Let's not be sentimental or nostalgic about this, it really does sound very dated, not least because of the very primitive stereo engineering. And of course on the basis of this album you would have to conclude that they hadn't yet found their 'sound' as a band. But already by November '66 the authentic sound could certainly be heard in the BBC recordings except that in the earliest Bruce hadn't begun to use sustain on his bass. They also evidently had that sound in live public performance in March 1967 as is evidenced by the recordings of 'NSU'(3.53) and 'I'm So Glad'(4.40) made at the Konserthusen Stockholm both of which at one time were available on two different sem-official releases called 'Stepping Out' and 'Eric Clapton's Cream'. It seems obvious therefore that they had the sound from the beginning when they got together to jam at Baker's house in Neasden. So why didn't it get onto this first album?
This album with its highly artificial studio production is really only of some minor historical interest because of its prominence at the time for commercial reasons, which unfortunately has led to it being of undue interest to 'academic' rock historians of the blues and its new white exponents or 'appropriators. The pity is that this album was made so early and in the Soho of 'Tin-Pan Alley' - even though 'early' here means a matter of months. It saddens me still to see this album referred to in popular discophile reference books, and academic discographies and footnotes, where mention of this 'Spoonful' is made but no mention of the 'Spoonful' from 'Live at the Filmore' or the live numbers on 'Goodbye Cream'. Every time I see this sort of misdirection and misemphasis I know they haven't understood the nature of Cream's (white) 'appropriation' of the blues at all. Similarly when I read the same old complaints about self-indulgent improvisations in their concerts. It is clear from all the bootlegs I've heard that they were always trying and experimenting with the structure of their improvisations. On the more positive side though I have begun to notice these mistakes are being rectified in more recent publications. What the 'academic' historians should have focused their attention on is not the commercial product but the way that Cream were performing the same repertoire when playing live, in public concerts or live in the BBC studios. If they bothered to consider the first album at all it should have been by way of comparison, where it would not have fared well
Nearly all the numbers on this 1967 first album suffer from extremely unnatural and artificial sounding stereo separation and the artificial studio production. This is particularly damaging in the case of the most important tracks on the original album, which are 'NSU', 'Sweet Wine' and 'I'm So Glad'. In the first two of these the bass and drums are placed on the extreme right on top of one another so that it is often difficult to tell the bass and bass drum apart. Vocals and guitar tend to be on the left and extreme left. This is the sort of stereo engineering one associates with the early 60s. They both sound much better when heard in mono but nothing can save the vocals of 'I'm So Glad' from the production. By the time they recorded it for the BBC they had solved the problem of 'Glad' by using two voices instead of the over-exposed and forward-sounding voice of Bruce on his own and in such an unnatural accoustic. Strangely, the drums are more centrally placed in the stereo mix on this track and if only they had used the two voices and recessed them a bit in the mix it would have sounded quite convincing.
'Spoonful' also sounds too artificially produced for a blues number but the other blues tracks fare less badly as the production is more basic. All of them however have the rather naff quality of white-boy blues which may be a little surprising when you consider that the Stones had been demonstrating at least one way to avoid this kind of pitfall for some years. The reason for this failure on Cream's part, however, can be put down to the unsure beginnings of the very thing that was to become their unique strength when they worked out how to solve the problem through live performance. Their unique solution and major contribution to rock music was to transform the blues into the fully appropriated and impressively strong, passionate and heroic form which they became known for on their American tours in '67 and '68. On this first album we can hear them, and Bruce in particular, showing the first signs that this was the way they would have to go and how it would involve a transformation of the way that Blues can be understood and presented. Here it is already presented differently but it makes no sense, and would not do so until they had taken it much further with more conviction and passion. But to do this they needed to discover how to give their SOUND more density and power, and they only ever achieved this in the end in performance and not in the studio.
Only 'I Feel Free', which was not on the original vinyl album, comes across as a fairly successful product of what studio recordings were capable of at the time in producing good and valid commercial pop music - which is just what this album fails to do with NSU and Sweet Wine.
Played in MONO, or if it were re-engineered with a more convincing sound stage, I could give it 4 stars for its genuine freshness and energy, but I wouldn't recommend this as somewhere to find some exciting guitar playing from Clapton. His playing here is simplified and submerged under the attempts of the producer to create something psychedelic - this was 1966 - and, to make it worse, that was before a convincing way of evoking the 'psychedelic' had been discovered or created. More impressive playing is to be found on Clapton's earlier work with John Mayall but, unfortunately, from a rhythmic point of view it's just conventional urban blues. What has not been sufficiently understood by any of the commentators or pundits is how different Cream turned out to be - because of their different use of rhythm and stress - from any other blues bands or rock bands. This arose partly from the material, much of which was new of course, partly from the drummer, and partly from the contrapuntal bass. But even with the material they adopted from old blues artists it is clear that Cream had a completely different conception of what it could be. But on this first album the clue to the new rhythmic approach comes mainly from the new material, more specifically 'NSU' and 'Sweet Wine'.
If anyone wants to know what Cream's real achievement was they should listen to the best of their live recordings, especially those on 'Goodbye Cream' and 'Live at the Filmore'. But to hear Cream as they were right at the beginning of their short career the only source of real value is the BBC recordings where you can hear NSU, and Sweet Wine and I'm So Glad as they should have sounded on their first official album, as well as excellent live versions of I Feel Free and We're Going Wrong along with various other numbers that were eventually to appear on later albums.
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