Eric Clapton’s tasteful licks and runs were nothing to rival, and with Cream, he would sculpt the kind of riffs that would forever be ingrained in Rock’s pantheon of timelessness. One could go on and on about Clapton’s impeccable impact, but to deprive the other two wolves of the pack, bassist and vocalist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker, of their equal importance would be heretical.
Both Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker were also in their own bands prior to Cream’s genesis; they both occupied The Graham Bond Organisation, while Bruce was in the semi-successful Manfred Mann. Bruce, who unlocked the notion that one could make the bass lines an integral part of the song, brought a ferocious yet phlegmatic image to their attitude. Jack Bruce’s vocal ability to flip between the hypnotic howls of LSD-soaked imagery and the wily charisma of the Blues is what propelled Cream’s spirit to demonstrative corporeality.
Jack Bruce continued his post-Cream career collaborating with bands and musicians all across the spectrum which was entrenched in hard rock, jazz fusion, rhythm and blues, world music, and Third Stream, thus putting the finishing touches on his decades-long career of inspiring the best of the best.
This is where Mr. Ginger Baker comes into the picture as well. His sated taste for jazz theory and the worldly construct of African rhythms not only injected Cream’s nervous system with that bombastic improv that made them the first “jam band,” but it also heralded his meticulous attention to precision and nicety as one of the all time great drummers; his coordinated independence and complex patterns made him an anomaly of rock at that point, making him the first real rock and roll percussionist who pushed the boundaries of how jazz technicalities could be vital in energizing a rock template .
Even after their brief reign during the counterculture of the sixties, Cream still managed to make a huge enough impression on everybody of that era, inspiring most of the great bands that would soon creep their way into the seventies. And even though the term “jam band” is pretty much synonymous with the Grateful Dead, the lengthened extempore of Cream’s live shows could be seen as the first known example of such; one could even argue that their live performances vastly outshined their studio work. So here’s to one of the coolest, most psychedelic super-groups. The pinnacle of hardened blues tendencies, and one of the precursors to Heavy Metal: Cream!
# 10 – Strange Brew
Since this list will be focusing on both their popular and lesser-known compositions, it would be quite befitting to round off the number ten slot with their most pop-aligned tune from their hallucinogenic fistful of a record, 1967’s Disraeli Gears. It features Clapton on lead vocals, with a reserved but attentive intro solo greased from head to toe in his signature fuzz pedal.
The hypnotizing lyrics, with talks of witchy women causing man problems, shouldn’t be taken seriously as anything more than a psych-blues take on the kind of subject matter typical of a bluesman’s struggles. The song was definitely groovy enough to cause a stir in the Swinging London scene, climbing the UK charts and thus beginning their impregnable legacy.
# 9 – Sitting on Top of the World
Cream recorded a lot of old blues renditions, and this Mississippi Sheiks standard is no different; Cream actually followed the rough and gritty template of Howlin’ Wolf’s version. Its forbearing attitude towards adversity and problems every human being down in their luck faces each day remains prevalent throughout, but Cream calibrates its internal organs with a down tempo displacement so volatile and vim, making it an excellent supplement to the unforgettable opening track, White Room.
Ginger’s lounge-like velocity and Bruce’s syncopated bass lines reminiscent of a horn section create quite the canvas for Clapton to splatter his guitar expressionism upon, and those are reasons enough to drop this one into the list.
# 8 – We’re Going Wrong
“We’re Going Wrong,” is perhaps the most gloomy piece from Desraeli Gears. It’s the only song on the record where Bruce wrote the lyrics by himself without the help of poet Pete Brown, and consists of only two stanzas that put emphasis on ambiguity more than anything; is it a love song? Is it about opening up one’s consciousness? Whatever the case may be, those droning chords and that tribal beat only do the song a fascinating disservice by transforming it into a depressing cloud of dread.
# 7 – Rollin’ and Tumblin’
Their 1966 debut, Fresh Cream, is too strong of a blues rock record; this was Cream already resting comfortably in their lane, chemically altering the happy-go-lucky, bubble gum pop of the time with music that was both galvanizing and accessible enough to move ones body to.
This Hambone Willie Newbern song is proof of such. Who can honestly listen to that freight train harmonica and NOT tap one’s foot to it? Jack Bruce’s caterwauling of repeated “hey’s” in unison with Clapton’s disgusting riff are also an added accessory that makes this Delta blues sensation a living remember of why Cream is awesome.
# 6 – White Room
In 1968, Cream went into the studio to record what would be their final album, Wheels of Fire. It’s not only their best, but it’s very unique in that it was a double LP that featured both studio and live recordings; sides one and two were done in the studio, while sides three and four were recorded at Filmore East and Winterland.
