Interview: Simon Kirke, drummer for Bad Company
By Will Harris
Simon Kirke’s career in music stretches back to his early teens, which means that he’s been sitting behind a drum kit for 50 years at this point, but you’ll be pleased to know that he’s not only still playing but, indeed, estimates that he’s playing better now than he did when he was half his current age. Then again, he was working with a slight handicap back then, but we’ll let him tell you about that. With the release of Rhino’s new Bad Company boxed set, THE SWAN SONG YEARS, Kirke was kind enough to hop on the phone and take a stroll through his back catalog, discussing his early career, his Free time, i.e. the time he spent in the band Free, and how he and Paul Rodgers subsequently joined forces with a couple of guys who’d just left their former bands – that would be Mick Ralphs from Mott the Hoople and Boz Burrell from King Crimson – and became one of the biggest bands of the ‘70s.
First of all, I wanted to dive into your origin story, as it were. You've obviously been making music for many a year at this point, but what led you down that path to begin with?
Well, when I was growing up in England in a very remote part of the country, my only real solace was the music that I listened to on a tiny transistor radio. The station of choice back in those days was Radio Luxembourg, a tiny little country near Belgium, and it used to broadcast R&B, blues, and rock 'n' roll. All the things that the BBC wouldn't touch back in the late '50s and very early '60s. And when I was about 13, I got involved in a band called The Maniacs, and... No, actually, let me backtrack a little bit! I was approached by our school bus driver, who'd heard that I played drums - you know, I had a little kit - and he wanted me to go and play alongside... He ran a disco in the evenings, he had a stack of 45s, and he wanted me to play drums alongside of it. Never been done before or since! [Laughs.] And I did that for about two years, and I got a very good sense of timing, 'cause I had to play along to records. You know, I had to be in time. So it was a great education for me!
And then during that time, at once of the local dances, this guy Richie Jones approached me and asked, "Would you like to be in a band called The Maniacs?" Great name. [Laughs.] And we toured all over the tri-county area for about two or three years and got quite a following. And then I left them when I was about 16, I think, or 17, and I joined a trio - I was the singer and drummer - called Heat Wave. And that was my last band before I left school and came down to London.
Was that when you joined Black Cat Bones?
Yeah, exactly. It was early 1968, I was 19, and...it's quite a famous story now: I tossed a coin whether I would stay in or take a very long subway ride to see this band called Black Cat Bones...and had it come down tails, you know, I wouldn't be talking to you now! [Laughs.] It's funny how things worked out. But, yeah, I went and I saw this band, they were okay, but the guitarist was wonderful. A young kid. Younger than me, I found out! And I struck up a conversation with Paul Kossoff, and he said, "Oh, well, we're getting rid of our drummer tonight, and we're having auditions tomorrow, so if you want to come along..." And I did, and I got the gig, and I was with Black Cat Bones for about six months. And then me and Paul split and formed Free with Paul Rodgers and Andy Fraser.
One thing with the timeline that I couldn't figure out was when you worked with Champion Jack Dupree. Was that as a member of Free, or was it pre-Free?
Yeah, that was pre-Free. That was Black Cat Bones. There's an album out called WHEN YOU FEEL THE FEELING YOU WAS FEELING, and that featured Black Cat Bones with Champion Jack Dupree on about five or six tracks, I believe.
How did that come to pass? Was he touring the UK, or was he living there?
No, he was from New Orleans originally, but he lived up in Leeds, up in the north of England, and he was quite a celebrity up there. And he was a great guy. He paid me a huge compliment the very first time we did a gig together. I was floating. He just said, "Man, this guy can play!" To the audience! I was absolutely stunned. But anyway, it was a huge boost to my confidence.
With Free, were you surprised with the way you guys just blew up?
Well, people think of it as an overnight success, but, really, Free slogged 'round the country for about two years, really, doing hundreds and hundreds of dives and little clubs. It wasn't until our third album was released - FIRE AND WATER - that we had the big hit and all that groundwork, all that slogging around the country paid off dividends. When "All Right Now" became a hit, all those thousands of people that we played to over the years suddenly created this groundswell of support, and we became really a very big band indeed. But it certainly wasn't overnight. But it's hard to imagine, even though it was only two years that we'd been around. It felt like a lot longer than that! But when you're that age, when you're in your late teens, a year feels like five years. Now, at the other end of the spectrum, a year is like three months. [Laughs.] That's just the way it is!
