Nineteen-sixty-seven was an exciting time to be a record buyer. It was a year when LP sales began to overtake singles for the first time as the rock album established itself as a legitimate art form within a youth-driven cultural revolution. Psychedelia reached its peak as electric blues moved from the clubs into the mainstream where it met the first stirrings of progressive rock, acid folk, and heavy metal.
We saw genre-changing records by the Beatles, Stones, Velvet Underground, Donovan, Frank Zappa, Doors, Incredible String Band and others. If that weren’t enough, 1967 gave us the debut LP by a new band named Pink Floyd and no less than two life-changing albums from Jimi Hendrix. An embarrassment of riches, you might say. In fact, the only artist of note to buck the trend was Bob Dylan who, convalescing up in Woodstock, almost failed to release any new material at all in 1967, with John Wesley Harding sneaking out on almost the last day of the year.
Then, in November 1967 as the flickering embers of the summer of love were almost extinguished and it seemed like a perfect year couldn’t get any better, Disraeli Gears arrived. Twenty-seventeen sees the 50th anniversary of Cream’s landmark second album, so what better time to step back and re-evaluate one of the most significant records of a very special year.
Discounting posthumous live LPs and compilations, Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker released just three full albums during their short two-and-a-half-year tenure as rock’s first supergroup. Their eagerly awaited Fresh Cream debut arrived in late 1966 and while it was a breakthrough album in many ways (the seeds of heavy rock can be found here, for example) it was little more than their stage act committed to vinyl. The moody sleeve photo shows the band in half shadow, decked out in what can only be described as World War II fighter pilot headgear. Eric has a Leica M3 Rangefinder camera around his neck (state of the art technology in 1966 and a rare collector’s item today) while Ginger’s military jacket pre-empts the shortly-to-be de rigueur Carnaby Street outfit of choice by several months.
In a nod to a rapidly fading era, Fresh Cream also contained some now-desperately dated liner notes. Without a hint of irony, we were told that Eric Clapton “Epitomises all that is ‘blues.’ From far shores he is hailed as brilliant, and he is truly a great guitarist and personality. Originally a rustic, Eric pursued his musical ideas and became a figurehead with The Yardbirds and John Mayall.” Heady stuff, if a little earnestly self-conscious. To this day I have no idea what “Originally a rustic” means but it sure sounded impressive at the time.
The album sold well in Britain where it peaked at #6 on the LP chart, while in the US where the single “I Feel Free” replaced “Spoonful” on original pressings it reached only #39. Other tracks recorded during the 1966 sessions, “The Coffee Song” and Cream’s debut single “Wrapping Paper,” would turn up on later pressings of the album. But even as Fresh Cream hit the stores a young American guitarist landed in London and prepared to send shock waves through the entire British rock scene. Jimi had arrived.
Until Hendrix burst onto the scene, Cream had been lords of all they surveyed, but that was about to change. Jeff Beck, Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton and the other British guitar gods were instantly forced onto the back foot by Jimi’s arrival. Hendrix was doing things with the guitar that their inbuilt British reserve simply wouldn’t allow — playing behind his head, dry-humping it and even setting fire to the thing. Jimi was cool enough to get away with such antics but well-bred English art school boys, no matter how talented, were simply too inhibited to throw caution to the wind like that. It was time for a rethink.
Psychedelia was in the air in early 1967 and everyone, including Jimi, was swept along in the acid-tinged undertow. In what now looks like a shameless attempt to copy the Hendrix afro Clapton permed his hair and along with Jack and Ginger jettisoned his jeans and buckskin jacket in favour of the latest far-out King’s Road threads. Eric and Jack’s guitars, together with Ginger’s drums, were given a hand-painted psychedelic makeover by the Dutch art collective Simon and Marjike known as The Fool, soon to become famous for their work with the Beatles.
It was this new, dandified Cream which came to New York in April 1967 to record their second album at the legendary Atlantic studios on West 60th Street and Broadway. Although Cream’s manager Robert Stigwood was credited as producer on Fresh Cream his involvement was minimal and almost certainly more administrative than musical. What’s more, their debut had been partly recorded at a tiny studio above a chemist shop in Mayfair, which they couldn’t use during store opening hours because of the noise, a situation hardly befitting rock’s first supergroup.
This time around they planned to get serious. The Atlantic studios were already using 8-track recording technology, for example, something almost unknown in the UK at that time. With legendary engineer Tom Dowd at the controls, they brought in a young producer named Felix Pappalardi. Roughly the same age as the band, Pappalardi didn’t have a lot of big-name experience, his only production credit of note to that point being the debut album by the Youngbloods. However, he was a talented musician/arranger and Atlantic boss Ahmet Ertegun felt he would work well with the British band. This proved to be the case as Pappalardi ended up with two co-writing credits on the album.
