Sunday, March 25, 2012

Beware of Mr. Baker

One of the best music documentaries ever made about one of the best drummers of all time, Ginger Baker!

A confession before proceeding: I have toured and recorded with Mr. Baker and love him dearly. He is, as Eric Clapton says, " a loveable rogue."

Beware of Mr. Baker honestly presents Ginger in all his glory and tragedy sometimes at the expense of filmmaker Jay Bulger's pride and self-esteem. Make sure to let the end credits roll to catch a choice selection of Ginger's caustic insults to Jay which comes across as quite humourous rather than mean-spirited. However, you won't have to wait that long to get the idea and why to "Beware." First thing you see in the film is Ginger hollering at the top of his lungs then clobbering Jay on the nose with his metal cane. That Bulger or his cameraperson had the good sense to turn on the camera in the heat of the moment and catch the exchange with an interestingly disorientating camera angle indicates serendipitous good fortune; sometimes called a "god shot" - an unpremeditated random chance capture of a defining moment.  It seems likely that Bulger goaded Baker into this and deserved what he got, sacrificing his nose for the sake of art.

Some things I didn't know about Ginger before seeing this doc:

Cream was Ginger's band. He put it together. He called Eric Clapton then decided to hire Jack Bruce despite having fisticuffed and fired him from the Graham Bond Organization. Music won out over personal friction, at least for two years.

I didn't know that Ginger had instigated "drum battles" with such heavyweight jazz drummers as Elvin Jones and Art Blakely. There's a snippet of some incredible footage showing what that was about. Unlike political or military battles, these drum battles would take both participants to a higher level of musicianship concluding with the two "combatees" becoming life-long friends out of mutual respect and morphological kinship.

I wasn't aware that Ginger suggested slowing down and reversing a Jack Bruce riff which became one of Cream's most popular songs, Sunshine of Your Love. He also turned White Room into a 5/4 bolero. Bruce composed it in 4/4 time.

I knew that Bill Laswell went to Italy to pull him out of retirement but didn't know that the trip was instigated by Mr. Mouth himself, the incorrigible Johnny Rotten. John Lydon, in his Johnny Rotten persona, introduces and closes the film. Rotten gives a very sweet testimonial to Ginger in both his brief appearances. Lydon really earned my respect with what he says.

It's interesting how Baker views things in terms of time. He was attracted to his first wife by watching her dance - "she had time," he says. He chose Eric Clapton to play guitar in his new super-group because he had time. He hits it off musically with Stevie Winwood at the first Blind Faith rehearsal for the same reason - Stevie has time.

You get some idea with this preview:

Jay Bulger says that one of his favorite comments from Ginger comes when asked to compare himself with John Bonham and Keith Moon. Ginger chuckles and says, "if they were alive you could ask them."

Baker spent much of his musical life in a quest to further the knowledge and understanding of his craft, what drumming is all about. A question from Jay highlights this aspect:

"So here you are at the height of your career, you battle all the greatest drummers, you became a bandleader ... and you decide to go to Africa?"

Baker drove across the Sahara, filmed it, and finally ended up in Nigeria after a visit to a master drummer in Ghana. He stayed in Nigeria for about 7 years, reconnected with his friend Fela Kuti and built a recording studio. He left Africa when he saw some thugs from a political faction he had offended drive up to his recording studio. He dove out the window and jumped in his land rover while hearing the sounds of bullets ricocheting and whizzing past - he tells this story in the film. Another great moment in Beware... juxtaposes footage showing the violent chaos and unrest in Nigeria in the '70s against Ginger saying what a great place it was at that time.

My only criticism of Beware of Mr. Baker is that they left out some of his best work, the albums and concerts he did with Bill Laswell. It's mentioned that Bill went to Italy to find Ginger but leaves out that he brought him back to play on one of the more classic post-punk records, Public Image Limited's Album at The Power Station with Jason Corsaro engineering and mixing. Bill assembled all the musicians which, besides Ginger, also included Tony Williams and Steve Vai.

