Over the decades, the idea of a supergroup has become so stale that almost nobody does it anymore. You know what I mean: a group made up of already-famous and like-minded musicians. I guess there’s the Hollywood Vampires, and perhaps The New Pornographers, but generally it’s the sort of thing you don’t hear too much of anymore. Maybe because these days nobody is famous in rock as they used to be, maybe because everything is so over-managed and aware of their own career that it’s unlikely to get huge egos and personalities together.
But back in the day, it was a thing.
And no supergroup ever had as much talent, power and ego-clashing as first Cream did.
When Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker, and Jack Bruce started playing together, they were already some of the most famous blues musicians in England. Clapton had played with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and The Yardbirds; Baker and Bruce were part of the Graham Bond Organization. The trio started playing together in 1966, calling themselves Cream because they were the cream of british blues, or something.
Like I said: big egos.
Fresh Cream dropped in late 1966, alongside the iconic non-album single “I Feel Free.” Loud, bluesy and psychedelic, it helped usher in an era of excess: long jams, improvised passages, and out-there songwriting. It was steeped in tradition, and included the obligatory Robert Johnson cover, but largely it was a product of the Chicago Blues school, particularly the Chess Records division.
The second half was largely covers, including tunes popularlized by Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, played in a atmospheric, almost dank ambience. Like the best of Chess’ records, you could almost hear the sweat.
In the 50 years since Fresh Cream‘s initial release, it’s deservedly become a staple of Best Ever Records lists.
And it’s been reissued extensively: Discogs lists hundreds of different pressings, some with extra material, some without. A few years ago, a 2-CD version came out, mixing both mono and stereo versions with a few bonus cuts. It seemed like the definitive issue. At least until now.
Earlier this year, Polydor issued a huge, super-deluxe version of Fresh Cream. Spread over three packed CDs are everything from this record you could possibly want, while on a DVD is some of the best-quality sound versions of the record you’ll probably ever hear.
Let’s dig in, shall we?
The first disc is the original mono mix of Fresh Cream, plus an assortment of bonus tracks. The sound on this disc is sharp and clear: it’s possible the record’s never sounded so good. On a good set of speakers or headphones it sounds like they’re right there in the room.
Clapton’s guitar rips and moans out of the speakers, while Bruce’s singing sucks you in. But, best of all, are Baker’s drums: every thud, cymbal crash and explosive drum roll is clear and distinct, not muddy or blurred like some earlier issues. The music speaks for itself, but their versions of “Spoonful” or “I’m So Glad” remain definitive covers; originals like “NSU” fit right in alongside.
Joining the original album is a generous helping of extras: a French EP, non-album singles and outtakes. Some, like “I Feel Free” or are essential, while others like a two-part single edit of “Spoonful” or a close-to-identical version of “NSU” are kind of redundant.
Fresh Cream is largely repeated on the second part of the program, but this time in stereo.
There’s the same ten-track album, a few outtakes in stereo and seven new stereo remixes, almost an alternate mix of the debut record. Again nice to have, although I’ll admit I prefer the mono version, which has a punchy clarity to it’s mix.
The third CD is where things get interesting. There’s a few new outtakes, like “You Make Me Feel” and “Beauty Queen,” neither of which really sound finished, and a bunch of early versions of songs like “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” and “Toad.”
One especially interesting sequence shows “I Feel Free,” as a rough, chugging version without proper lyrics, then as a polished instrumental version, and finally in an alternate mix with the vocals mixed way up. It shows the evolution of their first big hit almost in real time, and is an interesting way to show how the song grew and came together.
Later on the third disc is a generous helping of BBC sessions from 1966 and 67.
Most of these were previously released on 2003’s BBC Sessions disc, but a couple seem new here, like a live version of “Steppin’ Out” from 1966 with some smoking lead guitar. The sound’s a little rougher on some of these, but that’s to be expected from 50 year old live recordings, ones I assume the master tapes for don’t exist anymore.
The drawback of these is their brevity.
The longest of them is a shade over four minutes and a few are under two. They lack the dynamic sort of fireworks that characterized Cream’s live sets, even early in their career: even early on, they were doing versions of “Spoonful” lasting ten minutes or more. That said, the live version of “I’m So Glad” does offer a glimpse of their power as a live act, even early in their working career.
Still, as far as reissues go, this one has everything you’d want from Cream’s debut record in spades.
It’s sort of a copyright clearing issue, sure, but if you’re the kind of person wanting to hear every note Clapton ever played, it won’t steer you wrong. And even if you’re just curious about the origins of jam rock, and arguably metal, hard rock, and electric blues, it’ll more than scratch that itch.
Freelance writer and music fan, whose writing has appeared on The Good Point, The Toronto Review of Books, and CTV.ca, among other places. Favorite albums: Dig Me Out, Live-Evil, Decade.