Like the amusement park ride—whose name was pinched for a song by Masters of Reality, one of the many unique projects Ginger Baker involved himself in the post–classic rock era—the variety and exuberance of Ginger’s later output could make your head spin. Baker showed his true chameleon-like colors, moving in and out of various groups whose individual IDs couldn’t have been more disparate. When brought in as a session gun for hire, no style was too foreign, no situation too unlikely for the wild jazz ’n’ rock drummer from Lewisham, South London. Baker’s ego and talent knew no bounds, so it shouldn’t surprise that he’d accept recording and/or touring work with the commercial punk-pop of Public Image Ltd, the space-rock howl of Hawkwind, or the slanted metal mélange of Masters of Reality.

What is dumbfounding is that even when he’s grinding out straight 4/4 time, Baker’s unique personality is as clear and storming as when he’s soloing riotously or rolling over his kit with bludgeoning Baker abandon. If anything, Baker seemed to revel in the anonymity of playing straight-8ths time, his drumming joyful, his message of timekeeping with special purpose learned at the feet of his hero Phil Seamen in full effect.

Coming off 1977’s Eleven Sides of Baker, the drummer took the call from Hawkwind guitarist Huw Lloyd-Langton to replace then drummer Simon King for the seminal heavy-psych band’s 1980 album, Levitation. Baker showed up at London’s Roundhouse studio and completed his tracks in a mere two days. The band was so impressed they asked Baker to stay on—the drummer going all in for Hawkwind’s progressive space rock, records, and tours.

Equal parts Krautrock groove and flagrant rock ’n’ roll beast, Hawkwind’s Levitation dependably directed psychedelic themes, mystical atmospheres, and futuristic intent. Baker hopped aboard this English groove machine as if to the spaceship born. Opener “Levitation” is all steaming beats and rock heat, with Baker pounding, pummeling, and surfing the music’s 4/4 beat like a Kosmische musik astronaut. Baker’s beaming beat weaves in and out of “Levitation’s” guitar solos, synth effects, and noises, something like the sound of landing spacecrafts, as the lead vocal expresses human concerns about floating above the earth.

“Motorway City” follows suit, if ratcheting down the trance tones. Baker sounds jolly and satisfied in a simple 2-and-4 suit, playing various accents in unison on snare and toms. “Psychosis” blares a soundtrack suitable for the making contact scene from 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, all whooshes and gaseous activity. Baker’s popping snare drum strike kicks off “World of Tiers,” his Afrobeat-tinged beat adorned with beautiful, warm 16th-note tom fills as guitars arc and flow. Baker’s toms punch and slap the song throughout, giving the band full flight.

“Prelude” briefly returns us to vaporous sci-fi land, morphing into the grand march of “Who’s Gonna Win the War.” Baker’s choreographed drum part here is the quintessence of session drummer refinement, establishing a grand, entering-the-castle jubilance in the verses matched to marching corps–styled buzz rolls in the chorus, opening to spacious ride cymbal and flowing around-the-kit tom fills during solos. If Baker’s readily identifiable, slightly behind-the-beat cadence wasn’t a giveaway, you might think it was ’70s-era Phil Collins behind the kit.

“Space Chase” is Baker’s showcase on the album, a rising and falling mountaintop musical journey complete with full-set rolls and crashes, unison 16th notes performed like frolicking grave robbers, with synth and guitar solos driven hard by Baker’s punching, menacing, practically nonstop tom- and snare-driven pulse. “Dust of Time” is pointed and powerful, as Baker diagrams a simple 2-and-4 stomp with integrated tom drops and infrequent hi-hat swoops. The superb alignment and uniformity of Hawkwind’s arrangements and execution are a million miles away from the bombast of Cream or the cacophony of Ginger Baker’s Air Force, but Baker executed the band’s mission statement perfectly, hand-in-glove.

Ginger then found time to record 1983’s From Humble Oranges with guitarist Doug Brockie and bassist Karl Hill, under the name Bakerandband, and can also be heard on the Hawkwind albums Zones (’83; Baker on side 1) and This Is Hawkwind, Do Not Panic (’84; Baker on sides 1 and 2). Though the recording quality of the demo tracks that Ginger appears on is less than perfect, Zones documents the drummer’s early ’80s mindset. Largely burying his outlandish personality within the band’s identity, he still shines, if to slightly lesser effect, on “Dangerous Vision,” sometimes upending the beat with tom fills. “Running Through the Back Brain” finds Baker playing with time allusions, his snare drum rolling with unusual snare slaps and accents, and widening to include displaced, unison-played tom-tom pummeling and manic, full-set stomps as the song unfolds. Ginger is practically unhinged here, his spirit flying beneath the song’s subdued sonics.

Audio quality is much sharper on ’84’s This Is Hawkwind, Do Not Panic. Baker locks it down tight and seamless throughout Hawkwind’s performance, whether rolling maniacally through five minutes of “PSI Power” like a pogo-powered speed demon, bashing toms in the ready-made festival anthem “Levitation,” or ratcheting up the tension in a metal-marauding version of “Space Chase,” where he sounds absolutely hypnotized within this attacking, blitzkrieg-worthy, space-rock endurance test.