Next Laswell and cohorts made the greatly underrated Horses and Trees album with Baker. One reviewer wrote:

The drumming is controlled while still revealing definite flashes of the deftness and intuition that has kept Baker such a compelling drummer all these years. Each track is enhanced by backing musicians of the finest calibre, all wrapped up in a beautiful clear mix that works particularly well with percussion, highlighting crystalline cymbals, thundering toms and a crisp, bright snare. The drums sound immaculate. So does nearly everything else on this CD

One of my first sessions engineering for Bill Laswell involved doing 2" tape edits on Ginger's drumming. I was pretty nervous because I had minimal experience with multitrack tape editing at that time and Ginger's drumming wasn't the easiest to follow. This album became Middle Passage, one of my all time favorites. It has a strong North African feel. A reviewer wrote:

Awesome mixture of exotic acoustic and electric elements, rhythms and tonalities. Ginger Baker is a world traveler and this has heavy leanings to African themes but Bill Laswell's production brings it out of the village into the studio, but just barely.
The drumming and percussion throughout the album goes beyond the boundries of both rock and world music. Bass duties are handled by Laswell and Jah Wobble, often both on the same track...

I got to accompany Bill, Ginger and Nicky Skopelitis out to Martin Bisi's studio in Brooklyn when they tracked Ginger's drums for one of Middle Passage pieces. The room Martin had his drums in sounded incredible, basically a large stone bathroom no longer in use. That's a big reason the drums sound as huge as they do. I was reading Tape Op the other day and they asked a producer what his "go-to" pieces of gear were for a great drum sound. He answered, "A good drummer, a good set of drums, and a good room. I couldn't agree more.

Ginger only played one or two takes. He played solo, no click track (ie a metronome) to play off of. He doesn't need it, he has time. In fact the third track is called Time Be Time. This album was put together this way - Ginger laying down drum parts with Bill arranging everything else on top of them. The melodies were composed mostly by Bill and Nicky though Jah Wobble has a writing credit on two of the six pieces.

I recorded some of the overdubs at Platinum Island - Nicky's guitars, Aiyb Dieng's percussion, and Bill playing the Eventide H910 Harmonizer on the snare drum in Under Black Skies to create a springy metallic texture through a combination of excessive feedback and abrupt pitch-shifting - one of his trademark techniques for audio mutation. I also assisted with the mixing which I wrote about here.

I hardly saw Ginger during the making of Middle Passage but did get to know him better later when I mixed the Ginger Baker Band that toured Japan in the summer of '91. It was a band Bill put together with himself playing bass, Ginger, Foday Musa Suso on electrified kora, dousongoni, and vocals, and Anton Fier playing a Fairlight synthesizer.

Here's a clip of the band with a live mix - pretty good angle to see Ginger's playing at around 3:30:

We also recorded an album at Toshinori Kondo's Metal Box studio in the suburbs of Tokyo. It was called The Map Is Not The Territory and they called the "artist" Autonomous Zone because it was a unique collaborative zone of musicians as opposed to a band or group with set members. You can find out the players who entered this zone here.

I never had any issues with Ginger about the drum sound. He played them and I recorded them. The only thing he said once during a playback was that he liked the sound but that the 2nd bass drum needed to be turned up in the balance. Of course he was right. Also remember that we were delayed a bit because he wouldn't play until he smoked some grass or hash. He felt he was at his best after a couple of puffs of herb. It being Japan, this wasn't readily available. At that point, these were the only drugs Ginger was imbibing apart from the occasional drink and his beloved English tea.

The first track on The Map Is Not the Territory is called Invoke probably because that's what they did. You can listen to it:

Next year Bill brought Ginger Baker back to Japan with one of the best versions of Material ever. Besides the core of himself, Suso and Ginger, Bill added Aiyb Dieng on percussion, Nicky Skopelitis - guitars, and Bernie Worrell - keys.

The excitement was high after the first Material concert in Tokyo. I remember Ginger praising Aiyb for keeping up with him which he said was quite rare for percussionists. Aiyb was clearly overjoyed to play with a master drummer who brought out his best, and told Ginger so. John Zorn was at that gig - he enjoyed it and also gave some useful feedback on the mix that helped me out for the rest of the tour.

Ginger wasn't having the easiest time in Japan this time. Almost as soon as we arrived he had to get some emergency dental work done that was causing a lot of pain. We also had some down time in Tokyo, days with no scheduled agenda. I took in the local culture but don't think that interested Ginger much. He expressed regret about missing the best part of the polo season - his passion for polo and horses is covered in the documentary. He might have gotten a little bored and frustrated at the slow pace. I remember once getting out of the elevator at the Tokyo Prince Hotel and hearing Ginger's unmistakable voice at full raised volume coming from the lounge at the other end of the huge lobby, " THEY CAN'T MAKE A BLOODY CUP OF TEA IN JAPAN!!!!!

