I came across this album while thumbing through my dad’s massive LP collection, looking for his copy of Bare Trees. His albums are carefully arranged in alphabetical order, but I overshot the mark a bit and found this one Free record stuck between Fleetwood Mac and Bill Frisell. I might have been unconsciously attracted to the spot because of the shine from the original plastic wrapping.
“What’s this dad? The plastic’s still on it.”
“Oh yeah, that one. My m.o. when I bought an album was to slice it open with a guitar pick so it remained in pristine condition if I wanted to take it back and trade it in. I meant to do that but never got around to it and forgot all about it until we were packing for the big move. I figured it didn’t have much value so I stuck in the crate along with everything else.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“Classic bait-and-switch. ‘All Right Now’ came out and blew me away, so I picked up the album as soon as it was available. There’s nothing on it that comes close to ‘All Right Now,’ and the single is better than the long version. Big letdown.”
I took all that in but had a hard time believing that any album featuring Paul Rodgers’ voice could be a “big letdown,” so when I left that day, my shopping bag contained Bare Trees, Close to the Edge and Fire and Water. Though I was planning reviews on the first two, my insatiable curiosity led me to listen to the Free album first. Like everyone else in the civilized world, I’d heard “All Right Now” a billion times, but because the song hit the airwaves eleven years before I popped out of the box, I missed out on the initial excitement generated by the single and didn’t have the expectations my dad carried into his initial listening experience.
The two features of the human personality that get in the way of the quest to achieve the objective evaluation of anything you care to mention are mood and expectations, two filters that are often interrelated. Let’s say you successfully get the broad with a nice rack to come up to your place only to find out that the nice rack was an optical illusion created by a push-up bra “guaranteed to add two sizes to your bustline.” Your dashed expectations take you out of the mood, and the best you can do at that point is honor the implied commitment to B-cup Betty by tossing her a pity fuck. Your disappointment is on you, for if you hadn’t been hungering for Dolly Parton, you might have found out that B-cup Betty gives great head, can take anything you can dish out and can squeeze every last drop out of your tube steak.
The mess created by mood and expectations manifests itself frequently in music criticism, even on altrockchick.com. When I was preparing my ain’t-gonna-happen book of reviews for publication, I came across at least a dozen reviews where I could see either mood or expectations had gotten in the way of a fair evaluation. I edited them accordingly, but like a recovering addict, I know that it’s always possible that I’ll slip again someday.
In this case, as much as I’d love to embarrass my father in a public forum by telling him he’s full of crap, I fully understand his reaction. “All Right Now” is clearly the outlier on Fire and Water, a sexy hard rocker attached to the end of an album dominated by slow to mid-tempo songs in the realm of blues-R&B-soul delivered through rock instruments. Andy Fraser and Paul Rodgers came up with the song because the band lacked a concert closing number that would excite the crowd and make them beg for an encore. If I’m my father in his early twenties with his testosterone set to ignite at the sound of kick-ass rock ‘n’ roll, I might have been seriously pissed off by the extended foreplay represented by the six songs that precede “All Right Now.”
But while the album has other weaknesses (the volume sliders were often set too low on Paul Rodgers’ vocals, sometimes the bass tones are off), the album does have its strengths. Free began life as a precocious group of teenagers riding the wave of the British Blues Boom, and their early education in the blues gave them a solid foundation on which to build their sound. Andy Fraser spent some time playing with John Mayall (at the age of fifteen!), and despite the occasionally odd EQ level from the engineer, he was a nimble bassist good enough to earn a couple of bass solos on the album. Paul Kossoff was a young man who would die way too young, but in that short time established himself as a versatile, soulful and innovative guitarist. Even at this early stage in his career, Simon Kirke had mastered the essentials of beat, and his steadiness on the kit definitely contributed to the band’s tightness. As for Paul Rodgers, well . . . though I occasionally have to crank up the volume to hear him, his performances on Fire and Water demonstrate that he was well on his way to becoming a top tier lead vocalist.
