The Doors

Glen Campbell — Guitar Legend

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I recently watched two clips on YouTube that profiled Glen Campbell: singer, guitarist, actor, American TV personality. The first was his Behind The Music special from 1999 and the second was 2012 a CBS News Sunday Morning that was Glen saying Goodbye. He had recently made public his Alzheimer’s diagnosis and accepted the inevitable by releasing an album and doing a final tour. Today Glen is in the final stages of the illness at a care facility near his home in Tennessee. He had a very prolific entertainment career and remains one of America’s most popular stars. His stratospheric rise in the late 60s to the top of the pop and country charts, his popularity with American television audiences, boyish good looks and wide array of talents guaranteed he would remain in the public eye even after the big hits stopped coming. His loss is kind of personal because he reminds me of my parents and my days as a child. I can remember watching his show on television while my mother ironed or read stories to my younger sister. His variety show and shows like Star Trek, Gilligan’s Island and The Monkees were all 1st run things for me — I saw them as they happened back in the Swingin’ 60s.

Glen Campbell’s career began very early — by 1954, before he was 20 years old — he was already playing in bands and appearing on local radio in New Mexico. He learned to play as a youth and always credited his Uncle Boo with teaching him in the early days. Life as the son of a sharecropper in Arkansas wasn’t easy, but a way out appeared very early on when his father bought the family a Sears and Roebuck guitar. Because the action was so high, a crude capo was fashioned out of an inner tube and from then on Glen would always be a prodigious user of capos, and obviously a prodigious player of guitars. Eventually he would make his way to Los Angeles and become, by the early 60s, a very in-demand session guitar player.

While it is pretty common knowledge now, many people who became Glen Campbell fans at the end of the 1960s had no idea of Glen’s early history as a session guitarist or his association with a group of people who would later come to be known as The Wrecking Crew; a collection of the finest session musicians on the west coast. As a session musician, Glen is estimated to be on anywhere from “high-hundreds” to “a thousand” recordings — everyone from Dean Martin to Sonny and Cher, Simon and Garfunkel, The Champs, The Mamas and the Papas, Nat King Cole, scores of garage-y guitar type groups and even Ol’ Blue Eyes himself, Frank Sinatra. There are many resources dealing with Glen and The Wrecking Crew and this makes for fascinating reading.

Other guitarists associated with this group of people who were also known as “The Clique” included Barney Kessel, Howard Roberts, Al Casey and James Burton. Carol Kaye, the first lady of bass guitar also has recollections and information on her site and in an interview here. As she points out, The Wrecking Crew wasn’t really known by that name at the time and there were a lot (50-60) people involved — all of the best session players in Los Angeles at the time…and Glen Campbell was one of them. From the UNOFFICIAL MARTIN GUITAR FORUM here is a funny aside:

…Glen Campbell once recounted a great story about the Strangers In The Night‘ session. He got a late call asking if he could do a session next day because the producer needed several acoustic guitars on the track and they were one short. Glen arrived next day all sun tanned, long flowing mane, jeans, boots and Beach Boys-type shirt to find that Sinatra’s musos were all jazz players with short hair, button-down shirts, neckties and slacks. They eyed him disdainfully. The guitar players were seated in a line with Glen on the very end and the orchestra rehearsed all day long to get the desired sound. Early evening they got the call that Frank was on his way and the tension in the studio mounted. Thirty minutes later Sinatra arrived and went straight to the control booth and the musos all craned to catch sight of `The Gov’nor’. Sinatra walked out into the studio and the orchestra spontaneously rose and applauded him. Suddenly Frank looked over at Glen and yelled to the MD `Get rid of that long haired faggot on the end! Campbell rose to his feat and made ready to leave only to find Sinatra standing directly in front of him challenging `can you really play that thing?’ GC sat down and played some really tasty licks and Sinatra said `Okay, you can stay’. After the session Sinatra sought Campbell out, stuck a wad of $$$ in his shirt pocket and invited him to a party at his Palm Springs home.

I’m not sure I believe this story totally. Strangers in the Night was cut in 1966 and Campbell I don’t think had a “long, flowing mane” until the 70s. Still… a fun piece of 60s music lore. The fact that Glen was a part of this group of LA session players that included Barney Kessel, James Burton, Howard Roberts and the Session King, Tommy Tedesco was a testament to his guitar talents, his work ethic and his ability to get along well with others. Also, in a short time, he would be one of a few emerging talents [Roy Clark (who is in this post) being another] who could sing like a bird and play the hell out of the guitar.

