Beware Of Mr. Baker

In memoriam of a drumming giant with a 60-year-plus career

When I saw the name of Ginger Baker pop up in a CNN news alert on my phone yesterday morning, I immediately knew what had happened. Just a few days ago, I had spotted a story on Facebook, reporting Baker was in the hospital and critically ill. The legendary drummer passed away on October 6 at age 80.

Baker was a pretty wild character. His constant fights with Jack Bruce while they played together in The Graham Bond Organisation and lateron in “supergroup” Cream have widely been reported. Once he even pulled a knife on Bruce – yikes! Baker’s volatile behavior is also impressively captured in the fascinating 2012 American documentary Beware of Mr. BakerAt some point, he hits film maker Jay Bulger in the nose with his walking stick – a terrifying thought, especially coming from a drummer.

So, yes, Baker wasn’t exactly a saint. But I don’t feel it’s my place to judge. Plus, let’s be honest here: The same can be said about some other music artists, including one of my biggest heroes of all time, John Lennon. He certainly was a less than perfect husband to his first wife Cynthia Powell and father to Julian, his son from that marriage. Still, the fact Lennon’s behavior fell short doesn’t change my admiration for him as an artist. The same is true for Ginger Baker.

Ginger Baker 2

There are already many obituaries out there, and undoubtedly, there will be many more. I don’t want to add yet another such piece. If you feel like reading an obituary for Baker, you can do so here at Rolling Stone, for example. Instead, I’d like to commemorate Baker with some of his music. And there is quite a lot over a career that spanned more than 60 years.

Less than two years after Baker had started picking up the drums at age 16, he was initially playing Dixieland on London’s Soho jazz scene. He was also influenced by bebop and artists like Max Roach, Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie. In fact, during a 2013 interview with jazz.fm91 he said, “Oh, for God’s sake, I’ve never played rock.” He also insisted Cream was a jazz band. “Cream was two jazz players and a blues guitarist playing improvised music. We never played the same thing two nights running…It was jazz.” Oh, well, I guess it all depends on how you define jazz. In any case, at the end of the day, who cares what you call it when you’re talking about Cream, one of the greatest bands of the 60s.

In 1962, following Charlie Watts’ departure to The Rolling Stones, 23-year-old Baker joined Blues Incorporated. The English blues band was led by guitarist Alexis Korner, who is often called “a founding father of British blues.” It is also there where Baker first met Jack Bruce. Here’s a great 1962 instrumental called Up-Town, which in addition to Korner (guitar), Bruce (bass) and Baker (drums) also featured Cyril Davies (harmonica), Dick Heckstall-Smith (tenor saxophone) and Johnny Parker (piano).

In 1963, Baker joined The Graham Bond Organisation, where he again played with Bruce, as well as other former Blues Incorporated members Graham Bond (vocals, keyboards, alto-saxophone) and Heckstall-Smith (tenor & soprano saxophone). Guitarist John McLaughlin rounded out the line-up of this jazz and R&B group. Here is Camels & Elephants, a tune featuring a Baker drum solo reminiscent of Toad, except it’s much shorter! 🙂

While Baker made a name for himself in The Graham Bond Organisation, it was his affiliation with next band that cemented his status as a legendary drummer: Cream. Most of the band’s orginal songs were written by Bruce and Eric Clapton. Between the two, they typically also handled vocals. But here is one Cream tune that not only was soley written by Baker but also sung by him: Blue Condition. The song appeared on their second studio album Disraeli Gears from May 1967.

Following the break-up of Cream and Baker’s participation in the short-lived Blind Faith, he founded jazz rock fusion group Ginger Baker’s Air Force. Apart from Baker, the supergroup’s initial formidable lineup included Steve Winwood (organ, vocals), Ric Grech (violin, bass), Jeanette Jacobs (vocals), Denny Laine (guitar, vocals), Chris Wood (tenor saxophone, flute), Graham Bond (alto saxophone), Harold McNair (tenor saxophone), Remi Kabaka (percussion), Alan White (drums) and jazz drummer Phil Seamen with whom Baker had taken lessons in the early ’60s. Here is Do What You Like, a tune Baker originally had written for Blind Faith, featuring Steve Winwood on lead vocals. It appeared on Air Force’s eponymous debut from March 1970, a live recording of a show at the Royal Albert Hall from January 15, 1970.

