Bad Company was one of the hottest bands of the 1970s, generating sold-out houses wherever they went. Now they’re out for a summer tour opening for Ted Nugent and backing a new album, “Company of Strangers.”
And after 20-odd years and much upheaval, the future still looks pretty good.
Formed in 1974, Bad Company was the first act signed to Led Zeppelin’s Swan Song label. Founding member Simon Kirke played drums in singer Paul Rodgers’ band Free, while guitarist Mick Ralphs and singer Ian Hunter formed Mott the Hoople. When Kirke, Ralphs, and Rodgers paired up, Bad Company was born.
They cranked out hit album after hit album in the ‘70s, including their debut, “Straight Shooter,” “Run With the Pack” and “Desolation Angels,” and such classic singles as “Feel Like Makin’ Love,” “Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy” and “Shooting Star.”
“I was amazed when the first incarnation was as successful as it was,” Ralphs said in a telephone interview from Tampa, Fla. “It was an incredible time for us.”
Swan Song dissolved when Zeppelin drummer John Bonham died, and Bad Company did likewise. Rodgers was in The Firm with Jimmy Page for two albums in the mid-1980s. Bad Company continued with new singer Brian Howe for four records, but for Ralphs and the other original members, that was a chaotic time.
“I nearly gave it up - I was very unhappy,” Ralphs said. “There (was) this thing with the name Bad Company on it that was making money for all these people, but it wasn’t really what I considered to be Bad Company.”
A change in management and dropping Howe was just the ticket. The current record was a band effort; every member wrote songs.
“Before this current lineup, there was none of that,” he said. “This band now is almost like the original band - it’s got the same feel for me.
“To be in the position we’re in now is a great feeling for me. We’re on the verge of doing something great again, because we’re doing it the right way for the right reasons.”
“Company of Strangers” breaks no real new ground for Bad Company, but their trademark blues-rock sound seems re-energized.
“There are certain parameters that Bad Company has and we work within that framework,” Ralphs said. “We’re very fortunate to have a style and a sound that’s recognizable.
“When people hear the new record, they say, ‘Oh, that sounds like Bad Company.’ That makes me feel so good, because that’s all I want them, really, to say.”
The title track is reminiscent of the song “Bad Company,” from the band’s debut album. It’s a tale of the Wild West where a lost soul winds up in jail “in the company of strangers.” He gets out only to commit another crime and winds up dead.
“We like to write about these things that fascinate us, like the Wild West and the good guys and the bad guys,” Ralphs said. “I suppose it’s the Clint Eastwood approach to thinking. … It’s sort of a romantic notion that English people have about America and the West.”
The poignant “Little Martha” was written by friends of the band in collaboration with guitarist Dave “Bucket” Colwell. It was inspired by a visit one writer made to the Macon, Ga., grave of a girl who died at 12.
Ralphs is a restrained, tasteful guitarist in the blues tradition - no flash, no fretboard fireworks.
“When I’m playing the solo, I’m basically taking the song framework and singing it with my guitar, and that’s my way of just trying to emote, if you like - taking the context of the song and playing the thing that really complements it, as a vocal would,” he said.
He compares his philosophy to that of guitar great Chet Atkins.
“People have said to Chet Atkins, ‘You seem to play very economically. Everybody else is playing all these notes all over the fingerboard.’ He said, ‘Well, they’re looking for the note. I found it.’ That’s how I feel. That’s what I try and do is hit the right note at the right moment.”
One thing Ralphs has learned after 20 years in music is balance. When he’s not on the road, he’s perfectly happy being a husband, and a father to his three kids.
“I know a lot of musicians (who) when they’re not doing it, all they want to do is be doing it,” he said. “When I’m not doing this, I’m quite happy just being me.
“A lot of people come off tours and they’ve got nothing - they don’t have families, their wife’s left them. And so they end up in the bar telling everybody boring stories about the last tour they did. I’d rather be at home doing the good stuff.”