Category Archives: Ginger Baker

Ginger Baker Discography

“How awesome is that? They wanted to not need me so bad they murdered three innocent heroes of color, and they still had to bring me back.” – Rick Sanchez.

Ginger Baker is one of the greatest rock drummers of the 20th century. Unfortunately, he’s also one of that century’s more prickly personalities. And so every Ginger Baker project seems to be a promising venture that crashes on the rocks of conflict sooner or later.

Baker and future collaborator Jack Bruce played together in the short-lived, brilliant Graham Bond Organization. Despite the bad blood between the pair (Baker once threatened Bruce with a knife), they reunited for Baker’s collaboration with Eric Clapton, Cream. Over the next few years, Cream would redefine the rock landcsape with a powerful mix of blues and psychedelic/progressive rock. Clapton and Baker influenced countless musicians in coming generations, and it could be said that Baker double-handedly (and double-footedly) elevated the drums to new heights during his time at the center of Cream.

After Cream broke up, Baker and Clapton recruited Steve Winwood (from the highly popular Traffic) and bassist Rick Grech for a new “supergroup” called Blind Faith. Eagerly anticipated, the band’s first album proved to be its last when Clapton left the Faith to follow Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett. Baker assembled a new and bigger band with the remaining faithful, Ginger Baker’s Air Force, and released two albums that represent some of the earliest (and most effective) attempts to fuse Western jazz and rock with African music.

After the Air Force, Baker entered a sort of self-imposed exile in Africa where he explored his interest in African rhythms more deeply and discovered a(n expensive) passion for polo horses. Since then, the career of Ginger Baker has been a series of one-off alliances (the briefly stable Baker Gurvitz Army notwithstanding) interspersed with the occasional Cream reunion, or rumor of the same.

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Blind Faith (1969)

Kronomyth 1.0: TREAM TEAM. For years, I saw this album as something of a disappointment. It sounded like Led Zeppelin with a timid folk singer. In truth, Blind Faith sounds a lot like Cream and Traffic, with one caveat: if these songs had been recorded by Cream or Traffic (in its Barleycorn incarnation), they would have sounded better. I like this album but have always felt it was an overrated asterisk. The opening “Had To Cry Today” lays it on the line; Winwood wrote it, but Jack Bruce should be singing it. Conversely, “Can’t Find My Way Home” would have worked better on Barleycorn with Chris Wood (though Baker does an admirable job of playing the drums on a song that doesn’t require them). The main pleasure I get from this record is hearing Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood play on music that matters. “Presence of the Lord,” “Sea of Joy,” “Had To Cry Today” and “Can’t Find My Way Home” belong with the best songs of Winwood and Clapton. Of course, Clapton fans will find as much (or more) to get excited about in Derek & The Dominoes. Blind Faith has been reissued about a billion times, usually with the controversial model cover, honored with a Mobile Fidelity remaster, expanded with a couple of post-session recordings (“Exchange and Mart,” “Spending All My Days”) and given a double-disc Deluxe Edition treatment that includes an electric version of “Can’t Find My Way Home,” two versions of Sam Myers’ “Sleeping In The Ground” and a bunch of instrumental jams (most of them recorded before Grech joined) that aren’t likely to increase your faith one iota. Given the dearth of classic Cream and Traffic recordings, you can’t turn a blind eye to Blind Faith, but I’d leave the Deluxe Edition to the deluded and settle on one of the single-disc remasters.

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Ginger Baker’s Air Force (1970)

Kronomyth 1.0: BAKER’S DOZEN. “During this set we’re going to do a few very, very strange numbers.” So begins one of the more interesting chapters in the storied career of Ginger Baker. At the end of 1969, with no future in sight for Blind Faith following Eric Clapton’s departure, Baker conscripted Steve Winwood and Rick Grech for his next project, a 10-piece jam band featuring Denny Laine, Graham Bond and Chris Wood. The group rehearsed new material plus some of Baker’s bits (“Toad,” “Do What You Like”) and mounted a brief tour, including a sold-out concert at the Royal Albert Hall. That show became the basis for Ginger Baker’s Air Force, a weighty and unwieldy double album with a vertically challenged cover and only eight songs, more than half of which clocked in at over 10 minutes. Surprisingly (or perhaps not, given the state of Creamania), the record entered the US and UK Top 40 and even generated a single in Laine’s “Man of Constant Sorrow.” In many ways, Ginger Baker’s Air Force is the quintessential expression of Baker’s muse, mixing rock, jazz and African music in a combustible live setting that covers its sins with showmanship. Given how much Baker was able to achieve in a trio setting, a ten-piece band might seem like overkill. And, of course, it is. That’s the whole idea, really. Baker wanted to play the sh*t out of these songs, and he does. Listening to these versions of “Toad” and “Do What You Like,” Baker’s excessive epics make perfect sense. They were designed as full sonic immersion experiences to be heard long, loud and live. Creation is a messy process, and Ginger Baker’s Air Force is a mess, yes, but also mesmerizing. Far more fun than any of Traffic’s live albums, at any rate.