One band that Glen did a whole lot of work for, and even joined for a time, was The Beach Boys. The rock and roll sound of the BBs and similar acts like Jan and Dean was right up Glen’s alley and he looked and sounded the part. Some of his session playing (Dance, Dance, Dance) survived through release, some (rock and roll intro to Fun, Fun, Fun) was most likely redone by one of the “Boys”, although it is probably impossible to know for sure anymore. In December of 1964 he filled in for Brian Wilson, who had driven himself crazy with work and too many commitments. Glen was a Beach Boy until mid-1965 when Bruce Johnson took over as a “live” Beach Boy. Also at this time The Astounding 12-String Guitar of Glen Campbell album was released to very little fanfare, but it provides some interesting aural insights into Glen’s musical background. He was already a skilled picker capable of bringing his Arkansas blues, country and early rock and roll licks tastefully to any song. Probably this album was released to try and capitalize on the very popular folk boom at the time. In 1965 The Big Bad Rock Guitar of Glen Campbell was released and sounds like it could have been put together between Wrecking Crew sessions. Great versions of Walk Don’t Run, Ticket to Ride, James Bond Theme, It’s Not Unusual and other pop hits of the day. I like this album much better and like the swinging 60s pop sound from this period.

In the early-mid 1960s most of the popular/rock and roll production values of the LA scene imitated in a fashion the Phil Spector Wall of Sound. Here is Simon and Garfunkel’s Blessed as it appeared on the 1965 Sounds of Silence album. This was a hastily-cut record after the initial success of The Sounds of Silence single had garnered some airplay as an acoustic song and was then remixed without Simon and Garfunkel’s knowledge or input as a post-Dylan electric folk-rock number. Here is Simon and Garfunkel doing Blessed as an acoustic number live in 1967. Sounds de-tuned and in drop-D tuning, but still captures the various guitar parts of the original. Notice all of the echo on the studio version; you can really hear it on the drums in the outro. The studio recording has at least 3-4 guitar parts and there are some cool delay/comb filter-type effects too. This album was produced by Bob Johnson, who produced Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisted and albums by Johnny Cash and Leonard Cohen. Not really sure if Blessed was recorded in Nashville or LA, but Glen Campbell is listed on the credits for the album. This production is also very reminiscent of The Byrds and The Beatles mid-60s “folk-rock”. Rubber Soul was released a few weeks before this song was recorded.

On the Mike Nesmith/Monkees song Mary, Mary, a fun, but silly basic rock and roll song if there ever was one, there are 6 guitar players listed: Peter Tork, James Burton, Glen Campbell, Al Casey, Michael Deasy, and Don Peake. Holy Cow…the Stones could’ve done this without overdubs! Maybe this was another reason the session work dried up, because you know all these guys are billing for the session. It’s the music equivalent of the mafia no-show construction jobs! By the end of the decade this production style would be out of fashion, technology would grow by leaps and bounds, many artists wrested control for their projects away from producers and many bands were capable of playing all of their instruments. But here’s Glen talking about his time as a session guitarist and demonstrating guitar techniques with Craig Kilborn, including his love and use of the capo.

As he recounts in Behind the Music, he did so many sessions he bought a car and had money to burn. After two disaster gigs opening solo for The Doors (wow!) he related that he didn’t go out on the road again until after his television show was a hit. Session work was more rewarding and enjoyable. When I first began playing guitar, I used to read Guitar Player magazine, which featured a regular column with premier session guitarist, Tommy Tedesco. It was always fun to read what Tommy was up to — whether it was a Bop gig, a new television show theme, a movie soundtrack. He would also list the other players, what instruments he used and how much money he made from the session. It was pretty cool reading and anyone who remembers those columns has an understanding of what Glen’s career was like for most of the 60s. Tommy Tedesco’s son, Denny, captured all of The Wrecking Crew‘s glory and history in his 2008 film The Wrecking Crew. Definitely see it if you haven’t.

