Strange Brew




Most people had no idea who Eric Clapton was. Nor had they heard “Sunshine of Your Love,” it wasn’t until the summer of ’68 that the track crossed over from FM to AM, in an era where most markets didn’t even have an FM rock station. Yes, in the late sixties you could be hip or not. Today everybody is both hip and out of it. We know so many trends yet we don’t know others. You can lay into someone for being out of the loop, but they can give it right back to you if they dare.

So the cognoscenti knew Clapton from John Mayall’s “Blues Breakers” album. That was released in 1966, can you imagine? Nancy Sinatra’s boots were walking on AM radio, and at the end of the year the Monkees arrived on that train. But there were no hits on the John Mayall album, either you owned it and you knew it or you were completely out of the loop. Eventually, with the rise of Clapton’s fame, people discovered it, but to say Clapton was God in America in 1966 would be like saying you were, he was just that insignificant. But there was definitely something happening here, and it was only clear to a coterie of blues freaks in the U.K. and a few in the U.S., like Atlantic’s Ahmet Ertegun, who grew up with the sound. As for the American hoi polloi? Hendrix, never mind heavier blues-influenced acts, hadn’t even released a record yet, never mind gained notice.

Mayall’s group was a training ground, and Eric Clapton left to team up with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker in Cream. It was not a supergroup, there was no such thing, that had to wait a couple of years until 1969 and Blind Faith, most people, certainly in the U.S., had no idea who the three players were.

And some of those who knew Clapton from Mayall’s group purchased “Fresh Cream,” which was released at the end of ’66, but the truth is the album didn’t dent the universe, it was hand sold, nearly underground, back when scenes percolated and eventually broke through, or didn’t. It was very different from today, where everybody knows everything at the same time, assuming they care, and innovation is secondary to repetition. And sure, the Beatles were rich, but most people outside Hollywood and New York, who weren’t making bubble gum music, who considered themselves musicians first and stars second, if at all, were not in it for the money, there just wasn’t that much money.

Now the truth is “Fresh Cream” is an excellent album. But the sound was just not immediate enough, in your face enough. It was thrilling to go back and listen to “N.S.U.” and “I’m So Glad” after the band broke up, but most people didn’t buy “Fresh Cream” and once the band reached stardom so many were looky-loos that they didn’t go back either. But “Disraeli Gears”…

I heard “Sunshine of Your Love” on FM radio. There were multiple stations in New York. Not only WOR, but WABC and WNEW, it was a cornucopia of choices, assuming you were hip, had an FM radio at all. But those of us who did… It definitely wasn’t about the money, there were very few ads, it was about being a member of a secret club, knowing all the deejays, having a personal relationship, talking with your buddies at school about the tracks you discovered.

And this was before I could drive. So I was dependent upon my mother taking me to the store. And she’d never make a trip just for a record, but I could ride along and comb the bins and find something and buy it while she and my sister were traveling the aisles. And one day in Barker’s in February ’68, I purchased “Disraeli Gears.”

You’ve got to know this was the era where album art was everything. If it was just a picture of the band the album wasn’t worth buying, you had to make a statement, and one could stare at “Disraeli Gears” forever, not that it was ever one of my favorite sleeves, but that’s what you did while you dropped the needle and listened.

And of course I went to track 2 first, to hear “Sunshine of Your Love” on demand in my own home, it was an indelible riff. One eventually known by everybody, still known by every boomer alive, one we played on our guitars, one we sang along to on the radio.

And the truth is my favorite track on the LP, then and now, which is a rarity, is “Tales of Brave Ulysses.” It’s dark. A descending trip below the earth’s surface to where it was only you and the band on the excursion. And Clapton’s guitar set the tone, but the truth is the track is put over the top by Jack Bruce’s vocal…rich and meaningful.

And the reality is “Disraeli Gears” is inconsistent, I’d argue the songs on “Fresh Cream” are better, but that does not mean I don’t know every lick by heart. Because owning it, you played it. Music was scarce, you got your money’s worth.

My third favorite song on “Disraeli Gears” is probably track four on the first side, “Dance the Night Away.” And that riff on “SWLABR” was indelible, not that we could ever figure out what the title stood for. But my favorite was never “Strange Brew.”


Saturday I was asleep. The walking dead. I don’t know, I didn’t get a good night’s sleep, I went out hiking and was in a daze. And I was worried I’d fall asleep on the drive home, but then I heard “Strange Brew.”

I could never figure out why “Sunshine of Your Love” was not the opening track, it was better, it was the hit.

But I’m driving in my car, not playing my guitar, but definitely feeling free, and I hear the lick. Normally I’d switch the channel, from Classic Vinyl to Howard or something, but this night “Strange Brew” resonated, and I’m not sure it’s ever resonated this way.

The last time I played “Disraeli Gears”? I can’t remember. I have played “Tales of Brave Ulysses,” I never play “Sunshine of Your Love,” and the truth is I push the button when I hear these old Cream tracks, they’re over fifty years old, Clapton has superseded them. But for some reason, “Strange Brew” felt like an old pair of shoes, comfortable, like running into a college buddy and getting right back in the groove, as if no time had passed.

That stinging guitar… This was before we thought of Clapton first and the playing second, it was just an intro, and then…

“Strange brew

Kill what’s inside of you”

Clapton? There was no Wikipedia back then, there were no extensive credits on the LP and supposedly Delaney Bramlett ultimately made Clapton comfortable with his voice and they recorded Eric’s solo debut, but this was long before that. Yes, I realized “Strange Brew” was sung by Clapton, and it was so weird, the opening cut, when Jack Bruce was clearly the lead singer?

