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Episode 013

Wheels of Fire

Cream

Clapton. Bruce. Baker. This supergroup was a strange brew that was simply too potent for the world (not to mention the band themselves), and we see that on display in Wheels of Fire. The double album finds the trio at—ahem—a crossroads, the contrast between their inspirations creating tension to mixed—but often magical—effect.

Transcript

Note: our transcripts are mostly AI-generated for now. 

Episode 013: Cream's "Wheels of Fire": Audio automatically transcribed by Sonix

Episode 013: Cream's "Wheels of Fire": this mp3 audio file was automatically transcribed by Sonix with the best speech-to-text algorithms. This transcript may contain errors.

You're listening to TuneDig, a podcast for music lovers. The premise is simple: in each episode, we dig deep into an album we love and then we give away a copy to you of that album on vinyl. Go to TuneDig.com To see what's up for grabs and learn more about us.

Today we're talking about Cream's "Wheels of Fire".

This band is a lot weirder than I remember ever thinking they were very challenging and a lot of ways because the music and the personas and the intensity and perceived influence of what they did was short lived.

But it earned white hot like a son. And I think we're still trying to unpack a lot of what they did. But it did leave a profound mark on decades of guitar music.

Challenging is probably a good way to put it. Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce hated each other. Eric Clapton hand-picked both of them to go back into this band together after they had already not gotten along well previously and fallen out pretty spectacularly. Cremin already decided not to be a band anymore. When this record came out just came out in August and November of that year, they stopped touring together. It was an interesting experiment in watching people who kind of wanted to do different things at the same time, try to figure out how to be in a band together because Eric Clapton is a fascinating person during this time period, coming off of John Male and the Blues Breakers and having made a name for himself. And having watched traditional blues and then also jazz, having made its way across oceans and people like Eric Clapton really trying to do that thing that John Mayer is kind of doing these days where he's like, I'm a blues guitarist. No matter how many phases he goes through, he always comes back to you. I dedicated my life to the blues and Eric Clapton did. But during this period with Cream especially, he stepped away from it to try to work with these other two guys and figure out how to bring in the influences that were coming out of Britain at the time, which I think we hear a lot on this record and really distinct ways of passing the time feels like a Ringo Starr written Beatles song.

The first part. You mean that quite apart? Yeah, we.

After that, as you said, sounds like what Led Zeppelin would go on to do with it.

Yeah, I called it Celtic Rock.

And so you can tell that they influenced the British rock scene, even from the fact that it's divided up into studio and then live, they sound like completely different bands, totally. And then between those, you can still tell that Eric Clapton wants to play traditional blues music and is in a band with people who don't want to play that with him. Right. And so he's a guitar playing. Feels like it still sticks out. There are times where, like, it feels like everything connects the right way. But they still to me oftentimes and definitely on this record, feel like disparate musicians a good portion of the time. That's one of the reasons I find it fascinating, because I do love this record and have for a long time. But it still feels like a compilation of three guys taking turns trying to play the song that they want to play and seeing if it works. One of the strangest things that's on display on this record is the kind of absolute refusal to do blues in the blues way. The easiest example, I guess, is born under a bad sign. Absolutely classic at this time. Modern Blues Song by Albert King.

Like when blues started being put on record electric soul, blues of the Stax, Chess, Chicago, Memphis, all that. That's still one of the biggest blues records of all time and for good reason.

For the first time.

It's so awkward feeling to hear this famous blues song that's so well done already that had been so recently done, just be absolutely pummeled by a lack of emotion in the vocals.

Since I began to crawl.

Music lovers in mind, it gives a good example of these three people trying to stand and do something together, but the way that they want to interpret songs just didn't feel like it gelled a lot of the time. And then you flip over to the live side and I get why people liked Krien so I can understand how people would see this band live, watching them in this era, breaking towards psychedelic influences and really pushing that part that hadn't been done before and feeling like Cream was one of the best bands around. But I can also understand what Rolling Stone means when they say cream is good at a number of things. Unfortunately, songwriting and recording are not among them.

So Jack specifically was classically trained, right. And was like sort of a rebel. He was not well-liked by his teachers and was kind of like a slouch shouldered, I guess. But I don't really get it. You know, you're boxing us kind of guy. And that's where a lot of the desire for improvization came from. So they mentioned that and how he's thinking about it like the literal opposite of the way Clapton thinks about music and composition.

