Cream were one of the first supergroups: a combination of blues guitarist Eric Clapton, fresh from the Yardbirds and the Bluesbreakers, and a jazz rhythm section of Ginger Baker (drums) and Jack Bruce (bass), both previously with the Graham Bond Organisation. Their debut, 1966’s Fresh Cream, was essentially a blues album, but 1967’s Disraeli Gears emphasised the heavier and more psychedelic side of their playing.
One of the defining qualities of heavy metal is guitar riffs: short, memorable, repeating phrases played on a distorted guitar as a foundation for a song. Sunshine of your Love was one of the first hit songs to be built around a guitar riff rather than a chord sequence — although in this case, the riff was originally written on the bass, and the two instrument shadow each for much of the song.
Sunshine prefigures the development of metal in two other ways: the stop-start instrumentation during the chorus (“I’ve been waiting so long”), and the dramatic stripping down of complexity. While the blues influence is still very apparent, nothing about the song suggests the jazz background of two thirds of the band. The drum part was based on African tribal rhythms, and unusually emphasises beats 1 and 3 rather than 2 and 4, and the lock-step guitar and bass yield a wide-open texture. Even the vocal melody largely tracks the guitar/bass riff.
Bruce wrote the riff after having seen The Jimi Hendrix Experience in concert, and there’s certainly a Hendrix influence. But texturally, Cream’s guitar/bass/trio is far away from Hendrix’s use of the same instrumentation: they are disciplined and even sparse where The Jimi Hendrix Experience was dense and chaotic. Simplification was to become a repeating motif along the road to heavy metal: Cream arguably began it.
Does Sunshine of your Love represent progress beyond Purple Haze? As always, the question can only be answered if we get teleological, and read back into history an assumed goal — one that was only revealed to be the destination after the events we’re considering. So in a sense the question is meaningless. But all that aside, and much as I love Sunshine, I read it as a retrograde step. Like most of Hendrix’s early work, Purple Haze is gloriously chaotic, the band seeming to surf on the edge of disaster and just pulling it off. By contrast, the controlled simplicity of Sunshine of your Love seems staid, even conservative — as though Cream collectively thought “Woah, Hendrix, too much!”
Hendrix, by the way, was a big fan of Sunshine of your Love, and often used it in his own concerts. Famously, in a televised performance on the Lulu show, he abandoned his own big hit Hey Joe mid-song and went into Sunshine as a tribute to the just-broken-up Cream. His version, sure enough, is much faster and more chaotic than the original.