BEWARE OF MR. BAKER: GINGER BAKER VS. HIMSELF

This piece was originally published February 11th, 2013.

Even when I thought I knew just about everything creative, compulsive and crazed when it came to tales of the man and his music, I saw this film and realized my knowledge was only a small part of a wilder story.

  Beware of Mr. Baker is a documentary on the life of the legendary British rock drummer with a mane of flame and the eyes of a madman, Ginger Baker.

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Directed by amateur boxer/professional model, turned writer and film directer, Jay Bulger—who began his career in journalism by lying his way into writing a piece on Ginger Baker for   magazine—the film begins with footage that Bulger had shot while living with Baker and working on his Rolling Stone piece which was published as “The Devil and Ginger Baker.”

 

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Returning to film in the place where he had originally resided with Baker—who for over a decade was living within a high security ranch compound in South Africa—Bulger begins his film with an incident that displays just how cantankerous Baker can be. From that point, the documentary is a journey of  unexpected twists, head-shaking decisions on the part of Mr. Baker and deliriously candid anecdotes from both the subject and those that have played a part in his life’s story.

Interviews with drummers such as Bill Ward of Black SabbathNick Mason of  Pink Floyd and Neil Peart of Rush that have all claimed Ginger Baker as a huge influence on them are also a formidable part of the film’s allure.

 

Ginger Baker and Director Jay Bulger cheerfully invite the viewer into their world

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Immediately, you know you are in for a pull-no-punches film experience when Beware of Mr. Baker is introduced by John Lydon, who had worked with Ginger Baker in his band Public Image Limited.

Ginger was born in 1939 as Peter Edward Baker. As a child growing up in South London during Germany’s Blitzkrieg of England, Baker had already started to show traits that would direct him towards a musical path, albeit with a special type of personality  Unlike most of his peers, he was never afraid of the bombing that was all around him:

“…the constant blasts of bombs going off overhead in London didn’t frighten {Ginger}. Quite the opposite. He liked the constant banging and explosions. And a drummer was born.”

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Louis Armstrong’s drummer and Baker influence, Baby Dobbs

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Torn between becoming a pro cyclist and a drummer, his focus changed after wrecking his bike and purchasing a toy drum set around the age of fifteen. He would join a local band, and then by 16 audition and begin playing with The Storyville Jazz Men, where he turned pro, toured and in the process became a better musician. The band’s leader Bob Wallis, would turn Baker onto twenties jazz records where Baker would discover his first hero, Louis Armstrong’s drummer, Baby Dobbs.

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Ginger Baker in the early ’60s

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Dobbs, considered to be the first Jazz drummer in that he married Western drum styles such as military marching band drumming with those of African drummers, would be instrumental in shaping a direction for Baker’s playing—a style that could be flamboyantly flashy or delicately restrained, or often both at the same time.

The Graham Bond Organization:  An early band with Ginger Baker (right)
and his future Cream mate / sparring partner, Jack Bruce (second from right)
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Using incredible animation sequences to illustrate the many segments of Baker’s life that would have no camera present at the time, Bulger, in this film, deftly brings the viewer remarkable portions of his Ginger Baker biography in a startlingly clever way.

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Phil Seaman

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A segment that portrays the after-hours listening of African drums records at the home of England’s great Be-Bop drummer Phil Seaman (who also had severe problems with drug & alcohol), is one of the film’s many magically hallucinatory and surreal moments. A moment that would both illuminate Baker’s passion for learning the craft of drumming from his inspirational mentors, as well as learning what else was out there to try—the heavy drug and alcohol demons that would haunt him throughout his life.

A musical life that very few could ever match—he had replaced Charlie Watts in Alexis Korner‘s Blues Incorporated (a band which also included Jack Bruce), and Baker claims that once, upon seeing Mick Jaggerduring an audition, he mocked this young, nervous and effeminate kid.

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Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker and Eric Clapton

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Viewers will be familiar with Baker’s time pairing with Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton as the trio Cream, as superstardom, wealth and fame greeted the band all over the world, but interviews with Clapton and Bruce are as candid as any by Baker himself and illustrate Cream was a group that was built on a two-sided coin of sublime talent and aggressive madness.

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Cream
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Then again, that seemed to always be the framework for Baker, as also seen in his time spent previously in the wonderful Graham Bond Organization, and with his post Cream bands such as Blind Faith, which included Steve Winwood and once again Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker’s Air Force or the lengthy list of other bands and solo projects.

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Blind Faith with Steve Winwood, Rick Gretch, Ginger Baker and,
once again asking how he ended up in yet another band with Ginger? Eric Clapton

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Ginger Baker’s Air Force in concert

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One of the stranger and most fascinating parts to Baker’s story for me is how after Cream and Blind Faith, he moved to Africa and ended up living and performing with Nigeria’s famed Fela Kuti.


I’ve long loved the album that was released by them together, Live! Fela Ransome-Kuti and The Africa ’70 (with Ginger Baker), but to have more of the back story (Baker also appeared on Paul McCartney‘s album with Wings,Band On The Run, which was recorded in Nigeria as well) is remarkable, as is how the two fell out of being friends. Without giving it away, it’s one of Ginger Baker’s other obsessions that doesn’t have to do with women, drugs, alcohol or music…

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Ginger Baker with Fela Kuti (right)

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Even with the many ups, downs and everything in-between swings of a emotional drumstick that Ginger Baker puts his family members, assorted wives and girlfriends though, of which there are plenty of painfully honest interviews here, the film still reminds us that he has always been a musician with a stellar resume that few could touch, and without question, his talent was as large as his intensely penetrating eyes.

 

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Beware of Mr. Baker is a high-point for well-crafted documentaries, taking a complicated subject who, although he often could be an absolute asshole to those around him, could also be passionately sincere, incredibly naive and as a drummer, called one of the most influential.

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However much of a “Strange Brew” he is, Ginger Baker is above all, one of the great ones.

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