What does it sound like?:
Make no mistake, 1967 was an exciting time to be alive. And it was an even better time to be alive if you were living in London, then the white-hot epicentre of a youth-driven cultural revolution that saw an unprecedented flourishing in art, music and fashion.
Musically speaking 1967 was Year Zero for psychedelia, the British Blues Boom, acid folk and, whisper it, heavy metal. Forget 1971, THIS was the year we saw massively important, career-defining albums by the Beatles, Stones, Velvet Underground, Donovan, Zappa, the Incredible String Band and countless others. If that weren’t enough, we also got the debut LP by a new band named Pink Floyd and no less than two life-changing albums from Jimi Hendrix. An embarrassment of riches you might say. Then, in November 1967, as the flickering embers of the summer of love were about to be extinguished and we thought things couldn’t get much better, we got arguably the album of the year: Cream’s Disraeli Gears.
Cue Kenneth Wolstenholme: 1967? They think it’s all over! It is now!
Discounting live LPs and leftover compilations, Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker released just three full albums during their short, two-and-a-half-year tenure together as rock’s first supergroup. Their much-anticipated debut Fresh Cream arrived in late 1966 and while it was certainly a breakthrough album in many ways (the seeds of heavy rock can be found here), it was basically just their stage act committed to vinyl. The sleeve photo was dull and in a nod to a rapidly fading era, Fresh Cream even contained some self-conscious sleeve notes on the back. Without a hint of irony, we were told that Eric Clapton “Epitomises all that is ‘blues’. From far shores he is hailed as brilliant, and he is truly a great guitarist and personality. Originally a rustic, Eric pursued his musical ideas and became a figurehead with The Yardbirds and John Mayall”. To this day, I still have no idea what “Originally a rustic” means. Of course, even as Fresh Cream hit the stores a young American guitarist landed in London and prepared to lay waste to the British rock scene. Jimi had arrived.
Until Hendrix burst on the London scene, Cream had been kings of all they surveyed, but that was about to change. Jeff Beck, Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton and all the other British guitar pretenders were instantly forced onto the back foot by Jimi’s arrival. Hendrix was doing things with the guitar that their inbuilt British reserve simply wouldn’t allow them to do. Playing behind his head, dry-humping it and even setting fire to the thing. Jimi was cool enough to get away with such antics, but well-bred English art school boys, no matter how talented, were simply too inhibited to throw caution to the wind like that. It was time for a rethink.
Psychedelia was in the air in early 1967 and everyone, including Jimi, was caught up and swept along in the acid-tinged undertow. But in what now looks like a shameless attempt to copy Hendrix, Clapton permed his hair and along with Jack and Ginger, jettisoned his jeans and buckskin jackets in favour of the latest far-out King’s Road threads. Eric and Jack also had their guitars hand-painted by the Dutch art collective known as The Fool, known for their work with the Beatles.
It was this new dandified Cream that went to New York’s Atlantic studios in April 1967 to record their second album. Although their manager Robert Stigwood had been credited as producer on Fresh Cream his involvement was minimal and almost certainly more administrative than musical. What’s more their debut had been recorded jointly at a Chalk Farm rehearsal room and a tiny studio above a chemist shop in Mayfair (which they couldn’t use within shop hours because of the noise). This time around they planned to get serious. With legendary engineer Tom Dowd at the controls they brought in a young producer named Felix Pappalardi. Roughly the same age as the band members, Pappalardi didn’t have a lot of big-name experience, his only production of note before this being the debut album by the Youngbloods, but he was a talented musician and arranger and Atlantic boss Ahmet Ertegun felt he could work well with the British band. Pappalardi ended up with two co-writing credits on the album. It should be remembered that Cream were signed to Atlantic records in the USA as part of the label’s move away from their black soul/R&B roots into the burgeoning white rock market. Within a year or two Atlantic would sign Led Zeppelin, Yes and other hugely successful rock/prog bands.
The recordings got off to a poor start when Ahmet Ertegun described Sunshine Of Your Love as “psychedelic hogwash”. Ertegun had originally been attracted to Clapton’s Beano Album blues guitar playing and was under the mistaken impression that Cream was Eric’s new band and he was the leader. We can only imagine how this went down with Jack and Ginger.
The first track to be recorded was the blues standard Lawdy Mama with Ertegun himself as producer. This didn’t turn out as planned, so Felix Pappalardi took over for the rest of the two recording sessions running over just six days in April/May 1967.
Pappalardi took the tapes of Lawdy Mama and with new lyrics by his wife Gail Collins, got Clapton to overdub a revised vocal and add some Albert King style guitar lines. The result was the album’s powerful opening track Strange Brew. Issued as a single in June 1967, five months before the album was released, it scraped into the UK top 20. Despite this promising start, Jack Bruce was never really happy with Strange Brew pointing out that the slight change in the chord progression had thrown his pre-recorded bass line out of kilter. Hardly anyone but Jack appeared to notice, however.
