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In Cream’s brief two-year existence, the band released four albums, toured on both sides of the Atlantic, and changed rock music forever.
When drummer Ginger Baker, bassist Jack Bruce, and guitarist Eric Clapton came together in the summer of 1966, no other group could compare. By the time Cream dissolved in December of 1968, record bins overflowed with soundalikes. Whether one wants to praise or curse Cream for the ascendance of heavy metal and the proliferation of “supergroups” in the ‘70s, Cream’s unexpected fusion of jazz, blues, and sheer volume was so sui generis that it’s hardly fair to mention Cream in the same breath as its most talented followers, let alone its most derivative imitators.
Cream unleashed “Sunshine of Your Love” just as the “Summer of Love” was, to borrow a phrase from the lyrics, closing its tired eyes. Even in a year that saw the release of “Light My Fire,” “White Rabbit,” “Purple Haze,” and “A Day in the Life,” nothing else sounded quite like “Sunshine.” Nor had anything on Cream’s 1966 debut, Fresh Cream, suggest that the group was capable of devising such a chugging-yet-insistent riff. It was heavy in a sense that arguably didn’t exist before Cream. “Sunshine of Your Love” was a demarcation point. From The Simpsons to The Wonder Years to Goodfellas, when a television show or film wants to signal the transition from the carefree ‘60s to the conflictual ‘60s, “Sunshine of Your Love” is the aural choice. As Bruce acknowledged in the Disraeli Gears Classic Albums documentary, “It does kind of sum it up. If you hear one of those songs, it sounds like the sixties. But without the [imitates goofy laughter]. [It was] kind of serious stuff.”
Yet the success of “Sunshine of Your Love” and its containing album, 1967’s Disraeli Gears, hastened Cream’s demise. From the beginning, Cream struggled with Baker’s antipathy towards Bruce — which began when the two were in The Graham Bond Organisation — and strained under the weight of the hype heaped upon the band by the British press before they’d recorded a single note. The band’s justifiable conviction that neither Fresh Cream nor Disraeli Gears captured the power of their stage act meant that live performance was Cream’s lifeblood. But the band’s post-Disraeli popularity and manager Robert Stigwood’s desire to capitalize on it led to a brutal road schedule. As their audience grew, Cream ran headlong into the same technological and logistical limitations — underpowered sound systems, underdeveloped touring networks — that had driven The Beatles from the stage just a few years earlier. But unlike the Fab Four, Cream’s members had no inclination to become a studio-only group.
By the time Cream found themselves crisscrossing the U.S. during the spring of 1968, its members realized “this is a big band going out of anybody’s control,” as Clapton told Cream’s biographer Dave Thompson. Baker, Bruce, and Clapton soon began to question whether they should call it quits. A scathing review of Cream’s March 23 show at Brandeis University, written then-student Jon Landau for the campus newspaper and reprinted by Rolling Stone, apparently also played a role. Clapton read it and, as he said later, “The ring of truth just knocked me backward. I was in a restaurant, and I fainted. After I woke up, I immediately decided it was the end of the band.” Baker and Bruce felt that the article was absurd, but they couldn’t persuade Clapton. “The article had a very detrimental effect on Eric because he thought that Rolling Stone had a lot of credibility,” Baker recalled. “He was a very sensitive fellow, and I’m convinced that that article did him a great deal of harm. It was his favorite magazine and to read something like that in it hurt him.”
Exactly when during this U.S. tour Cream officially decided to call it quits is hard to say, but most accounts point to a fraught band meeting in Texas at the end of March. News of the pending disbandment wouldn’t make the press until the July 13th issue of Melody Maker’s cover blared “CREAM SPLIT UP.”
In between their decision to dissolve and Melody Maker’s report, Cream’s members finished the band’s third album, Wheels of Fire. And before the split would be finalized, Cream would undertake a farewell tour and record their final album, Goodbye (sometimes dubbed Goodbye Cream).
Those two albums — Wheels of Fire and Goodbye — are the subject of this TBVO.
When Baker, Bruce, and Clapton began contemplating the follow-up to Disraeli Gears, they were faced with the nagging conviction that the album that had made them superstars didn’t come close to representing their best work. Even before Disraeli Gears was released, the band’s promotional interviews were littered with backhanded compliments. “It’s a good record, a great LP,” Clapton told Melody Maker in November of 1967. “It was recorded last May, and it’s not indicative of what we’re doing now. When I hear it, I feel like I’m listening to another group. It’s an LP of songs and there’s no extended improvisation. That’s why we are rushing to do our next album.”
Despite the fact that, with three-to-four-minute hits like “Sunshine of Your Love” and “Strange Brew,” Disraeli Gears seemingly proved that Cream could master the constraints of the studio and the demands of Top 40 radio, both Cream’s members and many of the band’s fans believed it paled in comparison to the group’s stage act, where numbers could be extended into ten- or twenty-minute improvisational workouts. “We spend more time on stage than almost any other group,” Clapton elaborated in another Melody Maker’s interview. “Most of the people who bring out really splendid albums have much more time than we do in the recording studios.”
Cream’s members seemed to be of different minds about how to handle this studio-stage divide. Clapton remained pessimistic about what he saw as the studio’s limitations, whereas Bruce seemed open to the possibility that Cream could learn to command the studio as deftly as they had the stage. “Even if we could spend a lot of time at the studio, there still would be a difference,” Clapton told the Detroit Free Press in October of 1967. “There’s nothing about a studio that vaguely resembles a live sound. In a recording studio the sound is compact, flat and very loud. You can’t always hear the other two musicians very well.” At which point Bruce chimed in, “It would be nice if we had a different thing going in the recording studio than on stage. This is what we’re getting at.”
The solution that Cream arrived at was to divide its third album between the studio and the stage. “We’ve just got over a period of recording inactivity, and we [will] have two LPs out soon,” Clapton explained in May of 1968, “one recorded ‘live’ at the Fillmore and one in a studio, which will boost our ego and give us more confidence. I’ve been feeling tired and frustrated.”
The group’s members were unanimous in the belief that recording at New York’s Atlantic Studios with American engineer Tom Dowd and American producer Felix Pappalardi helped to make Disraeli Gears a sonic and artistic improvement over the Robert Stigwood-helmed Fresh Cream, and they were eager to build on that progress by reenlisting them for the studio portion of Cream’s third LP.
“On our first album, we were groping in the dark from the production side,” Bruce told Hit Parader. “Now we have a marvelous feeling for it. Everybody concerned is very much into it. Felix Pappalardi and Tom Dowd at Atlantic helped tremendously to get things together. We’re still hoping for a double record set for our third album. We’ve made plans to record a live album at the Fillmore in San Francisco. If it goes well it will be a double album.”
Clapton agreed. “We use Atlantic’s New York studios,” he told Beat Instrumental. “It’s done quicker there, we get a better sound, and there’s a really hip engineer – one of the best in America.”
For Baker, the advantage of Atlantic had less to do with sonics than with the mollifying effect that Dowd and Pappalardi had on the famously fractious trio. “We’re all temperamental, but Tom Dowd and Felix Pappalardi manage to get rid of that temperament,” Baker explained. “It’s not even the sound we get that encourages us to record in America, just those people. The sessions are relaxed and everybody’s working. We spend a long time in the studio, so we don’t have to rush. We usually talk for three or four hours before we record anything. Then we play, think, add sounds.”
Just as Baker, Bruce, and Clapton credited Dowd and Pappalardi for transforming Cream’s studio sound, the production duo was enamored with Cream’s talent. “The first Cream album I did was a three-day album, because they were on the end of a visitor’s visa, and they had to leave the country,” Dowd told the BBC’s John Tobler and Stuart Grundy in the early-1980s:
Ahmet called me up one day in the studio and told me he wanted me to record this English group, who were arriving that afternoon, over the next three days, because they had to be on a plane at seven o’clock on Sunday evening, which was when their visa would expire. All of a sudden, these tons of equipment start coming into the studio, and I’m wondering how big this group can possibly be. But it was just Eric, Jack and Ginger. They had just finished a short tour, and it had been decided to record them before they left for their second album, Disraeli Gears. We started on the Friday morning and got into their limousine at five o’clock on the Sunday with the album done. It was the first contact I had had with a group of that nature, and I was just absolutely carried away with their musicianship and precision. They were incredible. I never saw anything so powerful in my life, and it was just frightening. That was my first encounter with them and then when it came to the time for Wheels of Fire, they were a smash, the supergroup of the century.
Pappalardi recalled his introduction to Cream in a 1968 Hit Parader interview. “Somehow I ended up at Atlantic records in Ahmet Ertegun’s office,” he said:
Ahmet and Jerry Wexler own Atlantic, and they’re the greatest thing that has happened to me. They opened the door by telling me to make the records I want to make. They have afforded me a tremendous amount of freedom. One day after that, I walked into the Atlantic studio and the Cream was there right in the midst of a track for “Strange Brew.” I started to sing the melody as the instrumental track was being played back and Ahmet suggested I go home and write a tune over the track. I did it and they liked it and it’s been straight ahead ever since.
Dowd and Pappalardi’s productive partnership belied the fact that, prior to Disraeli Gears, the two hadn’t worked together. As Atlantic’s top engineer, Ertegun and Wexler’s selection of Dowd for the label’s new supergroup was a foregone conclusion. The addition of the as-yet-unknown Pappalardi as Cream’s producer was less unexpected. But, given that Dowd had produced primarily jazz and soul record to that point, the label may have seen Pappalardi as a necessary counterbalance. “Ahmet was buying insurance with Felix, in the sense that I was recording predominantly blues and that type of record,” Dowd told Tobler and Stuart Grundy:
And while Ahmet wasn’t worried about my ability to record Cream, he was concerned about my being sensitive to what they were doing and where they were coming from. And Felix was hot in the New York area for being into that kind of music, being an advocate. So Ahmet ran him in to ensure that if there was a hole, a communication problem, or a taste consideration to which I might not be sensitive, he would be on to it. So Felix got to be friends with Jack and was in all the sessions, played on some of the tracks. But he was there primarily to be somebody working for Atlantic who knew what was going on with this stuff, because none of us knew it, except Ahmet. The rest of us had not been exposed to it in person. We could listen to records, but you never knew how these people conducted themselves, in terms of deportment, communication, terms or expressions. But it was never a problem for me, and we became friends instantly.
Pappalardi was equally taken with Dowd. In the September 1968 issue of Crawdaddy, he explained how he and Dowd worked together when recording Wheels of Fire:
On this next Cream album, now I know what I dig to do and how I like to go about it as a producer. Which is like not spending a whole lot of time with the electronics, the equipment, but with the music. That’s why the engineer is so important to me. Like Tommy Dowd, he’s invaluable. Because I don’t have to worry about him. He’s got it covered. At any rate, with Cream we agreed, without even really talking about it, how they should be recorded. It was an untalked-about agreement. He heard the band the same way I heard the band. It’s a natural sound is what it really is.
That’s not to say that Dowd’s input was limited to the technical aspects of recording. As
Pappalardi explained to Hit Parader:
As a producer, I bring my knowledge of music to the situation at hand…. The engineer is responsible for getting that on tape. The engineer doesn’t usually have anything to do with musical ideas and choice of musical material or instruments or musicians. There are rare exceptions, though, like Tom Dowd, the head engineer at Atlantic Records, who happens to be a genius. He knows every aspect of recording and music backwards and forwards…. Tommy is incredible. He’s not the typical engineer. While I’m saying, “The bass is a little fuzzy,” he’ll turn around and say, “Maybe that should be a 5/4 bar.” He’s dynamite, and we listen to him a lot. [Cream’s records are] the effort of five people in the studio with no hang-ups at all.
Wheels of Fire by Cream was never really a planned album. While Eric, Jack, and Ginger talked about ideas in England, I discussed it with Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexier at Atlantic. I wanted a double album right from the beginning, and it was my job to sell that idea. Nobody was high on it. When I finally convinced everyone of the double album, Cream told me they had been wanting the same thing.
Next step was helping choose material and arranging it for the final stages. With Cream this job is particularly important, because most of their songs are never played until they come into the studio. It’s very weird. The music is never discussed. It just happens. We cut the first things for the album in December 1967. We did the instrumental tracks for “White Room,” and “Born Under A Bad Sign.” They had a couple of days off during their U.S. tour so we booked studio time to get something down. Then they came back two [sic] months later for ten days and we completed the entire studio album….
The album got bogged down in a lot of places because Cream was working very hard on tour. They were tired, and they just wanted to get away. The last thing we did on the studio album was the vocal track for “Those Were the Days.” Jack heard the tune six weeks later, and he said, “Wow, what a groovy tune. I don’t think I know that one.” That’s how tired they were. We used every single track we made. We didn’t throw anything away. We approach tunes with a great deal of enthusiasm and thought, so there isn’t any waste. There’s a lot of thought behind the tunes but very little chatter.
I’d say we worked for a good two weeks on the studio album. Sometimes we’d work till four in the morning if it was cooking. Maybe only one guy was cooking, so I’d send Jack and Eric home and just work with Ginger on percussion things….
That Cream had privately come to the decision to split up between the two early-’68 studio dates may have contributed to the “lack of chatter,” but it didn’t seem to dent their productivity. Cream recorded four new tracks — “Passing the Time,” “As You Said,” “Deserted Cities of the Heart,” and “Those Were the Days” — in their entirety during these two sessions. They also put the finishing touches on four songs — “Pressed Rat and Warthog,” “Anyone for Tennis,” “White Room,” and “Politician” — that they’d begun in 1967, either at Atlantic or London’s IBC Studios. Combined with two tracks — “Sitting on Top of the World” and “Born Under a Bad Sign” — that the group had started at IBC in 1967 and completed at Atlantic later that year, Cream had 10 studio tracks ready for the group’s third LP by the time they returned to the U.K. in the summer of ‘68.
Thanks to Dowd’s combination of technical acuity and creativity, Atlantic’s was one of the most technologically advanced recording studios of the 1960s. A classically trained musician and Columbia University-educated physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project, Dowd began at Columbia as a freelance engineer in the early-1950s, when the label still recorded at Manhattan’s Apex Studios. In 1952, Dowd started recording all of Columbia’s artists in both mono and stereo, more than a decade before the latter became common practice. “I was anticipating things,” Dowd told Mix magazine in 1995.
In 1957, Dowd also convinced Atlantic’s founder Ahmet Ertegun to purchase the third eight-track Ampex tape machine ever produced, for a whopping $12,000 (roughly $130,000 today). According to Dowd, Ertegun’s initial reaction was, “Twelve thousand dollars? That’s how much it cost to start the whole company!” However, Ertegun relented, and by the late-’50s, Dowd was recording Atlantic artists in eight-track. (Again, it would take most studios another decade to adopt eight-track recording, largely because of the machine’s steep cost.) “Hearing what Les Paul was doing prompted me to think we could make superior records if we were to record on multi-track tape, because instead of reacting to the mix and trying to capture the performance in one hit, we could enhance it, relive it, improve parts, and generally make a better tape for transference to the disc,” he told Mix. “But hardly anyone appreciated the power of eight-track [at the time].”
In order to use this groundbreaking technology, Dowd had to design an appropriate mixing console, which would become the first in the country with more than four inputs. “All of a sudden, here it is the fall of 1957, and I’ve ordered an 8-track machine,” he recalled to Mix in 1999:
As I’m thinking about it, I realize I’ve got to now design or convert the damn console I have to fit 8-track. I couldn’t order one if my life depended on it, because nobody knew what the hell I was talking about! “Eight-track? You’re insane, Dowd!” So I have to build the damn console or convert what I have. By January of ‘58 the new machine rolls in the door. A week later I have it connected, and I’m recording. There is no difference in our approach to recording, except I’m storing it differently. When they ask for something to be played back, I’m still playing it back mono, mixing it on-the-fly. Or somebody says, “Hey, what was that?” and I’d stop the tape and back it up and listen to one instrument [in isolation] and everybody goes, “What’s he doing?” It scared them all to death. [Laughs.]
“We were still using tubes,” he elaborated in 1995. “And sitting behind the console, you’d get sunburn on your kneecaps because of the heat. It was ridiculous. It’s a hell of a lot safer these days.”
Just as Atlantic Studios was transitioning to eight-track, it was also traveling four blocks north in Manhattan, from West 56th to West 60th Street. Unlike the cramped makeshift studio on 56th, Dowd was able to design a spacious 37-foot by 45-foot recording room with a 15-foot ceiling at the label’s new digs. It was in this room that Dowd, Pappalardi, and Cream would commit Disraeli Gears and the studio portions of Wheels of Fire to tape.
Accustomed to jazz, soul, and R&B sessions involving acoustic instruments or, at most, small amplifiers, Cream’s deafening setup proved to be challenge for Dowd. “My biggest concern was how I was going to protect Ginger from the guitar and bass,” he recalled:
When the roadies were setting up the equipment, and I saw those double speaker cabinets for the bass and the big Marshall guitar stack, I thought, “That’s all well and good, but where do I put these things so at least I can get a sound on the drums?” Then I saw the drum kit go up, with two bass drums and five cymbal trees, and I thought, “Oh God, I’m gonna have guitar and bass spilling down every damn drum mic.”
I just made them feel comfortable and tried to keep them as far apart as I could in that studio that I’d designed for Atlantic on 60th Street. They had Ginger in one portion of the room, and I had the guitar and bass amplifier stacks positioned 90 degrees away, so that Jack and Eric could stand in front of their amps and still have eye contact with each other and Ginger.
While the recording setup for the sessions that would find their way onto Wheels of Fire are lost to history, they presumably differed little from that deployed on Disraeli Gears, given that only a few months separated the recording dates. According to Dowd, he and Pappalardi used two Neumann U47 microphones as overheads for Baker’s toms and cymbals, close-mic’ing only Baker’s hi-hat (with an Electro-Voice 666), snare (with an E-V 667), and double kick drums (with E-V RE20s). Dowd put remote EQs in-line on the 666 and 667 so that he could tweak the sound of the snare and hi-hat from the control room. Finally, Dowd placed pair of condenser mics in an X-pattern eight feet above Baker’s seat. Clapton and Bruce’s massive speaker cabinets were recorded with Brüel & Kjær ribbon microphones placed at a 45-degree angle about two inches from one speaker cone, plus a cardioid Altec 639A mic aimed at the amps from about two-and-a-half feet away. Baker’s kit was assigned to three tracks of the Ampex 8-track, while Clapton’s guitar was recorded in stereo and Bruce’s bass was tracked in mono. This setup left three tracks available for vocals — which were mostly sung live with the basic tracks — and overdubs.
Despite the ear-splitting levels at which Cream recorded, Dowd did not use any limiters. “I very seldom used limiters on anything except vocals, and that was just to cut the peaks down,” Dowd told Mix. “I would just ride the peaks with my hand on the fader after I’d heard a song once or twice, to get a feel for what the band were doing. I preferred it that way.”
