Cream – “Wheels of Fire” (1968)

September 11, 2008 at 12:35 am (Reviews & Articles)

Jann Wenner’s infamous review of Cream’s double album Wheels of Fire for Rolling Stone issue #14 (July 20, 1968). After reading this review, Eric Clapton supposedly became so dejected that he decided to break up Cream… 


Cream is good at a number of things; unfortunately song-writing and recording are not among them. However, they are fantastic performers and excellent musicians. Their latest recording, Wheels of Fire, a two-record set inside a silver jacket, proves all this.

One record is subtitled “In the Studio.” The set begins with a Jack Bruce original, “White Room,” which is practically an exact duplication of “Tales of Brave Ulysses” from their Disraeli Gears album, including the exact same lines for guitar, bass and drums. The lyrics are not much to speak of and it’s very difficult to imagine why they would want to do this again, unless of course, they had forgotten that they had done it before. The Sonny Bono-ish production job adds little. “Sittin’ On Top of the World,” a Howlin’ Wolf song, is a fine slow blues, done much closer to the original than the familiar speeded-up version by the Grateful Dead. The song is a good vehicle for Clapton, but that’s about it. Wolf’s ballad-style singing and melody is far superior to Bruce’s. (Those interested in comparisons might want to pick up Wolf’s Real Folk Blues LP on the Chess label, and compare the two, and then compare that comparison to what the Electric Flag did with Wolf’s “Killing Floor,” also on the same record. The Flag wins.)

“Passing the Time,” a soft sad-circus tune with various instrumental paraphernalia thrown in, is a stone bore. The transition from verse to chorus is absolutely absurd. Ginger Baker stands out on glockenspiel. Of all of Jack Bruce’s compositions in this release, only one of them is good, “As You Said.” The structure is thoughtful and pleasant. Clapton is totally absent from this cut; Ginger Baker uses only his high hat and Bruce plays acoustic guitar and cello. The way they play back and forth and with each other, each on the melody together, is musicianship worthy of their reputation.

“Pressed Rat and Warthog,” a Ginger Baker poem recited to a good background of drum rolls and Clapton’s chording, is a track open to individual taste. It’s nice, but not what you want to get the album for. The trumpet solos spoil whatever mood was trying to be evoked by their superfluousness and obviousness.

It is unfortunate that the group chose to do “Born Under a Bad Sign,” that fine blues that Booker T. Jones wrote for Albert King. King’s guitar solo can hardly be improved, although Clapton does do it with his own style. The real mistake is that Jack Bruce doesn’t have a good voice for blues, but he chooses to try it out on one that is currently popular in an exceptionally fine original version. His throaty breathing is just plain wrong. Ginger Baker also ought to learn that knocking on a cowbell and woodblock does not make a song funky.

There is really only one good side to come out of the studio, and that is “Politician,” a track which really gets to the heart of Cream’s very real problem. Because only rarely do they have a good original song to work with, their standard procedure is to put a strong rhythm and chord structure behind it and sort of recite the lyrics, spoken almost rather than sung because there is no melody. The trouble with this studio LP is that confronted with this problem — and their predilection to use miserable originals.The really fine side of this whole business is the one with “Crossroads” and “Spoonful.” This is where Cream really shines because it is where they are at: live, without superfluity of any kind, and into the blues. Clapton is a much better blues singer than Bruce, and his vocal on “Crossroads” is a relief. The tune is Clapton’s showpiece, and he does it just like he’s supposed to. It’s far and away the best cut on the album.

“Spoonful” only really gets going about a third of the way into it. The only criticism I have about this cut is that Jack Bruce’s bass-playing is much too busy when he should be the bottom of the sound. On the other hand, he and Clapton really move. The way they do it as a trio is excellent: Clapton and Bruce get going into their “rolling and tumbling” groove, making it madly through the record while Ginger Baker is playing vertically, walking along at just as mad a clip. This is the kind of thing that people who have seen Cream perform walk away raving about and it’s good to at last have it on a record.

Anyway, the whole bundle comes in a double-fold packet with this exploding, psychedelicized imitation Saul Steinberg (of the New Yorker) cartoon mural on the cover and a totally tasteless Ken Kesey-ism on the inside.
The album will be a monster.


Jann S. Wenner 


  1. Larry Dyer said,

    Sorry, but absolutely wrong in your statement about Wenner’s review and it’s impact on the band…particularly Clapton. While Wenner’s review of “Wheels of Fire” could hardy be considered glowing, it was NOT the article that Clapton found so upsetting. It’s true that the review you are confusing the Wenner piece with did indeed appear in Rolling Stone…but the infamous article for which you are referring was actually a review of a live performance by Cream as written by Jon Landau. My memory might serve me wrong but I believe it was a critique of a show they did in Texas. At any rate, in his assessment of the performance Landau labled Clapton, among other things, as “the master of the blues cliche”. As legend has it, Eric got so upset when he read the review that he nearly fainted. Whether it actually happened like that or not is a subject which has been debated, what is generally acknowledged is that Clapton had already become pretty much fed up with the whole Cream thing well before he ever read Landau’s piece.

  2. jmucci said,

    Yes, that’s right. I am wrong. Thanks for pointing that out.
    Although, as you said, Clapton was already losing interest in Cream…and I can’t help but think that this review didn’t exactly help matters.
    Thanks for the comment though.

  3. Keith said,

    This review is by the same numbskull who helped push that total no talent Springsteen and many other non-musical performers who are now flooding the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That’s why the music world is upside down – mediocre talents are foisted on the public and many of the best artists are ignored.

    Jack Bruce is one of the greatest singers, songwriters and musicians of all time. The Wheels of Fire studio album is a masterpiece.

    This review is worse than the Dewey defeats Truman headline.

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