*Well, as promised before, we’re going to talk about Wheels of Fire today and what a long strange trip it’s been. I started this project hoping to get to hear some of the worst music ever and, out of my first three reviews, only one is a truly bad album, that being Days of Future Passed.
*But imagine my absolute consternation when I realized that here was Wheels of Fire popping up on my randomizer as one of the worst albums ever, when almost everyone recognizes it as an absolute masterpiece. What to make of this? Well, we’ll find out.
*The first thing to get out of the way seems to be “How did this end up on your list in the first place, dude?” Well, as previously stated, I scoured the internet for various lists of the worst albums and then compiled them all, deleted the repetitions and came up with a list of nearly two hundred albums.
*So, this one comes from a book published back during the early nineties, compiled by Dave Marsh. Wheels of Fire shows up on a list in the book titled “Worst Live Albums.”
*So, one mystery solved right away. It is the second disc, Live at the Fillmore, that comes in for the real hatred by the list makers. Anyway, no breaking albums up; either it’s a good album or it’s not. I’ll be looking at the entire album.
*So, let’s get started, shall we? And for once I actually look forward to it.
*First song, White Room.
*Oh, yeah, this album sucks.
*So, obviously, White Room is a great song. Surely no one will dispute that. Surely.
*Next up, it’s Sitting On Top of the World and while this isn’t one I had particularly remembered, it’s pretty great. It’s a slow, bluesy number and, of course, Clapton could play slow, bluesy lines in his sleep and still be brilliant. His guitar lines are really great in this one.
*Third song on disc one is Passing the Time which I admit I am not in love with. It has a weird structure whereby it opens with a sort of grinding guitar/pounding drum figure and then it slowly fades out and we get a celesta or organ or something mournfully chording and then it happens again three or four times over the course of the rest of the song.
*The lyrics are the kind of cheap poetry you really only get from Brit psychedelica at this point in time. Like I say, this is a weak song; not particularly a bad one and not at all annoying.
*As You Said, the fourth song, is, I think, just a little annoying. I mean, for all the wonderful things about Cream, Jack Bruce was not exactly a voice one would listen to all day, if you know what I mean, and when he’s expected to actually sell a mellow ballad, there was generally trouble.
*It is with the fifth track that the album goes rather off the deep end into legitimately horrible territory.
*Name of the song? Pressed Rat & Warthog.
*Lyrical content? The titular characters are forced to close down a shop where they sold dog legs and feet; they walk away wearing red jodhpurs, carrying a three legged sack. There’s more, but I’ll stop there.
*Musical style? A winking Sgt. Pepper orchestra tootles over a pounding drum beat while Ginger Baker recites the lyrics in a flat monotone.
*You need more than that? I thought not. I mean, yes, this is part of the problem with this period of Britpop. We talked about it plenty last time with Days of Future Passed, but around this period it seemed that a tremendous amount of British groups suddenly decided they wanted to create ‘art,’ and thus they spoiled the music they’d been creating which was, whether they knew it or not, already ‘art.’
*So, this shows up a lot, this weird pretension to making something obtuse and artistic. I don’t know, maybe Dylan had a little to do with it too, but, as we talked about back during my review of American Pie, there is an entire universe between the kind of poetic absurdity and brilliance of Dylan and the stupid, purposeful obscurity of these kind of songs.
*So, we have here two pretty annoying songs in a row. And you think, “Is this album going down slow?”
*And then Pressed Rat & Warthog fades out slowly and out of nowhere, it’s that frigging riff from Politician blasting out. And you forgive Cream for every wrong thing they’ve ever done.
*Seriously, this is not just one of Cream’s absolute best songs, it’s one of the best songs of the sixties. That riff, borrowed I’m sure from somewhere, remains one of the most indelible of all time and Clapton’s solos at the end are brilliant. Great bass playing from Bruce too, lest we forget.
*Next up is Those Were the Days, which waxes nostalgic for, of all things, the days when Atlantis was above the sea and the Gods intervened on a fairly regular basis. Not one of Cream’s masterpieces, but I dig it. Baker’s drum performance is great, especially during Clapton’s absolutely storming solo, when he goes completely nuts back there.
*I mean, we just keep going back to the thing that elevated Cream. Not their songwriting, at least not usually; not their great studio trickery; not their incredible out of the box thinking. No, it’s always been and always will be the fact that these three guys were frigging masters of their chosen instruments. I mean, they owned those instruments.
*Next up is, I think, my very favorite Cream song. Yup, it’s their fantastic cover of Albert King’s doom-laden Born Under a Bad Sign.
*It does not need to be said that Clapton and Bruce lay down a fantastic riff, nor that Clapton’s soaring electric lines are perfection.
*Of course, one of the reasons this is true is that Clapton essentially lifted Albert King’s original guitar lines note for note and lick for lick.
