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Music

The secret icon who played the drums on Public Image Ltd song 'Rise'

Music is full of surprises, a factor that often comes in the form of collaborations that you’d have hitherto thought impossible. One of the best examples, however, arrived on Public Image Limited’s 1986 classic ‘Rise’. The anti-apartheid song is one of the most iconic in John Lydon’s back catalogue, and it turns out that it features a whole host of legends. 

One of the aforementioned icons was legendary Cream drummer Ginger Baker, who had worked intermittently as a session musician during this period, and it makes a claim for being rock’s best-kept secret. Alongside the pioneering drummer was guitarist Steve Vai, Tony Williams on drums, Bill Laswell on the fretless bass and L. Shankar on violin. 

In an interview with Classic Rock in 2019, Baker talked about the gig and about first meeting the notorious ex-Sex Pistols frontman, John Lydon. He recalled: “Yeah, I played drums on his track ‘Rise’ in 1986. And it’s incorrect to say I didn’t meet him. I met him on several occasions. He was a bit of an odd guy, to say the least. The first time I met him he was sitting in a room cutting his fingernails with a razor blade.”

Baker explained: “Then we met at various sessions. Me and Tony Williams from Lifetime both played with PiL. It made me laugh later, because the reviewers never knew who was playing the drums on that record. I can’t even tell myself, and to be honest. Also I didn’t give a fuck. I just took the money. Me and Tony had a good laugh about that gig.”

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Although Baker and Williams seemed totally nonplussed by being on such a great track, and if anything, sounded like they were secretly mocking Lydon, the Public Image frontman is none the wiser. In a 2018 interview with BillboardLydon revealed the reasons why he drafted in such heavyweights of music to record for PiL. It transpires that it was because of the usual suspects, record label pressures and lack of funds. 

Lydon said: “It was very difficult to do (the album) because the band were too young for New York and the studio and definitively too young for (producer) Bill Laswell. There’s a slave driver in the studio, and we had a deadline to meet, and we were running out of money. So I had to find quick replacements and those were the kind of people that turned up – Ginger Baker, Steve Vai.”

Lydon explained that he wasn’t exactly in a position to say no to these juggernauts, as he was desperate. Interestingly, he then admitted that at the time, he wasn’t feeling confident about Public Image due to all the negative press they’d had over the years. Luckily for him, the fact that a cast of revered musical heroes delivered for him when he was his lowest had a transformational effect on him moving forward. He said: “That helped me to no end, and it really gave me the confidence to continue.”

A brilliant call to arms, this stellar cast is just one of many reasons that makes ‘Rise’ so iconic.

Listen to ‘Rise’ below.