What an album. I’ve always considered Cream’s second album Disraeli Gears to be their masterpiece, but the more I listen to Wheels Of Fire the more want to change my mind.
The first thing you notice about the album is how much tighter the band became in the studio since their first and second albums. This was due to their extensive live schedule where they’d play day after day in the US where playing 20 minute rendition of songs had become common. There are four live tracks included on the album after the studio songs and these highlight the differences between their studio and live work. The studio songs here have structures but the live songs are the complete opposite. And I love that.
The album opens with White Room, an almost identical song to Tales Of Brave Ulysses (Disraeli Gears) where the chord progression is concerned. It’s a cracking song which features some of Clapton’s best work with a ‘wah’ pedal. Next up is an electrifying version of Sitting On Top Of The World, the first of two cover songs on the album. Clapton’s use of his Gibson Firebird gives this track a massive boost and his soloing is by far the highlight of this song and the entire album. Passing The Time sounds like it would have fit better on the more psychedelic Disraeli Gears and sounds more like a lullaby than a song by a blues/rock band. However halfway through the trio kick in with an almighty bang and the listener is reminded why Cream are hailed as one of the best bands of the sixties.
As You Said is the albums first all acoustic track and is followed by the extremely odd Pressed Rat And Warthog, a song by Ginger Baker. It’s my least favourite track on the album as well as my least favourite Cream song along with Blue Condition from Disraeli Gears (another Baker song) and should have been left off the album entirely and relegated to a b-side instead, if that. When the next song begins it’s almost like Pressed Rat And Warthog has been erased from your mind as the thick tones of Clapton’s guitar and driving bass of Bruce return in the form of Politician, the dirtiest sounding song Cream recorded.
The next song, Those Were The Days, is another Baker song but is far superior to the weak Pressed Rat And Warthog. The song features a fantastic musical explosion halfway through where Clapton propels the song forward before another vocal verse begins. The final two songs, Born Under A Bad Sign and Deserted Cities Of The Heart are two more exceptional highlights on the album. Both songs feature the band in blistering form, especially Clapton who plays one of his best solos ever on Deserted Cities Of The Heart. The songwriting of Jack Bruce can’t be ignored here and the song is one of the best songs he ever wrote. Outstanding stuff.
The four live tracks and simply out of this world, you have to listen for yourself to understand why. The version of Crossroads is now widely considered to be the definitive version having been voted as the greatest live recording of all time. It’s not hard to hear why Cream were the best live band of the sixties, and in my opinion, all time. The other three live songs, Spoonful, Train Time and Spoonful are just as excellent.
- White Room
- Sitting On Top Of The World
- Passing The Time
- As You Said
- Pressed Rat And Warthog
- Those Were The Days
- Born Under A Bad Sign
- Deserted Cities Of The Heart
- Crossroads (Live At Winterland)
- Spoonful (Live At Winterland)
- Train Time (Live At Winterland)
- Toad (Live At Fillmore West)
What an album. What makes it so good is the split between studio and live recordings. Cream were two completely different bands. In the studio they were organised with song structures and plans but all of that went out the window when they played live. They went with the flow and let the music do all the talking. Their motto was:
Forget the message, forget the lyrics; just play
This strikes a note with me as my music and band are based on the Cream formula. Musical improvisation is wonderful and a trio is all you really need for the best live experience. Guitar, bass and drums. Basic and extremely powerful. Clapton, Bruce and Baker were without a doubt the CREAM of their crop. Get this album!