Ginger Baker, 1939-2019 – the NME obituary

The incendiary former Cream drummer, renowned for his epochal talent behind the kit – as well has his fiery personality – has died at the age of 80

Last year, Ginger Baker‘s son, Kofi, a percussionist, was asked if he felt under pressure to live up to his father’s reputation as the rock’n’roll world’s first superstar drummer. Kofi replied: “My dad is such an asshole that it’s not like I was stressed about making him proud of anything…” In the same interview, he was asked if his father had any redeeming qualities. Kofi laughed sadly and softly, then replied: “No. But he’s a great drummer”.

That Ginger Baker was a great drummer is a statement beyond reproach – first with Alexis Korners’ blues collective, Blues Incorporated (replacing future Rolling Stone Charlie Watts), then with the Graham Bond Organization. He backed Eric Clapton and arch frenemy Jack Bruce in the seismically influential Cream. Then there was the supergroup Blind Faith. The list goes on: his own band, Ginger Baker’s Air Force; Hawkwind; Public Image Ltd.

Baker once described being behind the drums as an experience akin to being taken over by someone or something other than himself. It was almost like what happened on stage tempered the chaos that would ensue when he was off it. “When we’re actually playing, it’s the good bit, and after is not so good,” he once said. Whatever was in control of Baker, he – along with The Who’s Keith Moon – was a rock drummer who repositioned his playing as centrifugal to a band’s sound. This was standard in the jazz world that Baker loved, but fledgling stuff in rock.

And yet Baker, ever the contrarian, repeatedly stated that he wasn’t a rock‘n’roll drummer. “If I am playing any music at all it is jazz music,” he said. He didn’t like rock ‘n’ roll, and insisted, “I have never had a great love of the music business.” On another occasion, when an interviewer had the temerity to ask, “What was the last record that excited you?, Baker barked, “I don’t listen to music,” adding, “When you’re talking about a bus driver, his holiday is driving?”.

And what of his influence on other genres, such as heavy metal? “They credited Cream for the birth of that sort of heavy metal thing,” he mused. “Well, if that’s the case, there should be an immediate abortion”. So much talent; so much rage. “God is punishing me for my past wickedness”, he said in his latter years, “by keeping me alive and in as much pain as he can…”

Despite being friends with Charlie Watts, he didn’t care much for the Rolling Stones. “I won’t go within ten miles of a Rolling Stones gig,” he said. “They’re not great musicians. They’re not really great songwriters. Mick Jagger is a musical moron.”

Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker, Jack Bruce in Cream in a row boat in Central Park in November 1968 in New York City, New York. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

He viewed Paul McCartney with disdain for not being able to read music, adding that “George Martin was the Beatles”. Mitch Mitchell from the Jimi Hendrix Experience was a “hopeless journeyman”. Keith Moon, another friend, “wasn’t really a great drummer”. Elvis? “One of the biggest berks I ever met.” Surprisingly, he did once tell an interviewer that he did quite like Kelly Rowland and Emeli Sandé.

“I do have a God-given gift that only a few drummers have,” he said. “And it is a gift; it’s not something you can work at. Keith Moon? John Bonham? “No, I wouldn’t put them in the same frame. They were drummers, but they weren’t in any way exceptional in my opinion.”

Ginger Baker was born Peter Edward Baker on August 19th, 1939, in Lewisham, south London. His mother worked in a tobacco shop. His father, Frederick Louvain Formidable Baker, was a Lance Corporal in the Royal Corps of Signals. Frederick didn’t make it through the war, dying in 1943, as the Allies failed to take the Greek Dodecanese islands from the Italians.

Ginger – nicknamed so for his streak of fiery red hair – was a hyperactive kid. These days they’d put him on medication. Instead they gave him drums. By the age of 15, he was getting pretty good. A little later, he’d finesse his skills with tuition from the English jazz great Phil Seamen. Baker would remain a disciple all his life, later recruiting his mentor for Air Force. The tutor didn’t last long. “Too bloody loud!” Seaman said, before exiting. Unfortunately mentor and disciple didn’t just share a love of jazz; they both loved heroin too. Seaman died aged 46 in 1972.

Baker loved heroin – until, of course, he didn’t. He’d got a taste playing in London jazz clubs during the ’50s and early ’60s. “I don’t have fond memories of it at all,” he told The Guardian in 2013. “To find you have to do something just to feel normal is not a good road. I got involved in 1960 when people were getting more than they were using on prescription and selling it. It was called a ‘jack’; one sixth of a gram of heroin in one tiny white pill.”

He tried to kick the drug 29 times before a relocation to Italy, in 1981, saw him free of it for good.

