Grande Ballroom October 1967

Released 2005 on none
The Seth Man, January 2017ce
Almost a year to the date prior to the recording of The MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams” at the same venue, this performance by Cream must have been one shock and two awes to the Detroit audience that stumbled out of that hallowed hall once the smoke finally cleared. For this recording holds the highest peak of creative fire of the group (and especially Clapton) live or studio; then, now and forever.

How do I know? Well, I spent a great deal of time as a teenager listening to Cream. Lots of it, and brother: ALL of it. Live and in the studio. Even “Wrapping Paper,” “Anyone For Tennis?” and “The Coffee Song” AND usually at top volume at night while skipping over the blues covers. The Martin Sharp sleeve designs for “Disraeli Gears” and “Wheels Of Fire” were probably as much to blame as the guitar on those records, which seemed to negotiate every arrangement that surrounded it by ESP alone.

The oddest thing of all is how the artist formerly known as Gawd has gotten away with decades of releasing bland solo albums as though just being Clapton was enough of an excuse. But if Gawd is love and love is blind, then it would seem to follow that Clapton must have been artistically blind (or at least deaf) for the past half a century, which is no way to carry on with a career but a strong indication that a ‘successful’ one somehow demands it.

But back in late 1967, Clapton was an entirely different animal and the sounds he needled forth were, to my teenaged mind, wildly mesmerising. Especially on “Disraeli Gears” which was where the confidence of his playing, his rhythmic intuition, perfect hand vibrato, weird kazoo tone on “SWLABR,” “We’re Going Wrong,” Outside Woman Blues,” the wah-wah on “Tales of Brave Ulysses” all resonated with me in the biggest way possible. (Conversely, there were several unsuccessful patches I’d avoid like “Blue Condition,” “Take It Back” and the other music hall throwaway that thought it was closing the album like “Something Happened To Me Yesterday”...only didn’t.)

All of this was greatly reinforced by constant viewing of the inner sleeves that came with albums on the London/Deram label that featured colour reproductions of selections of their back catalogue. Many looked promising. Especially those by Ten Years After and Savoy Brown that hung alongside “Between The Buttons” and “In Search of the Lost Chord” as they collectively appeared more like the after-effect of a 12 inch square of blotter acid than mere four-colour offset printing. Even the John Mayall albums looked deeply trippy, so I reasoned that these electric blues monsters were actually psychedelic just by virtue of their sleeves looking like the epitome of terrifying, visionary LSD experiences laid bare. So it seemed to follow that the music within would yield a likewise transcendental glimpse of something that was going to convey excitement, truth, wonder or even better: weirdness on a scale I could not yet conceive.

This was a thesis that would be disproved time and time again, caused largely in part by purchasing that fateful copy of “Disraeli Gears.” It reached a crescendo a couple of years later when I was becoming hectored by a wad of Ten Years After albums that presented their secondhand sleeves to me in the used bins of Second Hand Rose’s on Sixth Avenue, New York City. What appeared before me was their entire Deram back catalogue minus the then-elusive “Stonedhenge” (which surfaced long after all the burnt fingers healed and I didn’t care anymore): “Ten Years After,” “Undead,” “Ssshh,” “Cricklewood Green” and “Watt” were all present and accounted for and as a group looked pretty impressive. I already had in my possession their last two albums on Columbia (hardly the place to begin or finish with Ten Years After but for $2.99 apiece how could you lose) as the direct result of Cream -- those perpetrators of initially blurring my distinctions between psychedelia and what was in essence amped-up, distended electric blues. They also caused me to weave a crooked path of exploration through Blind Faith, Traffic, Big Brother & The Holding Company, Electric Flag, John Mayall (up to 1970), Iron Butterfly (on Atco), Vanilla Fudge (ditto), Donovan (on Epic), Mountain (on nitrous oxide), both volumes of “Woodstock” as well as the soundtracks for “Easy Rider,” “Here We Go ‘Round The Mulberry Bush” and “Revolution.” I prudently decided to save Hendrix for that rainy day in the future when I had money because I knew beforehand he was gonna be one almighty headful so for the moment nothing would be spared in the lesser realms of the used album bins. “Grape Jam”? Oh, yeah. “Super Session”? Right here, please. “The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper”? Gimme! I even found the first Sopwith Camel album for next to nothing, so I felt well on my way down the road to psychedelic Rock enlightenment and quickly felt -- no, KNEW -- that weekends would never be the same.

