By Jeremy Miles
NEXT month – more than 36 years after they disbanded – the world’s first supergroup Cream will reunite for a series of concerts at London’s Royal Albert Hall.
It will be the first time the three members Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce have played together since they walked off the same stage in 1968, climbed into separate cars and ostensibly drove out of each others lives.
There has inevitably been occasional contact since. Royalties have been split and Clapton has even contributed to a Jack Bruce album. But basically these are three people - who apart from sharing an inspirational talent as musicians - are psychologically at odds. They don’t belong in the same room together let alone in the same band.
Even stranger is the fact that all three were jazz or blues purists. How they ended up in one the great psychedelic rock outfits - a butterfly-coated power-trio revered as much for their satin and tat clothing as their instrumental prowess has all the hallmarks of an enduring mystery.
Until you look a little closer.
The truth is that, despite what the tabloids would have us believe, the psychedelic revolution was about much more than drugs, strange music, stranger hair, tie-dye clothes, beads and bracelets.
It was about a seismic shift in social attitudes. A post-war generation finally rising from the austere murk of a nation in a state of arrested development. Suddenly life went from black and white to colour.
Music writer and author Dave Thompson has penned a vivid portrait of this hedonistic world in his new book Cream: The World’s first Supergroup which is published by Virgin this weekend (Sat April 9)
Starting the story back in the days of the burgeoning British blues scene of the late 1950s and early 1960s he shows where guitarist Clapton, bass player Bruce and drummer Baker had come from.
In 1965, just a year before Cream, Bruce was playing with the then very bluesy Manfred Mann, Baker was a mainstay of The Graham Bond Organisation and Clapton had only recently left The Yardbirds for John Mayall’s Blues Breakers.
They were hard grafting jazz, blues and R&B musicians. Certainly not obvious candidates for hippiedom. That within two years they would be an established rock band recording material as overtly trippy as Strange Brew and Tales of Brave Ulysses was inconceivable.
But as Thompson points out good old fashioned competition was at work. Take a bunch of preciously talented, like-minded young men jockeying for poll position in a world that offered them girls, drugs, adulation and money just for doing what they loved - playing music - and strange things can happen.
Clapton was already known as God among his fans. The arrival on the scene of another guitar genius in the wildly exotic form of Jimi Hendrix seems to galvanised him into action. In fact if Hendrix hadn’t found a newfangled gizmo called a wah wah pedal and used it on The Burning of the Midnight Lamp there are suggestions that Tales of Brave Ulysses might have sounded very different indeed.
Once he’d heard that wah wah it seems Clapton had to have one, just as he had to have a freaky head full of curly hair and a wildly colourful wardrobe. He always protested that the perm was a nod in the direction of Bob Dylan rather than Jimi and certainly it is suggested that he would rather have travelled a musical road that took him closer to Dylan and The Band too. Baker and Bruce had different ideas.
Cream was certainly not a happy band and despite its many adoring fans it struggled to find a creative direction that could be sustained. There were constant tensions and the resulting tears and tantrums allied to a ludicrously excessive lifestyle took their toll on all three. You can see it in the exhaustion etched on their faces in pictures from the famous Farewell Concert.
Putting three volatile and addictive personalities in a pressure coker perhaps wasn’t the brightest of ideas. What came out of it all were a couple of patchy albums containing some great music, a whole bundle of gigs that ranged from mind-blowingly brilliant to embarrassingly awful, some serious drug and alcohol problems and a legendary band. Let’s hope the band remains legendary despite next month’s reunion concerts.
*Cream: The World’s First Supergroup by Dave Thompson is published by Virgin Books at £18.99.