JACK BRUCE – ” Talks Cream , Alexis Korner , Graham Bond Organisation, Tony Wiilams Lifetime “

Posted: May 17, 2020 in ALBUMS, MUSIC
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Jack Bruce  was asked “What do you think these days, about the Cream songs you wrote?” the reply: I don’t call them Cream songs. I call them songs that I wrote at that time. OK, tell me about “White Room,” for example. I’m really happy with that song, because it’s paid the rent for a while. It’s quite a daring song in that it starts in 5/4 and was a huge hit. There aren’t many of those—Blondie’s “Heart Of Glass” has bars of 7/8 in it, that was a good song.

I think it’s important that writers take chances and risks. Record companies and a lot of people underestimate the public tremendously, so you end up with a public that doesn’t know. But if you reckon that the people you’re playing for are fairly hip, then they’ll really get into it. “White Room” has some of Ginger’s best drumming—when he brings in that extra bass drum at the end, it’s a whole new dimension.

How about some of the Cream gigs? Or should I say the gigs you played at that time. I think your debut was at the Twisted Wheel in Manchester in 1966. You were still playing your Fender VI, before you got the Gibson EB-3. I don’t know who suggested the Twisted Wheel. It might well have been Ginger. But why not? One of the better clubs in Britain, without any doubt. I think it was a pretty good gig. We had a big American estate car, which blew up on the way to the Twisted Wheel. I don’t remember how we got there in the end.

So then we got our Austin Westminster band car. There’d be the driver and roadie, Ben Palmer, and three in the band, two Marshall stacks, and the drums. That’s what we’d get in with any relative comfort and spliff-rolling capabilities. We’d drive there and come back the same day.

What do you recall about playing the Flamingo in London?:

I did the all-nighters there a lot, that was one of my very early gigs. I played the Flamingo with Alexis, too, a bit, but mainly the all-nighters with pickup bands, usually Ginger on drums, Dick Heckstall-Smith on tenor sax, and Johnny Burch on piano. The band room of the Flamingo in the early ’60s was the centre of the universe, really. It had a pet rat that used to run in the rafters above. Just a fabulous place to hang out. The Marquee was good, the 100 Club was good, but the Flamingo was the hip place. A guy called Ronnie Chambers used to look after the Flamingo. He’d get excited sometimes and rush on stage waving his gun about if the music was particularly good. His line was, “Hey, you want a watch?” And he’d pull up the sleeve of his suit and he’d have all these watches up his arm. Those were really great days, quite innocent really.

I’ve got a copy of a contract here for a 1966 Cream gig in Stockton [northern England] for £75.

Seventy-five quid? Well, that’s pretty good bread for then. I remember the first big-money gig we got with the Graham Bond Organisation, a bit earlier, I think Newcastle or Durham University or something, we got £40. We thought, Wow! We’ve hit the big time! A few of those and we can retire. Bearing in mind that people were probably earning a quarter of that as a decent weekly wage. So I don’t think Cream was making very good money at first from gigs—I think that came much later. I’m afraid I’m very vague about anything financial.

How about the early American gigs, maybe the Fillmore? . The Fillmore was great in San Francisco, and obviously 1967 was the year to be there, really. It would take off some nights, and this was when we first started doing the extended improvisations in Cream. It was new to the band. Up to this series of gigs, we just played little songs live, very short: three, four, five minute versions of the songs. And since there were only three of us, it wasn’t like: “You do a solo, then I’ll do a solo, then you.” It was: “Eric, do a solo.”

“Our albatross was having to do very long solos when you maybe didn’t feel like it. Mixed blessings, really.” We would sometimes strip it down to where Eric would play completely unaccompanied, for quite a long time [laughs]. And I remember him doing some quite incredible stuff, quite amazing. But they weren’t recorded.

The change was, quite simply, that we were fed up with doing that, and the audience was so great at the Fillmore, they were all so out of it, all sort of laidback, and would say, “Just play!” They wouldn’t let us go. So we just started playing, jamming as it were, and that turned into what we became known for. We didn’t sit down and have a big discussion: “Oh, let’s do this.” I think it was the same way that The Who became known for smashing up their equipment and all of that, and that became their albatross.

Is your academic musical background of use to you?

