An Audience With Ginger Baker

From the Uncut archive: a rare encounter with the legendary drummer at home

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Was it the sort of music that you wanted Cream to be playing?
Some of it was. And some of it wasn’t. I hated “I Feel Free”. “Wrapping Paper” is the biggest load of crap that ever came out of the world.

Is “Tales of Brave Ulysses” still your favourite Cream song?
What? My favourite? Did I say it was? God knows why…’66 was the first American tour we did, which was playing all over the universities and stuff. It wasn’t big money, but in 1967, it was a different story.

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How was it then?
We were treated like gods.

Had that ever happened to you before?
Well, with the Graham Bond band, and with Alexis Korner, we used to pack places out solid with people enjoying themselves, so nothing really had changed. The only difference was we were playing bigger places, so there were more people. But when a place is packed solid, it doesn’t matter if it’s small or big. It’s the same thing. You feel good.

As things got bigger for Cream in America, did that hurt the music? Were those American hippie audiences and American money you were getting by the time you toured there in ’68 damaging?
Well I think some of the TV things we did were abominable. That Smothers Brothers Show, where we discovered that they’d nailed a frog to a fucking board so it couldn’t jump away. There were some awful things that went on over there, crazy American ideas. You don’t really have a choice with those things. Like we all hated miming, but you had to mime on some shows, that was the policy. We hated it. We did all these stupid things. Once we went to Berman’s and got these extraordinary outfits. I think I was Genghis Khan – miming on the drums with a sword and a scabbard, to make it obvious that we were miming.

And when you started playing places like the Fillmore, with hippie audiences started sitting on the floor instead of dancing, was that a weird thing for you?
No. We just went over there to play the bollocks off the Americans, hur-hur, which we did. They just couldn’t believe us, because it was so good.

But did the music get too heavy and too hard, by ’68?
It got too loud. That was one of the death-knells of it. It was just painful to be on the stage, the volume was so incredible that it damaged my ears. I’ve still got a hearing problem from those days. I hate loud volume. Especially loud bass amps. It’s really painful.

Was it more difficult to play well, because you couldn’t hear each other?
Yeah, of course it did. Because I’m banging the drums ‘ard to hear what I’m playing, because I’ve got these huge Marshall stacks either side. And Jack would turn up, so Eric would turn up to compensate, and they’d both be turning up all night. It got absolutely stupid. There was one night on the last tour we did where both Eric and I stopped playing for two whole choruses. Jack was playing so loud in front of his stack of Marshalls, that he didn’t realise.

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Given all the hopes you’d gone into with Cream, was that a nightmare?
Cream was a nightmare right from the off. It was a nightmare.

Eric was saying quite recently, looking back on his later days with the band, that “Jack and Ginger had a lot more respect for what we were doing than I did”.
Eric knows more now than he knew then. Right? He’s seen where it was coming from. My problem was I used to lose my temper. And I’d promised I would never, ever violently assault Jack ever again. And the way I could do that was to go to a pub and get super-drunk.

So you had to numb yourself just to be in a room with Jack?
Yeah. Very much so.

You know in the film Jack says he’s got perfect time, which you also have of course. Were there similarities between you?
Who said that? Well Jack hasn’t, that’s his problem. As Phil Seaman says, everything Jack knows about time, he learned from me. Dick [Heckstall-Smith] and I first adopted him, and turned him onto it – but Phil Seamen said he’s like someone who goes up to see the sun rise, sees it come up to half-way above the horizon, and runs home saying he’s seen it. No, Jack’s timing is not perfect. At all. Not to the standard of mine is.

Do you think having Jack as the bassist held Cream back, then?
Well, I don’t know, it was just so successful. In the early days it was wonderful. It was when the Marshall amps started appearing and getting more and more powerful…

When you looked out at the crowds, were they really getting off on the volume – while on stage it was terrible?
It was painful. It was just like going through the motions.

And did that hurt the music you were making, even on record?
I think so, in the latter stages, yeah.

And were the three of you pulling apart, in the music you wanted to do?
No, I mean…he [Jack] soured my relationship with Eric, I think, and I didn’t realise that that was happening at the time.

How did it come about that Eric seemed sidelined on Wheels of Fire? Do you think without you realising it, he was moving away from the band?
No, I don’t think so. I don’t know where you get your suppositions from. You’re obviously one of these an-a-ly-tical people. It’s a problem with people misconceiving things. It’s been a problem with me, and it still is a problem with me. I upset too many people in high places – by telling them the truth [low laugh]. Like we caught Bill Graham ripping us off at the Fillmore. So I went and told him he’s a bloody crook. We had a big row and I stormed out, it was very unpleasant. I saw him just before he died, and we actually made friends again.

You’re talking about people misunderstanding you – but did you and Eric understand each other, in those early days in Cream? Were you very close?
I was very close to Eric, in the early days. I still am – truth be known. Eric’s probably the best friend I’ve got. We don’t communicate very often. He’s a good guy.

Is there a lot of love between you – because of those days, and the music you made then?
What? Pass.

Did you feel that the job wasn’t finished when Cream stopped?
No, it was finished. It was Eric and I that decided to scrub round it, you know. It was like a great weight off of my shoulders when it was finished. I was bloody tired of it. I mean, Cream is still an albatross I carry round my neck. Which is why people like you come and bug me about Cream. It was probably the best musical group ever to come out of Europe. There’s nobody ever got near it. But I get really pissed off when people put me into the same bag as Moonie and John Bonham, all these other guys, rock’n’roll drummers, that are just not on the same plane. But the public are pretty ignorant, really, when it comes to music.

When it was first announced that Cream had split, you told Melody Maker’s Chris Welch that you wanted it to go on a bit longer. It was such a perfect vehicle for your ideas, even though it was becoming difficult. So was it a shame to see it go in that way?
No. We did Goodbye Cream saying goodbye, and that’s what it meant. And it was, what, 30 years later that we did the reunion. The Royal Albert Hall was an absolute joy. And Madison Square Garden was an absolute nightmare. The Royal Albert Hall was like 1966 all over again. And Madison Square Garden was like the end of 1968 all over again. Terrible.

What was bad about the Madison Square Garden gig?
Well, why do you think it never got released?

So was the Albert Hall gig more like Cream at its best?
Yeah. It was probably the best Cream ever played, I think.

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