The other thing mentioned in you can watch this on YouTube, the BBC airing of the final concert at Royal Albert Hall, which is has all of these weird, like voiceover sections. It's really like a documentary. Right. And it's very weird. It's super British, like observe now, if you will, the virtuosity on display.

The date is November 26, 1968, an historic occasion in the world of pop music, a group called Simply Queen making their farewell appearance at the Royal Albert Hall in London, England. They played together for only two years, but during that time have almost single handedly given the musical authority, which only the deaf cannot acknowledge and only the ignorant cannot hear.

The other thing that was interesting in this documentary was the mention of Indian influence that Bruce and Baker, their interplay was similar to tabla and sitar and house drone like communication, and that influenced a lot of the way they saw themselves as a rhythm section, which again, totally different.

Even if you're taking the African rhythmic nature of influence of blues from Clapton, they're still not really compatible. And so that's where some of the weirdness comes in. But to your point, in the moments when it somehow clicked or they at least worked off of each other, I saw multiple mentions of like prog rock, how this was an early prog type thing. And I think that's not really it. But the friction between the two modes and ideals when it clicked, it just didn't sound like anything else that had ever happened. And it really could be sublime, but it could also veer into the self-indulgent. But it was really the core exercise which really came into focus live was they were trying to do it as loud as possible. It's either going to go real, right, or it's going to fall apart. And we don't really care.

We're just in service of the melody. And I think there's a quote, something like that in the documentary as well. Like we don't care about the lyrics. We don't care about the song structure. All we care about is the play just getting up there and playing and kind of getting in there with our sleeves rolled up and figuring it out. And if it goes, it goes. And if it doesn't, well, we're just going to break up anyway.

We're not just imagining that dividing line between studio and live. There was something very, very different about how they approached music in those two scenarios. You know, you mentioned they didn't try to spend a lot of time together for fun.

They just don't seem like guys who know what fun is.

It seems like they're going to use the Trussville or to you maybe not only do Jack and Ginger have their own unresolved issues that resulted in, quote, on stage fights and sabotage of one another's instruments. But on top of it, Eric Clapton has this weirdly hidden kind of racial issue that he's working through. At the time, I always thought that this was interesting and cream provides us kind of a lens into it. So much of our modern rock blues came from Europe to have that exported and then interpreted and then sent back to us to come back and influence our music that would go on from there and influence bands like the Allman Brothers and Leonard Skinner. But then Cream also heavily impacted Zeppelin, Deep Purple, even Sabbath. Who would go on to do blues jamming in a totally different way.

Totally different. Yeah. Darker, angrier, more British. I want to pause for a moment to acknowledge the Skittered connection, because the first record that I ever knew front to back was one more from the road. That was the prism through which I viewed everything. And then when we were kids, they reissued it with alternate takes from the other nights. And on one of the alternate takes before the new Crossroads, the song that kicks off the live album Four Wheels of Fire, Ronnie tells the story about scraping together money to go to Miami.

I remember one time when Alan and myself had to collect some Coke bottles to go down to Miami to see a group we wanted to see. And so we did. I thought they were the best group. So I still do. This is a song. I tried to do it for you. OK.

And Cream inspired he and Allan Collins and some other guys to start the one percent, which then became Leonard Skinner in Jacksonville, and I've sort of had to begrudgingly acknowledge that so many of the guitar moves, so many of the licks in live blues bass playing came from this one, dude.

It can't be overstated how good and how important crossroads on this record is and what it inspired. This song itself is awesome. Like that's where cream comes together, I think, in the way that Clapton was hoping that they would. And you can tell because he feeds off that energy.

But I mean, you've already got a band channeling Robert Johnson's Crossroad Blues Band down on the ground, them down over money and a lot of them.

And then one of the fascinating things was learning that the jam thing, the thing that would create the prog and the ongoing improvization and the longer songs that they would become known and celebrated for was a thing that they got inspired by through San Francisco. Jack Bruce said that they had a literal big change happen the first time they went to San Francisco in sixty seven and played the Fillmore. Prior to that, they were mostly just executing the songs live and that at the Fillmore they had this experience where were one time they went and people just started yelling out just play in that they fed off of that and started to stretch their songs out into improvization and would find new ways to create a unique concert experience which fed back into the creation of a song like Crossroads and some of the other live stuff that they would do eventually, that they would again become known for and inspire other people to do.

