Friday, December 11, 2009

Cream (1966-69): For All Their Influence, Perhaps the Catalyst to 70s Narrow Rock Elitism?

We talk about several 60s icons with reverence today. It's understandable I suppose. The 70s and 80s have had enough time to look like more promising eras thanks to the advent of nostalgia and critical revisionism that wipes out a lot of the bad memories. Yet they still can't meet the vaunted reputation the 60s has earned, and I speak in musical terms not societal, philosophical, life-affirming lessons and all that peripheral jazz. But do we lose sight at the bad things the 60s set up for rock going forward? I don't mean bad things that spawned out of positives, like that the Beatles set too high a standard or that psychedelia was such a cosmic breakthrough that future experimentations rang hollow (both are debatable anyway). I'm referring to the ways in which the mid-to-late 60s, perhaps the pinnacle of rock's creativity being so strong it was practically bursting at the seams, changed rock and killed some of its original virtues. Not all rock-oriented music has to be rebellious, anarchistic and self-destructive like punk turned out to be. But it can't be exclusive to the musicians, neglectful of audiences as equals and highly derivative. Rock was up its own ass, to put it bluntly. Plenty of great music was made no doubt, but that's all we hear today. We don't hear the worst of the worst anymore, and not just the lousy AM radio hits but also the serious rock music that was wretched too. Iron Butterfly is the worst of what has endured but Vanilla Fudge has luckily taken their place in the background while we barely remember Zager & Evans, Aorta, the Strawbs and other annoyances that led to prog-rock. And that's just part of the mediocrity.

Cream was a respectable bunch but to me they never cut a single album that deserves the top 200 albums list. Plenty of individual songs that were wicked, but Hendrix's little finger had more voodoo and rainbow-coloured storm clouds than the whole of Cream. Now, Cream had chops to the last drop but they end up boring me after listening deeply to their catalogue. They could play but so what? They don't grab you by the heartstrings like the true rock legends can do. Hell, even Led Zeppelin learned how to put aside the testosterone bravado and make introspective, rustic and humane music. Their early days brought them a ton of criticism for bastardizing the blues in a loud, sleazy, offensive manner. But they proved those doubters wrong in the long run. Cream never had the time to prove they weren't one-dimensional. Cream, of course not meaning to, were pioneers in the idea of the 70s supergroup fossils. They began all wild-eyed and idealistic in what to do with the blues they adored. They took their name from being three sensational instrumentalists from the "Cream of the Crop" on the UK rock and blues scene. They came together in May 1966 but were finished by February 1969. It got Clapton worldwide notoriety after he had toiled first with the Yardbirds and then John Mayall's Bluesbreakers through 1963-65. As of his formation of Cream, Eric was just closing in on his 21st birthday but had already quickly ascended to the point where he was well known enough in London to have walls and other public property graffitied with proclamations of "Clapton is God." Clapton, as many were want to do, bolted from Mayall's veritable rock guitar hero farm club to form a "power trio" with jazzman Ginger Baker on the sticks and the all-round special talent Jack Bruce, once a Bluesbreaker himself and then for a short stint a member of Manfred Mann, on bass.

Bruce also could play organ and a mean harp, a key accessory for one to cavort around in a band dead set on the blues. Ah, gotta have the white dude who can blow away on harp like he was pickin' cotton by day and slugging whiskey at night in some swampy tavern or other speakeasy. Cream compensated for the lack of a chordal buttress by simply turning up the distortion and volume on their guitar and bass amps. "I Feel Free," their debut single, could very well have been their most soulful work ever, a sultry R&B with moaning guitar leads and a Motown kind of tambourine. It had a bit of the wildebeest distortion they'd go on to make a famous necessity for rock groups, but overall was a dry, mannered recording but much less stagnant and languid than some of the stuff that bogged down Fresh Cream in my mind- another one of those old LPs from the mid-60s produced with some knockoff fake stereo where the band is separated in the left and right channels quite evidently and with hardly any middle EQ. When it comes to playing, there were unique methods employed. Baker often shunned playing simple 4/4 rock beats, playing thumping shuffles and fills in their place thanks to his extensive background in jazz. The debut album was one of the first featuring Clapton emerging as a competent vocalist even in the face of Bruce's biting yell and vibrato. Most of Fresh Cream was sparse but burning hot rock for 1966. But yet, the dry sound and fake stereo production give it a neutered sound. Indeed, Cream were best experienced live but even then they could be full of it. Cream are praised today, along with Hendrix, for radically reshaping the blues into something that became heavy metal when groups like Black Sabbath took the sound, fattened up the rhythm and added demonic, depressed touches to it. More than anyone, including the Who, Yardbirds and Stones, Cream contributed a harder, nastier sound to rock that eventually gave the 70s the testosterone driven sizzle we associate it with today. Hendrix did his part but was so one of a kind that it was hard to copy him.

Cream also represents a turning point where high fallutin' musicianship, snobbish rock elitism, drugs, debauchery and the merits of "heavy" over "fun" took presidence. Clapton realized that himself. But Cream, despite its accomplishments, also set the table for the shallow showmanship of 70s rock gods like Led Zep or Grand Funk Railroad, the latter of which was unable to stand the test of time because of a lack of adventure outside hard rock, unlike Zeppelin who proved they weren't just a noise-and-scream type of band on their third and fourth releases. Cream also popularized the idea of 16 minute live versions of songs that went on and on with endless solos for audiences to clap through as if it were classicial music.... and rock is not supposed to be the treat of the high-minded masses (who in this case were hippies and/or drugged-out philosophizers or just plain trend-following dopeheads and/or doofuses). Meanwhile, several acts better than Cream were ignored and put down, Van Morrison or the Velvet Underground for instance. By 1969, this snobbery led to artists being discriminated for a multitude of "offenses": Not being excellent on their instruments, not being politically active enough, not having big solos, not singing of their latest drug trip. Since 1983, Clapton has reportedly been sober though he had a few times falling off the wagon I don't doubt, namely when his son fell out of an open window in his apartment in New York in 1991. Well the only positive to that incident was that it gave us "Tears in Heaven," a tune that borders on sappy but really is a moment of touching pain and sadness in Clapton's career, which has been at its best when times were tough for him. In that sense, he lives up to the life and inspirations of the bluesmen he's always adored and followed in the footsteps of.

Meanwhile back in '70, Eric was not only addicted to heroin but hung up on hs infatuation with Patti Boyd, the wife of his best friend George Harrison (George was a good sport who still attended their wedding in 1978 after Boyd was wooed away by Eric). This also has inspired a separate article dealing with the pros and cons of the famous/infamous Cream. On we go (if you're still with me)! And after 1974, Clapton's output has been average to say the least. He picked up alcohol as his new vice, nearly drinking himself to death over the course of the 70s while inciting negativity for his controversial support of Enoch Powell, a British politican at the head of the National Front, a party begun in the 60s as a response to waves of immigrations threatening to "topple" the traditional structure of English life and the fabric of its society. The National Front could never shake the stigma of being neo-fascist types and Clapton vocally approving Powell showed just how angry people could become when they thought their favourite entertainer was lecturing them. By the time of Clapton's artistic decline, he'd still performed a number of tunes destined to become what they are today- staples of the classic rock radio diet. Anyway, Cream may have been good in their own way but were around far too briefly and didn't do much to turn the clock on rock's slow descent into becoming too professional, too showbiz. Punk was no doubt the impetus for a change of thought in that respect, and as you can tell I shared some of the ideas that figures like Johnny Rotten, Joe Strummer and Joey Ramone had.

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