Bad Company: The Bad Old Days

It could be said that the story of Bad Company began with a bang – the neck-snapping sound of those titanic drums coming in on Can’t Get Enough signalling the start of a band that sprang, fully formed, like a greyhound out of a trap. In reality the band’s origins were far from simple.

“Oh, that’s a good question,” Ralphs says now, speaking from his home in Henley in the run-up to Mott’s own recent reformation. “I was unhappy in Mott, but I don’t think I would have just left without something else to do, no.”

And what of vocalist Paul Rodgers? After his short-lived foray with Peace, Free reconvened. But Rodgers became wrung out by the experience of trying to hold the band together with a guitarist, Paul Kossoff, whose drug problems would lead to his death. In fact, Rodgers had been planning a solo album before Ralphs happened to play him a demo of a song called Can’t Get Enough that he’d written for Mott, but which vocalist Ian Hunter had rejected on the – understandable – grounds that he couldn’t sing it. Rodgers is still incredulous at the memory.

“I said: ‘Well, you give it to me and I’ll do it’.”

Even then, Ralphs says, “we weren’t really planning on having a band, we were just talking about recording some songs together. Then Simon [Kirke] turned up and started playing and that was it.”

Free drummer Kirke was another victim of the post-Kossoff fall-out. “It was a huge release when Free broke up,” he says now. With Kirke at one point even having to show Koss the chords to All Right Now before a gig at the Albert Hall because the guitarist was so damaged by downers he could no longer recall his own band’s greatest hit, Bad Company was “enough already. Let’s have some fun.”

Speaking from his home in Connecticut, Kirke recalls how “you couldn’t have been further away from Paul Kossoff than Mick Ralphs. I wasn’t interested in any more geniuses. Mick drank – of course he drank, he was from Hereford! – but he was great fun. And he brought Rodgers out of his shell. By the end of Free, Paul had his back to the audience, he didn’t want to know. Then Ralphs came along with his Max Wall impressions and the whole thing changed – and for the better. Paul really blossomed with Mick.”

Built on the ruins of Free, what Ralphs is less ready to admit today is that the beginning of Bad Company also spelled the end of Mott The Hoople. Ariel Bender and then Mick Ronson joined the band on guitar; ‘Ronno’ teamed up with Ian Hunter; the Hunterless band continued as plain ol’ Mott… it was never quite the same.

A surprisingly self-effacing chap in person, with a nicely lilting West Country accent, Ralphs insists: “I would never have dumped them in it.” He likens his early meetings with Rodgers as “like being married [to Mott] and having a bit on the side”. Not because it was a secret, he says, but because he couldn’t wait to leave Mott. “I told Paul: ‘We’ve got to finish off this album [Mott] and then we’ve got to do this American tour that was already planned’. Paul said: ‘That’s fair enough. I’ll wait for you to get back’.”

For Ralphs, the music of Mott, the incoming kings of glam rock, had become too stylised. “I wanted something more bluesy, more simplistic, more earthy” – phrases that would sum up Bad Company to a tee. The antidote to the glitter overkill that Mott – along with their mentor, David Bowie – now personified, Bad Company would be the defiantly unprogressive rockers who played it straight down the line, their music influenced more by blues and soul than by passing trends.

Other pieces of the jigsaw “just fell into place”. Beginning with the band’s name. “I already had the song Bad Company,” Rodgers explains, chatting down the line from his lakeside Canadian home. “And I thought it would be kind of a first for the band to have its own song theme.” When he phoned Ralphs and suggested Bad Company as the band’s name, “he dropped the phone! We both said: ‘That’s it!’. Names are so important. They’re really the war flag under which you fly.”

The title was inspired by the 1972 American Civil War movie Bad Company about two young men who escape the draft by becoming outlaws – an allegory for a generation of hippies then in fear of being drafted to Vietnam – which was billed as the first ‘acid western’.

“The record company felt it was a dangerous name – too over-the-top. I explained it wasn’t about being as evil as we can or anything of that nature. I meant it in terms of the early settlers; the real, gritty toughness of it… It was really the law of survival, and that’s the kind of essence of that song. But there was a tender side, too, an emotional side. Those people would look at the wonders of the land they were in, and be moved by it. So you could open out musically.”

