In Praise of Ginger Baker
Right away, I was blown away by an early clip of Ginger performing Harmonica with his second band, The Graham Bond Organisation (GBO), from the film Gonks Go Beat (1965).
Ginger was a natural-born drummer with perfect time who learned his skills from listening to Max Roach playing with Bird. He was a jazz drummer who got pulled into the big beat scene when it hit England in the early 1960s. Boy, do I love the fusion they created. GBO actually started with John McLaughlin on guitar, a man often called “the world’s greatest guitar player,” although others just call him “world’s greatest musician.” It must have been quite amazing to have been at those early jam sessions with Ginger and John and, of course, Jack Bruce, the greatest bass player of his generation. Although John Entwhistle of the Who may have had more technical skills and he could certainly play faster than anyone else, Jack was a much more accomplished all-around musician. Like Ginger, Jack had a background in jazz and began playing standup in a jazz band, although soon after joining up with Graham, he decided to switch to a short-neck Gibson SG. In 1966, my mom would buy me that same guitar as I wanted to join a band and was advised the bass was the easiest way into the game.
I was blown away listening to that first Cream album, but I never even heard Graham Bond until decades later unfortunately. Gonks Go Beat is now a camp classic but was savagely attacked when it first came out possibly because it was so ahead of its time and the world wasn’t ready for a sci-fi rock’n’roll fantasy comedy film. Maybe it’s time for a remake.
Jack and Ginger had quite a history together. Apparently, Ginger was very upset when Jack switched to electric guitar and he never forgave him. And I think I know why. See, when he was on stand-up, Jack remained in Ginger’s shadow because Ginger was the loudest drummer of his time. But when Jack got electrified, he began to spar with Ginger over who had control of the bottom. One night Jack tried to keep playing during Ginger’s solo, which prompted a fist fight that ended Cream as a band.
I’m pretty sure Ginger was the first rock drummer to go double bass, and his two bass drums were slightly different sizes, tuned to different notes. Ginger wasn’t just a drummer, he was a composer, arranger, and had a very sophisticated style that made use of harmonics and jazz techniques in a rock format. His signature was the flam, which is when you strike a drum with both sticks, but slightly apart so instead of two beats, it becomes like one booming beat. His famous drum solo “Toad” made a lot of use of that technique.
That first Cream album changed the world. With the breakup of GBO and the departure of Graham and John, Jack became a lead singer for the first time and Eric Clapton was brought in on guitar, one of the few players who could stand toe-to-toe with McLaughlin (others being Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana and maybe Jeff Beck on a good day). I did all my first acid trips to that first Cream album and still love to listen to it today. The only thing more inspiring on acid for me was the first Jimi Hendrix album.
Ginger has always had a huge streak of self-destruction and is forced to keep constantly reinventing himself. He’s a bit of a phoenix, just like me. It’s too bad he couldn’t keep bands or families together, but you have to admire the way he never compromised and just did pretty much exactly what he wanted to do his whole life. Other than drumming, his one big passion was playing polo. Over the course of time, he built some huge ranches for polo ponies, in England, Colorado, and finally, South Africa, but he eventually lost all his horses and all his money. See, drummers don’t get much in the way of royalties and residuals and even though Jack Bruce got rich from Cream, that was because he wrote some of the music. The other dude who cashed in was Jack’s lyricist. The laws regarding residuals are all messed up in my opinion because Ginger helped arrange all of those songs and provided essential creative input, not to mention he put the beat down on every song.
While I was watching the movie, I couldn’t help but be reminded of one of my own favorite completely unknown super group trios: Medicine Hat, formed in the East Village around 1989 or so. Dave Rodway was the Ginger Baker of the Lower East Side at the time, Frank Max was Eric Clapton, and Bobby Belfiore was a cross between Jack Bruce and Mick Jagger. They put on some mind-blowing performances, but only lasted a few weeks. I hope some of those performances make it to Youtube someday. In the meantime, I’d like to share that song, Harmonica, from Gonks Go Beat, so click this link and get ready to dance: