When talk of classic rock drummers turns to Keith Moon and John Bonham, I smile and nod. What’s the point in arguing? They were both, in their distinctive ways, incredible—and in their early deaths, immortal legends. Who knows what their careers would have looked like had either lived past 32? But truly, for the all-around breadth of his influence, for the amount of respect he gained in musical circles around the world, no greater classic rock drummer ever lived, in my opinion, than Ginger Baker, may he finally rest in peace.
The famously restless, violently cantankerous drummer died yesterday at age 80, outliving most of his peers, despite living twice as hard for well over twice as long as many of them—a feat of strength we might impute to his athletic physical stamina and frightening will.
Like Moon and Bonham, he combined raw power with serious jazz chops. (Baker insisted he never played rock drums at all.) After his polyrhythmic pummeling defined the sound of supergroups Cream and Blind Faith, he burned out and moved to Africa to find sobriety and new sounds.
Baker traveled the continent with Fela Kuti to learn its rhythms, recording live with Kuti’s band in ’71. Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen remarked that he understood “the African beat more than any other Westerner.” (See him jamming in Lagos further down.) Baker’s discography includes classic records with Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce, Kuti, Hawkwind, and other legends. He traveled the world playing drums for over fifty years. Why, then, did he have such a low profile for much of his later life? A 2012 documentary, Beware of Mr. Baker, based on a 2009 Rolling Stone article, offers some answers.
Baker’s serious drug addiction and terrifying personality alienated nearly everyone around him. The documentary opens with an endorsement from another prickly and unlikable red-haired character, John Lydon (formerly Johnny Rotten), whose Public Image Limited is yet another project Baker elevated with his playing. “He helped me rise,” says Lydon, and Baker would no doubt agree. He was not a modest man. He was, by most accounts, a right bastard, through and through, all of his life.
But he was too contrarian to be dismissed as a mere narcissist. As a musician, for example, he always thought of himself as a supporting player. “I never had a style,” he said in 2013. “I play to what I hear, so whoever I’m playing with, what they play has a great influence on what I play, because I listen to what people are playing.” His skill at destroying personal relationships was matched by his ability for forming deep, awe-inspiring, if short-lived, musical connections. It’s a dichotomy many drummers inspired by him have struggled to reconcile—taking lessons from Baker the drummer but not from Baker the man.
How do we separate the man from his art? Why try? His mad pirate life makes for an epic saga, and Baker is a wildly exciting main character. He had early ambitions of becoming a professional cyclist. Though they didn’t pan out, he always retained the characteristics: he was both fiercely competitive and fiercely collaborative. Later he picked up an even more rarified team sport—polo—keeping a stable of horses on his gated South African ranch, where he lived in his old age like a colonial ex-baron in a Nadine Gordimer novel. (He eventually had to sell the spread and move back to London.)
Baker was never one to make apologies, so his fans need not make any on his behalf. See him in some classic performances above—at the top, soloing after an interview, at Cream’s Royal Albert Hall farewell concert; then playing a solo in a Cream reunion in that same venue almost forty years later. After footage of him jamming in Lagos in 1971, we see what the internet calls the “BEST DRUM SOLO EVER,” further up. Just above, meet the man himself, in all his unrepentant glory, and hear from those who knew him best, in the full documentary, Beware of Mr. Baker.
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
Here’s some earlier history of Baker and the era he was a part of. The way I’ve heard it told in books and such, Ginger Baker would have been strictly jazz if it hadn’t been for Ray Charles.
Cream came late; it was the tail end of a great British blues movement in which legendary individual talents like Long John Baldry, Cyril Davies (search both their names on YouTube for some 1963 clips and you’ll see why they were so well-loved), and the bands of Alexis Korner and John Mayall were the more bluesy end of the spectrum–they always played the blues, and they were rather purist about it, completely resisting jazzification. Clapton came out of this branch, and never had any jazz.
But the branch that Ginger Baker came out of was a bunch of jazz musicians who heard Ray Charles and had their life changed. Ray Charles was a legit jazz musician though he’s not thought of that way these days, because he also played simpler blues and rave-ups. Baker, Graham Bond, and others were playing fairly complex bebop-style jazz as part of a big jazz movement over there, and when they heard Ray Charles sing and play the blues, they were knocked out. They overcame their resistance to playing those simple changes, because they started getting that blues fever, you know? And also they felt they could reach the audience with a more soulful, earthy music; jazz was a bit much for the punters of the 60s. So, other than Clapton, the other two-thirds of Cream, Baker and Bruce, came out of this branch through the Graham Bond Organization.
The Graham Bond Organisation was one of the great lost opportunities of the Brit blues movement, and the 60s in general. Me, I’d happily give up all of Cream if the GBO could have realized their potential instead. Ginger Baker’s club-shaking drums, Jack Bruce’s bass and singing, Graham Bond’s powerful vocals, Hammond organ and sax, and Dick Heckstall-Smith’s ridiculously virtuoso and soulful sax playing. Imagine it’s 1965, you’re in a small London club, and they come out and open their set by blowing the walls down with this:
The GBO didn’t make it; they never had a chance, primarily because Graham Bond was a horrible and hopeless person for anything other than music(where he was a straight-up genius imo); he ran his band into the ground while becoming an even worse junkie than Ginger Baker, which was saying something. Other reasons for their failure were almost as important–they were great players, but they weren’t songwriters at ALL, and they were too adult for the era; they didn’t fit comfortably on a bill with more teen-friendly types like the Stones or the Yardbirds. They left behind a fairly good body of recordings, great if you’re a devotee like me. But it’s the potential they left unrealized that leaves us devotees listening through the lines to the music they didn’t make but which I can almost hear…
Let’s not forget great Carl Palmer; also, Ian Paice.