Friday, June 11, 2010

June 11: Cream, "White Room"

Artist: Cream
Song: "White Room"
Album: Wheels Of Fire
Year: 1968

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

Though there are many things that have been proven over the long history of recorded music, one of the most thought provoking is the idea that even if you put a group of amazingly talented musicians in the same room, it does not necessarily mean they will make music equal to the amount of talent.  History is littered with countless groups that had massive amounts of potential due to the high level of musicianship within the band, but for one reason or another, they fell far short of what they should have accomplished "on paper."  It is this fact that makes the successful "super groups" even more impressive, and one can make the case that the idea of the "super group" began with the late 1960's power trio, Cream.  Though none of the three were "big stars" when the group first formed, due to their extraordinary recordings, all three remain today as some of the most highly revered artists in music history.  Together for just over two years, the amount of impact they made on the entire world of music is immeasurable, and they accomplished more in this short period of time than most bands do with ten times the band life.  Releasing four albums during this time period, one can easily make the case that as a group, they never wrote a "bad" song, and each of these records is filled with a handful of Cream's many hit songs, most of which remain in heavy radio rotation to this day.  After setting the standard with their 1967 release, Disraeli Gears, the trio returned to the studio to further expand on the amazing sound that they had created throughout that record.  The resulting product, 1968's Wheels Of Fire, is also a superb musical accomplishment and the trio shows everything that makes them legends within the albums' lead single, the iconic song, "White Room."

In many respects, "White Room" stands as the peak of Cream's musical feats, as the song displays so many different styles and amazing musical progressions that it has rarely been equaled elsewhere in music history.  It is perhaps this fact that makes "White Room" the groups' most recognizable song, and there are multiple riffs and progressions from the song that have become true classics over the decades.  The entire song has a strangely ethereal feel to it, as the trio constructed the music in such a way that even though it is just the three instruments, it feels like an entire wall of music is pummeling the listener.  Largely due to this aspect, "White Room" can easily be seen as the epitome of the British psychedelic sound, as the group brilliantly blends together almost heavy metal style guitars with a core of classic blues-rock sound.  The song itself also presents an uncanny balance between the three instruments, though for a majority of the song, it is Jack Bruce and his bass playing that drive the song and are responsible for the hard groove that permeates all of "White Room."  The force with which Ginger Baker is playing the drums is where the more aggressive, almost heavy metal mood to the song comes from, and one can easily make the case that "White Room" represents his finest recording.  Yet once the song moves into the middle and final sections, it is guitar god Eric Clapton that takes over the spotlight, and his blistering solo on the song remains one of the most iconic guitar performances in all of music history.  As he proves his mastery of the "wah" pedal, it is this moment where one cannot deny the fusion of metal and psychedelia at play, and the overall sound that the trio creates is what makes "White Room" a song that knows no peers.

Along with the stunning musical performance of the group, one can make the case that "White Room" represents the finest of all of the collaborations between Jack Bruce and Cream's primary lyricist, Pete Brown.  Much like the musical arrangement, Bruce's vocals on "White Room" are based in blues, yet there is a certain more aggressive quality to them that sets them far apart from the rest of the Cream catalog.  With a bit of a growl and a fantastic amount of swagger, Bruce's singing pushes the song to an entirely new level, and "White Room" represents one of the most truly perfect fusions of vocals and music within a singular mood.  Furthermore, the almost choral sounding vocals that the band creates with their instruments almost adds an additional vocal to the song.  This can be heard in the songs' opening notes, as the powerful sounds sound more like a church chorus than they do like traditional instruments.  Though he is often overlooked, it is Brown's poetry that fuels nearly every one of Cream's biggest hits, and on "White Room," he outdoes himself with this amazing tale of a drug experience gone wrong.  With the distinctive four word phrasings, Brown paints a wild picture of a train station from the perspective of someone under the influence of heavy narcotics.  The mood that is created from the lyrics gives "White Room" a darker, almost haunting feel, and this makes the song rather unique within the psychedelic realm, and this contrast is highlighted by fantastic phrasings like, "... silver horses ran down moonbeams in your dark eyes..."  The line perfectly captures the brilliant wordplay that defined the psychedelic writing style, and yet there is something almost gothic in the phrase, and this opposition in mood is one of the keys that makes "White Room" such a fantastic musical masterpiece.

At nearly double the "standard" radio single length, "White Room" defied all odds at the time as it rose all the way to the top ten on the charts on both sides of the Atlantic.  With it's wild, rolling solos and unparalleled "wall of sound" instrumentation, the song remains one of the most powerful songs ever recorded, and it is almost stunning to consider that there are only three players performing on the track.  It is due to this ratio of band members vs. overall power that gives Cream the distinction as the first "power trio" or "super group," and there have been few acts of any numerical configuration that have been able to so brilliantly balance power and sonic precision.  Overall, the group pulled of something almost unimaginable, as "White Room" almost manages to completely overshadow their sensational efforts on Disraeli Gears, and it is this song that put the final piece into play for the group becoming true legends in the overall history of music.  All three of the band members give perhaps the finest performances of their respective careers, and one of the finest is that of Ginger Baker, as he and Jack Bruce drive the song, though it is based in a rather unorthodox 5/4 time signature, moving into contrasting triplets as the song moves into the center section.  Cream makes such transitions seem like child's play as they hop from tempo to tempo, pushing the tension to an uncanny level before absolutely decimating the listener with Clapton's iconic solo.  From the darker lyrics and singing to the almost joyous instrumentation, the three members that made up the "super group" Cream rarely sounded better or performed with more bravado than one finds on their monumental 1968 single, the iconic "White Room."


