Cream – Disraeli Gears

Cream – Disraeli Gears
Released November, 1967

Regularly featured in album polls over the world, this album has a lot going for it before you even hear the first track. Firstly, that title, which was born after one of the band’s roadies, Mick Turner, described a bicycle as having ‘Disraeli gears’ instead of ‘derailleur gears’. We’ve all been there. If not for that gaffe, this record would have simply have been titled “Cream”, and there’s nothing quite so boring as a self-titled album, so thank you, Mick. The cover artwork, by Australian artist Martin Sharp, is quite enticing as well and it almost pulls you inside. Designed at the height of the psychedelic rock scene, it strikes me as a brightly-coloured homage to Klaus Voorman’s work on the Beatles’ Revolver record. The title and album cover alone seem to promise excellent music.

One of my favourite reasons to listen to Cream is Eric Clapton’s guitar, which at this point was a dirty sounding Les Paul, often coupled with a wah-wah pedal. He wouldn’t pick up his distinctive Fender Stratocaster until 1969, over a year after Cream’s break-up. Although the infamous ‘Clapton is God’ graffiti that was spray-painted on the London Underground station at Islington appeared during his time with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, it was Cream that brought Clapton to the masses. Often touted as the rock’s first successful supergroup, “Disraeli Gears” captures the band at their best, offering up blues, rock, jazz fusion, folk, Greek mythology, humour, protest songs, and of course, psychedelia.

The record opens with the one-two punch of ‘Strange Brew’ and ‘Sunshine of Your Love’, two of their biggest hits. It’s okay to admit that you first discovered the latter when Judd Nelson sang the riff in the 1985 film The Breakfast Club. Kinda. I was lucky enough to first hear it on the Tour of Duty II soundtrack. In my opinion, ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ is one of the best songs of all time, despite having the most infuriating fade-out in history (Really? Just as the song kicks up a notch, it fades out?!?!?). It also showcases everything that makes Cream great: booming, energetic drums from Ginger Baker; pounding, yet liquid, bass playing from Jack Bruce and soaring guitar work from Clapton. His ‘Blue Moon’ inspired lead break is one of rock’s most memorable guitar solos. I also love how Bruce and Clapton share the lead vocal lines and then come together in magic two-part harmony for the chorus.

Two other well known Cream tracks kick off the second side, if you’re a vinyl fan. Drawing on Homer’s epic poem ‘The Odyssey’ for subject matter, ‘Tales of Brave Ulysses’ is a dreamy mixture of vivid imagery and wah-wah guitar, featuring one of Bruce’s best lead vocals, as he switches between high and low registers with ease. Rather than having Odysseus as the song’s hero, they use the Roman mythological equivalent of Ulysses, possibly because it’s easier to sing, I guess. Some of my favourite psychedelic lyrics come from this song, for instance: “Tiny purple fishes run laughing through your fingers/And you want to take her with you to the hard land of the winter”. DFN? HSP? Cleverly veiled sexual innuendo? I don’t know, perhaps all three, but I still like it. ‘SWLABR’ is the second track and begins with a frenetic guitar riff that propels you out of the blissed-out mind set ‘Tales…’ leaves you in. Apparently ‘SWLABR’ is an acronym for ‘She Walks Like a Bearded Rainbow’, which leads me to offer up the DFN card once again.

Among these four Cream classics are some truly inspired and entertaining moments. Bruce’s harmonica work on ‘Take It Back’ adds some texture to a great dose of blues, that could have peaked with the innovative bass and guitar dual opening riffs. Baker’s amateurish, but effective, lead vocals on his self-penned ‘Blue Condition’ and the wonderful ‘World of Pain’ are other highlights. Deciding to end the album with schoolboy singalong of ‘Mother’s Lament’ was a stroke of genius. Not only does it reveal some of their roots and anchors the album as being decidedly British, it shows that the lads were fond of a laugh as well. As Bruce bangs out the chords on the piano all three sing in strong ‘mockney’ accents, putting emphasis on the unusual word structures, most noticeably when singing that the baby of the song “‘Twas naught but an skellington covered wiv skin”.

The only song I struggle to listen to is the downbeat and plodding ‘We’re Going Wrong’. I feel that it’s a real black hole in an otherwise fantastic album of vibrant and essential music. Cream had great moments on other albums but this offering is their most cohesive and is consistently strong. Highly recommended listening.

