After Ginger Baker finally died the other day, I was thinking about his playing, and the playing of some of the other big drummers to come out of the late 60s. I listened to a lot of drum solos last weekend, and wanted to offer some notes on them.
It's kind of silly to talk about these like they're pieces of music; the idea was to make a spectacle out of the drummer going crazy and shaking his hair and blowing everyone's mind by going fast, for a long time. People used to mention how long the solos would go as evidence of how good they were. But they are music, too, and in any case, that's the only way I know how to talk about the drums. So here we go:
“Toad” - Cream - Ginger Baker
I don't think I've ever listened to this all the way through, nor the much longer solo on Wheels of Fire— I'm trying to listen to that as I write this, and I completely lose focus about every 15 seconds, and finally I just want to turn it off.
I don't enjoy Baker's playing, but he was clearly very influential. The previous big drum thing in rock was Wipeout, which is very Mickey Mouse by comparison. Baker is bringing sort of a Buddy Rich / Louis Bellson type of vocabulary into the rock world— he cites Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, and Max Roach as influences, but I hear nothing of them in his playing. To me it's a straight bam-bam style rendition of big band drumming.
Baker wrote the tune, and it's nice. Most things in this category seem to just be simple blues riffs with some solo breaks.
“Moby Dick” - Led Zeppelin - John Bonham
John Bonham was to all appearances a big, simple, heavy drinking British farm country lummox, but he was a real musician, and to me this is the best, most musically successful, of these types of solos. It's concise, it has very effective dynamics, and melodic and sonic interest, and it develops nicely. It made musical sense to me as a 13 year old, and it makes sense to me now. It's just a very effective, non-dumb rock & roll drum feature.
Part of what I like is that he is not just doing that big band thing, which so many of these drummers do— apparently that was the way young white drummers who were into the drums learned to play at the time. His concept of the instrument is different. His sound was also different, which perhaps we'll talk about another time...
“In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” - Iron Butterfly - Ron Bushy
This was a famous tune and drum solo in the 60s, that was largely forgotten soon after. It's not hip at all, but I kind of like it. I'm happy to not have to listen to a lot of snare drum junk. He's playing simple little melodies on the tom toms, and he doesn't repeat himself. All of these rock guys step on their bass drum the way he does, but he has a nice groove with it, and it hearkens back to Baby Dodds a little bit.
The solo starts after 6:15:
“Working Man” - Rush - Neil Peart
Peart is a generation after the other players here, but I wanted to put this up to compare with Ginger Baker's playing. To me this is coming out of that same big band bag, which is why Peart's thing always seemed a little retrograde to me, compared to Bonham's concept, which was more modern.
The solo is well composed. It had better be— he played this same solo for many years. Compare this performance with the one on Exit... Stage Left five years later. It's more of a production number, featuring his elaborate drumset, than it is a piece of music. Basically he's lining up a lot of fun drumming ideas and novel sounds in an exciting package. As a show number it's very effective.