Important to note that it's a totally different part of America that it came from. Right. That had such an interesting relationship with the blues and the South always right. That version of Crossroads was recorded Winterland right in San Fran. So between Winterland and the Fillmore, there's so much great stuff happening there, really in the span of like four or five years that I don't think gets talked about enough in terms of that kind of triangulation of how how we got where we were by the mid 70s.

Like one of the things that made all of this fascinating about Eric Clapton and trying to figure out his time during Cream is this also coincided with a period where he was extremely confused by Jimi Hendrix and Hendrix being an export of Seattle, moving over to England. Right. And playing in a band with two other Englishmen and channeling the blues and creating psychedelia and a lot of the ways that he did and all that. I mean, there's that famous story about Eric Clapton bringing him out on stage to play with them, and then he gets his ass up. Yeah, by Hendrix. He gets so mad because he's not that good.

But you bring up a good point. I mean, Hendrix, I think, is the obvious counterpoint to Clapton when you're talking about the greatest guitarists ever or most important influential, the other one being Jimmy Page Clapton as his place in the pantheon. But I just cannot unseat Hendrix. And I think that's always been part of the chip on Clapton shoulder that makes him more annoying.

Well, let's talk about that chip more so a lot of what he expressed, a lot of what Eric Clapton expressed about his confusion about Jimi Hendrix or his reservation about it was that Hendrix was showy, let his guitar on fire and did all kinds of stuff, write the things that made Hendrix compelling as an artist. But he always Hendrix was still a phenomenal guitar player. Right.

So it made it look so easy. He never once looked like he was trying, which I think made him very it made him a target for for jealousy and confusion and resentment.

It surfaced in Eric Clapton and I'm sure other people. But Eric Clapton was really vocal about it at the time. So he's going to pay for it now. Now that we're talking about this record.

I mean, and he's he spent a lot of time on that. You really zeroed in on him specifically, so he earned it.

So one of the things that confused Eric Clapton was that Hendrix, for all intents and purposes to him was black. Now, Hendrix was actually like pretty mixed. But to Eric Clapton, he was a black man coming over who should be a blues purist, who Eric Clapton was trying to imitate. But Hendrix. Added things on top of it, right, created showmanship, went well beyond, pushed into things, went psychodelic, went long, went improv and did all these things that would confuse Eric Clapton because in his mind, adherence to the blues was racial.

Yeah, I need you to be this thing for me.

And so much so that in nineteen sixty six when Cream was kind of picking up and he was really trying to do this, Eric Clapton said, I'm no longer trying to play anything but like a white man, the time is overdue when people should play like they are and what color they are, which is a statement that doesn't age well. And we probably could have said that six months after he said it.

There is a telegraph retrospective that I found titled Is Eric Clapton Still God, his fellow musicians way and whatever. So there there's this whole long passage about his relationship with the blues and how it was sort of different than some of the other guys, because the other counterpoint that I've always had with cream is the stones.

So when we talk about Clapton being like the best blues guy, I always wondered why we were talking about him rather than Keith Richards. And and it was really the improvization thing. It was taking it and kind of turning it into a different language. But there's this interesting thing that Clapton himself said. He said you had to consciously steer a path toward black soul or blues. Most of the players in the rock framework were coming from a rockabilly stance which still influenced by the blues but already filtered once through country music, if you will. Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck grew up listening to white guitar players like Scotty Moore in Cliff Gallop. I was obsessed with black blues guitar players and for me the ultimate problem was trying to shift that style into a Chuck Berry rock format. He went on to say, Blues is a language you have to learn, like learning French. It's not about a feeling, it's an action. There's a lot to learn and it means going to the library and listening to just about everything that was ever done and trying to learn from that, which is the literal opposite of what the blues is.

The blues is a feeling like how could you how could you study something so diligently and get it so wrong, even hearing interviews from that time period or from around, then you can hear the disagreement even between Clapton and Jack Bruce, because Jack Bruce said that he felt like the blues was the beginning of something, but it wasn't everything. So it should just be another influence, like any other style of music onto the thing that you want to do. He took a much longer view of things as a classical student. It's such a great example of that stark contrast between the two people who were essentially fronting this band. You know, Clapton seemed to really feel like there was a thing that he had to get right. And I'm not sure who he viewed as the authority figure on ever telling him that he was OK, whereas Jack Bruce didn't seem to feel inclined to try to do that whatsoever. He didn't feel interested in manipulating his voice or his playing style to capture the zeitgeist of anything else.

