Royal Albert Hall
By Josh McGee
The word "rockumentary" certainly for some people evokes images of wild young men on stage playing wild rock and roll music with lots of drugs, alcohol, and wild loose women waiting backstage. This is thanks to a plethora of 1980's films portraying the horrible rock and roll of that era. Luckily for all of us, there is a kinder, gentler rockumentary: the kind that is suitable for even grandpa to view. "Cream: Royal Albert Hall" is one such film.
1960's England was not 1960's America. England supplied many of the fashion trends of the 1960's but almost none of the political views were shared by the youth of England and the youth of America. England really had no true peace and love anti-war movements like those seen in the American late 1960's. Rock music in the 1960's from the American standpoint started off rather weakly and many people in America viewed rock and roll to have already in a sense come and gone with all the greats of the 1950's having already been killed (like Buddy Holly,) incarcerated (Chuck Berry,) or joined the military (Elvis Presley.) While America was putting out gentle music of the flower power era with bands like the Byrds, England was brewing up a much harder scene. For some reason in the 1960's the English musicians were obsessed with the American blues music of the 1930's. Studying the American musicians like Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, and countless other great guitar players and singers, English bands came up with a new breed of rock and roll with bands like the Rolling Stones, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, and the Yardbirds. The resurgence of a harder breed of youth gone wild rock and roll in the late 1960's American scene owes much to the British scene. Without bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, American rock music could easily had become extinct or have a very different, more benign sound to it. Luckily for everyone, the Brits could play the hell out of rock and roll and even put a hard edge upon it. The showmanship and talent levels of the British rockers far surpassed the bar that had been set by the American scene previously, probably because those bands from England went straight to the source for their inspiration - the black music of the first half of the American twentieth century. "Rhythm and blues" was more emotional than pop and even though American rock and roll was based upon it, it was still marketed to a largely white audience and something got lost in the mix. This did not happen in the British world and that allowed for great experimentation and wild wicked guitar sounds and fat thick tones that had not been heard previously. Cream would be the poster child for this type of experimentation. One of the greatest songs ever recorded is "Tales of Brave Ulysses" by Cream and it is a perfect example of what made Cream so great and experimental. This song has wonderful "wah wah" pedal work and beautiful lyrics that tell a sexually charged tale of man and woman: "You see a girl's brown body dancing through the turquoise/ And her footprints make you follow where the sky loves the sea,/ And when your fingers find her, she drowns you in her body,/ Carving deeper ripples in the tissues of your mind". I recommend that, if you have not heard this song , you find a way to listen to it immediately. Go ahead, I'll wait for you. Okay, good, let us continue.
In 1966 Cream was officially born from the fertile minds of Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker, and Jack Bruce. They are generally considered to be the first ever supergroup as all three had very successful careers in previous bands. After their second single "I Feel Free", Cream went on the show" Top of the Pops" which was much the equivalent of doing Ed Sullivan for American musicians. This appearance would seal their triumph and begin their legend. Theirs was a sound such as the world had not heard before that time. Eric Clapton included wild and daring psychedelic guitar effects in outrageous hard hitting rock and roll while Jack Bruce would pound out lyrics with his wonderfully clear voice as Ginger Baker… well, Ginger was certainly there! Though not a superb or legendary drummer, Ginger Baker would do as he could: at least stay on time. In any case, Cream was a wild experience to be had in England in the late 1960's. Sadly, the band disbanded (no pun intended) in 1969 as Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker could no longer stand each other much less work together. Eric Clapton must have felt like the only child of a divorcing couple, finally crying himself to sleep on countless nights after blaming himself for hours while his parents Jack and Ginger fought downstairs. "Where's my dinner, Ginger?" would be burned into his brain for the rest of his life. This is most definitely what would lead to his alcoholism and drug addiction problems in the 1980's.
In all seriousness, the preceding was to explain just how great Cream was before explaining how bad Cream is . I purchased Cream: Royal Albert Hall thinking that it indeed was a concert film that was recorded in the late 1960's. I probably should learn to read entire packages for more information rather than excitedly opening my wallet and letting money fall from it. But since I did not do the latter, what I got was a concert film from May, 2005. When I realized this fact I thought to myself "Oh well, despite their ages I'm sure they can still put on a great rock show, hey just look at the Rolling Stones! Those guys must be in their eighties by now!" The opening sequence has the camera panning backstage while the crowd can be heard screaming in the auditorium. Suddenly the shot cuts to the stage and Cream walks out and the crowd goes completely nuts. I mean, come on, these guys are legends, how could a crowd not go completely nuts. The first thing that tipped me off on how badly things might go is the fact that they are all dressed like models straight out of a J.C. Penney catalog. 1960's Cream wore groovy psychedelic clothes with weird LSD induced patterns. Now Eric Clapton is dressed in a light blue button up shirt and blue jeans. I'll give them the benefit of the doubt for this one because so far the music in the background as they warm up a bit sounds pretty good. The opening to "I'm So Glad" begins and the horrible singing starts.
