Back in 2005 I bought tickets, somewhat against what I thought was my better judgement, for the reunion of 1960’s supergroup Cream. Mainly this was due to a number of disappointing solo Eric Clapton performances I had witnessed. However, I needn’t have worried as the trio of Clapton, bassist Jack Bruce and the brooding, almost malevolent, tour de force sat behind the twin bass drum set up of Ginger Baker blew the crowd away with their jazz tinged blues power rock. And whilst Clapton and Bruce stood out front, interspersing their voices with melodic and powerful playing, the focal point was the formerly flame haired drummer Baker surveying all in front of him, almost daring his band mates to rise to the occasion in what was one of the most eagerly awaited reunions of all time.
Peter Edward ‘Ginger’ Baker, who has died at the age of 80, came to be both the archetypal heavy rock drummer and wildman symbolic of the tail end of the 1960’s music scene of swinging London. Born right at the beginning of the second world war and soon into poverty following the death, in action, of his father, Baker spent his early life getting into scrapes and trouble that began to characterize his later life. A hard man who lived a hard life, Baker was never afraid to stand up to his peers and contemporaries; a trait that led to many of the projects he was involved in to be short lived albeit brilliant for that time. Many of those people he worked with would find too many kind words to say about him as a person, though none of them would have anything but the greatest praise for his playing and musicianship.
It is for Baker’s playing that he should be remembered as a truly innovative and ground breaking musician. Developed at an early age playing in trad jazz bands such as Acker Bilk’s band, Baker’s powerful playing soon found a more natural home in the burgeoning electric blues bands of the early 1960’s; firstly with Alexis Korner and then The Graham Bond Organisation, where he first met Jack Bruce. However, in line with Baker’s growing wildman reputation, these band memberships were often interspersed with fights, arguments and sackings before Baker decided to become the leader of his own outfit, recruiting Bruce and Eric Clapton, in 1966, to form Cream. One of the very first supergroups, this power trio set new standards for blues music, linking the psychedelia of the LSD generation to the traditional blues music all three revered.
Cream were beset, though, with rancour and disagreement, particularly between Baker and Bruce; something that often boiled over into the studio and live performances with on stage fights becoming an almost obligatory part of the stage act. Indeed, something that also appeared when the band reformed in 2005. However, this was often an integral part of what made the music of Cream such a powerful and emotive art creating, in two short years, a body of work that has, and will, stand the test of time.
Following on from Cream Baker formed, with Clapton and Steve Winwood, Blind Faith and then, returning to his first love of jazz, Ginger Baker’s Airforce. The Airforce, in particular, was an outfit that gave full reign to Baker’s immense talents putting his drumming and percussion techniques fully at the forefront of the creative process. Baker’s drumming was always much more than just, as he once said, ‘making the guys out front sound good,’ it was a melodic instrument of it’s own, equally at ease playing with the other instruments and voices as opposed to just being part of a rhythm section.
In the early 1970’s Baker moved to Nigeria working with the likes of Fela Kuti bringing the music and rhythm’s of Africa to a wider audience years before the likes of Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon tapped into the huge amount of talent on the African continent. In 1973 Baker opened Batakota studio in his adopted home of Nigeria recording both local musicians as well as visiting acts; Paul McCartney recorded the Wings album Band On The Run there despite Baker later claiming he’d never been paid for the work hosted and undertaken. After the subsequent failure of the studio Baker returned to Europe working in bands such as The Baker Gurvitz Army and as a much called upon guest musician for the likes of Hawkwind and Public Image Limited.
Baker struggled for many years with a heroin addiction that he finally kicked in the early 1980’s. However, his health, not helped by his expensive hobby of playing polo with many resultant falls, was never great and caused him great pain; Baker said that ‘God was punishing him for his former wild ways by keeping him alive, in pain, as long as possible.’ Nevertheless, Baker’s fire never diminished, his famous temper coming out in the 2012 documentary Beware Of Mr Baker where in the opening scene we see him break the interviewers nose by whacking him with his walking cane, with the great drummer working and playing well into his seventies. Time caught up, however, with Ginger on the 6th of October 2019 as he passed peacefully in hospital.
Ginger Baker should be remembered as one of, if not the, greatest rock drummer not only of his generation but of all time. For sure that is how Baker himself, dismissive as he was as of other contemporaries such as Keith Moon and John Bonham, would suggest he should be seen. And who’d argue with him; even now you wouldn’t be sure he wouldn’t have a word or worse for anyone who would doubt him.