Cream “Wheels of Fire / In the Studio”

Although The Rising Storm’s principal premise is to play the spotlight on fine obscure albums, it’s fun occasionally to review something well-known from a (hopefully) new personal perspective, so here’s my take, forty-two years on, on Cream’s most uncharacteristic album.

The historical context for Wheels Of Fire needs no repetition here, as Cream’s history is so well documented. Suffice to mention that by the time they began recording it in early 1968 the wheels, so to speak, were already coming off, with a disillusioned Eric Clapton’s original vision of a purist blues trio with himself in the Buddy Guy role just a distant dream, Jack Bruce firmly in the driving seat as both composer and vocalist, and Bruce and Ginger Baker well and truly back at each other’s throats just as they had been in their Graham Bond days. The decision to break up the band had already been taken before the album’s completion, with just contractual live engagements and the makeshift fourth album to fulfil.

Despite all this antipathy the studio component of Wheels is a surprisingly high-quality collection which, as we all know, hit the shelves accompanied by a frankly turgid live set. The studio half – which in most countries was also released as a single album in its own right – is exhilarating proto-progressive rock with the odd bluesy afterthought and some stealthy jazz and classical overtones. Hardcore head-banging blues-rock aficionados may still wince when comparing it to Cream’s earlier studio efforts, and to the extended guitar jams on those songs that continued to make up most of their live set – only “White Room”, “Sitting On Top Of The World” and “Politician” from Wheels ever seeing the stage – but fans of Jack Bruce will acknowledge it as a worthy precursor to his highly successful solo career. What may come as a surprise is that three of the most leftfield numbers weren’t composed by Bruce, though he makes two of them his own both vocally and instrumentally, but by ill-fated British jazz composer and pianist Mike Taylor, with Baker providing the lyrics. Add to this the astonishingly diverse multi-instrumental talents of producer Felix Pappalardi, and you’ve got an engaging musical stew comparable to the Fabs’ White Album in its variation and experimentation.

All the tracks are well-known, but possibly overlooked highlights to listen out for in retrospective plays are Clapton’s eerie, brittle, reverbed guitar sound on “Sitting On Top Of The World”, produced from his single-pickup Gibson Firebird; Bruce’s hypnotic droning cello and modal acoustic guitar on “As You Said”; the instrumental break on “Politician” in which Bruce’s sludgy, rumbling bass underpins no fewer than three overdubbed intertwining guitar lead lines; Pappalardi’s gorgeous baroque trumpet figures which rescue the weakest track, Baker’s recitative “Pressed Rat And Warthog”, from mediocrity; and the splendid tuned percussion by Baker and Pappalardi on the sinuous, shifting “Those Were The Days”. Bruce’s near-operatic vocals on this album were among the best of his career.

I guess the live set should be mentioned in passing. Only the crisp, driving four minutes of “Crossroads” makes the grade, with Bruce’s tedious harmonica exposition “Traintime” and Baker’s formless sixteen-minute drum solo on “Toad” being of interest only to completists. (IMHO, the only rock drummer ever to warrant a solo is Jon Hiseman.) Oh, and for those wondering what a tonette is, as credited to Pappalardi on “Pressed Rat”, it’s a cheap plastic recorder-like instrument commonly used in elementary schools. It took me forty-two years to find that out: thanks, Wikipedia.

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“Those Were the Days”

:D CD Reissue | 2CD | 98 | Polydor | buy at amazon ]
:) Original Vinyl |  1968 | Polydor | search ebay ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]


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10 Comments.

  • jesselun

    a superfine album, despite their lousy 1968 live shows

  • I was seven or eight when my brother bought this LP and ‘Pressed Rat And Warthog’ was my favourite track. It was a bit of a thrill to see Ginger Baker ‘singing’ it on the reunion DVD.

  • Louder than Milk

    I’ve always loved Pressed Rat And Warthog. Atonal apples, amplified heat. What more can you ask for?

  • Neil Cake

    Yeh, Pressed Rat is ace.

  • Len Liechti

    Hmmm. Back in the day the common opinion of “Pressed Rat” was “sh*te”. Perhaps you had to be on something merry to appreciate it? The trumpet licks are cool, though.

  • It came out as a 2-record set in the US, which I bought here in Oz in 1978. The live set rarely got a run on the turntable but I’ve always loved the studio LP. We had the Australian single White Room backed with Those Were The Days at home in 1968 and even then at age 9 the stinging guitar solo and chimes from the B-side stood out for me. Interestingly, it would be worth putting together a series of “second-best” albums by well-knowns – they’re quite often fascinating. Great post.

  • Len Liechti

    I lied . . . slightly. “Deserted Cities Of The Heart” did see live performance on the third Cream tour of the States, and also of course in the recent Albert Hall reunion concerts. “Passing The Time” was also attempted, but dropped after only one offering. Info from the excellent book Strange Brew: Eric Clapton & The British Blues Boom 1965-1970 by Christopher Hjort, which details the careers of Messrs Clapton, Green and Taylor during those years.

  • donkey_shot

    if, as you claim in your review of wheels of fire, “the only rock drummer ever to warrant a solo is Jon Hiseman”, then I would like to point you towards steamhammer`s swan song, “speech” (1972), which is a masterpiece in its own right (see also allmusic`s review of the album with which I fully concur) and very much the equal of anything cream did.

    on “speech”, steamhammer had been reduced to a core trio; one mick bradley had taken the drummer`s seat – and on speech`s final number, “foragainst”, bradley proceeds to disassemble any concept a listener might have of “the rock drum solo” with his brilliant polyrhythmic patterns: in short, pass on “foragainst” at your own peril!

    I dare anyone therefore to hear mick bradley`s drum solo – and to subsequently uphold jon hiseman`s sole claim to rock drummer fame!

    sadly btw, mick bradley died of cancer only a few months after completion of “speech”, and steamhammer dissolved. along with high tide`s “sea shanties” (and, possibly, black sabbath`s somewhat overrated debut album), “speech” -in passing- laid the very foundations of what was soon to become known as heavy metal.

  • Len Liechti

    Thanks for this, donkey-shot, I will indeed look the Steamhammer albums out. They certainly get pretty good reviews on Amazon. Incidentally I didn’t mean to slight Ginger Baker with my comments: I think he’s one of the best ensemble rock drummers ever, and his jazz background gives him a unique tight-but-loose (if you see what I mean) sound that’s far more interesting than the straightforward crash-bang-wallop of eg. John Bonham (oh dear, that’ll probably bring another stream of protests). I just think that a drummer needs a lot to say beyond simply rolling round the kit very fast if he/she’s to deserve a solo. Hiseman gets my vote because his bag of technical tricks is inexhaustible. His best trick is the one where he plays a fast roll on snare combined with a very slow roll on twin bass drums, and then slows down the former whilst simultaneously speeding up the latter until they’re totally reversed . . . and then does the same in the opposite direction. Astonishing. If anyone out there in Stormland can recommend any other drummers who deserve to be heard alone, let us know!

  • Barolojoe

    I disagree with the statement in the article that “the live set should be mentioned in passing”.

    ‘Toad’ with his extensive drum solo is indeed negligible. ‘Crossroads’ is better.

    But the best track by far and up to this day the best released live track of Cream ist ‘Spoonful’. Therein you find everything: superb riffs from Clapton and even better bass guitar work of Jack Bruce. In this number Bruce is without doubt the driving force on stage and at the peak of his skills.

    Sorry to say that, but: reviewing ‘Wheels of Fire’ without even mentioning this mind-blowing ‘Spoonful’ version means not having listened to that album at all….

    *grumble*

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