Perfect Sound Forever

GINGER BAKER


GB live in 1980 in Yugoslavia
photo by Zoran Veselinovic

Pioneer and Innovator
By Gary Gomes
(April 2012)

Quite a few listeners have a built in aversion to the drum solo, considering it noise, a reaction observed in both musicians and listeners. These folks have no knowledge (nor would they care) that certain musical instruments, such as pianos, are classified as percussion instruments because keyboards are classified according to the way they produce sounds--there is no such thing as a keyboard class of instruments. Clavinets are also percussion, harpsichords are string instruments; acoustic organs are reeds; and modern organs like Hammond's, Lowrey's, combo organs are classified, along with synthesizers, as 'electronic.' This is basic music appreciation theory. Cecil Taylor referred to the piano (and plays it) as "88 tuned drums." Other people view drummers as the least talented of the musical community ("What do you call the guy who hangs around with musicians?" "The drummer"-Tommy Ardolino, NRBQ).

Ahhh, but the drum set is a musical instrument. The modern trap kit developed with jazz, primarily through the efforts of people like Baby Dodds. The sitting drum kit used by virtually all modern drummers except classical percussionists, Robert Wyatt after his fall, and Maureen Tucker of the Velvet Underground, seems a staple of jazz and rock.

Contrary to common belief, they can be tuned. Although the pitches (with good reason) are more generalized than guitars or keyboard so they can be used in a variety of settings. But most good drummers produce a variety of pitches from their instrument.

Drums, for those of you not aware of such things, have musical notation. Even sophisticated drummers were shocked when they encountered musical notation placed in front of them. Bill Bruford, in his introduction to Dave Stewart's Connecting the Dots recalls his surprise when he received a score for his drum parts in National Health. Bill, it seems, had been in two major groups (Yes and King Crimson) and had not been asked to read any music. It is alleged that Clive Bunker of Jethro Tull (compared to jazz great Louis Bellson for his "fast hands" by one Downbeat critic) and Keith Moon, an explosive rock drummer by any standard, had no idea technically of what they were doing. Mitch Mitchell often had trouble concocting a convincing drum solo, despite his flash, talent and emulation of the great Elvin Jones.

This doesn't make them bad musicians, but it is evidence that technical musical competence was fairly hit or miss in late 1960's rock and roll. Because drummers had no assignable pitch that clashed with other instruments, it was fairly easy to impress the public with energy. Add to this the rock critic's love of limited technique which started showing up around 1969 and was made a cult of until the punk years. Charlie Watts and Ringo were often considered the "best" rock drummers because they never supposedly played "fills," that is little drum breaks in addition to straight time keeping (which is untrue, by the way, as anyone who heard "Rain," the entire Abbey Road album, or "Dandelion" can attest. This could lead you to the conclusion that technical ability is unwelcome, or, at best, irrelevant for a rock drummer.

The cult of limited technique hit a new low for me when I was able to talk with two people who had organized quite a few concerts in the Seattle area right around the time grunge was emerging. One of the people expressed the opinion that he hated rock drummers who had a jazz background, then quickly noted that one of his favorite drummers had a jazz background. Also, Pearl Jam's initial drummer, a talented musician, was fired by Eddie Vedder because he appeared on the cover of Drummer World (this may have been an excuse by Vedder to get one of his friends in the band—it was a technique employed by Ian Anderson to change all of the personnel of Jethro Tull by the time Thick as a Brick was recorded). Since I often listened to Pearl Jam to enjoy the drumming, which was the first expansive drumming I had heard since the mid-1970's, I was particularly saddened by this.

But these moves tend to make me think that the opposition to flashy drumming is an ideological position in rock, initiated before punk by critics like Richard Robinson, but institutionalized when punk was legitimized. Still, it seems noteworthy that after the sixties, there were fewer Dino Danelli's (the Rascals), Joey Barbata's (the Turtles), or even Ron Edgar's, the drummer from the Music Machine, who were erroneously hailed as "pre-punk" (Martin Chambers from the Pretenders is a notable exception here). While proficient drummers persisted in critically reviled "prog rock," talented drummers seemed few and far between. The only value they had was to play to the click track, save when someone like Phil Collins engaged in a minor eruption. The worship of the song and the slavish and thoughtless assignment of certain instruments to certain roles continue to plague rock and many other forms of music. In fairness, some very talented drummers, like Bill Bruford (in his early years), Phil Collins, Guy Evans, and Chris Cutler, also largely shied away from drum solos, usually because a conventional drum solo would not fit in with the music they were performing. Typically, these were seen as ritualistic exercises associated with blues-rock bands, out of place if a band was trying to play a serious composition or develop a group theme.

