Today Ginger Baker is as well known for his volatile personality as he is for his contributions to the evolution of our instrument. But if it wasn’t for those musical contributions—which began before the birth of classic rock and continued until his passing last year at the age of eighty—there would be no “Mr. Baker” to beware of, as an explosive 2012 documentary suggested.
Truth be known, the beats, solos, and improvisations that the drummer concocted with the British supergroups Cream and Blind Faith, with his own bands, and with fellow iconoclasts like Fela Kuti, John Lydon, and Bill Laswell, are just as intriguing as the bullet points of his biography. Ginger was a stylist who wore his jazz and African-drumming influences on his sleeve. At the same time, he was remarkably adaptable, fitting like a glove in scenarios as diverse as Hawkwind’s psychedelic trance metal, Public Image Ltd’s bombastic post-punk, or his Air Force’s highly ambitious melding of soul, jazz, and ethnic music.
Drop the needle on any of the numerous sides he recorded, however, and Ginger’s voice always came to the fore. While he can rightly be described as one of the most influential drummers in rock history, what Ginger had, no one else had, and no one else could have. Baker might have burned more bridges than most, but that voice, that thundering, earthy, unique voice…no other drummer was ever able to completely cop it. What Ginger did bequeath to us was the notion that the drums weren’t merely equal to all other instruments— they were the mother of all instruments. And so, no matter what musical situation we may find ourselves in, we drummers are the true directors of the proceedings. We always have been, and because ours is the most adaptable and primary of all instruments, we always will be. Of course, how we make that happen is up to each one of us as individuals. But witnessing Ginger’s musical triumphs—and yes, even his failures—left us little doubt that the music, any music, is ours to shape. It’s our birthright, our responsibility, our superpower. Ginger reminded the world of that every time he put stick to drum.
As with any musician of value, the best way to understand Ginger’s art and place in history is to study the artifacts—his recordings. By now you’ve surely read the commentary from critics and fellow musicians that poured in after Ginger’s passing. Perhaps you’ve seen the documentaries—besides Beware of Mr. Baker there’s also Ginger Baker in Africa and the Classic Artists volume on Cream. The music, however, speaks for itself, and for the astute follower of drumming, there’s much to listen to, and to analyze. To help you in your research, we’re highlighting some of Ginger Baker’s greatest recordings in a multipart feature, including some that often fall between the cracks in discussions about the great drummer. This month we focus on Ginger’s first two decades of activity, when the rock world initially fell under his rhythmic spell.
1960s: I Feel Free—Rocker with a Jazzer’s Mind
by Ilya Stemkovsky
Ginger Baker, along with other notable mid-1960s drummers like Mitch Mitchell, often gets credited with introducing a jazz and swing sensibility into the exploding British R&B music scene of the time. And nowhere were his talents more fully on display than on his earliest prominent recordings with the Graham Bond Organisation. “Swinging London” must have meant something quite different to the young Baker, because he arrives almost fully formed on the Graham Bond Organisation’s debut album, The Sound of ’65, with a drumming technique and flair that would turn modern music on its ear and help ignite the flame of a new sound that would soon become known simply as rock.
Bond’s instrumentation mirrored many typical jazz groups of the time, with organ, saxophones, bass, and drums, though the leader’s rough ’n’ tough vocal delivery added an aggressive element that would assure the band stood out. It helped that the rhythm section was made up of future legends Baker and bassist Jack Bruce, who would reconvene a few years later in another group. But more on that later. The Sound of ’65 (released March 1965) is the sound of a nascent Baker discovering his rhythmic gifts and advancing the instrument forward, by using the unorthodox vocabulary that would soon make him a drumming icon.
The album opens with the greasy striptease blues “Hoochie Koochie Man,” and Baker fills the song’s open breaks with already-developed tom fills and quick bass drum licks. “Neighbour, Neighbour” shows Baker could keep straight, session-man time with big beats and space, and he cha-chas his way through the instrumental “Spanish Blues,” before moving to a lively ride and tom beat. The familiar Baker soloing sound can be found on the percussive showcase “Oh Baby,” with its snares-off tom patterns, bare hands on drums slickness, and ultra-clean triplet licks. Another organ-led instrumental, “Wade in the Water,” is Baker charging ahead as if kicking a big band into high gear, and the uptempo double-time stomp of the group’s take on “Got My Mojo Working” allows Baker to lay down a fierce kick and snare workout. The album rounds out with more heavy-handed swinging brushes (“Train Time”) and 12/8 balladry (“Tammy”), and though the release didn’t burn up the charts, a new sound from the drummer’s seat was undoubtedly here.