“She’s a witch of trouble in electric blue

In her own mad mind she’s in love with you

With you

Now what you gonna do”

The lyrics are clear with remastering and today’s playback systems, but back then that’s not how we were listening, we had all-in-one record players with a small built-in speaker, which is one of the reasons we all graduated to component systems, we needed to get closer to the sound, but we weren’t at that point yet. So, chances are most people could not pick out the lyrics, never mind make sense of them.

“On a boat in the middle of a raging sea

She would make a scene for it all to be


And wouldn’t you be bored”

The truth is I caught all of these lines except the second, until maybe today, meaning that I was unclear of the meaning, but the feel was everything.

And in my car, long after dark, I’m driving the curves of Sunset and I’m taken right back to 1968, it’s just that it truly seems like yesterday, like I’d played “Disraeli Gears” just the night before. The album was something I listened to alone in the dark, most of it I never heard on the radio, it was a private experience, then and now. And scraping away the history, the arc of Clapton’s rise to superstardom, the war between the band members, it just sounded like three blokes having a good time doing their best to capture their sound on wax, not a vehicle for a big publicity campaign, but just music. To the players this was not a new sound, they’d been growing up in this groove, but not the rest of us, our lives had been more AM pop.

So the track is playing and…I’m anticipating what’s to come. I’d played “Strange Brew” so much back then that it was burned into my soul, despite being a secondary cut and never my favorite. In my mind I was waiting for that closing riff, that Clapton could toss off without thinking, but almost no one else could. And when it came I was satisfied, no, elated.


In a matter of months everything changed. “Sunshine of Your Love” became a monstrous single and the band released the double album “Wheels of Fire” and by the fall of ’68, Cream was everywhere, kind of like Led Zeppelin with their second album two years later. “White Room” was added immediately to AM radio and this drove album sales and every wannabe or in reality stoner owned it and testified about it. It was all about the live second disc. This was the first drum solo most people had ever been exposed to, the fact that it went on for sixteen plus minutes did not take away from its coolness, people listened to it. And the second side of the second album started with “Train Time,” Jack Bruce’s workout, his starring moment, before the album switched to “Toad,” but really it was about the first live side, with “Crossroads” and “Spoonful.”

Despite being a Robert Johnson classic, most people weren’t aware of the delta blues original, this was the first time they heard the song, and Clapton’s playing here turned him into the icon he became in the mind of America. It was one thing to play Beatle songs on the guitar, quite another to be able to pull off “Crossroads.” As for the following “Spoonful,” this sound was nowhere else, this was envelope-pushing to listeners, they were suddenly exposed to the blues, an American sound, via this English group.

But Cream had already had enough. Just when everybody was coming up to speed, the band said it was going to break up, which was hard to understand, now everyone knows who you are, you’re making money, and you’re gonna give it all up?? This was before the Beatles broke up, nobody broke up, you just rode the wave until it crashed. You certainly didn’t break up because it no longer felt right. People were completely flummoxed, they couldn’t understand it, and although I saw the act at the New Haven Arena their last time through, most people missed it completely, by time they came on board it was over.

But there was a clean-up album, “Goodbye,” and the funny thing was demand was so strong that the album sold and sold and everybody knew it, even though the act was history. And yes, there were definitive live versions of “I’m So Glad” and “Politician,” but the best track on the LP was on the second, studio side, the indelible “Badge,” with L’Angelo Misterioso/George Harrison’s rhythm guitar work, and Clapton’s incredible descending solo, your head banging around in a sea of wind chimes. Clapton was truly god, he’d move on to work with Delaney & Bonnie, going on tour with the act and then forming the ill-fated Blind Faith before releasing his under-recognized solo debut in the spring of 1970, before forming Derek & the Dominos and becoming a legend with “Layla”…and other love songs.


And the truth now is Clapton’s fame has superseded Cream’s by a long shot. Cream was a blip on the radar screen, Eric has been through so many changes since then, even many styles, making it with quiet ballads in addition to wailing guitar solos.

But there was that Cream reunion fifteen years ago, so those who weren’t there the first time around could see the band and the drummer and bass player could be made financially whole. But by time the show got to New York, the magic was gone. Doing it on a lark is one thing, repeating it is another.

Now in 1970, “Live Cream” was released. And then two years later, “Live Cream Volume II.” You’d see them in the bins, but the hard core never bought them, they looked like a dash for cash, the past, when there was so much new music to be excited about.

But that was then and this is now.

Today, being a musician is second to being a brand. Chops? Well, they’re built on social media, as for spending years perfecting your guitar skills, very few do that. That’s not the sound people want to hear. So, strangely, it’s like it was fifty years ago, the original music, in that case delta blues, in this case Cream and English blues-rock, are hiding in plain sight, will this sound be rediscovered?

The blues never dies. There are people playing it today. But it just doesn’t square with radio and promotion paradigms, the songs are extended, they’re often sludgy and quiet, today everything has to be immediate, upbeat, up front and center.

And then I’m driving in my car and I stumble upon “Strange Brew” and I’m reminded of the magic that once was. When this business was being built. Before tickets were a hundred bucks and the acts took the lion’s share of the money, when a gold record was not 500,000 units, but $500,000. The music business was just growing out of its sideshow status. But music was where it was all happening, where limits were being tested, and you had to listen if you wanted to know which way the wind blew, and that was very important back then.

But we’ve been through so many changes since then. Corporate rock. Disco. MTV. Grunge. Hip-hop… Cream is ancient history. But the funny thing is the records haven’t changed, and since they weren’t made to fit in, they still stand out today, there’s nothing else quite like them. Strange brew indeed!

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