55 years Later: Revisiting Cream’s Brave Debut ‘Fresh Cream’

A retrospect of fifty-five years provides an especially fascinating perspective on Cream’s debut album. Fresh Cream (released 12/9/66 (barely scratches the surface of the powerhouse unit this seminal power trio would become within two short years. Nevertheless, this first long-player takes listeners much closer to the roots of their sound and its most original manifestations than the group’s first single: as cryptic a ploy as the album cover photo, “Wrapping Paper” is hardly the innovative work of musicians regarded as the ‘cream of the crop’ in their homeland (hence their band name).

Quite the contrary,  it’s a quasi-musical hall ditty light-years from the white-hot intensity that flashed through this initial studio album, reappeared on its successors, and became prevalent in their best stage shows. The songwriting collaboration of bassist Jack Bruce and lyricist Pete Brown initiated here would eventually become Cream’s chief source of original material. But at this early stage, covers that reveal the threesome’s roots equaled the self-composed: juxtaposed with blues tunes like “Four Until Late” and “I’m So Glad,” from genre icons Robert Johnson and Skip James respectively, Bruce co-writes like “I Feel Free”  evinced a burgeoning style clarified through the relative brevity of the cuts. 

In the two-to-three minute mark in duration, these tracks are light-years from the extensive improvisations that would eventually comprise the bulk of the threesome’s concerts. More importantly, however, such numbers as “Dreaming” reveal the eerie charm of Jack’s falsetto singing; it’s a facet of the Cream sound similar to the tone of the group harmonies, one which unfortunately disappeared, to be replaced with near tuneless caterwauling, once jamming took precedence over structured songs. Six and a half minutes of “Spoonful” hints at that future, as does the inclusion of Baker’s “Toad.” 

Even more, extended drum solos during Cream shows would point the way to such intervals as the bane of live concerts in general, one that remains in place today. Yet, along with the 45-rpm b-side instrumental “Cat’s Squirrel,” this cut also reaffirmed the riff live as one of their main song structures over the course of their truncated two-year history. The logical extension of that process, of course, is “Sunshine of Your Love” on the next year’s  Disraeli Gears: wrapped in a garish cover design ever-so-fitting of the psychedelic times, the sophomore LP was/is superior in sound quality thanks to future bassist and composer for Mountain, Felix Pappalardi, who succeeded Robert Stigwood as producer—the latter businessman/entrepreneur fulfilling that latter role on the first album in name only.

A relentless tour schedule subsequently kicked in to consolidate the breakthrough of Cream as a massively popular act. Unfortunately, the pressures of the road only exacerbated the latent personal friction within the trio, just as Clapton feared when Baker approached him with the idea of joining forces with Bruce; rather than act as a peacemaker, Eric withdrew to watch his early fears of such a negative dynamic come to fruition between the almost equally irascible Ginger and Jack.

Yet that very commercial success also camouflaged the absence of equitable and reliable sources of high-quality material for Cream’s repertoire. At the same time, the tumultuous dynamic helped disguise a behind-the-scenes movement at the label to bring Clapton to the forefront as a chief vocalist as well as its primary instrumentalist: a role he shared with Bruce on their hit, Slowhand did sing some of the blues tunes he contributed in lieu of self-composed numbers, the iconic “Crossroads” the most notable of all (he would not overcome his self-professed lack of confidence as a singer until his eponymous solo debut in 1970).  Ironically (or perhaps not), intra-band politics also correlated to forced acts of artistic democracy.

Thus, Ginger’s woefully lugubrious “Blue Condition” (along with “Take It Back” and “Mother’s Lament,” two more stylistic non-sequiturs comparable to the single) ended up next to the deeply atmospheric likes of “Dance The Night Away” and “World of Pain” on the second album of this seminal power trio. Unintentionally no doubt, such song titles foreshadowed the sequence of events for which Fresh Cream drew a thirty-seven minute-plus aural road map more than a half-century ago.

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