Guitarist note: Strange Brew was the first time we got to hear Clapton’s famous “woman tone” a deliciously liquid guitar distortion obtained by rolling all the treble off the neck pickup of his psychedelic Gibson SG and playing it through an overdriven Marshall amp. Soon guitarists across the land would be falling over themselves to copy Clapton’s signature “woman tone”, just as they had when he popularised the Gibson Les Paul on the Beano Album.
With scarcely time to digest the majesty of Strange Brew it’s straight into track two and possibly the most famous Cream track of them all. Mostly written by Jack Bruce and Cream’s in-house lyricist Pete Brown, with additions by Eric Clapton, Sunshine Of Your Love features one of rock’s timeless guitar riffs and a great co-vocal from Eric and Jack. And, yet along with Stairway To Heaven and the other overplayed rock anthems, it long ago achieved peak saturation status on classic rock radio. Familiarity may have bred contempt for many but I’m one who will always turn up the car radio whenever Sunshine Of Your Love comes on. This track has survived numerous and diverse cover versions over the years, from Ella Fitzgerald’s 1968 big band jazz take, via Frank Zappa’s 1988 irreverent Thing-Fish-style patois version, to Santana’s ill-conceived heavy metal hatchet job on the album Guitar Heaven in 2010. None of them came within a country mile of the Disraeli Gears original. Listen to the way Ginger’s loose, swaggering drum pattern cuts across that stiff, wooden guitar riff and show me another rock anthem to compare with this.
World Of Pain is the second Felix Pappalardi/Gail Collins co-composition. Light on substance, it’s rescued by Eric’s backwards wah-wah guitar and some massive drumming from Ginger. Likewise, the pop psych of Dance The Night Away would be a throwaway track in the hands of any another band, but the sheer musicianship of Cream saves the day.
Blue Condition is Ginger’s only writing credit on the album and to the dismay of many (even at the time), he elected to sing it as well. Just like Ringo with the Beatles, Ginger was allowed a song or two on every Cream outing, no matter how, er, unusual the results. This one is not quite up there with Pressed Rat and Warthog from Wheels Of Fire but it’s close. The deluxe edition of Disraeli Gears features an alternate take of Blue Condition with Eric on vocals which works much better.
With music by Clapton and lyrics by Australian artist Martin Sharp, side two kicks off with Tales Of Brave Ulysses the third absolute stone cold classic track on the album. The story goes that Sharp wrote the lyrics as a poem in Greece en route overland from Australia to the UK. In London he met with Eric Clapton at the Speakeasy club and give him the poem written on a napkin. Eric loved it and added music to it. Voilà, the psychedelic wah-wah extravaganza that is Tales of Brave Ulysses was born. I suspect something like that wouldn’t happen today. Sharp also did the eyewatering Day-Glo sleeve artwork for Disraeli Gears and the follow-up Wheels Of Fire as well as the first album by Ginger Baker’s Airforce. The descending chord sequence of Ulysses gives full rein to Jack Bruce’s blood and thunder bass work which sits perfectly alongside Eric’s snaking wah-wah lines.
SWLABR is next up and the hits just keep on coming. This Bruce/Brown full-tilt rocker with a killer double tracked solo from Eric appeared as the B-side of the Sunshine Of Your Love single which reached top five in the US, but barely made the top 30 in the UK. For decades we thought that SWLABR was an acronym for “She Walks Like a Bearded Rainbow”, but Jack Bruce later remarked that the W stood for “Was” rather than “Walks” and this corrected title was also referenced by Pete Brown in a 2006 interview.
The slow minor key psychedelic drone of We’re Going Wrong is the only Jack Bruce track on the album written without Pete Brown. The slow pace of the song is belied by Ginger’s drumming, which is frenetic throughout and when performed live, played on timpani with mallets. This was a highlight of the 2005 Cream reunion concerts.
Outside Woman Blues is an old Arthur Reynolds song dating back to 1929. It’s unrecognisable here though as it receives the full fat Cream heavy rock makeover in the same way that Crossroads would the following year. Eric is in top form here and the compression is turned up to eleven as he delivers an epic paint-stripping wah-wah guitar solo. Another nailed-on classic track.
We’re on the home stretch now and Take It Back sounds like it might have been at home on Jack’s first solo album Songs For A Tailor. No guitar solos to speak of here, just harmonica and plenty of party noises in the background, a la Dylan’s Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.
And so to the last song Mother’s Lament. It must have seemed like a great wheeze at the time, but this boozy, sub-Chas & Dave piano-led Cockney knees-up was never more than the flimsiest of throwaway tracks and really doesn’t belong on an album of this importance. One of the greatest albums of 1967 ends not with a bang, but a whimper.
I know you’ve been wondering about that album title, so here’s what Ginger had to say about it. “You know how the title came about – Disraeli Gears – yeah? We had this Austin Westminster (car), and Mick Turner was one of the road crew who’d been with me a long time, and he was driving along. Eric Clapton was talking about getting a racing bicycle. Mick, driving, went ‘Oh yeah – Disraeli gears!’ meaning Derailleur gears…We all just fell over…We said “that’s got to be the album title””.
What does it all *mean*?
50 years on, this album sounds as fresh and vital as the day it was recorded.
Goes well with…
All the other Cream albums
Might suit people who like…
Great musicianship and lots of guitar