Monthly Archives: July 2014

Ginger Baker and Old School Phonographs

I was surfing the latest Netflix offerings and noticed a new one: Beware Mr. Baker. Turns out the title comes from a sign posted outside Ginger Baker’s South African Home.

If you’re asking: Who is Ginger Baker?, you are not a Cream fan. If you don’t know who or what Cream is, you’re not a Rock Music fan, and almost certainly are much younger than me.

Cream was a band that had huge success in the middle sixties and is considered the archetype for 3-man Power Rock bands, and Power Rock in general. If you don’t know what Power Rock is, I can’t help you, but Cream consisted of Eric Clapton on Guitar, Jack Bruce on Base, and Ginger Baker on Drums. Here’s the trailer from the Ginger Baker movie:

The band was named Cream by its members because they were considered the very best musicians in the world. You could say they weren’t particularly modest, but if you research it, you’ll find that many people who are knowledgeable about such things actually agree.

Eric Clapton is a living legend and needs little aggrandizing. Jack Bruce has been called the best bass player ever, not to mention a great songwriter (he wrote most all of Cream’s hits). Probably least known is Ginger Baker, who virtually disappeared in the seventies. He resurfaced from time to time, but never regained widespread recognition.

When Cream was famous, I heard a rumor that Ginger Baker had the internal organs of a seventy-five year old man. The cause of this condition? The incredible amount and scope of the drugs he was abusing — especially Speed. In those days I didn’t question how a doctor or anybody else could make such a determination, but it turned out the drug abusing part of the rumor was probably understated.

While checking out upcoming performances at B.B. King’s in New York, I did a double take when I saw that Ginger Baker was scheduled. It would be with a three-man jazz ensemble, which made sense because both he and Bruce considered themselves jazzmen first. Not wanting to pass up a chance to see an original member of legendary Cream, I bought a ticket.

Here’s a little movie about it:

We didn’t get to see Ginger go off on any insane tirades, but he did tell the first guy who shouted something out to shut up. Though I doubt Ginger had the strength to mount any kind of attack on the guy, the call-out was enough to put an end to further interruptions from the peanut gallery.

I’m not much of a jazz fan, but I enjoyed the performance. Watching Ginger Baker drum at all was a treat, but I have to admit I left wishing I’d gotten to see him play when he was in his prime.

Everything reminds me of something else

The first Cream record I bought was called Disraeli Gears, which is said to come from a roadie’s malapropism. Seems Clapton was telling Baker that he was getting a new bicycle, and a roadie piped in that it came with Disraeli Gears. As Disraeli was a British Prime Minister in the 19th Century, what he had meant to say was “derailleur gears,” which in the sixties were a recent development, uncommon and expensive.  The band found it funny and decided it would make a good title for their second album.

Disraeli Gears was recorded in New York City in less than four days. It was produced by future Mountain bass player Felix Pappalardi, who with wife Gail co-wrote the song Strange Brew, which is on the album. (Sadly, in 1983, Gail shot Felix dead, and was charged with second degree murder. She spent almost two years in jail after pleading guilty to a lesser charge.)

The album was released in 1967 and was a huge record for Cream. It had a couple of gigantic hits on it, including Sunshine of Your Love. I remember listening to this record in my bedroom on a player that was a self contained unit. For storage, the turntable flipped up and the speakers on each side folded over it. In this position, there were clasps to hold everything shut — which made it somewhat portable. In a way, it was the nineteen-sixties version of an iPod. It looked something like this:

Sixties version of an iPod

Sixties version of an iPod

I would turn up the volume to ten and lean into the space between the speakers to try to get the full effect of the stereo separation. This was a time when headphones were worn by professionals in radio and television studios, not by young, pimply-faced Long Island teenagers.

If you look closely, you’ll see an arm extending over the turntable. Its purpose was to allow music lovers to pile up their vinyl records at the top of the spindle. When each record was done playing, the stylus lifted from the platter, moved out of the way and allowed the next record to be dropped onto the turntable. The stylus would then index to the beginning of the album, which allowed for a couple hours of uninterrupted play.

This was considered an unbelievable technological achievement — as long as you were willing to accept that the machine would scratch and eventually render all your records unlistenable. Most people didn’t seem to mind, but it was probably because they didn’t realize what was happening until it was too late. They wouldn’t sell us a machine that would eat up our records, would they?

They sure would.

As archaic as these contraptions now look, the way of playing recorded music didn’t fundamentally change until the introduction of the iPod and other digital media players in 2001. The intervening years were occupied by expanded use of magnetic tape (Eight Track, Cassettes) and Cd’s — which still moved the recorded media across some kind of sensor — so very analog.

Not to worry: Almost everything from those days has been re-mastered and is available digitally (which some say isn’t as good as vinyl, but I can’t tell the difference) — and that includes Disraeli Gears and everything else Cream did — a great portion of which still holds up rather well.

Till next time.