BEARDED RAINBOWS

Eric Clapton and girlfriend Charlotte Martin were at London musician’s club The Speakeasy in Spring 1967. It was the same club where, not long previously, Eric had his first taste of LSD in circumstances that were probably not your average first trip, even in that much mythologized year.

The way Eric tells it, ‘the Beatles came in with an acetate of their new album, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’. Someone handed out pills of ‘superstrong acid’ and before you could say ‘Lucy in the sky’, everybody was interpretive-dancing to the new sounds of the year’s most iconic album. With admirable understatement, Clapton admitted ‘I was pretty moved by the whole thing’.

Cream disraeli gears - Version 2

Another night at ‘the Speak’ they were joined by Charlotte’s Australian friend Martin Sharp, an artist who did some versifying on the side. Eric takes up the story.

‘When he heard I was a musician, he told me that he had written a poem which he thought would make good lyrics for a song. As it happened I had in my mind at that moment an idea inspired by a favourite song of mine by the Lovin’ Spoonful called “Summer in The City”, so I asked him to show me the words. He wrote them down in a napkin and gave them to me.’ [Clapton, 2007, p. 90]

You thought the leaden winter would bring you down forever,

But you rode upon a steamer to the  violence of the sun.

And the colours of the sea blind your eyes with trembling mermaids,

And you touch the distant beaches with tales of brave Ulysses.

By the beginning of May, Eric was in New York with band mates Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker recording the second Cream album. “Tales of Brave Ulysses” was a key song on the record that became Disraeli Gears, the highlight of Cream’s brief career.

It was an intense and not entirely peaceful burst of creative recording. Jack Bruce was keen to record a number of songs written with poet/musician Pete Brown. But rampant egos demanded equality of input regardless of quality of material. Thus we have the iconic blues-rock of “Sunshine of your love” rubbing shoulders with Ginger’s “Blue condition”, a song that manages to plod despite being in 6/4. Blind Willie Reynolds’ “Outside woman blues” is pure electric blues; well played, but devoid of musical invention. It also has a lyric of such controlling misogyny it makes you wince. Yet is preceded by the affecting lament of Bruce’s “We’re going wrong”, a lyrically rich and musically textured ballad with echoes of desperation or even hopelessness. It is a fabulous vocal performance by the song’s writer.

Disraeli edit 3

Without doubt, “Tales of brave Ulysses” is one of the high points of the Summer of Love. But Disraeli Gears has a second classic piece of ’67 psychedelia in “SWLABR”*. Another Bruce/Brown composition, it captures the moment in fully flowered up imagery, but slyly reminds us that this ain’t no Garden of Eden.

So many fantastic colours, I feel in a wonderland. 

Many fantastic colours, makes me feel so good. 

You’ve got that pure feel, 

Such good responses, 

Got that rainbow feel, 

But the rainbow has a beard.

Ahmet Ertegun, president of Atlantic Records, provided Cream with the redoubtable studio team of producer Felix Pappalardi (later to form rock band Mountain) and engineer Tom Dowd. First song off the blocks was a standard blues workout “Lawdy Mama”. The producer massaged this – with the help of some new lyrics by his girlfriend Gail Collins – into album opener “Strange Brew”, a punchy up-tempo blues-rock number that satisfied Clapton’s desire to cut loose with an Albert King inspired solo while containing the song within radio’s three minute constraints.

Those constraints were starting to gall Clapton. He resented the 7” single’s limitations of time and format and hated the requirements of promotion. He told Melody Maker magazine “We are very anti- the whole commercial market. People are brainwashed into thinking that the number one record represents the best music available.” Clapton wanted to stretch out towards the blues horizon, and did so increasingly in live performance.

But the tensions between exploratory blues odysseys and Jack Bruce’s songwriting discipline were unsettling the waters. Bruce recalled:

“It was a very difficult time for me. I was bringing… the best material that I’d written with Pete, and was very, very keen to have it recorded. But when we played it to the powers that be, they didn’t like it.” [Heylin, p. 240]

Or, rather more directly:

“The others were full of shit and jealousy. It goes back to the composer-credit thing.” [ibid]

Cream disraeli gears - Version 3

Shit there may well have been, though there is little aural evidence of it clogging the record grooves other than music hall closer “Mother’s Lament”. Yet perhaps progress was impeded in some way, for Disraeli Gears was not released until November 1967, five months after the single “Strange Brew b/w Tales of Brave Ulysses”. In a year that scattered LP jewels with profligate abandon, that’s a long time.

When it did finally hit the racks, Disraeli Gears appeared with a striking cover painted by Martin Sharp, the same Aussie artist who had scribbled down his poem for Clapton in the London club. A friendship flourished and they moved into a studio dwelling in Chelsea’s Kings Road with their respective girlfriends.