Although their early records appeared on Stigwood’s own Reaction label in Britain, Cream were signed to the Atlantic Records subsidiary ATCO in the USA. As part of a move away from their black R&B roots into the burgeoning white rock market, Atlantic would sign Led Zeppelin, Yes, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Emerson, Lake & Palmer and other hugely successful rock/prog bands within a year or two.
The Disraeli Gears recordings got off to a shaky start when Ahmet Ertegun described “Sunshine Of Your Love” as “psychedelic hogwash.” Ertegun had originally been attracted to Clapton’s virtuoso guitar playing via his work on the John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers “Beano Album” and was under the mistaken impression that Cream was Eric’s new blues trio and he was the leader. We can only imagine how this went down with the fiercely competitive Jack and Ginger.
The first track to be recorded was the blues standard “Lawdy Mama” with Ertegun himself as producer. This didn’t turn out quite as planned so Felix Pappalardi took over for the rest of the two recording sessions running over six days in April/May 1967.
Pappalardi took the tapes of “Lawdy Mama” and, with new lyrics by his wife Gail Collins, asked Clapton to overdub a revised vocal and some tastefully authentic Albert King-style guitar lines. The result was the album’s powerful opening track, “Strange Brew.” Issued as a single in June 1967, five months before the album was released, it scraped into the UK top 20. Despite this promising start, Jack Bruce was never happy with “Strange Brew,” claiming a slight change in the chord progression had thrown his pre-recorded bass line out of kilter. Hardly anyone but Jack appeared to notice, however.
Guitarist note: “Strange Brew” was the first time we got to hear Clapton’s famous “woman tone” a deliciously liquid guitar distortion obtained by rolling all the treble off one or both pick-ups on his psychedelic Gibson SG and playing it through an overdriven Marshall amp. Soon guitarists across the land would be rushing to copy Clapton’s new sound, just as they had a year earlier when he popularised the Gibson Les Paul on the “Beano Album.”
With scarcely time to digest the majesty of “Strange Brew,” it’s straight into track two and undoubtedly the most famous Cream track of them all. Mostly written by Jack Bruce and Cream’s in-house poet/lyricist Pete Brown, with additions by Eric Clapton, “Sunshine of Your Love” features one of rock’s truly timeless guitar riffs and a great co-vocal from Eric and Jack. This track has survived decades of classic rock radio saturation and diverse cover versions, from Ella Fitzgerald’s 1968 big band jazz take, Frank Zappa’s 1988 irreverent version, delivered in a bizarre African-American vernacular patois (borrowed from the 1984 Zappa album Thing-Fish), to Santana’s heavy metal hatchet job on the album Guitar Heaven in 2010. None of them came within a country mile of the Disraeli Gears original. Listen to the way Ginger’s loose, swaggering drum pattern cuts across that stiff, wooden guitar riff and show me another rock anthem to compare with this.
“World Of Pain” is the second Felix Pappalardi/Gail Collins co-composition and was written in tribute to a tree growing in their Greenwich Village garden (something of a rarity in that part of town, apparently). Light on substance, it’s rescued by Eric’s backwards wah-wah guitar and some massive drumming from Ginger. Likewise, the pop-psych of “Dance The Night Away” would be a throwaway track in the hands of any other band but the sheer musicianship of Cream saves the day.
“Blue Condition” is Ginger Baker’s only writing credit on the album and to the dismay of many (even at the time), he elected to sing it as well. Just like Ringo in the Beatles, Ginger was allowed a song or two on every Cream outing, no matter how unusual the results. In terms of sheer off the wall quirkiness, “Blue Condition: is not quite up there with Ginger’s “Pressed Rat and Warthog” from the follow-up Wheels Of Fire album, but it’s close. The Deluxe Edition CD of Disraeli Gears features an alternate take of Blue Condition with Eric on vocals which works much better.
With music by Eric Clapton and lyrics by Australian graphic artist Martin Sharp, side two kicks off with “Tales Of Brave Ulysses” the third absolute stone cold classic track on the album. The story goes that Sharp wrote the lyrics as a poem in Greece en route overland from Australia to Britain. In London, he met Eric Clapton at the Speakeasy club and gave him the poem written on a napkin. Eric loved it and added the music. Voilà, the psychedelic wah-wah extravaganza that is “Tales of Brave Ulysses” was born. I suspect something like that wouldn’t happen quite so easily today. Sharp would later collaborate with Clapton on the 1968 Cream single “Anyone For Tennis.”
