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Truth be told, Phil Lesh is going to bear the brunt of this verbal prong here pretty good, but this has been a long time coming. For every Relix article detailing Lesh and Friends “covering Cream” only to unveil it as the desultory, anticlimactic blues jam of “Sunshine of Your Love,” there’s been an upstart classic rock Facebook page sharing the overplayed song, probably oblivious to the rest of Cream’s work outside of maybe “White Room.”
In Cream, we are talking about unmistakably one of the greatest classic rock bands there ever were. I’ll take it one step further: there is no American rock band better in our country’s history, although, as I’ve detailed elsewhere on this site, this is true of a lot of British acts, particularly from the late ’60s and early ’70s. Jack Bruce was a velvet-throated singer pledging allegiance to simplicity: “Who wants the worry / The hurry of city life? / Money / Nothing funny / Wasting the best of our lives”. Eric Clapton was a rabid, back woods wolverine on lead guitar. Ginger Baker received a call on his death bed getting cursed by Jack Bruce. Oh, and he was a pretty good drummer too. Here’s 10 songs that prove it.
“Anyone for Tennis” (The Very Best of Cream)
“Anyone for Tennis” is likely one of the first ever rock songs written exclusively for a motion picture soundtrack, similar to what Simple Minds’ “Don’t You Forget about Me” and Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” would later do in pop. It’s a simple, pliable and beautiful ditty, like a Beatles tune but with maybe a scrap more psychedelic swagger packed in.
“Badge” (The Very Best of Cream)
“Badge” is one of my favorite tunes — all I know is that it’s the last song on The Very Best of Cream (my hipster pick for best Cream album) and so I associate it with the band’s ultimacy, in tandem with how it graces their final studio album Goodbye, with the hilarious matching suit and tophat vaudeville album cover. Amusingly, then, even the lyrics read as a sort of existential call to arms as if upon some precipice on life: “Yes I told you that the light goes up and down / Don’t you notice how the wheel goes round? / And you better pick yourself up from the ground / Before they bring the curtain down”.
“The Coffee Song” (Fresh Cream/Scandinavian Release)
Now this track had two blokes beholden to it in songwriting enterprises which I did not recognize — there’s a lot of old standards floating around in folk, typically, such as “Four Strong Winds,” which Neil Young picked up to respectiable notoriety. Again, it’s got this pliable easiness, like it’s within the genre of classic rock but also a really personal extension of the songwriter, like a whispering breeze.
“N.S.U.” (Fresh Cream)
Eric Clapton is completely ferocious on this one, sounding very unlike a band recording the second track on their first album and very much like a worthy denizen of Rolling Stone’s top five guitarists of all time. The lyrics are beautifully nihilistic too: “Riding in my car / Smoking my cigar / The only time I’m happy / Is when I play my guitar”.
“Politician” (Live Cream II)
Even though I kind of skimped on live tracks for this list I definitely vouch for this album and the original Live Cream, and the pithy, simple and direct album titles, as well, too. “Politician” was solid in the studio but it really comes alive on stage, potentiating Eric Clapton’s noodley masterwork and fomenting up to a brilliant ending to replace the studio fade-out, too.
“SWLABR” (The Very Best of Cream)
An acronym for “She Walks Like a Bearded Rainbow” (you can see why I donate to Wikipedia every year), this cut I’m sure is on some album but also bombards the best-of party, which is a compilation just so perfect that I’ll foresake coolness factor for direct and copious access thereto. “SWLABR” is a great love song of sorts and I particularly like the pairing of “You’re coming to me with that soulful look on your face / Comin’ lookin’ like you never ever done one wrong thing”.
“Sitting on Top of the World” (The Very Best of Cream)
This honestly might be the granddaddy of them all — yes it is a Howlin’ Wolf cover but I mean just LISTEN to it. They slow it down and make it slappy and swampy, like Delta Blues should be (indeed the British probably deserve more credit for propagating the founding Blues than Americans, who per legends typically mistreated and underpaid the club artists), again, with Eric Clapton and his rubber-fingered approach to electric lead guitar the undeniable catalyst.
“Sweet Wine” (Fresh Cream)
This song contains that line about “city life” from Jack Bruce, which is one reason I love it, and it’s just a great song in general about enjoying wine and enjoying life. I still remember day drinking wine in college and feeling like some Jack Kerouac douche bag. See, it’s all in how you explicate it.
“Tales of Brave Ulysses” (The Very Best of Cream)
I think the last time I listened to this song, and TVBOC all the way through, the trippiness and otherworldliness of this song truly hit me — a strange, bluesy dirge about The Odyssey culminating in a rapacious exclamation about “the sirens sweetly SINGIIINNNG” and of course the psychedelic disrepair of “The tiny purple fishes / Run laughing through your fingers”. Are we still talking about a physical journey here?
“Wrapping Paper” (The Very Best of Cream)
It’s weird ending with “Wrapping Paper” because I know it closely and vividly as the leadoff track on their best-of. Like a couple other tunes on this list, it showcases Cream’s knack for writing a pop song, as undeniable lovers of the Beatles and of, well, women, another prerequisite of writing a great, catchy song.