Yes, because if I’m sitting on a plane, say, and I have an idea, I can always write it down. I can write all my own horn parts, as on my new album, I can write my own arrangements. In fact, thinking back to “I Feel Free” and “White Room,” I was much closer to the academic days—which in fact were very shortlived. I did A-level music and then I went to The Royal Scottish Academy of Music, studying composition and cello, part-time and then full-time. And then we sort of threw each other out. They didn’t like me because I was improvising.

When I left the Academy, I was playing acoustic stand-up bass, and I heard about this band in Coventry, guy called Murray Campbell, it was a Mecca dance band. I was playing bass with Andy Park and some local people in Glasgow—he turned me on to Thelonious Monk. I just wanted to go out there, I wanted to be the next Scott LaFaro. Not much hope of that, but when you’re young you’re very ambitious. Ambitious, certainly, and also with some strong jazz roots, it seems.

The roots thing is very important to me. I think the difference between my roots and someone else’s is that I didn’t come from rock ‘n’ roll, I came from jazz, basically. I was playing with Ginger and Graham Bond, we were an alto–acoustic bass–drums trio, very much in the style of what Ornette Coleman was doing in the late ’50s, Charlie Haden and so on. That was my roots.

Anyway, I left home at 17 and went down to audition for this band I’d heard about, because they were playing Maynard Ferguson, Dizzy Gillespie big-band arrangements. The audition piece was Dizzy’s “One Bass Hit.” It’s a very difficult piece, so it was sorting out the men from the boys. And even though I was 17, I got the gig. A very good band.

I travelled around the country playing with jazz bands—I played with Chet Baker, and then with a fairly good cocktail-jazz band on the American Air Force bases, which was great because it introduced me to Mingus. They had these great record collections, and I steeped myself in Mingus records. It completely changed my life, because that introduced me, though I didn’t know it at the time, to the blues. Because really, what Mingus did was to bring country blues to jazz. Then I came to London and joined Alexis Korner.

Well, there was a place in London called “the street,” Archer Street, round the back of Piccadilly Circus. One day a week at lunchtime, all the musicians would go down there and you’d get work. Hundreds of musicians hanging out with their little books, getting their weddings and bar mitzvahs, this whole street would be thronged of musicians. That’s how I got the cocktail-jazz job, and Chet Baker. Then I tried to make it as a jazz bass player in London and had some tough times. I was playing with this band called Jim McHargs & His Scotsville Jazz Band. And Jimmy McHargs was the bass player, so how I got that job I still haven’t worked out.

This was 1961, ’62, and we got a gig at a Cambridge May Ball. And then I hear this amazing sound emanating from a cellar they had there. I went down, and it was Dick Heckstall-Smith on sax, Kathy Stobart singing, forget who was on piano, a guy called Morris on bass, and the guy on drums was called Ginger Baker. I went and asked to sit in, and they said they didn’t encourage that. I think they may have thought I was a student, though how they could have thought I was a student at Cambridge I don’t know. But anyway, I persuaded them, and they did the old trick of what jazzers do when someone sits in, which is to make them look stupid. So first they played something with very difficult changes at an incredible tempo.

So then they played a ballad and said: “You play the tune.” So OK, did that. And then I put the bass down and left. And Dick Heckstall-Smith spent two or three weeks trying to find me, and somehow he managed, and he asked me to join Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated. It was a good job he managed to find you.

Yeah. I might still be living in that terrible room in Willesden [north-west London]. You never know. So I joined, and Charlie Watts was on drums. I became good mates with him, often slept on his couch. And Dick Heckstall-Smith I regard as a musical father in many ways. He turned me on to a lot of things. The legendary Cyril Davies was on harmonica. It was very much a rhythm and blues band.

Cyril was a panel beater by trade. He and Alexis used to play interval spots with Chris Barber, playing Lead Belly things. I haven’t heard a harp player like Cyril. OK, Little Walter is obviously the man of all time, James Cotton is good, but Cyril had something. He was so good that when Muddy Waters heard him over here, he asked him to join his band and go back and live in Chicago. Unfortunately, poor old Cyril had leukemia and didn’t have very long to live. But I don’t think he would have given up his panel-beating business anyway. Muddy doesn’t, er, pay well.

