#205: Cream, "Wheels of Fire" (1968)

When I lived in Hong Kong, I listened to a podcast called “Analyze Phish” starring Harris Wittels1 and Scott Aukerman2. Each episode, Harris would play different songs by the band Phish3 in the hope that Scott would eventually grow to love the band. Harris would employ different tactics, and on two occasions even took Scott to live shows. However, you always got the sense Harris would never succeed.

This podcast spoke to me.

I thought it would be fun to create a podcast based on a similar concept, and approached my friend and colleague Martin.

The subsequent podcast we created was entitled “A Fistful of Faceful4,” and the premise was that I, as the host, would expose Martin to various genres of heavy metal music in the attempt to get him to listen to it on his own time. Martin’s taste in music is drastically different from my own5.

The first episode was basically an exploration into the history of Heavy Metal, and of course, it’s difficult to pinpoint6, but Cream is where I should have began7.

Cream started with Ginger Baker8. He had been a member of Blues Incorporated and the Graham Bond Organization, along with bass player Jack Bruce9. He wanted to start a new band with Eric Clapton10.

While Clapton was receptive, he agreed to join on the condition that Jack Bruce would be their bass player. Baker conceded11. They started out as the Cream, since they were the cream of the crop, and later dropped the “The.” The band lasted for 2 years12, from 1966 to 1968, and released the following albums: Fresh Cream, Disraeli Gears13, Wheels of Fire14, and Goodbye15.

They are considered to be one of the first “Super Groups” and would go on to influence countless bands and genres of music16.

They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993 and are listed at 67 on Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Artists of All Time, 61 on VH1’s 100 Greatest Artists of All Time, and 16 on VH1’s 100 Greatest Artists of Hard Rock17.

1 Harris Wittels was a stand-up comic who wrote for Parks and Recreation, Eastbound and Down, and The Sarah Silverman Program. He also was a regular contributor to various podcasts. He was a dedicated Phish fan, having seen over a hundred shows. I also somewhat commiserated with his plight, as my favorite band is Sleep and I’ve been trying to get people to listen to their magnum opus “Dopesmoker,” a sixty-two-minute song, for years. That’s neither here nor there, though. Sadly, Harris passed away from a drug overdose in 2015. He discusses his addiction in an incredible interview with Pete Holmes on the podcast “You Made It Weird.” I highly recommend listening to it. Rest in peace, Harris.

2 Scott Aukerman wrote for Mr. Show, co-created and directs episodes of Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis, and hosts a podcast/TV show called Comedy Bang! Bang!. He is also married to Kulap Vilaysack. Yes, I would kill to be like him; we’re talking Faustian contracts and shit.

3 I too was into Phish when I was in high school. I remember we were coming back from a retreat (a bonding trip for the freshmen class). Waiting for the bus, I was lying on the grass by the luggage reading The Tao of Pooh and listening to “David Bowie”. The lyrics are just “David Bowie” and “UB40.” It’s like fucking Yeats... it would be another four years until a girl spoke to me. I just texted my mom and asked if she remembered when I played Phish during car rides. I don’t know how, but she remembered the lyrics “Wash your feet and drive me to Firenze” from the song “You Enjoy Myself.” This is a mondegreen (meaning the lyrics are mistakenly heard to be something else). Usually when I ask her about music (during car rides now—I don’t drive; it’s a long story—she lets me put on Ozzy’s Boneyard) she replies “This sounds like Castlevania or Metroid.” I played a lot of Nintendo as a kid. This probably explains a lot too.

4 Knock yourself out: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/a-fistful-of-faceful/id721681338?mt=2

5 We did an episode called “A Faceful of Fistful” in which Martin, a very meek British intellectual, tried to persuade me to listen to some of his music. This included the Kooks, Tim Minchin, and Dan Le Sac Vs. Scroobius Pip.

6 There really isn’t a patient zero of heavy metal music, and attributions are given and taken away haphazardly. In fact, when you think of it, the various genres and subgenres of music are pretty much solely created so lists like this one can exist. Nerds love statistics and lists. It’s the reason why there were Congressional hearings about steroids in baseball, and people couldn’t care less about steroids in football. It’s cool, though, I can say that since I’m also a nerd about statistics and trivia. There’s a video of me on YouTube where I list the last fifty years of Best Picture/Best Director Oscar winners while blindfolded.

7 We spent a lot of time talking about Blue Cheer’s album Vincebus Eruptum being the first metal album (recorded in ‘67, released in ‘68) but mostly because I was fascinated by their manager Owsley Stanley. On his Wiki entry it says known for: Acid, Wall of Sound. I mean, Black Sabbath is the first metal band, end of story. Some people will talk about Deep Purple, Steppenwolf, Iron Butterfly, Sir Lord Baltimore, Jimi Hendrix, Vanilla Fudge, Led Zeppelin, MC5, the Stooges, Arthur Brown, but they’re wrong. It’s Black Sabbath. Cream laid the groundwork for heavy metal, though, since their first two albums were released in ’66 and ’67.