In 1968 Glen Campbell became a superstar and although he had a hit with Jimmy Webb‘s By the Time I Get to Phoenix it was Gentle on My Mind that really launched this 2nd half of his career. Both he and the song’s writer, John Hartford, won two Grammy Awards each in 1968 for their performances of the song in the Country and Folk categories and in 1999 BMI announced that the song was number 16 in their Top Songs of the Century list. Personally, I think the above version is the best online performance: Hartford’s banjo sounds outstanding and his playing conjures up images of a train clicking over the rails in between his sung lines in the first and third verses. Glen shows how great an interpreter he is and was capable of always injecting different nuances into his performances so they never sounded the same. The fourth verse is a well-done duet that effectively pairs both their voices and personalities to close out the song. This performance serves as a microcosm of the tone of Glen’s television show and it’s easy to see why it was so popular. Wildly talented, good-looking and likable star and supporting cast play great music (and indulge in some comedy). A winning formula if there ever was one! While em>Gentle on My Mind isn’t a guitar number, Glen did pick a whole bunch of guitar on the show. Besides Hartford, who made frequent appearances during the show’s run, there were music performances from Three Dog Night, Stevie Wonder, Jerry Reed, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, The Monkees, Ray Charles Nancy Sinatra, Linda Rondstadt and many more. The show was on the air from 1969 through 1972 and it made Glen a household name.

Unfortunately, as Glen’s star kept rising, he was pressured to drop the guitar playing and concentrate on being The Rhinestone Cowboy singer. Country music began to be seen as passe in the mid-70s and because Campbell had so much success as a popular singer it was thought that the guitar image was too “Nashville”, even though hits like The Rhinestone Cowboy and Southern Nights only boosted his popularity. This is probably the main reason that many people never realized how good a guitarist he is. Fortunately, Glen never stopped playing and many performances of his picking during the 80s and 90s is preserved online.

The above performance, really captures the essence of Glen Campbell. Who else can really do this tune? I think the word is ICONIC. While there are many guitar players who sing — Clapton, Richards, Harrison, Gilmour, etc, etc, there are very few singers who can really PLAY. According to his website, Glen Campbell had ‘Twenty-one Top 40 hits with two hitting No. 1. Six Top 20 albums including chart-topper Wichita Lineman. Twenty-seven country Top 10 singles — spanning 22 years — and nine country No. 1 albums.’ If all of the music he appeared on as a session musician is added to the list, his contributions to popular music are staggering! Since so much of his early work and popularity was from the 60s, he reminds me of childhood and he’s always been there making music throughout my adult life as well. Though Glen will be leaving soon, he will leave many treasured gifts and memories behind; a multi-talented man, but first and foremost, a guitar picker par excellence!

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Not To Touch the Earth

Taking The Doors music one step further (remember, this all started with Johnny Ramone or wait, was it Jimmy Page?) let’s talk about Robby Krieger. He’s never been thought of as one of the powerhouses of electric guitar (he’s rated #76 on Rolling Stone‘s Greatest Guitarists list). Yet, he was/is quite the capable guy and unlike most of his peers from that period, or ever, played fingerstyle instead of using a pick, or plectrum if you will. Originally trained on flamenco guitar, he moved on to learning bottleneck, folk, rock and even a bit of jazz, with Wes Montgomery and Larry Carlton named as big influences. In the process he helped The Doors become one of the most popular bands in America and to this day they are considered one of the best American bands ever. Though he wasn’t a virtuoso he played many an interesting guitar part and wrote music that had a huge impact on the popular musical landscape (his song Light My Fire has been covered 974,322 times or something). The LMF solo is a great example of a guitar in the DORIAN mode although that’s only 1 way to imagine it. I wonder what Robbie was thinking. It has a very 60s sound (in a good way). Obviously the above clip of Spanish Caravan, which incorporates musical ideas from Asturias (Leyenda), written by Isaac Albéniz, highlights Robbie’s flamenco abilities and when combined with Jim Morrison’s lyrics and the band’s penchant for drama, a very exotically beautiful song emerges. Below is a classical interpretation of Asturias (Leyenda). (Sharon Isben is pretty impressive, isn’t she?)

