Cream “SWLABR” (1967)

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I think most people know the odd story behind the title of the Cream song ‘Badge,’¹ but what was going on with this one? And what the hell is “swuh-lah-bur” – or however one might pronounce that weird cluster of letters. Looks like an unfortunate rack of Scrabble tiles, or that someone forgot to buy a vowel on Wheel Of Fortune. Well it turns out it doesn’t actually spell anything, but is an initialism (not meant to be an acronym) for “She Walks Like A Bearded Rainbow.” Uh, okay, I guess that about clears it up.

‘SWLABR’ was written by Pete Brown (apparently with his caps lock on), a poet and friend of Cream’s drummer Ginger Baker and bassist Jack Bruce – two-thirds of rock’s first supergroup whose long-term antagonism toward each other ultimately led to the band’s dissolution. In a 2017 interview Brown offered some insight to his song and lyrics, notably the lines: “You’ve got that rainbow feel / But the rainbow has a beard.”

“The rainbow was this kind of very radiant sexuality,” Brown explained. “It was a psychedelic time, not that I ever did big psychedelics, and I was using color images a lot at that point. But unfortunately, it’s (also) a bit misogynistic, I’m afraid. It’s about someone whose girlfriend has given him the elbow and he’s going around defacing pictures of her. It’s not very nice really.” Well then, no, not especially. Though left out of this description, it seems to me, is why the narrator’s ex has photos of her displayed willy-nilly around town, as it were, just waiting to be fancifully filled in with facial hair. Perhaps the answer lies partly in Brown’s further disclaimer on both his content and condition (see if you can guess the operative word contained in the upcoming quote): “The song has a rather psychedelic feel,” Brown continued, while insisting he was not, in fact, on acid when he wrote it. “I never knowingly took acid,” he asserted, unlikely with a straight face.²

Pharmacologically affected words and associated initials aside, this is simply a phenomenal song, replete with the massive sound and hard-edged, lead pipe blues/rock force which was Cream’s calling card (albeit for only three years). And it’s headed off by one of the greatest guitar intros to any rock song I know. Really, in just three seconds this tune has got you completely roped and tied by Eric Clapton’s ripping fuzz-box sound, and then doesn’t let up the pace a bit for the ensuing two-and-a-half incendiary minutes. Unpronounceable titles or rainbow-bearded non-sequiturs being what they are, luckily there’s really no mistaking the meaning of an absolutely killer riff.

¹In short, Eric Clapton, looking upside down from across the room, misread what George Harrison, who co-wrote the song, had notated at the middle part, commonly known as the “bridge.” “What’s badge?” he said laughing, and hence that became the title. The word “badge” neither appears nor is implied anywhere in the song.

²“knowingly” is my choice


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