Monday, 16 November 2009

CREAM: Goodbye


(#64: 15 March 1969, 2 weeks; 12 April 1969, 1 week; 26 April 1969, 1 week) 

Track listing: I’m So Glad/Politician/Sitting On Top Of The World/Badge/Doing That Scrapyard Thing/What A Bringdown 

Ginger Baker has more than once claimed that he and Jack Bruce set up Cream as a free jazz trio in disguise (“with Eric Clapton playing the role of Ornette, although neither of us told Eric this”) and some of the work on their final, somewhat reluctant album bears this out, as well as further muddying the developmental streams which arose out of the British blues boom at the turn of the sixties and their subsequent overlap with, and interception of, developments in British jazz and improvised music as well as the gradual move of British rock into psychedelia and then the nascent, bipolar rivulets of prog and metal. Suddenly, in a sense not really present in the work of the Beatles or Stones, there is the physical feeling of listening to musicians who know exactly what they are doing, if not always why they are doing it.

The three musicians heard on the three live cuts which form two-thirds of this comparatively brief record – its total playing time barely exceeds half an hour – indisputably have chops, each individual able immediately to act with and react against what each of the other musicians is doing. But despite the inevitable showbiz tag which came with the name “Cream” – three club titans from, variously, the blues, rock and jazz fields, coming together and terming themselves the “cream of the crop,” the champs, the gaffers – very rarely in their music do we hear anything approaching virtuosity for its own sake. Rather this is a considerably more advanced milieu; musicians who, though perhaps not compatible with each other as human beings – there was a previous, long history of punch-ups and worse between Bruce and Baker when both served in the Graham Bond Organisation, and they came together again, at Clapton’s insistence, with considerable reluctance – were always determined to work, coalesce as musicians and create thrilling, adventurous music together.

That they also had a peculiarly workable parallel pop sensitivity is more than evident from their 1967 masterpiece Disraeli Gears, and reflected (albeit to a lesser extent) in the three brief studio tracks which complete this package. The Alan Aldridge-designed cover groaned with irony; by the time of the album’s appearance the group had already dissolved, and this is further underlined by Roger Hane’s colourful inner sleeve illustration of the track titles, set against imposing gravestones in a strangely over-blue cemetery.

To some extent Goodbye was a cut-and-paste contractual obligation of a record, a minor addendum to their catalogue rather than a full-blown farewell masterpiece. But most of its music still rips out of the speakers with an intensity unusual even by its time’s standards; this was the time when, influenced by the parallel courses charted by Ornette and Miles – and particularly the latter’s move towards electricity, with the umbilical Brit boom link being provided by the employment of John McLaughlin and Dave Holland in Davis’ In A Silent Way and (later) Bitches’ Brew line-ups. Various circles of musicians were revolving cautiously around each other on both sides of the Atlantic, keen to pursue a genuine fusion of musics rather than the subsequent blandouts which would sadly characterise that genre. Carla Bley had already started some provisional recording work on Escalator Over The Hill in November 1968, a month after Cream split (although Bruce did not become involved until recording sessions began in earnest in early 1970).

En route to his pivotal role in that irreducible masterpiece, Bruce would do time in Tony Williams’ Lifetime alongside McLaughlin and Larry Young, and his work on Goodbye contains some clear pointers towards where he was headed. The three live tracks were drawn from a concert given at the Forum in Inglewood, LA, in October 1968, and at the very beginning of “I’m So Glad,” the Skip James tune which had previously appeared on the group’s 1966 debut Fresh Cream, Bruce already seems to be getting ready for Escalator; the four-strong descending chord sequence, though drawn from James’ original recording, would reappear throughout that work’s final two sides (in tandem with the word/motif “again”). James’ 1931 recording is almost schizophrenic in its approach; his numbing relief (his “gladness”) contrasting with the craving, androgynous falsetto he uses when conveying his tiredness with “weeping” and “moaning,” while his guitar moves at lightning pace through skilful and astonishingly (for 1931) modernist single line/divided chord tropes. This represented the “purist” side of the blues from which Clapton, via his work with John Mayall’s Blues Breakers, had emerged, but Cream’s hyperactive reading cruises along like the Beat Boom finally being set free from its club trappings.

It is also clear, however, that is Bruce, not Clapton, who is leading the group; it is his fuzzed bass which constantly plays with the tempo and barlines, which repeatedly breaks free of harmonic and (ultimately) rhythmic constraints – he is always ready with a suggestion, a swagger to boost the performance into free territory – and Baker who is quicker at following him and interlocking with him. Against this onset, all Clapton can do is to keep his countenance and hold anchor; he mostly concentrates on chords, rhythmic interceptions rather than melodic or harmonic adventure. Where Hendrix was clearly steering the Experience – Mitch Mitchell readily and speedily acting on his lead, Noel Redding usually content to occupy the stable middleground – Clapton is on “I’m So Glad” in danger of being frozen out of his own band. The workout comes to an abrupt pause – just before it was due to boil over – and the three return to the song; in Clapton’s phrasing there is some evident relief in this.

“Politician” is a Bruce/Pete Brown blues loper – “Red House”-speed Hendrix with an Oriental lilt to its melody – whose “big black car” uncannily foreshadows the opening minutes of entry #70. Its sardonic politics/sex analogy – “I support the Left, though I’m leaning to the Right/But I’m just not there when it’s coming to a fight” – also prophesises what the seventies would eventually become for many former liberals. A relatively restrained performance, “Politician” is most notable for Bruce’s Bishopbriggs snarls (his “hey baby”s are almost like Beefheart trapped in the Gorbals with only Alex Harvey for company), a virulence which he would tone down somewhat for his solo debut Songs For A Tailor later in 1969.