Or they would once they had a bass player. Enter former The Boz People singer and, later, novice King Crimson bassist, Raymond ‘Boz’ Burrell. “He was playing a fretless bass, but I doubt if he’d been playing it more than a year,” Kirke chuckles. “Robert Fripp had just shown him the basics. But he came in and he looked great; good-looking guy, beard, fringe jacket. Mick said: ‘We’re gonna do Little Miss Fortune, it starts in G…’. Boz said: ‘Just give me the key, I’ll figure it out’. And he played it bloody well! We said: ‘Do you want the job?’ He said: ‘Yeah, all right’.”

Band name and musical direction sorted, next on their ‘to do’ list was get a manager and a record deal. As chance would have it they got both of those in one, over-large package called Peter Grant, the Led Zeppelin manager then overseeing the launch of Zeppelin’s own record label, Swan Song. Rodgers was encouraged to phone Grant by former Free tour manager Clive Coulson, who was now working for Zeppelin. Like Kirke, Rodgers does an amusingly accurate impersonation of Grant’s famously nasal voice.

“He said: ‘Yes, I know about you. I’m interested.’ I explained it wasn’t just me, it was a band, and he went: ‘Hmm, I see…’.” Grant agreed to go along to the Surrey village hall where they were rehearsing. Kirke tells the story of the band waiting all afternoon for him to show up. Then, just as they’d given up hope, he strolled in. “We were so pleased. We said: ‘Hello, Mr Grant. Welcome. We’ll run through the set’. He said: ‘Don’t bother, I’ve heard it’. He said: ‘I knew you’d probably be a bit nervous so I just stayed out of the way’. He’d been sitting in the Porsche, having a ciggie, listening through the wall. That was the first inkling we had that this guy was something special. Because he had quite a reputation, and we were nervous. He said: ‘I think you’re great. Would you like to be on Swan Song?’.”

The rest, as they say, is history – though not always as it’s been written over the years. As Kirke acknowledges, the received wisdom now is that “we had Peter Grant and Led Zeppelin behind us; we couldn’t fail”. Things are never that easy, though, as any of the other half-dozen acts signed to Swan Song over the next two years – not one of whom enjoyed the level of success Bad Company did – would doubtless testify.

Rodgers: “Peter said to us: ‘You guys make the music and I’ll take care of everything else’. I put my hand out and we shook. That was actually stronger than any contract with Peter, once you’d shook his hand, man,” he laughs. “That was the deal!”

Or as Kirke says: “G was the worst enemy you could ever have and he was the best friend. The thing is, we had the goods to back it up. So when we came out of that starting gate, everything went boom!”

The launch pad for Bad Company was that unforgettable first single, Can’t Get Enough. No.15 in the UK, Top 5 in the US, the song is now rightly regarded as a solid-gold rock classic in the same league as Free’s All Right Now and the Stones’ Brown Sugar.

“A lot of people got really excited about it,” says Ralphs. “But I couldn’t understand what they were all raving about. It was a three-chord bash. It was only when Paul put his vocal on it that turned it into something a bit special. Of course, when we had the big hit everyone said: ‘Write another one!’. I said: ‘Well, it’s really not that easy. What do I do, play it backwards?’.”

It would become a recurring theme. However, that was for the future. The perfect taster for the album that followed, the impact of Can’t Get Enough meant that the self-titled, debut Bad Company album, released in June 1974, became the most over-talked about release of the year. Recorded in just 10 days at Headley Grange, the dilapidated mansion where Zeppelin recorded much of their third and fourth albums, for Paul Rodgers it remains “our best album, definitely”.

“We’d been rehearsing for ages, and knew all the songs backwards,” Kirke recalls, “when suddenly Peter called to say John Paul Jones had the flu and that all the gear was down there, so was Ronnie Lane’s mobile, and it was all hooked up. We had about a week or 10 days to do what we could, and we rushed down there. We were so thrilled. I walked in and the first thing I saw in the hallway was Bonzo’s Runes-plastered Ludwig kit. I thought, ‘Fuck me, this is great!’.”

[Or at least that was the story. Until the summer of 1990, when in a rare interview Peter Grant told a future Classic Rock writer the real reason why recording time at Headley Grange suddenly became available: “They [Zeppelin] were recording at Headley Grange,” Grant explained, “and John Paul Jones turned up unexpectedly and said he’d decided to leave the band. He said: ‘I’m going to be the choirmaster at Winchester Cathedral. I’m fed up with all the touring…’ I said: ‘Have you told anyone else?’. And he said: ‘No, I came straight to you’. I said: ‘Well, you’re gonna be “not too well”. Take some time off and think about it’.