When you look back at the Free discography, FIRE AND WATER is obviously the one that people remember the most, but is there an album that's underrated in your mind?
Ooh, what a good question! I've never had that before. Huh. [Long pause.] Well, I think HIGHWAY, which followed FIRE AND WATER. Obviously it had a real tough job to follow a hit album and single, and it really died a death. It did. I mean, the single, "The Stealer," that didn't chart, the album didn't chart, and it did a real blow for us. But I think that was underrated, blamed in part by a slight change in direction. Around about the time HIGHWAY came out, everyone in England was listening to The Band, and The Band was a huge influence on a lot of groups in England. And we became a little less rock and a little more gentle. Almost country-ish on some track. So it was kind of a perfect storm for the album to fail, in that it didn't have a hit single and there was this slight change in direction. It just missed the mark and really fell through the cracks. And, really, it broke the band up. That whole time, we were very disappointed, in that we couldn't follow up "All Right Now" or FIRE AND WATER, and we became disillusioned, and the band broke up. So there it is.
[Writer's note: Just as a point of clarification, HIGHWAY did chart, but he's still right about it dying a death, in that it stalled at #41 on the UK Albums chart, as opposed to FIRE AND WATER, which climbed all the way to #2. And just for the record, although "The Stealer" didn't chart in the UK, it did make it to #49 on the Billboard Hot 100. Again, though, this is compared to "All Right Now" making it to #4, so you can still understand where Kirke is coming from.]
So what led to the formation of Bad Company? Did Paul just want to move onward and ask if you wanted to come along?
Well, Free sort of ground to a halt in very early 1973. I went away. I was fed up with everything. I went to Brazil and stayed there for a few months. When I came back, Paul and Mick Ralphs had gotten together. Mick had left Mott the Hoople, and Paul's band, Peace, had floundered, and I called Paul out of the blue, and he said, "Oh, you know, I'm working with Mick. Would you like to play drums?" And I said, "I'd love to!" I'd always gotten on well with Paul. And that was mid-1973. And then, of course, he wanted me to find a bass player, so during the summer and early fall of '73, we auditioned 16 bass players...and Boz Burrell was the last guy, Only because he was in King Crimson. And we didn't like King Crimson. [Laughs.] But he turned out to be great. And he was the one. So we sort of launched ourselves in very early 1974.
Looking back, it's amazing how you guys ruled the charts almost immediately, between "Can't Get Enough" and your theme song, if you will.
Yeah! "Bad Company," "Can't Get Enough," "Ready for Love," "Movin' On"... I mean, we still play four or five songs from that album to this day. And they still get a great reception! It really was a very good album. It was stripped down. It was a very there album. Very few overdubs. And I think it was an antithesis to the glam rock that was popular in those days. You know, Gary Glitter and Bowie and Sweet. There were a lot of bands around in that time. And we were the antidote to that. And, of course, we had the backing of Swan Song: Led Zeppelin and Peter Grant. So it was a perfect storm, and we had a huge success pretty much right out of the box.
And you guys, I noticed, self-produced your albums. Was that something you guys had to fight for?
No, that was one thing that Peter Grant was very good at: letting us have our own way. And the same with Zeppelin. Jimmy [Page] and the rest of the guys always produced their own albums. And, really, what is an album production? You're monitoring what you write, monitoring how you play... Sometimes you can't see the woods for the trees, and that's where a producer comes in. [Laughs.] But in our case, we had eight tracks - we actually had ten, but we only chose eight - and every one of them was a good track, so we said, "I guess we produced this!" And that's it. But, yeah, we always produced our own albums.
If I've got this right, you actually recorded that first album at Ronnie Lane's mobile studio.
Yep, we did. At Headley Grange. And it's a fascinating story, really, because Zeppelin were in the middle of recording I think their third album, and John Paul Jones got the flu, so they couldn't play for a week or two. So Peter Grant called us and said, "We've got all this gear down here at the recording studio going to waste. Would you like to use the time?" And we did. We recorded all the tracks in, I believe, about a week. Not even a week! I think mixing took another week or 10 days. So the whole album was produced in less than a month, it cost us about 18,000 pounds, and it went on to sell... I believe it's around 10 or 12 million now. So a pretty good investment!