"What in the ever lovin' hell is this?" I think to myself. "This is not Cream." Unfortunately, dear reader, it is Cream. Eric Clapton goes on a very long guitar solo that actually sounds pretty good even a bit cleaner than the original Cream. In fact Eric Clapton's guitar is the only thing that is tolerable in this movie. Jack Bruce looks like a zombified version of himself as his voice tries its hardest to sing. It sounds more like an old man yelling at a television set rather than Jack Bruce's once youthful and talented voice. One might say something like "Give him some credit: he's gotten old!" I will not- because Paul McCartney still sounds great.
As "Spoonful" comes on, the music sounds off and then Jack starts singing again. Why in heaven did they think that this reunion would be a good idea? In the special features of this DVD, Ginger Baker says something about the music still sounding as fresh now as it did then. I don't remember the old Cream recording sounding as though the lead singer had lung cancer. Not only does Jack sound like garbage now, he can't even remember the lyrics to the songs. Rather than making up real words he just sings syllables and the result is something like "og ooh rag uhh yeah!" Eric Clapton's entire act consists of closing his eyes and standing in the same spot while running up and down a bunch of scales. Where's the energy? Where's the excitement? The 1960's are over and seemingly so is Cream. This is truly a sad point in British history. One of the greatest bands in the history of England is revived with high hopes and then crashes and burns horribly. As with a horrible car accident I cannot look away from, I continue to watch helplessly.
Luckily for me, the movie picks up a bit as Eric Clapton sings one in the form of "Outside Woman Blues." The years have been much kinder to Clapton than to Bruce and Baker. Baker is panned over a few times and he looks much like a toothless, redheaded, undead abomination and it is quite obvious that he has no idea what is going on. I can tell by the way he is moving that he is mere moments away from his nurse having to come and administer his oxygen treatments. At least his drums are on beat and we don't have to listen to his voice. Not yet anyway. Clapton still does some very good guitar work despite the years and this music does still sound very good. It's Jack Bruce that is constantly bringing him down and making them all look bad. 1960's Jack Bruce would have had an aneurysm if he only could have seen what he was to become. He is certainly the best "Stay off drugs" and "Do not smoke cigarettes" advertisement the world could ever ask for. That is until Ginger Baker starts "singing."
After "Outside Woman Blues" comes "Pressed Rat and Warthog." After a brief speech thanking the audience for coming Eric Clapton tells the crowd that Ginger Baker is going to sing one number. I did not know that Ginger Baker ever sang anything. This is one that the band rarely did live in the old days. I suddenly see why: Ginger Baker cannot sing! Jack Bruce sounds like the god Apollo himself in comparison. Fortunately for anyone watching, this is the only song in the entire film in which Ginger Baker attempts to sing. The rest of the DVD continues the pattern of underwhelming versions of what were once and still are very good songs.
"White Room" and "Sunshine of Your Love," which were two of Cream's all time biggest hits, in particular are disappointing and their only saving grace is Eric Clapton who can at least sing on key and still pays guitar decently. In any case the film ends in anti-climactic fashion with "We're Going Wrong," a fitting end because Cream indeed went wrong with the making of this film and the reunion in general.
This film is more like an historically inaccurate reenactment of what the band Cream did in the 60's rather than a good representation of what Cream is. Sometimes we should just let our legends die gracefully and not try to bring them back for the disappointment it brings. Remembering things as they once were is often better than trying to recreate those memories, as that sometimes only devalues the experience . Cream: Royal Albert Hall is definitely a situation where the past was better left buried than excavated and put onto DVD. Cream as a reunion is bad but in all honesty it is not any worse than the average band one would find upon entering an average bar. The problem is that the original Cream, a band very important and influential in the history of English and American rock and roll music, was no average band. If you want to have a real Cream experience I recommend buying the album "Disraeli Gears" or the DVD of the making of said album in which you can listen to and view the trio in all of their glory. The reunion does not do the legend of Cream justice and though the movie is not totally unwatchable, it is pretty terrible in comparison with the original songs that Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker, and Jack Bruce produced in the 1960's.