Nothing happenin…Cat’s got delusions of grandeur with no grounds. They should make him an astronaut and lose his ass! – Jazz great Elvin Jones on Ginger Baker
In an industry teeming with characters, Ginger Baker stood out. Whether it was his trademark red lion’s mane back in the day or his pissed off at the world countenance as seen in the fantastic 2012 documentary Beware of Mr. Baker, one could never rightly suggest he lacked self-confidence or balls or however you want to put it. Baker always considered himself to be a jazz drummer who played in rock bands – although he did consider Cream to be a jazz group – and he aimed to prove that as fact with his post-Blind Faith project Ginger Baker’s Air Force, which combined rock, western jazz, and Afro-jazz influences. Word of Baker’s jazz bravado seeped into the jazz scene.
When a journalist played the lengthy Blind Faith track Do What You Like for jazz great Elvin Jones, a veteran drummer who spent a career as side man for the likes of Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Bud Powell, and perhaps most notably John Coltrane, Jones was not impressed and he made it known. As chatter between the two increased and a “battle” was on the horizon, Jones is alleged to have told an audience at one of his shows that “Baker had better put his drums where his mouth is.”
The great drum-off took place at London’s Lyceum Theatre during the Air Force tour on this day 50 years ago, when Jones joined the ensemble on Aiko Biaye and a thirty-two minute Do What You Like (YouTube link above), trading drum licks with Baker. On the latter track, the soloing begins at roughly the nine-minute mark. When the drums ceased to pound, there were smiles and an embrace. Jazz journalists called it a Jones victory while rock scribes felt Baker more than held his own. Perhaps as much as anything, the “challenge” further cemented the legend of the jazz drummer in the wrong genre where, by the way, Baker was also the greatest – at least in his own mind.
Baker would later challenge another jazz great, Art Blakey, but late in life would scoff at the notion of the events being anything other than duets which took place in the spirit of mutual respect and admiration. Either way, the colliding of two worlds certainly spiced up the music scene.
Note: The following is a slightly edited re-post from a few months back when I was participating in a desert island album draft.
Where to start with George’s 1970 triple album opus, and how to explain concisely why this album means so much to me in a manner that doesn’t make me sound full of myself? If you’re reading this you’re probably a music fan and can, at least to some extent, relate. Despite the fact that I have no clue what it’s like to be musically gifted, internationally famous (never mind an ex-Beatle), a millionaire, etc., if there’s one artist who I think I can relate to as a person, it’s George. I wear my heart on my sleeve like he did, and if I were ever to experience any degree of fame, I’d probably react to it similarly to him. That is to say, “Hari Krishna, now please get off my lawn while I enjoy this piece of cake.” Maybe it’s because I’m a fellow Pisces, I don’t know. And if there’s one album of his which displays his full range of emotions relating to personal relationships and spiritual longing, and is presented in beautifully crafted songs with fantastic musicianship from start to finish, it’s All Things Must Pass, released 50 years ago today.
Due to the limits he faced regarding his songs making it onto Beatles albums, Harrison had been stockpiling them since roughly 1966. After starting 1968 by staying in India longer than the other Beatles, in the fall of that year George spent time with Dylan and The Band at Woodstock, which was perhaps the final nail in the Beatles’ coffin as far as George was concerned. Their influence is all over this solo debut album, which was an artistic and emotional purging for Harrison. There are songs of human love for friends, including the Dylan co-written I’d Have You Anytime, and George’s attempt at coaxing Bob out of his self-imposed exile on Behind That LockedDoor. Apple Scruffs is his humorous love song to his loyal fans who waited daily outside the recording studio, and What is Life is one of a number of George’s uniquely ambiguous love songs over the course of his solo years which leaves it up to the listener to decide if it’s about human or Godly love.
There are songs of lament over friendships on the wane. Wah-Wah was written when George walked out of the Get Back sessions. It’s a double entendre which refers to the guitar effect as well as the headache John and Paul had caused him. Run of the Mill, too, was written out of his sadness over the Beatles’ slow dissolution. Isn’t it a Pity, to me, is the most powerful track on this emotional roller coaster of an album. There are two slightly different versions on the album, and he could’ve added a third one as far as I’m concerned – a rendition for each of the three LPs.
And there are the songs which focus on George’s spiritual journey. The smash hit, of course, was My Sweet Lord, which includes a Vedic chant for which Harrison took heat from Christian fundamentalists for supposedly trying to subliminally indoctrinate America’s youth into heathen Eastern religion. As with his organizing the Concert for Bangladesh a year later, it took nerve (and Phil Spector’s insistence) for him to put this song out as a single, but it paid off. The Art of Dying had its genesis around 1966 when Lennon’s Tomorrow Never Knows was the Tibetan Book of the Dead-influenced song to make the cut on Revolver. To the uninitiated, it can be a dark or disturbing song. It is not. As with The Art of Dying, Awaiting on You All is Harrison encouraging us to wake up to what’s real and eschew that which isn’t. And lastly, after all the madness, fame, and fortune of his Beatles experience left him emotionally and spiritually frayed, there’s George’s bare bones plea in Hear Me Lord. For such a private man, it doesn’t get any more open and sincere than this.
