Cream, Sunshine of your Love (November 1967) — Heavy Metal timeline, part 4

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.


13 responses to “Cream, Sunshine of your Love (November 1967) — Heavy Metal timeline, part 4

  1. “…gloriously chaotic, the band seeming to surf on the edge of disaster and just pulling it off.”
    That seems to me a pretty good description of psychedelic music in general. I always think of it as the musical equivalent of one of those giant blown bubbles, which are too big to become round and end up glisteningly volatile, ripplingly misshapen. In many ways it seemed a positive development for metal to transcend the song form. (What people want are the riffs, why not just give them that?) But for that reason psychedelic music always seems better when it stays shackled to a song. Warping and distorting the song but retaining it. (’Tomorrow Never Knows’ for example.) When it tried to go past the song form, it was often like the bubble just burst. It was like the funhouse mirror without the regular object to reflect.
    But it’s for that reason that I think the two styles combine so well. It’s like opposite colours going well together, each one standing out rather than blending in. I doubt Hawkwind will come up in your timeline, they were more space rock than metal, even if they appealed to headbangers so often. But their schtick of taking up piledriver riffs, then bending them from shape, always appealed massively to me. (True fact! When he DJ’d a show on Radio Two not so long ago, John Lydon picked ’You Shouldn’t Do That’ as one of his favourite tracks.)

  2. The soap-bubble analogy works well. My friend Matt Wedel often uses the expression “playing tennis with the net down” (I think initially with respect to non-rhyming, non-scanning poetry), and it applies perfectly to music that abandons the notion of song. You need a certain degree of artistic restriction to retain the discipline that lets you make art.

  3. I don’t think ‘artistic restriction’ is necessarily a universal rule, even if it’s true for psychedelic music. (Which kind of comes down to the idea that, in order to be warped, you first need something unwrapped to warp.)

    Guaranteed it’s harder to do absolutely out-there music, but I don’t think it’s impossible. It’s like trying to devise a dance routine in zero gravity, the lack of restrictions causes problems but also allows you to do things you wouldn’t do otherwise.

    Not sure this clip of the Y Band will be to everyone’s taste, but I was there and loved every minute of it!

  4. At the risk of turning this into Mike And Gavin Discuss The Nature Of Art, Part VII …

    There are two things going on here with what we’ve rather negatively settled into calling “restrictions”.

    First, music needs to be constrained to established conventions to some degree simply so that it’s recognisable as music. For me, the Y Bend thing goes too far: I am music-blind to it, to a degree that whether I “like” it or not is almost a non-question. In other words, the world needed Elvis to prepare it for Hendrix. This of course is not a new problem. The audience on the first night of Stravinsky’s dissonant ballet The Rite of Spring famously found it so incomprehensible that they rioted. A century later, it’s universally recognised as one of the truly great pieces of orchestral music. What can we draw from this? (1) that maybe in a hundred years, the Y Bend will also be recognised as all-time greats; or maybe more likely, (2) Stravinsky actually was a genius and that was why he could pull off a musical leap that lesser composers would not have been able to.

    (Side note: in getting my boys to listen to Rite of Spring I described it as the world’s first attempt at prog rock, only for an orchestra instead of a band. It may be a bit gimmicky, but I think it’s not actually a bad description.)

    So that’s the first thing. The second thing is harder to explain. It’s that a structure has to be made of something. A house has to be made of bricks and beams; a car has to be made of metal and plastic; and a musical piece has to be made of notes, chords, melody, harmony, rhythm. If you give yourself the musical “freedom” to remove those fundamental building blocks, is what you build actually music? I’m not sure it is — at least, it’s music only in the sense that a car without a chassis is still a car. It might be art; it might even be great art; but it can’t drive you down to the shops. And in the same way I am likely always going to struggle to see something like the Y Bend piece as music, even while I can see that it might be art of some kind. (Of course, you can route around this line of thought by defining music as “any art that uses sound as its medium”; but that merely unasks the questions and is, I think, uninteresting.)

    Now where it gets tricky is that I have a haunting fear that my second point might just be a restatement of the first, from the perspective of someone who Doesn’t Get It. Maybe my second point was exactly what the Parisian rioters said about The Rite of Spring when they didn’t Get It.

    Well, we seem to have come quite a long way from Cream’s re-imposition of musical restrictions that Hendrix had discarded. But I’ll be interested to see where it takes us.

  5. Well I think you can get to some interesting places just by asking where the limits of music lie. Chris Watson, for example, has made lots of field recordings of nature scenes. He doesn’t add to them or manipulate them in any way, apart from choosing what section to release from a longer recording. So he’s not really composing anything, in the conventional sense. Is it music? Dunno, guv. But I like listening to it.