On the title track, though, Rodgers takes a back seat to the magnificent guitar work of Paul Kossoff, who filled both the lead and rhythm guitar roles. If you want to explain to someone what texture means to music, and how well-executed contrasting textures give the music dimensional depth, have them listen to the instrumental break in “Fire and Water.” The rhythm guitar slams out the base chords with rough, pre-metal tonality, bolstering the rhythmic intensity. The two lead guitar parts are split between long sustained notes in a comparatively mellow tone and a series of blues-influenced riffs that kiss the tonal border of the rhythm guitar before pulling back. To my ears, the rhythm guitar is the hot fire, the lead guitar the cool water, and the tonal proximity of the blues riffs mirrors the bipolar but unified personality of the ball-breaking mistress at the heart of the song:
Baby you turn me on
But as quick as a flash your love is gone
Baby I’m gonna leave you now
But I’m gonna try to make you grieve somehow
Fire and water must have made you their daughter
Kossoff receives superb support from Andy Fraser on bass and piano, a relatively restrained but beautifully delivered lead vocal from Rodgers and marvelous cueing from Simon Kirke (who earns himself a multi-tonal drum solo on the fade). “Fire and Water” may not be a burst-out-of-the-gate album opener, but it’s one damned fine piece of work with a tantalizing grind that immediately earned it a spot on my notorious fuck playlists.
Free dials it down even further in the notably introverted piece, “Oh, I Wept.” While the biblically melodramatic title is a bit of a turn-off, the low-key arrangement is disciplined and surprisingly engaging. The dynamic peak occurs in the instrumental break, where Kossoff leads with a solo of sweet bends that highlight his precise but sensitive picking while the rhythm section of Fraser and Kirke add a touch of muscle to the mix. Rodgers’ vocal is the polar opposite of his high-heat vocal on “All Right Now,” his tone of emotional exhaustion rarely rising above the level of private conversation.
“Remember” lifts the energy level a bit, a mid-tempo rocker with classic backbeat emphasis. The song opens with a nice bit of foreshadowing, again with Kossoff on lead and rhythm, the rough chords offset with a slightly dampened, reverb-kissed melodic riff. Rodgers vocal is nice and loose, marked by his stylistic lean to fill in the gaps between the lines with additional vocalizations (grunts, oh yeahs and his fallback word, “baby”). The centerpiece once again is the Kossoff solo, with the guitar separated from the rest of the sound field through the magic of reverb, his melodic echoes spot on, his clean tones ringing out with gorgeous clarity. I’m guessing that the lyrics to this Fraser-Rodgers piece came from Rodgers, as the line “We would wander around in the northern heat” points us in the direction of Rodgers’ hometown of Middlesbrough and not to the kid from London.
Andy Fraser opens “Heavy Load” with some rather stiff piano playing, probably echoes of his classical training. He loosens up a bit in the instrumental passage, but he still sounds like I did before I discovered Thelonious Monk. The best parts of the song still belong to Kossoff, who plays two lead patterns in opposite channels during his too-brief solo. Kossoff was a master of the short and sweet melodic riff, and these tiny snippets are little bursts of beauty that lift the song to a higher dimension. As is true of most of the songs on Fire and Water, the lyrics don’t present much of an intellectual challenge, but Paul Rodgers has the ability to lend credibility to even the tritest lyrics.
We continue in downtempo mode for “Mr. Big,” where the lyrics cross the line into horrible and don’t give Rodgers much to work with. Mr. Big seems to be someone who has dissed Rodgers’ squeeze; the line “and she saves it all for me” probably indicates that Mr. Big may have implied that said squeeze had been squeezing Mr. Big’s member. I can understand how that might get a guy’s dander up, but threatening to place the alleged perpetrator in “a great big hole in the ground” is clearly over the top. Free decides to move on from this lame tale in relatively short order, ramping up the tempo for an extended instrumental break. Andy Fraser gets the solo this time, but unfortunately for Andy (who played his part well), his bass sounds more like a rubber tuba than a bass guitar, thanks to poor engineering.
Free attempts to get up from the canvas with the slowest song on the album, “Don’t Say You Love Me,” a song that Al Green might have done justice to had he not been fully capable of writing his own stuff. This song represents my dad’s strongest argument against the album, for at this point, I’m ready to scream, “Get the fuck on with it and kick some everloving ass!”
Ah! There it is! At last! The famous two-power-chord riff with a Dsus2 on second go-round! As simple and straightforward as a deep thrust and just as effective! Rip that Les Paul to fucking shreds, Paulie baby! Oh my—is Paul Rodgers feeling it or what? That little scream sounds like a man who came home, opened the door, turned on the lights and found three stacked and naked broads waiting to tend to his every need. Ah, but Paul is a professional, a disciplined and intentional vocalist, so he closes his eyes, puts all those delectable racks out of his mind and tells us what happened to him just the other day:
There she stood in the street
Smiling from her head to her feet
I said hey, what is this
Now baby, maybe she’s in need of a kiss
I said hey, what’s your name baby?
