Strange Brew (1967)


Written by Eric Clapton, Felix Pappalardi, Gail Collins
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Cream at whiskey a gogo“Strange Brew” flashes out sparks of significance in all imaginable ways, contributing mightily to the weaving of the DNA of Rock-N-Roll. It is on the high-classic album Disraeli Gears by Cream.

Cream appearing at L.A.’s Whiskey A Go Go, 1967

It also marks the emergence of Eric Clapton as a songwriter and lead singer for the group. On Fresh Cream, Clapton sang lead on only one song, Robert Johnson’s “Four Until Late,” which Clapton also arranged to suit the debut album. The LP was rounded out mostly by bassist Jack Bruce’s compositions and interpretations of other Blues standards.

Even on Disraeli, Clapton is eclipsed by the writing and singing of Bruce, both of which – make no mistake – are stratospheric in achievement. However, the pattern would persist and it added to the tension that eventually broke up Cream.

“Strange Brew” is all Clapton: we can hear the fusion that would carry Eric through his entire career. The completely updated electric Blues, British style, combine with vividly psychedelic imagery and mood. It is hooky without being hokey. It speaks to the listener’s intelligence and ability to bring something to the musical experience.

In addition, it is weirdly wild and wonderful while remaining accessible.

“Strange Brew” – Drink Up

The innovative compositions by the three-man group also contributed mightily to making “hard” music acceptable to the mainstream, although in retrospect it seems that the esoteric sound lucked out. “Strange Brew” is very strange indeed.

Kaleidoscope love“Strange Brew” shares the eerie, drug-laced attitude toward life and love that figures in its companions on Disraeli Gears, “Sunshine Of Your Life,” “Dance The Night Away,” “We’re Going Wrong” and “SWLABR.” The sensibility would carry through on subsequent albums Wheels On Fire in Bruce’s “White Room” and on Farewell in Clapton’s and George Harrison’s “Badge.” (Clapton had no compositions featured on the former, and only “Badge” on the latter.)

“Badge” – an Eric Clapton-George Harrison composition

“Strange Brew” opens with a stinging guitar lead and a bullwhip snare drum beat. The bass is heavy and rolling, truly the bottom for the intriguingly mysterious song. Clapton seems to finally “get” himself on “Strange Brew,” hitching up sinuous, infectious Blues melodies with catchier timing, including pauses, hesitations, and what in the visual arts is called negative space. What Clapton isn’t playing is as important as what he is playing.

The theme is perfumed by earlier songs that, although they only pre-date “Strange Brew” by, at most, a decade, seem a hundred years old in outlook.

Gone is the innocence of 1959’s “Love Potion No. 9” by the Clovers; the riled up, itchy-pants ramblings of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (mid-1950s), or the maniacal verbal gymnastics of Lavern Baker’s 1958 “Voodoo Voodoo.”

“Love Potion No. 9” – The Clovers

Arrived are the brooding impossibilities of complete love. Like the other artists, Clapton is possessed.

Strange brew – killin’ what’s inside of you.

Disraeli GearsShe’s a witch of trouble in electric blue.
In her own mad mind she’s in love with you,
With you.
Now what you gonna do?
Strange brew – killin’ what’s inside of you.

She’s some kind of demon messin’ in the flue.
If you don’t watch out it’ll stick to you,
To you.
What kind of fool are you?
Strange brew – killin’ what’s inside of you.

What is it the woman is “killing?” The love the singer has? His self-respect? Confidence? Whether it’s one or all three, or something else altogether, it’s supernatural in nature, fated, and unavoidable. It doesn’t seem that the woman of the song is cheating or anything quite so sordid. It appears she is more of a nutcase.

The words “witch,” “mad mind,” “killin’,” “demon” and “fool” are guideposts as to the inner conditions of the narrator/singer.

Midway through, Eric breaks into an impressive talking-guitar solo that is outro-ed by perfect drumming by Ginger Baker’s intense but controlled drumming. You can hear what eventually would become a long, Cream in actionmutually beneficial collaboration – lessons, if you will – that transpired between Clapton and Beatle George Harrison. Clapton brought the Blues and Harrison brought the fine wine of the tippety-top of the pop accomplishment.

The number also has the powerful quality of being succinct. No roving and rambling here. Economy is everything as it clocks in at well under three minutes. Its minimalist sparseness lends an elegance that longer versions lack. Then again Clapton, Bruce and Baker are all masters of their various instruments.

Clapton closes down “Strange Brew” with a quick finger-flicking Delta Blues guitar lead line… buttons it up like a Sunday school collar on a liquid planet formerly known as Earth.

  • Felix Pappalardi, the late bassist (for Mountain, among other gigs) and songwriter, entered the Cream world semi-accidentally.
  • Ginger Baker said this about how Felix became involved with “Strange Brew”: “We had no real game plan for making the album (Disraeli Gears). The first thing we cut was the traditional blues ‘Hey Lawdy Mama,’ and Felix was at the session as a guest of Ahmet Ertegun (impresario of A&M Records). At the end of the session, he asked if he could take a copy of the tape away to write some words for it. He came back the next day with ‘Strange Brew.’
  • Felix got Eric to sing the lead because he had done so for ‘Hey Lawdy Mama.’ All of this didn’t go down so well with Jack, because he considered himself to be the lead vocalist.”
  • Oddly, Jack Bruce, who had played with the popular Graham Bond Group and Manfred Mann before joining Cream, never again achieved superstardom, despite his prodigious talents as a bass player, songwriter and singer.

Also by Cream on

  • Sunshine Of Your LoveWhen you care enough to send your psychedelic best, send “Sunshine Of Your Love.”