“That’s how Bad Company got to record their first album at Headley Grange.”].

Kirke, whose voice can be heard counting the track in, recalls how Can’t Get Enough was the first track they recorded. “We were each in separate rooms, to get a clean sound – Boz was in the boiler room, I was in the kitchen – and that’s why you hear me shouting the count in, so everybody in the house knew when to start.”

Rodgers did the vocals to two of the album’s most memorable songs – the epic title track and its acoustic closer,_ Seagull_ – while sitting outside on the lawn at night. Atmosphere was everything.

“Headley was the place for that all right,” says Rodgers, who believes the house was actually haunted. “I remember seeing one picture on the stairs that was sheep, and I looked again and it was all wolves! Everybody had these strange experiences there, people walking through walls and that. And this was sober!”

The result was one of the biggest-selling cornerstone rock albums of the mid-70s. Like the bum-warmer jackets Rodgers used to lope about in on stage, Bad Co’s music was essentially masculine, but with subtle feminine undertones. Sexy music, built on groin-grinding riffs, tearful vocals, thudding, relentless rhythms, and utterly ego-less performances. While Rodgers’ voice was always a virtuoso instrument in its own right, the rest of the band never showboated, they just nailed the songs to the floor, hard, and left the rest to the listener’s imagination.

As Ralphs says: “Too much clutter makes the end result sound small.”

And Bad Co was big – big music, big band; big success. Top Five in the UK, within two months of its release it was No.1 in the US. Kirke recalls the moment when Grant told them they topped the US chart:

“It was the final night of the first US tour, in Boston. G came into the dressing room; we were just ready to dash out and play. He puts this meaty arm across the door and says: ‘You’re not going anywhere.’ I thought, ‘Oh, fuck me, is he gonna shoot us?’. ‘Let them wait!’ he said. That was one of his stock phrases: ‘Let them wait’.” Grant led them into an adjoining room. “There was a big sheet on one of the tables, and he pulled it back and there were four gold albums. He had tears in his eyes, we all had tears in our eyes, and he gave a lovely little speech and then he said: ‘Now get the fuck out of here and knock ’em dead!’. We shot out of that dressing room like greyhounds chasing the rabbit, and we just put on a blinding show.”

“I must say it felt very natural,” says Rodgers. “I don’t mean to sound arrogant, but it felt like we had the goods. And Peter was very clever – put us straight into arenas, often headlining. We’d already paid our dues in Free and Mott [and King Crimson], so we knew what we were doing.”

Returning to the UK, they went straight to Clearwell Castle, the 17th-century pile in the Forest of Dean where Deep Purple had recorded the year before [and Zeppelin would later go] to make their second album, Straight Shooter.

Sleeping all day, working all night, “it was very hedonistic times”, Kirke recalls. “We were on a roll by then.”

Ralphs agrees. “Straight Shooter is definitely my favourite album. Big, roaring songs, again all done more or less live. We’d just come off the road and we were still on fire.”

In many respects a carbon copy of the first album, Straight Shooter tends to get overlooked now in the scheme of things, yet it contained several key Bad Co moments, not least their second set-in-stone rock anthem, Feel Like Makin’ Love.

“That was a song that I had begun a long time before,” Rodgers explans. “I’d started to write that while I was touring with Free in San Francisco. Then when I sat down with Mick at Clearwell, going through ideas, I showed him the opening quiet chords and sang the opening line: ‘Baby, when I think about you…’. I said: ‘It just needs something’. And he went: ‘Well, try this…’.” Rodgers sings the ba-boo-boom riff. “… and I went: ‘Well, I feel like makin’ love…’. We said right, that’s good, we’ll put that one down.”

The highlight, though, was Shooting Star, Rodgers’s introspective anthem for Paul Kossoff – or so he told me when I interviewed him three years ago. Now he is slightly more reticent to be so specific:

“It was about Paul and a lot of other people too. I thought, ‘Wow, a lot of people die in the music business, don’t they?’. I mean, it’s not like it’s a war zone. But you looked around and there was Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison… and of course Koss is included in that.”

Although not quite matching the success of its predecessor (reaching No.3 in the UK and US), Straight Shooter proved, at least, that Bad Co was no flash in the pan. And the next few years flew by in a blur. They were travelling in a Vickers Viscount private plane, and, as Ralphs describes it, “enjoying the rewards of our success in the way most bands did in the 70s” – meaning always having an ample supply of money, women and cocaine.

