Thursday, June 18, 2015

Ginger Baker

October 2019 update: Mr. Baker has died, and I've updated and expanded this post a bit, and put it in past tense. I'm rather critical of him. If that's not what you want to read about him, the drummer Alan Cook wrote a very nice remembrance here.

Watching the 2012 documentary about Ginger Baker, Beware of Mr. Baker, he was to all appearances a very simple man, possibly mentally ill, definitely a Grade A bastard, which—well, whatever— a lot of artists are not good human beings. But I don't feel there's any reason not to write frankly about him.

Along with John Bonham and Keith Moon, Baker was one of the famous “drummery” drummers to come out of rock in the 60s, although his influence has faded by comparison. Moon was rough as a player, but had more likable energy, and Bonham— where do we start?— John Bonham was the future of rock drumming. You could argue that Baker had broader ability; he played a wider variety of music than Bonham or Moon, and he was an actual jazz musician— he just wasn't a very good one.

I once owned an album Baker made in the 90s, which had Bill Frisell and Charlie Haden playing covers of some great tunes from earlier in their careers— it's basically the same fanboy album I would have made at the time if somebody gave me $50,000 to make the record of my dreams. I can't fault his taste in listening. 

2023 update: Actually, Chip Stern's taste— he put the session together, and I'm sure selected the tunes. After Baker's death Bill Frisell said the following in Billboard: 

 “It was like a setup: Chip Stern, who produced the record, he knew Ginger for a long, long time, and he knew me and he knew Charlie. So he had a vision of what it would be like to hear us playing together. Somehow he convinced the record company to go for it. So for Ginger, he knew Charlie but I don’t think he knew who I was at all.” 

Listening to his playing there, all the ingredients are there for a rocking, Paul Motian-like concept, but it is just not happening. I'm not going to expend a lot of effort analyzing it, but the frequent, Bam-Bam style, mono-dynamic, mono-rhythmic tom tom tom fills are a large clue— a gross indication that we're missing something fundamental. I think whatever narcissistic personality disorder helped him attract a lot of attention and advance his career when he was young also messed with his musicianship.

Here's the movie. There's a considerable amount hagiographic Hollywood nonsense about his incredible unprecedented genius as a drummer, which is obviously not the case. And irritatingly, in the world of this movie, black artists exist primarily to prove Ginger Baker's greatness. It's a pretty grotesque distortion of history in that respect.

2023: The movie, Beware of Mr. Baker, doesn't seem to be available to embed here. It's certainly available online somewhere, you'll have to dig it up.   


R Valentine said...

I thought I was the only one to think this. Never understood the "Ginger is actually a jazz player' thing. Mono-dynamics, YES. Thanks for making me feel less crazy.

Anonymous said...

That concert with the 12 and More Blues tune was just strange. Very off sounding. Unfortunate that he manages to get the audience he does for that type of music considering what's out there otherwise, but that's that I guess. As you say, it's probably got something to do with his narcissistic personality.

Anonymous said...

He's ok but does seem overrated. Part of documentary also seems to be crediting him as being the only or first western musician to take a keen interest in African music/drumming. What about all the black Americcan musicians who were playing some of those rhythms years before him ?

Anonymous said...


I really think you've done Mr. Baker an injustice here. Don't try to pigeon hole him and don't listen to him talk. Check out his many recordings. They are on YouTube. Graham Bond Organisation. Ginger Baker's Airfore. Baker Gurvitz Army. etc etc.

A good album to start with be: Eleven sides of Baker.

Said my piece.

Ivor Bigun.

Anonymous said...

Forget how Ginger Baker acts or what he says ... None of us are Perfect in this life because if we were we would never learn or grow. So what if he has this high opinion of himself and talks out his ass. It's human nature to be critical no matter what the circumstances are. Because we all have different tastes, likes, and dislikes, I feel like, and I say this about all great musicians, in all the greatest bands, that they were all perfect for their part in whatever band they played in. None of them could truly be replaced, because when they are, it simply is never, and will never be the same band. As far as the band being better, or worse, when a member is replaced is purely subjective, again because we don't all have the same taste. Some people will sit, and argue over and over about who is the better this, or better that. If a person is playing on that level there is no question of their ability. Anything that's debated, is nothing more than just opposing opinions. Two examples that come to mind are Ringo replacing Pete Best as the Beatles Drummer. If they hadn't said that he was replaced because he was horrible, more people would listen to those Decca Sessions with an Objective Mind and would see that he was more than capable as a drummer, but for whatever reason he was replaced, before they hit big, so many people never actually got to see what he may have become. I have listened to those Decca Sessions, and I actually really enjoy those renditions of their early work, as well as the same songs they performed with Ringo on the Drums. One Song, two different versions in my mind, almost like a cover version, because they were 2 different bands. I've always been the guy that would listen to a song I loved by one artist, and would always have to listen to another's interpretation of it. If it's exactly the same, why waste the time to record it? I would never say that one is better than the other, just different! The other example I hinted I had was the Who after Keith Moon died, those shoes could never be filled by anyone, so that version of the Who died with him. Just the other day I was listening to Eminence Front by the Who, with Kenny Jones on drums, and thought how much I really loved that song, so much so, I decided to post it on my Tik Tok page. It blew up with likes, comments, and surprisingly one follower that's a huge Who Fan commented that the album, and the song were his favorite material in the Who's Catalogue. Go figure!