I think of Robbie and The Doors as playing primarily textured music with an ever present theatrical edge and very jazzy tinge. Since Ray Manzarek functioned as a keys/organ/piano/bassist instead of the standard bass player this was (and is) evocative of Wes Montgomery and others from the jazz age with a guitar/organ/drum lineup. Musically anyway. None of those trios had Jim Morrison for a singer, but the interesting thing is, Jim was a crooner (ala Frank Sinatra) so maybe The Doors were the second best (after various Miles’s lineups) jazz band of the 60s? (haha) I’m not seriously suggesting that any more than I was serious that Led Zeppelin was the best jazz band of the 70s, but obviously The Doors, along with Zeppelin and The Allman Brothers (and The Dead) did a whole lot of listening to and a whole lot of incorporating of various jazz elements into their ostensibly ROCK sound. The Doors sound was cold and weird and sometimes (when the organ was the dominant riff of the song) they evoked the nightmarish possibilities of a Clive Barker/Stephen King horror psychotic carnival band. Having an eye for theatrical presentation (Jim Morrison was a film student and heavily influenced by The Living Theatre) helped turn many of the band’s performances from the earliest days into a very strange trip on the dark road at the end of the night. But even without those elements, when the band sat for televised, no-audience sessions (because their performances had become a little too extreme, at least in the eyes of the authorities) they constructed a uniquely dynamic sound with what was already an established type of band line-up. The line-up is still popular in jazz and is especially suited to more intimate surroundings as shown in the following clip.

A few years ago I explored the history of one song, The World is Waiting for the Sunrise and tried to illustrate its evolution as “name” players performed it over a span of almost 60 years. I thought it would interesting to do the same thing with one of the prettiest (if slightly insane) songs The Doors ever recorded, The Crystal Ship, which was one of the songs the band mimed on American Bandstand, the America’s Got Talent of yesteryear.

Obviously a HUGE part of the band’s appeal was Jim Morrison’s presence vocal delivery. Keep in mind this clip is 47 years old — this isn’t some shoegaze band from the early 90s. The Doors put out a whole lot of emotion and feeling in this song and no one has ever completely matched their brand of seductive danger and weirdness. How might one try to capture some of that feeling in a solo guitar piece? Well…this first example recalls Robby Krieger’s flamenco influences or, possibly one can almost hear some José Feliciano or Django Reinhardt in it, something like Django’s song Tears perhaps.

The point is not to focus so much on the playing, although I think it is very well done. While it is not as fiery nor does it have the virtuosity of most of Django’s work, the song (like the harmonic structure in Tears) is very satisfying to play and listen to and more or less arranges itself. A very accessible structure, a haunting melody, supported by various harmonic elements that are reminiscent of either Morrison’s voice or Manzarek’s keyboard and variations throughout that can be improvised or not depending on the mood of the player. It doesn’t have to be played the same way every time. Yet the tone of the guitar and some of the harmonic inventions make this much more than a verbatim cover. Here is another version done a bit more simply, but just as well in a more traditional fingerpicking type of way. Notice that this player’s interpretation doesn’t take as many liberties but throws in a couple of nice moves. I love the Fmaj9-Fmaj thing. Artistic license but done in a way that completely fits with the arrangement he has put together. Very cool. Also note that none of these players are famous, but that is the beauty of Youtube and world-wide connectivity.

If you would like to learn to play either of these arrangements, both players have been kind enough to either put the music as is the case with the first version here, or a part by part walk-through for the second starting here. Finally, here is a third version that is a very stylin’ jazz archtop thing. Notice the rhythm change and all of the melodic and harmonic inventiveness not found in the other versions. Great stuff! But also notice it is no longer very haunting — the song has lost all of its quiet insanity. The tune is peppy and has the same bounce as Girl From Ipanema maybe. But, as with the other performances, it IS the same tune and the limit of where it’s going depends only on the arrangement and the player.

I have been listening to more music from the 60s and 70s lately (hence the recent posts), but as you can see, I am interested in how people today interpreting this music. I have been messing around with my own interpretations of various things and there is something about music from this period that lends itself to this type of experimentation. Perhaps the same could be said for any period of music, but there was so much experimentation and blurring of styles during this era that sometimes the songs just naturally fall into whatever mood you want to make them. Try it for yourself…You might find that thinking like an arranger and arranging your own versions of material can make you a better all-around musician in the process.

Odds and Sods

Amazing the things one learns through the power of the internet doing research for silly articles. After finishing this post on Led Zeppelin’s interviews in Guitar World back in the day, I learned that Robert Plant’s mother is from the Roma community. That explains a lot. Don’t you think?

GQ: After all these years, how on earth have you managed to keep your hair like that?

Robert Plant: Well, I don’t know. We could be quite serious about it. I just have been very lucky. My mother was a gypsy, and she had a lot of dark blood in her, and her hair was very, very thick—she couldn’t even get a brush through it. So I have been very fortunate. And every time I go to cut it off, hairdressers refuse to do it.

It looks like I am not the only person who thinks more people were interested in t-shirts as far as The Ramones were concerned. (Hahah) This is part of an ad campaign using the reverse psychology thing to get hipsters to buy beer…or something. Does the world really need another craft beer? Seriously? I didn’t go looking for this, it just kind of appeared this morning…But the lesson here is Buy the discs people… t-shirts fade, get holes and fall apart. CDs and Mp3s are forever and even vinyl lasts a long time if you don’t pass out at a party and leave it up against the heater.

Listening to Johnny Ramone muse about how The Doors might be the greatest American rock band ever I decided to revisit their music. Of course I have heard all of this stuff over the years and you know what? It still holds up. The best? I dunno if I can go there, but when Jim Morrison was semi-sober and into it these guys were pretty flippin’ good. They were also very influential in the same way the Ramones were. Just ask Billy Idol or Iggy Pop.

The Ramones goes GOLD

photo — Long Island Music Hall of Fame

I remember when I bought this record, in late 1979, at this cool record shop located in a strip mall. I was driving around with a soon-to-be ex from high school and we just stopped in to browse and when I saw the cover of The Ramones I thought “well this looks interesting.” The soon-to-be ex wasn’t nearly as enthralled, especially once we heard it. Released in 1976, The Ramones’ eponymous debut has been heralded as genre-defining and immeasurably influential and it only took 38 years for it to reach GOLD status. I know my first copy of the disc lasted a little over a year. I took it and a stack of other albums to a party and left them up against the electric heat vent in the room. Needless to say it was unplayable after that. I bought another copy that lasted much longer, but I guess a whole lot of other people didn’t follow my example (of buying it, not leaving it against a heater).

While I was aware that The Ramones never had the numbers to compete with Led Zeppelin, Garth Brooks or Michael Jackson, I was actually quite surprised that the record wasn’t already gold. I bought 2, so that means only 499,998 more had to be picked up by people over the years and you would think that for all the people who have raved about and praised the band for their importance, the disc would’ve moved. There was a point in the East Village, NYC (1989-91) when it seemed like every other person was wearing the classic Ramones t-shirt. It was a very trendy fashion identifier for the grunge/punk era in NYC. Kind of like beards are now. I wonder how many Ramones shirts have sold since 1976? Maybe more shirts than records? Perhaps this is a lesson in perceptions or perhaps what the band represented to many people was more important than their actual music. The Ramones were very pragmatic in their approach to getting a band together and this process served as a blueprint for thousands of bands that followed. They also defined (to music writers and fans) the very egalitarian ethos that anybody can do it. Pop and Rock music was ripped out of the country estates, private jets and huge arenas and brought back to the streets. Emerson, Lake and Palmer were guillotined in the press, Led Zeppelin went to see The Dammned in concert and Elvis Presley died because he couldn’t compete with Sid Vicious. The era of rock stars as ROYALTY was over! Hurrah!

It’s interesting that in this interview Johnny talks about how he thinks The Doors were one of the best American bands. Many people who would end up being fans of punk rock and numerous music writers viewed punk as an alternative to anything that smacked of the old guard, but the musicians didn’t necessarily feel that way. Rock writers have always had this love affair with early rock and roll as the almighty pinnacle of rock’s artistic achievements. “The music never had to evolve past Bill Haley and the Comets or Eddie Cochran…that was the real deal maaaan!” Which of course is silly. Very few of these writers would want to be diagnosed with cancer and have the doctor start applying leeches. Not only did music evolve because different people brought different influences and abilities to the table, but technology expanded the scope and scale tremendously. (Watch a Zeppelin video from the 70s and then watch a Beatles video from the first tour only 9 years earlier and consider only the technological differences) Changing social attitudes and the vibrant energy of each new generation continued to up the ante of what was possible — this is what humans do with everything. Why would rock and roll be any different? Here’s an exchange in a Johnny Ramone interview from 2003 that is an amazing bit of synchronicity given the profile I just did of Jimmy Page’s guitar opus Dazed and Confused.

Jones: A lot of punk and speed guitarists owe a lot to you. But, who inspires you?

Ramone: Jimmy Page, of Led Zeppelin. He’s probably the greatest guitarist who ever lived.

Jones: Jimmy Page! That’s the last reply I would have expected to hear.

Ramone: He’s truly unique.

Jones: It’s ironic: Almost every blurb I read explaining the appeal of the Ramones chalks it up to you guys reintroducing straight tunes in 4/4 time, two minutes, a return to the kind of stuff the Beach Boys or the girl groups from the early ‘60s recorded. That the Ramones were the antidote to the fifteen minute-long “concept rock” stuff from groups like Led Zeppelin.