Maybe we can see things the same
Now don’t you wait or hesitate
Let’s move before they raise the parking rate
Clever line, that last one, but 99% percent of the people I know sing “Let’s move before they raise the fucking rate!” In addition to being damned satisfying, the word substitution is helpful for people who can’t sing a note but desperately want to match the intensity in Paul Rodgers’ burst of exuberance. Most of those Rodgers wannabes are unaware how skillfully Paul Rodgers has set them up for the great explosion through the masterful self-imposed restraint he exercises in the first six lines. The restraint starts to unravel with his deliberate flutter of the vowels on “wait” and “hesitate,” creating an overwhelming tension that demands not just resolution but near-orgasmic fucking resolution. The chorus in this context is incredibly grounding, giving the girls in the audience a chance to freshen up and sop up any wet spots.
I’ll cover the second verse on its second go-round, but I want to get to the instrumental passage so I can ask my dad a question. “Hey, dad! Are you out of your fucking mind? The single version is better than the long version? What? Let me quote Joe Strummer here. ‘ARRRGHHHGORRA BUH BHUH DO ARRRRGGGGHHHHNNNN!!!!’ Sorry, but I simply could not find the words to communicate how violently I disagree with your opinion. Love you too. Ciao.”
The instrumental passage in the long version of “All Right Now” demonstrates just how well the guys in Free clicked when they were on. Simon Kirke’s drumming is more like the guidance of a conductor, holding back to allow the instrumentalists to establish space, prodding them to rise to the occasion by adding a varied cymbal attack and cueing the end of the sequence with an assertive but not overbearing drum roll a few measures before the conclusion. After a brief duet featuring Kirke and Kossoff, Andy Fraser takes over with a commanding bass line that drives the chordal and tempo shift that opens to an extended Kossoff solo over Andy’s steadying piano chords. Beginning with his trademark short phrase/rest pattern, the feeling of exuberance finally catches up with Kossoff and he extends his lines while increasing the speed and intensity of his picking. His dying note is like the vocalization of satisfaction following an orgasm, but he rights himself in a hurry to deliver the main chord riff with all-out power while Paul Rodgers shouts from the wings.
The Paul Rodgers who appears in the second rendition of the second verse has GOT THE FEELING, PEOPLE! If there’s one moment when Paul Rodgers crossed the barrier between a damned good lead singer to a great one, it’s right here. Imbuing the blue line “watching every move on her face” with trembling tension, he relaxes his phrasing to conversational level, allowing him to not just sing the words but actually play both the male and female roles in the dialogue. You hear the female skepticism in the rendering of the line, “She said look—uh—what’s your gammmmmmmme.” Feeling those questioning eyes bearing into his horny soul, Rodgers attempts to defend himself, deliberately and lamely: “Baby I said slow—SLOW!—don’t go so fast!” then pleadingly, “Don’t you think that love can last?” The response is the beautifully bemused, dick-shrinking outrage of a woman with no tolerance for bullshit—there’s a definite laugh and a hidden question behind the outrage when Rodgers (playing the broad) spits out the word “LOVE,” as in “That is the lamest fucking pick-up line I’ve ever heard.” You can see her lift her eyes to the heavens now as she shouts “LORD ABOVE,” almost giggling as she sings the goodbye line, “Now you’re trying to trick me in love!” The fade can go on forever as far as I’m concerned . . . like I said, I’ve heard it a billion times, but “All Right Now” is one great piece of rock ‘n’ roll.
Alas and alack, “All Right Now” was also the death knell for Free. Simon Kirke explained how that happened on Songfacts:
It became a bit of an albatross around our necks, I have to say. Even though it elevated Free into the big leagues, it became a bit of an albatross because we couldn’t follow it. It became a huge hit all around the world, only because we wanted to have something that people could dance to, but then, of course, we had to follow it up, and Island Records were desperate for us to follow it up. Really it was just a one-off for us, and when the follow-up to ‘All Right Now’ died a death – it was called “The Stealer” – and the album that followed, Fire and Water, from which ‘All Right Now’ was taken, when that didn’t do very well, we took it to heart and the band broke up. So, in an indirect way, ‘All Right Now’ was not very good for the band, I have to say.