The live tracks that would compose the second disc of Wheels of Fire were recorded in San Francisco in early-March of 1968, between the two sessions at Columbia Studios and just a few weeks before the band would decide to split. In order to capture Cream on stage, Dowd and Pappalardi enlisted San Francisco’s Wally Heider Studios, which was known for its mobile recording prowess. Heider engineer Bill Halverson — who in a few years would become best known for his work with Crosby, Stills, and Nash — was tasked by Heider with handling the Cream live dates. “I worked for Wally Heider Recording, and he had a good reputation for doing live recordings…,” he told me:
We’d done a lot of jazz work for Atlantic Records. So we knew each other. Unfortunately, [Wally] didn’t like rock ‘n’ roll. We got a call to do Cream, and I had done one rock act at Fillmore. I’d done Chuck Berry with the Steve Miller Band just previous to that. So he said, “Well, why don’t you a take maintenance guy and go on up and do it?” So that’s how I got it.
In talking to Atlantic, they had tried to record Cream live at a couple other venues and just, with the distortion and the mess, they hadn’t had a successful recording. So that was the only warning I got…. I had been a bass trombone player in big bands. So I was more of a jazz and big band kind of guy who was just sort-of coming around to rock ‘n’ roll and loud stuff. We’d set up the gear for The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl. So I knew what was going on, and how the audiences reacted and all that. So I had a taste of it. Same was Monterey Pop [which Heider had recorded]. I’d been around a lot of it, so I was getting used to it.
Originally booked for four days at the Fillmore, the Bay Area-demand for Cream tickets caused the dates to be split between the 1,300-capacity Fillmore Auditorium and the 5,400-capacity Winterland Ballroom. “It was booked just to be four nights at Fillmore,” Halverson recalled. “We got up there and set up at Fillmore. When we when finished, they said, ‘Oh, by the way, Friday and Saturday, we oversold Fillmore.’ Winterland was a block away. So they made us tear down, move over to Winterland, and re-setup at Winterland, the ice skating rink.” Halverson then had to tear down after Saturday’s show at Winterland and set up again for Sunday’s show at Fillmore. Not exactly the ideal circumstances for a cohesive set of recordings, but one that Halverson had the skill to pull off seamlessly.
At the time of the Wheels of Fire live dates, Heider’s mobile truck had an eight-track tape deck and the famed tube-based Universal Audio “green board“ designed by Frank DeMedio, which was later purchased by Neil Young and used on many of his most well-known recordings. “We’d gotten to eight tracks and had a Frank DiMedio-designed four-track console,” Halverson explained to me:
Universal Audio was the company… Frank DeMedio had worked for them…. It was green, and it ended up being called the “green board.” There’s all kinds of stories about it. Heider had it for years, and we did everything on it. Then Neil Young bought it and had it up at his ranch…. I was around when Frank built the “green board” in his garage…. It started out as a three-track board, and he went from three tracks to four tracks. Instead of tracks one, two, three, and four, it was left, left-center, right-center, and right…. He added a switch on the console at each position to be left-center/right-center, rather than just left/center/right. So when you had the bottom switch in the center position, then you had to pick left-center or right-center. That made it four-track…. Instead of having three speakers in the truck, he turned them sideway sideways and had four speakers…. To get it all into the tape machine, we use the four echo-send networks for the other four tracks…. It had rotary knobs on it and pretty basic EQ. But it was it was clean. You could just drive the crap out of it, and it just sounded wonderful….
With only eight tracks on the tape machine, Halverson had to be strategic with mic’ing and routing. As Halverson explained in Edoardo Genzolini’s superb book covering Cream’s time in San Francisco, Sitting on Top of the World, and expanded upon in our interview, one track was used to mic Bruce’s bass amplifier stack and another was used to mic Clapton’s guitar stack. Given Cream’s thunderous volume, this task was more complex that one might expect. “The Marshalls, I’d been warned about,” Halverson told me:
When I heard them at the soundcheck, they were just so loud. I put the mic in front of them, and it was so distorted. You could use the three-dB pad on the console, and it still distorted. I’m moving the microphone around, and I can’t get rid of this distortion! I went from the truck back into to the Fillmore, moved the mics around, then went out to the truck and listened to it, and it was clean! I was like, “What the hell did I do?” So I went back in, and those old Marshall amps had four speakers, and I ended up in the center of the four speakers, maybe two inches from the grille cloth with a Shure 546 — it’s called an SM57 now. So the speakers are around the side, but I’m not in front of a speaker. I’m just in front of a grill cloth.
The third and fourth tracks were dedicated to vocals. As the main vocalist, Bruce’s microphone received its own track. But Clapton’s and Baker’s vocal mics were strategically fed through a splitter and routed into one track, since Baker never used his.
The final four tracks consisted of two stereo pairs. The first pair was used for the audience, recorded with two Neumann U67 tube mics for “a deep, good audience sound.” The final stereo pair was dedicated to Baker’s drums. “Ginger was in the center, and there were like four Marshall cabinets to the left and four Marshall cabinets to the right, and they’re all on 11!” Halverson recalled. “Ginger had a bunch of drums. I set up with a couple of overheads, a snare mic, and a couple of tom-tom mics, and that was it. He played loud enough where it sounded great. I mixed it on the Ampex mixer to stereo, and then moved [the drums] over to the multitrack.”
Despite the logistical difficulties of capturing Cream’s live setup, the soundcheck gave Halverson hope that he’d pull it off successfully. “Slowly Eric and Jack showed up,” he told Genzolini. “They did a little soundcheck, which I recorded and thought. ‘Oh, we’re gonna do ok!’ It was loud, but, again, it’s their distortion, not mine!” While mic’ing Bruce and Clapton’s massive amplifier cabinets had been a challenge, their sheer size inadvertently shielded Baker’s drums from their volume. “Listening to it when we did the playback,” Halverson told me, “not only did were the bass and guitar clean, but you could [only] just faintly hear them in the drum [tracks]. The isolation was incredible because the four speakers on the amp acted as baffles and kept anything from getting [into the drum mics].”
Halverson’s precise role in the actual recording of the Fillmore and Winterland dates wasn’t entirely clear until shortly before the first date began. “All of a sudden, walking in while Cream was doing some more soundcheck, was Tom Dowd and Felix Pappalardi,” he recalled in Sitting on Top of the World:
I said to myself, “Oh, Tommy’s here, he’s probably going to engineer this and I’m going to help him. It’s all going to be ok!” Tommy and Felix asked, “Have you recorded any of the soundcheck?” I said, “Yeah, I got a little recording.” “Let’s go out and listen to it,” they suggested. All of a sudden, Tommy went to Felix and said, “Ahmet’s got me a meeting with Aretha down in L.A. You’re gonna do fine with Bill. I’m outta here! You don’t need me.” So, Tommy leaves and goes off. It’s only me and Felix!
Thus, while the studio sessions for Wheels of Fire were engineered and produced by Dowd and Pappalardi, the live tracks were helmed by Halverson and Pappalardi. “Felix and his wife, Gail, they got the back of the truck,” Halverson told me. “We didn’t have chairs for him. So they sat down on some packing blankets leaning up against the back of the truck. And every once in a while, I’d turn around and look at him, and he just gives me a thumbs up and we just plowed through. It was good.”
Even though Halverson had to keep a consistent sound across two venues and three setups, he was pleased with the results. “I got an old vinyl of Wheels of Fire,” he told Genzolini, “and I just cranked up ‘Crossroads’ and ‘Spoonful,’ and... it’s really good! Listen just to the ambience of the audience mikes. We had a really good PA guy, so there wasn’t any feedback, and I had given Atlantic a good eight track to [mix for the released] record.”
The band’s members agreed. ““Technically, it was only two [sic] eight-track tape machines in a truck,” Bruce remarked in the booklet for the Those Were the Days box set, “but it captured what [we] were doing.”
Sonically, it’s hard to argue that the Fillmore and Winterland disc of Wheels of Fire isn’t perhaps the best live rock recording of the era. Among the many famous performances captured on tape in 1968 — Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison, The Chambers Brothers’ Love, Peace and Happiness, Ten Years After’s Undead, and Donovan’s In Concert — the only one that arguably competes with Wheels of Fire’s sound quality is Quicksilver Messenger Service’s Happy Trails (and it, unlike Wheels of Fire, was sweetened with studio overdubs). Beyond Halverson’s “obsessive compulsive” attention to getting the mic’ing just right, Heider’s prioritization of capturing clean, unprocessed live sound benefitted Wheels. “Wally didn’t allow any limiters in the truck,” Halverson continued:
As he taught me earlier on, even before the rock and roll stuff, if you put a limiter on a vocal, you’re gonna get nailed! So, there wasn’t any limiter on anything except for tape compression. It was 15 IPS [inches per second] analogue, which is why Jack’s bass got to sound fat. Another thing [is that] you can’t do any radical moves with live recording, because when you’re mixing you have to undo it at the exact same spot. So, you pretty much, at the beginning of the recording, have to just really get it all just about right and just watch it to make sure that nothing gets out of hand. I had wonderful training from Wally to learn how to do that.
Cream finished the second leg of its U.S. tour in June and returned to Atlantic Studios in New York to put the finishing overdubs on the studio material earmarked for Wheels of Fire, which was then just two weeks from its scheduled release date.1 With Baker, Bruce, and Clapton already having decided to part ways, the atmosphere in the studio in June was decidedly frosty. “When the group came back to record Wheels of Fire, there was a whole different set of circumstances,” Dowd recalled. “I knew that there had been some animosity between the three players, but when we would listen to playbacks in the control room, there were times when I thought they were going to kill each other.”
The first disc of Wheels of Fire — dubbed In the Studio — opens with “White Room,” Cream’s most iconic song this side of “Sunshine of Your Love.” Like “Sunshine,” “White Room” was penned by Bruce and his songwriting partner, British Beat poet Peter Brown. In 1997, Bruce told writer Jim Clash that “White Room” was his favorite Cream song. “The inspiration for the music came from meeting Jimi Hendrix and his approach to playing,” Bruce explained:
In fact, he came to the recording session of that in New York and said to me, “I wish I could write something like that.” I said, “But it comes from you!” It’s a synthesis of things and not a completely original chord sequence. It’s the way we placed certain things in time that makes it original. I had problems with the record company because of the introduction being 5/4 and those suspended second inversion chords. They didn’t think it would make it.
“White Room” opens with a sustained wash of the of chords that will be utilized again in the bridge. Clapton’s overdubbed guitars — mixed far left and right, pushed to the edge of feedback, and swathed in reverb — propel the intro. An echo-laden viola played by Pappalardi mingles with the sound of Clapton’s distorted guitars, and the two blend so seamlessly that it’s difficult to identify which is which. Baker’s drums are mixed in stereo, and he punctuates the intro’s hanging chords with a dramatic splash of his cymbals and a dum-da-da-da-dum-dum-dum pattern on his toms. Bruce’s bass is panned far left. As Bruce’s biographer, Harry Shapiro, notes, “[‘White Room’ is a] classic rock anthem that shows, in microcosm, Jack’s subtle inventions as a bass player. He plays a simple fill at the end of the first verse, but instead of just repeating it at the end of each subsequent verse — as most bass players would do — he uses it as a foundation for myriad variations on a theme that acts like a classic blues ‘call and response’ device with his vocals.” As the intro gives way to the verse, the bulk of the song unfolds with just Baker’s drums in stereo, Bruce’s bass on the left, Clapton’s distorted guitar on the right, and Bruce’s voice in the center. Keeping with his innovative Bolero-style pattern in the intro, Baker divides the verses with a slow-galloping tom roll, then marks the transition from verse to chorus with a faster, machine-gun fill.
After unsuccessfully trying to marry a different lyric to Bruce’s chord progression, Brown pulled the words for “White Room” from a seven-page poem written in 1967. “There was this kind of transitional period where I lived in this actual white room and was trying to come to terms with various things that were going on,” he told Songfacts’ Carl Wiser in 2017. “It’s a place where I stopped. I gave up all drugs and alcohol at that time in 1967 as a result of being in the white room. So it was a kind of watershed period. That song’s like a kind of weird little movie. It changes perspectives all the time. That’s why it’s probably lasted. It’s got a kind of mystery to it.”
Sung by Bruce, Brown’s inscrutable verses begin:
In the white room with black curtains near the station
Black roof country, no gold pavements, tired starlings
Silver horses ran down moonbeams in your dark eyes
Dawn light smiles on you leaving, my contentment
The chorus, delivered by Bruce in his best choirboy falsetto, are little clearer:
I’ll wait in this place where the sun never shines
Wait in this place where the shadows run from themselves
While these words have surely sparked countless stoned conversations in the decades since its release, Brown insisted that, rather than either acid-drenched nonsense or evocative gibberish, each phrase has a clear meaning. The “station” refers to the fact that his white-painted Baker Street apartment was located “next to a fire station where the alarms kept going off just when I was having a nasty trip and started talking to the furniture.” Meanwhile, “black-roof country” described the neighborhood surrounding the apartment. “That was the kind of area that I lived in,” he told Wiser. “There were still steam trains at one point around that area, so the roofs were black. It was black and sooty. It’s got that kind of a feel to it.” The recurring phase “tired starlings,” for its part, has a double meaning. “[It refers to] the starlings in London. Of course, they are now completely gone, but in those days they were already getting tired from the pollution and everything,” he explained. “The ‘tired starlings’ is also a little bit of a metaphor for the feminine in a way, as well. It was women having to put up with rather a lot — too much pressure on them at the time.”
Sonically, the most striking part of “White Room” is Clapton’s wah-inflected guitar solo. Introduced near the one-minute mark, Clapton’s wah-wah overdub is mixed to the center. Initially providing little more than tremolo-like atmospherics, Clapton’s playing builds in volume and intensity as the song progresses, graduating from matching Bruce’s bass fills to taking center stage with a solo that — whether mixed underneath Bruce’s vocal or showcased — effectively composes half of the song’s runtime. For good reason, Clapton’s solo was ranked by Guitar Player as the second-greatest wah solo of all-time.
The next track on Wheels’ studio disc is a cover of the Mississippi Sheiks’ “Sitting on Top of the World.” One of the great struggles of the British blues revivalists was how to pay faithful tribute to their American heroes without simply serving up louder, faster renditions of the original arrangement. “I thought you could take the language of the blues, and without being too big headed about it, you could kind of take it somewhere else,” Bruce said later. “Because, let's face it: Eric, Ginger, and myself are not black guys from the Mississippi Delta.”
With of “Sitting,” Cream cracked the code for perhaps the first time, at least in a studio setting.
While both the original’s basic structure and verse-ending guitar fills are reflected in Cream’s interpretation, it shares little else with the Sheiks’ 1930 folk-blues arrangement, which features only acoustic guitar, fiddle, and vocals. Instead, as indicated by the erroneous songwriting credit provided on Wheels, Cream’s rendering of “Sitting” takes Howlin’ Wolf’s 1957 electric version as its primary inspiration. Cream’s interpretation, however, departs as much from Wolf’s arrangement as from the Sheiks’. While a few of Bruce’s vocal inflections and Clapton’s licks are borrowed from Wolf and his guitarist, Hubert Sumlin, the instrumental and melodic heavy lifting on Wolf’s recording is done by his harmonica and Hosea Lee Kennard’s piano, two instruments absent from Cream’s rendition.
Flipping the panning on “White Room,” the mix on “Sitting” places Clapton’s overdriven rhythm guitar far left and the growling rumble of Bruce’s bass far right. Baker’s kit is again mixed in stereo, while Clapton’s reverb-drenched, bridge pickup-heavy shifts from center-left to far-left throughout the song. With this limited sonic landscape, Cream transforms “Sitting” into a slow-as-molasses dirge that plays up the lyric’s irony.
Musically, Cream’s rendition of “Sitting” also features two unique musical contributions. The first is a staccato five-beat chord, repeated three times, and mirrored on Bruce’s bass, Clapton’s guitar, and Baker’s hi-hat. The second is having all three instruments lean into the chorus’s vocal melody, something that was hinted at by the fiddle line on the Sheiks’ original. When heard in combination with Bruce’s vocal, which sounds almost pharmacologically sedate, these arrangement decisions both create dynamic contrasts in what could otherwise be a slog of a tune and underscore the narrator’s depressive mood.
The next three cuts on Wheels of Fire — “Passing the Time,” “As You Said,” and “Pressed Rat and Warthog” — showcase Cream’s oft-overlooked connections to British psychedelia. Perplexing to some American fans and polarizing among British blues aficionados, this side of Cream’s identity was destined to be the most off-putting for those who associated Cream with maximum-volume instrumental pyrotechnics. That’s too bad, because Cream’s technicolor studio creations are every bit as worthy as contemporary work from Procol Harum, The Move, or Pink Floyd.
With Bruce and Brown already cemented as a songwriting duo, Baker formed a partnership with jazz pianist Mike Taylor. “Mike Taylor was way ahead of his time,” Brown recalled. “He was an extremely talented composer.” Three songs from Baker and Taylor’s collaboration wound up on Wheels, with “Passing the Time” being the first. “Ginger was into a lot of things I never knew before,” Papparldi remembered:
He’s very classically oriented. Rhythmically he’s very African but melodically he’s very classical. He writes like Vaughn Williams. Usually he collaborates with a guy named Mike Taylor. Everybody thinks that Ginger is just a drummer, but he’s much more…. Mike Taylor is an ex-British jazz pianist with a strong classical background.
Cream had done a lot of work on songs among themselves, but we made some changes in the studio too. Like on “Passing the Time,” nobody knew what instrumentation to use and it got bogged down. One night Ginger got me out of bed with a long distance phone call from England and played me the melody on an organ. That sound stayed in my head so when I finally saw him in the studio, I called up a music shop and ordered a calliope. Jack, who is a fantastic keyboard player, did the song on calliope, and I played organ pedals.
We got very excited over “Passing the Time” and finally completed it. It was beautiful. We had the freedom to do what we wanted without any planning.
Featuring, as Pappalardi noted, Baker on drums and glockenspiel and Bruce on bass, cello, and calliope, “Passing” undoubtedly is one of the most intricate arrangements on the album. The track opens with droning chords, a pulverizing beat from Baker, and a wordless chant from Baker, Bruce, and Clapton. This section slowly fades out, revealing a delicate melody in the right channel performed in unison by Bruce’s calliope and Baker’s glockenspiel. Bruce’s cello also occupies the right channel, while his lead vocal —backed by Baker and Clapton — is placed relatively deep in the center of the soundstage.
Lyrically, “Passing the Time” tells an Odyssey-like tale of a woman whiling away the hours at home with her children waiting for “her traveler” to return:
It is a cold winter,
Away is the songbird.
And gone is her traveler,
She waits at home.
The sun is on holiday,
No leaves on the trees.
The animals sleep
While cold North wind blows.
The snowflakes are falling,
The roof a white blanket.
There’s ice on the window pane,
She waits alone.
She sits by the fireside,
The room is so warm.
Her children are sleeping,
She waits in their home.
Given Baker’s notorious womanizing and difficult (to say the least) personality, it’s hard not to hear “Passing” as oblique acknowledgment that, if Baker’s first wife Liz Finch played Penelope to his Odysseus, it wasn’t necessarily an easy role.
