A new Super Deluxe edition of Fresh Cream is just out, a full 50 years since its original release. With 4xCDs and a Blu-ray disc as well, it’s pretty much the definitive document of Eric Clapton’s early work with the 1960s supergroup. There are stereo and mono versions, radio sessions, some new mixes and more... A heavyweight vinyl edition is following soon. Both have extensive booklets.
Cream’s music itself remains as baffling ever. There’s Clapton in “God” mode for heavy blues rave-ups in “Spoonful”, “I’m So Glad” and “Rollin’ and “Tumblin”, tight psych pop in “I Feel Free”, as well as oddities such as “Wrapping Paper” and “Coffee Song.” But it all finds Clapton, just turned 20, at the top of his game and cranking plenty of firepower from his early Gibson Les Pauls.
Gibson.com asked Fresh Cream executive producer Bill Levenson, also behind the Clapton Crossroads and Duane Allman Skydog boxsets, for his reflections on the rebooted ‘60s classic...
Gibson.com: Was putting this together a lot of detective work?
Bill Levenson: We had to go a long way into the vaults. There’s a vault in New York from Atlantic records, ‘60s tapes. Polydor UK had their vaults. And Germany had a sizeable vault, too. So we dug into all three and found the best of everything. There were some surprises. Some of the tapes in Germany hadn’t been touched in 50 years and were in better shape than the sources we’d normally rely on.
There’s plenty that’s been released before, but it’s never been presented like this as a whole, has it?
No. The mono version, apart from coming out in limited edition in Japan a few years ago, is really hard to find. That’s the one everyone gravitates towards because it’s got a very cohesive mix. On the album in stereo, they’re still feeling their way. I mean how do you do a four-track record in stereo? It was done a lot, of course, in the ‘60s but I don’t think the guys really nailed it.
We know there was more [radio sessions] recorded for the BBC, but we just can’t find the sources. One session has definitely gone missing, others the BBC have just lost track of. The BBC was notorious for allowing things to get lost! The intent was to find everything, but after a year or so you just have to give up!
The album itself, as originally released, was recorded in dribs and drabs, wasn’t it?
Yes. The first recordings were in Rayrick Studios in London, later renamed Chalk Farm, and it was a little rented studio. They’d go in and out, rehearse, and just cut tracks. They were doing a lot of shows, playing around town. Then they’d come back a few days later and cut more. There was no “album sessions” as such. It was just in and out, when they could. They moved onto Rye Muse in Mayfair.
It’s all 4-track, they’re a new band, no-one saw where this was going, y’know? The second album (what was to become Disraeli Gears) was already scheduled for March 1967, and by then they knew what they were doing, recording in New York with Tom Dowd, but Fresh Cream is an indie record in a lot of ways!
Do you think that diversity is part of Fresh Cream’s charm?
I think so. There’s obviously the blues element – “Spoonful”, “Cat’s Squirrel”, “Rollin’ and Tumblin” “I’m So Glad” – but there’s this other side that Ginger Baker had been doing with Graham Bond. His drum showcase, “Toad”, isn’t really even a song. It’s not psychedelic, it’s not blues, it’s just a showcase. Then there’s the Pete Brown (written) song with Jack Bruce. They’re charming, but looking back, they’re peculiar. “Coffee Song”, “Wrapping Paper”, “NSU”... it’s all yin and yang.
But it’s odd Cream led with “Wrapping Paper”. Looking back, I can’t think of a weaker song to début with!
In the 1960s interview on the CD, Clapton said he wanted “Wrapping Paper” to confound the audience... it certainly did that, but it also bombed...
Yeah, it’s telling that “I Feel Free” was the second single. That’s more blues-ish, but it’s also a real powerful song. In the US, it was even more interesting. They issued “Spoonful” much later, it came out almost simultaneously with Disraeli Gears which is not a marketing man’s best idea! But that’s what happened.
Do you feel Cream got more coherent as a band as it went on?
It should be remembered how long Cream were together. Two and a half years at the longest. And within that they were also touring like no other band. This album was just ‘pick up sessions’. They did have a concentrated session for Disraeli Gears, but even that wasn’t longer than 10 days.
When they come back in early ‘68, they have a handful of leftovers, some new tracks, and that becomes a very good record in Wheels of Fire. But if you look at the sessions that was drawn from, it’s probably eight or nine months of recording. Then, back on the road for a final tour, they catch a session for three final songs...