There’s a bit more to the story, of course. Free disbanded for a while due to a conflict between Fraser and Rodgers, reunited, then Fraser left when Paul Kossoff’s addiction rendered him unreliable. After one last album (Heartbreaker), Free split up for good, with Rodgers and Kirke moving on to Bad Company, Fraser to Sharks and Paul Kossoff in limbo until his death from a pulmonary embolism at the age of twenty-five.
So I can understand why my dad felt that “All Right Now” was kind of a tease, as that kind of kick-ass rock ‘n’ roll really wasn’t what Free wanted to do. That follow-up single, “The Stealer” is pretty dull in comparison, completely lacking the bite and excitement of their greatest hit. With their grounding in the blues and their impressive collection of talent, they certainly could have changed direction and fully committed to that kind of rock, but it just wasn’t their bag. The bulk of Fire and Water is the real Free, comfortable with slow to mid-tempo blues-tinged music that they felt suited their talents. They played well, but the kind of music they chose to produce was never going to set the world on fire . . . and except for that one great single, they didn’t.
Still, Fire and Water is a pretty good record with some fabulous performances that didn’t deserve to spend the rest of its temporal existence wasting away in plastic wrap on my father’s immaculately organized shelves.
Nuts to you, dad!
One of the most important advances in the field rock ‘n’ roll marketing was the invention of the term, “Supergroup.” According to Wikipedia, “A supergroup is a music group whose members are previously successful as solo artists or as part of other groups or well known in other musical professions.” Most people believe that Cream was the first supergroup, though there is an equally strong argument for The Steampacket, a mid-60’s U. K. band whose members included Long John Baldry, Rod Stewart, Julie Driscoll and Brian Auger. The term gained popular approval with the release of Super Session, a record marketed to the public as a truly glorious moment in rock history featuring the integrated talents of supermen Al Kooper, Mike Bloomfield and Stephen Stills.
Al Kooper was a so-so organist but a brilliant marketer. After leaving Blood, Sweat and Tears to go to work for Columbia Records, he heard that musical hobo Mike Bloomfield was ready to leave Electric Flag, so he booked two days of studio time to jam with him. When Bloomfield didn’t show up on day two (classic Bloomfield), he called Stills, who was looking for a way out of Buffalo Springfield. When the record was released, Kooper put Bloomfield’s stuff on side one and Stills’ contributions on side two. Bottom line: Bloomfield and Stills never played together in the “super session,” but the listening audience (which included many stoners) was not discouraged from believing that these three musical giants came together to create studio magic.
Hats off to P. T. Barnum.
Soon supergroups were popping up all over the place, though for many that moniker was quite a stretch. CSN&Y, Blind Faith, Emerson, Lake and Palmer and The Traveling Wilburys certainly qualify; Humble Pie and Derek and the Dominos are a jump ball. While the term itself has little value beyond its role as an incentive for would-be buyers, the idea behind the term is even more ludicrous. If you believe that the simple act of gathering famous musicians together in a studio would automatically result in a superior outcome, then you probably believe in things like trickle-down economics and the tooth fairy. Like all other human beings, musicians have egos, and when people form groups of any kind, the first concern of any member is “Where do I stand in the pecking order?” A study of the output quality of rock supergroups would surely disprove the hypothesis that supergroups are automatically super.
It should also be pointed out that rock was not the first genre to spawn supergroups. Jazz musicians had been forming supergroups for years. Take a look at the lineups on any album by Monk, Miles, Coltrane and others and you will see a collection of musicians who clearly meet the supergroup criteria. Rock just had a stronger marketing staff than jazz.
Bad Company was marketed as supergroup from the get-go, featuring members from Free (Paul Rodgers and Simon Kirke), Mott the Hoople (Mick Ralphs) and King Crimson (Boz Burrell). None of them were “name” musicians at the time of Bad Company’s formation; they had played in bands who generally familiar to the listening public but hardly top-tier (Burrell’s time with King Crimson came long after In the Court of the Crimson King). All are now more famous for their work in Bad Company than their other engagements, so while the supergroup label may have been prematurely applied at the start of their journey, one could say that they earned the label through their work. They were an enormous commercial success from the get-go, and that success continued for several years, especially in the United States.
