Cream: Wheels of Fire
I seems a bit odd that the rock “super group” is a rarity. One would think that the very best musicians getting together to reach the highest levels of musical creation and performance would be a common event. But music is not a competitive experience like basketball which has provided us the Olympics basketball Dream Team, or the 2010 Miami Heat with LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, or the Los Angeles Lakers with West, Baylor and Chamberlain — where such assembling of talent is done for the purpose of winning a championship or to secure a gold medal against an already competitive field.
Often a given musician’s artistic vision is quite different than another’s and assembling a group of highly talented musicians usually only produces successful results when their individual musical visions align. Furthermore, assembling a group that lasts for multiple years is very different than a few of the best musicians getting together for after-hours jam sessions or (more formally) for a single recording session.
One-time or even sporadic, repeated formations of super groups does occur more frequently in jazz, as occurred on June 6, 1950 when Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Buddy Rich were brought together to record a handful of tracks or for a single or a short series of radio broadcasts as the May 15 & 16, 1950 broadcasts from Birdland which featured Charlie Parker, Fats Navarro, Bud Powell, Curly Russell and Art Blakey — or in 1947 where there were multiple sessions which provided short-lived combinations of Parker, Gillespie, Max Roach, Ray Brown and Lennie Tristano. In 1945, a young, and initially less than all-star version of Miles Davis teamed up with Charlie Parker, and the two played on and off together, sometimes with other all-star level musicians like with the two tracks recorded at Birdland on May 23, 1953 where Parker and a now truly stellar Miles Davis played with Dizzy Gillespie. But this can be put in better context by noting that for one evening, that night before, on May 22, 1953, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus and Art Taylor had played together at Birdland with three tracks broadcasted on radio. The uniting of such talent was much like the uniting of all-stars for a professional sports all-star game — it was not the same as assembling a team of players that would play together night after night and record together session after session. Later, starting in the late sixties, there would be more monetary incentive for supergroups to come and stay together — but for jazz players of the first half of the twentieth century, making a living was tough, and this financial challenge played a part in players staying with a band or group as long as they were being paid, signing whatever contract was offered, or in players looking for any gig they could get that would provide extra income.
However, as musicians started to earn more money, and as the long playing record served as means of moving beyond the three-minute single, there was also more opportunity for visionaries like Charles Mingus or Miles Davis to break away from providing the public a collection of unrelated tunes to providing a substantial unified product: a work of art. This often meant that there was one visionary driving their own inspirations forward by partnering with others that had bought into that vision. Sometimes that was simply the producer bringing in talented musicians to back a Billie Holiday or Ellie Fitzgerald, sometimes that meant a strong personality like Charles Mingus acting like a commanding officer or a business manager, encouraging and sometimes demanding, or Ray Davies taking a lead role in the Kinks, or sometimes that meant a group of like-minded individuals, whether led by one member in the group, or a producer, or effectively collectively working together, sometimes with dissension or disputes, cooperating and collaborating just enough to bring out an album that resonated with enough of the public to provide the opportunity to put out another.
So its perhaps understandable why rock super groups are as rare as they are with the first attempts, like Eric Clapton’s Powerhouse, being intentionally short experiments, and the first true super group, Cream, formed in 1966, being the only such super group brought together in the 1960s that lasted more than a single album until David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash formed Crosby, Stills and Nash in 1969.
By their second album, Cream was in full stride; their third album, “Wheels of Fire”, a double LP released on Aug 9, 1968, offers additional enduring studio tracks on the first LP, and live performances on the second.
The album starts of with “White Room”, which at the time, was the coolest song any band had come up with since “Strawberry Fields.” It combines elements of psychedelic and early heavy metal, with an overall middle-eastern, exotic character assisted by the 5/4 introduction, the generally modal melody and supporting harmonies, and the added violas and overdubbed guitar-work.
Though the album has its weak points (“Pressed Rat and Warthog” and a marginally interesting second side of live material), its strengths are far more abundant. On the first side of the live LP, Cream’s simplified, yet totally transformed version of Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues”, drives forward with relentless energy and primal appeal and the second track, Cream’s innovative re-sculpting of Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful” foreshadows some of the elements found in Black Sabbath’s very first album, recorded a year after “Wheel’s of Fire” had reached the number 3 position on the UK album chart and the number 1 position on the US album chart.
Ginger Baker is an unstoppable force on drums and percussion, providing moments of classical-influenced composition, Jack Bruce continues to establish the foundation for future progressive rock and heavy metal bass players, also providing the strongest compositions on the album, and Eric Clapton’s guitar work continues to be inventive and, on the first side of the live LP, narcotically spellbinding. This was the first super rock trio, establishing the high level of compositional and instrumental quality that would be expected for upcoming prog and heavy metal trios, quartets, and quintets, providing considerable evidence that these three artists were truly the first major rock group for both of those genres.
