The #1 Albums: “Wheels of Fire” by Cream

Written by Music, Popdose, The #1 Albums

From inside the gatefold cover of Cream’s “Wheels of Fire”


Certain dates in pop-culture history ring with importance. On February 9, 1964, the Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. On August 16, 1977, Elvis Presley died. Nobody stops to observe August 10, 1968, but as milestones go, it’s big. That’s the day the Cream album Wheels of Fire hit #1 on the Billboard 200 album chart. Wheels of Fire is the first mega-hit of the FM radio era, and it would spend four weeks at #1.

As late as the Summer of Love, AM radio was the staple medium for most young music consumers. (Although “progressive ” or “underground” FM radio came to San Francisco in the spring of ’67, the majority of the radio promotion for the Monterey Pop Festival in June was heard on Bay Area AM stations.) FM began to boom across the country in late ’67 and in ’68, and it was certainly a more congenial place for Wheels of Fire‘s heavy, blues-based jams than the AM dial—although “White Room” would become a top-10 hit single in the fall of 1968.

Wheels of Fire was a two-disc set, although each disc was also released separately. The first disc is all studio material and is remarkably compact, with no song running longer than 4:58. The second disc is live material recorded at Winterland and the Fillmore in San Francisco. There, the band stretches out to epic, not-fit-for-AM length, including 16 minutes of “Toad,” 13 minutes of which is a Ginger Baker drum solo. This disc also features the famous version of “Crossroads” that hasn’t been off the radio in 44 years. There’s a bit of controversy about the recording of that performance: Allmusic.com says producer Felix Pappalardi cut a rambling performance to a shade over four minutes, but a guide to Cream recording sessions at Jackbruce.com maintains that “contrary to rumour, the version of ‘Crossroads’ on Wheels of Fire is not edited in length.”

If one of Cream’s best-known performances is the product of studio manipulation, that’s symbolic, in a way. Cream was always a tense collaboration between Clapton, Jack Bruce, and Ginger Baker, and things did not always go off smoothly. Allmusic reviewer Stephen Thomas Erlewine says the album “captures the fury and invention (and indulgence) of the band at its peak on the stage and in the studio, but as it tries to find a delicate balance between these three titanic egos, it doesn’t quite add up to something greater than the sum of its parts. But taken alone, those individual parts are often quite tremendous.”

Which they are. Everybody knows “White Room,” and every stoner’s grooved to “Toad,” but we like “Anyone for Tennis,” a track now officially a part of the album that was not included originally. Here’s a trippy TV performance of it from approximately 1968.

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