Their maiden voyage hit #1 on the U. S. Billboard charts, a development that had little to do with supergroup status and much more to do with the album’s content. The most prominent songs on Bad Company feature the two most irresistible attractions to Americans of all stripes: sex and violence. Sex and violence have been a winning combination in the United States ever since the late 60’s, when the restraints of older social norms were ripped apart by the “anything goes” ethic of that era. Sex songs on a rock album don’t surprise me, but why a British group would choose to write a band anthem celebrating the violent culture of the Wild West remains a complete mystery to me . . . a question we’ll explore at the proper time.
Well, Bad Company can have their anthem, but I’m claiming “Can’t Get Enough” as MY anthem. I have NEVER come close to getting enough, and once when I was experiencing the self-doubt that accompanies the passage to adulthood and fearful that I was some kind of sex addict, I went to an ob-gyn about it. “What’s the problem?” she asked, expecting another yeast infection or a garden-variety STD. “Doc, I’m always horny,” I told her. “And you’re complaining?” she laughed. She poked around my twat with a latex-shielded finger and said, “There’s nothing wrong with you physically—you just seem to have a hyper-sensitive clitoris.” I thanked her for her time but wasn’t sure if it was proper to thank her for the orgasm she induced with all that poking.
Even if the song hadn’t dealt with the constant edge of sexual desire, “Can’t Get Enough” would still appear on my fuck playlists because the music is so goddamned sexy. After Simon Kirke’s count-in and cue, Mick Ralphs lets it rip with a clean, sustained power chord using open C tuning, riding Kirke’s slap-that-bitch beat before downshifting into the rest of the three-chord pattern that ends on the bite of the Bb-F repetition. That tiny bite feels even sharper because Kirke shifts to cymbals, clearing the way for Mick’s power chords to be heard at full intensity. After a second go-round, Mick and Simon retreat to background to allow Paul Rodgers to do his thing.
Let me get this out right now: Paul Rodgers’ voice gives me the tingles—up and down my spine and deep into the nether regions discussed above. Paul Rodgers singing a sex song is an orgasmic experience, and if you don’t believe me, my dry cleaner can show you the evidence. But before you get the idea that this is just a latent schoolgirl crush on a rock star with a great voice, let me remind you that sexual stimulation can come from many sources and one of the features in a man or a woman I find most sexy is intelligence. Paul Rodgers is one of the most intelligent, thoughtful and intentional singers I’ve ever heard, in any genre. A lot of guys have sexy voices but they fail to discipline the talent with intent. Paul Rodgers pays careful attention to phrasing, understands the critical importance of build and is the master at creating a mood. As he explained in one interview, “To me, that’s what music is: creating a mood, and taking the listener to the place that you’re going.”
On “Bad Company” he’s going to take you to the lonesome prairie in the depths of night, but on “Can’t Get Enough” he’s going to drag you to the bedroom and do all sorts of wonderful things to you.
The first verse is all about command. Rodgers sings the lines with confidence and precision, making it perfectly clear what he’s after. On the second verse, he eases up slightly on the word at the end of the opening line—“Well, it’s late, and I want love.” That wicked little twist communicates the sweet side of love, the opening salvo in the seduction. It’s a disarming line that makes the clarification all the more erotic: “Love that’s gonna break me in two.” Yeah, baby! That’s what I’m talking about! None of this kissy-kissy-woo-woo shit! Let’s fuck like Klingons! As for the next line . . . I have to admit that I have always mis-heard them, probably due to my BDSM orientation. What I heard was “Gonna hang me up in the doorway/Gonna hang you up like you do,” which I heard as a request to be suspended from chains; the actual line is “Don’t hang me up in the doorway,” meaning he’s a perfect gentleman who won’t enter the house unless he has permission. Ah, that’s sweet, but gee, I was really looking forward to stringing you up! Oh, well (heavy sigh).
Rodgers gets looser in the second chorus but what really grabs my attention here are the slightly syncopated cuts where Kirke applies the high-hat. Ooh, that sound gives me the trembles! The band then shifts to all-out bash for the instrumental break, with double-tracked guitars soaring over Kirke’s let-it-the-fuck-out drum-and-cymbal pattern. When Paul returns, he sounds like a man who’s in the middle of the act, driving his member home to the very depths of his sweetheart’s anatomy. I am so disappointed when the intensity of the fade dissolves into a repetition of the opening passage. Don’t stop now, fucker! I’m not done! Four minutes and seventeen seconds ain’t gonna cut it, baby!
