Earlier this week, Ginger Baker passed away at the age of 80. To say that music lost a legend is an understatement.
If you know a thing or two about rock, you’ll know the name. Along with John Bonham and Keith Moon, Baker redefined the role of the drummer in a rock n’ roll band.
Through his playing in Cream – the first rock supergroup – Baker helped to elevate the percussionist beyond the position of mere timekeeper. His style combined the jazz lyricism of Phil Seaman, Art Blakely and Max Roach with the raw power of rock n’ roll. “Toad” his live centerpiece, during the Cream days, is widely credited as the first rock drum solo. The effect, as the New York Times observed in 1970, was like watching a “human combine harvester.”
But Baker was more than just a great rock drummer. As Rolling Stone notes, the man was a paradox, fusing different styles in a varied career that incorporated jazz, African music, prog and more:
“If you only know him in one context — with barnstorming blues-rock trio Cream, in short-lived supergroup Blind Faith, alongside Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti, or in one of his later jazz combos — you’re missing out on a fuller understanding of the contribution this irascible icon made to his art form.”
Baker himself would likely have agreed with that sentiment. Legendarily cantankerous and volatile, he hated being pigeonholed. “I’ve never played rock,” he told Jazz FM in 2013, while he insisted in 2015 that heavy metal – the a genre his powerhouse drumming undoubtedly influenced – was “an abortion.”
Ginger, by all accounts, was not an easy man to get on with. Given to fighting with his bandmates, particularly longtime sparring partner Jack Bruce, his caustic streak would, in his later years, define him as much as his drumming. In the critically acclaimed documentary “Beware of Mr. Baker,” released in 2012, audiences witnessed a man prone to whacking the filmmaker with his cane when he didn’t agree with him.
Health problems would also blight his twilight years. In 2013, he developed chronic obstructive pulmonary disease from years of heavy smoking, and chronic back pain from degenerative osteoarthritis. By 2016, “serious heart issues” led to him cancelling all future gigs. Speaking of his many ailments in typical Baker style, he once claimed, “God is punishing me for my past wickedness by keeping me alive and in as much pain as he can.”
Explosive and self-destructive, Ginger made a fair few enemies in his time. But their numbers pale in comparison to those who were drawn to his phenomenal playing and sheer musicality. As Time notes:
“His many admirers saw him as a rounded, sophisticated musician — an arranger, composer and student of the craft, absorbing sounds from around the world.”
It’s fair to say that Ginger was a man who left his mark.
Was he difficult?
Was he a nice guy?
But, the music he left behind – a testament to his incredible talent – will undoubtedly be his greatest legacy.
What are your memories of Ginger Baker? Did you ever see him live? Share your stories in the comments.
Cal Jam doesn’t get the same love as festivals like Monterey Pop or Woodstock. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t have the late ‘60s countercultural cred, happening a full five years after the summer of love reached its peak. Maybe it’s because it was staged to be filmed for television (as part of ABC’s legendary “In Concert” series). Why do I love California Jam so much? It is because it established the record for the largest concert sound system ever assembled? Was it because it featured the first ever appearance of the Good Year blimp at a music festival?
Guitar lessons eventually followed. But, classical guitar didn’t grab me in the same way that my own freeform compositions had. Firstly, I didn’t know any of the songs I was supposed to be learning. Secondly, it required the kind of co-ordination and finger dexterity that I was – at that time at least – far too impatient to master. “I read somewhere that there are these things you can use to hit the strings so you don’t have to use your fingers. I think they began with a P,” I once told my guitar teacher. “The thing that begins with a P is called practice,” he replied. He was right, of course, but that didn’t mean I wanted to hear it.
This week, to satisfy my yearning for live music, I’ve taken a deep dive into my record collection and rediscovered some live favourites. Given how much joy I’ve got out of these records, I thought I’d share them with you today. Putting together this list, I’ve tried to take the road less travelled. I didn’t want to put together a list of classic live albums that everyone already knows like the back of their hand. Instead, my three picks serve as alternatives to some of those classic albums, offering a new look at some legendary bands.