Martin was a very gentle man, with an insatiable appetite for life and new experiences. At the same time he was very considerate and sensitive to others. An admirer of Max Ernst, who inspired a lot of his work, he was and still is a great painter. [Clapton, p. 92]

Epitomising those heady sun-and-acid-drenched times, the Disraeli Gears cover has been much imitated but never surpassed. Gazing at it evokes an era that is easily romanticised; we will never know what it was really like to walk the King’s Road or Carnaby Street in those halcyon days, but we do have some enduringly wonderful music on which to imprint our fantasy images. Disraeli Gears is a vibrant snapshot well deserving of a prominent place in the 1967 photo album.

IMG_2813

* “She Walks Like a Bearded Rainbow”, since you asked.

Image: Ulysses and the Sirens (1909) by Herbert James Draper

*

Cream - Disraeli Gears

Label: Reaction (UK) / ATCO (US)

Released 2nd November 1967

Duration: 33:37

*

SOURCES

Eric Clapton “The Autobiography” [Century, London, 2007]

Clinton Heylin “The Act You’ve Known For All These Years” [Cannongate, Edinburgh, 2007]

Cream “Disraeli Gears” [RSO, 1967]

Cream “Disraeli Gears” [CD Deluxe Edition, Polydor, 2004]

*

This article first appeared at Vinyl Connection in December 2013.

It is reproduced here (with a few minor edits) as part of the 1967 series

*

35 comments

  1. Excellent review. Thanks Bruce.
    BTW, the sound clip made my age 13 and 3/4 years for 2 minutes and 46 seconds.
    Double thanks.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, DD. Glad you enjoyed the time travel.

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  2. Bruce, if you ever wanted to write a book devoted to the music of 1967, you’ve got the perfect title in your post: “1967: The Year That Scattered LP Jewels With Profligate Abandon.” Though I don’t have clear memories of it, I’m quite sure one of my older siblings had Disraeli Gears in frequent rotation when I was in the single digits (I have better memories of their Doors, Beatles, and Santana LPs). I’m a huge, huge Clapton fan, in all his iterations. I wish I’d been ‘of age’ when Cream hit the scene. In addition to the music, thanks for highlighting that great album art as well. And if you haven’t heard of it–not sure how well American-made documentaries travel to your hemisphere–your might enjoy this: http://bewareofmrbaker.com/!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It would be a cracking book title, wouldn’t it? Thanks JDB.
      Yes, I’ve seen that doco on Ginger. It is mesmerising and repellant simultaneously. Brilliant bit of documentary making.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I always like the thought of Disraeli Gears and then the reality of how flawed it is strikes, Cream are a band best enjoyed through the greatest hits compilation I think.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. OK, so not convinced by the whole album, Neil? I’d say this is the pick of the Cream albums and for me the troughs are compensated for by the peaks. Having said that, Polydor’s The Best of Cream was my introduction, and I was cross with myself after I discarded it some years back.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I can’t recall if I caught the review the first time around – glad I caught it on its second modified appearance!
    I’m enjoying this series Bruce

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Cheers Geoff. I figured the re-post was justified by the series! Looking forward to tacking something a bit different next (though I don’t know what yet!).

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks for all the background info, Bruce. I’ve loved this album since the start of high school when I learned that Eric Clapton had been in a band prior to being a solo artist (not realizing at the time that he had been in numerous bands, most of which he would never surpass in his solo years). I love every note of Disraeli Gears, even the songs you (probably rightfully) dismiss. They’ve just been a part of my life for so long that I can’t find any fault with them.

    I owned it originally on vinyl (probably an ’80s pressing), followed by an early CD edition, as part of the 4-CD box set and the Mobile Fidelity gold CD version, with the album in stereo & mono on one disc. That’s my go-to version whenever I want to hear it.

    I had this album cover painted on the back of my denim jacket (which I still have and…quite proudly…I can still fit into it). I wore it just about every day throughout high school, never more excitedly than the first time I saw Clapton in early ’83 on the Money & Cigarettes tour.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your story, which enriches the post immeasurably, Rich. Particularly love the sound (picture?) of that jacket. Who did the painting?

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      1. The jacket was painted by a local kid named Dave Wahnon who was a grade or two ahead of me. I didn’t know him well but he had a reputation for doing great work painting denim jackets. My only complaint (other than the very large “WAHNON” at the bottom) was the fact that he didn’t start with a coat of white paint, so the image was very dark.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. (Grin). He did his own promotions, too, eh? Still, great story, and mighty impressive that you can still get into the jacket!

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        2. I understand wanting to put your own stamp on it, but when you’re copying an existing work of art you need to be more subtle about it.

          Just to be clear, I don’t wear the jacket anymore. It sits in a closet, occasionally being dusted off for guests to marvel at. It’s still got the buttons I wore in high school (Zeppelin, John Bonham, Stewart Copeland, Van Halen and, naturally, “Disco Sucks,” a sentiment I no longer agree with). I consider it an accomplishment that I could wear it & not burst through it, Hulk-style, at the age of 50. That’s the happy result of 5 workouts a week.