“I suppose the word is ‘overwhelming’,” Ralphs goes on. “It was all a bit much at first. But I don’t think we took it that seriously. We thought, ‘This is all right. Don’t know how long this is gonna last, but it’s good fun at the moment’.

“I’ve earned a lot of money but I’ve spent a lot of money as well. The cars, houses… When you haven’t had money for years you buy all the things you haven’t had. My son asked me once: ‘Dad, how many cars have you had?’. And I had to think about it.I went home and I wrote a list and I got up to about 75. But I’m a car nut. Even in Mott I had those Ford Mustangs with flames painted all over them. In Bad Company it was Porsches and Range Rovers and stuff like that. You can live without them, but I thought, ‘Well, I can afford it, I’ll give myself a treat. Why not?’.”

Kirke: “I still say the first three years of Bad Company were the happiest of my life. The money was great, we were getting feted wherever we went, but we were backing it up with talent and great shows. The coke thing… Paul quit all that in 76, I’ll be quick to add, because otherwise he’ll be down on me like a ton of bricks. But we all indulged. It never got in the way of a performance. But what happened was, just after Straight Shooter, we were on that carousel of album/tour, album/tour, and we were starting to get…”

He is lost for words momentarily. Their third album, Run With The Pack, in 1976, was another fine piece of work, although again it was built on the same formula as earlier glories, with the title track standing in for Bad Company, and Honey Child a too-obvious rewrite of Can’t Get Enough. Nevertheless, it’s the album Rodgers rates as his favourite after what he tellingly describes as “the original” Bad Co album. But by now the band were tax exiles, and although Run… would be another gargantuan cross-Atlantic hit it was also the beginning of the end. The shine went off after that.

Kirke: “Suddenly the little clouds started looming. We just didn’t have our family base. I still think Run With The Pack was a great album, but I think after that the pace started to get to us.”

Their next album, Burning Sky, in 1977, “wasn’t a good album”, Kirke admits. “We were tired, we were shiftless, we needed a break. Four years at that pace was like eight at any other pace.”

With punk now also in full swing, the band admit they felt, as Ralphs puts it, “out of touch suddenly”. He admits the drugs “probably didn’t help in the long run. When we came to the fourth album we found we hadn’t got any ideas, we were floundering; we managed to cobble Burning Sky together. We realised we might have been having too much of a good time and not doing the job.”

They took time off. With Burning Sky barely scraping the Top 20 here or in America, there was no pressing need for them not to. And the plan appeared to have reaped dividends when they returned, in 1979, with what was their last half-decent album, Desolation Angels.

A last-ditch attempt to at least try to move the band’s music forward a notch, the material was more mature and less raw than before. It also contained their first hit single (in the US, but not the UK) for three years in Rock ’n’ Roll Fantasy. As a result, the album took the band back into the US Top 5 and the UK Top 10. “We were all delighted,” says Ralphs.

It wasn’t to last. When, in September 1980, Kirke’s friend John Bonham died, it didn’t just signal the end of Led Zeppelin, it also brought the whole Swan Song edifice crashing down with it – including Bad Company. Kirke talks now about how the 80s began with “Bonzo dying, Lennon being assassinated”, but admits that by 1980 Bad Co “were pretty much spent as a band” anyway. “We were tired, we were cranky with each other, Paul and Boz were not getting on. In fact they got into a fist fight, which is usually the kiss of death for any British band.”

The fight occurred during the making of what would be the final, and least likeable, Bad Company album featuring the original four members, Rough Diamonds. It was recorded at Ridge Farm Studios in Surrey, a drive away from where Rodgers was now living with his young family. With the rest of the band living at the studio, the singer became an increasingly isolated and bitter figure.

“We were at a low energy point,” Rodgers says. “I didn’t think Mick was writing the songs that we needed to have. To be honest, I didn’t feel the guys were pulling their weight. It was party-ville all the time and… I don’t know if I should say this… but I’d stopped doing the drugs. And I felt at that point it was them and me. I didn’t feel that they were serious about what we were doing. We’d be in the studio and I’d be thinking, ‘My god, we’re making an album, can we get it together here’, you know? It was just very, very frustrating.