At the two minute mark, a blast of drums from Baker transitions “Passing” from the deceptively bucolic melody of the verses into a chaotic jam that features some of Baker and Bruce’s most aggressive work as a rhythm section in the studio. To this, Clapton adds some proto-punk chugging chords in the right channel and Harrison-esque, tremolo-laden melodic lead work in the center. Over this cacophony, the trio delivers a repetitive chorus that makes clear that Baker knew the price Finch paid for his visits to the land of the Sirens while on tour, even if he didn’t do much to lessen her suffering:
Passing the time.
Passing the time.
Passing the time, drinking red wine.
Passing the time, drinking red wine.
Passing the time, drinking red wine.
Passing the time, everything fine.
Passing the time, drinking red wine.
Passing the time, everything fine.
Passing the time, wine and time rhyme.
Passing the time.
From there, “Passing” returns to the gentle calliope and glockenspiel melody as Bruce delivers the final deflating conclusion:
It is a long winter,
Away is the summer.
She waits for her traveler
So far from home.
She sits by the fireside,
The room is so warm.
There’s ice on the window,
She’s lonely alone.
The next cut, “As You Said,” is one of the rare all-acoustic numbers in Cream’s discography. Penned by Bruce and Brown, it’s essentially a solo showcase for Bruce, who provides vocals, cello, and a reluctant acoustic guitar. “I wanted Eric to play guitar on that track but he encouraged me to do it,” Bruce recalled in the Those Were the Days liner notes. “I was always embarrassed about my acoustic guitar playing —especially when you had Eric Clapton in the band. Richie Havens had showed me open tuning, and I
wanted that guitar sound on the track.”
Bruce’s overdubbed acoustics are mixed far left and far right. His primary cello is panned left, while another, which darts in and out of the mix, is placed on the right. As Pappardi noted, “On ‘As You Said’ Jack is recorded five times.” The only other member featured on the cut is Baker, whose hi-hat, mixed low in the far right channel, keeps time. Sonically, its sparse instrumentation and languid vocal would fit comfortably on The Beatles’ White Album, another sprawling double-disc affair, which hit stores a few months after Wheels of Fire.
In his Crawdaddy interview, Pappalardi singled out “As You Said” as evidence of Bruce’s songwriting skill:
The only one who’s into composition per se is Jack, as what I would call a composer, someone who would score things as he hears them. Jack’s deeply into that. I think the first example of it in some total form is found on the next album. He wrote this thing called “As You Said.’ To me it’s totally original. It’s scored for two acoustic guitars, two cellos, voice and just hi-hat. And it’s Jack — except for the hi-hat — playing both acoustic guitars, both cellos, and the vocal. So I know he’s into composition, ‘cause I know what his background is. His back ground is very much like mine. I mean, he’s trained in the elements and in the literature. In other words, he’s not a rock ‘n’ roll musician; he’s just a musician, genetically. His tastes and his understanding are very catholic.
The lyrics of “As You Said” fit this low-key mood. With the invocation to “go down to where it’s clean
to see the time that might have been,” which is repeated in varying formulations throughout the song, “As You Said” might be about personal regret, environmental destruction, or both. “When I had the music complete, I went to Pete Brown,” Bruce recalled. “He had these words already written which fit right on top of what we had done. It was perfect.”
The final song of this psychedelic trilogy, “Pressed Rat and Warthog” opens side two of Wheels’ studio disc. Another Baker and Taylor composition, “Pressed Rat and Warthog” competes with their “Passing the Time” for the most instrumentally unusual number on Wheels, though its subject matter is decidedly lighter.
“Pressed Rat and Warthog” opens with Bruce playing chords on his bass in the right channel, Clapton strumming his guitar in the left, and a somber echo-laden trumpet in the center played by Pappalardi. Baker’s drums are, as usual, mixed in stereo. As the trumpet recedes, Baker’s vocal enters. Delivered in spoken-word and mixed high relative to the instrumentation, the lyrics depict a somewhat demented The Wind in the Willows-meets-Alice in Wonderland narrative that begins:
Pressed rat and warthog have closed down their shop
They didn’t want to; ‘twas all they had got
Selling atonal apples, amplified heat
And pressed rat’s collection of doglegs and feet
As the second verse begins, Pappalardi’s trumpet reenters before Baker’s voice is joined by a flute-like chorus of recorder (played by Bruce) and tonette (played by Pappalardi) in the right channel. As the narrative concludes, it descends into a chaotic jam featuring some fine lead work from Clapton, then fades to silence. According to Pappalardi:
On “Pressed Rat and Wart Hog” Jack plays two basses. The second bass comes in at the end, and it’s a six string. Eric’s on three times. I’m on twice with trumpet and tonette. When I played tonette, Jack played recorder…. All the songs had finished lyrics when they came into the studio except “Pressed Rat.” We changed one line in that on the spur of the moment. Ginger writes a lot of poetry, and a lot of it’s like “Pressed Rat and Wart Hog,” really groovy. Ginger wanted to fly his daughter Nettie over to recite that, but we didn’t have time. She knows that whole poem by heart.
The thunderous riff that opens “Politician,” the sixth track on Wheels, jolts the listener and sweeps away the hallucinogenic miasma that closes “Pressed Rat and Warthog.” Penned by Bruce and Brown, “Politician” ranks alongside “Sunshine of Your Love” as one of Cream’s best riff-based rockers. Bruce composed the plump, off-kilter riff for “Politian” in January of 1968 at London’s Aeolian Hall, where the band was recording a session for the BBC’s Top Gear. “We did a session for the BBC and needed a song, Bruce recalled. “Pete had given me the words, which had a great blues feel to them. Eric and I were jamming and trying to come up with a lick. There was no big writing session or anything like that. It came together quickly, and we performed it for the first time on that radio program.”
The version of “Politician” performed on Top Gear that day is remarkable given how quickly Bruce put it together. But its fast tempo undersells the melodic ingenuity of Bruce’s riff and doesn’t suit the cynicism of Brown’s lyrics, which are also slightly different in the BBC recording. In fact, Brown had already recorded a demo with his First Real Poetry Band that used the lyrics to “Politician.” However, Bruce had earmarked the words — which aligned with the bassist’s socialist politics — for Cream.
Between the Top Gear performance and the Wheels of Fire sessions, Bruce shed some of the song’s weaker lines, tightening the narrative. The edited lyrics — which Brown also adopted when he officially recorded his own version — paints the picture of a lecherous politician who wins elections by appealing to progressive voters, only to side with conservatives once in office:
Hey now, baby
Get into my big black car
Hey now, baby
Get into my big black car
I want to just show you
What my politics are…
I support the left
Though I’m leaning, leaning to the right
I support the left
Though I’m leaning to the right
But I’m just not there
When it’s coming to a fight
Delivered by Bruce with a smarmy condescension, “Politician” is one of the bassist’s most compelling vocal performances. The revamped “Politician” recorded by Pappalardi and Dowd at Atlantic Studios elevates the Bruce’s vocal by emphasizing the riff’s sludgy menace. The reverberant thump of Baker’s loose kick prevents the new, slower arrangement from taking off, while his jazzy ride cymbal keeps things moving forward. Bruce’s honking bass is mixed far left, while Clapton’s rhythm guitar, which mirror’s Bruce’s bass, is mixed far right. Meanwhile, various fill and lead overdubs from Clapton shift across the soundstage as the song progresses, sometimes crisscrossing with each other in the process. “‘Politician’ has a rhythm guitar and two overdubbed floating guitars,” Pappalardi recalled. “They crisscross from right to left in stereo. Eric wanted that and it worked.” It’s an effect applied to Bruce’s vocal, too, which is otherwise anchored in the center prior to the last verse. While such effects might come across as gimmicky in other contexts, they suit the narrator’s wobbly ethics and allow for distinct sonic progress in a song that’s otherwise a linear performance of a single superb riff.
Like “Passing the Time,” the next track on Wheels of Fire, “Those Were the Days,” showcases Baker’s penchant for slightly warped tales of fantasy. Again penned with composer Mike Taylor, “Those Were the Days,” opens with a charging bassline from Bruce in the left channel, a rolling tom-heavy beat from Baker spread out in stereo, and slightly overdriven chords from Clapton in the right channel. This usual instrumentation is augmented by marimba and tubular bells played by Baker and hand bells played by Pappalardi. During the verses, this melodic auxiliary percussion is mixed far left, but it moves to the center when the lead vocal recedes. Bruce delivers the Baker-penned lyrics with the affect of a freethinking choirboy, which is precisely what he was in his youth.
At first blush, Baker’s lyrics share much in common with the Zodiac- and Tolkien-inspired preoccupations so common among pop stars, from Donovan to Led Zeppelin, in the Age of Aquarius:
When the city of Atlantis stood serene above the sea,
Long time before our time when the world was free,
Those were the days.
Golden cymbals flying on ocarina sounds,
Before wild Medusa’s serpents gave birth to hell
Disguised as heaven.
Rather than a simple flight of fancy, however, the chorus suggests that “Those Were the Days” is a commentary on the appeal of such fantastical tales in an age of rapid scientific progress:
Those were the days (Yes, they were)
Those were the days
Those were their ways
Miracles everywhere-where are they now?
The lament that “miracles [were] everywhere” but “now they’re gone” is the essence of “disenchantment,” an argument put forward by German sociologist Max Weber in a 1918 lecture. In it, Weber described what he saw as the deleterious effects of the “de-magic-ation” of modern life. He argued:
Does [scientific progress] mean that we today… have a greater knowledge of the conditions of life under which we exist than has an American Indian or a Hottentot? Hardly. Unless he is a physicist, one who rides on the streetcar has no idea how the car happened to get into motion. And he does not need to know. He is satisfied that he may “count” on the behavior of the streetcar, and he orients his conduct according to this expectation; but he knows nothing about what it takes to produce such a car so that it can move. The savage knows incomparably more about his tools….
[Scientific progress] means something else — namely, the knowledge or belief that if one but wished one could learn it at any time. Hence, it means that principally there are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play, but rather that one can, in principle, master all things by calculation. This means that the world is disenchanted. One need no longer have recourse to magical means in order to master or implore the spirits, as did the savage, for whom such mysterious powers existed. Technical means and calculations perform the service. This above all is what intellectualization means….
Abraham, or some peasant of the past, died “old and satiated with life” because he stood in the organic cycle of life; because his life, in terms of its meaning and on the eve of his days, had given to him what life had to offer; because for him there remained no puzzles he might wish to solve; and therefore he could have had “enough” of life. Whereas civilized man, placed in the midst of the continuous enrichment of culture by ideas, knowledge, and problems, may become “tired of life” but not “satiated with life.” He catches only the most minute part of what the life of the spirit brings forth ever anew, and what he seizes is always something provisional and not definitive, and therefore death for him is a meaningless occurrence.
It’s easy to imagine Baker encountering this idea in school or within the (counter)culture of his youth. Weber’s popularity exploded with the publication of an English-language compendium of his major works by Oxford University Press 1946. By the 1950s and 1960s, his ideas were being used to explain the malaise of the Levittowners and the frustrations of the “men in grey flannel suits.” The generation that struggled through the Great Depression and survived the horrors of World War II wanted to know why, despite so much evident progress, life remained so unfulfilling for so many people.
It was precisely this feeling of disenchantment that sparked the “generation gap“ between the youth born in the 1940s and their parents. Anticipating this shift, Weber noted, “Today youth feel… the intellectual constructions of science constitute an unreal realm of artificial abstractions, which with their bony hands seek to grasp the blood-and-the-sap of true life without ever catching up with it…. [Youth seek] redemption from the intellectualism of science in order to return to one’s own nature and therewith to nature in general. Science as a way to art? Here no criticism is even needed.”
In rejecting “science as a way to art,” the disenchanted youth of the post-WWII era helped to propel the popularity of Beat culture (including bebop jazz) and rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s and 1960s. Is it any wonder that the man who wrote the lyrics to “Those Were the Days” felt compelled to pursue jazz drumming, then to form Cream?
By the 1960s, magic could no longer be invoked to explain the cosmos. But what else could one cite when describing the improvisations of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Bud Powell and Charles Mingus on Baker’s favorite album, Quintet of the Year? Or, for that matter, the interplay between Baker, Bruce, and Clapton on Wheels of Fire?
It’s fitting, then, that the wild middle section of “Those Were the Days” features the kind of ferocious interplay that Cream regularly reached on stated, but rarely captured in the studio, before slowing for a final repeat of the chorus.
The penultimate cut on the studio disc of Wheels of Fire is a cover of “Born Under a Bad Sign.” Written by Stax Records’ William Bell and Booker T. Jones for Albert King, it was, like “Politician,” a composition born of necessity. As Jones told NPR, “At that time, my writing partner was William Bell. He came over to my house the night before the session. William wrote the words and I wrote the music in my den that night. That was one of my greatest moments in the studio as far as being thrilled with a piece of music.”
King’s original recording was released in 1967, just a year before Wheels of Fire. According to Bruce’s biographer, Pappalardi brought “Born Under a Bad Sign” to Cream even before King’s version appeared, and Clapton claims that Atlantic Records — which distributed Stax — asked Cream to record the song in order to help promote King’s album of the same title. Plus, while Bell and Jones had King in mind when composing “Born,” by drawing on Astrology — which Bell noted “was pretty big” in 1967 — for the lyrics, Bell inadvertently wrote a track that flowed logically from the themes of “Those Were the Days.”
On King’s version, which features Booker T. & the M.G.’s, the main tonal interplay comes in the contrast between the warmth of the Memphis Horns and honky twang of King’s lead guitar. Cream’s cover keeps the same rough tempo and interlocking bass and guitar as the original, with Bruce’s bass again panned far left and Clapton’s rhythm guitar far right. However, its lack of horns and the replacement of Al Jackson Jr.’s rock-steady beat with Baker’s busier jazz-inflected pattern provides a slightly more ethereal, psychedelic spin on King’s down-to-earth original. On his leads, Clapton makes no attempt to mimic King’s iconic tone, instead sticking with his by-now-signature fuzzed-out squawk.
Even as what was essentially a favor to their label, Cream’s rendition of “Born Under a Bad Sign” is a more-than-worth addition to Wheels of Fire.
The final track on the first disc of Wheels is Bruce and Brown’s “Deserted Cities of the Heart.” Like “As You Said,” “Deserted Cities of the Heart” sees Bruce picking up his acoustic guitar and cello. However, unlike “As You Said,” “Deserted” is a driving rocker that also features Bruce on electric bass, Clapton on rhythm and lead electric guitars, Baker on drums and tambourine, and Pappalardi on viola. One of the densest mixes on Wheels of Fire, the track opens with Bruce’s bass panned far left, his vocals (mixed high) and his acoustic guitar (mixed low) in the center, and Clapton’s distorted rhythm guitar on the right. Baker’s kit is again mixed in stereo. Following the first chorus, all of the guitars drop out, leaving only Bruce’s bass and Baker’s drums, which are joined by Bruce’s cello and Pappalardi’s viola in a languid string section, mixed far right. The track switches things up after the second chorus, when a particularly tinny and biting Clapton lead takes center stage alongside some thrashing drum work from Baker. The track then reprises the sedate string section before delivering the final verse and chorus.
In his interview with Crawdaddy, Pappalardi singled out “Deserted Cities of the Heart” as one of his favorites from Wheels of Fire. “There’s one on the next Cream album that’s really breath taking…,” he said. “Cream is going like a house afire, and all of a sudden there’s this cello and viola duet that comes over them. The meter changes to three-four — well, it’s a three-four over four-four implied — and it’s a complete change of texture. Beautiful. That probably came out of Jack’s head, ‘cause it was his tune. But whatever it was, it was so right. It was obviously so right. It just made it big and beautiful.”
Lyrically, “Deserted Cities of the Heart” eschews Brown’s predilection for opaque psychedelicism in favor of a poetic recounting of lost, or perhaps unrequited, love.
It’s unclear how involved the members of Cream were in the mixing of Wheels of Fire. However, in a conversation about Wheels of Fire, Pappalardi explained his mixing philosophy to Crawdaddy:
Mixing to me is a giant, giant part of making records. I’ve heard a lot of cats in the studio say, “Well, not too heavy with that bass sound, but don’t worry about it. We’ll fix it in the mix.” Man, that’s not it at all. I see a record totally as an illusion. And if you don’t have, basically, you don’t have the sound in the studio that you’re looking for, you’re never gonna get it with equalizers and all that funny stuff. You can get more, after you have the basic thing right, that you have in your head. Then you can fine tune with equalizers and with compressors and limiters and things like that. That’s what, to me, what takes such pains is the fine tuning of the thing, placement and stereo and things like that
The second disc of Wheels of Fire, known misleadingly as Live at the Fillmore, presents a very different side of Cream from most of what’s featured on the studio portion of the album. “The more we got into the studio album, the more necessary it became to do the live one,” Pappalardi recalled:
The studio stuff became very electric, so I wanted the live Cream right there where you could get at it — Cream as a trio without the arranging and the electronics. I presented it to Atlantic in this exact way…. We did lots of overdubbing which is one of the things that makes a great deal of difference between the art of recording and the art of a live performance. They are two separate things. This is why we wanted the two album set.
While the Fillmore and Winterland shows were recorded by Halverson before the completion of In the Studio, Pappalardi recalled that the finishing touches on the studio disc were done before the completion of Live at the Fillmore, which was mixed from Halverson’s tapes by Atlantic engineer Adrian Barber. Barber would go on to produce such well-known albums as The Allman Brothers’ and Aerosmith’s self-titled debuts, as well as to engineer a string of classic albums by Aretha Franklin. However, at the time of Wheels of Fire — for which he also served as the second studio engineer after Dowd — Barber was best-known as The Beatles’ first live engineer.
The first track on the live disc of Wheels of Fire immediately puts the lie to the Live at the Fillmore moniker. Recorded on the first of two March 10, 1968, Winterland shows, Cream’s cover of Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues” — retitled “Crossroads” is easily Cream’s most famous live cut and the third-highest charting single of Cream’s career in the U.S., behind “Sunshine of Your Love” and “White Room.”
“Cross Road Blues” looms large in Robert Johnson’s enigmatic legend as the supposed musical confirmation of the claim that Johnson’s guitar prowess resulted from a deal with the devil. In reality, the story of a bluesman making a Faustian bargain for musical ability came from LeDell Johnson, who told it about his brother, Tommy Johnson (who’s unrelated to Robert). Nonetheless, the apocryphal myth only served to further inflate the reputation of Robert, who died in 1938 without leaving behind much in the way of documented biographical facts. However, Johnson remained relatively unknown outside of the lucky few able to get their hands on the dozen 78 RPM singles released by Vocalion between 1937 and 1939.
That all changed when Columbia collected 16 of Johnson’s 29 recorded songs and released them as the King of the Delta Blues Singers LP in 1961. This release helped establish Johnson as the godfather of Delta blues, particular for budding blues aficionados in Britain like Keith Richards and Eric Clapton. As Clapton wrote in the liner notes to a 1990 box set of Johnson’s complete recordings:
I don’t think I’d even heard of Robert Johnson when I first found the record. It was probably fresh out. I was around fifteen or sixteen, and it came as something of a shock to me that there could be something that powerful. I played it, and it really shook me up because it didn’t’ seem to me that he was particularly interested in being at all palatable…. At first it was almost too painful, but then after about six months I started listening, and then I didn’t listen to anything else. Up until the time I was 25, if you didn’t know who Robert Johnson was I wouldn’t talk to you…. It was as if I had been prepared to receive Robert Johnson, almost like a religious experience…. Robert Johnson to me is the most important blues musician who ever lived…. I have never found anything more deeply soulful than Robert Johnson. His music remains the most powerful cry that I think you can find in the human voice, really.