In short, this band was never off the road and never had the time to think through a proper album session. And that’s why the sound of Cream varies so much. There’s no resemblance, in terms of sonic template, in what they were doing in late ‘66 and mid-’68. It’s two lifetimes as we know it now.
Eric Clapton’s always seemed ambivalent about Cream. He’s called it “a failed experiment.” Do you agree?
I would never attempt to speak for Eric, but I think the relationship of the players probably colours his opinion of what they left behind. The three and a half albums they recorded, in musical terms, is quite a landmark in music. I was going to say in British blues rock, but these are landmarks per se.
There’s a lot in Cream’s recordings that were really good, there’s some where you scratch your head, sure, but it’s the same for anybody. It would ever say it was a ‘failed experiment.’ At the time, they were working really hard, they on the road a hell of lot, but the records are still landmarks.
Yet there are many fans who think that Cream is Eric’s best playing. I know that Jack Bruce [who died in 2014] certainly thought that...?
Well, I’ll tell you what I think because I have a personal relationship with these records away from I’ve done as an executive producer. When Fresh Cream came out, I was 12 years old. And I missed it. But I did get Disraeli Gears, so went back to Fresh Cream immediately. So I’ve still known the album for 50 years. And it’s just in my DNA. I sometimes find it hard to place in context, cos what I hear is just a great record. Nothing sounds out of place. Nothings sounds forced. Every highpoint feels right, even the low points feel right! I guess I’d love to talk to someone who’s hearing this record for the first time and see what they say, someone who’s not familiar with it.
But this is the record, for me, that opened me up all the other British blues bands. Everybody. Before the Mayall record (Bluesbreakers Featuring Eric Clapton), though I sure got that soon after. Fresh Cream, the Bluesbreakers... it set the template for me getting into Ten Years After, Free...
It may not be fantastically recorded, but it’s just so well executed. It’s become as familiar and comfortable as any other landmark, be it Revolver or Rubber Soul, or Are You Experienced. You kind of take all that great playing for granted, in a way. But, wow, they made it sound easy!
That time in guitar music was incredibly fertile, with loads of players seeming to forge ahead quickly with pretty wild sounds...
Yep! Influence is a funny thing when everything is moving so fast. It was a week by week event. Fresh Cream pre-dates Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced. Then Are You Experienced just pre-dates Disraeli Gears... one after another. It was an incredible time. The Yardbirds were already out there with the Roger The Engineer album, but...
It’s hard to pinpoint the big bang, y’know, but...it starts as well with Fresh Cream as it does with anything.
You’ve worked on so many archive Clapton sets now: is there anything “new” left to present to super-fans?
I’m going to assume we’ll look at Disraeli Gears and Wheels Of Fire again, too. There is a notion of collecting live material together that has never been released before – Scandinavian radio from early 1967, material from the final swing of the 1968 USA tour. Unfortunately, there’s no more tapes of the Fillmore recordings that were used for Wheels Of Fire. Everything’s been used now, on Wheels Of Fire and Live Cream 1 and 2. There are some great bootlegs out there: there might be a way of releasing them officially.
So there is a broad plan... but nothing settled. The only thing I know is people are still very interested in all of this. And understandably so.
Cream, Clapton & Gibson
Cream arguably remains EC’s most significant era as a Gibson player. A few key guitars were...
Clapton famously had his “Blues Breakers” Les Paul Standard stolen at Cream’s first rehearsal in 1966. He’d debuted live with Cream playing a borrowed Bigsby-loaded Standard – some say it was the Rolling Stones’ “Keithburst”– but Fresh Cream was recorded on a variety of other LPs. One, he bought from Andy Summers (then of Zoot Money’s band, later The Police) for £200.
1967 saw Clapton on an SG, famously the 1964 psychedelic-painted one by “The Fool” (later, artists for The Beatles.) He used this the most of any guitar in Cream, and it became associated with his so-called “woman tone”. He also played a black three-pickup Les Paul Custom, a ‘58 or ‘59.
1968-era Cream saw Clapton use his 1964 ES-335 TDC, most famously on the Cream Farewell concerts. When EC auctioned the original in 2004, it sold for $847,000, the most for any Gibson electric guitar. Gibson produced an exact replica, the Gibson Eric Clapton Crossroads ES-335, in 2005.
Clapton also played a single-pickup “reverse” Gibson Firebird I, also used for the 1969 Supershow movie with Buddy Guy and, like the 335, in Blind Faith.