It is in this context that we consider where Peter Edward "Ginger" Baker falls. Baker, is one of the remaining active masters of drumming from the late 1960's. He was naturally gifted as a drummer. One story has it that he just sat behind a drum kit and knew what to do--so much so that one of the band members claimed "We have a drummer here!" Yet, he also built his own drum kit out of plastic Perspex (Jack Bruce said it sounded amazing before he destroyed it with his upright bass in one of his squabbles with Baker), studied drums with legendary English jazz drummer Phil Seaman (who also introduced him to African drumming through recordings), was complimented by Philly Joe Jones early in his career, played in numerous trad jazz groups (including Acker Bilk), played with two pivotal early English rhythm and blues pioneers (Alexis Korrner and Graham Bond) all before forming Cream with Eric Clapton and Bruce. Bond could arguably be called the first fusion/orog band, both because of the band's jazz roots and its pioneering employment of the mellotron, as referenced in Ritchie Unterberger's Unknown Legends of Rock (1998).

It is easy to underestimate Baker's importance unless one has an understanding of rock in the middle 1960's. Good drummers in rock, in particular, were few and far between. The only drummers who was up and front in the mix in a band context when Cream emerged were Dino Danelli of the Rascals and Keith Moon of the Who, although Ron Edgar (again from the Music Machine) deserves a mention. Spectacularly talented drummers like Moon and Joey Barbata from the Turtles were tolerated. The ending of "My Generation" is notable for Moon, but he didn't have a consistent all-out performance until "I Can See for Miles"; Barbata's best drumming can be heard on "She'd Rather Be with Me." Many were buried in the mix. For example, Bobby Graham, a superb English session drummer, was poorly recorded and was never featured to the full extent of his talent. There was a phenomenal video from the film Gonks Go Beat, which featured a drum orchestra and you can see an array of British session drummers (the group includes Baker) showing how talented they really were. "Wipe Out" was the main example of a drum solo. As in England, in the U.S. great players like Hal Blaine were hidden in session work.



Rock drumming, considering the demands of the hit single, was In the lower echelons of creativity. Drachen Theaker's work with Arthur Brown was drowned out by an orchestra because of alleged problems with time--I could hear none, but noted he was a very active drummer, which did not impress record execs. Jazz great Buddy Rich's contempt for rock drummers (Danellli, who played big band jazz earlier in his career, was an exception, as were Baker and Carl Palmer, with whom Rich established a friendship) was well known, but in hindsight, not surprising, given what was occurring at the time.

Cream was perhaps the first example of a musician—with a very unique style, as Clapton expressed in this video clip.




Stepping forward as an equal instrumental partner of the band, Baker co-founded the band. Also, Baker could do it all--he was a natural drummer, with one of the best senses of time and structure of the drummers of the day, formidable technique and endurance, technical knowledge of music, and a student of other musical traditions, especially African. Because of his interest in African drumming, his choice of accents was unusual, and he cultivated a different sound from his toms--they often sounded like timbales and one could justifiably say that Baker anticipated the use of percussion instruments from around the world (I sometimes wonder if my dislike of non-drummer percussionist stems from my exposure to folks like Baker who incorporated some of these sounds into a kit format- these folks are talented to be sure, but always seem like a fifth wheel).

Of course, Baker has his critics. Alan Heineman, Downbeat writer (when that magazine was flirting with rock coverage in the late 1960's) remarked in an otherwise favorable review of Cream that when Baker soloed, all he could hear was "Sing, Sing, Sing" (Krupa's drum classic); Albert Goldman, in a move that, in retrospect, appeared to be designed to generate heat and not light, played Baker's "Do What You Like" solo from the Blind Faith album1, for jazz great Elvin Jones. Jones' infamous comment in Life magazine was (paraphrasing); "Cat's got delusions of grandeur with no grounds. They should make him an astronaut and lose his ass," while remarking that Keith Moon's work on Tommy was good--again, not Moon's best work either. This led, eventually, to Jones sitting in with Baker's Air Force (a group Baker formed after Blind Faith dissolved). Jazz blogs have it that Jones massacred Baker, but accounts published at the time were less definitive. Other accounts had Baker holding his own and the two men ending the concert with mutual respect. Baker opened the show by expressing the admiration he had for Jones, who was a significant rhythmic influence on 1960's and 1970's rock, being an acknowledged key influence on at least four important rock drummers--Mitch Mitchell, Jon Hiseman (you really owe it to yourself to listen to this guy), Christian Vander (Magma), and of course Baker, although the influence on Baker is the least obvious.


Evolution

Baker's style was not always what one hears on Cream records or later. His early recorded work (heard on recording called Solid Bond, a Graham Bond reissue from the late 1960's featuring different Bond groups using Baker and Jon Hiseman for separate sessions--highlights Baker's work in a jazz context. On these tracks, he is very restrained, almost like Han Bennink's early work (check out Eric Dolphy's Last Date). He seems forceful, but not loud. One can see little clips of pre-Cream Baker on YouTube in interesting clips from Gonks Go Beat (see above), a movie featuring Graham Bond with the Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker, John McLaughlin and Dick Heckstall-Smith band (In one interesting aside, in a comic sequence, Bruce is told to "turn his amp all the way up" and Baker is told to "play louder"--advice they took later). There is also a fascinating "drum orchestra" piece in which Baker participates in set up "drummer prison" orchestra, which includes some other well known session drummers (Beatles session drummers Bobby Graham and Andy White are the best known), but you can hear little bit which prefigure some of the work Baker did on "Toad."