But wait, there’s more! The third album in this set, known as Apple Jam, includes four extended instrumentals and a 49 second Monty Pythonesque ditty with an appearance by good ol’ Mal Evans. The indulgent jams include Dave Mason, Ginger Baker, Gary Wright, Billy Preston, and Derek & the Dominos. I’ve actually read opinions by fans who are put off by inclusion of these tracks, as if they are interspersed throughout the first two records and they’re forced to listen to them. I think of it as the unbuckling of the belt after a big meal. Sometimes I listen to it, sometimes I don’t. Either way, I unapologetically like it.
I could go on about other tracks, the plagiarism lawsuit, other session players, the cover, etc. Wiki’s got that covered if you’d like to read more. I would, however, like to comment briefly on Phil Spector’s production. As with Let it Be, this is the version we grew up with, and I love it just like it is. Perhaps when the deluxe 50th anniversary edition comes out, whenever that might be, it will include alternate versions and demos with toned down production. Some of it is available on bootlegs and YouTube.
I was not frequently absent from school when I was a child. However, when I did miss school because of an illness, I tended to make it count. As in three or four days in a row. Not that I was always sick the entire time. I just didn’t want to go back once I’d settled into a cozy routine of morning cartoons and the afternoon B-movie on the independent channel before the usual after school lineup of reruns. There was a price to pay, however. By the third day or so my mom would return from work having visited my teacher at some point during the day and bestow upon me the dreaded stack of makeup schoolwork. What does that little anecdote have to do with my blog?
Well, I’ve had some spells of absenteeism from this hobby over the past year. But unlike grade school, it really bothers me looking back at the album release 50th anniversaries I’ve missed. It’s as if I’ve disrespected these artists by not celebrating their albums properly. Indeed, it gets a little strange between my ears at times. Anyhoo, looking back at my notes from March and April there are a few albums I’d like to belatedly acknowledge as we move forward over the next month or two (and does anyone really know or care what month it is anymore?). Some titles I’ll address individually, others in clusters. Starting now.
3/23/70 (April 24 U.K.): Leon Russell – Leon Russell
Leon’s solo debut was a classic out of the gate. It contains the oft-covered A Song for You, as well as Delta Lady. He also had a little help on the album from a cast of A-listers including Harrison, Starr, Jagger, Clapton, and too many others to list (see wiki link at the bottom). Leon Russell and the following two albums in this post all represent, in my mind, a shift in rock music around this time whereby artists were breaking free of stylistic constraints. Leon was a prolific songwriter and gifted musician, and like his friends Delaney and Bonnie he blended southern gospel elements, blues, and rock into a unique sound that his English musician friends fit right into.
3/25/70: Jimi Hendrix – Band of Gypsies
Like many of my generation (X) who became Jimi Hendrix fans, it was due to his famous three studio albums augmented by whatever film we could view of the man, either in the Woodstock and Monterey documentaries or on VH1 (remember when VH1 was presented as sort of an MTV for Baby Boomers?). When I explored Jimi’s other commercially available music at the time (early 90’s) it was obvious he had been broadening his musical horizons before his death. Cry of Love and Band of Gypsies were in my collection, but they weren’t played often. It took a few more years and perhaps a little more musical maturity on my part to “get it.” Now I enjoy First Rays of the New Rising Sun (comprising most of the first three posthumous Hendrix releases) and the funk/R&B fused rock of Band of Gypsies as much as any of the original three. If only he’d lived long enough to make that album with Miles Davis.
3/30/70: Ginger Baker’s Air Force – Ginger Baker’s Air Force
And now for something…completely different. On January 15, 1970, Ginger Baker assembled an eclectic group of musicians for a sold-out performance of Afro/jazz/rock fusion at the Royal Albert Hall. Band members included early Baker influences Graham Bond and Phil Seamen, plus Winwood, Gretch, and Wood of Traffic, post-Moody Blues/pre-Wings Denny Laine, and Remi Kabaka, who would also add flavors of Afro-fusion to music by other British music luminaries of the era. Critics, of course, hated the subsequent album, Ginger Baker’s Air Force. They aren’t too fond of albums produced by drummers, as they tend to be heavily, uh, drummer-centric. I find it to be an interesting and listenable album. Unfortunately I’m limited to listens on YouTube, as the CD issue readily available for purchase these days is a vinyl rip, and a poor one at that. (A better quality release from ’98 containing both Air Force albums and a solo Baker album currently goes for $144 on Amazon – no thanks.) One of these days I’ll have my turntable set up again and I’ll find a used vinyl copy. One of these days.
By the time Cream’s finale was released on this day 50 years ago, the group had been disbanded for just under two months. There was nothing sudden about it; it had been announce prior to the release of their previous album, Wheels of Fire, that they would split after a forthcoming farewell tour. As with that previous record, Cream would utilize live recordings mixed with studio tracks on their final release.