It was produced by Felix Pappalardi of the band Mountain, who also contributes to most of the stringed arrangements on the record. It was also the first double album to go platinum, reaching number three on the UK charts and number one in the US.
This classic hit features Jack Bruce singing some of the most vivid poetry courtesy of fellow collaborator Pete Brown, a quintuple meter intro from Ginger Baker that carries the kaleidoscopic rhythm all the way through, and some of the wildest guitar work from Clapton; this song, along with the album in general, was notable for his screeching wah pedal mechanics that gave off a “talking effect.”
# 5 – As You Said
Wheels of Fire cuts have been showing up left and right on here, and for self-explanatory reasons. This deep cut is the heart of the album. And although one might be a little astonished by its insertion at first listen, the overall context of the album’s more polished credentials makes As You Said truly phenomenal. Its glowing acoustic guitar work, along with the incorporation of the viola, makes the peaceful imagery of the wordplay all the more tranquil.
# 4 – Crossroads
On side three of Wheels of Fire, this famous Robert Johnson tune that gave birth to the mythos of him selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads of Mississippi receives one hell of a surgical revamping; this cover is undoubtedly one of the most highly revered and discernible in all of rock. Seriously, that electrifying A chord incorporated into a boogie shuffle riff is one that can’t be missed each time it’s played on your typical classic rock radio station.
Clapton does a tremendous job evoking the spirit of Robert Johnson within his playing, as well as his vocals, where he tweaks the song with a little pastiche by adding in a verse from another Johnson tune, Traveling Riverside Blues. All three men hold it down on stage with the triple force of their conflicting techniques, and their ability to feed off of one another without a fixed incentive.
# 3 – Toad
Led Zeppelin’s “Moby Dick,” may be the most famous drum solo instrumental, but Toad deserves every bit of credit for popularizing the concept. Like “Moby Dick,” “Toad” kicks off with a blistering guitar riff that serves as a recurring theme until Ginger extends his wings midway through the song and soars into the sequestered spotlight of percussive finesse and unyielding technique. Initially, the formation of Toad began while Baker was still in the Graham Bond Organisation, until finding its way on Cream’s debut record, Fresh Cream.
His sixteen-minute improv from their Winterland show is of course the superior version, and it’s the kind of performance that gave other drummers like John Bonham the opportunity to use their platform as more than just a backseat rhythm section. Fun fact: Toad can be heard in Martin Scorcese’s 1995 film, Casino, during that infamous scene involving a vise.
# 2 – Spoonful
This is another one of those Howlin’ Wolf renditions that became utilized at the forefront of the English blues boom; it was bands like Cream who carried on the rugged delicacy of the American blues, but with an exciting twist: push the limits of individual virtuosity. This Willie Dixon original, retaining its metaphorical ramblings of satisfaction and pleasure, sees the power trio as a demonstrable demon of mind-scratching control of their weapons.
The studio take is a great example of such, but it’s their extended Winterland piece that makes this song number two on the list. Jack Bruce’s cudgeling bass overhangs like a sinister shadow as Clapton’s colorful Gibson SG acts as an extension of his obstreperous soul and he begins shattering expectations with some of the angriest and exquisite licks of his time, all while Ginger chisels the perfect patterns and fills needed to make Spoonful one of the heavyweight jam songs of all time.
# 1 – Sunshine of Your Love
Well, here it is, the very paragon of Cream’s catalog. This is one of the most overrated and overplayed songs, and that’s not at all a negative jab towards Sunshine of Your Love; its religious consumption through every rock outlet known to mankind further demonstrates the ineradicable modification it’s had on modern rock music.
Its heart-stopping minor blues riff was written by Jack Bruce, and was inspired by a Jimi Hendrix show he was at; Hendrix, a fellow Cream fan, would later perform a more fast-paced version at his concerts. It’s that kind of repetitive riff, much like with Smoke on the Water, that every upstart guitarist has to learn because it’s just that cool of a riff; it’s got that certain character to it that tells a story without doing much.
It would also be an injustice not to bring into the conversation Ginger Bakers’ vociferous tom tom rhythm, which greatly emphasizes the first and third beat; that kind of tempo bolsters the music effortlessly all the way until the end. And the opening lines, It’s getting near dawn, when lights close their tired eyes, immediately take the listener on a lyrical odyssey through the free love epoch, and fulfill its duties as pure coitus to the ears. Sunshine for Your Love had to hold the number one spot, just based on aesthetic and cultural significance; I’m sure everyone reading this would strongly agree.
Photo By General Artists Corporation (management) /Atco Records (the band’s record label at one time). (eBay item photo) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Top 10 Cream Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2022
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