Rock was getting excessive, and while it was only their third album, Cream decided to make it a double, with two sides of studio recordings and two others of live performances. Wheels Of Fire continues their explorations of psychedelia and blues, with striking results.
Jack Bruce takes lead vocals on nearly every song on the studio half, with Eric Clapton mostly limited to guitar. Still, the two of them leave their mark on “White Room”, a showcase for descending riffs and wah-wah, though what makes the song stand out are the violas on the intro, played by producer Felix Pappalardi. “Sitting On Top Of The World” was a blues standard played pretty much by everybody, including the Grateful Dead. Things start to get weird on “Passing The Time”; the intro doesn’t reappear in the track, the verse suggests a sinister nursery rhyme, and the chorus is about as fuzzy as can be. Jack completely takes over on “As You Said”, playing all the acoustic guitar and string bass, following his own Eastern vocal through a Leslie speaker.
Side two picks up the challenge with “Pressed Rat And Warthog”, another goofy children’s verse recited by Ginger Baker, heralded by trumpet and flute. (We’ve yet to clarify whether the closed-down shop selling atonal apples and amplified heat is a Beatles reference.) The blues come back for “Politician”, a twisted variation on “Born Under A Bad Sign”, which had only been recorded for the first time a few months earlier by Albert King. In between, “Those Were The Days” revives some of the mythological whimsy of Disraeli Gears, all the while defying a straight meter. “Deserted Cities Of The Heart” is a driving track, with more furious acoustic strumming and a nice counterpoint in the interludes.
Clapton finally takes a lead vocal on the live disc, and it’s not a stretch to say that the four minutes of “Crossroads” are the highlight of what’s already a pretty decent album, and excellent in its economy. Following that, it’s easy to lose focus for the 16 minutes of “Spoonful”, since it would appear both Clapton and Bruce are soloing simultaneously. “Traintime” is fine if you like a guy accompanying himself on harmonica, but Ginger manages to keep up. If you think that’s indulgent, you might not want to sit through “Toad”, but as drum solos go, it’s one of the more palatable ones, even at 16 minutes.
There’s a lot of music on Wheels Of Fire, and it’s not a stretch to suggest that the studio half plus “Crossroads” would have been sufficient on their own. But apparently the band was already thinking about moving on, so just as The Beatles decided to load up their albums to satisfy contractual obligations, Cream’s time wasn’t long.
Cream Wheels Of Fire (1968)—3½