Beware of Ginger Baker: the lanky, red-maned wildman drummer was a force in every sense of the word. Despite being a master of dynamic and stylistic variety, everything Baker did came with a palpable sense of danger and aggression, from his tom fills, to his furious snare rolls, to his penchant for chaos and destruction, both onstage and off. The man was quick with a joke, but also with a knife. He was easily adaptable as a sideman to any artist in any genre but thrived as a one-man rhythmic militia. He was crazy, temperamental, fiercely independent, relentlessly creative, and always hungry to expand his horizons.
Baker never had any preconceived notions about style or labels. A jazz drummer by trade, he was fascinated with all different kinds of rhythm and composition insistently stretching the boundaries of whatever he was playing to incorporate as many varied influences as humanly possible. When playing rock music, polyrhythms and alternate meters crept in. When he was playing acoustic music, otherworldly percussion filled out the arrangements. When he was playing jazz, Afrobeat rhythms acted as counterintuitive palate cleansers. He was a man of many sounds.
Ginger Baker is sadly gone now, but his legacy as one of the greatest drummers of all time is solidified. Through his work with Cream, Blind Faith, Blues Incorporated, Fela Kuti, Public Image Ltd., Masters of Reality, BBM, and his own solo projects throughout his lifetime are foundational texts for how drummers can work in multiple different styles while retaining an unmistakable signature sound. We’ve picked out six of his greatest performances to illustrate the power, the skill, and the fury of Ginger Baker.
Ginger Baker’s best drum tracks:
Cream – ‘Toad’
There’s a fantastic part of the wonderful documentary Beware of Mr. Baker where Baker takes a verbal flamethrower to the peers that he is often compared to. John Bonham? Keith Moon? Mitch Mitchell? Ringo Starr? All hacks. Why? Because Baker’s prime distinction, what set him apart from his contemporaries, was his musicality: he composed, arranged, and when he played the drums, it was like conducting an orchestra.
There can’t be a better illustration of his musicality than ‘Toad’, the excitable and ever-extendable song that is largely just an excuse for Baker to rip an incredible solo. There aren’t any bad versions of ‘Toad’, but I prefer the Royal Albert Hall version from the band’s 1968 farewell show, which his improvisational abilities with his unmatched ear for rhythmic variety.
Cream – ‘White Room’
For a man with such a deep catalogue and a nearly endless discography, it feels wrong to shoehorn in two Cream songs at the expense of some of his lesser-known, but equally fantastic work. But the harsh truth is that Baker will now and forever be associated with the English power blues trio that set the template for all future supergroups to come.
‘White Room’ is likely Baker’s finest recorded performance, as it mixes subtlety and bombast into his most stirring and symphonic drum track. Easily navigating irregular time signatures before finding the pocket in the verse, ‘White Room’ is the platonic ideal Ginger Baker drum performance, and it has everything that made him great in a compact five minutes.
Blind Faith – ‘Do What You Like’
Blind Faith was a chance for Baker to show off his softer, more contained side. Through tracks like ‘Can’t Find My Way Home’ and ‘Well All Right’, Baker gets to float along with the composition, complementing the songs without overpowering or overwhelming them. ‘Do What You Like’ is the payoff for all that prior restraint: a fifteen minute jam where Baker gets to indulge in both pure unfaltering flash and simple, subtle rhythms. Blind Faith wasn’t meant to last, but as Baker’s last major contribution to mainstream pop music, he gets to go out with a bang.
Fela Kuti – ‘Let’s Start’
In the early ’70s, Baker travelled to Africa in order to connect with the continent’s formidable reputation for rhythm. As one of the first Western artists to explore the culture and climate of Africa, Baker eventually found his way to Nigeria to pair up with legendary Afrobeat prodigy Fela Kuti and his band Africa 70, which featured Kuli’s equally impressive drummer Tony Allen.
Allen and Baker are a match made in heaven on Live!, the album that features ‘Let’s Start’ along with a number of extended performances and a furious duel drum solo between the two legends. ‘Let’s Start’ isn’t as flamboyant as the album’s other songs, but it best illustrates Baker’s ability to play within any kind of style or genre.
Public Image Ltd. – ‘Ease’
Largely in a state of limbo during the ’80s, Baker took on jobs that were somewhat unexpected of him. Case in point: his participation in the all-star sessions that produced Public Image Ltd.’s fifth record titled Album.
Rubbing incongruous elbows with Steve Vai, Bill Laswell, and Ryuichi Sakamoto, all under the leadership of John Lydon, Baker is forced to be something that he isn’t typically asked to be: an anchor. With minimal fills and a complete lack of ego, Baker grounds the flighty sensibilities of his fellow musicians by embracing minimalism. The result is the least Ginger Baker sounding Ginger Baker performances of his career.
Masters of Reality – ‘Rolling Green’
You could call Ginger Baker anything you liked, but if you had the gall to call him a rock drummer, you were at risk of serious bodily harm.
Constantly working against the grain, Baker never played straightforward rock and roll, even when the material called for it. When Masters of Reality bandleader Chris Goss hired Baker to play on the sessions for Sunrise on the Sufferbus, he gave the band’s signature sludgy stoner rock a light and lilting touch along with the powerful and pounding rhythms he was known for.
‘Rolling Green’ is a bouncy and bizarre shuffle of a song, with a drum pattern that could have only been composed and performed by one man. ‘Rolling Green’ is a great example of how Baker’s singular style could transcend the pomp and pulverizing nature of his most celebrated work.