Classic album status is accorded much more frequently that it ought to be, but in this case, I’d be wholly justified in labelling it one of the best albums ever made, and not just because it was a childhood favourite. Growing up in a household where this kind of music was played all the time, where extended air guitar freak outs were encouraged, and where psychedelia was all but given to me in vaccine form from birth, this is an understandable peak in my formative listening.
From the opening drum salvo of Strange Brew, Ginger Baker underpins this entire collection with subtle, tom-tom heavy drumming, providing a jazzy, yet tribal pulse to the group. His legendarily mutual hate of Jack Bruce, the other half of one of the tightest rhythm sections of the Sixties, feeds into his playing, bristling with spite and crackling with power.
Talking of that rhythm section, nothing on this disc tops the bass playing in Tales Of Brave Ulysses – that iconic descending line brings ominous portents of psychedelic misdeeds, menace and mindblowing visions. With his vocals in a wonderfully clear register, sounding almost distant and unconnected to the group on all but the wonderfully earthy Take It Back, Bruce commands and corrals the disparate talents of the group, exemplified by the restrained genius of Eric Clapton.
There are so many wonderful moments of guitar playing here, it’s a hard job to pick out a few worth mentioning. The fills and lead lines that cover the emotional cracks in Strange Brew? The monumental riff of Sunshine Of Your Love? The wah-wah freak out of Tales Of Brave Ulysses? The gentle strums of World Of Pain? Or the paranoid playing on We’re Going Wrong? Impossible, really.
The key to this album is really the work of Pete Brown, the poet drafted in to work on some of the lyrics and the production of Felix Pappalardi, who also co-wrote a few tracks, but whose production style, of pushing everything high up in the mix, moving Clapton’s guitars around the stereo pan and generally having layers upon layers of melodies collide with eachother, along with some serious echo the darker tracks, add to the horrendous artwork in creating a musically psychedelic, blues-tinged, tightly epic masterpiece.
Even the traditional song at the end, Mothers Lament, reportedly put on to fill out the wax at the end of side two, where the band and one piano sing a rather absurd Cockney poem is not without it’s charms – it makes my mother crack up every time she hears it, especially when my father and I burst into spontaneous song. Regardless of my strange habits, the only “dud” song, and even then, only by the standards of the rest of their work, is probably Dance The Night Away, being slightly forgettable, and smacking somewhat of filler. SWALBR seems like a burst of agression, but reveals subtleties of arrangement, and Outside Woman Blues and Take It Back are great bluesy rave ups, with a harmonica replacing the guitar for the solo spot on the latter.
This was Cream’s last coherent album, before the drugs, hate and misguided experimentation produced the intermittently brilliant and baffling Wheels Of Fire; here, Cream run the emotional, dynamic and stylistic gamut, and produced a flat out stunner of a disc.
Key tracks: Strange Brew/Sunshine Of Your Love/Tales Of Brave Ulysses/We’re Going Wrong