The arts are a fluid craft, not really bound by any fixed rules or laws. This sentiment is most apparent when it comes to the sphere of popular music. It didn’t always seem this way though.
If you want to side with the purists, in terms of music, of course there are established technical rules, but many people these days, either due to the lack of formal musical education, a preference for YouTube tutorials, or a general disdain for the “greats”, have opted to pave their own way in music.
This is why, aided by technology, in the current epoch, we have heard some of the most progressive and exciting music ever to have been released. Thank you, A. G. Cook and PC Music. However, if we cast our minds back, you’ll see that actually, many of the most important artists, have never been sticklers for established rules. The Beatles, during the second half of their career, are perhaps the best example of this.
On the other hand though, when you take a second to mull over the alternative music from the ’60s, which after 1965 was totally infused with the countercultural ethos, you heed that many of the era’s biggest acts were going against the grain in one way or another.
This set a precedent for things to come. Without the bold, pioneering steps that many artists took in the ’60s, in a roundabout way, we would not find ourselves at this brilliantly fluid musical juncture we’re at today. Musically, lyrically, aesthetically — even though today, on any of these fronts the artists from back then might seem a little redundant when you actually place them in the timeline of music, they’re anything but.
One band, who were incredibly pioneering was the psychedelic power trio, Cream. Making a strong claim at the world’s first supergroup, it featured the unmistakable Ginger Baker on the drums, Jack Bruce on bass and vocals, and old ‘Slowhand’, Eric Clapton on guitar and vocals.
Musically, we could spend all day discussing how they were a groundbreaking group. Then, lyrically, whilst not hugely groundbreaking outside of their realm of psychedelia, they did sometimes veer off the beaten path, adding to the era’s subliminal ethos that music is totally subjective, and no one should or can tell you how to do it.
Their 1967 B-Side ‘Tales of Brave Ulysses’ is a fine example of this. Again, musically, it was absolutely earth-shattering, and it featured one of the first recorded uses of the wah-wah pedal. Interestingly, the lyrics were actually written, for the most part, as a poem by artist Martin Sharp, who would go on to become one of Clapton’s longtime collaborators.
In his 2007 autobiography, Clapton recalled: “When (first meeting Sharp) he heard that I was a musician, he told me he had written a poem that he thought would make good lyrics for a song. As it happens, I had in my mind at that moment an idea inspired by a favourite song of mine by the Lovin’ Spoonful called ‘Summer in the City’, so I asked him to show me the words. He wrote them down on a napkin and gave them to me… These became the lyrics of the song ‘Tales of Brave Ulysses'”.
Incredibly psychedelic, lyrically, the song was a faithful retelling of Homer’s Odyssey. For those confused, the Latin variant of the name Odysseus, the epic’s protagonist, is Ulysses. This was an ingenious piece of work by both Clapton and Sharp, as the classical poem has always contained an intrinsic psychedelic edge.
Lyrics such as “Tiny purple fishes / Run laughing through your fingers” and “And when your fingers find her / She drowns you in her body / Carving deep blue ripples / In the tissues of your mind”, are hugely demonstrative of this point.
There is a reason that ‘Tales of Brave Ulysses’ has endured as a psychedelic classic all these years, and that is because of its lyrical density. Along with bands such as The Beatles, who also realised that lyrics do not have to be all sugary, lovey-dovey nonsense, Cream and their contemporaries started to realise that lyrics could be about anything and that when used properly they can really augment a band’s sound and message.
We only have to note the science-fiction inspiration behind Hendrix’s ‘Purple Haze’ or any of The Velvet Underground’s lyrics to heed this as true.
Listen to ‘Tales of Brave Ulysses’ below.