Wheels Of Fire is Cream’s third album and features some of the most explosive playing the band ever recorded in the studio. The album, being a double album, also features four live tracks recorded at shows in California in March 1968. Those four tracks really showcase what Cream were all about as a live band, the double album essentially highlighting two very different sides of the band. The structured studio band and the improvising, explosive live band.
Recording began on the 12th July 1967 at IBC Sound Recording Studios in London before moving to Atlantic Studios in New York on the 12th September. The band would continue recording at Atlantic Studios until the 13th June 1968 but only intermittently, fitting in recording sessions when they could between their jam packed touring schedule. The following list is the complete recording schedule for the Wheels Of Fire album:
12th-14th July 1967 (IBC Sound Recording Studios, London): White Room (basic track), Sitting On Top Of The World (basic track), Born Under A Bad Sign (rehearsal)
9th-11th August 1967 (IBC Sound Recording Studios, London): White Room (overdubs), Born Under A Bad Sign (basic track), Falstaff Beer Commercial (two takes)
12th-17th September 1967 (Atlantic Studios, New York): Sitting On Top Of The World (master take), Born Under A Bad Sign (master take), White Room (re-recording)
9th-10th October 1967 (Atlantic Studios, New York): Pressed Rat And Warthog (first takes), Anyone For Tennis (first takes), Politician (first takes)
12th-15th December 1967 (Atlantic Studios, New York): Pressed Rad And Warthog (overdubs), Anyone For Tennis (overdubs and first master), White Room (vocals)
13th-22nd February 1968 (Atlantic Studios, New York): Pressed Rad And Warthog (master), Anyone For Tennis (overdubs and final master), White Room (wah-wah overdubs), Politician (master), Passing The Time (first takes), As You Said (basic track), Deserted Cities Of The Heart (basic track), Those Were The Days (basic track)
12th-13th June 1968 (Atlantic Studios, New York): Passing The Time (final overdubs and master), As You Said (final overdubs and master), Deserted Cities Of The Heart (final overdubs and master), White Room (final overdubs and master), Those Were The Days (final overdubs and master)
Disc One, billed as In The Studio, starts with White Room and upon first listen you might think it’s a re-make of the very beautiful Tales Of Brave Ulysses from their previous album Disraeli Gears. Clapton goes off big time here (the first of many times on Wheels Of Fire) by using his wah drenched Gibson to paint a musical picture. Beautiful just doesn’t do it justice, especially the solo section which you wish could go on forever. Sitting On Top Of The World follows which sees the unmistakable sharp tone of a Gibson Firebird I singing over a powerful guitar and bass riff which drives the song from beginning to end. The solo on this song is potentially one of the greatest ever that Clapton played during the Cream period with the Firebird soaring to greater heights as every second passes. Exceptional. Things then head in a quieter direction with Passing The Time which is the first of three songs that Ginger Baker co-wrote with composer Mike Taylor. The beginning and the end are sadly quite unremarkable although the song does pick up half way through. As You Said follows which is one of the gems on the entire album and a song that was, surprisingly, even played live on tour in 1968. There’s a photo of Jack Bruce with an acoustic guitar at the show it was played it, possibly the only time it was played live which would have made quite a departure from the wall of Marshall cabs that floored the audience when the band usually started playing.
- White Room
- Sitting On Top Of The World
- Passing The Time
- As You Said
- Pressed Rat And Warthog
- Those Were The Days
- Born Under A Bad Sign
- Deserted Cities Of The Heart
Pressed Rat And Warthog is the second Baker song on the album and it’s another odd one to say the least, although it’s grown into a fan favourite over the years. The music that Baker talks over is interesting to listen to at least but it’s more like a story being told than an actual song, something Baker could have actually been going for. Things return to normal when Politician kicks off, bringing back the electric instruments in all their glory. A modified 12 bar blues, Politician features a fantastic bass riff which Clapton mimics beautifully on guitar whilst his solo overdubs weave their way in-between Bruce’s vocal lines. Those Were The Days is the final Baker song on the album and certainly the best. Bruce takes lead vocal duties here and Clapton supplies a tasty guitar solo mid-way through before the song comes to a close. It’s Baker’s best Cream-era song by a country mile. The band then turn to what is now a blues standard in Born Under A Bad Sign which was originally recorded by the late great Albert King in 1967. Cream’s version follows the same format as King’s but features a longer guitar solo which Clapton yet again shines ever so brightly on. The sharp guitar tone helps to distinguish between the rhythm guitar part and is one of the many highlights of the entire song, as are Bruce’s fantastic lead vocals. The final studio song is the Bruce/Brown number Deserted Cities Of The Heart which could well be one of their all time best songwriting gems. The song has everything from exciting lyrics and catchy melody to a superb guitar solo – Cream at their very best.
- Crossroads (live at Winterland, 10th March 1968)
- Spoonful (live at Winterland, 10th March 1968)
- Traintime (live at Winterland, 8th March 1968)
- Toad (live at The Fillmore, 7th March 1968)
Disc Two is billed as At The Fillmore even though three of the four tracks were actually recorded at Winterland. But nevertheless this disc showcases Cream as a live band perfectly, starting with the famous live recording of Crossroads taken from their show at Winterland in San Francisco on the 10th March 1968. It’s now widely seen as one of the best live performances of all time with Clapton giving the performance of his life on his famous psychedelic Gibson “The Fool” SG. There aren’t many performances that manage to contain so much energy like Crossroads does and it isn’t just Clapton that plays magnificently, Bruce and Baker do as well. The three of them manage to play independently yet come together to form one perfect performance. The same thing can be said for Spoonful which comes next. The band originally recorded this on their debut album Fresh Cream in 1966 but the live version the band played is a completely different animal as can be heard right here. At 16 minutes and 46 seconds in length, this recording also shows Cream’s exceptional improvising ability that was second to none at the time. It’s difficult to think of another band that came anywhere near as close as to what Cream achieved live on stage, The Allman Brothers Band in 1971 at Fillmore East could be one of them and Derek and the Dominos another but that’s it. Cream were in a field of their own.
Traintime is the second to last song which was recorded two days before Crossroads and Spoonful on the 8th March 1968 at Winterland. It sees Bruce move to harmonica while Clapton sits out as Bruce and Baker do their thing, both instruments imitating a train running down the tracks. Baker’s drumming does this fantastically well. This then leads perfectly into the final song, Toad, which the band open together before Baker launches into 16 minutes and 16 seconds of pure drum heaven. To some this may be a little too much to listen to but it showcases Baker’s ability behind the kit and establishes him as one of the greatest drummers of all time. Some people may have Keith Moon or John Bonham in mind when they’re thinking of best drummers of all time but (for me at least) Baker is above both of them. His drumming during his time in Cream was second to none and his background in jazz only amplified his abilities and brought drumming to a completely different level.
Wheels Of Fire is an exceptional album by Cream and probably their best. There are arguments to be made in favour of Disraeli Gears but Wheels Of Fire contains everything a music fan looks for in an album. Not only does it include a wide range of fantastic studio songs but the second disc features the best of the best of live music. Cream were a one of a kind band on stage but also in the studio. They defined a generation with songs like White Room and Wheels Of Fire is the pinnacle of their work together as a band.