No Relaxation

(Jorgen Angel/Redferns – courtesy of Pitchfork)

Have you ever noticed that the snare drum never quite hits usually in “Sunshine Of Your Love”? Maybe you have; Ginger Baker never would have assumed that you would expect something like that, given the circumstances. Circumstance is everything, and what you don’t notice can alternately end up killing you, or being the very reason you feel love.

Baker, best known as the drummer of Cream, passed away on Sunday at the age of 80. Anger and belligerence are as key to his story as they are to those of his dairy bandmates’, and Baker was perhaps the most prominent person that enabled the expansion of what we thought a rock trio[1] could be. Getting Jack Bruce to run through a fuzz box helped, sure; throwing Ginger Baker as many drums and cymbals as he could handle, though, was the key revelation to tying the British blues rock push together.

Peter Edward Baker, born as white as fathomable, with red hair and, soon enough, unfortunately crowned as such, ended up being in the right place at an incongruously amount of the right times, but then, he had to be good enough to be in those places. His father died in World War II. He tried to be in advantageous positions as early as he could have, and in doing so trained to be a jazz drummer.

He would join the Graham Bond Organisation, and feud with bandmate Jack Bruce; he would adopt the double bass drum as a signifier of being serious, all while pressing against accepted uses of his equipment. He angrily drummed out the most prominent rock drum solo of the British blues rock era.

Baker always considered himself a jazz drummer. That’s, maybe, why you hear the reverbed unhinging of the snare on “Sunshine,” or the constant pounding of tom-toms on “We’re Going Wrong,” or the perfectly unhinged cymbal work on “Crossroads,” another candidate for Cream’s defining song. “Politican,” by nature, is a standard twelve-bar blues, expounded upon with flourishes that would not typically belong on, say, a Sister Rosetta Tharpe or John Lee Hooker record[2].

I hesitate to say that any great Cream record is only great due to Ginger Baker, as hot a take as that would be; after all, Jack Bruce did write a healthy portion of the songs you remember, while Eric Clapton mostly resigned himself to ripping off Albert King, playing white-friendly guitar solos and repurposing already-good songs to his own benefit. But in thinking about the best parts of a lot of the dream team power trio’s songs, you end up thinking about those drum parts, writhing around underneath the embellishments otherwise in store.

Once he finished properly feuding with again-bandmate Bruce, though, he became an advocate for polyrhythms and exploring the limits of percussion. That included his own band, Ginger Baker’s Air Force, which featured a lot of people who played on records you know even if you don’t know those people, as well as Blind Faith[3] and collaborations with Fela Kuti, Jeff Beck, Andy Summers, Iggy Pop, among a host of others.

Let me[4] put it to you like this: without Baker, it is hard to imagine Led Zeppelin[5], Rush or Van Halen without “Toad.” Pink Floyd might’ve lost their cool in Pompeii without Baker having led the way. Jimi Hendrix may not have ever been looking for a jazz drummer, and thus may never have found Mitch Mitchell, when he was trying to form a band in 1966.

For all of his might, angst and anger, he could pound out the very beat you needed in a pinch, even if he punched your engineer along the way, and especially if you didn’t know you needed it. That was the risk you ran with him. The reward? An indelible pattern, something worth sampling at least, and a black eye. Ginger Baker went everywhere, did everything and tried everyone. If it’s Jack Bruce in the afterlife, right now, that’s one thing; if it’s us at the same time, we can only acknowledge his presence.

*     *     *

[1] Or a blues rock trio, but again: he was a jazz drummer, and don’t forget it

[2] That particular song requires a certain recognition of white privilege that I would be shocked if, say, John Mayer splintered into a song in 2019, even as privileged as Cream themselves were

[3] Featuring da gawd Steve Winwood

[4] Some of you know me, some of you don’t—

[5] Yet again: the greatest cover band of all-time, but also a group of extraordinary instrumentalists and songwriters in their own right…

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