One footnote: this Mick Ralphs composition was rejected by his former band, Mott the Hoople. That means they rejected two Bowie classics (“Suffragette City” and “Drive-In Saturday) and one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll songs ever! What the fuck was the matter with those guys?
They had no choice but to dial it down a bit from that killer opener, and the Paul Rodgers composition “Rock Steady” was a good choice—it keeps the intensity high while foregoing the dramatic cuts and pauses of “Can’t Get Enough.” The song is about taming the wild beast who showed up in “Can’t Get Enough,” and though Rodgers tries to convince us that he’s capable of keeping his libido in abeyance, his gritty vocal expresses the opposite. He covers the range of dynamics, attenuating his vocal when telling himself to ease up on the testosterone accelerator (“When my love . . . gets a little bit too heavy”) and breaking into all-out passion when he discovers that there is indeed erotic opportunity in the slow, deep one. Virtually missing on “Can’t Get Enough,” (low bass levels are a problem throughout the album), Boz Burrell provides some nifty bass runs and strong rhythmic support throughout this piece.
“Ready for Love” was a Mick Ralphs composition that appeared on Mott’s All the Young Dudes, and anyone who has heard that version has to conclude that Mick Ralphs was not the right guy for the vocal—this is a passionate, erotic song, and Mick’s thin, reedy voice was incapable of expressing the depths of those feelings. Enter Paul Rodgers, the best in the business when it comes to setting the mood for an erotic evening at home. The arrangement is much cleaner than the Mott version—the introduction of piano into the mix adds a touch of balancing tenderness to offset the guitar and organ, and its use as the solo instrument in the break reinforces the melancholy psychological state expressed in the opening lines:
Walkin’ down this rocky road
Wonderin’ where my life is leading
Rollin’ on to the bitter end
Finding out along the way what it takes to keep love living
You should know how it feels my friend
That melancholy is further reinforced by the deeply reflective fade, where Paul Rodgers sounds like a man who hungers for the healing powers of love as opposed to erotic stimulation (not that the two are mutually exclusive). Bad Company gives “Ready for Love” the treatment it always deserved—it really is a superbly written piece.
Now I have to put my foot down. What the fuck is it with all the “Don’t Let Me Down” and “Don’t Bring Me Down” songs? Wikipedia lists eighteen with the first variation of the theme and two with the second (including ELO’s best-selling single, which is a total piece of crap except for Bev Bevan’s drumming). Since the phrase communicates distrust for the invisible current or potential love partner (most often a woman), can we interpret the cornucopia of “Don’t Fuck with Me” songs as further evidence of the rampant male insecurity that has brought the world to the brink of disaster? Or are these songs a repressed cry for female domination because men secretly want strong women to keep them in line? Whatever your take, I fervently believe that the world will self-destruct in the next twenty years unless THE GIRLS TAKE THE KEYS OUT OF THE GUYS’ HANDS AND START DRIVING THE FUCKING BUS!
While the opening segment with its dramatic drum rolls is a bit over the top, this “Don’t Let Me Down” isn’t half bad because it doesn’t wallow in insecurity as much as express dissatisfaction with the current partner. The best parts of the arrangement occur when Sue Glover and Sunny Leslie provide background vocals to support Paul Rodgers’ soulful approach, giving the song a gospel-like feel. The band is far off the mark, though, with Kirke paying way too much attention to the snare and Mick Ralphs dropping in with a fairly weak solo.
We’ll flip it over to side two and explore the curious title track and band anthem, as promised. There are various and competing stories about its origins, including the Jeff Bridges western flick Bad Company and a seedy character Paul Rodgers saw in a book on Victorian morals used as a warning to the young to “beware of bad company.” Why anyone would bother to look at something so dry and desiccated as a book on Victorian morals is far beyond my limits of empathy, but the evidence shows that the song’s content comes from the film and Paul Rodgers’ childhood familiarity with the phrase made it “click” for him.