Cream were a band that consisted of well known musicians from other bands, so big things were expected from them. Eric Clapton earned his chops before Cream as Britain’s greatest blues guitarist. Ginger Baker was a well known drummer in various bands and Jack Bruce was a bass player and vocalists. All three members played with each other in various bands at some point. All in all, “Disraeli Gears” is a pretty good record. It’s clear that all the members were great musicians and the music is tight. It doesn’t veer too far into the psychedelia and manages to stay on track most of the time. More often than not I found myself totally tuning out from the vocals and lyrics and just listening to the music. One of the reasons for this is the lack of cohesiveness with the vocals. All three members sing different lead vocals on different tracks. Sometimes this works for a band, sometimes it doesn’t. Unfortunately for Cream, the vocal talents of each member varies quite a great deal. Sorry Ginger Baker, but your singing leaves a bit to be desired. It’s almost as if they felt like they had to let him have a bash with his cockney accent because The Beatles let Ringo have a crack. Having said that, Baker is quite the drummer. Stand out tracks include ‘Strange Brew’ (the strongest on the album), ‘Sunshine of your Love’ (an instantly recognisable classic) and ‘Tales of Brave Ulysses’ (It’s psychedelic rock but good psychedelic rock, which proves that psychedelic music doesn’t have to be drug influenced noise and useless words thrown together). All in all, “Disreali Gears” is a pretty good album. Lyrically it has its ‘High School Poetry’ moments but overall I liked it more than I disliked it, so it gets the thumbs up from me.

I’m gonna start with the question everyone has been thinking: what is with ‘Mother’s Lament’?! “Oh your baby has gone down the plug ‘ole!” Evidently ‘Mother’s Lament’ is an old English drinking song, and Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce have put their own spin on it. I wonder how much the line “twas naught but an skellington covered with skin” was part of that spin… Good for a laugh, but quite an interesting way to finish an album… It was a smart move, though, to start the album with two exceptional tracks. ‘Strange Brew’ starts with an eight bar intro with Clapton playing a blues lead, and then Clapton taking the vocal duties, rather than usual Bruce. It’s also filled with typical Clapton solos and fills. (Note: typical in no way means not awesome). It finishes, and the familiar riff of ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ kicks in, taking me back to a time I wish I existed. It’s actually one of the first riffs I learnt when I first picked up a bass. Everyone knows Clapton is a guitar god, but I think Jack Bruce is quite underrated as a bass player. His bass work is exceptional, particularly in ‘World of Pain’ and ‘Dance the Night Away’. ‘Tales of Brave Ulysses’, based on Homer’s Odyssey, while just short of three minutes, is very significant, as it was the first recorded use of a wah-wah pedal, pipping Almighty Hendrix by one day. I don’t have much to say about ‘SWLABR’, except that it stands for “She Walks Like a Bearded Rainbow”. Yep. She sure does. I adore Disraeli Gears, and it stays on my iPod. With the first use of wah, and the fact that Cream are probably the world’s first successful Supergroup, there’s no denying its influence.

“Disraeli Gears” is surprisingly polished for a band that was known to commonly indulge in 20 minute improvisations. My top 3 tracks of the album are actually tracks 1, 2 and 3 – ‘Strange Brew’, ‘Sunshine of Your Love’, and ‘World of Pain’. I think that they are all prime examples of the genius fusion of blues rock and psychedelia. ‘Strange Brew’ has re-cemented my faith in the 12-bar blues, such a versatile standard; it really is quite  amazing the way such a common musical progression has been re-invented to sound so different, so many times! Driving around town listening to ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ turned up real loud, I felt undeniably cool. You just feel so bad ass listening to it! That killer guitar riff is so powerful and makes the whole song. That song will always remain my favourite Cream track, it really is classic blues rock at its best. I had a bit of a giggle listening to the final track of the album, ‘Mother’s Lament’, it’s kind of cool, and quite quaint, almost a sea-shanty, but in essence I think it was a ‘filler’, and seems really out of place on the album! I liked listening to “Disraeli Gears”, but to be honest each time I listened to it I got a bit bored about 6 tracks in. That said, I was still really intrigued by this album, because I read in a few places that despite their relatively short time as a band, Cream left an indelible mark on music and have been cited as musical influences by so many rock greats since. Extra points for the psychedelic cover artwork. This one is a doozy and a great example of psychedelic artwork, and I felt pretty proud knowing that an Aussie – Martin Sharp – created it!

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