As well as the eye-watering Day-Glo cut and paste sleeve of Disraeli Gears, Martin Sharp was also responsible for both the Wheels Of Fire LP artwork and the cover of the 1970 debut album by Ginger Baker’s Airforce. Despite its charmingly home-made feel Disraeli Gears has one of the most distinctive and eye-catching album covers of any era and, for me at least, it captures the essence of 1967 more than any other record sleeve, Sgt. Pepper’s included.
The descending chord pattern of “Tales of Brave Ulysses” gives full rein to Jack Bruce’s blood-and-thunder bass work which sits perfectly alongside Eric’s snaking guitar lines. Together with Jimi’s “Burning Of The Midnight Lamp” single (August 1967), this track raised the profile of the newly invented wah-wah pedal and instantly boosted sales of the guitar effect worldwide.
“SWLABR” is next up and the hits just keep on coming. This Bruce/Brown full-tilt rocker with a killer double-tracked solo from Eric appeared as the B-side of the “Sunshine Of Your Love” single. It reached top five in the US, but barely made the top 30 in the UK. For decades we thought that “SWLABR” was an acronym for “She Walks Like a Bearded Rainbow”, but Jack Bruce later confirmed that the “W” stood for “Was” rather than “Walks” and this corrected title was also referenced by Pete Brown in a 2006 interview.
The slow minor key psychedelic drone of “We’re Going Wrong” is the only Jack Bruce track on the album written without Pete Brown. The unhurried pace of the song is belied by Ginger’s rolling drum pattern which is relentless throughout and when performed live, played on timpani with mallets. This was a highlight of the 2005 Cream reunion concerts.
“Outside Woman Blues” is an old Arthur Reynolds song dating back to 1929. It’s unrecognisable here however as it receives a full-fat heavy rock makeover in the same way that Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads” would the following year. Eric is in top form on this track and the compression is turned up to eleven as he delivers an epic paint-stripping wah-wah guitar solo. Another nailed-on classic track.
We’re on the home stretch now and, musically at least, “Take It Back” might have been at home on Jack’s 1969 debut solo album Songs For A Tailor. This anti-Vietnam War song, the lyrics of which were possibly inspired by media images of American students burning their draft cards, features no guitar solos to speak of, just an ensemble backing with harmonica and plenty of background party noises, à la Dylan’s Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.
And so, to the last song on the album, “Mother’s Lament.” It must have seemed like a great wheeze at the time, but this boozy, piano-led Cockney knees-up was never more than the flimsiest of throwaway tracks and really doesn’t belong on an album of this importance. The irony, if any was intended, of a music hall ditty closing a full-on psychedelic record wore off very quickly indeed. One of the greatest albums of 1967 ends not with a bang but a whimper.
I know you’ve been wondering about that album title so here’s what Ginger had to say about it in an interview sometime after the album’s release. “You know how the title came about – Disraeli Gears – yeah? We had this Austin Westminster [car], and Mick Turner was one of the roadies who’d been with me a long time, and he was driving along. Eric Clapton was talking about getting a racing bicycle. Mick, driving, went ‘Oh yeah – Disraeli gears!’ meaning derailleur gears. We all just fell over. We said ‘that’s got to be the album title’.”
Disraeli Gears’ lasting impact
Issued in both mono and stereo in the first week of November 1967, Disraeli Gears reached #5 on the UK LP chart. It was also the group’s US breakthrough album, becoming a massive seller in 1968 and peaking at #4 in America. In 2003 the album was ranked #114 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. The Deluxe Edition double CD edition released in 2004 features mono and stereo version of the album plus outtakes and BBC recordings from the period.
Producer Felix Pappalardi was retained for the third Cream album Wheels of Fire which appeared in August 1968. Wrapped in another remarkable Martin Sharp sleeve it comprised studio and live tracks spread over two LPs. The studio cuts were recorded in New York and London, while the live tracks (including the timeless Crossroads) originate from San Francisco’s Winterland and Fillmore West.
Working with Eric, Jack and Ginger left such an impression on producer Felix Pappalardi that in 1969 he formed the Cream sound-alike band Mountain with guitarist Leslie West.
As a somewhat macabre footnote to the story, on April 17, 1983 Pappalardi was shot and killed by his wife and co-writer of Strange Brew Gail Collins in their Manhattan apartment – she was later charged with second-degree murder.