As the opening track on King of the Delta Blues Singers, Johnson’s acoustic rendition of “Cross Road Blues” — featuring his unearthly vocals and hypnotic slide playing — quickly assumed the status of blues standard.
The song’s profile was elevated further by Elmore James, another American bluesman beloved by young Brits. James covered “Cross Road Blues” twice — one in 1954 and again in the early-’60s. James’s recast the tune, which he dubbed “Standing at the Crossroads,” as an electrified Chicago blues shuffle. Both versions feature James on electric guitar backed by bass, drums, and horns. With similar tempos and arrangements, the main difference between the two is that the latter features a bit dirtier guitar and a wetter mix.
Given Johnson and James’s renditions, the gunslingers of the British blues revival were tempted to try their hands at “Cross Roads Blues.” But the question was, how? As Clapton noted:
It was… very frustrating to me… because I realized I couldn’t play [Johnson’s] music any more than I could play Muddy Waters’ music. It was just too deep for me to be able to deal with. It became, then, a question of finding something that had a riff, a form that could be interpreted, simply, in a band format. The easiest place to start was with the songs where he would play that Jimmy Reed figure on the bass lines. In “Crossroads,” there was a very definite riff that came, more or less, from [another Johnson tune] “Terraplane,” actually. He was playing it full-chorded, with the slide as well. I just took it on a single string or two strings and embellished it. Out of all of the songs it was the easiest for me to see as a rock ‘n’ roll vehicle, but there were certain songs on the album that I wouldn’t touch. They were just too fragile, too beautiful, to be dissected or arranged. At this stage in my life I probably wouldn’t touch any of them, but back then I had less inhibition, so I singled out the ones that seemed most accessible, and then I tried to make them even more so to today’s market. So that people would like them, in a sense, on a somewhat shallow level, and then ask questions afterwards. To have tried to mimic Robert, vocally or musically, it seemed to me, wouldn’t have made him accessible at all to people that were listening today. It would have just left the music where it was — and not as good as what it was either. What I was trying to do was to draw out the spirit of what was being said as much as the form or the technique. I was trying to extract as much emotional content from it as I could, while respecting the form at the same time.
Clapton’s first attempt to commit his own rendition of “Crossroads” to tape came two years before Wheels of Fire. In early 1966, producer Joe Boyd put together an ad hoc studio group known as Eric Clapton and the Powerhouse. This version — which featured Steve Winwood on vocals, Clapton on guitar, Bruce on bass, Paul Jones on harmonica, Ben Palmer on piano, and Pete York on drums — was released on the 1966 Elektra compilation album What’s Shakin’. Despite including Bruce, the Powerhouse version of “Crossroads” doesn’t sound anything like Cream’s later, more famous, rendition. True to Clapton’s word, it also doesn’t sound much like either Johnson’s or James’s version. While the interpolation of Johnson’s riff used by Clapton on the Powerhouse session does anticipate what he would use onstage with Cream, the Powerhouse iteration of the lick — especially when mirrored by Jones’s harmonica — sounds like nothing so much as the inspiration for the opening riff on Steve Miller’s cover of Paul Peña’s “Jet Airliner.”
With the formation of Cream, Clapton tackled the track again. The group’s first recorded rendition of “Crossroads” came just months after the Powerhouse version, in a November 1966 BBC session. While it showed undeniable growth and refinement over the Powerhouse arrangement, this early attempt pales in comparison to the much more remarkable version that opens the live side of Wheels of Fire. Moreover, while other Cream versions would find their way onto various official and unofficial releases, none can compare to the one that from the March 10, 1968, early show captured by Halverson. Both the performance and the sonics of the Winterland performance are nothing short of remarkable. “Crossroads” sounds live without being muddy, clear without being sanitized.
The Wheels performance of “Crossroads” features Clapton’s distorted Gibson, with a bit of reverb, in the right channel. Bruce’s clean-but-robust bass is panned to the left, while Baker’s drums are mixed in stereo from the audience’s perspective. Taking a relatively rare live lead vocal, Clapton’s voice is mixed in the center with a touch of echo added by the audience microphones. The performance captured by this mix achieved Clapton’s goal of creating a more accessible, rock-oriented arrangement of “Crossroads” that nonetheless retained the original’s ineffable mysticism. As musicologist Dave Headlam put it in a 1997 essay:
The development of riff-based blues rock, in which the complex rhythmic and melodic patterns of the earlier country and electric blues solo styles are simplified and evened out in a rock group setting, is an essential aspect of the transformation from blues to rock music. Along with a simplified riff, the form of Cream’s “Crossroads” is trimmed into a standard twelve-bar pattern, with clear I, IV,and V harmonies….
The three levels found in Johnson’s song are split between the three players in Cream, with Clapton taking the top and middle layers, usually alternately, bass player Bruce taking the bottom and middle layers, and drummer Baker filling in the bottom and middle registral spans. Clapton plays in a regular tuning and adds extended solos (between the second and third and the third and fourth verses), with uses of bent notes, tremolo vibrato, and slides and distortion from an adapted repertoire of stylized figures characteristic of electric guitar blues. His vocals, while retaining some contour features of the Johnson version, are also reduced and regularized in relation to the meter….
In the verses, bass player Bruce reiterates the basic riff and adds running lines in a constant and complex counterpoint to Clapton’s upper layer in the solo section, and drummer Baker similarly fills in the textural and registral space with varied attacks and timbres from the drum set in the solo section. As is evident in “Crossroads,” but even more so in other Cream songs, both Bruce and Baker were innovators, developing and exploring their enhanced roles within the new, improvisatory trio rock format. Bruce simultaneously plays rhythmic and harmonic roles; an accompanimental role, filling in the texture and providing running lines against the lead guitar; and occasionally even a solo role. On the drums, Baker fills in textural and rhythmic spaces in a manner characteristic of jazz trios, where the drums become more elaborate when the soloist improvises and the instrumental texture thins out….
Listening to Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues” and then to Cream’s “Crossroads” is an extraordinary musical experience, even aside from the historical context of the parallel Faustian reputation that links Johnson and Clapton. Johnson’s irregular rhythms and variation in the support for a firm metric beat suggest a more personal, idiosyncratic vision, particularly in the ambiguous setting of the “clincher” third line of each verse of the text, where the rhythmic and harmonic momentum is dissipated rather than reinforced. By contrast, Cream’s “Crossroads” is driving and powerful, with a relentless reinforcement, then turnaround, of harmonies that assimilates the third line of text within the inexorable forward motion and progression of the meter, suggesting the communal, overdriven state of society that surrounded Cream in the 1960s.
Released as a single by Atco, Cream’s rendition of “Crossroads” reached number 28 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts and established itself as a perennial favorite on rock radio. Clapton’s uninhibited solo assumed legendary status, landing at number 38 in a 2013 Guitar World reader’s poll of the greatest guitar solos of all-time. So improbably perfect is Cream’s performance that rumors of artful editing have dogged it ever since its release. However, Universal Music’s Bill Levenson, who produced the Cream box set, Those Were the Days, made clear to Guitar World that the “Crossroads” that appears on Wheels of Fire is just as it was played on stage at Winterland. “It’s not edited and I’ve got an audience tape from the same show which verifies that,” he explained, and the rough mix available on Wolfgang’s Vault confirms Levenson’s contention.
That said, the one person less-than-pleased with this performance of “Crossroads” is Clapton. “It’s so funny, this,” Clapton told Guitar World. “I’ve always had that held up as like, ‘This is one of the great landmarks of guitar playing.’ But most of that solo is on the wrong beat. Instead of playing on the two and the four, I’m playing on the one and the three and thinking, ‘That’s the off beat.’ No wonder people think it’s so good — because it’s fucking wrong [laughs].” Despite Clapton’s view, there’s little doubt that the other (officially and unofficially) available versions of “Crossroads” plod in comparison to the Wheels of Fire take. So apparently the “wrong beat” was the best one.
The second track on Wheels of Fire’s live disc is another blues cover, “Spoonful.” Written by legendary Chess Records songwriter and musician Willie Dixon (who also played a key role on a previous TBVO album, Muddy Waters’s Folk Singer), “Spoonful” was very loosely based on Charley Patton’s 1929 tune “A Spoonful Blues.”
Though never mentioned by name, Patton’s song is widely believed to refer to cocaine dependence. Dixon’s composition, however, was based on a childhood recollection of Howlin’ Wolf’s, which he related to Dixon. “A spoonful was a thing Wolf had been talking about from way back,” Wolf’s guitarist Hubert Sumlin remembered. “He grew up in a very stricted [sic] family where people used to come over and borrow food… a spoonful of this, spoonful of that. He got to thinking about it — a spoonful of this, spoonful of that, spoonful of this. Like he sings, ‘It could be a spoonful of coffee, it could be a spoonful of tea.’ And he put love in there!”
As he did for other artists, Dixon used this anecdote from Wolf’s life as the raw material for a song that, while written by Dixon, perfectly fit Wolf’s image. Marked by Wolf’s typically guttural vocal, Sumlin’s biting lead guitar, and Otis Span’s plaintive piano, Wolf’s 1960 rendition is a purposely plodding plea for “a little spoon of your precious love.” As Joseph LaRose notes in Encyclopedia of the Blues, “Midtempoed and minor keyed, the song conveys a thoughtful assertiveness, with a dose of the ominous, as Howlin’ Wolf sings verses that expand the metaphor to include anything that men might crave, and the violence that some resort to in order to fulfill the cravings. The last line—noted EG, EG, EG, E—constitutes the song’s well-remembered melodic and verbal hook.”
A year after the release of Wolf’s original, Etta James and Harvey Fuqua turned “Spoonful” into a top-100 hit by deemphasizing its blues roots and gussying it up with swinging horns a smoother vocal.
Cream initially tackled “Spoonful” with a studio rendition on their 1966 debut, Fresh Cream. More than doubling the length of Wolf’s three-minute original, the Fresh Cream version of “Spoonful” slows the tempo of Wolf’s original and leans into the track’s hook with, at various points, Clapton’s guitar, Bruce’s bass, and Bruce’s harmonica playing the main lick in unison. The added length also provided Baker, Bruce, and Clapton with the only opportunity on Fresh Cream to stretch out during a lengthy solo section, even if this studio flight didn’t quite soar to the heights realized in concert.
Thus the selection of “Spoonful” as one of the live cuts on Wheels helped to highlight just how different Cream in concert was from the studio incarnation of the band. Taken, like “Crossroads,” from the March 10th early show, “Spoonful” stretches to nearly 17 minutes and showcases Baker, Bruce, and Clapton’s improvisational acuity. Near the 3:00 mark, the trio leaves all but the faintest outlines of “Spoonful” behind and embark on jam that sees Cream’s members playing off of each other and moving through distinct sections — their gradations in volume, rhythm, and melody keeping what could otherwise be a formless mélange coherent and surprising. “[On the live version of ‘Spoonful’] we were trying to get this primeval, big vibration that just lasts,” Bruce told Bass Player in 2005. “I would use 5ths, chords, and countermelodies to fatten things up, because when Eric would play high, above my bass line, it left a lot of space in the middle. But, as I said, it was with more of a lead-bass attitude than my approach now.”
The Wheels version of “Spoonful” illustrates just why so many of the band’s followers couldn’t compete with the original. At its best, Cream’s live work pointed the way towards the unpredictable-yet-precise tones and tempos of Weather Report, rather than the turgid showboating of Led Zeppelin. When Bruce subtly slides back into to the “Spoonful” riff at the 13:45 mark and Baker and Clapton follow in lock-step, the thrill prompts the Winterland audience to erupt in applause, with attendees presumably stunned by what they’ve just witnessed.
The third track on the so-called Live at the Fillmore disc is again actually drawn from one of Cream’s Winterland performances, this time the March 8th early show. “Traintime,” which doesn’t feature Clapton, serves as a showcase for Bruce’s vocals and harmonica playing, along with Baker’s sympathetic and subtle drumming. Nominally credited to Bruce, the inspiration for “Traintime” is alternately said to be a similarly titled song by Memphis Slim, which otherwise shares little in common with the Cream tune, and a drum exercise devised by Baker’s teacher, the legendary British jazz drummer Phil Seamen. Whatever the truth, the tune dated to Bruce and Baker’s time together in the Graham Bond Organisation.
At its core, “Traintime” is Bruce’s contribution to the venerable tradition of locomotive blues songs, which stretches from the Delta to Chicago. Fittingly, it’s also one of the few Cream songs to feature harmonica. While harmonica’s unlikely to be one of the instruments that fans associate with Cream, “Traintime” demonstrates that it was one of many mastered by the preternaturally talented Bruce. In early-1968 profile of Cream, Richard Saltonstall, Jr. singled out “Traintime” as “Cream’s pièce de résistance at live shows… [Bruce] clips off the passages on his harmonica like driving pistons.” Likewise, while vocals tend to take a backseat to instrumentation with Cream, particularly in the live setting, “Traintime” gives Bruce an opportunity to wail in a way that few of the band’s songs did. “When I became a jazzer,” Bruce told Thomson, “singers were seen as second rate and frowned on. It was very much a snob thing.” Given how Baker’s drumming — particularly his kick pattern — perfectly dovetails with Bruce’s playing, “Traintime” also illustrated that, though they may have been antagonists offstage, Baker and Bruce didn’t need Clapton as an onstage buffer in order to make beautiful music together.
“Traintime” seamlessly transitions into “Toad,” another 16-minute improvisational excursion. This time, though, it actually fits the Live at the Fillmore disc’s title, coming from the late March 7th show at the Fillmore Auditorium. Though it begins with a delicious fuzzed-out riff played in unison by Bruce and Clapton, the Baker-penned “Toad” functions as a spotlight for his drumming. By the 2:30 mark, Baker is left to his own devices for the next 13 minutes.
“Toad” routinely ranks near the top of any list of the best drum solos or performances of all-time, regardless of whether the list is limited to rock ‘n’ or more cosmopolitan. However, one’s opinion of “Toad” is likely shaped by the avalanche of rock drum solos that followed in its wake. As Spin noted in a piece on the “35 Most Memorable Moments in Rock ‘n’ Roll Drumming,” “Toad” has “the dubious distinction of introducing the drum solo to the rock LP.”
When “Toad” appeared on Fresh Cream it was seen as an innovative importation of a jazz staple into the rock setting. A Life magazine piece, “Rock and Jazz in a Creamy Mix,” praised Cream for taking rock “into the jazz spectrum” and singled out the studio version of “Toad” as “sustained, imaginative drumming that would knock out a Carnegie jazz audience.” However, when Baker brought the drum solo from the cultured confines of jazz to the mass market of rock ‘n’ roll, he opened to dozens of imitators — from John Bonham to Karl Palmer — who turned the extended drum solo into a grandiose stadium rock cliché. “[‘Toad’] was the solo which turned on thousands of young kids,” Chris Welch wrote 1982’s The History of Rock. “Virtually all the top drummers in rock today will confirm how inspired they were by the vision of Baker, head down and long hair flowing, as his sticks flashed across his array of tom-toms, accompanied by the roar of the crowd and the thundering boom of the player’s double bass drums.”
But to let those subsequent sonic sins taint “Toad” would be unfair. As Baker was fond of pointing out, his supposed rivals were anything but. When it comes to Bonham’s “Moby Dick” versus Baker’s “Toad,” John is Ahab and Ginger is the whale. Even if some jazz greats scoffed at Baker’s egotism, there’s little doubt that Baker’s talents laid closer to Blakey’s than to Bohnam’s.
That’s not to say that Baker himself believed that the performance of “Toad” captured on Wheels of Fire was up to snuff. The key to pulling off a good drum solo, as Baker explained to Welch in August of 1968, was ignoring the “brick walls floating about” that might cause things to go sideways. “If you worry about them, then you’re in trouble,” he said. “Most people play by thinking all the time. Not many just turn on.” Was he fully “on” in the version released on Wheels? “There’s some good things on it, a couple of impossibles, and a couple of things that didn’t come off,” he told Welch. “Half of it didn’t come off. [But] Phil Seamen heard it and said half of it did come off.” Welch, for his part, disagreed. “I have heard Ginger play solos more times than I have switched off Coronation Street,” he wrote. “Sometimes he has been tired, on the verge of collapse and only able to carry on by sheer will power. Other times one remembers solos that nobody else could play. Here [‘Toad’ on Wheels of Fire] is the best solo Ginger has ever recorded. After a few introductory chords from Eric, he launches into a one man riot that contains climax after climax and put one in fear for his heart and lungs.”
However, Baker, Bruce, and Clapton spent the rest of their lives fervently insisting that none of the extant professional recordings of Cream in concert captured the band at its best, including those used for Wheels of Fire. By the time Cream got around to recording their performances, the band insisted, their best days were already behind them. Even with so few Cream live recordings available, there was the tendency to second-guess which ones should be released. The 1997 Those Were the Days box set, for example, includes a hybrid version of “Toad” drawn from the March 7th and March 8th Fillmore shows.
Wheels of Fire hit U.S. shelves on June 14 and U.K. shelves on August 9. Its now-iconic psychedelic silver foil cover, which won the New York Art Directors Prize for Best Album Design, was created by artist Martin Sharp, who was not only one of the editors of the iconic countercultural magazine Oz but also had written the lyrics to Clapton’s contribution to Disraeli Gears, “Tales of Brave Ulysses.”
Despite Cream’s popular and critical acclaim and its eye-catching cover, Polydor worried that, as a higher-priced double album, Wheels would suffer in the charts. So the label hedged its bets by releasing the full Wheels first, then splitting it into two separate releases, In the Studio and Live at the Fillmore, later in the year. But Polydor’s execs needn’t have worried. It took only a week for the full Wheels of Fire to reach $1 million in sales in the U.S. It debuted at #54 on the July 13th Billboard 200 album charts, reaching #1 on August 10th. Wheels held the top spot for a month and lingered in the top ten until October. Wheels also peaked at #11 on the Billboard R&B charts and reached the top ten in virtually every European market. In the U.K., Wheels peaked at #3, higher than either of the single-disc options.
As it shot to the top of the charts, Wheels received largely effusive reviews, with a few notable exceptions. In Melody Maker, the aforementioned Chris Welch gushed:
If the Cream have been disappointing on record in the past, if fans have felt their spirit and essence have not been properly captured, Wheels Of Fire, their long-awaited double album is sufficient to restore the faith of the most errant disciple. For once, there are no weak links, and none of the faults in production, engineering, choice of material, or playing ability that generally conspire to detract from the value of modern groups when they commit their music to posterity in a recording studio.