          Liked by 1 person

        3. I may have observed this before, Rich, but you are a person of outstanding application and discipline. I doffs me hat to you. BTW, I hope you never discover this on your own person (unlikely, with that gym program), but Hulk-styled outbursts tend to be not so much around the biceps and shoulders, as rather lower down the torso at, er, midriff level. ;-(

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        4. Not sure about “application & discipline” but I suppose those are parts of my personality. I’m also easily distracted and have a never-ending sweet tooth that has resulted in the nickname of “Uncle Snacky” from two of my nieces. That penchant for sweets is one of my motivating factors for exercising regularly. Otherwise, it would be midriff-level Hulk-outs for me. 😛 I thank you for the compliment. Cheers to you, my friend. I hope you’re not too affected by the Australian heatwave.

          Liked by 1 person

        5. It was beautifully cool at midnight last night!

          Liked by 1 person

        6. “Beautifully cool at midnight” is the dream, right?

          Liked by 1 person

  6. This was a great review and post, Bruce. I’ve always loved Cream but just never got into their albums (laziness most likely). So I ended up only listening to those “constrained” three minute numbers from the radio. I need to be educated and this has been a good start. Well done. – Marty

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s great Marty. Thanks. As as been observed, the albums are a bit patchy, though I would argue that this one is the essential for the collection.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I came to Cream one year too late for Disraeli Gears. When I caught up with it years later I found it somewhat patchy and decided to stick with my Wheels of Fire. I’ve always loved Strange Brew, though, and Sunshine of Your Love is practically their theme tune, of course. Anyway, thanks for another trip (sic.) down memory lane to the years of my adolescence. I can still remember Flower Power banners hanging down from the science block windows at the end of one school year in the late sixties and thinking all’s right with the world.

    Oh, and BTW, I do know what it’s like to walk down Kings Road and Carnaby Street although it might have been a bit later than 1967.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for sharing memories from the streets of yesterdream. Glad the trip (double sic) was pleasant.

      So many fantastic colours, I feel in a wonderland.
      Many fantastic colours, makes me feel so good.
      (SWLABR, again)

      Like

  8. Easily the best of Cream’s albums, I reckon. Certainly my favourite. Great cover art, too. While I’m in the business of declaring everything about the album to be great, I’ll also say that it’s my favourite slice of Clapton.

    Great post, Bruce. This series has gotten off to a splendid start.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Guess I’d echo those sentiments pretty much verbatim, James. (About the album, I mean).
      Also chuffed you are enjoying the early days of the ’67 odyssey.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Kudos, VC. You draw me in with the wonderful prose and feeling of your writing, and send me away smarter than when I arrived. While I’ve loved this album forever, and even use a line from “Tales of Brave Ulysses” on my home page, I am ashamed to admit that I have always assumed the song was a Bruce composition. Consider me taught.

    P.S. Additional kudos on the humour with the final photo of the CD, vis a vis the album title. (smile)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. While delighted to accept kudos of any kind, we really must give credit to Clinton Heylin for that rather marvellous story of Martin Sharp meeting Clapton. Having said that, a moment to celebrate the song itself, which I believe we both hold in particularly high esteem.

      And thank you for getting the gear joke. If you didn’t visit of your own free will (presumably), I’d gladly pay a stipend. (Though the way you picked up the 2013 comment about a ‘series’ is just a bit scary). Anyway, for the record…

      “You know how the title came about – Disraeli Gears – yeah? We had this Austin Westminster, and Mick Turner was one of the roadies who’d been with me a long time, and he was driving along and Eric (Clapton) was talking about getting a racing bicycle. Mick, driving, went ‘Oh yeah – Disraeli gears!’ meaning derailleur gears… We all just fell over… We said that’s got to be the album title.”


      Ginger Baker remembering 1967.

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  10. Another post so good you wish you’d written it yourself. Fantastic work.

    Also, love the bicycle gears photo.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Cheers Aaron.
      (Loved Geoff’s shoutout on his recent EC post)

      Like

      1. Yeah that was really something. All of his Verbalize The Positive series has been a perfect idea.

        Like

  11. Really excellent post. I think my interest in Cream has always slightly outstripped my enjoyment of their music. I find I appreciate individual songs more than entire albums. But after reading this, I’ll give the album another spin.

    On the topic of docs, I love the Cream doc that was done by ‘Classic Artists’. Great, revealing interviews on that one. Seen that?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Don’t know that doco, Scott, but sounds interesting. Have seen the Ginger Baker one, though. Extraordinary!

      As for Disraeli Gears, although the comments here suggest opinions is far from united, I reckon it is the most consistent of their albums and certainly worthy of another visit.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Cool. I’ll give another listen forthwith! And you should check out that doc. Everyone is in really chatty, insightful form. I’ve watched it loads and I’m not even all that into them!

        Like

  12. Just listened to it a while back. Amazing how much has stuck over the years. (I guess when you play something endlessly that will happen). A good album for so many reasons. I loved the music these 3 guys made together. Good one Bruce!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Cheers, CB. An album both timeless and of its time.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. […] Cream—Disraeli Gears […]

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  14. […] Mayall was dismayed by the departure of his young tyro guitarist Eric Clapton (to form Cream, also active in 1967) but not a bit of it. Mayall had a keen ear for talent and recruited Peter Green to fill the vacant […]

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