Psych album of the week: Cream’s Disraeli Gears (1967)

Not only is it one of the finest records released in that bumper crop year, it is surely one of the best classic rock records of all time

cream-1967

Left: Disraeli Gears. Right: Cream circa 1967—(left to right) Ginger Baker, Jack Bruce, and Eric Clapton.

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Eric Clapton has been famous for his guitar playing since he first drew breath or thereabouts, but Cream’s rhythm section of Jack Bruce on bass and Ginger Baker on drums both had equally stellar pedigrees in the British blues and rock world. They were also both the type of wild, improvisational players that were needed to bring balance to one of the first bands to be called a supergroup.

Their first album, 1966’s Fresh Cream, was recorded in England, in their comfort zone. It performed well, placing in the top 10 on the U.K. albums chart. A fine showing, but the cognoscenti were expecting more from this group with so much potential.  

Released in November of 1967, Disraeli Gears lived up to the group’s promise and then some. Not only is it one of the finest records released in that bumper crop year, it is surely one of the best classic rock records of all time.  

All the pieces came together

Recording at Atlantic studios in New York, at the behest of their record label ATCO, all the pieces came together for the band. The album showcases great playing, great songwriting, and wonderfully psychedelic artwork. Although Cream was known as an improvisational trio, all the songs on this record are succinct; the longest is not much more than 4 minutes. No matter. So much excellence was packed into those 11 songs and 34 minutes, the band could save the drawn-out solos for the stage.  

American producer Felix Pappalardi deserves credit for the success of the album as well. He co-wrote two songs. What’s more, he helped realize the potential of the group as they ushered in new heavy and psychedelic sounds. He was also a bridge between the British musicians and the studio technicians unaccustomed to the raging volume the band worked at.  

Opening track “Strange Brew” was released as a single. It’s a laid-back bluesy remake with Clapton’s falsetto advising us “She’s some kind of demon messin’ in the glue/If you don’t watch out it’ll stick to you”. Clapton lobbied hard to include his Albert King–influenced solo on this number.  

Inspired by Hendrix

Inspired by Jimi Hendrix, “Sunshine of Your Love” is based on Bruce’s towering descending riff. It remains one of Cream’s most well-known songs: “I’ll be with you when the stars start falling”. The song is one of four on Disraeli Gears that features Bruce’s writing partner Pete Brown’s lyrics. Clapton provides the musical turnaround and words for the chorus.  

“Dance the Night Away” features a fantastic 12-string electric part from Clapton, a busy but tuneful Bruce bassline, and harmonized lead vocals.  

“Tales of Brave Ulysses” is an epic monster of a rock song and showcases some magnificent wah guitar from Clapton. It contains the lyrical contributions of Martin Sharp, who pens some of the finest psychedelic turns of phrase of the whole era, let alone the album: “And you see a girl’s brown body/Dancing through the turquoise/And her footprints make you follow/Where the sky loves the sea/And when your fingers find her/She drowns you in her body/Carving deep blue ripples/In the tissues of your mind”.  

Sharp is also responsible for the mind-expanding album cover with its vivid colours. It was inspired by what he described as the “warm fluorescent sound” of the music.  

Another storming riff

“SWLABR” (short for ‘She was like a bearded rainbow’, naturally), is another storming riff that rocks its way through 2:34 of psychedelic guitar tones and “I-don’t-trust-this-girl” lyrics by Brown.

“We’re Going Wrong” is a fascinating, understated number. It showcases Baker’s deft touch on the toms as he smoothly accompanies Bruce’s falsetto lament and Clapton’s bluesy interjections.

 “Outside Woman Blues” is Clapton’s hard-rocking arrangement of a Blind Joe Reynold tune from 1929. The song shares the difficulties of dating multiple women at the same time.  

On the penultimate track, the multi-talented Bruce adds piano and harmonica to his and Brown’s blues number “Take It Back”.  

The eccentric yet endearingly British “Mother’s Lament”, features the three members of the band singing together in unaccompanied music hall-style.  The song closes the album with a nice feeling of camaraderie.  

This closeness was short-lived, however. The famously tempestuous inter-band relations, between the volatile Bruce and the tumultuous Baker in particular, were to contribute to the band breaking up the following year.   

The BBC has called the album “a perfect encapsulation of the point where the blues got psychedelic and in turn got heavy”. AllMusic calls it a “quintessential heavy rock record” and it peaked at number 5 on the U.K. Albums chart. 

Sonic psych-out

“SWLABR” features the immortal line “You’ve got that rainbow feel/but the rainbow has a beard” that leaves you wondering just what lyricist Pete Brown was smoking.

Trippiest lyrics

“Will find myself an ocean/Sail into the blue/Live with golden swordfish/Forget the time of you” (“Dance the Night Away”)

“Her name is Aphrodite/And she rides a crimson shell/And you know you cannot leave her/For you touched the distant sands/With tales of brave Ulysses/How his naked ears were tortured/By the sirens sweetly singing/For the sparkling waves are calling you/To kiss their white laced lips” (“Tales of Brave Ulysses”)

In their own words

“We never did all that onstage leaping about crap that all these other bands do… and we never will. We just played music.”  (Ginger Baker)

“I’ve always had money because of my early success with Cream, so I tell young musicians to aim to write their own material, because owning the composition rights makes a very big difference.” (Jack Bruce)

“Very heavily. I don’t know how many times we tried to play while using acid, but there were a few. In America we were doing a lot of acid. We’d met Owsley, who made the stuff for the Acid Tests and the Grateful Dead, and he showed up at all our gigs. It went on after Cream for me, as well. I carried on experimenting.”  (Eric Clapton, in response to a question about how heavily psychedelic drugs impacted Cream’s work)

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