Ramone: The Ramones were never anti-Led Zeppelin. Maybe “anti-groups-who-just-aped Led Zeppelin.” Everything in the ‘70s was moving towards all that. FM radio was promoting an album rock format. We wanted to record something kids could dance to. But, Jimmy Page: His playing is truly amazing. I could never play at that level. I don’t try to imitate him, but I listen to him a lot.

I wasn’t surprised that Johnny listens to Led Zeppelin, but what is interesting in this exchange is this idea of The Ramones as “a return” and “an antidote.” That originated in the music press, because obviously Johnny never thought that way. Maybe The Clash did…LOL. I would be willing to bet that a number of people who parroted this “antidote” meme over the years are those same people who never bought The Ramones album…bastards! Here is Jimmy Page and Led Zep playing punk rock in 1970:

While I have known some Ramones fanatics over the years — they had the shirt AND the records and loved the band immensely — in the late 70s and early 80s most people looked down on punk music and thought it was stupid. But at parties even die-hard haters enjoyed listening to Beat On the Brat and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, sometimes while jumping around like lunatics. Even if one couldn’t take it seriously as an art form it was great fun when it was time to let loose. In my early days as a guitar player I was a chord strummer and not much else. I kind of sucked. Later, I started hanging out with people who played guitar really well and while their favorite bands were Zeppelin, Sabbath, AC/DC and Rush, they all liked playing the Ramones and other punk rock for the same reason. It was great fun!! (It’s also much harder to pull off a great 20-minute version of Dazed and Confused at that age). One of the first lead guitar lines I ever played was the break in Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue. It was in my friend’s basement and there were maybe 10-15 people there drinking beer and it was awesome. I had gotten a Peavey 50 watt amp over the Christmas holidays a few months before and I played Glue and the intro to Whole Lotta Love over and over.

Throughout my life my musical tastes and guitar abilities have been completely intertwined and related. As my abilities grew and my ears expanded I have continually sought out new horizons for both my ears and my hands. I think this is true of many people, musicians, artists, parents…Because of this reason, and as I explained in this post, I was never a total 100% punk rock fanatic. Those people are a special breed and I admire their dedication and commitment. I played in a few punk bands over the years and saw loads of punk shows and had lots of fun, but have always played (and listened to) many other styles of music. Living in the neighborhood that was the birthplace of The Ramones allowed me to see the whole thing from a unique angle and participate in some of the excitement and good times and for that I will always be grateful. It’s a shame that Johnny, Joey and Dee Dee didn’t live to collect their Gold Records. They certainly earned them. They were idols of an era that has passed, but lives on every time a group of youngsters or oldsters count off a fast 1234 and blast headlong with abandon into a 2 minute rock and roll anthem.

Cream

CREAM was an awesome band — The first SUPERGROUP and a total powerhouse of over-the-top PSYCHEDELIC-BLUZE-ROCK excitement. I really dug all of their stuff in my younger days and really don’t think Eric Clapton ever did any better except for maybe some of what happened in Blind Faith and, of course, Derek and The Dominos. Very bold statement I know, but I don’t think I’m the only one who holds that opinion. Cream became one of the highest-power draws in the psychedelic era, a period of music I enjoy quite a bit and one that was extremely influential in a way that still resonates even now. Most of the people I’ve known in NYC were not fans, but the whole 60s era and everything was so controversial and so much of its time, I don’t blame those who don’t get it or don’t like it for feeling that way.

I don’t think it’s necessary to regurgitate the band’s biography, but a couple of items are very important to know. The three members of Cream were all major musical stars in England before the band was formed. Clapton’s reputation, developed with stints in The Yardbirds and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers led to graffiti on London streets proclaiming him “GOD”. He certainly was one of the most tasteful and fiery practitioners of blues guitar and he had a tone and a touch that was simply too good to believe. Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker were also ninjas on their respective instruments and Bruce had a pretty amazing range as a vocalist, a fact that would serve Cream well, especially in live performances. One of the big problems, once they were signed however, was the music business. In 1966 record companies and managers were still looking for “hits” and tried to groom and encourage every band to be the next Beatles. You can see this in the early Cream (mimed) television appearances. I Feel Free is not a bad song, especially the instrumentation. But the insistence on the band to be pop stars would rankle especially Clapton who, at the time, considered himself a “blues purist.”

