BAD COMPANY: BAD COMPANY (1974)
1) Can't Get Enough; 2) Rock Steady; 3) Ready For Love; 4) Don't Let Me Down; 5) Bad Company; 6) The Way I Choose; 7) Movin' On; 8) Seagull.
«Beware of bad company», they would warn us all in Victorian times, «nothing like bad company to bring shame and disrepute to the respectable, intellectually stimulating type of music they call hard rock». But did we listen? Hell no! And instead of ejecting ex-Free vocalist Paul Rodgers, ex-Free drummer Simon Kirke, ex-Mott The Hoople guitarist Mick Ralphs, and ex-King Crimson bassist Boz Burrell from the midst of our good company, we blessed them on their long road towards radio success, popularizing guitar distortion among truck drivers and competing with Frank Sinatra for the love of bored housewives. No longer would hard rock have to be associated with words like «scary» or «creepy». And while it would be unfair to put all the blame on Bad Company, they share an impressive enough chunk of it to deserve this opening shot. It is extremely ironic, in retrospect, that the band was the first act to be signed by Led Zeppelin's new label Swan Song — considering that Bad Company stand for pretty much everything in hard rock that Led Zep usually stand against.
None of which should be interpreted as a flat-out condemnation of their self-titled debut, which is actually pretty good, as far as «soft hard rock» ever goes, and may be even better for those whose ears have not been punished in childhood through continuous exposure to mind-numbing «Classic Rock Radio». The long-term fiasco of Bad Company could be predictable right from the start, but the start itself was respectable. All of the members came from vastly superior bands — Free were among the original pioneers of blues-based hard rock; Mott The Hoople were among the first outfits to blend hard rock with singer-songwriting and punk attitude; and King Crimson were... um, a band with a sitting guitarist — and even though the basic idea was to keep it simpler, stupider than their predecessors, their «supergroup» status at first helped minimize the trauma.
Of all the individual band members, in terms of sheer sonic contribution, nobody matters much here except for Rodgers. On a Free album, the man would always compete for attention with the guitar player and the bassist, both of whom were not only accomplished, but earnestly strived to flash and flaunt their accomplishments. On Bad Company, all of the musicians merely play — doing their best to simply keep a steady groove and lay down the basic chords. In his Crimson days, Boz Burrell was actually taught how to play bass by Fripp, and although they taught him well enough to lay down some fine playing on a few KC songs, by the time he ran away to Bad Company he'd already forgotten most of it. Mick Ralphs never was a guitar phenomenon even in his Mott days, much less here. Simon Kirke is a fine drummer, 'sall. All of which means — no competition for Paul: Bad Company belongs to him, fair and square.
The general policy of the album is announced immediately. A brief countdown, a generic C power chord, two more, off you go — and a greatest hit is born, a song that one could probably learn to play in five minutes, which is likely to constitute 0.0000001% of the total amount of time it has been played on radio stations around the world since 1974. I still cannot understand what it is about ʽCan't Get Enoughʼ that makes it stick, but somehow it does something for me that ten thousand similar songs, following in its wake, do not. Maybe it's just Rodgers' personal charm. It certainly cannot be any sort of «melodic impact».
That said, the only two songs from Bad Company that I would want to preserve for the perennial playlist are ʽRock Steadyʼ and ʽReady For Loveʼ, conveniently placed side-by-side. ʽRock Steadyʼ is like ʽFoxy Ladyʼ-lite, built around a similar chord sequence, but simplified, trimmed, lotioned, and meticulously integrated in The Establishment. Still, the guitar and bass retain some primal meanness which, when multiplied by Rogers' slightly threatening intonations, belies the band's nature as totally robotic and artificial. ʽReady For Loveʼ was brought by Ralphs over from his Mott days (it had already appeared two years earlier on All The Young Dudes), and even though the original was rougher and grittier, with a thick distorted rumble at the center of things, Rodgers is clearly the man to sing it, far more convincing than Ian Hunter with his lack of range and vocal power ever was. (Not that Hunter couldn't deliver a mean tune when one was available, but sizzly-steamy slowburners like ʽReady For Loveʼ honestly deserve a different fate).
Bad Company ballads are a whole lotta different story. I can handle the combination of «Paul Rodgers + muscular hard rock groove», but «Paul Rodgers + wimpy country-rock mush» is a bit too much. Therefore, ʽDon't Let Me Downʼ (no relation to the Beatles song, fortunately), ʽThe Way I Chooseʼ (aren't they the exact same song, by the way?), and even the minimalistic acoustic ballad ʽSeagullʼ, which have nothing whatsoever to recommend them except for Rodgers' «magic», may freely and without compensation vanish off the face of the planet for all I care. The only song that redeems the second side is the title track — a romantic outlaw painting tailor-made for Rodgers' persona, even distinctly echoing Elton John's Tumbleweed Connection in spots.
And still, a thumbs up. Bad Company is what we might call a ʽbad album gone goodʼ, to paraphrase one of the band's future titles: as lame as the basic idea behind the existence of Bad Company may be in general, this particular realization of it exceeds expectations. The band's complete motto for 1974 actually read «keep it simple, but inspired». Over the next two years, with money, dope, and cheap fame rolling in, that motto would get short-circuited.
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