The song itself works better if you listen to it as a mood piece. To capture that mood and attempt to duplicate the sounds of the howling prairie, Paul Rodgers decided to sing the song outdoors at midnight, winning the Guinness record for the longest microphone string set-up in recording history. And damn if doesn’t work! He sounds like a total bad-ass, simultaneously mourning his rebellious destiny while fully embracing the six-gun as the key to ensuring the continuity of that destiny. I have no problems whatsoever with his vocal, with his portrayal of the character, with the haunting piano refrain, with the eerie sounds in deep background or with Simon Kirke’s POW-POW that cue the chorus.
What I have a problem with is a combination of a cliché-ridden story that’s been told a hundred times and the underlying message that wielding a gun makes a man a man. “Oh, the boys are just having fun here,” you might say. “Piss off,” I reply. “Guns aren’t fun. Guns are used to kill people.” What I will concede is that from a commercial perspective, “Bad Company” was made for the times. The 1970’s saw the re-popularization of violence in American life in a disgusting reaction to the non-violent values of the 1960’s. Movie buffs flocked to see odes to violence like The Godfather, Dirty Harry and Death Wish. Boxing, which seemed to be on its way out in the 60’s, became a major draw thanks to the Ali-Frazier fights and the moronic Rocky flicks. Support for the death penalty surged. “Bad Company” played to the moment in history, validating the toxic masculinity that became chic during that dark period in American life.
The song’s embrace of the rebel figure also endeared Bad Company to the self-styled, bad-ass bubba crowd who prefer their music masculine and like to impress their girlfriends by smacking them around. That connection continues to this day, as noted in a review of a 2008 Bad Company concert I found in Miami New Times: “Bad Company seems to attract more than their share of large sweaty guys of ample girth.” It still boggles the mind to think that a British band could have come up with a song like this, much less turn it into their anthem, so if anyone has any insight to this conundrum, please comment.
The rest of the album is pure filler. The follow-up piece “The Way I Choose” is a lumbering song with a guitar counterpoint somewhat reminiscent of George Harrison’s work on “Don’t Let Me Down” and a supporting horn section that falls far short of soulfulness. Paul Rodgers sings it well but his voice is completely wasted on the shallow lyrics celebrating independence, stupidity and mistrust. “I don’t ask no questions and I don’t get no lies” could be a slogan on a Fox News t-shirt. It’s followed by the equally vacuous rock-star-whining-about-life-on-the-road song, “Movin’ On,” a piece more than worthy of inclusion in the who-gives-a-shit genre.
The album closes with what became sort of a tradition for many hard rock bands of the era: the “deep” song. This was a slow number presented in a way to suggest to the listener that hard rockers weren’t just all about fun and games but that they had a serious side and thought about meaningful things. Usually the result of those efforts wound up somewhere between sentimental mess or symbolic overload. The most famous song in this mini-genre is “Stairway to Heaven,” my nominee for the most overrated song in the history of the human race.
“Seagull” is Bad Company’s “deep” song, and the only thing that gives it the edge over “Stairway to Heaven” is that Paul Rodgers is a better singer than Robert Plant. The lyrical content is just as confused as that alleged masterpiece, with the songwriting team of Ralphs and Rodgers taking a page out of Donovan’s songwriting handbook and attempting to imbue the seagull with meanings far beyond its status as a nasty, squawky bird that takes great pleasure in pooping on people. The second verse is particularly bizarre, featuring poetry with all the cohesion of a bumper-car free-for-all:
Here is a man asking the question
Is this really the end of the world
Seagull you must have known for a long time
The shape of things to come
Now you fly through the sky
Never asking why, and you fly
All around till somebody shoots you down
What the fuck? Man wonders if the end of the world is nigh and looks to the seagull for answers because we all know that seagulls can see into the future then BOOM! No more seagull! If man is pinning all his future hopes on a message from a seagull, we’re in bigger trouble than I thought!
Overall, Bad Company is a fairly decent debut album, all things considered. Listening to Paul Rodgers is always an engaging experience, and despite a couple of out-of-sync moments, the band is tight and relatively tight and disciplined for a hard rock band. The songwriting is definitely on the spotty side, and really doesn’t get much better over the duration of Bad Company’s career. If you’re thinking about buying a Bad Company album, expect one or two great songs, two or three decent songs and four or five “meh” songs. Their ability to write killer hits dripping with eroticism like “Feel Like Makin’ Love” and “Can’t Get Enough” helped keep them on top for a decent stretch, for few can deliver the goods on a sex song as well as Paul Rodgers.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have this uncontrollable urge to break my baby in two.