A worthwhile imaginary history: Eric Clapton doesn’t leave the Yardbirds in March 1965. He stays, compromised but successful, and the band’s psych-garage boilerplate “For Your Love” is the first in a clutch of similar vocal-fronted hits that eventually morph the band into a second string Moody Blues. Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page never join the band, thus there is no Jeff Beck Group (thus no Rod Stewart, no Faces), and no Led Zeppelin. Clapton’s presence in the Yardbirds corks those possible future bottles. And, of course, there’s no Cream, and as such possibly no Jethro Tull or Black Sabbath, and, most definitely, no Mountain. There’s an argument here against Hendrix as well….
Such are Great Man theories of alternate history. Easily corruptible, but fun as thought experiments, and this one makes as much sense as any. Cream’s influence on rock is so profound, their catalog so fundamental, that their absence would have set transatlantic rock down a very different path. Cream backgrounds and informs every subsequent in-unison bass’n’guitar heavy hook (read: stoner rock), every song where a tom-obsessed drummer plays a rhythmic lead, every power trio, and every rock-based long form live jam (growing out of the “rave ups” that made the Yardbirds the scenemakers they were in Clapton’s day). Even if you’re not a huge fan of Eric Clapton — and I’m not — and you could create similar wouldnahappened scenarios with his Cream co-pilots (and geniuses in their own right) Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker, it was Clapton who was the tortured searcher, who saw the productive warring of Baker and Bruce as a positive, and was the driver of Cream with its wheels of fire, perpetually in a state of just passing through.
When they issued their last proper album in August 1968, Cream were so popular that their twin LP swan song went platinum, the first double rock album to do so. Its studio disc summed in spirit Cream’s first two efforts, Fresh Cream (1966) and Disraeli Gears (1967), while the live disc showcased Cream’s already legendary, and loud, performance prowess, and the tensions banked therein: it’s a sly joke when at the end of their cover of Robert Johnson‘s Crossroads — a song still played on rock radio 50 years after its recording — we hear Jack Bruce say, “Eric Clapton, please, for vocals.” Yes, Clapton’s vocals were integral to Cream even as they were secondary to Bruce’s, but it’s his guitar playing that’s the thing, never more so than on “Crossroads,” and Bruce’s toast could just as easily be a wheedling needle as props. It’s as if Bruce was continuing a conversation that moments before he was playing on his bass: whaddya got, and where else can you go?
The dense, thick battle lines of Cream’s live show were the Mr. Hyde to their studio work, where interpretations of electric blues standards sat next to original songwriting cutting directly to proto-prog poetics, the product of Bruce and his songwriting partner, Pete Brown. The combination of forms made for a catalog that could put “Spoonful” or “Outside Woman Blues” or “Born Under a Bad Sign” back to back with weirdly beautiful non-blues like “I Feel Free” or “World of Pain” or “Those Were the Days.” These last were intrigue, fanciful psychedelic flights, for the young Clapton, the blues purist whose work would never again be so adventurous or influential as with Cream, his traditionalism reconstructed by the Band’s Music from Big Pink (July 1968), which left him awestruck. Playing go-between for Bruce and Baker, in the wake of Big Pink, must have seemed an almighty chore whose fruit was withering.
Of artfully told lost love, “Deserted Cities of the Heart” is Cream ’68 in full studio flight, a richer sound afforded by rapidly advancing recording technology (although still short of the breathtaking step Led Zeppelin would make just months later on their first album) and the psychedelic mood further defined by producer Felix Pappalardi, whose string contributions add dynamic breadth and sweep to the dramatics and roadmap his work with Mountain. Three versions here: the original studio recording, with its dark and perfumed paisley fully intact; the original live version pulled from the same set of songs the band used to put together Wheels of Fire‘s live disc (and which appeared on Live Cream II in 1972); and its last incarnation, from 2005’s reunion show, before things turned bad again between Bruce and Baker and Clapton got bored, containing an interesting energy, as Bruce brings the goods in the wake of his liver transplant, and Clapton and Baker play with a subtle restraint retooling the song’s psychedelia towards a jazzier, bluesier roll. The spark is still clear, igniting the air, and we fall to our knees thankful that Clapton left the Yardbirds.
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