Cream was the band Eric Clapton was in before he became to guitarist of choice for middle aged fans of boring rock and roll all over the world. Cream was the band notoriously cranky drummer Ginger Baker is famous for being in. To paraphrase Bubba from Forrest Gump, that’s about all I know about Cream. I’ve never given enough of a crap about the brand or Clapton to know which songs were made with the band and which from his solo years. But their legacy is undeniable, so I should listen to at least one Cream album in my lifetime. Which I am doing, with Wheels on Fire.
Opening with a song maybe even more famous than the band itself, White Room is an undisputable rock classic. The rocking melody, the unhinged guitar work, the epic and slightly pretentious lyrics. This is everything the late 60s and early 70s were about if your band wanted to rock out hard.
If you think you hate the blues and that it all sounds the same, Sitting on Top of the World is just the song to help solidify your opinion and help prove your point. It has a pretty sweet solo, but the rest is just so derivative, that even the slightly cool bits come off as boring and too little, too late.
I hope the Beatles apologised for songs like Cream’s Passing the Time. Because where John, Paul, George and Ringo figured out how to spread their wings, experiment, and go a little weird, while still making generally accessible and amazing music, too many other bands were influenced by it in all the wrong ways. Passing the Time is a band stretching way beyond their abilities, resulting in a boring mess of trying too hard to be what they think is different, instead of embracing their organic oddities.
But Passing Time is nothing compared to the bullshit that is As You Said, Pressed Rat and Warthog and Politician. Really just monumental wastes of time and the most indulgent of wanks you’re ever likely to find on an album. They sound like half written demos from a never finished rock opera. Like Cream trying to be The Who, before realising that they’re not The Who.
Closing out the studio portion of Wheels on Fire, Deserted Cities of the Heart is a huge jump in quality from the collection of fuck arounds that precede it. It’s a real song that Cream took the time to write, learn and refine. Usually, that wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) be enough to impress me, but it really is such a novelty by this point, that those base elements were enough to impress me.
Straight away, the live section of Wheels on Fire is a monumental upgrade. The blues rock of Crossroads hugely benefits form the energy of the live stage. You can hear that this is a group of musicians playing together and feeding of each other. There’s no room for studio polish and second takes, and there’s no need for them either. A dynamic that’s blown into epic, and epically awesome proportions, on the 16 minute Spoonful. And the bass work from Jack Bruce is nothing short of blistering in its relentless precision.
While the harmonica and snare drum fuelled Trainetime and mainly drum solo
instrumental of Toad are a little self indulgent, that live on stage vibe is still there, making them impossible to ignore. Wheels on Fire did nothing to make me want to listen to another Cream studio album, but it did make kind of bummed about the fact that I’ll never get to see them live.