Baker, in rock anyway, pioneered the use of the double bass drum set-up. The story goes that he told Moon his idea, and Moon ordered one and premiered the set up before Baker. However, it is clear to these ears, anyway, that this additional drum made a profound impact on Baker's sound, but although Moon used it, Moon's playing style was not as reliant on twin bass drums as Baker's.

There is some merit to the idea that Baker—who, started as a jazz drummer--simplified and thickened his playing style in response to the amplifier technology that emerged in the late 1960's. Bruce and Clapton used two 200 watt Marshall amplifiers each with a total of sixteen 12 inch speakers. While this amplification was less than Hendrix or Blue Cheer, it was significantly loud to force a drummer –especially a drummer who was not miked, as I can attest from having seen Cream play in Providence--to start to pummel the drums to be heard. It was nearly impossible to maintain the kind of graceful floating style Baker used on "I Feel Free"--as the band moved towards more dense sounds, the drums would have sounded wrong. So he adapted his drumming style to a simpler--although complicated by rock standards--tom and bass drum attack. This simpler attack laid the foundation for drummers like John Bonham who, although a great drummer, rose to notoriety by simplifying concepts that originated with Baker. Baker essentially set the foundation for much of rock drumming, especially heavy metal. The further one gets from 1968, the harder it is to hear, but if one listens to Baker, then others who immediately followed him, the influence is obvious. Mitch Mitchell, when he played with Bruce and Coryell, appropriated large parts of Baker's style and his influence on drummers like Cozy Powell, Peter Criss, Carmine Appice, Neal Pert (who claims Moon and Bruford as influences), and Alex Van halen is fairly obvious. One could even identify his use of African rhythms as anticipating Stewart Copeland's work in the Police.

Regardless of your attitude towards Baker's long drum solos, he did raise the bar (along with people like Dinio Danelli, Mitchell and lesser known or acknowledged players like Brian Davison, Michael Giles (King Crimson), Mickey Waller (Rod Steward band, Jeff Beck Group), and even John Densmore (the Doors), in rock drumming. He added a certain expectation that drummer would need to do more than just keep the beat, although his steady pulse (more controlled than many later drummers) gave a natural pulse to music that just can't be matched by "click tracks." Baker's sense of time is impeccable--his high hat is easily the steadiest among major rock drummers.

After Blind Faith, Baker never again enjoyed the mass appeal that he had experienced in the 1960's due to several reasons. He travelled to Africa in the 1970's and opened a studio in Nigeria. He unsuccessfully petitioned Clapton to reform Cream, and he worked with the Baker-Gurvitz army. He also undertook some studio work (he was one of the drummers considered for what became Emerson, Lake and Palmer), and he struggled with a heroin habit on and off through the years. He also played with Hawkwind briefly.

In the 1980's, he abandoned music for a while to grow olive trees in Italy (although he still played by himself) and was finally coaxed out of retirement by Bill Laswell, appearing on some of Laswell's projects and found himself performing on a Public Image Ltd. record. Eventually he ended up touring with Jack Bruce and the late Gary Moore and was also briefly a member of the Masters of Reality: his appearance on their video "She Got Me" is terrific (see below) and on 1992's under-rated Sunrise on the Sufferbus album, he's got a hilarious lecture about making tea. He also merged back into the jazz world In the 1990's recording with greats like Charlie Haden, among others.



A reunion with Cream was actually vetted in the 1990's after the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but Clapton declined, mainly because of his manager, or so the rumor goes. Cream reformed for a series of shows in 2005 at the Royal Albert Hall in England and Madison Square Garden in New York City. The English concerts went well; the U.S. concerts brought up old bones of contention between Bruce and Baker, as Baker maintained that Bruce was getting competitive and turning his amplifiers up; (Baker claims hearing loss as a result of Cream's volume levels in the 1960's—a reasonable claim given the volume levels employed in a band like Cream). Now chances of any additional Cream reunions seem unlikely. Baker, now 72, still plays and has written a book. He does claim to be loaded with arthritis, but it apparently had not stopped him from functioning. A jazz-influenced drummer, he has a profound legacy in the world of both jazz and rock, and is worthy of admiration for the talent, imagination and obvious intelligence he has brought to every musical environment in which he has played.


FOOTNOTE:

1. With the exception of a few moments, the Blind Faith album was none of the protagonists' best moments--even Ric Grech seemed to slip a notch when one compares his work with Family to it--so all the positive feedback this anemic album receives continues to mystify; and I am a huge fan of every member's work outside this band.

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