A major game-changer would arrive in England in 1966 in the form of an outstanding American guitarist who was a big fan of Eric Clapton. His name was Jimi Hendrix. His first album, Are You Experienced? would push people like Cream to new heights and the psychedelic era would take off in full flight. One of the first things Hendrix did when arriving in England was try to sit in with Cream. Even though this episode was devastating for Clapton at the time, he and the rest of London (and soon the world) came to realize that Jimi was what he was. None of the British guitarists, save for Pete Townshend (who was also a Jimi fan), was as upfront and “wild” as Jimi was perceived to be. Clapton saw himself as a disciple of the blues masters and he was playing THEIR music. So it was natural that he would be a little restrained about how he played and performed. He was/is a more reserved person in general. Jimi, on the other hand was playing HIS music, was not British and not a white guy. He had the blues and chitlin’ circuit cred that Clapton could only aspire to and he heard manifestations of the blues that no one else at the time could’ve put across (Third Stone From the Sun, Are You Experienced). However, to the very end Jimi was one of Cream’s biggest fans, launching into an impromptu and basically unwanted (at least as far as BBC executives were concerned) version of Sunshine of Your Love on The Lulu Show after Cream played broke up.

The competition that did exist was good for all involved because as many people know — if you want to be a great musician, hang with other great musicians. There was the other benefit of all kinds of new sounds and technology being made available to guitar players like…the wah-wah pedal! How many great songs have a wah-wah as part of the sound? As people who knew Cream have pointed out, Jack Bruce wrote the riff to Sunshine as a homage to Jimi one night after attending a Hendrix gig. Eric Clapton quotes the song “Blue Moon” in the first few bars of the solo and recorded it on his far-out and trippy-decorated 1964 Gisbon SG. The drum part originated with Ginger Baker who came up with the idea of playing African rhythms on the “1” and the “3”. He and Mitch Mitchell, drummer for the JHE, would “make” many songs for their respective bands and propel Jimi and Eric to new heights because of what they brought to recordings and performances.

While the pressures from the label and management would never dim, onstage Cream became a force for improvised blues-based rock with elements of psychedelia. While Jimi Hendrix would blow up the USA at the Monterey Pop Festival, which Cream’s manager passed on so they would have “bigger impact,” Cream finally did arrive as headliners in the fall of 1967 and quickly established themselves as a very impressive musical force. They gained a very sympathetic following among The Love Generation and were encouraged to embark on long improvised jams that would sometimes pass the 20-minute mark. At the ceremony to induct the band into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the mid-90s, ZZ Top drummer Dusty Hill related that back in the late 60s EVERY drummer in Texas had their kit set up like Ginger Baker and tried to cop some of what he was doing for their own sound. The same, of course, was true of Eric Clapton and his blazing Gibson through a Marshall stack sound. In some ways, at least at the time, what Hendrix was doing was so far beyond many people (even what he was hearing, nevermind playing) Eric’s approach was much more attainable: Learn how to play tasteful blues licks, plug in, crank to 11. There are many accounts of their tours of the US that detail not only how LOUD the band played, but how GREAT the guitar sound was. Even before Cream, Eric Clapton knew how to get the great guitar tone that was the envy of many players. His sound had a lot to do with his touch, his vibrato, his rolling the tone pots on the guitar back and forth to achieve different levels of brightness and contrast in the tone of his licks. Outside of the wah-wah he eschewed other effects that would compromise the quality of the sound between guitar and amp. While he would switch to Fender Stratocasters by the time he got the Derek and the Dominoes project going, he used Gibson guitars, mostly the SG, a Les Paul, and the ’63-65 Firebird and the ’64 335 that are played at the 1968 Farewell Concert. All of these guitars gave him that big fat tone that became a staple in rock music and it would not be too much of a stretch to say that all started with EC. Here’s a nice collection of pics with the Firebird. Here’s a great site with a really heavy analysis of Clapton’s guitars! Here’s one of my favorite Cream songs…Tales of Brave Ulysses. While there was always a lot of tension in Cream (especially between Bruce and Baker) they all look like they’re having a good time on this one. Also…sometimes the Youtube comments are genius… like the first one on this video:


“Okay gentlemen, here’s the plan … we bring in the three pre-eminent musicians of our time, we put them on an empty stage and let them play their hearts out with no limits, have them really going for it, exceeding even their own preconceived limits, and we film it (with excellent audio) for posterity … what’s that? Cameras? No, we only need one camera, that should be fine.”