The Graham Bond Organisation would put out only one other record with the Baker/Bruce section, There’s a Bond Between Us (released November 1965). More organ instrumentals and energetic drumming would pepper the disc, with Baker working his ride and toms on “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” whipping out fancy 32nd-note fills at the end of “What’d I Say?,” and honing his blues chops on “The Night Time Is the Right Time.” Most importantly, “Camels and Elephants” is yet another solo drum showcase for Baker, this time improving on the previous album’s “Oh Baby” with a further developed level of chops and melodic invention played against a steady hi-hat pulse ostinato. Baker would return to these ideas on his famous “Toad” soon enough, because he and Bruce would join forces with guitar hero Eric Clapton to form Cream in 1966.
Whether Cream invented heavy metal or jam rock is open to debate; but what’s clear is that something new was in the English air by 1966. Along with ex-Yardbird Clapton and a double-threat vocalist and bassist in Bruce, Baker now had the “cream” of the British musician crop to expand on the possibilities of popular music. One of the original “power trio” groups, Cream gave each player room to express himself while still bringing a weighty fullness. The band dabbled in blues, psychedelic rock, and somewhat radio-friendly material, and in late 1966 released Fresh Cream, giving Baker his biggest platform yet to develop his idiosyncratic style.
The sloshy hi-hats driving “I Feel Free” are pure Baker attitude, and the beefy toms and tidal-wave rolls in “N.S.U.” let listeners know that there was now another option in the Beatles vs. Stones debate, at least from a drumming standpoint. The debut contains druggy blues dirges (“Sleepy Time Time”), dramatic cymbal crashing (“Spoonful”), and more Baker uptempo kick and snare mayhem (“Rollin’ and Tumblin’”). But it was on “Toad” that Baker announced his true arrival on the world stage. In just over five minutes, all of Baker’s signature moves are displayed, from crafty double bass work, to stuttering tom-toms, to him soloing between his free limbs while keeping time on his ride. This was a big noise, not yet heard on record, and though Keith Moon enjoyed and suffered the reputation of being a “madman drummer,” Baker was hot on his heels in that department.
The band released its second album, Disraeli Gears, in late 1967, and hit singles and worldwide fandom followed. Perhaps the song most associated with Cream, “Sunshine of Your Love,” would grace the airwaves with Baker’s dynamic tribal tom downbeats and inventive fills. And dig the outro fade with some wild Baker cymbal thunder.
Another signature Baker rhythmic flavor, downbeats without crashing, would also emerge with distinction around this period. Baker and Co. would dabble in a funky blues (“Strange Brew”), chugging shuffles (“Take It Back”), and ’60s-style charged-up midtempo rock (“SWLABR”). Incredibly, with a band including vocalists of the caliber of Bruce and Clapton, the drummer was even allowed a lead vocal on his own lazy ballad, “Blue Condition.” Check out the way Baker fills freely across his toms in between verses on the wah-wah-laden “Tales of Brave Ulysses.”
Dropping in the summer of 1968, Wheels of Fire was yet another advancement for the group and its drummer. Recording studio sonics were beginning to improve exponentially, and the increasingly psychedelic nature of the music as well as Baker’s kit tones would benefit from the step up in clarity. A double album, Wheels contained a studio disc with three Baker co-writes as well as a disc of live performances. Baker brings maximum drama to the 5/4 intro in “White Room” and continues to avoid those downbeat crashes. More odd times begin “Passing the Time” before big crashes and big bass drums dominate the proceedings. There’s a crooked waltz (“Pressed Rat and Warthog”), a spacious funk-stomp where Baker keeps flipping the beat around (“Politician”), and a perfectly constructed drum part accentuating an unorthodox song structure (“Those Were the Days”). Marvel at how Baker brings the tight linear snare and kick funk on “Born Under a Bad Sign.” The live material contains an energetic “Crossroads” and a sixteen-minute take of Baker’s famous “Toad,” where the drummer shows off some hip polyrhythms, tom-tom melodicism, and double bass control. Little did fans know Cream would have only one studio record left in them, as the band announced it would disband following a farewell tour.
The fourth and final Cream record, Goodbye, released in February 1969, would again feature a combination of live and studio tracks, likely due to an increasing lack of original material, inspiration, and harmony among the band’s members. Nevertheless, Baker is an animal on the live “I’m So Glad,” going extra hard at his kit with power. Everyone sounds like they’re on eleven on the live blues workout “Sitting on Top of the World,” and Baker has fun with the opening of his hats on “Badge.” Baker’s insistent cymbal pulse leads “What a Bringdown,” another track that shows the drummer’s agility playing over odd times. For further study of Baker’s stage skills, check out Live Cream and Live Cream Volume II.
