Remembering Bad Company's debut album 50 years later

A supergroup came together.
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They weren’t the first, and they weren’t the best. But of all the rock and roll supergroups that began springing to life in the late 1960s and have continued unabated til today, Bad Company may have been the most definitive. That’s because Bad Company didn’t necessarily place the emphasis on the first word – super – as is often the case. They placed it on group.

That’s not to say that the four musicians who comprised the classic lineup weren’t virtuosos in their own rights. Bassist Boz Burrell played in a thousand bands. Immediately prior to joining Bad Company, he had been with the seminal prog-rock outfit King Crimson. Guitarist Mick Ralphs came from Mott the Hoople. He could not only play virtually anything but had formidable songwriting chops. Drummer Simon Kirke and vocalist Paul Rodgers had been in Free, for whom they had recently scored a Top Ten hit with “All Right Now.”

These guys weren’t exactly John, Paul, George, and Ringo. But they were known entities amongst rock fans and critics, and their impending union, under the management of Led Zeppelin’s Peter Grant, had those in the know salivating.

Bad Company's debut album was a fantastic blast of rock and roll

So it was that on May 24, 1974 – fifty years ago --  their self-titled debut album dropped and rather quickly flew up the charts to Number One. Eight songs. Thirty-five minutes. The sounds weren’t new or revolutionary. They were just really, really good.

Bad Company was far from fancy. As rock music was beginning its drift toward the sterility of arenas and well-produced but passionless anthems, Bad Company was an old breath of fresh air. Simon Kirke hit his drums and cymbals with equal ferocity. He didn’t serve up a lot of fancy fills, but he kept the beat steady – “rock steady” as one of their minor hits proclaimed. Burrell matched him on bass. Bad Company songs always had a powerful bottom.

And they had two secret weapons that put them over the top. OK – the first was no secret. In Paul Rodgers, they had among the greatest baritone voices in rock history. The greatest lead singer lists are typically populated by the high note boys. Freddy and Axl. Plant and Tyler. Rodgers couldn’t soar to the heavens, but man could he sell a song. His tone was pure and powerful, and his phrasing was immaculate. He knew how to set up his lyrics and reach the emotional core of whatever he sang.

In Mick Ralphs, they had a flat-out brilliant rock and roll songwriter. Rodgers and Ralphs traded off songwriting for the band, with the others occasionally lending a hand. And Rodgers wrote some good songs. But almost all of their best tunes came from Ralphs.

It’s immediately evident on the first track of the debut album – “Can’t Get Enough.” The simple, powerful drums and guitar set up Rodgers' voice just right. This is usually called a love song but in reality, it is a sex song. That was Rodgers’ great gift. He could sing about desire and get the whole room – men and women alike – horny.

Ralphs wrote it, and he provides a perfect, desperate solo that again tees up Rodgers’ growing desire. There is nothing special here. It’s just rock and roll at its fundamental level, executed about as well as anyone could do it. It went on to be the group’s highest-charting single.

Then, a couple of songs later, Ralphs and Rodgers are back at it with “Ready For Love.” It’s another song about desperate passion, this time exploring the other primary facet of Bad Company’s sound. A little slower, a little moodier, with Rodgers' piano adding to the mix.

Ralphs had written it when he was with Mott the Hoople and if you ever hear their demo, you can also hear Paul Rodgers’ greatness. Mott’s music is a little more glam which didn’t fit as well as Bad Company’s old-school power balladry. But it is more about the vocals. Ralph’s original is rather thin and metronomic.

Rodgers milks it for all it’s worth. The longing drips from every note. I learned this lesson almost as soon as the song came out. Some friends were trying to master “Ready for Love,” but just couldn’t nail it. The singer was hitting the notes but doing nothing else. Then, another friend not in the band grabbed the mic and poured the proper amount of lasciviousness into the vocals and we all could hear what was missing. Unfortunately, that dude couldn’t carry a tune to save his life. The band didn’t last much longer.

Rodgers could carry a tune and he could add the full palette of tonal colors. He did it on the title track, a western bad boys brag that became the group’s signature. (The song “Bad Company” from the album Bad Company by the band Bad Company.) It’s also there on the emotional plea of “Don’t Let Me Down,” an underrated slow-burn love song co-written by Rodgers and Ralphs. It stretches out musically with the inclusion of a backing choir (of just 2  -- but they sound bigger) and Mel Collins' saxophone solos.

Then there were the homages to the rock and roll lifestyle. I prefer the simple, upbeat swagger of Ralphs’ “Movin’ On,” but you can also have the chugging grind of the Rodgers’ tune “Rock Steady” if that’s more to your taste. Both became minor hits on FM radio.

The other two songs, one by Rodgers and one by Rodgers and Ralphs, are modest by comparison. Not exactly filler but not the raw energy of the rest of the album. Both tend toward a more pop sound, with softer instrumentation. Bad Company wasn’t exactly at their best when they went soft.

But with six really good, stripped-down rock and roll songs, the supergroup announced their intentions. They had their roots in the early days of rock. Several flavors – hard rock, glam, psychedelia. And they weren’t looking for anything new and shiny.

Ralphs had found the vocalist he needed to sell old-school rock songs. Rodgers had found a band that he could get along with – at least for a decade or so. Kirke and Burrell had a guy who could write and a guy who could sing while they made sure the pace never lagged. Fast song or slow song, Bad Company’s sound tingled with energy.

They had found each other. Call them “super” if the marketing team deems it a smart move. That didn’t matter so much. They were a GROUP.

They’d survive in that original configuration for ten years and six albums. The two follow-ups to Bad Company were first-rate rockers. The final three albums fell off some, though each had something to recommend. Rodgers was assuming a larger role – writing more of the songs. Tensions began to flare between him and Burrell, who was also trying to have a larger voice. It ended ugly, the way a lot of these stories do. They would reform without Rodgers, and eventually reunite with him. The original magic was mostly gone, but Bad Company could still sell rock & roll to an eager audience.

Maybe if they had been a little more “super,” that first album would not have been their creative peak. Then again, plenty of supergroups fizzled after one or two great releases. Because they were a group, we got more of Bad Company, and rock fans can appreciate that. And it all began fifty years ago today.

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