A friend and I were talking about the legacy of British bands, and he mentioned the band Cream.
Cream was never one of my top picks but their influence and specter is hard to ignore. The musical period 1966-1968 has to include a discussion of Cream. It would be like probing the planets of the solar system and ignoring Neptune.
Cream, in my opinion, made the blues popular in mainstream rock. The Rolling Stones always referred to themselves as a little blues band, but they evolved into a more popular form of rock and roll, much like The Beatles and other bands of the British Invasion. Cream embraced their blues roots and blended the growing psychedelic rock form that pushed music beyond the standard three minute length. Cream is often referred to as the first jam band, but in reality it was just the most popular band that could jam.
Bands were often formed with members of other bands, but Cream has dubbed the first Supergroup. That would be a frequently used term over the next decade but the membership of Cream did have some experienced and well-known musicians, especially Eric Clapton.
Cream produced four albums before internal conflicts broke up the band. This internal combustion helped fuel Cream’s creative forces and competitive energy, but they were destined to be short-lived.
Clapton was and continued to be a blues- influenced musician. He left John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers and Yardbirds because he found them too restrictive, and Clapton never stayed in bands very long. Cream’s catalogue included many traditional blues songs, which they adapted, and Cream originals that were blues influenced. The blues lent itself to interpretation and elongated musical exploration. Cream’s jamming emerged from retrofitting the blues to their own musical virtuosity.
All three members were fine musicians who each staked out their own territory. Jack Bruce became the main songwriter and vocalist, but this inspired the other two to write and reset the competitive balance. As Cream became successful, they discovered there was money in songwriting.
Cream jammed with Jimi Hendrix and were mindful of the growing evolution of rock to incorporate different types of music. Cream didn’t abandon the blues rather they helped further the form by using modern effects like the wah-wah pedal, distortion and big Marshall amps to popularize heavy-rock.
Cream, labeled a power-trio, put the power into modern music. The interplay of the drums, bass and guitar accentuated the growling lower gear of their music. Cream also had something big going for them, swagger. They took the stage and their music was aggressive, loud and unrestrained. Baker’s relentless barrage on the drums sounded like an army assault. Bruce’s bass thundered and marched forward, driving and punctuating the melody. Clapton’s lightning fast runs and power chords, then melt away to slow dancing, string bending, lingering solos.
Led Zeppelin owes its success more to Cream than The Yardbirds, of which Jimmy Page, and Eric Clapton were members. After the British Invasion, music quickly matured. The optimism of the early 1960’s had turned more serious, and music reflected this sobering vibe. Other bands picked up on this rumbling, attitude-heavy rock, now that the rock format had given way to experimentation and gobbling up other musical influences. Acid rock, psychedelic rock, and progressive rock were all exploding in the late ’60s.
After Cream broke up, each went different directions. Clapton did join up with Baker for the short-lived Blind Faith, but Clapton again wanted to move on. He formed another brief band, Derek and the Dominoes, before essentially being a solo performer. Baker formed several groups but never found big success again, but he enjoyed being the notorious Mr. Baker. Bruce also formed many bands, and late in life, hooked with Robin Trower, another incendiary guitar player.
Cream reformed in 2005 for a series of shows, the obligatory CD and DVD collection, presumably to put some money in the bank accounts of Bruce and Baker. It was more of a victory lap, to give the fans one last celebration and to touch musical history once more.
Cream will always be considered the birth of the power trio, the beginning of bad-ass rock. Clapton was already famous before Cream, but he became immortal. Clapton is God. Bruce and Baker battled constantly, they were both members of the Graham Bond Organization before Cream, and Baker had Bruce dismissed. The short life of Cream cemented their legacy. So where do I put Cream in the pantheon of rock royalty? They definitely have a seat at the table.