*King’s original album, Born Under a Bad Sign, is still, for me, the absolute pinnacle of electric blues albums. It is the one you simply have to hear; it is the ne plus ultra of electric blues. King’s guitar tone is something like my absolute favorite tone. Somewhere recently I mentioned that Santana’s Abraxas used to be my favorite guitar album; Born Under a Bad Sign was the one that displaced it.
*And, truly, as great as Cream’s version is, it isn’t a patch on King’s storming original. I mean that is The Blues. I mean, yeah, B.B. King rocks still, but no one can touch Albert King in the realm of electric blues. Recording with one of those Stax bands, generally the best bands in the entire business, he does it all; hard edged blues, slow ballads, charging funk.
*Looking back at Born Under a Bad Sign, you’ve got the title track, the storming Crosscut Saw, the traditional, hilarious Laundromat Blues, the nearly pop Kansas City Women, the aching ballad The Very Thought of You and the astonishing funk of Personal Manager. I mean, that’s an album. Go hear that one. Go hear it now.
*Meanwhile, allow me to also tout Cream’s BBC Sessions.
*Now the BBC Sessions series is generally great. The Who, Jimi Hendrix, The Zep, etc., live in the BBC Studio at their respective peaks, playing album tracks, forthcoming singles, obscure covers. I mean, you need to check that stuff out.
*But on Cream’s BBC Sessions, which is one of the best of the series, they do a blistering version of Born Under a Bad Sign that, in my opinion, surpasses the version they do here. Clapton talks briefly, in the preceding interview clip, about what Albert King meant to the band, so there’s also that, if you enjoy those kind of snippets.
*So, while Wheels of Fire is a great album, I recommend two above it: Albert King’s Born Under a Bad Sign and Cream’s BBC Sessions.
*Ninth and final track on disc one is Deserted Cities of the Heart. It ain’t much, especially not after Politician and Born Under a Bad Sign. But it ain’t bad. It passes just fine and is in no way a bad song or a bad recording.
*So, that was Disc One, In the Studio. Let’s move on to Disc Two, Live at the Fillmore. We’ll see if it really qualifies as one of the worst live albums ever.
*First song, Crossroads.
*Yeah, this album really sucks.
*I suppose I don’t need to recommend Robert Johnson’s Complete Recordings, do I? At this late date? Surely not. Surely, everyone already owns this.
*In a world where everyone has covered Johnson, this is one of the best, though my favorite may actually be the totally forgotten Cowboy Junkies version of Me and the Devil Blues.
*This song, of course, ended up on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Best Songs Ever. Goofy list, as they always are, but one can hardly quibble with the energy of this song, still one of Clapton’s signature songs and probably the first song anyone would mention when you bring up Cream.
*I wonder if this is considered a ‘bad’ album because of the studio trickery involved in the making of Live at the Fillmore. This version of Crossroads originated as two different versions on two different nights and both were apparently incredibly long (which is easy to believe).
*In the studio, the producer edited the two versions together and cut the resulting version down to just over four minutes, which probably wasn’t even a third of even one of the original two versions, given Cream’s propensities for hard jamming. But it gives the cut a propulsive energy and drive that was probably missing from the other versions. And, bottom line, it’s a great song, who cares?
*Of course, indicative of this kind of trickery is the fact that of the four tracks on the Live at the Fillmore disc, only one was recorded at the Fillmore. This kind of stuff may pass for offensive in Dave Marsh’s world, I don’t know, but it doesn’t in mine.
*Here’s another reason to get the BBC Sessions album I talked about above. It’s got a totally raw, ultra fast version of Crossroads recorded live in the studio in 1966, two years before Wheels of Fire came out. It’s not even two minutes long, that’s how raw and fast it is. It’s amazing. You gotta hear it. Seriously.
*Second track on the album is an epic, a nearly seventeen minute cover of Howlin’ Wolf’s Spoonful. Does it get lost in the weeds? It does frigging not. Believe it or not. It’s one of the few live jam tracks over fifteen minutes that justifies every second of its length. Believe it or not. The last half is better than the first half, which I have maybe never heard happen before on a similar track.
*Now, allow me to recommend yet another album, namely His Best, a collection of Howlin’ Wolf. Now when I heard Wheels of Fire, I had already heard Robert Johnson’s Complete Recordings, Albert King’s Born Under a Bad Sign, and Howlin’ Wolf’s His Best.
*So, part of the charm for the real blues lover in an album like Wheels of Fire is just simply in realizing that these incredibly talented artists love the same kind of music you do, love the same people you do.
*But for me, it went even deeper than that. Because really, Born Under a Bad Sign is King’s best song, I think, and Spoonful is far and away my favorite Howlin’ Wolf song. So, not only does Cream love the music I love, they love the exact songs that I love.