The Chicago Tribune’s Robb Baker was nearly as rhapsodic. “Superlatives somehow seem all wrong in trying to describe the new Cream album,” he wrote. “When you have a record this good produced by musicians of this caliber, tossing around terms like ‘best album out this year’ begins to look slightly ridiculous… [Wheels of Fire] deserves mention in the same breath with Sgt. Pepper….” The Los Angeles Times’ Pete Johnson praised Wheels for “accomplish[ing] that nearly impossible job” of “capturing the hypnotic power of their live appearances” before concluding that Cream “is the best performing band in rock at the moment and this is its best LP.” The Observer’s Tony Palmer likewise singled out the live portion of the double album, writing, “If there ever was a disc that came close to encapsulating the frenzy and heat and spectacle of good pop, played live, this is it.” On the other hand, Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner, who rarely took the time to pen reviews, skewered Wheels with an almost palpable glee. “Cream is good at a number of things,” his review began. “Unfortunately songwriting and recording are not among them.” Wenner went on to lambast the lyrics and “Sonny Bono-ish production job” on “White Room,” the “absolutely absurd” verse-chorus transition on “Passing the Time,” both Bruce’s vocals and Baker’s drums on “Sitting on Top of the World,” and the “studio garbage” of “Those Were the Days,” before providing some positive comments about the live portion of the album.
With a farewell tour schedule for October and November of 1968, Baker, Bruce, and Clapton faced the question of how to follow up Wheels of Fire. If they’d struggled to complete Wheels when the wind was at their backs, how would they write and record their final album when they’d already decided to call it quits? As Cream biographer Thompson wrote, “When all concerned first began discussing what would become Cream’s final album, the original concept was to serve up another double, repeating Wheels of Fire’s proven formula of half live, half studio. It was obvious, however, that the group had neither the energy, nor the inclination, to put together an entire disc’s worth of new material. The album was trimmed accordingly.”
The resulting album, appropriately titled Goodbye, would be a mini-Wheels, consisting of three songs recorded on their farewell tour and three new studio tracks.
Cream reenlisted Halverson to record three shows on their farewell tour: October 4 at the Oakland Coliseum, October 19 at the Los Angeles Forum, and October 20 at the San Diego Sports Arena. Halverson’s recording setup for these shows was almost identical to that used for the Fillmore and Winterland dates earlier in the year. But this time there was one key difference. “When it came time for the Goodbye tour, they weren’t talking to each other — didn’t want to do it…,” Halverson told me. “The only [band member] I met on the second [tour] — for the live Goodbye stuff — was [on] the first night in Oakland. Jack Bruce came up to me during the soundcheck, and he said, ‘Are you the bloke who recorded the last live sessions?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ And he said ‘Oh, good!’ And that was the extent of it....”
The live tracks selected for Goodbye — “I’m So Glad,” “Politician,” and “Sitting on Top of the World” — were drawn from the Los Angeles show. All three capture Cream in full flight.
Originally recorded in the studio for Cream’s debut album, “I’m So Glad” is credited to legendary Delta bluesman “Skip” James (though historian Gérard Herzhaft argues the song’s roots lay in a spiritual of unknown origin). James’s 1931 original is an acoustic blues featuring his nimble fingerpicking and haunting falsetto, which only serves to underscore the irony of the song’s title. Though it featured some fine soloing from Clapton, Cream’s rendition on Fresh Cream underwhelming. The nine-minute version captured by Halverson in Los Angeles rectifies this. Baker, Bruce, and Clapton are playing at their individual bests, and — despite their lack of verbal communication on tour — are in perfect musical conversation. Just when the listener thinks the three are on the edge of falling apart, they come back together and soar to new heights.
Given that the studio versions of “Politician” and “Sitting on Top of the World” released on Wheels of Fire far surpass the Fresh Cream take of “I’m So Glad,” the Los Angeles performances of the former songs included on Goodbye aren’t quite as revelatory. However, particularly with “Sitting,” it’s hard to argue that they still don’t surpass their studio predecessors.
Perhaps the only oddity in the live portion of Goodbye is the mix. On Wheels of Fire’s Fillmore and Winterland recordings, Bruce’s bass is on the left and Clapton’s guitar is on the right, mimicking the audience’s perspective of Cream’s stage setup. For some reason, Goodbye flips Bruce and Clapton’s positions. While there’s nothing wrong with a live mix from the performer’s perspective, it’s still a somewhat strange reversal. (Perhaps for that reason, when the Goodbye’s live recordings were rereleased on 1997’s Those Were the Days box set and 2020’s Goodbye Tour box set2, the mixes returned Bruce to the left and Clapton to the right.)
While Cream’s members were in California, they also enlisted Halverson’s help in the studio. “None of them have worked permits past the end of the San Diego [show], the last concert,” Halverson recalled in our interview. “So they were sort of in town in the studio clandestine, if you will, [because] their work permits had run out…. Atlantic booked a week of time at [Heider’s] Studio 3. I had done a number of sessions in Studio 3. It was a brand new studio, and it was just an amazing, wonderful studio.”
The room at Wally Heider Studios was modeled after United Wester Recorders‘ famed Studio 3. “Wally and his carpenter… booked an hour of studio time at United Western 3, measured it and figured out it would fit into the space that was available,” Halverson told to Sound on Sound in 2010. “So, that’s how Heider came to build his own Studio 3. He never did have a Studio 2. He actually had the balls to name it Studio 3.” Heider’s Studio 3 was outfitted with a custom Frank DiMedio-designed 16-track console made with Universal Audio parts and two custom hybrid 300/350 Ampex two-inch tape machines.
While the space and technology at Heider’s was ideal, the interpersonal atmosphere wasn’t. “I didn’t notice [the discord between Baker, Bruce, and Clapton] as much on the live [shows] as when we got in the studio,” Halverson recalled. “One [band member] would be in the studio, and you’d have to go to the hotel — because they all had separate suites at the Beverly Hills Hotel — and get another one. By the time you got the third one, the first one was gone. Just to get them to play anything in the studio was really difficult. [Pappalardi] just didn’t pick sides. He just got in there and moved forward. He did a brilliant job, I thought.”
That’s not to say that Halverson’s role of engineer was insulated from the tense mood, as he found out when trying to make sure all of Cream’s members were pleased with the sound he was getting at Heider. “I used pretty much the same set up [at Heider as I did when recording them live],” he told me:
Jack and Eric didn’t use all four amps in the studio. Each brought in one double-stack [instead of two]…. I also basically used the same setup [as live] on the drums. But nobody was liking each other. I was trying to get a drum sound, and Ginger would listen to it. He’d come in [the control room and say], “No I don’t like it.” I’d go out [into the studio] and put up another mic…. He’d come back in [and say], “I can’t hear this.” I’d go move things around or set up another mic. Then he’d come back in [the control room] and hear it. We just sort of went back and forth. He was just trying to go, “You know, I’m important, too. There’s Jack, and there’s Eric, but I’m [also] important.” So, finally, I went out to the truck and got another mic, and I’m going to plug it into the wall, but I don’t have any places left. So I just took the cord, and I put it under the pile so nobody could see the connector. I went back in [the control room] and said, “Let’s listen to it now.” He played some more and listen to it, then said, “Yeah, that’ll be okay.” So, you know, the last mic wasn’t even plugged in. But he finally had made his point. And it sounded the same as it sounded the first time! But you know, he was [saying], “I’m important, too.”
Together, Pappalardi and Halverson coaxed three basic tracks out of the tempestuous trio. Sources disagree about which songs were cut at Heider. Some say that early versions of the three songs that would make it onto Goodbye — “Badge,” “Doing that Scrapyard Thing,” and “What a Bringdown” — were the three tracks recorded. Others claim that at least one of the songs was the superb Bruce-Brown composition, “Theme from an Imaginary Western,” which eventually would appear on both Bruce’s first solo album and the debut album of Pappalardi’s new band, Mountain. According to Thomson, the tape that the group took back with them to England was simply labeled “Eric’s Tune,” “Jack’s Tune,” and “Ginger’s Tune.”
What is certain is that “Badge” was “Eric’s Tune” that the quarreling trio worked on at Heider. (A recording of the basic track can be found on Halverson’s now-defunct website.) “[‘Badge’ was] the fun part of those sessions,” Halverson told me:
Studio Instrument Rentals knew Eric was in town, and they gave us a prototype for this [device] where you plug a guitar into this pedal, and then that plugs into the Leslie speaker. You play guitar, and it sounds like a Leslie. And if you push the button on the box, it goes from slow speed to fast speed on the Leslie. Eric came in — it was one of the few things I wish I had recorded — him fooling around with this thing for a number of hours. He was just playing it and having a ball with it. Then the next thing that happens is George Harrison walks in with Mal Evans, his roadie from The Beatles. So then it’s Harrison and Clapton trading off playing through this thing. They just spent the whole day doing this. Finally Jack shows up. And Ginger. Felix says, “You gotta set up the piano.” And I don’t have a booth for the piano. I’ve got these Marshalls and another amp for George. I’ve got all this going plus the piano. And they started playing “Badge.” It took forever, them just banging away at it. I think Felix actually got blisters on his hands from banging on the piano. So anyway, that night, we got “Badge,” the track, and everybody liked it. I didn’t record the vocals or the solo. I just recorded the basic track. Then they left, and I’m out cleaning up. The Leslie speaker is still there, but the box is gone. The pedal’s gone. So the next day, when the roadies show up, it’s, “Okay, what happened to the pedal?” “We don’t know.” Nobody knew. So the end of the story is a year later, eight months or whatever later, I’m in England, coproducing [Stephen] Stills’s first record. Mal Evans and Ringo Starr come in and set up Ringo’s drums [because] Ringo played three tunes on Stephen’s album. Afterwards Stephen and Eric [Clapton, who also played on Still’s debut] take off, and Mal says [to me], “Let me take you on a tour of London.” So we hop in his hot rod Mini, and we’re out cruising London, and I said, “Mal, remember back with the Cream stuff, do you have any idea what happened to the pedal from the Lesliel? And he said, “Sure. George wanted it. So I put it under my jacket, and we took it back to England.” So if you listen to that next [Beatles] album that came out, George Harrison’s got all that Leslie guitar on it.
Composed with encouragement from Bruce and an assist from George Harrison, “Badge” saw Clapton emerge from a compositional dry spell. Just weeks before entering Wally Heider Studios, Clapton confessed that he had not written anything for Cream since Disraeli Gears. “Writing for the Cream is very hard because it’s a trio,” he lamented. “Jack can do that, but I can’t.” Clapton’s lack of songwriting credits concerned Baker, too. “If you listen to Wheels of Fire there are none of Eric’s things on it, which is wrong…,” Baker told Melody Maker in August. “I think he’s been feeling a bit frustrated. All our records have been good, but material has been the problem. The best number [of Clapton’s] we did was [Disraeli Gears’] ‘Tales Of Brave Ulysses.’”
“Badge” seemed to put those concerns to rest. As good as “Ulysses” is, it’s difficult to argue that the melodic “Badge” didn’t easily surpass it. “I owe [the song’s melodicity] to Jack,” Clapton told Uncut in 2012. “It was his influence, although I’ve always had that lyrical thing in me. ‘Badge’ was probably my first attempt to put it down. It goes right back to my liking Joseph Locke and very traditional forms of singing and music as a kid. When I’m writing now, I always have to censor myself not to go too far in that direction. I have to try hard not to let it get too sweet.”
“Badge” opens with Harrison’s choppy, muted electric guitar in the left channel (a touch of reverb shooting to the right) and Bruce’s bass on the right. Just before the ten-second mark, Baker’s drums enter, with his hi-hat mixed to the right, his snare to the left, his kick in the center, and his toms spread across the soundstage. Pappalardi’s chiming, echo-laden piano is mixed far right.
Perhaps spurred by Harrison’s presence, both Bruce and Baker deliver in spades. Bruce’s inventive, burbling bassline perfectly plays off of Pappalardi’s piano, propelling the track forward, while Baker creates a laid-back pocket with his hi-hat and snare. Given Baker and Bruce’s jazz background, the striking thing about “Badge” is how the two work with Harrison and Pappardi to create a swinging backing track that betrays the influence of Motown, a feel that undoubtedly contributed to the song’s success on the charts.
It’s not until the bridge that Clapton’s guitar enters. “Eric doesn’t play guitar up until that bridge,” Harrison explained in the liner notes to Those Were the Days:
He sat through it with his guitar in the Leslie [rotating speaker]. There was Felix Pappalardi on piano, jack, Ginger, and me. I played the rhythm guitar right up to the bridge, at which point Eric came in on the guitar with the Leslie. Eric overdubbed the solo later. I wrote most of the words. Eric had the bridge and the first couple of chord changes. I was writing the words down, and when he came to the middle bit I had written “Bridge.” And from where he was sitting, opposite me, he looked and said, “What’s that — ‘Badge’?” So he called it “Badge” because it made him laugh.
The rest of the band drops out just before Clapton enters, adding a sense of drama to his chiming, Leslie-laden guitar. With a dramatic tom roll, Baker announced his, Bruce, and Pappalardi’s return, which set up Clapton’s liquid lead, mixed far left.
Lyrically, “Badge” fits with the melancholy, lovelorn tracks that Harrison had been penning for The Beatles, such as “Long, Long, Long” and “Something.” The opening couplet— “Thinkin’ ‘bout the times you drove in my car / Thinkin’ that I might have drove you too far” — is the type of timeless, deceptively simple turn of phrase that countless power-pop bands have spent decades aping. The precise meaning of the lyrics, especially the soaring bridge, are opaque in a way that doesn’t seem to lessen their impact. “[‘Badge’] sort of happened over a period of time between Eric and George,” Bruce commented at the time. “I like it very much…. The lyrics are very interesting, if you can fathom them out. They are very dark and devious with hidden meanings. But you’d have to ask Eric about that.”
Both the vocals and Clapton’s guitar solo were overdubbed on the Heider backing track after Cream returned to the U.K. in early-November. According to Bruce, “We messed around with [‘Badge’] a bit in the studio, speeded up the voices and played it backward.” Indeed, the elongated “la-la” backing vocals during the bridge are among the best Cream ever committed to tape and perfectly complement Clapton’s own Beatle-esque double-tracked lead vocal.
All of the finishing touches on the three Goodbye studio tracks, including the “Badge” overdubs, were done at IBC Recording Studios in London. As Thompson notes in his Cream biography, “Felix Pappalardi was in the studio with Leslie West and Corky Laing at the time, producing and playing on the momentous sessions that ultimately spawned the American power trio Mountain. Wrapping up that project, he flew to London and Cream reconvened for the next-to-last time at IBC Studios a day or two later, to complete recording the three songs they’d begun in Los Angeles.”
One of the earliest independent studios in the U.K., IBC was founded in 1930 as an alternative to the BBC’s studios. Thanks to the acumen of staff engineers like Joe Meek and Glynn Johns, IBC became an in-demand studio in the rock ‘n’ roll era, birthing such classic albums as The Bee Gee’s 1st and The Who’s Tommy. All of IBC’s consoles were custom built by the studio’s engineers, and by the time Cream decamped there for the final Goodbye sessions, IBC had just upgraded to a U.S.-built eight-track tape machine (possibly an Ampex MM1000), which was converted to U.K. voltage.
While it’s unclear which of the final two studio tracks on Goodbye — “Doing that Scrapyard Thing” and “What a Bringdown” — were begun at Heider, both were completed at IBC in November.
“Doing that Scrapyard Thing” was Bruce contribution to Goodbye. “I hadn’t written anything, and it was needed in a hurry,” Bruce explained in a 1969 interview. “I was in a hotel room the night before and these nice changes just sort of came to me. We played them in the studio, and they suggested a lot more things. This was a song that was really written from the backing track. It started being serious, but the way it came out and the way I sang it became a comedy thing.”
Bruce turned to songwriting partner Peter Brown to complete the lyrics to his last-minute musical creation. “Jack and I wrote that song over the phone,” Brown explained in the liner notes to Those Were the Days:
Jack phoned me up in the middle of the night and said that they were in the studio working on a song. I asked him what the song was about and he told me that it was autobiographical. He played me the backing track over the phone. I was living with Dick Heckstall-Smith at the time, and he had a very old Grundig tape recorder. The machine was more for dictation than it was for music, but we were able to make a faint recording over the telephone. As I played it back, I wrote most of the words around the few that Jack already had, and then I phoned them back to Jack. We made some small adjustments during the call, but that was “Doing Your Scrapyard Thing.”
An absurd coming-of-age tale that gets more perverse as the song progresses, “Doing that Scrapyard Thing” is the sonic successor to adventurous Wheels of Fire studio creations like “Passing the Time.” It opens with Bruce’s piano in the left channel, Clapton’s Leslie-processed guitar in the right, and Baker’s drums mixed in stereo. When Bruce’s vocal enters, it’s accompanied by Pappalardi’s comically flatus Mellotron line. Whimsical overdubs — such as the unartfully clunking piano that appears at the lyric’s mention of a “mongrel piano” — dart in and out of the mix. If the listener isn’t yet in on the joke, Bruce’s affected falsetto brogue drives it home. Ultimately, “Scrapyard Thing” demonstrated that, for all the supergroup seriousness that the press attached to Cream, they could pull off a whimsically humorous tune as well as The Kinks or The Beatles.
The closing track on Goodbye — and Cream’s career — is Baker’s aptly titled “What a Bringdown.” With music and lyrics composed by Baker, “Bringdown” serves as a sly commentary not just on Cream’s downfall but perhaps also on the incipient decline of the sixties dream.
Propelled by Baker’s insistent, ride-heavy rhythm, a busy bassline provided by Pappalardi, and Clapton’s wah-muted chords, “Bringdown” crashes out of the gate. After about 15 seconds of this controlled cacophony, Baker retreats on his drums, Clapton’s clacks give way to acoustic strums, and Bruce’s organ and piano emerge from the mix. Taking the vocal on the Baker’s typically twisted verses, Clapton sings:
Dainties in a jam-jar, parson’s color in the sky.
Water in a fountain doesn’t get me very high.
Moby Dick and Albert making out with Captain Bligh.
So you know what you know in your head.
Will you, won’t you, do you, don’t you know when a head’s dead?
What a bringdown!
As the song progresses, the volume rises slowly and almost imperceptibly, and each lyrically labyrinthine verse ends with a variation of track’s title. Bruce takes the vocal on the bridge, then joins Clapton for the final verse, which closes with a line that could serve either as a commentary on the pecuniary frustrations3 that contributed to Cream’s demise or to the first inklings of the yippie-to-yuppie transformation: “Will you, won’t you, do you, don’t you want to make more bread? What a bringdown!”
Despite their near-perfunctory status, the three original tracks on Goodbye ensured that Cream’s career would close on a high note. For a band that struggled to find its way in the studio, “Badge,” “Doing that Scrapyard Thing,” and “What a Bringdown” pointed to “how Cream might have found a new direction, if they’d managed to survive,” as Chris Welch noted later. Even Clapton, who told Guitar Player’s Mike Molenda that the Goodbye recordings were completed under pressure from the record label, ended up pleased with the results. “We all had bits of songs, so we went into the studio in L.A. and cut them — all in the space of three or four days,” he said. “That’s why they’re really the same sound. And they really are a lot better than any of the things we had done before, because we were relieved of the pressure of the tour. We were all feeling a lot happier about things, because we knew we could do what we wanted.”