Prior to their post-break-up Goodbye album, Cream released three highly-acclaimed discs: Fresh Cream, Disraeli Gears, and Wheels of Fire, which incidentally was the first ever platinum-selling double album. Both Wheels of Fire and Goodbye combined sides of studio recordings and various live tracks the band recorded in the US. This created an interesting mix between the shorter, almost pop-oriented format of the studio releases and the furiously improvised live numbers that stretched out to epic lengths (for the time). Notable covers of blues material included Sittin’ On Top of the World, Rollin’ and Tumblin’, I’m So Glad, Spoonful, Born Under a Bad Sign, and Cat’s Squirrel, which although it never received the live workouts the others did, is a great song complete with great harmonica lines courtesy of Bruce and a brilliant guitar breakdown. Personally I always liked the vibe of the studio versions of Sittin’ (the tone of the guitar is awesome) and I’m So Glad where Clapton plays the entire solo on the “G” string. Of course the live versions were simply balls-out and furious, demonstrating the best of Cream’s unbridled energy and instrumental prowess.

But all three members of the band were capable of writing original songs and write they did! Besides Sunshine of Your Love, I Feel Free and Tales of Brave Ulysses, there are other really cool things in the catalog. SWLBAR, Badge, Deserted Cities of the Heart, Strange Brew, Politician, What a Bringdown, Toad, N.S.U., Sleepy Time Time, and of course, the completely EPIC White Room. I always associate the sound of these songs with SUMMERTIME for some reason. While the music is not the happy pop sounds of Strawberry Alarm Clock, there is none of the cold distance that one hears in The Doors or even some of The Beatles material from that period.

Back in the early 80s, Cream’s Farewell Concert was a staple at midnight movie showings (along with Gimme Shelter, Jimi Hendrix, Woodstock and The Rocky Horror Picture Show). I remember going to see this with a bunch of friends in Pittsburgh and it was party city — a real good time. One of the dudes was a total Clapton fanatic and I’d always say, “yea…but Jimi was better!” When the following portion of the movie came on I still remember him turning around and saying, “See?” If you’re looking to cop some of Clapton’s vibe in your playing there is no better instruction than this right here.

Alas, like many other things during the intense decade of the 1960s, Cream did not survive. The relationship among the band began to sour and the intense pressure and constant touring also began to take a toll. Eric Clapton was gravitating away from the “jam” idea to a more song-based approach and as he has said many times over the course of his career, hearing The Band’s Music From Big Pink completely changed his life and his idea of what he would do with music. In other interviews he also expressed that he was never totally comfortable in Cream, not only because of the strain brought by constant very loud improvisation, but also the pressure brought by the mantle of being a guitar hero in a Supergroup. As the 60s merged into the 70s all three members of Cream would go in separate directions, deal with crippling substance-abuse problems and never be a part of something as amazing again. While the Layla sessions and album were/are amazing, this was definitely due to the involvement of Duane Allman who was extended the invitation to join the group but declined. Neither the album or the single, Layla was an instant hit and gained it’s well-deserved accolades long after Clapton had broken up the group and moved on. His understated guitar hero status has been maintained and he has managed to adapt his sound and style to all of the trends that have come and gone since the 1960s. The Blues is universal and works with anything and he became quite an effective songwriter. While some who loved what he did in Cream probably had issues with EC in the 80s and 90s, he acquired a whole new audience of fans and has managed to keep a career and reputation as a guitar icon for almost 50 years, which is no small feat in a very tough business.

While there were always suggestions for Cream to reunite, this didn’t happen until 2005 and just as it was in the 1960s, their time together was very brief. The shows happened and went off well, but some of the acrimony was still present and it’s not like any of them, Eric Clapton included, needed or wanted to be on tour for months on end. I missed going to the shows but bought the DVD and think they did a pretty good job of it. There was a conscious effort to NOT make it like it was in the old days and many people took them to task for this. People do the same thing to all of these old bands though — there are people who think Van Halen should still be jumping around and writing songs like they did in 1981. Not gonna happen folks. Some of the lyrics to Deserted Cities of the Heart, one of my favorite tunes, maybe sum it up best:

I felt the wind shout like a drum.
You said, “My friend, love’s end has come.”
It couldn’t last, had to stop.
You drained it all to the last drop.
It was on the way,
On the road to dreams, yeah.
Now my heart’s drowned in no love streams, yeah.
Now my heart’s drowned in no love streams, yeah.