Ginger Baker & Drum Solos & Why We Wouldn’t Just Leave Him Alone
Fifty years ago, I thought Ginger Baker was the future of rock ’n’ roll.
For about 15 minutes.
That’s not a criticism of Baker, who died Sunday at the age of 80 after suffering debilitating illnesses over the last couple of years.
Baker was a terrific drummer, particularly when he was working in his preferred field of jazz. He developed a hybrid style blending classic 1950s jazz with African rhythms, and he influenced hundreds of drummers who followed, many of them in the rock ’n’ roll field.
Still, he had no intention of becoming rock ’n’ roll’s future. That was a bit of misdirection largely outside of his control.
It happened after he joined his lifelong frenemy Jack Bruce and guitarist Eric Clapton in 1966 to form Cream. They were soon billed as the first rock ’n’ roll supergroup, where several established stars band together to form something presumably even better than what they’d done before.
Sort of like when LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosch signed with the Miami Heat.
Cream started with the album Fresh Cream, which had some nice jazz- and blues-rooted songs, including a great rendition of Robert Johnson’s “From Four Until Late.”
They got more ambitious with their next album, Disraeli Gears, and most ambitious of all with their third album, the half live double-set Wheels of Fire.
Ambitious in this case meant that they strung songs out, with long complicated instrumentals and solos. This reflected their live performances, in which one of the three would weave a long solo, often with more than a lick of improv.
They weren’t the only ones doing this experimentation in the mid-1960s. Jimi Hendrix was the obvious alpha example, while the syndrome also spread out to bands like Iron Butterfly and “In-A-Gadda-A-Vida,” which, to be honest, no one needs to hear again.
At the same time, more traditional bands like the Beatles and Rolling Stones were also recording longer tracks, and the net result from all of this was a sense that rock ’n’ roll was moving away from its lifelong embrace of the three-minute single as its core sound.
Not entirely by coincidence, new FM radio formats were springing up to provide a home for these longer tracks.
Ginger Baker’s most famous contribution to all this was his live performance of “Toad.” On Wheels of Fire, “Toad” runs 16 minutes, of which 13 are Baker’s drum solo.
I’ve got to say, it was engaging to see him play it live. It was tempting to think wow, rock ’n’ roll is really going to stretch itself out now, explore new directions, you know, all that.
Except the second and third times you saw the show, and heard the solo, you started to realize it really wasn’t all that.
Technically, and certainly for drummers, what he was doing was often fascinating. But for people who just wanted to hear rock ’n’ roll songs, at a certain point you realized this was a side street and the real action was still on the main road.
Sure, there are moments in rock ’n’ roll when you want to close your eyes and just sit back and listen for a while. Grateful Dead fans, you’ve got all night.
But rock ’n’ roll, including what it has over the years morphed into, moves faster than that.
The three-minute single, maybe stretched in recent times to the four-minute single, remains the beating heart.
It’s like Ringo Starr says: “Never played a long drum solo, never will.”
Charlie Watts, who plays marvelous drums with his jazz band, plays nothing like “Toad” with the Rolling Stones. The late Hal Blaine, Benny Benjamin, Earl Palmer — the greatest rock ’n’ roll drummers weren’t spotlighting themselves. They were laying down a foundation on which everyone else built.
When Bruce Springsteen advertised for a drummer in the early 1970s, the caveat was “No Jr. Ginger Bakers.” Not because Bruce didn’t appreciate Baker, but because that’s not where he wanted his music to go.
There was a great Saturday Night Live bit in which the late John Belushi played a dude who was selling off his 1960s record albums. When he got to Wheels of Fire, he looked at it, shook his head and said, “Only played once.”
I know the feeling.
Ginger Baker himself was, by all accounts and appearances, one of music’s all-time great angry men.
He seemed to genuinely love music and he was drawn to some of the musicians who played it best, or played it in a way that intrigued him.
He also seemed to end up disliking many of them, or falling out with them, which seems sad except they still fared better than the rest of us, whom Baker seemed to simply scorn.
If he wasn’t a misanthrope, he played the role convincingly — and as always with someone who comes across that way, you just hoped that behind the wall of contempt there was a person who did find things that brought him pleasure. His music? A select circle of family and friends?
Maybe he really was the J.D. Salinger of rock ’n’ roll and just wanted to be left alone. Unfortunately for him, like Salinger he created something impressive enough that people were curious about it, and therefore about him.
My guess is that it didn’t bother him at all that his “Toad” solos were not the future of rock ’n’ roll. What did bother him is that we wouldn’t get off his lawn.