Friday, December 25, 2009

December 25: Cream, "Disraeli Gears"

Artist: Cream
Album: Disraeli Gears
Year: 1967
Label: Reaction (UK)/ATCO (US)

The "power trio" in rock music has become a time-honored tradition over the decades, but like everything else, there was a "first" band to find success in this format. While a majority of trios, more specifically "super-groups," tend to implode before making any significant musical contributions, over the years, it has been proven that if the members of a "super-group" can set aside their egos, the results are usually some of the greatest music ever recorded. While the most recent incarnation of the successful super-group was Oysterhead, there have been few groups of any size that can compare to the awesome power of the group that can be seen both as the finest rock trio ever, as well as the first "super-group, Cream. While Eric Clapton played with many different bands, as well as a great deal of solo work, when one looks at his entire career, it is hard to argue that his work with Cream was anything less than his finest. Along with Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce, Cream stands as one of the key bands in transitioning to the "blues-rock" sound, as well as one of the most unexpected stars of the psychedelic era. The bands' first two records, though similar in many ways, present both sides of the groups' amazing sound, as their debut record is one of the finest blues-rock albums ever, and in many ways, it opened the door for the "jam band" sound. While their debut is without question a superb record, it is Cream's second album, 1967's Disraeli Gears, that stands not only as their crowning achievement, but also one of the most influential and absolutely timeless albums ever recorded.

In many ways, the way in which the title of "Disraeli Gears" came to happen represents a perfect example of the humor and joy one can find in being part of a band. As the story goes, Clapton and Baker were discussing the fact that Clapton wanted to buy a racing bicycle when one of their roadies, Mick Turner, noted that racing bicycles had, "it's got them Disraeli Gears." In truth, he meant to call them the proper term, "derailleur gears," but instead substituted the surname of the nineteenth century British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli. For whatever reason, the band found this absolutely hilarious, and the name of their album is a never-ending reminder of Turner's comment. Disraeli Gears is also remembered for its shockingly vibrant cover, and the artwork featured on the cover is in many ways responsible for the "psychedelic art" movement that would become commonplace over the following years. Created by Australian artist Martin Sharp, he would go on to design pieces for everyone from Bob Dylan to Donovan, and his works remain the finest of the entire psychedelic art movement. Sharp also gave the group a poem when Clapton mentioned that they had music that needed lyrics. This poem turned out to become the b-side to the "Sunshine Of Your Love" single, and Sharp takes the writing credit for the song, "Tales Of Brave Ulysses." The rest of the songs of Disraeli Gears is a shared effort in terms of both music and lyrics, and this is one of the key reasons why the album is so fantastic.

The key change from the sound from their first record to Disraeli Gears lies in the fact that the group begins to move away from a blues-rock format, and along with the cover art, the influence of the early days of the psychedelic music movement are clearly present. However, the group does not leave blues-rock completely behind, as it is still the core of the songs, but clearly not in its traditional form. It is through this transition that Disraeli Gears shows Cream for who they truly are, as each member excels brilliantly and after hearing the record, it is clear that these are three of the greatest musicians in history. With each of the three musicians boasting extraordinary levels of talent, it is often the groove of bassist Jack Bruce that propels the songs to greatness. Bruce, whose influence can be heard in everyone from Geddy Lee to Chris Chew, was unquestionably the greatest bassist of the era, and his sound remains massively important to this day. The other half of the rhythm section, drummer Ginger Baker, is by far one of the most influential and unsurpassed players in all of music history. Though he would later play with the likes of Fela Kuti and Hawkwind, it is work with Cream that stands as his finest playing. Ginger Baker is also credited as pioneering the idea of having two bass drums, as well as turning drumming into a far more flamboyant and "showy" performance. By far one of the most accomplished and influential rhythm sections in history, it is largely due to the tensions between Bruce and Baker that the group disbanded following the Disraeli Gears tour.

Throughout Disraeli Gears, both Bruce and Baker perform brilliantly, yet they are always placed as a "second" note to the playing and singing of Eric Clapton. As the man who is perhaps the finest blues guitarist of his generation, Clapton epitomizes the term "rock legend" as his playing with bands from Derek & The Dominoes to The Yardbirds to Blind Faith cements his place as one of the true "guitar gods." Yet it is his work within the confines of Cream that often defines his sound and style. Bringing some of the most stunning solos and riffs of his entire career, it is this band that catapulted him to the revered status which he holds to this day. Disraeli Gears also contains what may very well be Clapton's most famous riff, and the main musical phrasing on "Sunshine Of Your Love" led the song to become the best selling single in the history of Atlantic Records (a record that remains intact to this day). The bassline to the song, which is just as memorable, was written by Bruce after watching Jimi Hendrix perform live a year earlier. It is this combination of two of the most brilliant musical progressions in history that makes "Sunshine Of Your Love" an absolutely stunning song, even more than forty years after its initial release. From Clapton's phenomenal guitar playing to the writing powers of all three band members, there is not a dull or "off" moment anywhere on Disraeli Gears, and there has truly never been another album with an equal level of power and sonic beauty.

While one may be quick to slightly understate the importance of Cream, the truth of the matter is, in the year that followed Disraeli Gears, Cream was the top touring act in the world, out-drawing the likes of The Doors and Jimi Hendrix, as well as becoming the first act to be earn a "platinum" album, as the record topped the charts across the globe. Powered by three of the most talented musicians in history, Cream also represents the first true "super-group" of music, and in many ways, they remain the finest example of this idea to this day. The rhythm section of Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce stand almost completely unrivaled in terms of power and playing, and Eric Clapton's stunning guitar work makes Cream a group that knows few equals. Paving the way for a new era of blues-rock, as well as being one of the key forces in the development of the "jam band" sound, there are only a handful of other groups that can boast as much influence and a similar level of raw musicianship. Containing some of Cream's most famous songs, Disraeli Gears is without question their masterpiece, and the songs remain just as powerful and fresh today as they were upon their initial release in the late 1960's. A true group effort, each song on the album is just as fanstastic as the others, and it is without question one of the most "complete" records ever made. Though the record would also mark the beginning of the end of Cream, there is little question that not only is their 1967 release, Disraeli Gears, their finest musical effort, but it is easily one of the greatest and most important albums ever recorded by any artist in music history.

Standout tracks: "Strange Brew," "Sunshine Of Your Love," and "Tales Of Brave Ulysses."

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