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Ginger Baker’s Air Force 2 (1970)

Kronomyth 2.0: HORNY TOAD. Ginger Baker and Graham Bond released a second Air Force album, drafting some new members along the way but otherwise sticking to the flight plan of the first. Ginger Baker’s Air Force 2 features original members Denny Laine, Rick Grech and Harold McNair on a few tracks, including a cover of The Staple Singers’ “Let Me Ride” and the old Cream song, “Sweet Wine.” Although it was recorded in a studio, Ginger Baker’s Air Force 2 retains the same sweaty charisma as the first and feels like a live-in-the-studio production. Baker and Bond expanded the horn section for this album, adding Bud Beadle and Steve Gregory, which gives the record a jazzier tone. It’s an interesting hybrid: African percussions, jazz/soul horns, female lead singers, rock structures (most of the songs clock in around four minutes) and even a pop single of sorts in Denny Laine’s version of “I Don’t Want To Go On Without You.” Highlights include the bizarre “We Free Kings,” the unexpectedly wise “Do U No Hu Yor Phrendz R” and two blistering Bond performances, “Let Me Ride” and “12 Gates of the City.” Cream fans will also spot the familiar-looking “Toady,” which includes (surprise!) a drum solo from Baker. Despite the lineup changes, the two Air Force albums are of a piece; if you enjoy the one, you’ll like the other. Unfortunately, the album wasn’t promoted as well as the first, and the Air Force disbanded soon after. (You’re seeing a pattern here, aren’t you?) Also, the second album is short on material; strange, since the group recorded a lot of additional material, which turned up on international releases of Ginger Baker’s Air Force 2. I think they’ve since reconciled the songs on an expanded compact disc reissue; if not, someone really should, since the Air Force records are some of Baker’s tastiest experiments.

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Fela Kuti: Fela’s London Scene (1971)

Kronomyth 1.0: I FELA GOOD. Fela had studied music at Trinity College in London and, more than a decade later, returned to the scene of the crime to record an album in the legendary Abbey Road Studios. Fela’s London Scene is one of the earliest recorded examples of Fela’s groovy Afro beat: a hypnotic and pulsating mass of rhythm, guitar and horns with Fela’s taunting vocals and explosive Hammond organ atop it all. Fela’s music is an unusual act of assimilation, absorbing the music of James Brown and Miles Davis and transplanting it in native African soil. There are certainly elements of jazz in the horn arrangements, a heavy dose of R&B/soul in the electric instrumentation and a deep debt to African music in the polyrhythms, chord changes and pidgin English. This is really Fela’s scene; no one else was making music like this in 1971. Recorded in the studio but presented as a live performance, warts and all, Fela’s London Scene gets off to a great start with the opening “J’Ehin-J’Ehin.” Changing the flow in midstream, Kuti shows himself to be a musical manipulator on a par with Miles, directing monumental shifts in sound with a mere touch. “E Gbe Mi O,” which is said to feature an uncredited Ginger Baker on drums (don’t bother, you can barely hear him) is the album’s highlight and includes a sublime chorus at the end that any jazz composer would envy. The remaining tracks ply the same afrobeat style, punctuated by solos from the sax and organ. Interestingly, Kuti approaches the organ as a horn, combining clusters of notes in short bursts and often battling the melody in direct confrontation. “Buy Africa” and “Fight To Finish” close the record out with calls for political/social change, all against a powerful backdrop of groovy beats and killer horns. Fela’s music has a vitality, energy and purpose unique in the annals of history. Fela’s London Scene is an auspicious start, although the consistency and frequency of his output doesn’t lend itself to touting one album over another. This and the subsequent live record (featuring Baker in a bigger role) are of a piece, although Fela fans may find Baker an unnecessary distraction.

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Fela Ransome Kuti and The Africa ’70 with Ginger Baker: Live! (1971)