Released on February 5, 1969, Goodbye’s cover — which depicted top hat- and silver lame suit-clad trio mid dance step — seemed to poke fun at the idea that a two-year-old pop group required an elaborate send-off. “Alan Aldridge had been commissioned to design an appropriate cover and he came up with the idea,” Bruce said at the time. “We all got drunk very quickly. Fats Waller records and things like that were played in the background, and Lionel Blair showed us how to do the steps.”
Despite the evident self-deprecation, Goodbye was greeted with skepticism from reviewers who saw it as a self-aggrandizing enterprise. Record Mirror’s David Griffiths received Goodbye with a shrug, calling it “a worthwhile souvenir, though nothing super astonishing to fill us with desperate regrets that it’s all over.” In UCLA’s student newspaper, John Mendelssohn — who was then already a Rolling Stone contributor — panned Goodbye, labeling the live cuts “quite awful” and insulting Bruce’s bass playing as “a lot of very loud farting” before concluding that the studio recordings were “nowhere good enough to redeem Goodbye.” Rolling Stone’s own review, penned by Ray Rezos, was only slightly less scathing. “Goodbye is not a very worthwhile album,” Rezos wrote. “Critics will probably tear it apart, while even bona fide Cream Freaks will have to be a little disappointed. It’s like the once-famous tycoon who dies an anonymous pauper; it’s just a bad way to go out.” Perhaps the most favorable contemporary review was Mike Jahn’s equivocal evaluation in the New York Times. Jahn cited Goodbye’s live tracks as “the best live recordings the band has done” but lamented that “What a Bringdown” was the only studio cut that “stands out.”
Despite the critical disapproval, Goodbye reached number one on the British charts and number two on the Billboard 200. Cream’s swan song also has fared better in posthumous evaluations, with Robert Christgau, the famously curmudgeonly “Dean of American rock critics,” declaring it his favorite Cream album.
Cream’s albums — including Wheels of Fire and Goodbye — received their first digital releases in the mid-1980s. Since then, each has been remastered a varying number of times.
To the best of my knowledge, there are seven distinct digital masterings of Wheels of Fire:
- Released sometime in the mid-1980s (usually pegged as 1986) under various catalog numbers, the first CDs of Wheels of Fire do not include any mastering credits, either on the rear cover or within the enclosed booklet. Generally, but not always, these discs feature a photo of the band on the rear cover. Beyond the absence of mastering credits, the best way to identify these discs is that the first two tracks on disc one are both 4:58 long. Bill Levenson, then the director of catalog development for Polygram, told ICE (International CD Exchange) magazine in May 1987 that the early Cream CDs released in Europe did not use the original master tapes. “I learned that Europe was making CDs from their own tapes, when I’ve got the original master tape sitting here in New Jersey,” he told ICE. These CDs were made from “production masters filed away in Hamburg, West Germany. It was never a major issue before, because with LPs the EQ usually took care of everything.”
- The second CDs of Wheels of Fire were released in 1986. These discs include “Mastered For Compact Disc By Dennis M. Drake at PolyGram Studios” in the liner notes, but not on the back cover of the disc. The first two tracks on disc one are 4:59 and 5:00 long, respectively. Interestingly, it appears that only the studio disc features a different mastering from the CD above, while the live disc is identical. According to Levenson, this disc used the original master tape. “There are some pops and clicks,” he said, “but that’s the way the masters are these days.”
- Wheels of Fire was remastered by Steve Hoffman and released in 1992 by DCC Compact Classics as a gold CD. All versions of this mastering features a version of “Passing the Time” that’s over a minute longer than the original. All versions also feature the delightfully satirical single, “Anyone for Tennis,” which was initially recorded for The Savage Seven soundtrack, at the end of disc one. However, DCC rereleased this mastering of Wheels of Fire in 2000. This repressing added alternate mixes of “Sitting on Top of the World” and “As You Said,” as well as the original version of “Passing the Time” as additional bonus tracks at the end of disc one, after “Anyone for Tennis.” Hoffman has discussed his mastering process for this release on his forum:
Well, it was the first DCC gold disc I worked on. I picked the title myself and there was a lot of pressure to get it to sound good….
When I first got the tapes, I was not thrilled. We got many reels including the master mixes, retrieved by Bill Inglot from Atlantic where they had sat since 1968, even though they lost rights in the 1970’s. They sounded ok, but muddy and the safety reels and the overseas copies sounded shrill and thin. Someone tried to compensate for the muddiness by just jacking up the upper midrange and top end….
I listened to all copies of the original LP, the original ATCO, the recut ATCO, the Record Club versions, the Polydor UK versions, etc. Also the current PolyGram CD version. I sure didn’t like the way ANY of them sounded.
I guess I had forgotten how much I wasn’t thrilled about Tom Dowd’s mixes and how there seemed to be no bass but just mud down there…. After a week of scratching my head, I realized that my best chance to get this to sound improved over other versions was to NOT try and fix the top end and NOT try to “mask” everything (like console noise, pops and pot crackle) and just concentrate on the midrange and the bass.
I needed a LOT of extra EQ to make my ideas about how to fix the bass work, so we patched in three Sontec Paramterics in a row and I set to work. I tried a lot of stuff and finally got the low end the way I liked it; you could hear Ginger’s bass drum now and less mud in Jack’s six string bass.
I lived with this a month and then tried to do something (anything) to fix the “practice pad” of Ginger Baker’s snare drum sound. I wasted a week on this before I decided to SCREW IT and just focus in on the vocal sound. If I could get that to sound “lifelike”, I could live with the crappy snare sound. So, I discovered some of my (soon to be used all of the time) tricks to enhance the vocals so they would at least sound like real people. Tubes came in to play here for the first time on one of my projects. Kevin Gray turned me on to the use of tubes and I always try and thank him for that, even though it raises the temperature by at least 10 degrees in the room.
When I got everything fixed to my satisfaction, I scheduled a real MASTERING date and we lined up all of the gear and I gave it a shot in real time using the actual master tapes instead of the tape copy I made to save wear and tear. Too many mastering moves for one pair of hands so I drafted Kevin Gray and even my girlfriend Robin (ex-Days of Our Lives actress) to “do stuff” during the songs. Six hands working the mastering console was pretty trippy. Too bad I didn’t take any photos.
At any rate, I was finally happy with everything and even though it’s not a great recording to begin with, I think the DCC version sounds the best that it can. I love the album so I forgive the sonic weaknesses.
When the DCC version was issued, both Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce loved it (phew!) I was worried that I would get a lot of letters complaining about the noisy Atlantic mixing console and hissy mic pre’s because I left all of the non-musical “sounds” of the recordings intact, but I was mistaken. No one complained.
I could go on, but I think you get the idea. I can still listen to the DCC version of Wheels Of Fire without thinking that something needs changing or fixing; in other words, with pleasure….
The packaging for the DCC Wheels of Fire is also worth mentioning, because it’s by far the nicest
of any digital version. According to Hoffman, DCC “found the original foil vendor and day-glow ink vendors from 1968 so we could exactly duplicate the first Atco LP pressing. That took months.”
- Five years later, Wheels of Fire was remastered by Joseph M. Palmaccio. These discs are easily identifiable by the 1997 copyright on the rear, “The Cream Remasters” printed beneath the clear front of the spine, and the “Digitally remastered by Joseph M. Palmaccio at PolyGram Studios” credit included in the liner notes. This remaster series was billed as being “digitally remastered from original tapes.” The same Palmaccio mastering of the Wheels of Fire studio tracks are included in the Those Were the Days box set. However, as the box is divided between two studio discs and two live discs, Wheels of Fire is split across several discs. Moreover, some of the live songs from Wheels of Fire appear in different versions on Those Were the Days.
- A new mastering of Wheels of Fire did not appear until 2010, when a Japanese-market SACD was released. This credits for this disc state “DSD Transferred from analogue master tapes by Manabu Matsumura (UNIVERSAL MASTERING STUDIOS).” This same mastering also was used on a SHM-CD released the same year, as well as a subsequent SACD. Some online credits for this release specify that it a Japanese tape was used as the source, but I’m not sure whether that represents actual fact or an erroneous machine translation.
- Three years later, Wheels of Fire was remastered again for a Japanese-market SHM-CD. This release’s liner notes credit Bill Levenson for tape research and state “DSD flat transferred from analogue master tapes by Seth Foster at Sterling Sound, NY, in 2013. Edited in DSD by Manabu Matsumura at Universal Music Studios, Tokyo, in 2013.” Additional SHM-specific credits state “176.4/24bit transferred from DSD by Yumetoki Suzuki at Universal Music Studios, Tokyo, in 2013.” This release includes “Anyone for Tennis” and Cream’s much-maligned, grudging “Falstaff Beer Commercial” as bonus tracks on disc one. It includes live versions of “Sunshine of Your Love” and “N.S.U.” as bonus tracks on disc two. This same Foster mastering has also been released as an SACD and an MQA-CD.
- Finally, Wheels of Fire is available as a 24/192 download or stream. The exact release date of this release is unclear, as are the mastering details, which some sites credit simply as “Universal Music Group Studio Masters.” It includes “Anyone for Tennis” as a bonus track on disc one. This same mastering was used in Redbook format for the Wheels of Fire included in the Classic Album Selection box set. Interestingly, on some tracks — such as “Crossroads,” “Spoonful,” “Politician,” and “Deserted Cities” — this version’s EQ is identical to the Foster mastering’s, while on other tracks it’s radically different.
As if the above weren’t complicated enough, there’s an additional quirk that dates to Wheels of Fire’s original 1968 release. Six songs on Wheels of Fire’s studio disc — “White Room,” Passing The Time,” “Politician,” “Those Where The Days,” “Born Under A Bad Sign,” and “Deserted Cities Of The Heart” — were processed with the Haeco-CSG system.
Haeco-CSG was a decidedly non-ideal “solution” to a common problem faced by engineers in the era when the recording industry was transitioning from mono to stereo. When radio stations and listeners attempted to play stereo LPs on mono equipment, some parts of the mix would be boosted, while others would be cut, due to the phase addition or cancellation between the left and right channels. The Haeco-CSG system shifted the phase of one channel —usually by a recommended 90 degrees — to reduce, but not eliminate, the aforementioned problems when a stereo recording was “folded down” to mono. However, in the process, it made the stereo mix sound “off.”
Unfortunately, it seems that the original Wheels of Fire master tapes — rather than a copy tape used to cut vinyl — were themselves processed with Haeco-CSG. Therefore, all digital releases that use the original master tapes are contaminated with Haeco-CSG. Of the seven digital versions listed above, only the 2010 Matsumura mastering does not feature Haeco-CSG. Most fans have surmised that this is because that release is from a tape copy that was not Haeco-CSG processed. In theory it’s also possible that Matsumura reversed the Haeco-CSG processing. However, the former scenario seems more likely.
Fortunately, Haeco-CSG is relatively easy to reverse, though imperfectly. As has been discussed on several forums, a combination of free digital audio workstation software and free phase plugins can be used to rotate the phase of one channel by 90 degrees (or both channels by a combined total of 90 degrees), based on the assumption that the engineer — who’s often assumed to be Dowd, but I can’t confirm this — who did the Haeco-CSG processing following the recommended 90-degree offset. Since the discussions of this process currently available online aren’t the clearest, I’m going to post detailed step-by-step instructions on my Club TBVO blog.
However, I don’t want to assume that all listeners will want to attempt to undo the Haeco-CSG processing. First, while reversing it is true to the original recordings, leaving it intact is true to the original release. In other words, Haeco-CSG wasn’t what Cream, Dowd, and Pappalardi heard during tracking and mixdown, but it was what record buyers heard when the brought the record home in 1968. Reasonable audiophile can disagree on which perspective should be privileged. Second, some audiophiles presumably want to simply purchase a version of Wheels of Fire and listen to it, without having to delve into the world of audio engineering. Unfortunately, their choices are limited based on whether they’re willing to purchase a Haeco-CSG processed mastering or not. But they should still have the choice. Third, counteracting the CSG processing does slightly alter both the tonal balance and the sounstage that the mastering engineer worked to create.
For those reasons, my analysis below will compare the versions as they appear on each disc. When I reach the 2010 mastering, I’ll pit it against a de-CSG’d version of whichever mastering is leading the pack at that time. As I write this, I genuinely do not know which version that will be. As we shall see, while the Wheels of Fire master tapes may be imperfect in certain ways, digital audiophiles have a plethora of quality masterings from which to choose.
As usual, let’s begin the analysis of the seven digital versions of Wheels of Fire — excluding bonus tracks — by taking a peek at the dynamic range of each version, measured by both R128 dynamic range and crest factor DR scores:
Remember how I said the Wheels of Fire masterings are an embarrassment of riches? With seven versions, I’d expect that at least one could be crossed off immediately thanks to overdone compression and limiting, but that’s not the case here. No mastering consistently scores low on both the R128 and DR metrics. But just for completeness’s sake, let’s compare the level-matched waveforms of “White Room,” “Politician,” and “Crossroads” from one of the most dynamic versions (by the numbers) and the least dynamic version (by the numbers). The Drake CD is on top in red, and the 24/192 download is on the bottom in blue:
Is the Drake CD more dynamic than the 24/192 download? Yes. But even if the latter has a bit more limiting, it’s still a highly dynamic mastering. No brickwalls in sight.
For the subjective4 comparisons, let’s start chronologically with the first two masterings. I used Har-Bal to precisely level-match all versions and Audacity to instantaneously switch between each version by time-aligning the level-matched files.
The graph below shows each version’s “average power“ in Har-Bal for the songs “Crossroads,” “Deserted Cities of the Heart,” “Politician,” “Sitting on Top of the World,” “Spoonful,” and “White Room.” The uncredited mid-’80s mastering is in white, while Drake’s mastering is in red:
As noted above, the graphs for the two live tracks — “Crossroads” and “Spoonful” — are identical. Otherwise, the differences are difficult to summarize. On two tracks, for example, the uncredited mastering has more low end, but on two others the Drake has more.
In terms of sound, though, there’s no contest. The Drake mastering trounces the previous CD. On “White Room,” for example, the Drake CD is simply more resolving of finer details. Transient attacks, such as the rebound of the head on Baker’s kick drum, the string articulation on Bruce’s bass, or the whine of Clapton’s wah-wah sound veiled on the uncredited mid-’80s disc and lifelike on Drake’s mastering. Not only does Bruce’s voice sound more realistic on the Drake CD, but it’s also centered better. Finally, the soundstage on Drake’s disc is not only deeper, but much wider. Pulling up the side (at opposed to center) EQ profile in Har-Bal shows that the Drake disc has significantly more treble than earlier disc, a characteristic that’s associated with better soundstage width. Many of the same differences can be heard on “Deserted Cities” and “Sitting on Top of the World.” On the former, both Bruce’s acoustic guitar and Clapton’s blistering lead sound a bit muffled on the mid-’80s disc, while the whole mix sounds muddy and indistinct. Not so on the Drake CD, which clearly defines each instrument. On the latter, the mid-’80s mastering just sounds a bit honky and flat, thanks largely to the dominance of midrange frequencies. The differences on “Politician” are less pronounced, but they all favor Drake’s mastering, too.
With one disc down, now it’s time to pit the Drake-mastered 1986 CD (still in red) against the Hoffman-mastered 1992 DCC gold CD (in yellow):
The pattern here is relatively consistent. The Hoffman-mastered CD has more energy below 80z or so, between about 300 Hz and 800 Hz, and from about 1.5 kHz to 4 kHz or so. The Drake disc, on the other hand, tends to have more energy between 100 and 200 Hz and between 2 and 4 kHz.
Subjectively, this is where things begin to get difficult. Both of these are excellent masterings.
Beginning with “White Room,” the first thing that jumped out at me is how much the soundstage height varies between these two masterings. The Drake-mastered disc projects a much taller soundstage than the Hoffman-mastered one. Turning my attention to other elements, I noticed that Bruce’s vocal sounds more three-dimensional on the DCC disc, but also a bit less dynamic and more smoothed-ever. The extra low-end that Hoffman gave to Baker’s kick is appreciated on bright-leaning transducers like the Focal Utopia but has a little more ambiguous effect on those with more low end, such as the ZMF Atrium or my speaker setup. Particularly when using a more Harman-tuned transducers, such as the ThieAudio Monarch MKII IEMs, that extra subbass can actually feel a bit bloated. The Drake CD, on the other hand, offers better transient attacks, especially on Baker’s kit. The aforementioned rebound of the kick drum, the thwack of the snare, and the sizzle of the cymbals all sound more lifelike on the Drake disc. On brighter-leaning transducers like the Utopia, the Drake CD’s rendering of the cymbals approaches, but doesn’t edge into, tizziness. The Drake disc’s increased upper-midrange energy also gives Clapton’s wah-inflected solo more bite and energy. Given the DCC’s more forceful low end, I expected it to have the edge on the introduction to “White Room” and its dramatic reprise. However, I found both to be more dynamic and awe-inspiring on the Drake disc.
Turning to the second track on the studio disc, “Sitting on Top of the World,” the differences in the discs’ bass response sound smaller. Indeed, the Drake CD’s upper-bass advantage seems to cancel out the Hoffman disc’s ample subbass. Tonally, the balance on the Drake disc makes Bruce’s Gibson EB-3 sound fuller, while it comes across as a bit hollow on the Hoffman CD. The same is true for Baker’s punctuative snare hits during Clapton’s solo, which sound much more tonally accurate on Drake’s mastering and boxier on Hoffman’s. The extra “air” on the Drake CD gives a more in-the-room sound to Clapton’s reverb-laden guitar and provides extra dynamic punch to Bruce’s voice. As was the case with “White Room,” transients are a bit crisper on Drake’s CD and more rounded on Hoffman’s. Usually, this is simply a question of presentation, though I noted that when Baker hits his large ride cymbal before the “going down to graveyard” line, it’s easy to miss on the DCC disc, but attention-grabbing on the Drake-mastered CD.
Some of the same general observations from “White Room” and “Sitting” apply to “Politician.” The Drake CD’s soundstage is both taller and wider than the Hoffman-mastered disc’s, and the general tendency of Drake’s mastering to have more air and Hoffman’s to sound drier continues. Overall, though, I think the two masterings are fairly evenly matched on this track. The extra bass on Hoffman’s gold CD is appreciated, but Baker’s ride cymbal sounds more lifelike on the Drake disc. Which is more important is a matter of personal taste.
“Deserted Cities of the Heart” proves to be an even closer match for these two masterings, and it’s the first where I may even give the DCC a slight edge. On this track, the Hoffman-mastered disc’s better bass ends up widening the soundstage, since Bruce’s bass is panned far left. It also adds welcome heft to Baker’s kick. However, as with “White Room,” the added low end could be too much for some transducers. Moreover, Bruce’s acoustic guitar and vocal sounds more lifelike on the Drake-mastered CD.
Turning to the two tracks pulled from Wheels of Fire’s live disc, “Crossroads” and “Spoonful,” the competition is not nearly as close. The Drake-mastered CD’s presentation of these cuts is far and away superior. On both songs, the Hoffman-mastered DCC gold CD is simply too dry sounding. Very little echo from the audience microphones is audible, which significantly reduces the controlled-but-live sound created by Halverson. On both tracks, too, the vocal sounds shifted right-of-center on the DCC disc, which also pulls Baker’s drums almost wholly into the right channel. Finally, Bruce’s bass sounds a bit tubby and indistinct on the Hoffman disc but has nice growl and presence on the Drake CD.