*Now, allow me to really tell you why you need to get His Best. This is incredible music. But, far and away, the best song on the album is Spoonful and the reason is that incredible, insistent riff that just grinds like the mills of God. I mean, it is astounding.
*daDAAAAAAda daDAAAAAAda daDAAAAAAA DAAAAAA
*Now this live version by Cream throws that riff out pretty quickly, so they can jam in a lot of different ways.
*But then . . .
*But then . . . at 13:30 . . .
*Just for a second, the bass outlines just the very beginning of that riff. Just those first two notes, just the short and then the long . . . and then, just like that, the band has slipped back into it.
*That moment, at thirteen and a half minutes in, when Cream works back around the root and just slips back into that groove . . . that is not just a great moment on this album, it is one of the great moments of music.
*Next up, it’s Traintime and I suppose some people probably dislike this song. It’s just Bruce’s frantic harmonica and a shuffle pattern on the drums by Baker with the occasional shouted lyric from Bruce for over seven minutes.
*Me? I love it. It’s just incredibly frenetic and violent, just music at its most blistering. By the end of the song, well, actually by the middle, Bruce is audibly exhausted, gasping for breath, gulping like he’s coming up out of the ocean, in between frenzied harmonica riffs.
*Actually, I just checked. Just two minutes in, you can already start to hear him.
*Again, this is no great lyric or exactly a great song. But it’s a marathon of endurance by Bruce and it’s just incredible to hear him keep going and going and going.
*Again, let’s go to BBC Sessions as it features an even faster and more frenetic version of Traintime from 1966, again, two years before the version on Wheels of Fire. Like Crossroads, it’s not even half as long as the final version on this album. On BBC Sessions, Traintime clocks in at a frenzied two and a half minutes and by the time they’re in that last thirty seconds, you really begin to fear Bruce is going to just have a coronary right there on mike.
*And then, after three incredibly brilliant live numbers, it’s the fourth and final track on Live at the Fillmore. And guess what? It was this track and this track only that got the album on the list.
*Now, I grant you, it is a sixteen minute drum solo, but really, how bad could it be?
*That’s right, I said a sixteen minute drum solo.
*The name of the song is Toad, which I suppose is what we’re supposed to imagine hopping maniacally all over the drum set.
*Actually, Bruce and Clapton play for nearly the first two and a half minutes. And then they come in again for the last forty-five seconds. So, it’s actually a thirteen minute drum solo. Which is way more awesome.
*Now, I do not discount Ginger Baker’s talent. I do not discount that he does do some incredible riffs here. I do however say two things with absolute certainty.
*1. This song is too long.
*2. This song is not enough to make this a bad album.
*Nick Hornby wrote about Wheels of Fire briefly in 31 Songs, (released in some markets as Songbook), which, by the by, is the best book of music criticism ever authored and a book I go back to on a regular basis to keep me honest in my own critical writing, musical or not. Anyway, he had an incredibly funny section about instrumental solos in which he backhanded Wheels of Fire for introducing the drum solo.
*Now, of course, they didn’t, as any fan of jazz knows. The drum solo traveled to rock from jazz, where it had long been a standby by 1968. And of course, Ginger Baker was every bit as much a jazz drummer as he was a rock one. So, it is not entirely off the beam that he would want a track like this on the album.
*But, as I said, too long by half. Not that it’s a bad listen the first time. But by the third time you listen through the album, you are sort of ready to move on.
*Which brings us back to Nick Hornby’s writing on solos. He pinpoints a moment at a Led Zep concert where the keyboard player had launched into an interminable solo as one of the most important moments in his musical life. It was, he said, the moment he realized that he could WALK OUT, that he could LEAVE and then COME BACK!
*He says, in a much funnier way than I am now saying, that he nipped round the corner to a pub, had a pint and then walked back, arriving just in time for Page to rip into the next song.
*So, yes, I understand that a thirteen minute drum solo is somewhat annoying on repeated listens, even to a drummer. But it is one song and I have yet to see a CD player come without a skip button. Or, since it’s the last song, just Eject, you know?
*In short, there are missteps, like the idiotic Pressed Rat & Warthog and Toad that probably ascend to the level of really bad and even annoying. But that is not enough to keep this album from being what it is, which is a masterpiece and an essential album.
*I disagree strongly with anyone placing this album on a worst albums of any kind list. Okay, that’s said. And with that, I suppose, we end Wheels of Fire, an epic by any standard, a great album by any reasonable standard.
*Next time, it’s Journey with the album that catapulted them to stardom, Escape. But there’s no escape for us; we’ll be going through the album track by track. You may be tempted to think my endurance will flag . . . but . . . don’t . . . stop . . . believin’!! Next time, Journey!