Once the rest of the tour started Ginger seemed ok, to me, until Kyoto. Something happened to him just before the concert, not sure what, but he played as if on fire even more so than usual, and had that mad look in his eyes like you can see in the film where he seems to tune out everything except the drumming invocation. Kyoto has the reputation of being the spiritual center of Japan. It does have an abundance of Zen Monasteries. I suspect one of the omnipresent monks slipped an explosive neuro-transmitter into his food. Whatever happened, it clearly looked like it worked. A couple of months later Bill and I were going through the concert DAT recordings I had made from the board mix to compile what became Material Live in Japan. We listened to all of Ginger's drum solos and picked that one from Kyoto - it sounded above and beyond all the rest.

The next day, he seemed in rough shape so I offered to carry his luggage along with my luggage to the bullet train. Here's an example of their unique sound, note the space migration theme in the title, Leaving Earth:

Visiting E.J. Gold once I happened to mention working with Ginger, and he said he knew him from the L.A. musician's scene in the late'60's. Apparently there was a place called the Psychedelic Supermarket in Los Angeles (not to be confused with the entertainment venue in Boston) where various vendors set-up and sold their wares. Gold sold essential oils and books there. Late night music jams frequently occurred in the basement that attracted top notch players. Clapton was friends with the owner of the Psychedelic Supermarket. I don't know if that's how Ginger found out about it, but he played there too. Gold offered to do a portrait of Ginger playing the drums. While not literally resembling Ginger, I thought it captured the spirit of his muse quite well. I sent it to him. A couple of weeks later I came home to find a fairly lengthy, somewhat rambling phone message expressing appreciation and gratitude for the portrait. It was very nice.

Well I suppose the makers of "Beware of Mr. Baker."can be forgiven for not including all this in their film. Maybe if it comes out on DVD they'll show extras of more of Ginger's work with Bill and co. My only regret with this subject is that I have no idea where one can get or see this film. As mentioned, it just had it's World Premiere at South by South West. No idea if a distributer picked it up or where they're at with that. Maybe someone with the film will read this and let us know.


  1. This is probably the best writing on Ginger Baker I've ever read, or can remember reading. And it REALLY makes me want to see the documentary.

    What a wonderful piece, Oz! Thanks.

  2. Fascinating!

    I have been reading news about this documentary for some time and I want to see it even more now.

    What indignity! To be hot on the nose with a cane!

    I found this description too (but not how to see the film):

    "The film begins in total darkness, and an older English man is screaming at someone. "NO YOU WILL NOT TALK TO THEM! NOT IN MY MOVIE! I DON'T WANT ANY OF THEM IN MY MOVIE!" Then the darkness splits and you realize someone was pressed up against the camera. The person moves back, waving a cane, swinging it with real intent. We get our first look at the Ginger Baker of today, red-faced and furious.

    "Are you really going to try to hit me with that?" someone asks from behind the camera. That only seems to make Baker crazier, and he thrusts with the cane, rewarded with a satisfying crack for his efforts, and he roars, "I'LL SEND YOU TO F**KIN' HOSPITAL!"

    There's a cut, and we see the director of the documentary, Jay Bulger, stagger outside the car, bleeding freely from the gash across the bridge of his nose. "I think Ginger Baker just kicked my ass," he says. BOOM. The main title comes up. "BEWARE OF MR. BAKER." And just like that, you're off and running on a truly hilarious and harrowing look at one of the great monsters of rock, the legendary drummer Ginger Baker. The film manages to make the case for his place in the firmament of musicians who helped shape an era, and it also reveals that time has not dulled his fangs one little bit."

  3. Thank-you, Michael!

    Yeah, great description of the opening, LJ. When you see the doc you can see how Jay Bulger productively dealt with the assault.

  4. I only got to see Cream live once(at Manchester University I think) and not because I went to university, but because some woman convinced me that hitch-hiking from London to Manchester would prove worthwhile, and it did.
    My most memorable moment remains Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton leaving the stage as Ginger's solo kicked in.
    After some minutes, Eric walked in from the wings, cigarette or spliff in hand, guitar around neck, looked at drummer and audience (kinda shrugged) and wandered off again.
    Eventually the three joined back up for a big finish!
    Loved that band.

  5. LOVED the '91 GBB! Wish there was more audio (or video!) of that tour available. Hope to find out where / how to see this documentary.

  6. piikea1 - if I get any info on how to see this doc, I'll post it here.

    Bogus - thanks for this historical eye-witness account!