While in most cases, audiophiles would be thrilled to have a mastering as good as either the Drake of the Hoffman CD, declaring a TBVO winner is all about going over masterings with a fine-toothed comb to select the best available, even if others are also worthy. In this case, the Drake-mastered CD beats out Hoffman’s DCC gold disc, even though it’s no sonic slouch (and still handily has the best packaging of any Wheels of Fire release).
Palmaccio’s 1997 “Cream Remasters” disc is the next contender to take on Drake’s 1986 mastering. Let’s begin by looking at each version’s Har-Bal “average power” for the sample songs. As above, the Drake CD is in red, while the Palmaccio disc is in orange.
The differences here are notably smaller than they were between the Drake- and the Hoffman-mastered CDs. On four of the six sample tracks, the Drake disc has more energy below 30 Hz, while on two the Palmaccio-mastered CD has more energy below approximately 100 Hz. The area from the upper-bass through the upper-mids is fairly even on both discs, though the Palmaccio has a bit more power on a few tracks. The same is true for the area above 2 kHz, where on about half the tracks sampled the Drake-mastered disc has a bit more treble. Overall, the EQ differences between these two masterings are subtle.
Starting again with “White Room,” this comparison seems to be even more difficult than the previous one. Both Drake and Palmaccio have provided listeners with clear and well-balanced renderings of Wheels’ most iconic song. The Drake-mastered CD retains its advantage in soundstage height, but the Palmaccio equals (and perhaps, by a hair, surpasses) it in width. While the Drake disc was unequivocally airier than the Hoffman CD, these differences are more muted here. That said, the Drake CD makes the reverb on Bruce’s vocal more obvious, giving it a greater sense of depth. Overall, though, the Drake CD does a better job of allowing the listener to separate individual elements in the mix. The wash of Pappalardi’s viola and Clapton’s overdubbed feedback-drenched guitars on the songs intro, for example, tends to blend into one sound more on the Palmaccio-mastered CD. The Drake disc also retains its edge in transient attacks and overall dynamism. While I’m not a stickler for maximum dynamics above all else, with these evenly matched discs, little difference matter. Moreover, I think the Palmaccio disc’s EQ balance cuts a bit too much low bass and adds a bit too much upper treble. Bruce’s bass and Baker’s kick have more heft on the Drake CD, while Baker’s hi-hat edges into tizziness on the Palmaccio CD, at least when listening through the Utopia.
Moving on to “Sitting on Top of the World,” the differences between these two masterings are more apparent. Immediately, I noticed that both Clapton’s rhythm guitar in the right channel and his lead in the center-left have more depth on the Palmaccio, either due to differing EQ choices or a decade’s worth of ADC improvement. In general, this is the first track where the Drake CD sounds “drier” than its competition. For “Sitting,” the Palmaccio provides a better sense of the studio space. I’d even go so far as to say that its soundstage also slightly sounds taller, too. In part, that’s because — despite what the graphs suggest — the Palmaccio’s bass is more impactful. On most transducers, this is a positive. But it can edge into bloat on some warm-neutral headphones, speakers, or IEMs. The Palmaccio also has more upper-treble energy, which — as on “White Room” — can turn Baker’s hi-hat into a somewhat amorphous sizzle. Overall, though, I think I have to give the Palmaccio disc the slight edge on this song.
With “Politician,” we have another track where these two masterings are almost evenly matched. The soundstage on both versions is very similar, but the Drake recaptures a slight edge on height. Similarly, the Drake CD’s sense of air is more like that heard on “White Room” than on “Sitting,” which provides it with another slight edge over the Palmaccio CD. That said, the extra bit of bass felt on the Palmaccio is appreciated and doesn’t seem to veer in to bloat no matter the transducer. Overall, the story on “Politician” is very similar to that of “White Room.” The Drake disc’s edge in transient attacks and overall dynamism helps put it over the top, as does its more realistic rendering of Bruce’s lead vocal and the ease with which it allows the listener to separate various elements in the mix, such as Clapton’s overlapping solos. Finally, while it’s not a major issue, I did note that a tape imperfection — one of many on Wheels — around the 3:25 mark is more noticeable on the Palmaccio CD. (In general, the Cream tapes have a lot of flaws, and some are more obvious on certain masterings.)
The sonic differences between these two masterings on “Deserted Cities of the Heart” are more like those heard on “Sitting” than on “White Room” or “Politician,” and the complexity of the track’s arrangement shows the pros and cons of each mastering approach. As on “Sitting,” the Palmaccio disc’s added low end seems to widen and deepen its soundstage relative to the Drake CD. Its extra low-end is appreciated on the song’s hard-driving bridge. However, on the verses and chorus, it comes close to bloat, even on the bass-shy Utopia. When “Deserted” transitions to the string-laden post-chorus section, the Palmaccio disc’s approach simply sounds too heavy and muddy, giving the Drake CD a clear advantage. Plus, even on the aforementioned bridge, it’s easier to separate elements in the mix on the Drake disc, even if the Palmaccio’s added bass is welcome. At the other end of the spectrum, the Palmaccio disc tends to sound wetter than the Drake CD on most elements, with a key exception being Bruce’s vocal. However, the Palmaccio CD’s presentation of Baker’s cymbals again comes a little too close to tizziness at times. Overall, while these are two very different presentation of “Deserted Cities of the Heart,” it’s hard for me to pick a clear winner. The Drake and Palmaccio CDs each have their strengths on this track. Ultimately, it seems that the song’s wild mix makes it hard to corral in the mastering stage.
Turning to the live tracks, these EQ of these two masterings are again very evenly matched. Likewise, the dramatic differences in soundstage height and room sound discussed when comparing the Drake and Hoffman masterings are again present, but not to the same degree. Instead, the overall sonic balance between these two masterings is very similar. That said, on “Crossroads,” it’s immediately noticeable that the Drake CD places Clapton’s voice slightly center-left, while the Palmaccio places it slightly center-right. Neither of these placements feels wrong, though in the process the Palmaccio also seems to pull Baker’s kit to the right, too. In contrast, it sounds evenly balanced on the Drake disc. This issue persists on “Spoonful,” and once one’s attention is drawn to it, it’s impossible to miss. Indeed, Baker’s kit sounds wholly confined to the right channel on the Palmaccio disc. Finally, as noted several times earlier, the Drake mastering retains its edge on transient crispness and dynamics. It simply sounds more like you’re at the Winterland with Cream, rather than listening to a recording of the performance.
Yet again, it’s worth underscoring that both the Drake and Palmaccio masterings are well-done. While, as with the Hoffman mastering, I can see some audiophiles preferring the Palmaccio, for me the Drake’s strengths keep it in the lead.
The next entrant is the 2010 Matsumura mastering. As noted above, this is the only mastering under consideration which is not Haeco-CSG processed.
So, for this comparison, I’ve removed the CSG processing — or, at least, done as much as possible to undo its effects — from the Drake mastering for the three CSG processed tracks in our sample, which are “White Room,” “Politician,” and “Deserted Cities of the Heart.” In this case, I’ve shifted the right channel -45 degrees and the left channel +45 degrees. How one creates the 90-degree difference has little effect on the equalization of the resulting file. However, the resulting file will always have a different EQ from the original due to the phase shift. For example, here’s how “White Room” from the Drake CD (red) compares to the resulting file after undoing the CSG (pink):
This slight tonal shift illustrates why I chose not to attempt to undo the CSG processing on all versions prior to my TBVO analysis. Removing the CSG may improve the imaging on the affected tracks, but it also alters the tonal balance in ways that are either positive or negative, depending on one’s view of that particular mastering. I’d also argue that even the first benefit varies based on the version in question. While Bruce’s vocal is wider and somewhat less processed on the de-CSG’d version of the Drake mastering, for example, I tend to prefer its placement in the soundstage on the original CD.
Nonetheless, the imaging difference between the CSG’d Drake CD and the non-CSG’d Matsumara SACD are so obvious that I felt the need to undo the CSG processing on the Drake disc to make sure I was able to focus on the tonal differences between the two versions. With that said, here’s how the de-CSG’d Drake CD compares to the 2010 Matsumura mastering. The former is still in red, while latter is in purple:
Generally, it appears that Matsumura’s mastering has more energy than Drake’s mastering from the midbass through the midrange but tends to have less energy than Drake’s mastering in both the low bass and, especially, the treble.
This is probably the easiest comparison of all of the Wheels of Fire versions. By virtually every metric, the Matsumura disc is the worst version under review, including those that have already been crossed off our list. On “White Room,” for example, the Matsumura disc sounds veiled and flat. All of the air is sucked out of the recording, Bruce’s voice is shifted to the left, and there are moments of distortion that don’t exist on any other version. With the exception of the vocal shift, the same criticisms apply to “Sitting on Top of the World,” one of the songs that doesn’t feature CSG processing on any version. The live tracks are marginally better, but they still suffer from the drums-to-one-side problem and lack of room reverberation that I’ve cited as a mark against other versions. In short, the Drake CD handily beats the Matsumura SACD.
Our penultimate Wheels of Fire version is Foster’s 2013 mastering, a comparison that returns us to our original CSG-processed files. Here’s how it (green) compares to the Drake CD (red) in Har-Bal:
On two of our sampled tracks—”Spoonful” and “Deserted Cities”— the Foster disc closely resembles the Drake CD, except it adds more bass below approximately 100 Hz. On two others—”White Room” and “Sitting”— the two masterings are very similar, only Foster’s mastering adds just a hair more midrange and subtracts a bit of upper treble. On the live tracks — ”Spoonful” and “Crossroads” — Foster’s mastering tends to have quite a bit less low bass and a smidge more treble.
Beginning with “White Room,” it’s obvious that these are two excellent masterings. Some of the differences I noted with previous masterings are still apparent. The Drake CD has a taller soundstage and more air than the Foster disc. However, the Foster disc is no slouch in those departments, and individual elements in the mix sound slightly more three-dimensional than on the Drake disc. Its slightly darker presentation also tames the slight tizziness on cymbals that I noted when listening to the Drake CD on bright transducers. It also nearly equals the Drake disc’s crisp transients. That said, at times Foster’s mastering sounds a bit too dry and still trails Drake’s mastering slightly on dynamics. Like some other masterings under review, the Foster mastering shifts Bruce’s lead vocal — and the whole soundstage — slightly to the right of what feels centered. Overall, this is an extremely close call, but the Drake CD still wins by a hair.
The Drake and Foster discs’ presentations of “Sitting on Top of the World” are remarkably similar. That said, most tend to favor Drake’s mastering. The Foster disc’s main advantage is an ever-so-slightly better depth on individual elements, which is something that I tend to associate with newer ADC technology. However, the Foster mastering sounds a bit too veiled, particularly when it comes to Baker’s drums. It also again shifts the soundstage slightly to the right.
“Politician” is an even closer call. For this track, each version’s soundstage is almost identical. The main difference is that the Drake version has slightly more sizzle on Baker’s cymbals, while the Foster version has slightly more thump on his kick. Depending on one’s taste, I could see preferring either. However, in my view the added low-end further obscures the crisp rebound of his kick’s head, which comes through crystal clear on the Drake CD.
Turning to “Deserted Cities of the Heart,” I’m pleased to say that Foster’s mastering seems to thread the needle between the Drake CD’s clarity and the Hoffman version’s thump. While Drake’s mastering of this track is still no slouch, I prefer Foster’s fuller rendering, which has the effect of widening the soundstage.
Finishing with the two live tracks in our sample, the Drake pulls ahead again. While it’s not nearly as noticeable as on some other masterings, the Foster disc’s presentations of “Crossroads” and “Spoonful” again shift the soundstage slightly to the right and lack some of the venue ambiance that Halverson worked so hard to incorporate into these recordings.
Overall, the Drake CD pulls out another win. That said, Foster’s mastering is superb. Its presentation of “Deserted Cities of the Heart” is the best I’ve heard thus far.
That leaves our final entrant, the undated 24/192 mastering available from download and streaming sites. Let’s take a look at how the Drake (red) compares to the hi-res version (blue) in Har-Bal:
Overall, these two masterings have very similar tonal balances. Generally, the 24/192 version has a bit more bass. Sometimes this is confined to the midbass, with the Drake CD having more subbass. Other times, it extends from around 100 Hz all the way down.
But remember how I said that 24/192 download is identical to the Foster mastering on some tracks?
Well, that’s something that I only discovered when I got to this point in my critical listening. When casually (i.e. relaxing with some IEMs, my iPad, and a portable DAC/amp) listening to the various versions of Wheels of Fire that I’d accumulated on Roon one night, I spent some time playing the intro to “White Room” over and over again on each version. That’s how I made my first rough list of which masterings were definitely different. I then took that list and confirmed the difference in Har-Bal. But, again, I used just one track from each version to graph. And, again, I chose “White Room” as my sample track. It’s at this point that I pulled more tracks from each album, level-matched them, labeled them, and dumped them into the folder that I use for my critical listening in Audacity. All along, I assumed that the Foster SHM-CD and 24/192 download were wholly distinct. Moreover, because of the way these critical listening showdowns are structured, I don’t graph every version against every other version, which would be a dizzying task with seven distinct masterings. Instead, I tend to graph each subsequent version against either a single benchmark mastering or against whichever is the mastering that’s currently winning the TBVO crown at that point in my analysis. So, for example, a few paragraphs above, I graphed the 24/192 mastering against the Drake CD, because the Drake CD is currently in the lead as the best mastering. This means that I never graphed every track from the Foster SHM-CD and 24/192 download against each other in Har-Bal. Instead, I only ever compared “White Room” from the Foster and 24/192 against each other back when I did that very first Har-Bal analysis to create my list of unique masterings. So, I went into my critical listening assuming that Foster and 24/192 differed on every track.
Initially, that seemed to check out. Remember, at this step in the review, the Drake CD is in the lead. So, as a product of my process-of-elimination analysis, my critical listening at this point in the TBVO consists of level-matched, highly critical, repetitive instant switching between the Drake CD and the 24/192 download. At this point, I had no reason to critically listen to the 24/192 download against the Foster mastering, since the Foster mastering had already been eliminated as inferior overall to the Drake disc.
When comparing the 24/192 download to the Drake-mastered CD, I began with “White Room” and “Sitting on Top of the World.” Here were my thoughts, as written before I doubled back to insert the digression you’ve been reading for the past few paragraphs:
If “White Room” is any indication of the 24/192 mastering’s overall quality, this is going to be my toughest decision yet. The soundstage between these two versions is almost identical from left to right, though the Drake CD remains just a bit taller. Like the Foster mastering, this 24/192 version seems to provide a little more depth on individual instruments than the Drake CD does. I also think I prefer the hi-resolution version’s trading of some upper treble for some midbass. That said, the Drake CD retains its edge in dynamics. Which is better? I honestly can’t say. There are things I appreciate about both, and we’re picking the smallest of nits in trying to differentiate between two superb masterings.
With “Sitting on Top of the World,” we have perhaps an even tighter contest. These two masterings sound incredibly similar. Overall, the 24/192 version again has subjectively more front-to-back depth, while Drake’s CD projects a soundstage that is just a little bit taller. The Drake CD also seems to have just a bit more energy in the “presence” region, which gives the string articulation on Bruce’s bass a bit more edge. However, Baker’s drums sound more realistic on the 24/192 download, thanks to that versions improved depth. Which is better? Again, I’m stumped.
I put on “Politician” next. I began flipping back-and-forth between the level-matched files from the 24/192 download and the Drake CD. I started taking notes, including, “The added front-to-back depth of the 24/192 version is definitely appreciated on this track. However, the extra bass can, at times, muddy up the mix.” At that point, I thought, “Wow, it seems like I’m noticing the same things about how the 24/192 differs from the Drake CD as I noticed about how the Foster mastering compared to the Drake CD.” During the solo section in “Politician,” for example, Baker really attacks his kick. On the Foster mastering, the kick drum doesn’t distort, per se, but the thwack of the pedal on the kick drum’s head is just a little fuzzy. Indeed, not only is that sound clearer on the Drake CD, but that lack of fuzziness also lets you hear a small click left behind from noisy console switches, a tape edit, or some other unfortunate side effect of analog recording. On the Foster mastering, though, that click merges with the fuzziness of Baker’s kick. So, when I found myself noticing that same quirk when flipping between the 24/192 download and the Drake CD, I got curious.
I put on “Deserted Cities of the Heart” and started switching between the Drake CD, the Foster SHM-CD, and the 24/192 download… and the latter two sounded virtually identical to me! But was I just fooling myself? I took a deep breath, pulled up Har-Bal, and started graphing the Foster mastering against the hi-res files on all of my Wheels of Fire samples. It turns out that, of the six songs I pulled from Wheels of Fire for this TBVO, “White Room” and “Sitting” were the only two for which the Foster SHM-CD and 24/192 versions had different EQ graphs. “Spoonful,” “Politician,” “Deserted,” and “Crossroads” were identical.
I resisted the urge to graph all of the songs on Wheels in Har-Bal to get a definitive count of how many songs differ between the Foster mastering and the 24/192 version. But by ear I’d guess that at least one or two other tracks don’t match. So I won’t weigh in on whether the Foster SHM-CD or the 24/192 download is better.
But I do know that Drake-mastered CD is better than both. So, Drake’s original 1986 CD is the winner of the very hard-fought TBVO crown for Wheels of Fire. This is an album where audiophiles have numerous excellent choices. I consider the Foster and hi-res versions tied for a close second to Drake’s mastering. Differentiating beyond that is even more difficult. But I will say that the Palmaccio and Hoffman masterings are head-and-shoulders better than the pre-Drake CD and Matsumura version, which easily lands in last place.
What about Goodbye?
The digital mastering history of Goodbye is very similar to that of Wheels of Fire, but with its own quirks. In the case of Goodbye, the audiophile label release is from Mobile Fidelity, not DCC, while the hi-res download fully matches the 2014 Japanese SHM and SACD releases. Thus, Goodbye has six unique digital masterings, rather than seven:
- The first version of Goodbye was released in mid-1986 in Japan with the P33W-25013 catalog number. It was reissued a few more times, including as late as reissued as 1993. In the aforementioned ICE interview, Levenson held this release in especially poor regard. “[It’s] a travesty,” he said. “For their cover, they just took a photo of the album jacket. Japan, for reasons I don’t quite understand, beat to their own drummer. They want to do something, [and] they just do it. They don’t use masters, because I know they don’t ask us for them. So if it’s a Japanese import, I’m usually… pretty wary.”
- As with Wheels of Fire, the second version Goodbye was mastered by Dennis Drake. While some Discogs entries suggest this mastering appeared as early as 1984, the ICE interview and other evidence suggest it was first released sometime in 1986 or 1987 under many, many, many different catalog numbers. Thankfully, the Drake-mastered CDs are easy to identify, even when sealed. Near the bottom of the back cover, these copies read, “Digitally remastered from the original master tapes by Dennis M. Drake, Polygram Studios, USA.” One warning to potential buyers, though, is that I found that some rarer copies, such as a 1991 Spanish edition, have EQ small deviations from the other Drake-mastered CDs. Specifically, they have very slight roll-off below 20 Hz and above 10 kHz. So I’d recommend sticking to the more common Polydor-branded CDs found in the U.S. Finally, the Drake-mastered CDs feature “Anyone for Tennis” as a bonus.
