From the Uncut archive: a rare encounter with the legendary drummer at home
Winding back, was the Johnnie Birch Octet [with Baker, Jack Bruce and Graham Bond among its members at various times] a landmark band for you?
It was just a hell of a good band. We were the most progressive jazz combo in England at the time. It wasn’t hugely popular. Then there was the Alexis Korner band. And when Cyril Davies left Alexis, Graham Bond came in. And Graham did a few gigs with me and Jack [Bruce], and decided we’d won the pools, because we went down so well. And the Graham Bond Organisation emerged. The thing happened really when Graham and I decided we’d go “commercial” [smiles]. We weren’t copying anybody. “Wade in the Water” was a huge thing with Graham Bond, he did this big Bach-like intro to it…
Did they show the way to what you did with Cream next?
Well, I’m buggered if I know, really. I mean, the Alexis Korner band was a mixture of jazz and blues musicians. Graham’s band, we were all jazz musicians. Cream was a blues player and two jazz players.
You said once that you thought of Cream as a sort of jazz band.
No, what I said was, Cream was never a rock’n’roll band. Basically, Cream was a modern jazz set-up.
Was Eric, coming from his blues background, the wild card?
Yeah but blues and jazz are very, very intermixed and integrated. Eric denies he’s a jazz player. But Eric’s solos are never the same. His improvisation is brilliant.
Was it a problem from the start with Cream, being back in a band with Jack?
Jack’s a problem everywhere he goes. He still is.
There’s that story in the film about the Graham Bond days where you say about Jack, “I was going to kick him to death”. Did you mean it?
I think he would’ve been severely damaged if the bouncers hadn’t pulled me off him, yeah.
Did the fact that you were willing to go back in a band with him show how much you wanted to play with Eric?
Not really. It was Liz, my wife at the time, who convinced me to give Jack another chance, as it were. Something I still regret. It didn’t work the way I planned it at all. We only stayed together as long as we did because it was so successful. We took over all the work we were doing with the Graham Bond Organisation, and charged five quid more a gig. And the booker Robert Masters said, “You can’t do that, they won’t go for it.” I said, “You do it.” And they all did go for it, apart from the Black Prince in Bexley, and we never played there, [laughs] because they wouldn’t fork out an extra five quid.
Was it with Cream that you threw up on stage, at the Windsor Jazz and Blues Festival?
No – that came from John Peel, who I disliked from then on. That was with Air Force, and I actually was ill, and I vomited. And he’s put it round that I was so stoned that I was sick. Really did my reputation an awful lot of harm, which still stays with me to this day. People misconceiving things has always been a problem with me. I upset too many people in high places – by telling them the truth [low laugh]. 85% of the nonsense about me is just people’s imagination.
I asked about that because I wondered if you were nervous at the start of Cream – if you were all going out on a limb, with the sort of music you were playing?
Nervous? No, no.
Have you never had nerves playing?
In my very early days. I never got a gig by doing an audition, because I used to get too nervous to play properly. But no. I’m very blasé about doing gigs. I don’t get nervous at all.
You never practise, do you?
I spent two years – 1958, ’59, 1960, when I used to practise all day every day. But once you can play what you want to play, no, I don’t practise at all these days, not ever. My drums are all in a room upstairs, they’re not set up or anything. They’re waiting to go on the next gig.
With Cream, were you happy with those first few psychedelic pop singles, like “I Feel Free”?
I hated “I Feel Free”. Wrong tempo.