And then you turned around and recorded the second album, STRAIGHT SHOOTER, remarkably quickly, given that everyone always says the second album is the hardest album to make.
Well, it always is, particularly if you have to follow up a hit album. But luckily we did! That was the great thing about Bad Company in those days. We... [Hesitates.] How can I put this? We would sort of be straining at the leash for months to get up and prove that we could really follow up our previous bands. We had our hit bands with Free, Mott the Hoople, and King Crimson, and we had quite a lot to prove. And we did. The second album produced "Shooting Star" and "Feel Like Making Love." We had "Good Lovin' Gone Bad." I had a couple of songs on there, which was wonderful for my ego. [Laughs.] I mean, it was a really good couple of albums there.
I'd actually wanted to ask you about the songwriting process. You wrote "Weep No More" and "Anna" for STRAIGHT SHOOTER. Was it a case of coming to the table with a song and then from there it became a group effort to bring it to full fruition? Or were you doing demos independently first?
Well, it was sort of a three-way writing process. Primarily it was Paul and Mick. They wrote the bulk of the songs. And Paul would come up songs by himself, and I think Mick had three songs written by himself on the first album. But it was really from the second album onward that Mick and Paul started collaborating. And I'd been writing songs for a few years, and they let me have "Weep No More," which was a huge song for me on the second album, with an orchestra and the whole thing. It was wonderful for my ego! But without wanting to be big-headed, the template that I'm comparing it to or that it's similar to would be George Harrison in the Beatles. It was always Lennon and McCartney, but then George would have a song on the album, and then two albums down the line he'd have another song. So my input as a solo writer was minimal, really, but I like to think that when I did contribute, they were pretty good songs. They're very musical. I wanted to be a hard rocker, snarling and unshaven, but try as I might, that's not me. I'm like a choirboy on crack. [Laughs.]
As the band progressed, was there ever any argument in terms of an overall sonic direction?
No. There was never any. We were pretty good with each other. We'd have a listening session and say what was good and what didn't make the cut. But what we always did was record, and the proof in the pudding, as they say, was in the listening back. Sometimes you have to put a song down on tape to listen to it with any degree of direction. It's all very well getting around a couple of guitars in the living room, but that doesn't really give it its full potential. So we always recorded songs and then listened back to say "yes" or "no." I mean, Boz later on in our career started to contribute, and his contributions - although they're only two or three songs - are wonderful. He had a very sort of melodic, jazzy direction or approach, shall I say. His song, "Gone Gone Gone," we still play to this day, and it goes down really well. There was another one called "Smokin’ 45," which never made an album, unfortunately, because I thought it was wonderful. But I believe it's on one of the compilations, and it's a great song. So, you know, we all contributed. But it was primarily Paul and Mick.
I've heard that the last of the original run of albums, ROUGH DIAMONDS, was - like its title - rough putting together.
Yeah, it was a tough one, that. We'd been working on and off for seven years, the endless cycle of tour, album, tour, album, we were all doing a lot of drugs, and the strain eventually got to us. And by ROUGH DIAMONDS, I certainly was in pretty bad shape. Me and Boz, particularly. I mean, we still managed to turn out a pretty decent album. But it didn't really have the fire or the cohesion that the other albums had, although there were a couple of good tracks on there...and I'd have to look at the track listing to point them out. But, really, it was pretty much a bit of a limp album, in a way. And after that we broke up.
Actually, let me add a caveat: between DESOLATION ANGELS and ROUGH DIAMONDS, it was the worst time in rock and roll. Lennon was shot, John Bonham died, Led Zeppelin broke up, Peter Grant went into seclusion... We were completely in a tailspin. And when Led Zeppelin ceased to be, our whole bedrock of management just disintegrated, and Paul went off and decided he wanted to have a solo career. And that was it.
Was there any hesitation about doing the FAME AND FORTUNE album, given that Paul wasn't part of it?