- The third digital mastering of Goodbye came in 1996, when Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs released Goodbye as a Gold Ultradisc II, mastered with MFSL’s lauded GAIN system.
- A year later, Joseph M. Palmaccio’s remastering of Goodbye as part of the aforementioned “Cream Remasters” was released. As with Wheels of Fire, this same mastering was used on the 1997 Those Were the Days box set. However, the Goodbye tracks are split across multiple discs and a different performance of “Politician” was used on the box set. The Palmaccio mastering is also featured on a 1997 Polydor gold CD and a 2008 Japanese SHM-CD.
- Goodbye was not remastered again until 2010, when it was released as a Japanese SHM-CD. Besides the OBI strip commonly added to Japanese CDs, this release looks outwardly identical to a Palmaccio-mastered CD. It even includes “Cream Remasters” on the transparent spine. But inside the liner notes it says, “Mastered by Manabu Matsumura (Universal Music Studios), DSD Remaster 2010.”
- The final (as of this writing) digital mastering of Goodbye was done in 2014. Originally released as a SHM-CD and SACD, the liner notes of this edition specify that it was “DSD flat transferred from analogue master tapes by Seth Foster at Sterling Sound, NY, in 2014. Edited in DSD by Masaru Takagi (SIProject) at Sunrise Studio, Tokyo, in 2014.” Additional credits include “176.4/24bit transferred from DSD by Yumetoki Suzuki at Universal Music Studios, Tokyo, in 2013.” This Foster mastering has been reissued on subsequent SACDs. It’s also the same mastering currently available as a hi-res stream or download on sites like ProStudioMasters and Qobuz. Finally, it was also included in Redbook format as part of the Classic Album Selection box set.
The R128 dynamic range and crest factor DR scores for these six versions show that all are plenty dynamic:
Given that, let’s begin our subjective comparison by taking a peek at the Har-Bal “average power“ graphs for all six songs Goodbye, taken from the 1986 Japanese CD (white) and the Drake-mastered CD (red) after level-matching the files:
Wow. Just… wow. I won’t insult the intelligence of Audiophile Style’s readers by parsing the enormous differences between these two masterings’ EQ choices except to say that the 1986 Japanese CD has much, much more bass and treble that the Drake-mastered CD.
How do these radically different interpretations of Goodbye compare to one another?
Well, if anything Bill Levenson was holding back when he called the Japanese CD “a travesty.” Given understandable differences of opinion of what a concert recording should sound like — the sound at the microphone, the sound in the audience, etc. — there’s a relatively wide range of acceptable presentations of live audio. However, the Japanese CD still manages to fall outside of that range. On “I’m So Glad,” Bruce and Clapton’s vocals are buried, while the instrumental mix is a boomy, tizzy mess. The extremely V-shaped EQ creates an incredibly wide, but incredibly amorphous soundstage. The tonality of every instrument is radically reshaped. Baker’s snare, for example, sounds like another tom, while his kick is amplified out of all proportion. Even worse, his cymbals are a hollow, swishy mess. Things are even worse when it comes to the studio tracks. On “Badge,” the amount of hiss on the tape used for the Japanese CD makes it sound as though it was raining inside Wally Heider Studios. Meanwhile, the equalization pushes Clapton’s vocal to the back and renders both the brilliant backing vocals and Clapton’s Leslie-processed guitar almost inaudible. Further, as on “I’m So Glad,” Baker’s kick and the low end of Bruce’s bass occupy far too much sonic space, while Baker’s cymbals sound both phasey and Casio-keyboard fake. Given the Japanese disc’s glaring flaws, there’s essentially no point in delving into the nuances of how Drake’s mastering compares, since virtually any competent mastering would trounce the Japanese CD.
However, crossing the 1986 Japanese disc off of our list allows us to pit the Drake-mastered CD against the 1993 MFSL gold disc. So let’s first take a look at how the two compare in Har-Bal. The Drake disc is still in red, while the MFSL CD is in yellow:
Generally, the MFSL disc has quite a bit more bass than the Drake CD and a smidge more upper treble, while mostly tracking the Drake CD from the upper bass through the lower treble.
While I tend to analyze tracks in order, I want to begin with the studio portion of Goodbye and “Badge,” specifically. That’s because it illustrates something about the various masterings of Goodbye that jumped out at me even during my casual listening.
When you press play on “Badge” as it’s presented on the Drake disc, the background isn’t silent. But the level of tape hiss is as low (or lower) than what one hears on audiophile masterings of 1968’s other classic albums, such as Bookends and Music from Big Pink. But when you press play on the MFSL or, indeed, every subsequent mastering of “Badge,” you’re confronted with hiss that — while not as bad as that found on the 1986 Japanese CD — is nonetheless very, very noticeable.
Here are level-matched extracts of the intro to “Badge” from the MFSL CD, the Drake CD, and two others. See if you can spot which one is the Drake disc:
Audio: Listen here.
Not difficult to tell, is it? Moreover, this glaring difference did not go away when I added compression to the Drake-mastered sample or even used Har-Bal to clone the MFSL CD’s equalization and apply it to the Drake CD. The Drake disc simply seems to use a better tape source than every other available digital version of Goodbye. Thus, while I’m still going to analyze the remaining versions of Goodbye against the Drake CD, you can probably already see that we’re headed for a technical knockout.
Returning to the Drake CD’s rendering of the intro to “Badge” demonstrates why this attention to tape hiss isn’t mere audiophile perfectionism. George Harrison’s choppy, palm-muted rhythm guitar is mixed far left. On the MFSL disc — and all of the other upcoming version — Harrison’s guitar sounds very dry. Only if you really boost the volume and listen closely can you detect a hint of reverb on Harrison’s guitar. Even then, that reverb is almost wholly confirmed to the left channel. However, if you isolate the right channel, you can hear that some of the reverb is actually mixed there, too. But on the Drake disc, that stereo reverb is obvious. Indeed, the chunky slap of Harrison’s guitar strings shooting from left to right now becomes one of the defining sonic features of the intro to “Badge.”
These differences extent to every element of “Badge,” too. It’s far easier to separate the double-tracking on Clapton’s lead vocal on the Drake CD, and as with Harrison’s guitar, the echo on Clapton’s vocal is much more apparent thanks to the lower noise floor. Baker’s kit also sounds much more realistic on the Drake CD than on the MFSL disc. Even though the latter boosts the region above 10 kHz, its higher noise floor masks the final decay of each cymbal crash. The same goes for Bruce’s bass, which has ample string articulation on the Drake disc, but sounds boomy and muffled on the MFSL. While the “throwing a blanket over the speakers” comparison is a cliché, it’s one that applies when switching from the Drake mastering to the MFSL CD.
Moreover, my observations about “Badge” can be virtually copied-and-pasted to Goodbye’s two other studio tracks, “Doing that Scrapyard Thing” and “What a Bringdown.” On the latter, listen to the discernibility of the lead vocal’s reverb on the Drake versus the MFSL, or, for that matter, the audibility of the low-mixed acoustic guitar in the left channel. While I won’t enumerate them, the differences on “Scrapyard” are even more noticeable.
The benefits of Drake’s superior tape source extend to Goodbye’s live cuts, too. On “I’m So Glad,” for example, the reverb from the venue on Bruce and Clapton’s vocals is obscured by the MFSL’s higher noise floor but is crystal clear on the Drake disc.
That doesn’t mean that, given the tape source, the MFSL CD is a bad mastering. There are times that I may slightly prefer its EQ, at least when listening on bright-leaning transducers. The added heft of Bruce’s bass on “I’m So Glad,” for example, is welcome. However, it’s also hard to criticize Drake’s equalization choices. Indeed, when I used Har-Bal to apply the MFSL’s EQ to “I’m So Glad” from the Drake disc, I realized I still preferred Drake’s equalization choices as a whole. Yes, the added low end gives more of an “in the audience” feel. But it does so at the expense of some detail retrieval. This perhaps was a good choice for MFSL’s engineer, since the lower-quality tape source didn’t have as many details to be obscured. But at the same time, it can sound downright boomy on warm-leaning headphones and IEMs or full-range speaker systems.
So it’s no surprise that the Drake CD defeats the MFSL gold disc, hands down.
Next up is Palmaccio’s mastering of Goodbye for the late-1990s “Cream Remasters” series. Here’s how it (orange) compares to the Drake disc (red) in Har-Bal:
Even more so than with Wheels of Fire, Palmaccio’s Goodbye mastering follows Drake’s very closely. The Palmaccio disc consistently has a bit more energy above 9 kHz across all tracks, but sometimes its slight treble boost can begin as low as 2 kHz. It also has quite a bit more bass on “Doing that Scrapyard Thing.”
How does the Palmaccio disc sound?
Starting again with “Badge,” it’s clear that Palmaccio did an even better job managing the poor quality tape than MFSL did. However, it’s still dramatically worse than Drake’s mastering thanks to its superior source. Even beyond that, I consistently preferred Drake’s EQ choices, including the bass difference on “Scrapyard.”
Again, there’s no contest. Drake’s mastering handily bests the Palmaccio disc.
What about Matsumura’s 2010 SHM-CD? First, here’s how it (purple) compares to the Drake CD (red) in Har-Bal:
The differences in equalization between these two discs don’t follow a clear pattern. In some cases, the Matsumura mastering has much more treble. In other cases, it has much more bass. In still others, it just has less midrange.
I’d love to be able to say that the Matsumura SHM-CD avoids the hiss that plagued the MFSL and Palmaccio discs. But it doesn’t. Even worse, it sounds considerably more compressed and features worse equalization than virtually any other version besides the original “travesty” disc.
The Drake CD knocks off another contender.
That leaves the Foster mastering. Let’s take a look at how its equalization (green) compares to the Drake CD’s (red):
In all cases, the Foster mastering has at least a modest amount of additional bass energy compared to the Drake CD. In some cases, such as “Doing that Scrapyard Thing,” it’s a lot more bass energy. The Foster mastering then tracks Drake’s pretty closely throughout the midrange. On some tracks, but not others, it adds a bit more treble, too.
Subjectively, I think Foster’s mastering is the best of the non-Drake versions. His EQ choices are solid, even if I don’t necessarily prefer them to Drake’s, and he seems to have done the best job out of all of the other options of getting the most out of a flawed tape source. But, again, it’s simply impossible to make a tape with that much hiss and wear sound as good as one that’s much cleaner.
As is surely no surprise, Drake’s mastering of Goodbye wins the TBVO crown in a rout.
The saga of the Goodbye masterings naturally raises the question of which tape is the original two-track master. Did MFSL, Palmaccio, and Foster use a very, very worn original master tape, while Drake used a virtually untouched safety copy? Or did Drake use the original master, while other engineers erroneously used an inferior copy that somehow got mislabeled as the original master? As far as I can tell, nobody seems to know the truth. I downloaded digital transfers of the original vinyl release of Goodbye out of curiosity, and they all sounded pretty hissy. But it’s difficult to know how much of that is attributable to surface noise and wear on 50-year-old vinyl. Plus, who’s to say whether the two-track master was even used to cut the original vinyl editions of Goodbye?
What I do know is that Drake’s Wheels of Fire and Goodbye CDs join the pantheon of early Compact Disc releases that truly lived up to the format’s promise of “perfect sound forever.” Everyone knows that too many early CDs — often sourced from low-quality cutting tapes EQ’d for vinyl — made a joke out of that marketing slogan. That’s one of the main reasons that so few 1980s CDs end up winning these TBVO shootouts. Add in the often-primitive quality of early Analog-to-Digital Converters, and it’s just difficult for 40-year-old CDs to top more recent masterings, with the clear exception of those subject to “Loudness Wars“ compression. Maybe a careful mastering of the Goodbye using the Drake CD’s tape source could top Drake’s CD, given the advances in ADC technology and the at least theoretical benefits of high resolution audio. But, then again, as far as I can tell, the same Wheels of Fire tape was used by Drake, Hoffman, Palmaccio, and Foster, yet the Drake-mastered version still sounds better to my ears. If more early CDs were like Drake’s Wheels of Fire and Goodbye, perhaps decades of audiophile frustrations could’ve been avoided.
The Drake-mastered discs’ double win was so impressive and so surprising that I felt the need to reach out to Dennis Drake to ask him about his memories of mastering Cream’s catalog in the mid-’80s. Below is our email exchange, edited slightly for clarity:
JM: Do you have any general recollections about the tapes used (original masters, safety copies, etc.) and what shape they were in back then?
DD: After much searching at the Polygram Vault in Edison, NJ, I finally found the original masters. They were in plain brown generic boxes with minimal documentation. The tapes were in good playable condition and probably just needed new splices. I can’t stress enough the importance of using the first generation master for the digital transfer. I was very impressed with the original recording quality and production.
JM: Do you remember what ADC you used or any other technical details about your mastering process (EQ moves, etc.)?
DD: I had hot-rodded my mastering studio at Polygram with custom Cello Tape Electronics running off the Ampex ATR-100 tape machine. This ran into an ADS 900 D/A Converter running at 44.1/24 bits. The signal was then dithered down to 16 bits for CD using a Weiss BW102 Redithering Module. My EQ choices at the time were the Cello Audio Palette, Lang or Pultec Tube units, or Focusrite outboard gear. Furthermore, I did not use and compression or limiting. I wanted to retain the full energy and of the original recording.
JM: Your mastering of Goodbye is much, much clearer than any subsequent mastering. All other masterings of Goodbye feature much higher levels of tape hiss. So it seems to me that the tape source you used was clearly superior. I know this echoes my first question, but I can’t help but wonder if you were the only engineer who had access to the original master tape, or if you strategically used a copy tape because the master was in such bad shape?
DD: I do remember doing comparisons on my sources for Goodbye Cream. Some tapes were “played out” but I was able to find a suitable source. I don’t recall the actual tape used but I was happy with it.
JM: I’m assuming that no noise reduction processing was used on the CD, correct? It doesn’t sound like it, but I wanted to check.
DD: I don’t remember using any noise reduction on the Goodbye Cream disc.
JM: Do you have any guesses as to why some early CDs of Wheels of Fire have the same live disc as your CD, but a different (worse) mastering on the studio disc?
DD: Earlier masterings of the Wheels of Fire CD may have been done by PolyGram in Germany or Holland. They had studios there at both locations. It’s possible the company wanted to get it to market before the U.S. mastering was complete.
There you have it.
Wheels of Fire and Goodbye represent Cream at their peak, and there’s no better way to hear them than by going out and getting copies of the CDs mastered by Dennis Drake all the way back in 1986.
1. The exact sequence of the completion of Cream’s 1968 U.S. tour, the final overdubs on Wheels of Fire, and the album’s release is unclear. According to multiple sources, the band didn’t return to Atlantic Studios until the tour dates were complete. The liner notes for the DCC CD reissue of the album confirm that the final overdubs took place in June, while Jack Bruce’s official website dates them to June 12-13. However, the final date on Cream’s spring/summer 1968 U.S. tour took place in New Jersey on June 16. Making matters more complicated, biographer Thompson says the sessions occurred two weeks before the album’s release date. Most sources say that Wheels of Fire hit U.S. shelves on June 14, but Thompson says it wasn’t released until July. Wheels was advertised in Billboard’s June 22 issue, alongside other albums released in mid-June, and a short article in the July 6 issue (in which Wheels also was reviewed) reported that the album was “release[d] at the Atlantic/Atco sales conventions held June 14.” Yet Wheels was listed under “new releases” in the July 14 issue of Billboard and made its first appearance on the magazine’s “Top LPs” chart that week. If the June 14 release date is correct, it seems likely that the overdub sessions took place sometime at the beginning of June, not at the end of the tour. On the other hand, if it was not released until July, then the June 12-13 dates or a session after the final New Jersey concert seem plausible.
2. Incidentally, we have some fortunate requests from Pappalardi and Halverson to thank for the existence of the Goodbye Tour box set. The original multitrack tapes of both of Cream’s 1968 tours were destroyed in the infamous 1978 Atlantic Records storage facility fire. However, both Pappalardi and Halverson had their own 7-inch analog reels containing rough mixes of the Oakland, Los Angeles, and San Diego shows done by Halverson in 1968. “For the mixdown [of the Goodbye live tracks], the tapes went to New York,” Halverson told me. “But Felix came to me during the San Diego remote and said, ‘When you get back to LA — before you ship the tapes to New York — could you make me [tapes] of the three nights?’ And I said, ‘Sure. But if I’m making one for you, can I make one for me too?’ He said, ‘Sure.’” With Pappalardi’s tragic murder in 1983, the whereabouts of his copy are presumably unknown. However, Universal’s Bill Levenson was able to secure Halverson’s copy for the Goodbye Tour box. Thus, the combination of a whim by Pappalardi, a request by Halverson, and Levenson's archival diligence gave fans perhaps the only unreleased professionally recorded Cream concerts still in existence.
3. Manager Robert Stigwood infamously cajoled the band into recording a jingle for Falstaff beer. “Eric didn’t want to do it, neither did Ginger,” Bruce told Thompson. “I hated Falstaff. It was the worst imitation of beer ever. But I remember Ginger saying, ‘I’m old, I’ll be skint, [and] we’ve got to do this for the money.’ So we agreed to do it and it was a good song, if we’d done it without the ‘Falstaff thirst-quencher’ bit.” Mercifully, the jingle seems to have gone unused by the company, but it eventually appeared on the Those Were the Days box and as a bonus track on the Japanese SHM-CD of Wheels of Fire.
4. For the subjective analyses, all CD editions were ripped with XLD. SACDs were ripped to an ISO with a PlayStation 3. Then I used Sonore’s ISO2DSD to extract the DSD from the ISO. Finally, I use Sonore’s DSD2FLAC to convert the DSD files to PCM. In order to make sure that Har-Bal’s graphs, which are affected by sample rates, present apples-to-apples visual comparisons, all hi-res files were downsampled to 16/44.1 with XLD. Finally, all files were level-matched using Har-Bal’s loudness matching function. To make comparing these masterings easier, I lined up the level-adjusted versions of each in Audacity and used its solo function for instantaneous switching. The main DAC used was a Berkeley Audio Reference Series Alpha DAC with the most recent firmware. I also used the Matrix Sabre Pro. For speaker listening, amplification came from a Bryston 4B Cubed power amplifier and a Benchmark HPA4 preamp/headphone amplifier, which drove KEF Reference 1 speakers with an SVS SB-13 Ultra subwoofer. Headphone listening was done with the Matrix DAC and the Flux FA-10 amp in front of Focal Utopia and ZMF Atrium headphones.
About the Author
Josh Mound has been an audiophile since age 14, when his father played Spirit's "Nature's Way" through his Boston Acoustics floorstanders and told Josh to listen closely. Since then, Josh has listened to lots of music, owned lots of gear, and done lots of book learnin'. He's written about music for publications like Filter and Under the Radar and about politics for publications like New Republic, Jacobin, and Dissent. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife and two cats.