If “I’m So Glad” underlined Clapton’s debt to country blues, then Cream’s reading of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Sitting On Top Of The World” reintroduces the urban stream which Clapton had largely renounced since his Yardbirds days. In the original Wolf is damaged, but still regal; his mournfully confident, stentorian voice sits like a wounded lion atop a decayed throne, and his consort of harmonica and guitars provide a rough bed on which to sleep and lick his wounds. The irony of his words is patient, the pace unrushed but defiantly intense (there is something of the Lear about Howlin’ Wolf in repose, and something which reminds me of his near namesake, the Welsh actor Sir Donald Wolfit). Cream’s feelings, in comparison, are necessarily jejune but more (superficially) intense. The song creaks out of Bruce’s lumbering floorboard of a bass (sounding practically electronic), accompanied only by Baker’s tick-tocking ride cymbal before the band blasts off. In the second verse there is a sudden, terrifying, jagged mesh of unison high-tension thrashing, like a beaver quivering on a newly activated pylon, which releases to uncover Bruce’s desperate, hoarse “I’m SITTIN’! SITTIN’!!” The spectre of Lennon’s “Yer Blues” is not far away. Clapton offers his best playing on the album here, pretty firmly in the Hubert Sumlin line of clean, finely pronounced single notes. Just as his solo is about to reach a resolution, however, Baker breaks the semblance of calm with hammering floor toms. Bruce’s “freight train” is accompanied by a fervent ride cymbal which then explodes into a cataclysm of cymbal wreckage, as though having decided to blow up the band.

The three studio pieces were prepared with producer/keyboardist Felix Pappalardi and provide a short but fascinating final insight into some of the pop roads Cream might have travelled. “Doing That Scrapyard Thing” is a second Bruce/Brown collaboration and more in keeping with the amiably warped road which Songs For A Tailor would travel; Bruce introduces the song with some bizarre pub piano which is rapidly drowned out by Clapton’s phased/filtered guitars. The lyric is standard late sixties cod-Carroll nonsense but Bruce bites into them with admirable relish (“Biting my favourite head-UH!”), complete with unaccountable falsetto leaps in each bridge. There may also, in lines like “Missing the walrus” and “Balancing Zeppelins on the end of my nose,” be a disguised commentary on what 1969 had lost and what was imminently to come. “What A Bringdown” is a Baker composition which takes the Alice's Adventures In Wonderland fantasy metaphor into an East End knees-up pub (“Take a butcher’s at the dodginesses of Old Bill”). Moving along at a brisk 10/8 pace (anticipating “Living In The Past” in both structure and lyrical content), Pappalardi plays bass while Bruce sticks to keyboards, mainly a choppy Hammond organ. Midway we get a pained leper of a Clapton guitar weeping its way into the proceedings; this soon evolves into wah-wah wails against Bruce and Baker’s screams, Clapton now razoring his guitar. The song stumbles to a close with atonal piano bumps, tubular bells, concluding major chord organ (with slightly sardonic cymbal and snare commentary), bringing the proceedings, and the adventure of Cream, to a definitive close.

I have left “Badge” until last because it remains the strange, unaccountable axis of this record, and perhaps of its age. Written by Clapton and George Harrison, who, as “L’Angelo Misterioso,” also contributes guitar to the song (as a return of favours for Clapton appearing on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”), with some uncredited additional input from Ringo – he came up accidentally with the title when he misread Harrison’s handwriting on the sheet music (he had actually scribbled “Bridge” as they hadn’t yet thought of a name for the song) and also contributed the key, haunting line about the swans in the park (as key and inscrutable as its equivalent in “A Little Help From My Friends”) – this strangest of singles draws the first, firm line of closure underneath its decade. Constructed as three brief haiku-like verses with connecting final half-rhymes (“table,” “Mabel,” “cradle”) around a central five-line manifesto, the imagery is haunting, prematurely ghostly, and so is the performance; Pappalardi’s flanged piano and Hitchcockian hovers of Mellotron contributing to the song’s acute weightlessness. The scenarios foresee the longer accounts to be heard on “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” but Clapton’s vocal remains calm and slightly impassive. Bruce’s bass bounds and curls like a waiting Siberian tiger (and, in places, strikingly akin to James Jamerson, although Bruce’s fuzziness counteracts Jamerson’s characteristically “clean” bass sound on his Motown sides. Still, they remain two differing, if parallel, routes from the central influential tollbooth of Mingus), Baker’s ticks and occasional, tuned floor tom curveballs like the centre of an abandoned clock tower. The song itself is scarcely straightforward in structure, its regular, long pauses startling even in 1969. What scenario are we witnessing?

Then Harrison breaks, like an icy, calming ray of nascent sunlight, into the song with his careful chimes (which Tom Schultz would echo with equal carefulness on Boston’s “More Than A Feeling” some seven years later). Baker rattles into wakefulness, Clapton kicks up his game, giving a fine and passionate guitar solo while warning “You better pick yourself up from the ground/Before they bring the curtain down.” These times, and not just this group, are coming to an end. But then Bruce’s bass shivers ecstatically down the scale and Baker follows him into the collapsing lift shaft as Clapton takes out the song, Pappalardi’s phantom violins screeching like expectant daggers, before it ends, unresolved, mysterious, alluring, chilling.

I am not really convinced that Cream set the pace for hard rock – the real pacesetters were to come almost immediately in their wake, and as a final offshoot of a group which Clapton had once quit for being too “pop” – but they summarised the spirit of genuine adventure which decorated those miraculously unformed times; they were to an extent classicists, particularly when compared with the romanticist quantum leaps in everything which Hendrix was able to pull off on Electric Ladyland, but their appearance here marks a shift, a key change, a move towards what might or might not prove acceptable, or workable, in the seventies.