Ginger Baker

I read Hellraiser, the recently released autobiography of Ginger Baker. It will not win awards for the way its sentences have been created. It will not be turned into a film - as is the way with so many rock biographies - it is not even, particularly, a book that fans of Baker's need to read.

But I enjoyed it.

I enjoyed it - because it did what a book about music should sent me back to the music.

It had been years since I had listened to Cream - not that I avoid the band's music; I simply mean that it had been a long time since I had chosen to play an album or compilation. But off I went to Fresh Cream and Disraeli Gears; to Goodbye and on to Blind Faith. From there to some of the jazz recordings Ginger made, to some of the world and Afrobeat excursions. And back to Blind Faith and to some of the Cream compilations.

My introduction to Cream was The Cream of Eric Clapton, bought for my father on vinyl. The whole family liked Eric Clapton - but it was this compilation that explained the history. Cream soon became my favourite band. And sure there was Jack Bruce's voice and bass playing. There was certainly Clapton's guitar playing (he was - at that point - most definitely still an innovator, rather than just coasting). And there are the surreal poems-turned-into-lyrics of Pete Brown. But, for me, all of that took a backseat to the backseat-driver: Ginger Baker steering the songs rhythmically, playing tantamount to melodic lines on the drums. The fills bursting out in Technicolor - dominating snatches of a song.

I cannot say with any certainty that Ginger Baker was my first drum hero. I'm pretty sure that was Buddy Rich. (And I wrote about that here.) And I was probably pretty into Ringo Starr by this point too - but Ginger Baker became my favourite pretty quickly. He was it. It wasn't so much that I wanted to play like him. I just wanted to listen to his drumming.

Cream songs - along with music by Jimi Hendrix and Santana - would dominate my listening for the next five years or so. I was about 13 years old at the time. And it was a sound I loved; later I would play along to Sunshine of your Love and White Room and Swlabr and Politician.

The Blind Faith record is something I still play a lot - more often than I listen to Cream. There's more in it - I find something new in the songs most times. I guess that's what you get with a Supergroup: you shift your focus each time - if the players are all doing their job/s correctly. For me though, Ginger Baker is absolutely the star of the record. His playing on album opener, Had To Cry Today, like so much of the Cream playing, is informed by jazz, but is really the work of a rock player. It is in fact really the work of two players, in that Ginger seems to occupy a dual role as drummer and percussionist, his work a combination of the separate sensibilities required for those tasks.

And I really like the work of The Ginger Baker Trio - particularly the Going Back Home album from 1994. (I've collected Baker's work through the 1970s and 80s as well; his film document of work with Fela Kuti and the live album, his Airforce and solo world excursions - I even like moments from the BBM album.)

The funny thing about going back to all of this music - particularly the Cream material - after reading the book is that I found far more of Baker's personality in the playing.

The autobiography has some of the requisite "crazy stories" of drug-use and sexcapades. Baker apparently enjoyed heroin and threesomes - often.

Later he would focus on African music - and Polo.

You get little from him in the pages of his book - apart from the fact that he hates Jack Bruce and has decided it's easier to not have much of an opinion on Clapton. He speaks for him enough to suggest that the real issue with Cream - and later with the 2005 Cream reunion - was definitely Jack Bruce.

But you don't need to read the book to get the character of this man. It's all over the records.

Drummers are often known for investing their personality in their playing - sure. Most (decent) musicians are, for that matter. But you really hear it in Ginger's work. There's the relentless drive, certainly, but he is a player with great taste. His approach to jazz has some of rock's energy and power but he has the chops - and importantly the dynamics - to make the records sincere; more than just a rock drummer having a go at jazz.

Funny that a book I could never recommend as being a great read has reconnected me with the work of one of my favourite musicians.

That ever happen to you?

» Join Blog on the Tracks on Facebook