Just like Baker’s other music ventures, Air Force was short-lived, lasting only for a couple of years. In November 1971, he decided to move to Lagos, Nigeria where he set up a recording studio. It operated through the ’70s. One of the albums produced there was Band On The Run by Paul McCartney and Wings. In addition to putting out various solo albums during that time, Baker worked with Nigerian multi-instrumentalist and composer Fela Kuti, a pioneer of the Afrobeat music genre. One of these albums, Stratavarious, appeared in 1972 and included a track written by Kuti called Tiwa (It’s Our Own).

In 1974, Baker teamed up with brothers Adrian Gurvitz (guitar, vocals) and Paul Gurvitz (bass, vocals) to form Baker Gurvitz Army. Here is the title track and a Baker composition from the band’s third and last album Hearts On Fire, which was released in 1976.

After the demise of his recording studio in Nigeria, Baker relocated to Italy in the early 1980s. In 1987, he released African Force, a jazz fusion album. Here’s the opener Brain Damage, which was co-written by Baker and Jan Kazda.

In 1993, Baker teamed up with Bruce (amazing how often these two guys kept reuniting, despite all their bad past fights) and guitarist Gary Moore to form BBM (Bruce, Baker, Moore). Predictably, the power trio didn’t last long either, but they managed to release one album, Around The Next Dream. Here is Why Does Love (Have To Go Wrong?), which is credited to all three musicians.

The last track I’d like to highlight is from Baker’s final studio album Why?, another jazz  record that appeared in May 2014. It was his first solo record in 16 years. Here is Cyril Davis written by Baker. Other musicians on the album included Pee Wee Ellis (saxophone), Alec Dankworth (bass) and Abass Dodoo (percussion).

This post would be incomplete without a few thoughts from other music artists. Mick Jagger called Baker “a fiery but extremely talented drummer.” Recalling his work on the Band On The Run album in Baker’s studio in Nigeria, Paul McCartney characterized him as a “great drummer, wild and lovely guy.” Steven Van Zandt noted “Baker was one of the greatest drummers of all time” and recommended the album Disraeli Gears to those unfamiliar with him.

There were also some heartfelt words from Baker’s son Kofi Baker, the drummer in Cream tribute band Music Of Cream: “The other day, I had a beautiful visit with my dad…we talked about memories and music and he’s happy I’m keeping his legacy alive. Our relationship was mended and he was in a pieceful place.”

Sources: Wikipedia; CNN; Rolling Stone; Jazz.fm91; YouTube

 

 

At 76 Paul McCartney Remains Full of Energy and A True Inspiration

Macca recently released his 18th solo album Egypt Station and is gearing up for new international tour

Paul McCartney has been pretty busy since June, promoting his new solo album and upcoming Freshen Up Tour. Things peaked with the release of Egypt Station last Friday and a ‘secret’ concert that evening at New York City’s Grand Central Station, which was live-streamed on his YouTube channel.

It all started with the June 10 reboot of Macca’s Instagram page and the subsequent posting of photos over the following days, showing music gear (some with, others without him) and cryptic symbols, clearly suggesting something was up. The title Egypt Station was revealed on Facebook on June 18, Macca’s 76th birthday. The next day saw the official announcement of the first two tracks to be released as a double-A single on June 20. That day, the album’s September 7th release date was unveiled.

On July 3rd, the first dates for the Freshen Up Tour in Canada were announced. Numerous additional dates have since been revealed, including in Europe, Japan and the U.S. The latter concerts start in May 2019. Leading up to the album’s launch, Macca also appeared on Howard Stern and The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon last Wednesday and Thursday, respectively. Calling all of this an elaborate PR campaign is an understatement!

Paul McCartney on Jimmy Fallon

Egypt Station shares its title with one of Macca’s paintings. In a June 20 announcement, he said, “I liked the words ‘Egypt Station.’ It reminded me of the ‘album’ albums we used to make… ‘Egypt Station’ starts off at the station on the first song and then each song is like a different station. So it gave us some idea to base all the songs around that. I think of it as a dream location that the music emanates from.”

Macca’s productivity and energy is remarkable. Egypt Station is his first full album since New from October 2013. In addition to these two pop records, Macca has released two other very different types of records over the past 10 years: his fifth classical album Ocean’s Kingdom (October 2011) and Electric Arguments (November 2008), his third experimental record with The Fireman, a duo he formed in the early ’90s with English record producer and musician Martin Glover, artistically known as Youth. There is also Macca’s collaboration with Kanye West and Rihanna, which resulted in the single FourFiveSeconds in January 2015. Oh, and in-between all these activities, he has been touring frequently.

