Ginger Baker Rides Again

Ahead of his Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival gig, the legendary drummer on the demise of Cream, being immune to nerves and Eric Clapton's jazz credentials

Ginger Baker is renowned as one of the most fearsome characters in all of rock music, a man so cantankerous as to make Van Morrison seem like Daniel O’Donnell.

But he’s also almost universally recognised as one of the most exciting and virtuosic drummers ever, whose 1960s work in Cream – with Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce – and in Blind Faith – with Clapton, Traffic’s Steve Winwood and Family’s Rick Grech – staggered audiences and critics alike.

Baker, mind you, is adamant that he isn’t a rock drummer at all. ‘I’ve always been a jazz player,’ he insists. ‘Always have been and always will be.’

Indeed, at the start of his career, Baker often played trad jazz with the likes of Acker Bilk and Terry Lightfoot. Such players, of course, now seem pretty square in comparison to some of the musicians with whom he later worked. ‘I was into modern jazz, but I got gigs in trad bands because that’s what was happening,’ Baker explains.

Baker formed Cream with Bruce and Clapton in 1966. The band became hugely influential, playing with a virtuosity, a power and an improvisational adventurousness that were unprecedented in rock at the time. Tracks like ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’, ‘White Room’ and ‘Crossroads’ are still regarded as rock classics.

Cream split in 1968, Clapton reportedly having become weary of the band’s virtuosic free-for-all and wanting a more cohesive band sound. I mention this to Baker. ‘Did Eric make that statement to you?’ he challenges me, abruptly – and, frankly, terrifyingly.

Tempted as the anarchist in me is to lie and maintain that Clapton had confided this on one of our regular Saturday night pub crawls, I chicken out and admit that I had read it somewhere. ‘Well,’ Baker responds, ‘Eric was influenced by an article in Rolling Stone, which slated his long, boring, cliché-ridden solos and it took him years to get over it because Rolling Stone was his favourite magazine.

'The article,' he adds, 'was by an idiot called Jon Landau, who now manages another idiot called Bruce Springsteen. The headline was [headlined] 'Will Cream's Music Stand the Test of Time?', and the conclusion was it wouldn’t.’

Here Baker allows himself a small, sardonic laugh. ‘That’s probably why Eric made that statement,’ he says, adding with a hint of menace, ‘If he made it.’

After Cream’s demise, Clapton and Baker reunited in Blind Faith in 1969. Asked what he found most satisfying about being a part of that second 'super group', Baker slips into scary mode again.

‘What an extraordinary question,’ he gasps, alarmingly. ‘What satisfied me?’ he adds after several seconds' pause. ‘About being in the band? Well, it wasn’t loud onstage, which was really enjoyable,’ he finally offers.

Blind Faith featured a more song-based style than Cream. One wonders if, like Clapton, Baker had felt ready for this new musical style. ‘Musical style?’ he repeats with utter contempt in his voice. ‘I don’t think about styles. It was just very good music. ‘Sea Of Joy’, ‘Can’t Find My Way Home’, ‘Presence Of The Lord’ and ‘Had To Cry Today’ are all absolute classics, musically.

‘And Stevie Winwood’s a musician. Unlike most rock’n’roll people. Like Eric, he’s got amazing time, and he’s one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. It’s just fun to be around him. He’s a jazzer, like me. Eric is as well, although he denies it. What is improvising on a chord sequence? Jazz music! So Eric’s a jazz player whether he likes it or not.’

Blind Faith only recorded one, self-titled, album, which was regarded as underwhelming at the time but is now more widely appreciated. They also made an absurdly high-profile live debut, playing in front of 100,000 people at a free concert in Hyde Park.

The gig was followed by a massively over-hyped American tour. ‘Was I nervous at Hyde Park?’ says Baker incredulously. ‘No! I’m never nervous. Never, ever. Nerves aren’t part of my life. If you know you can play, why be nervous? And I know I can play.

‘But the American tour was very strange. There was an awful lot of violence, mainly caused by thug-like, Gestapo American police. And none of us saw much of Eric. He went off with [support band] Delaney & Bonnie and was travelling and hanging out with them.

‘At the end of the tour I went on holiday. I got back to England and went to see Stevie and he told me Eric had gone off with Delaney & Bonnie and formed Derek and the Dominoes. And that was it.’

Baker never really achieved that level of commercial success again. Many musicians, however, declare that they prefer playing more intimate rooms, which typically have better sound, so I wonder how Baker felt about playing smaller venues again, after his years of superstardom. 'I beg your pardon,’ he says icily.

I try again. ‘I don’t see what point you’re trying to make,’ he says, with an intimidating edge to his voice. So I try again, and this time he answers: ‘I don’t find much difference how big the place is as long as it’s full. If it’s full, I’m happy.’

In 1971, Baker had the thrill of playing in London with one of his drumming heroes, Elvin Jones, who had played with jazz immortal John Coltrane, in what was billed as a ‘drum battle’. He recalls the event delightedly: ‘The rehearsal was f***ing stupendous, much better than the gig because we both got too f***ing stoned and were out of our brains come the gig.’

Baker increasingly has worked in out-and-out jazz contexts. He formed one exceptional trio in the 1990s with jazz legends Bill Frisell (guitar) and Charlie Haden (bass), for example, and he played in DJQ20, with whom he released wonderful albums like Coward Of The County. ‘That album’s bloody amazing,’ he declares. ‘And we did it in two days. I come from a school, if you don’t get it by Take 3, forget it.

‘There’s something awfully wrong with spending six months in a studio to get an album, which is why I don’t associate with rock’n’roll people. If you’re a drummer and you go to a rehearsal and nobody can read music, you’re sat there with your thumb up your a*se while the guitar players try to figure out what chords they’re playing.

'With a jazz group we just go along, everybody gets their parts out, five minutes – that’s that tune done. Now, what’s the next one? You can do 12 tunes in a rehearsal. And with Bill Frisell and Charlie Haden, we didn’t even rehearse at all.'

From sheer curiosity I ask Baker – who, after all, has played with some of the greatest rock and jazz artists ever – what he listens to these days. His reply is unhesitating: ‘Football and cricket. Or the news. I don’t listen to music at all. Once I’ve heard something, what’s the point of hearing it over and over again?’

Ginger Baker Jazz Confusion play the Festival Marquee, Custom House Square at the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, Belfast on May 7. CQAF runs from May 1 – 11. View the full festival programme.