I have fluctuated over the years as to whether Disraeli Gears or Wheels Of Fire is the better album. In the final analysis the point is moot as both are sixties rock/blues at their most creative and remain two of the best albums in rock history.
Wheels Of Fire may not be as cohesive as their first two studio albums but the parts have an individual brilliance. The combining of a studio and live disc on the original 1968 vinyl release catches Cream at their best in both environments. Fans would embrace the album as it would reach number one in The United States. It would also be the first double album to claim platinum status.
“White Room” stands as one of the classic songs of the psychedelic rock era and is rightfully included on Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time. Clapton’s wah wah sound and distortion, all within the song’s structure, are worth the price of admission alone. When you add Bruce’s bass lines and vocals plus Bakers drumming you have all the elements of a superior rock song.
“Sitting On Top Of The World” is a traditional blues tune that has been recorded by probably hundreds of artists from many traditions including Howlin’ Wolf, Bill Monroe, Carl Perkins, Doc Watson, Chet Atkins, and Bob Dylan. Cream remains loyal to the original but does include some unique improvisation. “Politician” is topical and cynical as it attacks the elected officials of the day. “Born Under A Bad Sign” is a showcase for Clapton’s clear guitar sound. “Pressed Rat and Warthog,” written and narrated by Baker, is mostly tongue in cheek and well done. “Deserted Cities Of The Heart” is a mellow ballad that brings the studio section to a nice conclusion.
The live disc, recorded during their 1968 American tour, presents a totally different side of Cream. The time constraints of the studio are absent and the group is allowed to stretch their sound. Cream live was an improvisational band and here they lengthen four songs past the forty minute mark. “Crossroads,” a faster version than the Robert Johnson original, includes some of the best guitar playing of Clapton’s career which is saying a lot. “Spoonful” is Cream’s sixteen minute improvisational opus. “Traintime” contains Jack Bruce’s classic blues harp solo. “Toad” is Ginger Baker at his frenetic best as his drum solo spreads out over thirteen minutes.
Wheels Of Fire is an album that has withstood the test of time. It remains one of the essential rock albums and should be required listening.