Paul McCartney_Egypt Station

I managed to write five paragraphs without saying a bloody word about the new record. So what’s the verdict? While I prefer Macca’s 1973 Wings album Band On The Run and his fourth solo release Tug Of War from 1982 and his voice is showing some signs of aging, I am impressed with Egypt Station – of course, as a huge Beatles fan, this is a completely unbiased statement!😀

One of the things I find remarkable about the record is the variety of material ranging from piano-driven ballads, acoustic guitar-focused songs, some pop rockers to even some ambient music. In addition, two of the tunes clock in well over six minutes. One has distinct parts a la Band On The Run, while the second track is a suite of three songs, a concept reminiscent of Abbey Road. Time for some clips!

Here’s the first track Opening Station, an ambient instrumental. All except two tracks on Egypt Station were written by Macca. “When we decided we were gonna call the album ‘Egypt Station’, I liked the idea of making a montage of sounds that were sort of like a station,” he explains in an audio clip on his website. “So we found one station, then we added another to it – the sound effects of real stations. And then we started to add some noises we made up to make it like a dreamscape, so the idea being this kind of dream location, which where all this music was gonna emanate from.”

Immediately following Opening Station it’s on to signature McCartney with the piano-driven I Don’t Know, one of the tracks that also appeared separately ahead of the album.  It’s about people having a difficult day, wondering what it is they’re doing wrong. Notes Macca: “Sometimes that’s a good way to write a song, ’cause you’re coming from your soul. We often used to say that writing a song was like talking to a psychiatrist or therapist or something, ’cause you’re saying it, but you’re saying it in a song rather than in a room to a specialist.”

Happy With You is one of the album’s acoustic guitar-focused songs. Noting there were days when he had a lot of free time and would lay around doing nothing and getting “a bit stoned,” Macca explains, “It’s a song about growing up. There’s a period in your life, in some people’s lives, when they’re not being as productive or not being as organized or disciplined as they may later turn out to be.”

One of the rock-oriented songs on the album is Who Cares. Macca says he basically wrote the tune to show compassion to younger people all over the world who get picked on by others.

Things get political without naming names on Despite Repeated Warnings, which Macca co-wrote with OneRepublic lead vocalist Ryan Tedder. “I thought I’ll do a kind of song where I use symbolism,” Mecca points out. “And so the person that is symbolic of certain politicians or people who argue climate change is a hoax, and we know a few…So I thought, ‘okay, it’s a sea captain’, and he’s steering the boat, and he’s gonna go towards the iceberg. But he’s been warned, but he’s going, ’cause he thinks he’s right, and he thinks they’re all making to much of it and the usual arguments.” The 6:57-minute song has various distinct parts and, as such, is a bit reminiscent of Band On The Run.

The last track I’d like to call out is a 6:22-minute three-song suite that closes the album: Hunt You Down/Naked/C-Link. It starts with a rocker, Hunt You Down, links to another “simple song” called Naked, and finally blends into to C-Link, a bluesy instrumental featuring Macca on electric guitar. About the latter he notes, “it’s just me really enjoying playing electric guitar…people often say, ‘why do you still do it?’ I say, ‘coz I love it, I love this thing.’ And I’m still thrilled with having the privilege of being able to go up to an amp, turn it on, get my guitar, plug it in, and play it very loud. Just, it’s a thrill, you know, and it’s never stopped being a thrill…” This commentary very much feels like it comes from Macca’s heart. You can also feel it when you see him during live performances!

Egypt Station appears on Capitol Records and was mostly produced by Greg Kurstin, who has worked with artists like Beck, Kelly Clarkson, Pink and Foo Fighters. Two tracks, Fuh You and bonus track Nothing For Free, were co-produced by Tedder  and  Zach Skelton.  In addition to OneRepublic, Tedder has written and produced for U2, AdeleBeyoncé, Maroon 5, Taylor Swift and many other “hot” contemporary artists. Fortunately, Egypt Station’s sound isn’t too contemporary!

Paul McCartney Freshen Up Tour Banner

Macca’s  Freshen Up Tour kicks off on September 17 in Québec City, followed by shows in Montréal (September 20), Winnipeg (September 28) and Edmonton (September 30), before leading to Japan in late October and Europe thereafter. Currently announced U.S. dates start in New Orleans on May 23, 2019, and also include Raleigh, N.C. (May 27); Greenville, SC (May 30); and Lexington, Ky. (June 1), among others. This year, Macca is also scheduled to perform at Austin City Limits on October 5 and 12.

It’s safe to assume additional U.S. dates will be announced. I’ve been fortunate to see Paul McCartney live twice. Both shows were fantastic and will always stay in my memory. If his Freshen Up Tour comes within reasonable driving distance from my house, I will likely see him a third time!

Sources: Wikipedia, Paul McCartney website and Facebook page, YouTube