Anonymous said...

I appreciate your enthusiasm for this song and agree with the majority of what you are saying. But a couple of points:
The music is not "just the three instruments". Except for the first verse, Clapton has two guitars going pretty much throughout. (There are at least two guitars on the opening 5/4 section, and after the first verse a second guitar enters at "I wait in this place...", and remains pretty much throughout. So most of the time it's four instrument. Further more, Felix Papalardi is playing at least two viola tracks on all of the 5/4 sections, which along with the sustained guitar notes creates the "additional vocal" "church chorus" sound that you mention. It IS more than traditional rock band instruments.

A couple of other details in your essay that I don't completely agree with, but I'm not here to argue or to try to cut you down, and again, I appreciate your enthusiasm for this song! Peace.

Unknown said...

Anonymous is correct about the instrumentation. However, Clapton added another guitar in the 5/4 section that was pretty clever. He removed all the strings of his guitar except the high E string. Then, he tuned that way down so it could be bent way more than usual. Then, he played one of the "viola" like parts. Musically, it wasn't completely necessary, since there were multiple viola tracks, but I think it underscores the incredible innovation in their music that had emerged, as Cream was reaching the absolute pinnacle of their musical genius.

One other thing: the liner notes don't mention this, but I am convinced I hear recorders in the 5/4 section as well as the violas. That wouldn't be shocking, since Jack Bruce added recorders (quite brilliantly too) on "Pressed Rat and Warthog during the same sessions. Also, the liner notes are deficient or just plain incorrect in a number of places. The most obvious example is the statement that the live tracks were recorded at the Fillmore West. In fact, only "Toad" was recorded at the Fillmore. The three other live tracks were recorded a couple of blocks away at the Winterland Ballroom. But evidently, Felix Pappalardi and probably others rightly figured the association with the "Fillmore" would help the marketing, since the "Fillmore" was rapidly becoming a widely-recognized buzzword virtually synonymous with the hippest, most cutting-edge music being produced from the heart of the rock/psychedelic rock movement.

Unknown said...

I consider "White Room" to be a tour-de-force from the particularly unique standpoint of its masterful synergy of intrumentation, music, and harmony with the dark but simultaneously haunting and enticing lyrics.

But the lyrics are really the primary driving force [ironic, since the band was well-known to eschew lyrics in favor of devastatingly powerful musicianship].

Just consider this.

The lyrics start out by quickly painting a grim black-and-white world [In a WHITE room with BLACK curtains near the station; BLACK roof country, NO GOLD pavements, tired starlings].

Pretty somber, depressing imagery.

Then suddenly, that sullen world explodes into fire [SILVER horses ran down moonbeams in your DARK eyes; dawn LIGHT smiles on you leaving my contentment].

What follows are repeated attempts to break out of the depressing, stultifying gray world that was so powerfully established at the outset, with each attempt being more energetic than the previous [a fiery guitar riff, then "You said no strings...; then repeated guitar riffs that underscore the attempts to break out]. But then, the bridge sections brings things crashing back down.

Next, led by Jack Bruce's soaring vocals and immediately followed and surpassed by Clapton's wildly intense guitar that roars right through the singing----the most passionate and intense effort to break out that....also fails, as the somberness of the bridge section returns once again.

The final instrumental section after the repeat of the 5/4 section that began the song is something of a "stiff upper lip" resignation that continues in quieter submission.

The darkness of the lyrics is superbly underscored by the choice of instrumentation in the 5/4 sections, by the growling sound from the main guitar track, by the vocal style, and by the wah-wah.

Everything comes together in a supremely unified fashion that rarely attained by any group of musicians.

Clapton's guitar solo is one of his finest. It grabs your guts and soars, yet despite overtaking and surpassing the vocals, it never really clashes with the vocals. The only solo I know that is comparable occurs on Crossroads on the live disc, despite the fact that Clapton never liked this version because he obviously got ahead of himself [at the conclusion of Crossroads, Jack Bruce says, "Eric Clapton please," and Clapton responds "Thank you"....(and then likely turning a bit sheepishly or apologetically to Bruce and Baker)..."Kerfuffle!" which is British slang for "chaos" or "what a mess!"]. But to me, he was just along for the ride, and the solo stands as one of the finest ever recorded by any rock/blues guitarist anytime, anyplace. And, commensurate with a band that was at the very height of their musical power, the whole thing was spontaneous.

Anyhow, thanks for the comments about an exceptional song on an exceptional album from an exceptional group of musicians.