50 years ago today (9th December 1966), Cream released their debut album Fresh Cream. It may not be their most accomplished album but in my eyes it’s still a landmark album that defined a new era of blues music. Unlike their later albums, Fresh Cream doesn’t include any songs that would define a generation but what we have is a superb blues record, blended with aspects of rock which equals one of the best albums form the mid-60’s.
Before I begin I have to state that I am referring to the original UK version of the album in this article, which opened with N.S.U. and not I Feel Free which opened the US version. Written by Jack Bruce, N.S.U. is a wonderfully put together song that manages to capture the essence of the 60’s while at the same time remaining rooted in the blues. This is best heard during Clapton’s fiery solo which kicks in at the half way point, the sharp and attacking tones threatening to piece your soul. It’s a fine solo and a good indication of what this album is all about. Sleepy Time Time is the second song which is a slow blues number and this could well be my favourite song on the whole album. The three band members combine to create an incredible song, layered with so many different textures from Clapton’s smoother guitar lines from start to finish, Bruce’s driving bass line and Baker’s ever reliable time keeping. It’s a gorgeous song with Clapton’s guitar solo really standing out as the highlight and arguably the highlight from the whole album.
- Sleepy Time Time
- Sweet Wine
- Cat’s Squirrel
- Four Until Late
- Rollin’ And Tumblin’
- I’m So Glad
Next up comes Dreaming, a song that flows so beautifully from start to finish. Bruce takes centre stage on this one with all eyes on his songwriting abilities. Clapton plays more of a sideman roll here with no guitar solo but in reality the three of them really compliment each other beautifully. The song is more rock than blues, which leads perfectly into Sweet Wine, the next song which is written by Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce’s wife Janet Godfrey. The song opens with an infectious riff played on guitar and bass while Bruce and Clapton sing over it. When Clapton comes in for a solo around the halfway mark the whole trio step things up massively to create a beautifully played musical section. One of my favourite songs Cream ever played live was Spoonful due to the length of their renditions and the amount of improvisation it contained. It was a masterpiece in every sense of the word and even though the studio version on this album is considerably shorter in comparison, Cream give one of their best performances on the entire album. Bruce on lead vocals sings like a man possessed and Clapton’s guitar playing is taken to another level. In many ways the song is more of a jam than a structured song but that’s no complaint, it’s a compliment. Cream were at their very best when jamming.
The instrumental Cat’s Squirrel follows which is almost like an intermission where the band just focus on playing and don’t worry about singing. It’s a good number and breaks up the album nicely before the band return with the Robert Johnson song Four Until Late which sees Clapton take over lead vocals from Jack Bruce. This song is the second in a long line of Robert Johnson songs that Clapton would cover during his whole career, the first being Ramblin’ On My Mind on the John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers album a year earlier. To my knowledge this song was never played live by Cream but having a studio version to listen to is wonderful. Rollin’ And Tumblin’ is the next song which I really love listening to because when Cream returned for their reunion shows at the Royal Albert Hall in 2005, their rendition they played sounded exactly like this version from Fresh Cream. There really is no difference apart from perhaps the tone of Clapton’s guitar having gone from a Gibson to a Fender, but apart from that they are identical. On this version Bruce plays harmonica and lets rip big time.
The two final songs couldn’t be more different. The first is I’m So Glad, a song originally written and performed by bluesman Skip James. While his original is all played on an acoustic guitar, Cream took the song by the scruff of the neck and made it their own like they did to so many songs both live and in the studio. The result is a storming rendition with some beautiful guitar picking from Clapton to open the song. The last song, however, is Toad by Ginger Baker. The song is pretty much one big solo piece from Baker behind the kit and while it is certainly a sign of the times and something he also did live in concert, the live versions are definitely more fitting because of the electric atmosphere at Cream shows paired with the drive to experiment and improvise. That said though, it’s a nice way to end the album which would lead on perfectly to their second album Disraeli Gears.
Fresh Cream may not be Cream’s stand out album but it’s certainly an enjoyable one. It’s more of a bridge between John Mayall and The Graham Bond Organisation to where they would eventually end up on their second and third albums. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable record that has aged well and continues to stand the test of time.