Take One: Cream ‘When I Play My Guitar’ 1966 ‘B’ Side N.S.U.

by | Jun 11, 2016 | 0 comments

Spinning today in the ‘rock room’ and the focus of this ‘Take
One’ feature is the flip side of Cream’s 1966 US/UK single ‘I Feel Free’, the song ‘N.S.U’.  ‘N.S.U.’ was also featured on the debut full length offering by the British
power trio, Fresh Cream. The Jack
Bruce penned number was the first song Bruce specifically penned for the band while preparing for one of their first rehearsals. The ‘I Feel Free’ b/w ‘N.S.U.’
single followed the band’s debut ‘Wrapping Paper’ which shined a spotlight on
the group, but was not as representative of their developing aesthetic as the ‘I
Feel Free’ single.‘NSU’ found on the flip, would go
one to become a concert staple for the group, routinely surpassing 10 minutes
in length and becoming a three pronged musical trident of psychedelic jamming
and superior competitive musicianship. It’s humble beginnings as an album track and ‘B’ side in no way represent the songs importance as a jamming vehicle and building block for the Cream sound.
In an available online interview with Jack Bruce, he demonstrates NSU on bass in addition to a number Cream classics, as well as explaining the origins of the
title. There have been many statements on the specific meaning of the song including it referencing a European automobile. Here Bruce confirms and humorously states for all that ‘N.S.U.’
stands for ‘Non Specific Urethritis’, which is a commentary on a venereal
disease that someone in the band was unlucky enough to catch during one of
their rock and roll romps. Bruce states he cannot reveal who the song was
referencing, but it may have been a certain guitar player. Lyrically the song is a flip book of Bruce’s thoughts regarding rock and roll celebrity, while spiced with a dash
of hallucinatory wonderment and confirmation. ‘Happiness is just something that
cannot be bought’ and ‘I don’t want to go until I’ve found it all out’ are
examples of the lyrical revelations which Bruce sings about. The ‘in, out’ lyric is one I’ll leave to your own interpretation.
The original single/LP version of the song is introduced with
Ginger Baker’s resonate tom-tom rolls to which Clapton locks in with a carnival
picked guitar line. Bruce drops the anchor with a weighty bass under layer as
the lyrics begin.  Each verse is separated
by Clapton and Bruce’s descending and druggy ‘Ahhh’  vocal refrains to which Baker responds with
waves of rolls across his kit. A short pause is revealed to which Bruce chops
at his ropy ‘E’ string rhythmically before a snare crack returns us to the kaleidoscopic
verses. The result is a cloudy blues romp trademarked with Cream’s recognizable big vocals ( see White Room). Clapton solos briefly mid song with a quivering and distorted scribble
across the song’s theme but the portal is quickly closed before the song returns
the verses contained succinctly kept within its three minute package.
‘NSU’ is also represented by two provocative and destructive
live versions featured on official releases. Versions from both March 9 and 10
1968 at Winterland arena in San Francisco have found their way into fans
hands via the 1970 Live Cream Volume 1 album
and on the Those Were the Days box set
released in 1997. Where Clapton’s brief solo resides in the studio version, on
stage it is split open like a fragrant piece of felled timber, the ax revealing multiple
layers of historic improvisation.

Both live renditions immediately race toward the horizon on Bruce’s horny and hearty bass, The jam dynamically swells
post verses through a series of blues snippets and Clapton conjured melodic
magic that first crescendo, then sniff the floor wildly for other doorways to
explore. The version from the 9th is worthy of its album release, but the version on the 10th has much to offer as well. The joy
to be found in these particular live versions is to be discovered in the role
reversals that take place between Clapton and Bruce. Clapton will mine a riff
that he likes and repeat it, stitching designs with Baker’s drums while allowing
Bruce to ‘solo’ dramatically. Bruce then responds in kind hammering out a guttural
foundation with dangling notes that Eric then takes flight from. Clapton pulls
from his well of influence, using blues based ideas that morph into exploratory
statements. The musicians compete for space, but once they find a common ground
they meld into one molten instrument that covers the surrounding landscape. In particular, the jam on the 9th becomes disorienting in its madness. The
sturdy bones of Baker allow for the strings to have complete freedom and the
result is a stunning piece of improv by three virtuoso musicians
all peaking at the right moment.
Cream’s 1966 single ‘B’ side ‘N.S.U.’ is a not just a formative
song in their catalog, it is a representation of the conglomerate of factors
that make them a recognizable power force in rock history.  Their fearless group improvisation, heated
egos and astronomical talents combined to make a series of unique musical statements over a very
short span; and ‘N.S.U.’ helped to initiate this creative rush and historic
process. The three principals would eventually be jettisoned into legendary
careers of their own, but for three years in the mid 1960’s their collaborative
relationship spawned sonic alchemy.


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