Following Cream’s breakup, Clapton would have informal jams with Traffic singer Steve Winwood, and after Baker showed up to sit in one day, it was decided the musicians would form a group. Rounded out by ex-Family bassist Ric Grech, Blind Faith would release one eponymous album in 1969, a record filled with strong material and timeless performances. Baker’s syncopated kick sounds huge on “Had to Cry Today,” and his lighter percussion on “Can’t Find My Way Home” showed that his playing wasn’t only about bombast and volume. Elsewhere there’s the lilting cymbal play and heavy rock guitar solo middle section of “Presence of the Lord” and more jazzified 5/4 caressing and drum soloing on Baker’s own “Do What You Like.” Blind Faith disbanded shortly after its last tour, but Baker would retain both Winwood and Grech in his next musical adventure, Ginger Baker’s Air Force.
1970s: Africa—The Great Influence
by Keith Carne
By the time Cream and Blind Faith disbanded, Ginger Baker was one of the most well-known and respected drummers on the planet. But he didn’t necessarily take steps to make sure he stayed that way. His group, Air Force, a psychedelic-y jazz-rock-y, world-music-y project, gave Baker a platform to showcase his ideas about what his brand of fusion music sounded like. He started embracing influences way outside Western rock and jazz pedagogy, and he’d define this period of his career by following those influences all the way to Africa.
In the fall of 1971 Baker loaded up his Range Rover and set out (by land!) to Lagos, then the capital of Nigeria. With documentary filmmaker Tony Palmer in tow to shoot his long trek across the Sahara, the resulting movie, Ginger Baker in Africa, plays like a psychedelic travelogue. (Think: an exotic Easy Rider.) Palmer captures pretty much everything along the road—Baker’s disputes with border police, the preparations to make his vehicle climate-ready, the cigarettes he smoked down to their nasty filters, the monotony of the seemingly endless road, the velvety dunes towering in the distance, his maniacal grin set aflame in the desert sun….
Most importantly, Palmer captures Baker jamming with some amazing musicians at impromptu sessions at taverns along the route. These moments—some of the best playing in his career—are pure, and they allow you to see how deep Baker’s pocket can be. He doesn’t have a second bass drum, and he isn’t surrounded by cymbals; he lays down blown-out, rumbling grooves on the kits that happened to be around, a great equalizing force that shows that he had a sound regardless of the gear he used (though he was a longtime loyal Ludwig endorser). It’s as close as he got to stripping away his rockstar image. You can feel the ecstaticism in his commitment to the groove. He is blissed out, and even though that could be the result of drugs, his glassy thousand-yard-stare only adds to the music’s hypnotism.
Though Baker was often taken to flights of fancy—especially after his short-lived bands broke up—he wasn’t simply “following the groove” down to Lagos. He was partly driven by a desire to open a recording studio there. When he finally opened Batakota studio in 1973, it became the first 16-track recording studio in West Africa. He recorded there with Fela Kuti and cut a track with Paul McCartney for the Wings album Band on the Run. He also recorded local musicians there, though this would land him in hot water, and hasten his exit from the country—but more on that later.
It wasn’t just the business opportunity that drove him to explore Africa, though. Its drip-drip-drip musical influence began more than a decade earlier. In Jay Bulger’s 2012 documentary, Beware of Mr. Baker, Ginger says that his exposure to African drumming came at the hands of Phil Seamen, a British big-band drummer who served as something of a mentor to him when he was just starting to make his way in England’s music scene. After an all-night jam session, the two went back to Seamen’s basement flat, where he played a recording of Tutsi drummers for a wide-eyed Baker. In the fi lm, Baker recalls how much the playing moved him, and how it blew his mind to learn that the “real” beat was in four, not three, the way he’d been counting it.
That night held other significances, too: it was the first time Baker was exposed to heroin, a drug that would eventually provide many problems for him (he only helped Seamen tie off that night; he wouldn’t try it for himself until slightly later on). In 2013 he told The Guardian that he “came off heroin something like 29 times.” Looking back, it’s ironic that his first major drug experience came at the same moment he discovered his love for African music: he didn’t kick heroin until 1981, but he’d claim later in life that getting clean was one of his other motivations for visiting the continent.
Many say that the drum was born in Africa, so it’s impossible to calculate the influence that the place plays in every drummer’s life, whether they’re aware of it or not. Baker was very aware of the way he was moved by the continent’s culture, and you can hear him lean into those impulses all the way back in his time with Graham Bond. His work with Air Force highlights this influence even more clearly. His touch seems more dimensional on the band’s recordings. On “Early in the Morning,” the second track from their self-titled debut (a live performance recorded at the Royal Albert Hall), Baker begins the groove by smacking his snare and rack toms like they’re hand drums. It seems somehow controlled and careless at once. The tune unfolds into a joyful, raucous jam, eventually landing somewhere between samba and strut. The album’s sixth track, “Aiko Biaye,” displays its African influence pretty blatantly. The song develops as a flowing triplet vamp while sax, organ, and guitar melodies cascade around the groove. These melodic textures nod toward Afrobeat influence, too—horns and distorted organs double guitar leads, all of which are articulated with very little vibrato, lending the music an exotic and mysterious air. And Baker’s playing is grander and more perpetual than in his rock projects from the ’60s.