The first three tracks on Goodbye were taken from their performance at L.A.’s Forum near the end of that tour in October 1968, while each member contributed a new song to be recorded in the studio to fill out the album. The release spawned one single, Badge, which reached number 18 in the UK and 60 on the US Billboard Hot 100. The song was co-written by L’Angelo Misterioso, a.k.a. George Harrison, who misread Clapton’s writing of the word “bridge” on Clapton’s then-untitled song while working across a table from him. As Harrison would later describe it, an intoxicated Ringo Starr then walked into the room talking about swans in the park. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how a beloved classic rock song was written!
Contemporary reviews were mostly positive, though the production was criticized by some. Yeah, those live tracks are loud. But Cream was a loud, distortion drenched band on stage. And by the end, Baker and Bruce were at each other’s throats while all three were playing over each other in live performances. To which I say, so what? It’s part of who they were, as well as a factor in their dissolution. They were a combination of a really good studio band who brought the thunder live, and when it was done, it was done. Within a few months Jack Bruce would release his first solo album, Songs for a Tailor, while Clapton and Baker would team with Steve Winwood and Ric Grech in Blind Faith. Then along came the 70’s…
That loud sound you hear is the thunder of White Room, the opening track of Wheels of Fire, that quintessential 1968 double album by power trio Cream, released 50 years ago today. From here, the record twists and turns in many directions in the studio, from other solid originals penned by bassist Jack Bruce and writing partner Peter Brown such as Politician, As You Said, and Deserted Cities of the Heart, to heavy blues covers of Howlin’ Wolf (Sitting on Top of the World) and Albert King (Born Under a Bad Sign), as well as Ginger Baker’s somewhat bizarre spoken word Press Rat and Warthog. And that’s only the first record, subtitled In the Studio.
The second album of the set, Live at the Fillmore (named as such despite the fact that three of its four songs were recorded at the Winterland Ballroom), features Cream’s live exploits, showcasing Clapton’s blistering guitar work on the Robert Johnson classic Crossroads and the excessive 16 minute drum solo madness of Ginger Baker on Toad. Despite the fact that Cream were coming apart at the seams, Wheels of Fire displays the band at their peak, both in the studio and on stage. It became the first platinum selling double album, and rose to #1 in the US and #3 in the UK with White Room (reaching #6) and Crossroads as singles which continue to endure as radio staples.
The group, with producer Felix Pappalardi, began work in recording studios in the summer (London) and fall (NYC) of ’67. However, due to Cream’s relentless touring schedule they had difficulty achieving a solid album, so they returned to the studio in January and February of ’68. It was then they decided to order a mobile recording studio to be delivered to the Fillmore West and Winterland Ballroom to record six live performances and make it a double album. The unused material from those shows would comprise the later Live Cream and Live Cream Volume II releases.
For most of the albums I celebrate in these pages, I read through both contemporary and latter day reviews in order to glean some perspective. But more often than not I come away with an eyebrow raised at what I perceive to be the arrogance of critics who look for any reason to lambast an artist. Maybe that’s Professional Music Critiquing 101: counterbalance record company hype. Maybe I’m just ignorant of how this works. Yet here we are, 50 years on, and if you liked this music 20-50 years ago, chances are you still do. I certainly do.
But Jann Wenner in his 1968 critique in Rolling Stone (see link below for the full, embarrassing review) heard White Room as nothing more than a carbon copy of Tales of Brave Ulysses and couldn’t imagine why they chose to repeat it. I’ll grant that there are similarities, but how was that anything new to rock or blues music? He also suggested it was “unfortunate” that they recorded the contemporary blues hit, Born Under a Bad Sign because, he wrote, Jack Bruce didn’t have a good voice for blues. He also wrote that his harmonica playing was “amateurish.” Wenner did like the live Crossroads, Spoonful, and oddly enough, Toad (a “fine number”), and somehow concluded that the album “will be a monster” despite his misgivings which outweigh his praises.
Stephen Thomas Erlewine in his AllMusic review describes Wheels of Fire as a “dense, unwieldy double album.” He continues:
…it’s sprawling and scattered, at once awesome in its achievement and maddening in how it falls just short of greatness. It misses its goal not because one LP works and the other doesn’t, but because both the live and studio sets suffer from strikingly similar flaws, deriving from the constant power struggle between the trio.
To me, that power struggle was a major part of what made Cream great, as well as the main reason they unravelled almost as quickly as they began. And, perhaps that’s the type of information people like Wenner didn’t have in 1968. They were young, ego-maniacal, substance abusing, brilliant musicians at or near their creative peaks. They made loud, urgent, volatile, indulgent music, and there was no way they were going to maintain that level of output (the old animosity between Bruce and Baker would even quickly resurface during their brief but highly lucrative 2005 reunion).
They had decided to split during the studio recording sessions that spring and held on for a farewell album and tour the following year. But Wheels of Fire, along with another “sprawling and scattered” double album by a well-known quartet later that November, captures the essence of 1968 through rock and blues music as well as or better than anyone else – at least to someone like me born after the fact who can only view it through the lens of history.
Side One (In the Studio):
Sitting on Top of the World
Passing the Time
As You Said
Pressed Rat and Warthog
Those Were the Days
Born Under a Bad Sign
Deserted Cities of the Heart
Side Three (Live @ Winterland & the Fillmore West):