Cream: Strange Brew
BRUCE Musically, “White Room” was inspired by Jimi Hendrix. Jimi had a way of using chord changes and taking traditional ideas and modernizing them. He was a big fan of the band, and we certainly loved his music.
GW The acoustic “As You Said,” from Wheels of Fire, was an interesting departure for the band.
BRUCE I wanted Eric to play guitar on that track, but he encouraged me to do it. I was always embarrassed about my acoustic guitar playing—especially having Eric Clapton in the band. But [folk singer] Richie Havens showed me this great opening tuning, and I wanted that guitar sound on the track. When I had the music completed, I went to Pete. He had these words already written which fit right on top of what we had done. It was perfect.
GW “Politician” is another memorable track from those sessions.
BRUCE We were scheduled to perform on the BBC and needed a song. Pete had given me the words, which had a great blues feel to them. Eric and I were jamming and trying to come up with a lick. There was no big writing session or anything like that. It came together quickly, and we performed it for the fi rst time on that radio program.
GW By the time Wheels of Fire was being recorded, the Bruce/Brown team had begun to outpace both Eric and Ginger as songwriters. Did that affect the band negatively?
BRUCE The sessions for Wheels were very productive, but I think problems were beginning to emerge, because Eric and Ginger weren’t coming up with as much original material. I wasn’t even particularly happy that a lot of the songs were coming from Pete and me. Eric and Ginger were beginning to write some great stuff, but just not as fast. I would have preferred that management let us have a few months to work on new material, because that would have kept us moving forward.
BROWN My poetry background had me prepared for writing on demand. I had also stopped drinking and taking drugs, which helped a great deal. Jack was bubbling over, full of new ideas. Once he and I had established a way of working, there was a wellspring of material that came quite quickly. I tried to write with Eric and Ginger, but it didn’t seem to work out. Possibly it was due to chemistry, as Ginger was able to collaborate with Mike Taylor on a number of things, but we were never able to really connect.
GW As engineer for most Cream sessions, Tom, did you notice tension in the band during the Wheels sessions?
DOWD With Disraeli Gears, once Ahmet felt that the group was comfortable, he left the details to Felix and me. Apart from my tape operator and a roadie or two, there was nobody else around. When the group came back to record Wheels of Fire, there was a whole different set of circumstances. I knew that there had been some animosity among the three players, but when we would listen to playbacks in the control room, there were times when I thought they were going to kill each other.
BROWN I know there was some resentment from Eric and Ginger, but songs were needed and Jack and I were there with the songs— good songs, which have stood the test of time.
BAKER The problem wasn’t that Jack and Pete were writing songs; the bone of contention was whether they should get all the credit for them. It still rankles me that I got no credit whatsoever for contributing heavily to the arrangement of two of Cream’s most popular tunes. The whole way “Sunshine” turned out was totally my input, and I’ve never even received a thank you for it. Also, the whole introduction to “White Room”—the 5/4 “Bolero” thing—was my input to the tune. When both songs came out, I wasn’t even mentioned. This happens to many drummers.
GW With the group’s tremendous success, couldn’t anything be done to mend the personal disputes?
BAKER Not really. The problems started very early on. Actually, the only thing that held the band together was its success.
BRUCE In addition to the band’s creative tensions, there really was a lack of foresight or belief on behalf of the management. We worked much too hard. Three guys on the road, away from their friends and families for three long tours—that can be pretty destructive to a band. We certainly weren’t the fi rst band that wasn’t helped by those circumstances.
GW Was Clapton’s discovery of the Band’s Music from Big Pink a factor in the group’s breakup?
BRUCE Like a lot of people, Eric was deeply influenced by that album. We fell in love with the economy of that record and began to think that what we were doing was okay, but maybe kind of florid. I think the idea of us getting back to the roots indicated to me that we had lost a bit of our confidence in what we’d been doing.
GW Clapton has often spoken of Rolling Stone magazine’s condemnation of the band as another factor behind his decision to leave. [In the May 11, 1968, issue, writer Jon Landau delivered a lengthy critique of Cream in concert, citing “one-dimensional” improvisations that “made no use of dynamics, structure, or any of the other elements of rock besides drum licks and guitar riffs.” In July that year, the magazine printed editor Jann Wenner’s remarkable assertion that “Cream is good at a number of things, unfortunately songwriting and recording are not among them.”] Was this really an issue?
BAKER The article had a very detrimental effect on Eric because he thought that Rolling Stone had a lot of credibility. He was a very sensitive fellow, and I’m convinced that the article did him a great deal of harm. It was his favorite magazine, and to read something like that in it hurt him.
BRUCE I remember that article very well. That certainly contributed to the end of Cream, but it was really quite silly. It tried to say that Eric Clapton couldn’t play the guitar. That was the kind of thing one would expect from the English music press, not Rolling Stone. It certainly hurt me, because they questioned our integrity. We were always sincere about music, right up until the end.
BAKER On the last U.S. tour, after a gig in Texas in 1968, Eric came to me and said, “I’ve had enough.” And I said, “So have I.” And that was it. We decided, for different reasons, that it was all over. When Cream died, it died. Short of murder, we couldn’t solve a problem between us.
GW While Cream decided to disband, you agreed to record Goodbye, a farewell album, and perform a November 1968 farewell concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall. Why?
BAKER We wanted to go out on an up note. That’s why we did the album and the show at the Albert Hall. In fact, when we performed that last show, we were just blown away by the emotion from the audience. It went so well that we all wondered—just for a moment—if we had made the right decision, to split up.
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