On Earworms: Remembering Billy Cobham’s “Red Baron”


Walking home from the local grocery store, I found myself at a steady but slower than normal stride, moving my head up and down, and yes, beat boxing a beat and a bassline. I may have even spun a move over the curb, skipping along as the plastic bag with the peanut butter bounced off my hip. Then I caught myself mid-beat: “What am I doing? And what is this song?”

The song was “Red Baron” by the jazz-rock fusion drummer Billy Cobham, from his 1973 debut solo album Spectrum which I bought as a discounted cassette when I was a teenager. The beat and bassline on “Red Baron” impressed me. It’s a perfect example of what musicians call “in the pocket” playing: something about the timing of Cobham’s relaxed yet authoritative beat placement creates the sensation of thickness. Listening to track today on Spotify, I noticed how much the drummer’s presence can (still) be felt. The presence is in Cobham’s weighty drum sound, but also in the spaces within his playing, such as at the ends of phrases where he plays a fill and then seems to pause a nanosecond before resuming the beat. The nanosecond pause–real or imagined, I’m not entirely sure–makes all the difference in how the music feels. Cobham takes his time no matter how intricate his playing and creates a musical flow that is perfectly steady yet the opposite of metronomic. “Red Baron” breathes easy like someone struttin’ down the street and embodying the essence of funk. No wonder its forty-year old groove stayed in my head all these years. It must have made an impression.