I have optimistically thirty years of lucidity left and, should I write a review a day while factoring for holidays and the creative aridity common to all genius (tic), might with the favorable winds of fortune arrive at the round number of 10,000. Among that horde will inevitably be the unworthy, unloved and ill conceived, but the true artist takes inspiration where he (or she) finds it, and I lie helplessly supine to the persistent overtures of art. I write “persistent” because it is a type of nervous gnawing that goads me into writing about music. Take this live album from Fela Ransome Kuti featuring Ginger Baker for example. For years, its very existence has been a small stone in my comfortable walk with the Cream drummer. Why would Baker lend his rock gravitas to this outlaw king of afrobeat who few had heard of in the west? One might take from it that Baker had resigned himself to the role of an ambassador-for-hire, but Baker, history tells us, has never sold out to anything but his own convictions (and the inevitable demons that arrive on the coattails of conviction). The subsequent Stratavarious suggests it was instead part of an exchange program between the two stars (and the absence of titular reciprocity speaks volumes to Kuti’s presence in the west). The mercurial Baker might well have been the white elephant in the room, but he had come to Africa as an observer, not a conqueror. The image I have in my head of the two men is from the film, The Man Who Would King. Kuti, with his political delusions of grandeur, and Baker in self-imposed exile, tried and ultimately failed to create their own islands, finding that even the best fences ultimately fail to guard us against reality. But at this moment, in this place, they are kings. That said, Live! is Kuti’s show. Baker is simply the honored guest, the famous observer. It is Kuti and the Afrika ’70 band who create the music with their deep polyrhythms and sensual afrobeat sounds. Baker’s presence is most keenly felt during a distinctly western drum solo on “Ye Ye De Smell.” [A subsequent CD remaster adds 16 minutes of titans (Baker and Tony Allen) at play with thunder that dates from 1978.] The focal point remains Kuti with his virile vocals (a mix of African and English) and organ solos. The music is a mass of elastic energy that expands and contracts around an axis of rhythm and melody. I can tell you that, after listening to this, I was quick to acquire more of Kuti’s music (ah, cross-marketing, you curvaceous siren). I had, after all, missed the afrobeat movement in the 70s, and only experienced it through the filter of western artists (e.g., Talking Heads) and labels (Osibisa, Edikanfo). Now, you may pity me my paucity of knowledge for an entire continent of music, or marvel at my audacity to expose said paucity. This album was likely an entrée for many into the dark and lurid landscapes of afrobeat, noting that contemporary western jazz and funk would soon assimilate elements of it into their own dialogues. The effect of hearing this with western ears, I imagine, is not unlike the African response to hearing the music of James Brown. Both Brown and Kuti are magnetic, larger-than-life presences whose songs have clear overtones of sexuality and social activism. It is, after all, a man’s man’s man’s world, which is well and fine if you’re the Man, but not so fine if you’re intent on fighting him.

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Fela & The Africa 70 with Ginger Baker: Why Black Men Dey Suffer (1971)

Kronomyth 3.0: WHAT WILL BE THE SACRED WORD? There’s a poem by Amiri Baraka, “Ka’Ba,” that closes with the lines “We need magic now we need the spells, to raise up, return, destroy and create. What will be the sacred word?” In a sense, Baraka and Fela Kuti were looking for the same thing. The title track, “Why Black Men Dey Suffer,” is more than a cogent argument for the African condition set to music. It’s a magic spell of sorts, designed to cure African nation-states of a centuries old malaise that has taken the form of slavery and colonialism while erasing the culture and even the co-fraternity of Africans. The song begins as a military march of drums joined by percussion, guitar, bass and electric piano, shifting the rhythm as new instruments are added until it morphs into a kind of religious chant that Kuti refers to as a kanginni koko. From that point on, Kuti assumes the role of a cantor/griot, recounting the history of African suppression from abroad and calling for a unified Africa. As his most overtly political song to date, “Why Black Men Dey Suffer” was a rallying cry for African independence, both in thought and art. The result is a powerful message wrapped in a mesmerizing groove. The album’s other song, “Ikoyi Mentality Versus Mushin Mentality,” takes more provincial aim by using Lagos’ rich (Ikoyi) and poor (Mushin) neighborhoods as proxies for a broader discussion on class distinction. Here again, the music is a single, massive groove that Kuti uses effectively to stage his message. Why Black Men They Suffer became a kind of template for subsequent albums from Fela Kuti and Africa 70, which arrived with surprising frequency and were structured more like extended singles with one long song on each side. As with several of the 70s records, Ginger Baker makes a guest appearance, although I couldn’t tell you if he was filling in for Tony Allen or playing alongside him.

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The Baker Gurvitz Army (1975)

Kronomyth 1.0: Tales From Toadagraphic Oceans. Baker, the mad beserker, and a pair of hired Guns (the Brothers Gurvitz) storm through seven songs of hard/progressive rock (and one unfortunate ballad), for which the world is (mostly) a better place, if only for forty minutes. Not so much different from what the original Three Man Army set out to do, I suppose, except that Baker’s neverending battle against boredom produces interesting results such as the drum solo on “Memory Lane” or “Mad Jack” (another of Ginger’s odd tales). If pressed for a list of the 70s better guitarists, few of us would find “Adrian Gurvitz” ready on the lips, largely, it appears, because of underexposure in bands like this. He is, in fact, a smart and succinct rock guitarist, a more-than-serviceable vocalist and a songwriter of no small merit. “Help Me,” “Inside of Me” and “Since Beginning” (itself a worthy citizen of Yes’ Topographic Oceans) are as good as anything that the mid Seventies progressive movement produced (with the caveat that many progressive bands were moving to the melodic, short-form fringes of rock at that point in time). Many of Ginger Baker’s experiments were better than they were given credit for, and while time has forgotten The Baker Gurvitz Army, you don’t need to slavishly follow time and its preening ways as it courts the fickle present. Instead, go behind time’s back and dig this one out of the past; it’s worth the effort, particularly if you’re partial to hard/progressive acts (e.g., Uriah Heep, Rainbow).

