Sunday, October 6, 2019

Looking Back on Ginger Baker's Finest Moments

Remembering Ginger Baker, who died yesterday at the age of 80.

In November 1967, in a musically perfect year that couldn't get any better, Cream released Disraeli Gears. Fresh Cream had debuted arrived in late 1966 and while it was a breakthrough album in many ways (the seeds of heavy rock can be found here) the LP was little more than their stage act committed to vinyl.
Six months later, psychedelia was in full swing. Eric Clapton's and Jack Bruce's guitars, along with Ginger's drums, were given a makeover by Dutch art collective Simon and Marjike, otherwise known as The Fool, who were soon to become famous for their work with the Beatles. It was the new, dandified Cream that came to New York in April 1967 to record their second album at Atlantic Studios. Although Cream's manager Robert Stigwood (yes, of Stayin' Alive/disco fame) was credited as producer on Fresh Cream his involvement was minimal and almost certainly more administrative than musical.
This time around Cream planned to get serious in the studio, Beatles-style. Atlantic Studios were already using 8-track recording technology, something unknown in the UK at that time. With legendary engineer Tom Dowd at the controls, they brought in a young producer named Felix Pappalardi. Pappalardi was a talented musician/arranger and Atlantic boss Ahmet Ertegun felt he would work well with the British band. 
The first track recorded was the blues standard "Lawdy Mama" with Ertegun as producer. It didn’t turn out quite as planned, so Felix Pappalardi took over for the rest of the two recording sessions running only six days in April/May 1967.
Pappalardi took the tapes of "Lawdy Mama" and, with new lyrics by his wife Gail Collins, asked Clapton to overdub a revised vocal and some Albert King-like guitar lines. The result was the album's powerful opening track, "Strange Brew," the LP's most obvious nod to psychedelia. "World Of Pain" is the second Felix Pappalardi/Gail Collins co-composition and was written in tribute to a tree growing in their Greenwich Village yard. While relatively light on substance, the track is rescued by Eric's backtrack guitar and some massive drumming from Ginger (which, of course, is redundant). Likewise, the pop-psych of "Dance the Night Away" would be a throwaway track in the hands of any other band but the sheer musicianship of Cream saves the day. For any other band, these two tracks would have been fluff; for Cream, that fluff turns into classic blues that keep the LP an AM10.
"Blue Condition" is Ginger Baker's only writing credit on the album and his only vocal. Like Ringo, Ginger was allowed a song or two on every Cream outing, no matter how unusual the results. Interestingly, the Deluxe Edition Disraeli Gears features an alternate take with Eric on vocals that works so much better (what would that have done, an AM11?). For every fault side one may have, all is forgiven with Ginger’s impeccable drumming and syncopation, Bruce's melodic bass and Eric's incredible slow-hand blues.
With music by Eric Clapton and lyrics by Australian graphic artist Martin Sharp, side two kicks off with "Tales Of Brave Ulysses," the third absolute classic track on the album. The story goes that Sharp wrote the lyrics as a poem in Greece en route from Australia to Britain. In London, he met Clapton at the Speakeasy and gave him the poem written on a napkin. Eric quickly penned the score and the psychedelic wah-wah extravaganza that is "Tales of Brave Ulysses" was born. 
"SWLABR" is next up and the hits just keep on coming. This Bruce/Brown full-tilt rocker with a killer double-tracked solo from Eric appeared as the B-side of the "Sunshine of Your Love" single. "SWLABR" is an acronym for "She Was Like a Bearded Rainbow."
The slow minor key psychedelic drone of "We're Going Wrong" is the only Jack Bruce track on the album written without Pete Brown. The unhurried pace of the song is belied by Ginger's rolling drum pattern which is relentless throughout and when performed live, played on timpani with mallets. Despite the hits inherent in "Sunshine," "Strange Brew" and "Tales," "We're Going Wrong" is the LP's finest moment and the most emotionally charged of all Cream songs in concert.
"Outside Woman Blues" is an Arthur Reynolds song dating back to 1929. It's unrecognizable here, however, as it receives a bluesy heavy rock makeover in the same way that Robert Johnson's "Crossroads" would the following year. Another classic track.
"Take It Back" is a Bruce penned anti-Vietnam War song, the lyrics of which were inspired by media images of American students burning their draft cards. It features no guitar solos to speak of, just an ensemble backing with harmonica and plenty of background party noises. The LPs diversity shines here. Where is doesn't is with the LP's tag-on "Mother's Lament," a vaudevillian, drunken singalong that truly serves no more purpose than a song like "Her Majesty" on Abbey Road.
Despite its charmingly home-made feel Disraeli Gears has one of the most distinctive and eye-catching album covers of any era which captures the essence of 1967 more than any other record sleeve bar Sgt. Pepper, and equally iconic. Martin Sharp's contribution to both "Tales" and the iconic cover make him as essential to Disraeli Gears as Billy Preston was to Let It Be Cream's Disraeli Gears is a definite must-have classic, an iconic musical amalgam of the 60s.