8 So, until I watched a documentary about him, all I really knew of Ginger Baker was that he was the drummer for Cream. I have memories of me and my friend Alex, who were acting in a high school production of a German Expressionist play The Firebugs, taunting our friend Jake, who was drumming for the concurrent musical Godspell, by calling him Ginger. Then, I saw the documentary Beware of Mr. Baker. In the opening minute, he attacks the interviewer with his cane. He’s definitely one of the most influential drummers of all time and an incredible character. He pioneered using double bass drums, lived in Nigeria and drove across the Sahara, drum-battled Elvin Jones, Phil Seaman, and Art Blakey, and incorporated jazz and African rhythms into rock music. While people will argue about Keith Moon and John Bonham being the greatest of all time, you must include Baker in this list or put him at the top. In 2005, he made about five million dollars for Cream’s four-gig reunion and spent the money importing twenty plus horses since he’s a polo enthusiast. Currently, he lives in South Africa in a compound and currently has both health and financial difficulties.

9 Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker had a contentious relationship, to say the least. As Bruce began to sing more, and switched from upright bass to bass guitar, the problems increased. At one point, during their tenure in the Graham Bond Organization, Baker thought Bruce was playing during a drum solo, so he “offloaded a right hander on him,” then proceeded to stomp Bruce while he was down, pulled a knife, and kicked him out of the band. (See footnote 11). You might say the fact they managed to work together again, and last for two years/four albums as Cream, is a miracle. Bruce is heralded as one of the great bass players and singers of all time whose influence is profound. He’s responsible for changing the perception of bass guitar as a lead instrument. Since Cream, he played with a ton of musicians both as a session player and band member. Sadly, he passed away in 2014 from liver disease. Rest in peace, Jack.

10 There’s a famous photo of a dog urinating on graffiti which reads “Clapton is God.” Initially, when I thought of writing this piece, it was going to be from a fly-on-the-wall perspective of a fictional journalist named Herol McCatee who was given unprecedented access to the recording of Wheels of Fire. He would have spent his time chain-smoking Marb Reds and writing something that began with “God is crying,” about Clapton’s slow unraveling due to the stress of mediating the fighting between Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker. There’s really nothing new to write here about Eric Clapton. Although it’s interesting to note that when he left Cream, he formed Blind Faith with Steve Winwood; during practice one day, Ginger just showed up, sat in, and became the drummer. That must have suuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuucked for Clapton. Of course, he’s done alright since then.

11 Clapton is God > Threatening someone at knife point.

12 They disbanded primarily due to infighting between Baker and Bruce, but also because they began using Marshall amplifiers which cranked the volume to 11, and made it difficult to play as a cohesive unit at that decibel level. According to Clapton, one time he stopped playing, and neither Bruce nor Baker noticed.

13 A malapropism for derailleur gears on a racing bike. The guy was thinking about Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. You might be wondering “wait a second—who’s this titan that throws around words like mondegreen and malapropism?” I teach English. I spend all of my time reading/grading papers like this one: http://www.thers500.com/albums/215-new-york-dolls-new-york-dolls-1973/

14 Tom Dowd was one of the engineers on Wheels of Fire. He worked on the Manhattan Project after high school. He was going to get a degree in nuclear physics but was unable to use the classified research he had done in the army. Instead of pursuing this career, he went into music and became a pioneer of multi-track recording and helping to develop/record some of the greatest music of the 20th century. Felix Papalardi produced Wheels of Fire. He would later found and play bass in the Cream-influenced band Mountain. He was shot and killed by his wife, Gail, who was convicted of criminally negligent homicide. Wheels of Fire became the first platinum-selling double album. The first LP consists of studio recordings, while the second is live. Best well-known off of the first album is the song “White Room,” written by Jack Bruce and Pete Brown; they also wrote Cream’s most famous song “Sunshine of Your Love.” This may have also been a bone of contention between Bruce and Baker since Bruce/Brown got the lion’s share of songwriting royalties for Cream’s hits. Lyrics/Melody = $. Drums count as arrangements, which do not constitute royalties. “Toad,” a composition by Baker, is probably the first example of what would be one of the earliest recorded rock drum solos. Martin Scorsese used this track in the film Casino, when Joe Pesci tortures a guy and puts his head in a vice. “Crossroads,” originally by Robert Johnson (about a man selling his soul to the devil for music glory—see footnote 2) gives Clapton the opportunity to showcase his guitar playing and make a case for the dog-urinated-on-graffiti. Also, see footnote 10.

15 Just to give you a heads up of how good this band was, three out of the four albums they recorded made the RS500 list.

16 Too many to name here.

17 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tZVdR19E5mU

—Andrew Davie