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Baker Gurvitz Army: Elysian Encounter (1975)

Kronomyth 2.0: Close Encounters of the Tired Kind. You knew that Adrian Gurvitz had a brother, Paul, but who knew he had a clone? How else to explain the release of two Baker Gurvitz Army albums in one year and two Adrian Gurvitz albums (Elysian Encounter, Kick Your Muddy Boots Off) in one month? For their second album, Baker Gurvitz Army recruited a keyboard player (Peter Lemer) and a new lead vocalist (Steve Parsons, a.k.a. Mr. Snips), although the results weren’t appreciably richer than their first. In fact, I’m less enamored of their followup, as the prog label has clearly worn off and what remains is a ‘70s hard rock act with slight sci-fi/fantasy undertones and a great drummer. Prog fans will enjoy “The Artist,” which sounds like it could have stepped right from Steve Howe’s Beginnings, but the scent of prog is otherwise undetectable on here. Also, while I’m whining, I prefer Adrian’s voice to Mr. Snips. I’m not sure what the band felt they gained with the change, although maybe they were trying to lighten the load on the overburdened Adrian. Lemer is a good addition, but underused; a few more solos like the one featured on “Remember” would have been welcome. Elysian Encounter does showcase the drumming of Ginger Baker and the guitar playing of Adrian Gurvitz which, at this stage, are the band’s main draws. The material is good enough, but the answer to life’s mysteries do not await on “The Gambler,” “The Hustler” or “The Key.” Too bad, since their debut was promising and this album comes charging out of the gates, but it’s unrealistic to expect anyone, even Adrian Gurvitz, to have three great albums in them in one year. [The Esoteric reissue includes live versions of “People,” which gets an extended jam section in the middle that should appeal to proggers, and Jimi Hendrix’ “Freedom.”]

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Baker Gurvitz Army: Hearts On Fire (1976)

“Hearts On Fire is certainly the strongest, straight-between-the-eyes album of rock music to come along in the 70’s.” – New Musical Express full-page ad purchased by UK distributor, Mountain Records.

The Army’s label, Mountain Records, pulled out all the stops for the band’s third album: an outside producer (Eddie Offord), a small army of side musicians and multiple ads in the New Musical Express. While one can appreciate the record label’s enthusiasm to recoup their investment, I’m pretty certain that no one actually ever uttered the above quote, unless it was in the context of “We’re going to sack you unless Hearts On Fire is certainly the strongest, straight-between-the-eyes album of rock music to come along in the 70’s.” Now, my snide comments forty years on aren’t going to change history. The fate of Baker Gurvitz Army has already been decided, and nothing I can say or do will change that one whit. I might validate your own experience of Hearts On Fire, perhaps rekindle your interest in it, but I’m completely powerless to change the past. And it is a matter of historical fact that the band went out in a blaze of apathy and acrimony. Shortly after the album’s release, their manager (Bill Fehilly, who was also managing Nazareth at the time) died in a plane crash, providing the catalyst for the Army’s disbandment, noting that no one (apparently) was ever sorry to see the back of Baker. The last will and testament of Baker Gurvitz Army is mostly a testament to the talent of Adrian Gurvitz; he writes the lion’s share of the songs and lights it up with his guitar on the opening two tracks, “Hearts On Fire” and “Neon Lights.” Baker is largely AWOL on Hearts, although his brilliance reappears briefly on “Night People.”  The knock on this record, other than Baker’s absence, is its arbitrary nature. The band tries their hand at hard rock (“Flying In And Out of Stardom”), orchestrated ballads (“Tracks of My Life”), disco (“Dancing The Night Away”) and the blues (“Thirsty For The Blues”). Sometimes they sound like The Who (“My Mind Is Healing”), at other times like Peter Frampton (“Smiling”); maybe the band should have gotten their story straight before attempting a “straight-between-the-eyes album of rock music.” The tragedy here isn’t the end of the Baker Gurvitz Army, since Ginger Baker bands spoil faster than potato salad in the sun, but that Adrian Gurvitz wasn’t able to parlay his stint in the Army into something bigger.

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