Tracks and personnel from Wikipedia
Bloomfield, Kooper, Stills: Super Session
One of the unexpected success stories of 1968 was Al Kooper’s project to record a jam-session album with Electric Flag guitarist Mike Bloomfield who Kooper had previously partnered with on Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited. Kooper booked studio time in Los Angeles for two consecutive days in May 1968 adding keyboardist Barry Goldberg and bassist Harvey Brooks, also members of the Electric Flag. All was set and the first session went well, with basic jam material on which participants performed as expected and Al Kooper taking on vocal responsibilities. At the end of the day, with just enough material for the first side of the planned album, the participants crashed at the house Kooper had rented, but when Kooper got up that morning, he found a note from Bloomfield indicating he had not slept well that night and had gone home. The departure, and the corresponding reality, was soon confirmed when Kooper received a call from a female friend of Bloomfield that inquired if Mike had made his plane and if she should pick him up at the San Francisco Airport. Kooper than made phone calls to any California area guitarist he could think of including Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, Randy California of Spirit and Stephen Stills, who had just left Buffalo Springfield. Fortunately, Kooper eventually received a return call from Stills, who was able to join for that second session.
There was a problem, still. Stephen Stills was still under contract to Atlantic and, though it was very likely that Atlantic would grant permission for Stills to be just another instrumentalist in a jam album, this approval would be much less likely if Stills was the lead singer. Despite Kooper preferring to have Stills singing lead, he could not risk the opportunity of completing his envisioned project that evening, so as with the day before, Kooper again was the featured vocalist.
When Stills arrived the musicians huddled to identify what songs they all knew, ran through them briefly and then recorded what would become the second side of the album, finishing at two in the morning. Kooper flew back to New York City the next day, and began final editing, including splicing together parts of two takes of Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” (note the tempo changes in the consolidated final version.) While back in L.A., during additional engineering and dubbing horn parts into the original recordings, Kooper was asked for his input in naming the album. Since he had no particular title in mind for the finished LP, it was christened “Super Sessions” by Bruce Lundvall, one of Columbia marketing executives. With total production costs of less than $20,000, the album was released to a receptive public on July 22, 1968, who sent the album climbing up the charts, peaking at the number twelve spot.
Kooper was amazed at the commercial success of his project. From the very first day, the album was popular, soon reaching the number 12 position on the U.S. album charts. And though credit needs to go to Mike Bloomfield for providing some of his highly quality studio work in his tragically short career, to Stills, to the other musicians, this is primarily Kooper’s album, including his quality editing and mixing and his partnership with arranger Joe Scott on the added horns, which add appropriate variety and substance into the original recordings. Kooper then remixed the sessions around 2002 or 2003, using the current 24 bit technology, providing better clarity and separation of the individual musicians, further enhancing Kooper’s original effort of creating an album similar to the jazz albums he grew up listening to, where talented musicians together to create improvised music much like they would perform for their own pleasure when they were by themselves in an empty studio or someone’s den, living room or garage.
Some point to this as being the first super group, but Stills and Bloomfield recorded separately, and there was no intent for these three to ever be together (Stills was a fortuitous replacement for an AWOL Bloomfield) — and there was no intent for further recordings or any live performances. Though I would like to say this critical and commercial success resulted in a flurry of other such efforts, this really was not the case. The very next example of an LP of similar rock improvisation, is the third LP of George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass”, released in late 1970. Are there other examples you can think of before that 1970’s “Apple Jam” LP — even before Kooper’s Super Session LP? Please post your comments and thoughts, as very interested in not only examples from the 1960s, but afterwards.
Comments on: "Fifty Year Friday: Cream, Wheels of Fire; Al Kooper, Super Session" (9)
I jammed with a drummer named George who was a big Cream fan. His reason was for the “power chords,” which were strong 4ths and 5ths, and less of subtle 3rds, 6ths, 7ths, etc. I can see that, tho personally I prefer that Alex Lifeson or Andy Summers sound. Stewart Copeland said of Summers, “So Andy shows up, with his harmonic sophistication” on his documentary of The Police, _Everyone Stares_. But that was a whole decade after Cream.
I love Al Kooper with BS&T, esp the silly song “House in the Country.” “Green surroundings / Life abounding / You won’t find a manhole there.”
I always like your posts, Zumwalt, because they call attn to the fact that music is sort of like what Paul Simon said: “Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts.” And Stewart again: “We (The Police) were just bubbling up from the slime.” But your emphasis is less on the pop charts and more on the slime, which is always fascinating. It’s a constant reminder that there is no vacuum. Keep it up and best wishes to you!
Good point on the difference between fifth chords (regular or inverted) with no thirds, sevenths, ninths or added sixths which certainly establish character and coloration where the power chords just provide a sound open-harmonic foundation which probably is better for volume than subtleties. Lot of interesting harmonic shading in jazz albums like Herbie Hancock’s Speak Like a Child album.