Oh, but how they wouldn’t. Especially after that Friday afternoon when I tarried too long in front of that engorged Ten Years After section. Of special interest was their first, self-titled LP because it looked about as psychedelic as “Piper At The Gates of Dawn” and was obviously a tailor-made visual vibe of that album crossed with the moody, black background of “Fresh Cream” or my name is Robert “Hurricane” Stigwood. There was a ten-minute-plus track called “Help Me” that ended the album which the antiquated liner notes reported was recorded late one night in the studio in total darkness, so I assumed they were stoned when they did it. Besides, Alvin Lee was sporting the same Hendrix perm as Clapton and Syd so it MUST be psychedelic. With such overwhelming evidence as this, how could it not?

I bought them all and in that total last minute flush of over-confident excitement and impulse, scooped up both albums by Ginger Baker’s Air Force, entirely inspired by cursory glances at the superstar lineup and their loud, psychedelic “Wheels of Fire”-esque Martin Sharp visualisations. However, studying all those sleeves for the duration of the bus ride home along with its accompanying anticipatory buzz would remain the most gratifying moments of that day as the entire stack except for Ten Years After’s “Undead” quickly moved me to tears. Not out of an overwhelming connection to the music or experiencing some deeply moving contact high, but at my errant squandering of all that hard-scrounged cash on such a sad and dated pile of dreck whose basis for purchase relied on cover art and year of release alone. It was a hard lesson that would be re-learned several times over and followed by the familiar fallout of lack of funds, a fortnight of candy bar lunches and the rising suspicion that the great albums were just too few and far between.

Make no mistake, figuring out psychedelia on your own a decade after Altamont armed with only the perspective and funds of a teenager was one tricky business. But my road to Rock enlightenment was hardly some pre-determined straight line directed due north at the pantheonic, iconic and iconoclastic alone like some blood-engorged, cultural hypodermic (although that’s probably what it eventually boiled down to over the years.) No, it was more the succession of ridiculous and convoluted tragic-comedies shot through with so many blunted expectations, nonsensical reasons, stupid waste of time/money albums, missed opportunities and accepted hypes that only wound up honing my skill of reading Rock’n’Roll’s secret alphabets and overall strengthening my resolve in seeking out the real keys to the kingdom in the shape of Rock. I took my chances, paid my money and for some reason am not massively depressed about it. Actually, I’d have had it no other way for I learned a lot about life, people, discographies, record labels, producers, original pressings, what a UNIPAK was as well as the strange phenomenon that people in the early seventies had bought every Leon Russell and Joe Cocker album as if they were the second coming in vinyl form. And so forth. So let this advisory tale be a warning to you all...Although at this stage in the game, it’s a moot point because now interactive cyber technology allows for the free previewing of all of those albums that once whispered sweet anythings and entreaties into the ear of my youth like the most painted, red hot harlot of Babylon purring and cooing all dulcet: ‘Take me home and we’ll have LOTS of fun, just you and me...’ (Well, maybe not ALL of them, but it’s only because I don’t think time nor reissue schedules have been too kind to the likes of Pacific Gas & Electric, Cold Blood, Mother Earth or early Steve Miller Band.)

Where was I? (Oh, yeah. Cream.) I can’t fault “Disraeli Gears” for causing me to swan dive headfirst into shallow pools on occasion, because in the long run it did lead to far deeper waters and in the process helped the questing obsessive in love with an ideal that I am. With that said, I’m glad it eventually led to this live recording because it absolutely blows all of Cream’s legitimate recordings away and is at least some compensation for a fraction of the misspent time and funds of my youth.