[Hesitates.] Well, you know, you're touching on a subject now that's a bit of a sore tooth for me. But I have to own up to it. After a couple of years, we got a call from Ahmet Ertegun, the head of Atlantic. He called Mick and said, "Listen, guys, you're a great band. Fine, Paul wants to go off and do his own thing. Why don't you get another singer?" And there was a certain... I don't know, I agreed. I thought, "Fuck it! We've come all this way, invested all this time and effort, and now Paul doesn't want to be a part of it, so let's soldier on without him and with another singer!" And Mick Jones from Foreigner had been grooming Brian Howe as a possible replacement for Lou Gramm. As it turned out, Lou decided to stay with the band, and Brian Howe came for an audition. He was actually pretty good, I have to say. He had a different singing voice to Paul. It was much more rock. It wasn't bluesy or soulful. But he was very eager to work, and that was a huge factor for us. You know, Paul had become quite distant. There'd been a huge fist fight within the band, and the feelings between the four of us were not good at all. So we brought in Brian Howe.
FAME AND FORTUNE was a completely different direction. It sold very well, as did HOLY WATER. I mean, they both sold millions of albums. But I kind of think it was on the back of the popularity of the original band. And it's funny... I mean, I saw some Facebook quotes recently about how a lot of people grew up with the Bad Company version with Brian Howe.
I was going to say, actually, that my first real exposure to the band was hearing "No Smoke Without a Fire” (from DANGEROUS AGE).
Yeah! And I have to sort of remember that there were three incarnations of the band, and the second one - with Brian Howe - was really quite successful! But it really wasn't the Bad Company that I knew and loved. And me and Mick and Brian had a falling-out after a few years, and it became very hard to work with. And we were all dealing with our own problems, but ultimately... I love Mick and I still do to this day, and Boz came on board for awhile, but he got fed up, and when Boz left, I was, like, "Wow, we're really running on empty here." And then Brian left - or got the sack, depending on your point of view - and we got in yet another singer, Robert Hart, and another line-up, and we carried on until about 1996. And then we just stopped for three or four years. And then Paul Rodgers came back!
In regards to this new box set, THE SWAN SONG YEARS, this is in line with the question I asked about Free, but is there a Bad Company album that you think people should make a point of investigating that they might not have paid as much attention to the first time around?
Oh, um... [Long pause.] You know, they all got their fair due, the albums. I mean, I'm still very fond of STRAIGHT SHOOTER, but that sold about five million, so I'm not complaining about that! [Laughs.] So, no, I think that all the albums we recorded with Paul Rodgers got their fair share and their fair day in court. They were all pretty well received, and... Yeah, that was it! Unlike Free, I don't think there's an album that was underrated.
I know Boz passed away, but where do things stand with you, Paul, and Mick these days?
Yes. unfortunately, Boz died several years ago - 10 years ago! - and Mick had a stroke, and he's incapacitated. Unfortunately, I believe his career is over. So that leaves me and Paul. And I might be biased, but...we still sound pretty good! [Laughs.] Even after all these years! We just did some shows in Chicago, and he still sings wonderfully, and I'm playing as well as I ever did.
I've been sober awhile now - quite a few years - so that helps. I'm going to be 70 in a couple of weeks' time, and I'm playing better now than I did when I was half this age, back when I was drinking and drugging. I always managed to keep a good beat, but when you're out of it, you're sort of just hanging on. You're not contributing. And that's what I did for awhile. And I'll tell anyone that cares to listen - because it's part of my program to help other people that struggle with drink and drugs - that I managed to fool a lot of people. Eric Clapton said - although I don't believe 100% what he said - that all the music that he played while he was drinking and drugging had no worth. I don't think that's true. He meant it at the time, and so did we. Things are a lot better now. I think when you stop drinking and drugging, life gets a whole lot better. And Paul doesn't drink or do drugs, so even though we're getting up there now in terms of years, I think we're playing better than we did 40 years ago.
Before we wrap up, I just wanted to say in regards to Mick that I knew about the stroke, but I hadn't known how bad it was. I'm very sorry to hear that.
Yeah, I'm afraid his playing days are over. It's a tragedy. I miss him terribly. I love Mick. B.B. King said a great thing years ago: he said, "If you like a guy, it counts for a whole lot when you're playing with him." I mean, Mick maybe wasn't the genius guitarist that Paul Kossoff was, but Mick still played wonderfully, and he was great fun to be around. And working with geniuses is overrated. They're a pain in the ass...Paul Rodgers being the exception! [Laughs.]
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