I Feel Free 45 and picture sleeve
By July 1966, Eric Clapton had established himself as the premier blues guitarist in Britain as a result of his tenure in The Yardbirds (October 1963-January 1965) and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers (April-August 1965, November 1965-July 1966). But by July 1966, Clapton found the environment of the Bluesbreakers too confining, and he sought to expand his playing in a new band. In 1966, Clapton met drummer Ginger Baker, a member of the Graham Bond Organisation, a band that at one point featured Jack Bruce on bass. Baker, like Clapton, felt stifled by his present band, and tired of the GBO and Bond’s drug addictions and bouts with mental instability. Baker and Clapton were impressed with each other’s abilities, and Baker invited Clapton to join his new, as-yet unnamed band. Clapton agreed on the condition that Baker hire Jack Bruce as his bass player. Clapton had met Bruce briefly when the bassist/vocalist played in the Bluesbreakers briefly in March 1966 and was impressed with Bruce’s vocals and technical prowess. But what Clapton did not know is that when Bruce and Baker had been in the GBO, they had been notorious for their quarreling. Their volatile relationship included on-stage fights and sabotage of each other’s instruments. After Baker fired Bruce from the band, Bruce continued to show up for gigs, and was only driven away when Bruce threatened him at knifepoint. Nevertheless, Bruce and Baker were able to put their differences aside for the good of Baker’s new trio. The band was envisioned as a collaborative, with each of the members contributing music and lyrics. The band was named “Cream”, as Clapton, Baker and Bruce were considered the cream of the crop of British blues and jazz musicians. The new band made their unofficial debut at the Twisted Wheel on July 29, 1966, and their official debut at the Sixth Annual Windsor Jazz and Blues Festival two days later. Signed to producer Robert Stigwood’s new “independent” label, Reaction Records (the parent company was Polydor), Cream released their debut single, “Wrapping Paper” b/w “Cat’s Squirrel” in October 1966. The single was a hit, leading to the release of a full length album “Fresh Cream”, in December 1966, and a second single that same month: “I Feel Free” b/w “N.S.U.” This is today’s featured single.
“I Feel Free” represented a watershed even in the history of Cream. Their first single, “Wrapping Paper”, was a slow jazz number that was supposedly released as a single against the wishes of Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker, and in any case was unrepresentative of their later output. “I Feel Free”, written by Jack Bruce and Pete Brown, was an important song for the band. It marked the beginning of their merging blues-rock with pop and psychedelia, and in doing so they began to realize their potential. The song begins with a single, sustained chord which gives way to a cappella vocals. Ginger Baker’s drums 31 seconds into the track signals the transition to a hard rock sound, but with a pop-like sound to it, anchored by Jack Bruce’s airy vocals. About 1 minute and 15 seconds into the track, Eric Clapton’s guitar solo begins, a solo which is brief but which seems entirely appropriate in this song. The chord arrangement is relatively simple (B-D-E-E for most of the song, giving way to C-Bb-A-D during the “I could walk down the street…” bridge about 1 minute and 50 seconds into the song). Pete Brown’s lyrics reflect the optimism of the early psychedelic era: “Feel when I dance with you/We move like the sea/You, youre all I want to know/I feel free, I feel free, I feel free”. There’s a lot going on in the 2 minutes and 53 seconds that this track lasts. This song was their first major hit in the U.K., just missing the Top Ten (peak position: #11), and was their first chart hit in the U.S. (peak position: #88), as well as the highlight of the American release of “Fresh Cream”, on which “Spoonful” was deleted to make room for it.
The B-side of this single, “N.S.U.”, is not the signature tune that “I Feel Free” was, but it represents a piece of inventive psychedelic pop that is in a similar vein, this time written by Jack Bruce alone. “N.S.U.” is an acronym for non-specific urethritis as well as the make of a car. Once again, the lyrics are optimistic, even whimsical: “Driving in my car, smoking my cigar/The only time I’m happy’s when I play my guitar.” Bruce’s vocals are less airy on this track (he almost sounds constipated the way he sings the lyrics). Again we get a brief Eric Clapton guitar solo; the overall feel of the song is tense and colorful, with the chord progression of F-D#-C and F-D#-A being repeated quite a bit. The drumming of Ginger Baker is far more noticeable on this track than it was on “I Feel Free” and contributes quite a bit to the feel of the song. “N.S.U.”, like “I Feel Free”, stands out as an example of the force and mastery of Cream on even the shorter, pop tunes, even as they showed a bias towards longer, free-flowing jams. And the shorter songs showcased their creativity while curbing some of the band’s more indulgent tendencies.
The single (catalog # in the U.S.: Atco 45-6462) was issued by Polydor Records in the U.K. and Europe, where it had the typical Polydor label of that time (red with the Polydor logo across the top, and the track listing and artist name across the bottom. In The U.S., the single was issue by Atlantic subsidiary Atco records, where it had a yellow and white label. Cream would move on to even bigger success, releasing “Disraeli Gears” in November 1967, an album which is considered by many to be their defining effort, containing “Strange Brew”, “Tales Of Brave Ulysses”, and “Sunshine Of Your Love”. Their third release, “Wheels Of Fire” (1968) was a double album (with the second disc recorded live at the Fillmore and the Winterland Ballroom). After the completion of this album in mid-1968, Cream decided to go their separate ways, with the band members now tiring of the project, and with Bruce and Baker’s combustible relationship strained even further by non-stop touring. They were persuaded to record one last album, the aptly titled “Goodbye” (1969).
Cream performing I Feel Free
at the Paris Pop Fest in 1967
I Feel Free video