On its first album, Bad Company — led by former Free singer Paul Rodgers and original Mott guitarist Mick Ralphs — resembles Free in its structural starkness and early Mott in its stormy directness. In Bad Company, Robert Benton’s overlooked 1972 western from whose title the group got its name, the chief characters, Civil War-era teenage romantics, displayed a sort of swaggering innocence that was quite affecting. The personality of this appealing new band is similar.
The rhythm section — bass player Boz Burrell and another former Free member, drummer Simon Kirke — plays with such economy you’d think they’re penalized for hitting unnecessary notes. But they make up for the spareness of their lines through the sheer muscularity of their playing (Kirke is as physical a hitter as any I’ve heard). This hard, spartan bottom forms a tangible base for the exploits of the two front men.
Rodgers’s voice is Bad Company’s virtuoso instrument; he’s one of the most impressive rock singers of the decade. He shares with Rod Stewart a vocal delivery that derives its expressiveness from a shifting emphasis on its jagged edge and its sweet, delicate center. Although Rodgers’s expressive abilities match Stewart’s, his taste in material as yet does not. He’s always depended on his own writing or that supplied by other members of his bands for practically every bit of material he performs, a decision that has often forced him to make more out of the songs he sings than is actually there (lack of consistently strong material may well have prevented Free from making it in America). With Bad Company, Rodgers persists in his insistence on group-produced songs, but fortunately Mick Ralphs has as deft a touch with a rock & roll song as he does with a guitar line. His three songs on the album (he collaborated on two others with Rodgers) are highlights.
Ralphs, like Rodgers, will never win any awards for his verbal skills — although each at his best is capable of writing lines with the hard-hitting simplicity of first-rate R&B lyrics. But with Bad Company, as with Mott, Ralphs’s manipulations of conventional rock & roll elements — bolstered by his fluid and exciting guitar work — show consistent inventiveness. His “Can’t Get Enough” (built around the Zeppelin-like riff Mick played in Mott’s stage version of “One of the Boys”) and “Movin’ On” contain nothing that hasn’t been done a thousand times before, but each sounds irresistibly fresh. Ralphs’s “Ready For Love” (which he sang himself on All the Young Dudes), has the measured, somber gait of a Free song in the verses, with explosions of accumulated tension in the choruses. On the other hand, his tough riffing bolsters but can’t substantially upgrade Rodgers’s inane and melodically drab “Rock Steady” (Paul’s other solo-written song, “The Way I Choose,” is considerably better).
But with “Don’t Let Me Down,” one of their collaborative efforts, Rodgers and Ralphs hit a higher level than either has managed singly. Perhaps working as a team has bolstered the confidence of each and made it easier to take some chances: They’ve taken the mood as well as the chief phrase from the haunting Beatles’ song, and they’ve dressed it in an arrangement that extends beyond their usual self-imposed bounds, encompassing an ascending sax line, a big-sounding vocal chorus and an expansive overall feel. Along with the similarly dusky “Ready For Love,” “Don’t Let Me Down” is the most dramatic thing on the album, suggesting an area for Bad Company to explore further on its next recording.
This is an uncompromising album, reflecting the wills as much as the talents of the participants, and it’s all the more impressive in light of the fact that it was recorded immediately after the group’s formation. The stylistic rigidness of Bad Co. may prevent the band from becoming a supergroup right off the bat, but the album’s raw strengths will surely draw diehard rock & roll listeners. With upgraded material — perhaps including non-originals — more stylistic daring of the sort displayed on “Don’t Let Me Down” and the maturation of the already rewarding relationship between Rodgers and Ralphs, Bad Company could become a tremendous band.