“That’s when I got clear of it all,” he said. “I moved to a little village in the middle of nowhere, where nobody spoke English. I got into olive farming. It was very rewarding, very hard work, but very good therapy.” Rehab, in the conventional sense, was never an option. “No, no, no, no! There’s only one person who can help an addict and that’s an addict himself. The whole rehab thing is a bloody con to make money and take advantage. The whole thing is nonsense.”

Not surprisingly, chaos followed Baker wherever he went (and he went to a lot of places, living in Hawaii, Jamaica, Colorado and South Africa). He left Italy after an alleged run-in with the mafia when they suspected that his olive farming was actually a front for selling drugs. It’s said they killed one of his beloved dogs as a warning to him.

When he moved to Nigeria, he set up West Africa’s first-16 track recording studio, befriending Afrobeat icon and future collaborator Fela Kuti in the process. Here he fell out with his business partners and – after threats from the corrupt local police – felt it in his best interests to get out of town. When he returned in the 1990s, settling in South Africa, his property was notorious for the ‘Beware Of Mr Baker’ sign hammered into the dusty soil. This, and anything in his general direction, was frequently shot at.

Fittingly, for a man who lived to bang stuff, Baker loved war, too. Far from being frightened or repulsed by the conflict that broke out the year of his birth, he loved the explosions. “People get the wrong impression of the effect the war had on kids – particularly boys,” he said. “It was very exciting.”

He married four times, had three children and admired Hendrix more for his ability to “pull chicks” than for what he could do with six strings. Baker claimed to have once spent a night with Germaine Greer. He loved bikes; his childhood dream was to be a professional cyclist. Baker claimed that long-distance cycling had conditioned him for his career behind the kit. And he loved horses; he got a taste for polo in Africa. He even opened a polo school. It went bust, and he lost all his money.

For all his personal ups and downs, Baker was a sight to behold behind the kit. With two bass drums, tuned slightly differently to one another, arms flailing, his red hair looking like an accident on Bonfire Night, eyes seemingly ready to bust out of his skull, the man was the physical embodiment of rage. Despite his later protestations, this was heavy metal before heavy metal. Cream were too cosmic to be a beat group, but too tuneful to be prog.

Sadly, Cream curdled within two years of their formation, reforming first to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993 (the first time they’d played together in 25 years). Then they had an unlikely (and, more importantly to the financially reckless Baker, lucrative) Indian summer in 2005. Future reunion plans would be scrapped when Bruce and Baker refused – or found it impossible – to put old grudges aside. Before Led Zeppelin took the gig, it was Cream who were supposed to perform at the 2007 live tribute to music industry legend Ahmet Ertegun.

Onstage, Baker and Bruce would compete to be the loudest. Clapton once recalled a Cream gig where he ended a song and the rhythm section continued playing for several minutes; their volume was so extreme that they hadn’t realised the song had ended. The band left behind four studio albums: ‘Fresh Cream’ (1966 – which, on closer ‘Toad’, features perhaps the only drum solo you ever really need to hear); ‘Disraeli Gears’ (1967); ‘Wheels Of Fire’ (1968); and ‘Goodbye’ (1969).

Baker could never reconcile with being viewed as just a drummer and not a musician like Clapton or Bruce. Musically, Clapton was evolving faster than his bandmates (he wrote the brilliant ‘Badge’ with George Harrison on Cream’s final album ‘Goodbye’; for contractual reasons, Harrison is credited as L’Angelo Misterioso).

They were so combustible that it’s amazing Cream lasted as long as they did, really. Jack Bruce died from liver disease in 2014. And that was that.

Ginger Baker, Copenhagen, Denmark, 1975 (Photo by Jorgen Angel/Redferns)

After a life filled with rhythm, soul, anger, spite and horses – a very strange brew – Ginger Baker died, aged 80, back on home soil, surrounded by family. It capped a stunning innings for a man few expected to make it out of the 1970s alive.

“It’s miraculous,” he said, a few years back, of his durability. “They put me in the Playboy Dead Band in 1972 with Janis Joplin, Greg Allman, Jimi Hendrix. I was reported dead several times – once when I was driving a Shelby Cobra with three tasty chicks, and the radio station announced I was found dead in my hotel room from a heroin overdose.”

Despite the excellent 2012 documentary ‘Beware of Mr. Baker’, named after that warning sign hammered outside his South Africa home, we never quite got to the root of where that rage – that meanness, that misery – originated from. His first wife, Elizabeth Ann Baker, once said of her ex-husband’s durability: “If a plane went down and there was one survivor, it would be Ginger. The devil takes care of its own…”