When I was a very young man I knew the names of two rock drummers, one inevitably was Ringo Starr, the other, less predictably, was Ginger Baker.
This was largely because the BBC did a documentary ‘Ginger Baker in Africa’, I never saw it at the time but I caught the trailer and that was enough to get me impressed by the wild looking guy with a mop of ginger hair pounding the drums along with a load of African guys.
Since then I held an unhealthy interest in Ginger. His autobiography ‘Hellraiser’ is an absolute must read. I’ve also got the DVD of ‘Ginger Baker in Africa’ I seen the documentary ’Beware Mr Baker’, I even have a drum tutorial by the man from the 80’s.
What I don’t own is any music created by Baker. I did once own their first LP ‘Fresh Cream’ which could best be described as disappointing, but I don’t own it anymore. Blind Faith were just about OK, Airforce passed me by and then there was the 70’s. By the time I was old enough to recognise Baker he was in the Baker Gurvitz army who were just the dullest of 70’s rock bands.
For someone who was a Jazzer at heart I don’t find his playing moves me in the same way as, to use an obvious example, Mitch Mitchell did. Baker was heavily influenced by African music and is one of the few white players to hold his own in afro beat. Baker had the chops, there’s no doubt about that but I never felt the groove from him.
He always tuned his drums beautifully though, even in the 60’s his toms cut through the mix.For the last couple of decades he mainly played jazz, it was a good choice and enabled him to have a lighter touch than he showed as a rock player.
Its not entirely about skill, Baker was one of the best but there are kids of 11 who can play like him these days. Baker was a pioneer, like Keith Moon (who he was pretty contemptuousof) he literally and figuratively moved the drums forward. He was one of the first rock players to have a double bass drum set up, he had a featured drum solo (Toad!) and generally made the drummer position desirable for anyone who fancied showing off a bit.
Much is made of his personality. His autobiography is full of incidents where he seizes defeat from the jaws of victory and each time its never his fault. I do wonder if he had autistic or even a psychopathic personality, he was extrodinarily brave,for example setting up a recording studio (it all came to an end-not his fault) in Nigeria in the 70’s. He was also extremely insensitive, such as when he had an affair with his daughters’ best friend during what should have been a sedate polo business enterprise. Baker seemed to recognise no barriers either physical or moral or geographical to his lifestyle. It fitted the freewheeling 60’s and decadent 70’s, he would portably be in prison if he had tried a fraction of this today; different times indeed.
Towards the end of his life Baker was extremely bad tempered, he was old and in pain and very very angry. Famously he broke the nose of the maker of the documentary ‘Beware Mr Baker’, he was estranged from a lot of his family life as Ginger Baker wasn’t a lot of fun.
There’s a lot to remember and celebrate , there’s a lot to regret, there will probably never be another musician like him he was an absolute force of nature but one Ginger Baker in anyone’s lifetime is probably enough.