I was a terrible musical snob. I thought progressive jazz was all there was—Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, post-bebop but still with the roots. Very much what you would call modern jazz. Talking ’62, so a lot of interesting stuff was about, Blue Note was happening, Riverside was happening. I remember hearing Tony Williams for the first time around then, he made a record with Eric Dolphy called Out To Lunch which is still something I play once a week. It was Dick that explained to me that it was possible to keep your musical ideals, but apply other things to it. Fusion, in other words. You could have a great country-blues harmonica player playing with a modern jazz tenor sax player, and that it didn’t demean anything, and in fact that it was much more modern than playing an imitation Ornette Coleman. At this time there were some great fusion bands, specially the Miles Davis band, the original Return To Forever, Weather Report in its heyday. Lifetime was the fusion band. Lifetime I consider to be definitely the best musical experience of my life. [Jack played on the 1970 Tony Williams Lifetime album Turn It Over.] Anyone who was lucky enough to hear that band would tend to agree with me. Played some great gigs over here, played the Speakeasy which people still go “wow!” about. That was a great band. We all knew it was very, very special. For me, it was great playing with people up to my standard—and that’s going to sound terribly big-headed.

Lifetime was a three-piece band at that time, Tony Williams [drums], Larry Young [organ], and John McLaughlin [guitar]. John brought Tony along to this gig—Jimi Hendrix was there, we had a great time—and Tony said, “Hey, I’m recording tomorrow, would you like to come down and play on a track or two?” So I went down, and he presented me with this very complicated written part, thinking probably this guy is a rocker. So I sight-read it, because I’m trained in that way. But the thing was, we clicked rhythmically.

Oh, Miles! Miles likes Cyndi Lauper. Miles is a completely open individual, as every musician should be. There’s a lot of people in rock music that I know—I won’t mention their names—who are snobs as well. They think that if it’s not two guitars, bass, and drums, and maybe a keyboard, well, forget it. There’s a sort of inverted snobbery there that I find and that I have suffered from. And there’s a problem with guitar players in the States who all want to play like Yngwie Malmsteen. They all want to play scales very fast up and down the neck of the guitar, and they aren’t interested in finding the roots of the music. They probably go as far back as Van Halen, and think that’s the beginning, instead of where Eric went back to: Robert Johnson, Albert King, and so on.

I’m roughly the same age as Mick Jagger, John Lennon—we were all little boys who were really influenced by the very beginnings of the commercial success of early rock ‘n’ roll music. It was there in our consciousness. So we can now look back as an overview, a lot of people of our generation, and a lot of younger people, too. It’s there. You can get the entire output of Willie Dixon, Chuck Berry, or somebody. In the ’60s when Cream was happening—let’s say in 1967, when we had our first real success in America—we played the Fillmore in the hippie summer and it felt like the whole world was being reborn, and musically I was so excited.

Ginger Baker and myself were really a hot jazz rhythm section, and even when Eric was playing, Cream was basically a jazz band. We never told Eric that, but that’s another story. Well, I don’t mean we were playing jazz. We certainly weren’t. We were playing improvised music, and some of the improvisations were damn good, even the recordings that were released. Which were not the best. You never get the best live stuff recorded, I’m glad to say.

Because it’s almost a pity when it’s recorded. Because live music should be something that happens and disappears, and you go home from the concert going, “Wow, that was great!” And you know you’ll never hear it again. The musicians love that magic that happens every so often. Also, I think if you stick up a microphone and you know it’s being recorded, it’s going to stop the real magic happening anyway. And I think there’s got to be something wrong with the people who go to the trouble of recording every gig.  When I listen to live Cream records now, I’m struck by the sound you got. I think if we were to play now, it would be a lot better. That side of it would be a lot better. Two of the bands that I’ve played with, at least, the great pity was that we were ahead of the technology—they were Cream and Lifetime. They hadn’t invented the real PA system yet. We used to play baseball stadiums with little 200-watt PAs. The problem that Cream had was that none of us were technically minded, in the sense that we knew what to do about it..”

