How Cream Completed the Unlikeliest of Reunions
When Cream announced their breakup in the summer of 1968, it felt like the sad but necessary result of three solo-sized egos trying to wedge themselves into a power trio. A reunion seemed highly unlikely.
Even as they pursued their separate careers, however, former bandmates Jack Bruce, Eric Clapton, and Ginger Baker found it difficult to extricate themselves from one another's orbit. Baker and Clapton quickly came together again as part of the short-lived Blind Faith, and the three would cross paths repeatedly in one way or another over the years, as they all achieved British rock legend status in their own right.
But it wasn't until 1993, when Cream were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, that they managed to find the time or inclination to share a stage again. Their short set that night, which consisted of "Sunshine of Your Love," "Crossroads," and "Born Under a Bad Sign," marked the first time they'd played together in a quarter-century — and it'd be another 12 years before they did it again.
By 2005, a Cream reunion seemed unlikelier than ever, but time had had a mellowing effect on the trio, starting with Clapton, who found himself in an increasingly reflective mood as the years wore on. Finally seeing his musical legacy as more of a blessing than a burden, he found himself turning to thoughts of the past more often, and wondering whether the old antipathies that tore the band apart might have dissipated over the ensuing decades.
Clapton said he was the first to reach out to his former bandmates. "I missed them, and I had missed them for a long time," he admitted later. "And I kind of realized, deep down, that as much as they might want to get together again that it was really my call — because I had walked from it."
Still, he said he initially resisted the idea. "At some point, it really just came into my mind more and more and more. I would get up, and I would think about it. I thought: ‘You may not need to do it, for whatever reason, but maybe they’d benefit.’ Not only that, we can. We actually can, because we’re all still alive. I thought this, this is worth it. This is worth whatever grief and stress we may have experienced in the past, to come back to this."
"When we very first had the idea of getting together again, way back in ‘93, when we got inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I suggested that if we did get together, we should do a new album. But it didn’t work out that way, I’m afraid," Bruce told Vintage Rock. "We did the old tunes, which was nice. That’s what people want to hear, after all."
That's definitely what people wanted when Cream announced a series of reunion shows to be held at the Royal Albert Hall on May 2, 3, 5 and 6 of 2005 — and plenty of them were waiting, too, as evidenced by the way all four concerts sold out in under an hour.
Those old squabbles over new material weren't the only stumbling block that popped up during the 12 years between 1993 and 2005 — Bruce's declining health was also a factor. "I had been quite ill, to say the least, so I could have done with a bit more recovery time. But that aside, the gigs were pretty good, I thought," he said. "I think it was really for the audience that we did it, as much as ourselves, and we certainly felt the love as we hit the Albert Hall stage."
Watch Cream Perform 'White Room' in 2005
Even if they ended up playing the old material, that didn't mean it had to feel old, as Bruce pointed out in a separate interview. "I don't think of it as a nostalgic thing at all," he argued. "I might have thought that, but as soon as we started playing, it felt quite new and fresh. It sounded like us now, not us then, you know what I mean?"
The Royal Albert Hall concerts, which were captured for posterity on the descriptively titled CD/DVD package Royal Albert Hall London May 2-3-5-6, 2005, proved such a positive experience that the group decided to keep going, and booked another round of shows for Oct. 24-26 at Madison Square Garden. But by the time the final encores were finished, Baker, Bruce, and Clapton had all had enough.
"After that I was pretty convinced that we had gone as far as we could without someone getting killed. At this time in my life I don’t want blood on my hands," chuckled Clapton while looking back on the Madison Square Garden shows. "I don’t want to be part of some kind of tragic confrontation."
All the members of Cream had been at loggerheads at some point, but the most vehement disagreements were between Baker and Bruce, who'd had issues with one another since their infamously acrimonious days together in the Graham Bond Organization. In spite of everyone's best intentions, the two still found it difficult to get along during the reunion — something Baker later insisted he'd been worried about from the start.
"I'd refused to do it first of all," he said in 2008. "Eric phoned me up and convinced me. The reason I didn't want to do it was because of what happened in New York in 1968 when the magic was destroyed. The reason we broke up in the first place re-emerged onstage at Madison Square. You'll notice I'm talking about Eric in a nice way, but there was another person in the group. It wasn't just a problem with the volume of the bass guitar, it was the problem of being humiliated in front of 20,000 people."
Adding that he was tired of accepting Bruce's meaningless apologies, Baker continued, "He gets tearful and says 'I love you man,' but the volume thing has damaged my hearing to this day. I just cannot play with other people playing too loud on stage. It's too painful."
While it ultimately may have stirred up painful emotions for the members of the band, the Cream reunion added a bittersweet — albeit brief — postscript to one of rock's greatest legacies. For some, that was enough.
"That's the way it goes," Bruce shrugged when asked about Cream's inability to reunite for the long haul. "It's fine. I think we said what we had to say at the time. And it was nice to have that little comeback. For me, that was just about right."