Joyous tom and snare drum rolls introduce “Death Trap,” and we’re off again in a ball of hyper-tempi, with Baker smashing his snare drum to pulp with incessant 16th-note rolls and a nervous, grinding groove that seems to suck the air out of the atmosphere. A brief breakdown finds him playing bell patterns to match the band’s organ and bass figures. “Angels of Death” comes on like Queens of the Stone Age, a deep, midtempo groove of portent, with Baker thumping toms as if in tribal incantation. The set closes with the amped-up “Shot Down in the Night,” on which Baker’s nail-hard snare drum strikes join to a seamless groove of brain-melting power. If you didn’t know this was Ginger Baker, you might think it’s Taylor Hawkins or Dave Grohl. It’s timeless rock drumming: all heat, power, and yes, lyricism. Baker’s time with Hawkwind produced mystical, cult-inspiring, soul-stirring rock, never to be repeated.

Ginger Baker 2

Baker’s Horses & Trees followed before he appeared in the most unlikely situation as drummer for hire with the Bill Laswell-produced Album by Public Image Ltd (PiL). With a band that included Steve Vai, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Jonas Hellborg, and Tony Williams, recorded primarily at New York City’s Power Station, ’86’s Album was essentially a Johnny Rotten (aka John Lydon) solo project, with producer Laswell drafting star power as needed. The release did well in the U.K., where its singles “Rise” and “Home” charted.

Into this land of slickness and fashion came Ginger Baker, who auditioned for Laswell in the drummer’s horse barn. Baker tracked the album’s cuts “Fishing,” “Round,” “Bags,” and “Ease,” while Tony Williams played on the remaining songs. The ’80s production customs of gated drums, giant room atmospherics, and overall grandiosity seem an ill fit for the down-to-earth Baker, but a great drummer can work in any environment, as did Baker.

Laswell both reined in Baker’s excesses and gave flight to his rhythmic splendor. Baker elevates “Fishing” with a tight-fitting pocket consisting of a simple, non-varying 2-and-4 blast. The natural tone and color of his drums come through on “Round,” joined to a junkyard percussion section, stately guitar, warm bass tones, and Lydon’s sneering vocal. The drummer’s midtempo 2-and-4 pocket swoops and grooves comfortably, making Lydon’s vocal spew go down easily. Baker’s drums may have never been recorded better: cymbals ringing with long decay trails, drums enunciated with equally warm resonance.

The big, booming, resonant drums and room-filling sound continue with “Bags,” a slightly quicker tempo augmented by boxy tom drops and slashing cymbal crashes. The 4/4 pocket groove is stellar: wide, luxurious, epic. Baker consistently made his groove everyone’s living room, a place to relax, see the sights, kick off your shoes, and lose your blues. “Ease” is by turns nocturnal and ominous, an odd clang of didgeridoo, angelic synths, and Baker’s bombing-the-barricades time feel. Baker’s having a blast, popping his snare and toms with pointed pronouncements, and holding down the groove with balletic movements.

It’s worth noting that Tony Williams’ contributions to Album are far more standard than Baker’s. On “FFF,” “Rise,” and “Home,” Williams’ jazzoid genius is put to ground, his beat as simple, straight, rock hard, and head-crunching as Bonham cruising in a Jaguar XKE on a London summer day.

Baker turned in the solo albums No Material in 1989 and Middle Passage in 1990 before tracking Masters of Reality’s 1992 road-warrior epic, Sunrise on the Sufferbus. This may be one of most joyous albums the drummer ever took part in, one especially aligned to his proclivities and tastes. Sufferbus is another well-recorded album wherein Baker’s drums are captured in all their spacious, gritty, resonant, and warm glory. Every detail of his drumming and his kit’s sonic qualities are as clean as a well-scrubbed mirror. He even takes the mic on one track.

Hailing from Syracuse, New York, Masters of Reality’s Chris Goss (vocals, guitars, keyboards), Googe (bass, backing vocals), and Baker hit upon a serendipitous formula on Sufferbus, from burning boogie and mellow daydream wanderings to psychedelic production feasts and freaky second-line flow-ers. Sufferbus is a stoner-rock classic (Goss went on to produce Queens of the Stone Age, among others), and Baker’s comfort cruise drumming makes everything go down happily. Yes, this is happy music—imagine that!

Ginger Baker 3

Hailing from Syracuse, New York, Masters of Reality’s Chris Goss (vocals, guitars, keyboards), Googe (bass, backing vocals), and Baker hit upon a serendipitous formula on Sufferbus, from burning boogie and mellow daydream wanderings to psychedelic production feasts and freaky second-line flow-ers. Sufferbus is a stoner-rock classic (Goss went on to produce Queens of the Stone Age, among others), and Baker’s comfort cruise drumming makes everything go down happily. Yes, this is happy music—imagine that!

If you want to hear a drummer with personality, power, style, and singular sound, Baker’s work on Sunrise on the Sufferbus is an excellent place to start.

By Ken Micallef