You only have to look at old films of Ginger playing. I saw something recently of him playing with Blind Faith, and he was using two mics for the drums. In Hyde Park! Jimi suffered very badly from equipment, too. In Lifetime, we were playing light-years-ahead music—very fast, very loud—and that was the loudest band I’ve ever played in. Cream wasn’t that loud. Volume is a very relative thing. I think even symphony orchestras are playing louder now. People are going deaf! In those days, if you had 100 watts for the guitar and 100 watts for the bass and 200 watts for the vocals, that was damned loud. In Alexis Korner’s band, we all went through one little amplifier and two speakers either side of the stage—and people thought that was loud! People have got used to louder things. And, of course, we now have more sophisticated sound equipment, which in those days just did not exist. The first time I played electric bass was for Island Records with a guy called Ernest Ranglin, a Jamaican jazz guitar player. We recorded an EP called Ernest Ranglin And The ‘G.Bs’. It was Ernest, Graham Bond on Hammond, Ginger on drums, and me on a bass guitar that I borrowed from some music shop.

I’m a very stolid person. It takes me a long time to change, so I was against bass guitars. But that session was all it took. God, I thought, it’s loud, and I can play so easily. I can play louder than Ginger! He didn’t like it. I was totally convinced, so I went out and bought my first electric bass, which was a Top Ten [he means the Teisco-made Top Twenty brand], a Japanese bass—and “Japanese” didn’t mean very much in those days. It was all I could afford. Sounded pretty good to me. Kept giving me terrible electric shocks, though.

Marvin Gaye came over here. He’d just had his first few hits, must have been ’65. Graham Bond got the job of putting the band together to do a TV show with Marvin, we were playing things like “How Sweet It Is,” and I was going so he asked me to join, but unfortunately—unfortunately? Fortunately, I was getting married and I couldn’t go.

But that did encourage me that I was on the right track, because I was having a lot of problems, specially from Ginger who thought my bass playing was becoming too busy. It was just that he could hear me now. Suddenly there was a bass, and I was playing melody.

I’ve always thought that good music is not a melody and a block and boom-boom. To me good music is all melody—the drums should be playing tunes, the bass should be playing tunes, it should be counterpoint. I like to be able to listen to a lot of things going on, as opposed to one block—unless that’s what you want. I like moving parts, and that’s what a lot of the great Stax and Tamla things are. A lot of great soul music is very contrapuntal. So James Jamerson to me was Tamla Motown, as much as any of the great singers. He’s what made it great, this bass player.

What’s your feeling these days on the way Cream ended? I mean, why did the band break up? The kind of theoretical reason given is that we all wanted to go our separate ways and do different things. The real reason was the greed of the management. They never gave us a minute’s rest, because they drove us into the ground. We were all exhausted, and we hated each other. We were selling more records than The Beatles; the first platinum album; all that stuff. So they thought, let’s get these guys happening, you know?

And so we used to make records, we’d do the recording but wouldn’t be at the mixes. We wouldn’t know what was going to be on the records sometimes. We’d drive past some record shop, go in and buy our record to see what was on it. That’s the way it was in those days. I think most of the Cream songs are alright, there’s just not enough of them, for those reasons.

That final Cream tour in 1968 must have been a weird one. I suppose vaguely I thought it wasn’t our final tour. Mixed feelings. The height of success that we’d had, and we were splitting. Very strange feeling. Some of it was fun, because a lot of the pressure had gone. The Madison Square Garden gig was done in a very joke way, using the house PA, the same one that comes down from the ceiling where they say, “And in the blue corner—” And on a revolving stage. People who saw that gig couldn’t believe it. You’d get a big loud bit of Eric, then a big loud bit of Ginger, then Eric would disappear and I’d arrive, you know.

I remember getting the platinum discs at Madison Square Garden. Robert Stigwood and Ahmet Ertegun got on stage to present us with these in the middle of the set, and the audience just went “Booooo!” Very embarrassing. Very nice to get those, though. I wonder where mine is? I remember bringing it back to England, proudly, and they wanted me to pay duty on it.

The success is nice. But then the feeling is that it’s going to end. I had other things going on in my life. I wanted to have a kid, I wanted to have a house, the different things that people do, as opposed to living out of a suitcase. So there was that to look forward to. It was a good time, really, and I think some of the gigs on that last tour were really, really good, considering. I think we had something slightly better organized sound-wise. I remember one of the first big gigs on that tour, maybe it was Oakland, I remember going with Eric right up to the very furthest-away seats you could go to, and these tiny little dots where we would be, and going, “Fucking hell! We’ve come a long way from the Twisted Wheel.”

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