We've spent a little bit of time, I think, essentially dogging on the first record on the studio songs, but it merits saying that white room is on that record. And by any measure, that's an incredible rock and roll song in the white room with black to the stage.

Me and your dog and sort of an extension or or maybe a reimagining of a song from a previous record, the one that Rolling Stone says is the exact same thing from Disraeli Gears, Tales of Brave Ulysses.

And look, a little I think White Room is is an interesting example of a blues idea because it is sort of a reworking of tales of Brave Ulysses.

But this is the thing that you pointed out when we were in high school about the blues, about the idea of blues and intellectual property.

It was the opposite then of what it is now, right. Everything was shared. Everybody was like working on ideas and almost a communal way all the way up to the 60s with really Dixon writing all of this stuff and then everybody going out and doing versions of these songs. And that was sort of the idea, right? You wanted to go and play or hear songs that you knew really well for the shared experience and in some cases, like the commiseration around the ideas expressed in these songs. Right. That was a much more common thing and still a thing that's really interesting to me where it's like an it's you got to scratch. You hear an idea in your head and you've got to keep working it and working and reworking it until it gets to a place where it's really like a lightning rod. Right. You're just trying to get to the core of a thing that you feel way down deep and white room, even though it feels weird that it sounds a lot like something that was on the previous record, it doesn't quite get right and have the right energy and intensity and urgency until it becomes white room. And the use of the wire is really phenomenal and tasteful.

As much as we talked about Jack Bruce having kind of confused or different approach to the blues, he didn't need to adapt his style for that song. It worked. Just everything works on that song. And when they would come together and do something that didn't feel like one of them was trying to, like, pull the middle too far and one of their directions, it just worked as cream and it was great. And so, I mean, white room, I'm less of a fan of sitting on top of the world, but it's still a good cream song. I mean, as a Howlin Wolf song. Right. Which they don't do the way the Howlin Wolf did at all.

Sitting on top of the world is actually a Walter Benson, Mississippi chics song and not enough done by.

I'm standing on top of the white.

Well, I mean, even born under a bad sign was light and insulin's long before that, right? It wasn't intellectual property, it was just version one point.

One of this idea is, you know, that the songwriting credit on Born Under a Bad Sign is Booker T. Jones.

Yeah, he wrote it for Working Crazy. I love how collaborative all that stuff was when he talked about writing that song for Albert King. He was just like, I don't know. I've been thinking for a while about how, like the horoscope stuff was pretty popular during the Times. I wonder if we could just write a blues song about it. Then we'll just throw in a couple of things that makes it relevant to the public and we'll make a great blues song and a totally contrasting to sitting on top of the world.

I think politician is the other really interesting example to me, because they did take a, you know, sort of a blues approach, but really made it their own thing. And the material is a lot different. You know, there's not a lot of super political blues in the real focused sense, but this is like a really pointed song about political corruption, which was an interesting thing because so much of their other material was so abstract.

I think any self respecting music fan worth their stripes has to understand us grappling with this and having mixed feelings about it, like I want to be very clear that as music fans, we have a lot of respect for a lot of the things that were being done here. They still managed to achieve just all. They still managed to do something together that was greater than the sum of its parts. And we weren't there in that moment. I think I learned from the feedback on the Skidoo episode that, like some of it really is about time and place. And I know that it tremendously impacted a lot of the things that went on to impact me.

So I acknowledge that there's a distance between me and this thing that I can never cover, but I understand how it got there to me.

I think the other thing that, you know, I want to talk about kind of in closing is what else they went on to do and how they just sort of became more interesting in some ways on their own. So you start with Clapton. The immediate thing is blind faith, where he would go on with Steve Winwood from traffic and do this really interesting, different thing.

And I don't really want to talk about Delaney and Bonnie. It's just never really been my thing. But then Derek and the Dominoes, which was with Duane Allman, who has been a huge influence on both of us.

You talk about great guitar music, that's that's the pantheon, because that's that's as good as it gets with two guitarists doing two really different things and it coming together and making sense. So I didn't really keep up with Jack Bruce after cream.

