Cream was sitting on top of the world in the spring of 1968. The power trio had followed up their 1966 debut, Fresh Cream, with Disraeli Gears, which hit the Top 10 in both the U.K. and U.S. in 1967.
U.S. audiences in particular went wild for the group’s live performances, and Cream – made up of guitarist Eric Clapton, bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker – responded by improvising at length onstage as 1967 bled into 1968. “We just started playing what came into our heads,” Bruce explained in Michael Schumaker’s book Crossroads: The Life and Music of Eric Clapton, “instead of going out to play set tunes – and that’s when we realized this is where it’s at.”
Cream’s rise to stardom changed the lives of all three musicians, but especially Clapton, whose fiery licks on John Mayall’s 1966 album Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton sparked the catchphrase “Clapton Is God,” which fans took to spray-painting on U.K. walls. This adulation, Clapton later conceded, soon went to his head. “My vanity was incredibly boosted by that ‘God’ thing,” Clapton told biographer Ray Coleman in Clapton! “I didn’t think there was anyone around at that time doing what I was doing … I was very confident. I didn’t think there was anybody as good.”
In March 1968, Cream’s spring tour of the U.S. saw the band wind its way from one coast to the other. But bad tour scheduling and worse weather made the group absurdly late for its March 23 gig at Boston’s Brandeis University. For hours fans waited in the school’s gym for Cream to make their appearance.
One Brandeis student who attended the show had a strong interest in seeing Cream perform: John Landau, a music critic for the college paper who had also started writing for Rolling Stone the previous fall. He had even written an in-depth feature in the magazine’s first issue comparing Cream to the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
Finally, at 2AM, Cream hit the stage. The band played an energetic, jam-happy, two-hour set that included “Tales of Brave Ulysses,” “N.S.U.,” “Sunshine of Your Love” and Baker’s lengthy drum solo “Toad.” But Landau was underwhelmed. After leaving the hall, he penned a review for Brandeis’ student newspaper The Justice, which was published on March 26. In it, he wrote that after he had heard Cream stretch the compact “Sunshine” into a 15-minute workout, his “disappointment with the group was beginning to stare [him] in the face.” But Landau cut deeper with his take on Clapton, writing, “Clapton is a master of the blues cliches.” Not so surprisingly, a review in a college paper made no waves upon publication.
In the meantime, Cream’s U.S. tour continued into May. That month, Jann Wenner’s in-depth interview with Clapton ran in Rolling Stone, with a photo of the guitarist appearing on the cover.
Another story about Cream also showed up in the May 11, 1968, issue: a revised version of Landau’s Brandeis review. In the pages of Rolling Stone, Landau sharpened his barbs – mostly at the expense of Clapton, whose “problem is that while he has vast creative potential, at this time he hasn’t begun to fulfill it,” he wrote. “He is a virtuoso performing other people’s ideas. One got the nagging feeling that the whole solo [in ‘N.S.U.’] could be charted out to show the source of every phrase” – which, according to Landau, came straight out of B.B. King and Albert King’s playbooks.
With this review, Landau had done something that few, if any, critics had previously done: He challenged Cream’s reputation for brilliance, and in particular, Clapton’s guitar genius, one of the gospel tenets of the ’60s rock scene.
Clapton was stunned when he read the review. As he explained later: “All during Cream I was riding high on the ‘Clapton Is God’ myth that had been started up. Then we got our first bad review, which funnily enough, was in Rolling Stone. The magazine ran an interview with us in which we were really praising ourselves, and it was followed by a review that said how boring and repetitious our performance had been. And it was true! The ring of truth just knocked me backward; I was in a restaurant and I fainted. After I woke up, I immediately decided that it was the end of the band.”
Baker believed that because this criticism appeared in Rolling Stone, it made all the more impression on Clapton. “The article had a very detrimental effect on Eric because he thought Rolling Stone had a lot of credibility,” Baker told Guitar World: “He was a very sensitive fellow, and I’m convinced the article did him a great deal of harm. It was his favorite magazine, and to read something like that in it hurt him.”
Despite the review’s powerful impact on Clapton, the truth is that Cream’s internal dynamics had made the band a house of cards from the start. Relations between Baker and Bruce were terrible by 1968. Their arguments were violent and perpetual, even driving Clapton to tears on one occasion.
By early 1968, Clapton had been wowed by the Band, who he felt made his own group’s output sound obsolete by comparison. “When I heard [them],” he said in Crossroads, “I felt we were dinosaurs, and what we were doing was rapidly becoming outdated and boring. Music From Big Pink bowled me over ‘cause I thought that’s where everything should be going and we were nowhere near it.”
Still, the impact of Landau’s review can’t be dismissed. On July 10, 1968, Clapton announced that the band was breaking up, almost at the exact time that Cream’s new double album, Wheels of Fire, showed up. On Nov. 26, Cream played their last classic-era gig at Royal Albert Hall.
Landau, as it turned out, was a pretty good critic, a writer capable of building careers as well as tearing them down. In 1974, after seeing a young Bruce Springsteen at a Boston club, he famously wrote: “I saw my rock ‘n’ roll past flash before my eyes. And I saw something else: I saw [the] rock ‘n’ roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen. And on a night when I needed to feel young, he made me feel like I was hearing music for the very first time.” In this case, Landau got it right.
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