The ’70s were a musically open period in Baker’s career, so it’s fitting that his first release post-Air Force announced his embrace of an African aesthetic even more brazenly. Atunde (which roughly translates to “We are here!”), a single that Baker released under the name Ginger Baker’s Drum Choir, feels like a massive shift because it features only hand drums and vocals phrased over one another in shifting vamps.
Until this point, Baker always made his presence known and felt by way of his massive setup, his massive sound, and/or his massive personality. Yet this recording strips back many of those elements. It doesn’t sound out of place in his body of work, though; each measure is still jammed to its margins with rhythmic twists and variations that lie on top of one another. Yet the playing is more focused, and seems to exist mainly to bolster the singers’ joyful proclamations of self-actualization: “We are here! Everything is alright!”
It’s really Live! with Fela Ransome-Kuti and the Africa ’70 that best encapsulates the drummer’s time on the continent. This recording is commonly ranked among the greatest live records, and for good reason. Live! documents Baker’s most mature and group-oriented playing to date. In 2009, Tony Allen, Fela Kuti’s longtime drummer and music director, told Rolling Stone that “[Baker] understands the African beat more than any other Westerner.” Live! allows you to hear just what he means. Allen spent his life defining the Afrobeat feel and performing it with Kuti—essentially the most famous musician in West Africa. Still, it can be difficult to tell his playing apart from Baker’s.
Baker is credited with appearances on all four of the album’s tracks, yet it sounds as if he only plays drumset on two songs: “Ye Ye De Smell” and “Carry Me.” (The fifth track, a double-drum feature, was recorded years after this live date and tacked onto the CD release.) Information on who plays what exactly on Live! is scant—there are five percussionists listed in the credits in addition to Baker and Allen. But based on the patterns, dynamics, touch, and the way the drums are panned in the headphones on the double-kit tunes (Allen’s kit is panned to the right ear, Baker’s to the left, and the patterns coming from the right side are recognizably similar to the playing on the first two tracks), it sounds as if Baker “merely” takes his place among the supporting percussionists in the Africa 70 band on the first two tracks. This seems humble for Baker, and his willingness to play a supportive role is a huge sign of musical maturation.
On “Let’s Start,” the album’s lead-off track, the band’s percussion section (all seven of them) sounds like one drunken virtuoso—loose and woozy but with intent and passion. It’s the sound of precision masked by an affected lilt, and it’s a recipe for infectious dance and groove.
The record shifts into a different gear during the third track, “Ye Ye De Smell,” a tune that Kuti wrote for Baker, and the first of two songs that feature both Baker and Allen on drumset. Their interplay introduces a new layer of buoyancy to the group and the groove. Baker’s playing is of course more bombastic than Allen’s—you can hear explosiveness more than flow coming from Ginger. But he commits lovingly to the communal rhythm. Many of his signatures (placing the snare on 1, displacing the crash) align perfectly with the elements West African drummers use to conjure that Afrobeat sound. During the song’s drum solo section, Allen solos while Baker holds down the groove for him, then vice versa. Both perform fun, blasting solos. Yet it’s Baker’s supportive playing during Allen’s solo that seems like the biggest signifier of his evolved feel: a swing-era “spang-a-lang” that sounds like it’s been steamrollered, it’s so tight, flat, and focused. He tips in that pocket for almost two minutes without varying a note, defying what must have been a raging impulse to respond to Allen’s calls. His hi-hat is vintage Baker, too—topped with a tambourine, sloshing and snapping on pretty much every 8th note.
Baker’s time in Nigeria was cut short when his studio went bust. Baker said that the studio failed because of a potentially violent feud with corrupt local businessmen. He presumably offended a connected local businessman by providing the musicians in Lagos with an alternative place to record, and to get even, they sent armed men into his studio and seized control. Baker slipped out of the back door while bullets ricocheted in his wake. He hopped into his car, started driving, and didn’t stop until he was clear of the country. With his studio essentially lost, he left Africa altogether, though he would come back to play and perform from time to time.
The rest of his life—in music and in general—radiates with the influence from the time he spent in Nigeria. Africa spoke to Baker, and it’s why he eventually settled there in the last years of his life (though he’d make a home in the country of South Africa, not Nigeria). He’d fold the influence of these explorative years into another period in his career, one where he took his explorations even further and finally began to make people understand that he was much more than a “rock drummer.”