But Ginger Baker is really fascinating because he's such a mad man and always scared a lot of people. A lot of the quotes talked about what an intense person he was. And to watch that BBC Royal Albert Hall interview, he's like, he's a scary dude.

His whole vibe is very off-putting. So I sort of relearned cream because Ginger Baker joined Masters of Reality with Chris Goss', who's a dessert guy. But there was this phenomenal drumming that he did on their record, Sunrise on the summer bus. And I don't remember how I stumbled across it, but it was the song Tilt a Whirl.

I was like, man, who's the drummer on this record, it's really incredible and I was like, it's Ginger Baker and then read these interviews about how stoked they were to have Ginger Baker in the band. And I was like, Oh, he's the guy from Cream. So that was really interesting that he was significantly older than all of those guys, but was just continuing to just pop in on things that he found interesting. I don't know. These dudes fascinate me because I don't understand what motivates them at all to be alive or do anything that they do, but then they just keep doing it. So I think all we can do is study these artifacts and try to forensically construct a portrait of where this stuff came from, because it's a lot easier with other people, but it is not easy to understand these guys at all.

I always imagined Ginger Baker having just been a mushroom, but that he didn't study before he ate it.

So he's like to be honest, I don't know if I'm about to trip all the way out or die during this interview, I didn't check. That's just kind of how I live. I picked it up and I ate it. Do you want one?

Ok, yeah.

No, I'll be fine. This is how I drown. But do you do you do so intensively that he left behind him a trail of hotel bills, but broken furniture?

We asked him if he still practiced as much.

No, no. I don't practice at all. Not at all. I used to, but I don't anymore. In the just days when you used to practice what kinds of things you do, I just used to, um. Well, first first of all, I learned over rudiments and things. I don't know whether I want to play them now, but then I just used to play solos, just sit on the edge of it and play it all day.

Turns out it's a psychedelic one.

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Original "Bitches Brew" Art

To celebrate the endless creativity of Bitches Brew—and especially its famous album artwork—TuneDig partnered with two incredible Atlanta-based artists to create one-of-a-kind, handpainted gatefolds.

With the spirit of the original art in mind, each artist brought their own vision to life. These pieces will spark conversation for any jazz fan.

Each piece includes a new vinyl copy of Bitches Brew. 100% of the purchase price goes directly to the artist, so take this opportunity to support the arts in the raddest possible way.

Seriously. There’s literally only one of each. Make it yours. 😎

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TuneDig Episode 34: Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”

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RADIO EPISODES

SEASON 4 EPISODES

SEASON 3 EPISODES

SEASON 2 EPISODES

SEASON 1 EPISODES

BONUS TRACK EPISODES

Kyle and Cliff

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ABOUT US

We're Cliff (left) and Kyle (right). We’re two dudes born and raised in ATL with day jobs in tech and entertainment, respectively.

We met in middle school, and in one way or another, music’s been the thing that’s kept us close for the two decades since — whether it’s sharing and talking about new music (like this podcast, except in our texts or over beers), going to shows, or working with our favorite record stores to help them survive and thrive.

We started TuneDig as a little art project that connects us more deeply ourselves and to the world through the infinite gift of music. We hope you’ll join us for the conversations, let us know what you think, and share discoveries of your own.

More About TuneDig

TuneDig began as a little something called MusicGrid.me, which we created after realizing there was no place online to directly exchange music recommendations with your friends. Our aim was simple: to make rating albums simple, useful, and social. We got some love from places like MashableWiredEvolver.fm, and Hypebot. We managed to foster conversation between music lovers, get thousands of reviews, and meet great people.

Along the way, we realized that record stores were an essential part of the music lovers’ community. After many a conversation about how we could helpfully connect them to the people who loved them, we began helping them leverage technology to create new revenue streams and embrace streaming services without giving up what’s unique to them: expertise and curation. (Long live the counter clerk who knows exactly which record will be the right introduction to jazz fusion!)

TuneDig is our vision to connect music lovers with the music they love, because no matter how much has changed in the way we discover and enjoy music, recommendations from people you trust and respect will always be the best way to find new music you’ll dig. With this podcast, we’re channeling the spirit of trusted curation pioneered by record stores, and bringing you something to take you deeper into music you can love.