It may be blasphemous to say so, but I’ll say it all the same: Cream is about the only post-Blues Breakers/Yardbirds work of Clapton’s I can stand to listen to. Not only can I stand Cream, I love Cream. Cream is the first psychedelic rock band I discovered on my own. Growing up in the 80s surrounded by my ex-hippie father’s records—Hendrix, The Beatles, the usual suspects—I thought of myself as classic rock experienced from a very young age. But when I discovered Disraeli Gears on an old, worn cassette at my favorite used record store, I re-discovered rock and roll wonder. And, yeah, okay, Clapton’s excellent, but it’s Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker who do it for me. A jazz rhythm section playing blues-cum-baroque psych rock—Baker’s thunderous toms and double bass drums (long before metal drummers turned it into a gimmick), Bruce’s rumbling, melodic bass runs and understated vocal delivery of some of the most mysterious lyrics in the genre (“dark surprise” indeed)…. Cream has always been the stuff of my rock and roll dreams.
It’s not saying much to say Disraeli Gears is my favorite Cream record. It’s the one with the biggest hits, after all—“Strange Brew,” “Sunshine of Your Love”—songs the length, if not the timbre, of pop tunes. But the band increasingly left these gems behind in their live sets; the fans preferred the long, Clapton-dominated jams of songs from 1968’s orchestral double album Wheels of Fire, and the early hits disappeared from the set. The band’s forays into longer and louder jams, and the mutual hatred of the three members for each other, doomed the supergroup. In 1968, they gave a farewell tour, supporting farewell album Goodbye. Documentary filmmaker Tony Palmer captured the final performance of that tour, at Royal Albert Hall on November 26th, and released the edited footage as Farewell Concert, which was originally broadcast on the BBC in January of 1969. Watch the full final gig above. It’s not a masterpiece of documentary filmmaking by any stretch. The voice-over is pretentious, unnecessary and intrusive, the camera work is often pretty poor, and the editing is slipshod. Nevertheless it remains an important document of an incredible band going out on a very high note.
Did Cream ever need to reform? Does any band? Reunions are typically cynical affairs: played for payola, demanded by diehards, derided by purists, bread-and-butter of trainspotting journalists stuck between festivals. I can’t say much for Cream’s 2005 reunion, when the three titans came back together for a handful of shows at Royal Albert Hall again. This Cream fan could have lived without it, but as you can see from the full concert footage above and below, Bruce, Clapton, and Baker were in top form. Still, it’s all a little too slick for my tastes. The moment for Cream had long past, and the glorious excesses of three young and furious musicians—too explosive together to last more than two years—cannot be recaptured almost forty years later by the three old professional gents on this garishly-lit stage. You may disagree, of course, and maybe you’d be right. After all, I’m the one who can’t stand Eric Clapton.