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An Extra Helping Of Vintage Blues Rock: Fresh Cream Reissued

Fresh Cream

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Cream were one of the first bands I ever really got to hear, thanks to an older neighbour who would play his albums on a Sunday afternoon when his parents had gone out.

At 11 years old, I recognised the sound of rock music but didn’t of course recognise the band, so I went over to my neighbour’s house and asked what the albums were and was actually allowed to borrow them. So I got to listen to Disraeli Gears and the Live At The Fillmore double album for a few days, until my neighbour asked that I return the albums, which I did, unscratched as requested. None of my same age friends knew anything about the Baker/Bruce/Clapton power trio, and while my own musical interests veered off towards more contemporary bands, listening to Cream made a significant impression on me. I knew, or thought I knew, every track on Disraeli Gears more or less backwards–every guitar, bass and drum part, all of the lyrics, and even the detailed, multi-coloured artwork.

As for Live At The Fillmore, I awarded myself extra credibility points for being able to listen to the 18-minute drum solo epic “Toad” in its entirety. Cream weren’t the only band whose music I heard from older neighbours or relatives, but as a lot of others also familiar with them would know, theirs is a musical legacy that resonates even today, and only last week I found myself listening to Disraeli Gears yet again.

So, the opportunity to write about a band that are often referred to as the first supergroup is one that I thought I should take advantage of.

Released in 1966, the band’s debut Fresh Cream is now reissued in a varying format and vastly expanded form, containing alternate mono and stereo mixes, demo takes and BBC radio sessions which amount to a whopping three-and-a-half hours of listening time, or about 200 minutes longer than the live version of “Toad”–the studio version of which appears on this reissue no less than four times, in mono, stereo, remixed and remastered forms.

We may revere the memory of a power trio much of whose music has retained its qualities over five decades, but does this reissue spoil things a bit by, basically, overdoing it with the alternate takes? Nearly. Aside from the 10-track original album, the additional tracks provide a more complete picture of what Baker, Bruce and Clapton were doing in 1966, including the “Coffee Song/Wrapping Paper” single, and while the two-track stereo versions of these tracks probably aren’t essential listening, much of the remainder of the reissue stands up in terms of its listenability and the dynamic that the three members of Cream brought to their music. Clapton was the focus of a lot of media attention in his own right during the mid 1960s : no-one had really heard a guitar played like that before, and until Jimi Hendrix appeared, Clapton was seemingly in a class entirely of his own as a guitarist.

Most of the prominent British groups of the first part of the sixties based their sound on rhythm and blues, but when former Yardbird Clapton and former Graham Bond Organisation members Baker and Bruce essentially wrote their own rulebook, the effect on audiences must have been a significant one. The innovative energies of Cream’s music are retained in the biting guitar playing of Clapton and Ginger Baker’s sometimes bewilderingly complicated drumming, while Jack Bruce’s light-fingered backline keeps the momentum in check.

As the band that could lay claim to having more or less invented Heavy Rock, it is a slight irritation that the mono versions of the tracks haven’t all worn so well, while some of the remastered tracks sound about as good as they must have fifty years ago. This is where the multiplicity of track versions gets slightly too complicated, although it is appreciable that the album’s compilers probably thought that they should take the opportunity to release as much of the archive material as they could.

The tracks on the third CD are yet more alternate takes and demos, and at least some Cream aficionados will already have the BBC radio session tracks, which are included in a more complete 2003 compilation. It does need repeating, though–Cream were one of the very greatest bands that the 1960’s ever produced, and we should receive occasional reminders of their brilliance.