BEST OF 2021: Call him a jazzer, call him a rocker (please don’t), or just call him a drummer - Ginger Baker was at the forefront of the ‘60s melting pot that saw blues-inspired rock explode. But while the guitarists were taking their cues from pentatonic riffs, the guys at the back were busy merging more orthodox approaches from jazz with the backbeat.
None identified as strongly with jazz as Ginger Baker, vehemently denying his association to rock music. It’s fair to say that Ginger Baker was a prickly character, displaying contempt for his peers, declaring rock stars as “Fucking idiots, most of ’em”.
But we’re here to discuss the drumming, and while we could easily make this ‘Five Cream songs’, Baker covered a lot of ground musically, from the blues-rock of Cream through to his work with Afro-beat legend, Fela Kuti making his argument for being thought of as a musician, rather than a 'simple' rock drummer compelling, regardless of diplomacy.
So, if you've heard Sunshine Of Your Love and think you've experienced the complete Ginger Baker, come with us as we visit some of the other well known, and some not-so well known cuts.
Cream - Toad
When Cream burst onto the scene with Fresh Cream, Eric Clapton was already being described as ‘God’. But it was Ginger Baker’s solo on Toad that cemented his arrival to drummers. It’s often credited as one of the first recorded rock drum solos, and was born out of the Graham Bond Organisation track, Camels and Elephants.
Toad starts with the recurring full band vamp before Baker builds from simple melodic phrases on the toms through rudimental snare passages, double-bass drum ostinatos and out-and-out jazz ride time-playing. It’s a wide-sweeping exploration of the kit that takes in everything that made Baker what he was, and probably invented a few things in the process!
If the recorded version isn’t enough for you, check out one of the many extended live versions, including the 2006 Cream reunion.
PiL - Ease
You might think that a jazz-loving Baker and former Sex Pistol, John Lydon is a strange pairing, but then again, it makes perfect sense. That’s exactly what happened when it came to the recording of PiL’s fifth album, 1986’s Album, which also featured a seemingly disparate line-up of Steve Vai, Parliament’s Bernie Worrell and jazz legend, Tony Williams.
“I love him very much,” Lydon said of Ginger to Sound On Sound. “I really do. He’s a real person. My kind of bloke, y’know. Great fun in the studio. The amount of drum kits he destroyed was amazing. I think that was the biggest part of the budget”
Stylistically, the record is full of driving, almost industrial grooves, but Baker’s trademark swing rears its head the most on Ease - its simple beat interspersed with pounding tom fills. Ginger is officially credited as having played on Fishing, Round, Bags and Ease.
“The first time I met him he was sitting in a room cutting his finger nails with a razor blade.” Ginger told Classic Rock in 2019. “Then we met at various sessions. Me and Tony Williams both played with PiL. It made me laugh later, because the reviewers never knew who was playing the drums on that record. I can’t even tell myself, and to be honest. I didn’t give a fuck. I just took the money. Me and Tony had a good laugh about that gig.”
Hawkwind - Space Chase
Adding to the list of Baker collaborations is his brief stint in space-rockers Hawkwind.
“That was the biggest joke in history,” Ginger said in 2019. “I needed the money, and that was the only reason. Sadly I never saw what was offered, because they didn’t have any money. Hawkwind were more interested in their stage appearance and their lighting than their actual music – and their music was fucking appalling. Atrocious. I hated it all. Thank Christ I wasn’t with them very long.”
Despite his distain, Baker wracked up an impressive performance on 1980’s Levitation. With a tight, dry-sounding kit and plenty of room to stretch out, there are a lot of interesting parts. Instrumental, Space Chase perhaps offers the most interest with its fusion-style accents and acid-disco grooves and massive ending fill. It’s Ginger Baker, but not necessarily as you know him.
Ginger Baker’s Air Force - Let Me Ride
Air Force was arguably Baker’s natural home, and given that it was the band that bore his name, this should come as no surprise. Air Force saw Ginger reunited with Graham Bond, bringing with him the grit of the Hammond organ.
There’s no shortage of tracks to choose from either, from the uptempo Hammond funk of Da da Man, African-inspired Aiko biaye or the jazzy soul of Today and many more. But, Let Me Ride has more in common with a rare groove record than any sort of rock histrionics.
But while Baker lays down a heavy groove, he also manages to pepper Let Me Ride with some trademark 32nd-note fills that amazingly, don’t sound out of place. If the guitar-led sound of Cream grates on you, Air Force could well be the antidote.
Blind Faith - Do What You Like
Clapton and Bakers post-Cream supergroup project, Blind Faith also featured keyboard player Steve Winwood and bassist Ric Grech, and while the sole studio album featured some of the blues-rock/R'n'b that you might expect, the six tracks offer up a taste of soul and psychedelia too.
But, the most interesting is Do What You Like, which closes the album with what we think it’d sound like if Dave Brubeck’s Take 5 had a few too many tokes on a jazz cigarette.
Baker displays his true pedigree with the dynamics and feel of a thoroughbred jazzer before dropping a solo that once again includes his dual-bass drums, and at times simultaneously resembles proto-drum 'n' bass breaks and fugga-dugga metal.
At 15 minutes long, we’d advise getting comfortable and immersing yourself with headphones.