Thursday, December 21, 2017

Derailleur Gears - 50 Years Ago - The Cream

Written, recorded and released in the watershed year of 1967, Disraeli Gears (AM10) was a collection that linked the legacy of the blues to psychedelia. Made in America, yet unmistakably British, it captured epic studio performances by Jack Bruce, Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker (ahem, see below) at the peak of their power. With its iconic cover artwork by Martin Sharp, featuring the trio staring out across a garish red and pink dreamscape of irradiated flowers, peacocks, galloping horses and amorphous swirls, Disraeli Gears became a touchstone recording of the 1960s counterculture. 

The entire album was recorded in just five days, from May 11 to May 15, at Atlantic Studios in New York. "We worked very fast," Bruce says. "We didn't know that you were meant to take months and years to make an album. A lot of the tracks were first and second takes." Although Cream had already enjoyed UK chart success with their debut Fresh Cream, released in December 1966, the band had actually been together less than a year when they recorded Disraeli Gears, and had only just signed an American deal with Atlantic Records. The head of the label, Ahmet Ertegun, had assigned them a young American, up-and-coming producer, Felix Pappalardi (who would later go on to become the bass player in Mountain) and the experienced sound engineer Tom Dowd.

Ertegun looked on Clapton as the natural leader of the group, despite Bruce's vocals being the focus of Fresh Cream. Being a traditional record company man, Ertegun was suspicious of a set-up which was designed to split an audience’s attention three ways as opposed to focusing in on one person at the front. 

Baker was not impressed with this scenario, either. "At the start Cream was mine," he said. "I took a drop in salary to start Cream, whereas Jack and Eric took a step up. Cream was always my baby." As things turned out, it was Bruce who eventually had most of the songwriting and singing credits on the LP, but at first, it was all about Clapton, who was prompted to take the lead vocals on the album's opening track – and first single from it – "Strange Brew."

The track began life as a cover of an old Albert King number called Lawdy Mama. Pappalardi took the tape of the backing track home after the first day of recordings and returned with it the next day, as Clapton recalled, "having transformed it into a kind of McCartneyesque pop song, complete with new lyrics and the title 'Strange Brew." Bruce accepts that the riff is still “a bit Albert King” but prefers to think of it as “a tribute” rather than a rip-off. It was the kind of nonsense that Led Zeppelin would contend with in court, despite the blues tradition it encompassed.

“You know how the title came about - Disraeli Gears - yeah? We had this Austin Westminster, and Mick Turner was one of the roadies who’d been with me a long time, and he was driving along and 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.” Ginger Baker remembering 1967.

The other standout, of course, is "Sunshine of Your Love." "I was very excited by the song," Bruce says, "But Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler [Atlantic’s head of A&R] weren't at all impressed by it. Jerry called it 'psychedelic hogwash.' I was really angry, 'cus I knew that this was a special thing. Luckily Booker T was in the studio that day, as was Otis Redding, and it was actually Booker T who said to Ahmet: 'That’s a huge crossover hit.' He [Booker T] could see it. When it became the biggest-selling single in the history of Atlantic, I think Ahmet finally saw it too." Bruce goes on to say, "I came up with things like 'Sunshine of Your Love' and 'White Room' and Ertegun would say 'No, that's no good, it's psychedelic hogwash, and anyway you shouldn't be singing, Eric has to be the lead singer. You're just the bass player'." By virtue of the fact that the band didn't have enough material to fill an album, the studio finally recorded "Sunshine of Your Love," which then became the biggest selling single that Atlantic had ever had, reaching the top five in both the UK and US charts.

The song which launched a generation of heavy rock bands began life in Bruce's flat in Hampstead, London. "Pete [Brown] and I had been working all night trying to come up with some songs," Bruce says. "I just picked up my double bass and looked out the window and the sun was coming up. And I just started playing the riff of Sunshine Of Your Love. And Pete looked out the window and said: 'It's getting near dawn,' and he wrote it down, just like in one of those really cheesy biopics. So we played it, and then Eric came up with that really nice turnaround part: 'I've been waiting so long…'"

After an unsuccessful stint in America for Murry the K, and with little time left on their visitor’s visas, the group entered Atlantic Studios to record the LP. Tom Dowd was the engineer for the sessions. Dowd had worked on such recordings as Bobby Darin's "Mack the Knife" and Aretha Franklin's "Respect." When Cream walked in, he was amazed by the amount of equipment they brought in with them. "They were incredible. It was as if 'I've got two of everything here'. They recorded at ear-shattering levels. I never saw anything so powerful in my life and it was just frightening... I don't think they were cognizant of the fact that they had more tracks. They just went about recording in their own method." 

Disraeli Gears, though, is not an AM10. Cream was indeed Ginger Baker's band, but one would never know it listening to the LP; Baker's drums are mixed so low that their virtuosity is overlooked, and the steadfast insistence by Ahmet Ertegun to make Clapton a god, keeps Disraeli Gears out of Rock's all-time top ten; we all lose there.