I’m thankful that some hip soul had the foresight to record this final night of Cream’s first major American tour because by the time they returned to that Motor City venue two months later (and one final time the following year) their live shows had already changed into something far less raw and more studied. But first time around it was an eye- and ear-opening document of a night bathed in experimentation, improvisation and energy matched only by the volume through which it was channeled. Best of all, the Clapton-Bruce-Baker axis don’t just run through their set all slick and nailed down as they would for the rest of their latter day career as evidenced by “Wheels Of Fire,” “Goodbye” and both volumes of “Live Cream” -- documents of self-conscious performance leavened by the moderate use of amplification while the trio reined in the abandon to pull off merely competent improvisations. But here, they’re pushing their limits, the songs are given far more rigourous work outs and they hit exhilarating high points unlike anything ever allowed release by their record company. There’s far more variations, chances taken and with it; mistakes that don’t detract so much as wind up feeding into a greater reservoir of chances to be taken, with the improvisation’s topography flexible enough to constantly open up vistas, reveal newer horizons and allow for deeper exploration.

The recording was taken off the house mix featuring Clapton’s guitar clearly defined with sustain, indicating a performance at top volume. His amplification was comprised of four Marshall 4x12 cabinets with two 100 watt amplifiers which possessed a capacity to retain sustain and distortion effects at varying volumes simply because it was so loud. This extreme use of volume in turn helped to mutate Clapton’s stock blues riffs into something else entirely. It also allowed for a finer control of volume, tone and dynamics as well as the ability to rattle the rafters and pummel the punters so badly that on one occasion during Cream’s first American tour, it was reported the volume from their amplifiers ‘shook a lighting bridge free of its moorings.’

There was no real leader of the band although it’s pretty obvious Clapton was the lynchpin during the dark heat of the improvisational moment as his name is called out about fifty times over the din by Bruce and Baker during the performance. Here, Clapton is a clipper ship with naviguitar his only compass, charting a course throughout the shifting reefs of Bruce and Baker’s rocky shorelines that submerge and reappear as if trying to scuttle EC’s hull but his strong adherence to and guidance from the Three Kings Freddie, Albert and B.B. ensure a harrying, hairy but safe passage nonetheless. That’s not to say E the C don’t get shipwrecked a coupla times during his passage of several Capes of Good Horn, Good Hope and probably even better dope but he’s already refashioned a riff raft from junked blues vessels and reanimates it through roaring dual Marshall stacks: blessing it with several wavering, sustaining waves of his psychedelicised Gibson SG and he and his rhythm section cohorts are back on course, unexpectedly landing several hundred leagues above the sea and weathering entirely different circumstances until it’s time to head back into the ‘song.’ Whether it be “N.S.U.,” “Sweet Wine” or even the dreaded “Spoonful” there are enough moments of supreme heaviness that if one was to edit them together into a 30 minute suite...well, it would baffle most people you’d play it to.

Forming several months prior to The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Cream was the first Rock power trio. Like it or don’t (and I used to and do) everyone from Ash Ra Tempel to ZZ Top and in-between owe in varying degrees their musical reason for existence to Cream. They were the source of all metal: heavy, black, red and white all over and all its other 662 varieties. Their innovative and sound barrier-breaking noise grabbed everyone within earshot with its immediacy and power while the legitimacy of the three players (based on their respective tenures in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and The Graham Bond Organisation) was quickly assured, for in 1966 British cosmopolitan music quarters it was credibility of the most durable kind.

This recording is the crème de la cream of those earliest pioneers of Heavy who ventured forth past the border of musical terrain bearing the legend ‘here be dragons’ and struck deep into the new land simply called ROCK. And for all its many and obvious shortcomings, it still bears the hallmark of what can be done when everybody’s loose, on the same page, and just wants to “let one go.”