“And cocaine does make people a little bit paranoid. They’d all group together and go: ‘Don’t let Paul see you doing this.’ I’m like: ‘Guys, I know what you’re doing, relax, you know? But let’s just get it together. It’s your choice. I’m not gonna stand on a soapbox and tell everybody they can’t do it, I’m just not doing it myself, that’s all. I’m not interested, it doesn’t take me anywhere’. And, yeah, you do feel kind of ostracised.”

Paul Rodgers left Bad Company shortly after Rough Diamonds was released in 1982. “I had a family, I had young kids and I was thinking, you know, I’ve got to get up and take these guys to school… To cut a long story short, I felt that they [the other three] weren’t pulling their weight on that album. And I decided to move on from there, really.”

Ralphs says he took Rodgers’s decision philosophically. “I expected it, really. Because all the time we were having the success I kept thinking, well, this is great but it ain’t gonna last. It was like, well, we’ve had our run and maybe we should just retire gracefully.”

Of course, the story of Bad Company didn’t quite end there. Nor was what came next particularly graceful. At the urging of Atlantic label chief Ahmet Ertegun, the band ploughed on, with vocalist Brian Howe, for four further albums. Kirke recalls those years now as “possibly the worst period of my life. I got seriously into drink and blow, and went to the first of five rehabs. I was in a terrible mess. When Ertegun called suggesting a regroup without Rodgers, it seemed like a way out. It’s a period of my life I’m not that proud of, but I will add a caveat. It might not have been Bad Co as most people remembered it, but we got a lot of new fans and we did some pretty good tours.”

Again, though, it didn’t last. Brian Howe was “a difficult man to get on with, and we’re still having issues with him to this day”. A sigh. “I’m not gonna go into it all right now, but every now and again promoters book him as Bad Company and we have to [deal with it].”

“I wasn’t sure about doing it with someone else,” admits Ralphs, “but I could see the business logistics of doing it and carrying on the name. It wasn’t the same of course, but we decided to give it a go. I just did it because at the time I didn’t really have anything else to do.” He adds: “I don’t think [Howe] viewed it as doing it for a long period of time. I got the feeling he didn’t really have that much respect for the original Bad Company. He was a little bit, like… jealous, I suppose.”

With Howe eventually ousted, by the 1990s Bad Company had become a brand name, touring the US with what seemed to be a revolving cast of characters: Robert Hart came in as singer; Foreigner bassist Rick Wills replaced Burrell; Dave ‘Bucket’ Colwell joined on second guitar. Paul Rodgers wasn’t the only one who viewed things from afar as “descending into total chaos”.

In a bid to end it, he agreed to get back together with the original line-up for what might have been a full-blown reunion with the release of the 1999 Bad Company Anthology album, replete with four new tracks, two of which – Hey, Hey and Hammer Of Love – became modest US hits.

The subsequent tour, however, “wasn’t a great success,” confesses Kirke. “Paul and myself were sober. Mick and Boz weren’t. We had to have our own tour bus. They had to have their own bus. I was fresh in AA and I had to witness Boz swigging vodka out of a bottle and chopping out lines in the dressing room. It was tough for me. Plus, by that time Boz was pretty much heart and soul into jazz playing, and he was very difficult to get on with… The tour ended and that was it, really. We didn’t share a moment together since.”

In September 2006 Burrell succumbed to a fatal heart attack. He was 60. “He’d had warnings from doctors to cut down and watch it,” says Ralphs, “then just carried on when he felt good again.”

The remaining three members have come together again in recent times: first for a one-off show in Florida last year – now available on DVD – and then 10 further US dates, occasions that were prompted as much by a pressing legal need to keep the Bad Company trademark from falling into disarray, they confess, as any renewed urge to find a happy ending.

As Kirke says: “We did that DVD last year and there wasn’t much romance behind it.”

Maybe the romance will blossom on 2010’s just-announced UK tour. As for Rodgers, when asked how he views his former Bad Co bandmates now, he replies carefully: “Well, I think we can say that we’re musical friends nowadays.” Perhaps not such bad company after all, then.

Mick Wall

Mick Wall is the UK's best-known rock writer, author and TV and radio programme maker, and is the author of numerous critically-acclaimed books, including definitive, bestselling titles on Led Zeppelin (When Giants Walked the Earth), Metallica (Enter Night), AC/DC (Hell Ain't a Bad Place To Be), Black Sabbath (Symptom of the Universe), Lou Reed, The Doors (Love Becomes a Funeral Pyre), Guns N' Roses and Lemmy. He lives in England.