and the song became “Wrapping Paper,” the band’s first single.
GW So “Wrapping Paper” was the first successful Bruce/Brown composition?
BRUCE Yeah. But I’m not sure that we actually “succeeded” with “Wrapping Paper.” What I was trying to do musically was play with people’s expectations of us as a blues band. It is a blues song, but it doesn’t have very obvious blues changes.
BAKER In retrospect, “Wrapping Paper” was pretty pathetic. [laughs] Especially when the credit came out as Bruce/Brown. We had all been involved in that. It was an attempt to do something really pop-styled. The whole object of Cream was to become a huge pop band.
GW How did you feel about your next single, “I Feel Free”?
BRUCE I was quite pleased with the way that “I Feel Free” turned out. Even though I hadn’t had much experience in recording studios prior to Cream, I had very definite musical ideas about the songs I had written. I wrote all of “I Feel Free” out on paper, because that was the way I was still working in those days. Because of my classical background, it was easier for me to write things down and then try to realize them in the studio. I know that Ginger thought the song could have been recorded better, and we recut it, but after a little—shall we say— ”discussion,” it was agreed that we might end up losing what we liked by trying it again.
GW What was it like recording Fresh Cream?
BAKER We recorded the first album very quickly. It took something like 10 days. We were in complete control of our destiny. Robert Stigwood [credited as the album’s producer] was rarely there at the start of the sessions. He turned up when the album was nearly finished.
The first album was something I was completely pleased with, to be quite frank. A lot of that album was made up of blues things that Eric brought to the table, like “Cat’s Squirrel” and “Rollin’ and Tumblin’.” We played those numbers live from the outset, and they always got the public going.
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