    But with the Y Band… It’s fair enough if someone doesn’t take to them of course, but I don’t see why they shouldn’t be seen as music. I chose them as an example because they do overlap with psychedelic music in some ways. They take a certain gleeful delight by incorporating twisted parodies of more conventional music, the crooner-like singer and so on. But it’s not just taking stuff out. The description I always fall back on with impro music is that it’s like a conversation, where pre-written music is more like a recital. (Irrespective of whether its been formally notated or not.) What you listen to is the interplay between the players, much more so than you would pre-written music. What one person is playing is almost immaterial compared to how it adds to the whole picture.

    It’s like listening to a foreign language. Go to a new country and hear a new language for the first time, and all you hear are the same few sounds over and over again. Your ears are quite naturally picking out what’s foreign to them. It can be a while before you pick out cadences, patterns and so on. But your brain does a thing, irrespective of learning words or phrases, where it gloms on to something and comes to recognise that language as a language. Noise becomes signal. New or unusual styles of music are often like that.

    In this case it may be akin to someone who has only ever heard speeches suddenly catching a conversation. Not different languages entirely, but the analogy still kind of stands.

    The Y Band are probably not very important to the development of metal, though.

  6. Is it music? Dunno, guv. But I like listening to it.

    Totally legit. I love listening to the sea (and really must get around to rigging something up that plays me sea sounds as I fall asleep).

    To be fair to the Y Band (or is it the Y Bend?), I didn’t listen through the video, just skipped through a dozen or so few-second-long bursts to see how it was evolving. It may contain much more normal-musical elements than I’ve heard.

    The description I always fall back on with impro music is that it’s like a conversation, where pre-written music is more like a recital.

    Well, absolutely. Much of my favourite music contains a lot of improvisation for exactly this reason — and you’ll be well aware that lots of metal bands improvise new solos every night. That’s particularly apparent in bands like Deep Purple, where one of the threads running through their work is the duelling between guitar and keyboards (but we’ll get to that soon enough). I like this because it’s working from a base that I understand, and that helps me understand the places it gets to. Of course, jazz soloing is the perfect manifestation of this: the standard approach is for the soloist to play through the tune once (e.g. My Favourite Things) and then improvise on that theme, gradually getting further and further from the starting point. By beginning with exposition and then going on to development, they give a foothold. By contrast, a completely unconstrained improvisation — well, I could do that. Random notes, random order. I would know I wasn’t doing anything deliberate, though. Are extreme improvisers doing this? Or are they following a deep logic of their own that I’m not equipped to follow?

    Excellent analogy with learning languages. Another that springs to mind is the ability to recognise faces. Most of us in the West find it hard to tell apart different Chinese people, but Chinese people have no difficulty (and for all I know think that all westerners look alike). It’s simply a matter of tuning in to a visual (in this case) vocabulary. In my own case, I can instantly recognise many individual sauropod vertebrae — for example, I find the eighth dorsal vertebra of the Giraffatitan brancai holotype MR.R.2181 just as startlingly unique as, say, the face of Cameron Diaz. But for most people, I imagine it just looks like, well, a vertebra. So, yes, acclimatising can completely transform perception.

  7. There are two things going on here with what we’ve rather negatively settled into calling ‘restrictions’.

    As John Hartford put it.

    I tried real hard to not make this song sound like
    Some other song that I might have written before
    If I did it’s ’cause my style and style is based on limitations.

    I tried real hard to not make this song sound like
    Some other song some other singer songwriter might have written before
    If I did its because it’s music
    And music’s based on repetition

    That doesn’t help build a definition or locate the edges of what might be called music (though the song itself has some interesting examples of unusual improvisation that is still recognizably bluegrass), but I think it’s a nice summary of the problem. . . .

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  9. ”Are extreme improvisers doing this? Or are they following a deep logic of their own that I’m not equipped to follow?”

    Neither. But I’ve probably confused you by mixing up two language metaphors. Listening to impro music is less like hearing a new language, like Mandarin, and more like hearing a different mode of speech. Imagine going to see a recital to find it’s actually a chat show, and your brain having to adjust.

    It’s music you listen to on the surface level but at a high level of detail, as all the players listen to one another, each coming up with something which fits and then becoming almost one collective mind. You definitely need to listen to it all the way through, or at least in longish segments. It’s music which does evolve, but less like the plot of a novel evolves (where skimming through it might give you some sense of it) and more like the way evolution evolves.

    To my mind soloing is almost the opposite end of the music spectrum, as it’s not about interplay at all. It just sounds like circus tricks to me. My brain switches off as soon as a solo starts, no matter the instrument. I was one of the people insisting Zeppelin sounded better for their reunion gig, as they’d cut out those overlong solos and were just playing the stuff that people actually like to hear. And don’t get me started on jazz…

    If it’s not the sort of music others choose to listen to, that’s absolutely fair enough, of course, But just out of interest, how are you on ‘Interstellar Overdrive’? That’s kind of impro music in a riff sandwich.

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  13. I am more inclined to appreciate Interstellar Overdrive than I am to enjoy it.

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