Thanks for the feedback on the posts. In all honesty, I know I could refine them, but I have very limited time right now, so they are really pretty rough and awkward at times. Plus, I really don’t have a clue how to write about music — it’s an impossible task for me, but I find it enjoyable to throw out these posts every week in the state you see them here and it allows me to celebrate a bit, fifty years later, this wonderful period in music.
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I think you do a fine job of musicology. No need to be perfect every time. Perfectionism can destroy a person, so it’s far preferable to let it be. Speaking of modesty, Stanley Clarke (bassist of Return to Forever with Chick Corea), who’s jammed and gigged all his life, said in an interview that playing with other musicians “worked” only one time, in one moment. He thought to himself, “This is better than sex!” Then the moment was gone. So, that’s how it is with any work we do. We’re in the “zone” momentarily, then it’s over.
Yes, I agree that subtle, complex chords are more a thing of jazz. And I need to get myself a copy of the Hancock CD. He’s very good and colorful. Back to The Police for a sec: you’ve probably heard “Walking on the Moon?” There’s one bright chord in particular that chimes thru the verses, with the 4th interval on top (is that a suspension?), played by Andy, but composed by Sting. That’s the kind of guitar sound that thrills me. Summers played what looks like a ’72 Telecaster, sunburst finish, on their early stuff. I say ’72 because it sports two humbuckers rather than single-coils… Rambling on. Have a great weekend 😀
So much fun to think through these musical memories with you. And you add so much in terms of historical insights and anecdote! The question posed, concerning the viability of supergroups is an interesting one. I think personally they must be rare (rare as successes anyway) largely because egotism alchemies are so touchy and difficult to pull off in music. Maybe it works a little better in jazz, as hinted. Also, I think the other commenter has a strong point. Collaborations, unique ones, are of the moment, and can be ephemeral.
For my own tastes for example, Cream’s 3rd LP was already disappointing in comparison to their 2nd, Disraeli Gears. Disraeli was glistening to me, a revelation. But Wheels of Fire felt strained, trying to get struck by lightning a second time. Too much material, too much long jamming. Less memorable melodies. I think the tune ,Badge’ happened after this, and that was pretty nice, but I purchased no further Cream albums. There is the story about Clapton wishing to join up with Robbie Robertson and The Band soon after (Blind Faith days), because Big Pink was just so revolutionary and fresh. But those guys had been cultivating together for 7-8 years on the road before achieving fame.
I never liked BS&T much; tried too but couldn’t get into Al Kooper, etc. Some would paint CSN&Y (about 1970) as a supergroup attempt, though maybe these were slightly lesser names. But each had pedigree coming in. For me the real charmers of this incredible year (1968) were those efforts where the sum somehow exceed the adding up of the parts. Like Jefferson Airplane for example. They just exploded with creativity and nothing could match their intensity and uniqueness. ’68 had them transitioning from the raw craziness of After Bathing At Baxter’s to the restrained studio crafting of Crown of Creation — all while their live concerts were complete trips.
In jazz, my favorite developments in 1968 were the albums released by Yusef Lateef, who so tastefully blended world music elements (before the term existed) into his solid blues stuff. Side One of The Blue Yusef Lateef was spectacular, unique, and professional. It still shines today. Lateef used to play around NYC alot and was fun to go see in small venues. Anything which was a wind instrument he could coax magic from. I think the LP came out in the summer of ’68 if memory serves — so just about 50 years old now.
Thanks so much for your stuff!
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With my momentariness comment, I also had in mind something like Emerson’s ideas re: inspiration. Sort of like “every dog has his day,” “Nature” selects some ordinary person to be a poetic hero for a moment in time. I suppose transcendentalism in our current atheistic age gets hissed at now, but I found that in music circles the philosophy works.
Sorry to stray from the topic of music per se, but many musicians espouse a creed, too. Chick Corea’s was Scientology, John McLaughlin’s was Eastern religions, John Patitucci’s is Christianity, and so on. Ralph Waldo Emerson gave me inspiration when I played bass around the Millennium. It was practical and also provided a lot of fun.
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Good thoughts! I think spirituality, whether associated with a formal religion or a natural sensitivity towards the human condition, is often an important component in the musical creative process. Big fan of Ralph Waldo and Henry David. There is certainly plenty of evidence that shows that our modern institutions contribute to individual corruption — and that certainly there could be more emphasis on individual responsibility as well as on individual potential.
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Thank you for replying. This comes at a time when the world seems to be going a skeptical way. I do like your qualification, “natural sensitivity towards the human condition,” suggesting that even if metaphysics isn’t real, at least our humanness craves a spiritual release.
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Hmm. I wonder if different philosophers are appropriate for differing instruments. 🙂
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Thanks so much for the nice words. Appreciate the thoughts on Cream’s 2nd LP versus 3rd, as well as the thoughts on Jefferson Airplane and Yuseef Lateef. Definitely appreciate you taking the time to post your insights!
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