Simon Kirke (Bad Company, Free)

by Carl Wiser

Simon Kirke kept a blues beat in the early years with his band Free, but that changed after a ho-hum reaction from a languid audience. After the show, he and his bandmates Paul Rodgers and Andy Fraser put together a primal rocker called "All Right Now," destined to be a rock classic.

Free crumbled from the weight of expectation, unable to follow up with another hit, but Rodgers and Kirke formed a new band with Mott The Hoople guitarist Mick Ralphs and King Crimson bass player Boz Burrell. This supergroup of sorts was Bad Company, possibly named after a 1972 Western starring Jeff Bridges, but certainly one of the top acts of the '70s. Their debut single was a Hoople cast-off Ralphs brought over called "Can't Get Enough" - Kirke gave it a gunfire open that announced its presence on the many FM stations that embraced it. From there, the hits mounted: "Feel Like Makin' Love," "Burnin' Sky," "Rock 'N' Roll Fantasy."

1980 was a tough a year. The band was signed to Led Zeppelin's Swan Song label and managed by that group's caretaker Peter Grant. John Bonham died that September, breaking up Zeppelin and sending Grant into a tailspin. Bad Company managed one more album with Rodgers (Rough Diamonds, 1982), who left soon after, later appearing with Jimmy Page and Robert Plant in The Firm. Kirke and Ralphs kept Bad Company rolling through the late '90s, releasing their last studio album, Stories Told & Untold, in 1996.

As a solo artist, Simon handles the songwriting and also takes on lead vocals as well as various non-percussion instruments, including guitar, and in the case of a new version of "Feel Like Makin' Love," ukulele. His backing band on his 2017 album, All Because Of You, is the Chicago group The Empty Pockets. Many of the songs are confessional, dealing with his fiancé, Maria (who has a song named after her), and his ongoing battle with alcoholism. In this conversation, he explains the origin of that famous "Can't Get Enough" intro and discusses some other key Bad Co tracks, including the one that was literally recorded around a campfire.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): On your 2011 album Filling The Void, you dealt with addiction. And here we are six years later and things have changed a bit. Can you talk about the difference in those six years and what's going on with this current album?

Simon Kirke: Well, the big difference is I'm now out of a very unhappy marriage. I'm divorced and I have a new lady in my life, and that's a huge improvement. I think Filling The Void was almost like an oral diary of how my life was at the time.

I'm in the program and I do my best on a daily basis to remain away from drink, which was my primary drug of choice. I'm not the tearaway that I used to be back in my youth, which seems to get further and further away now. But the big difference is I'm now in a happy, loving relationship, and everything in attendance has improved. It was rough on me - my kids - at first, to get divorced and leaving home and the whole thing, but my children are gradually gravitating back towards me. Thank goodness.

Songfacts: It's very personal songwriting out of you.

Kirke: I know, and I always wonder how personal I should get. I don't mean to hoist all my "wearing my heart on my sleeve" to everyone but really songwriting is a reflection of how a person is, with the occasional dabble into fiction, I suppose. Sting is very good at that. He released a song some time ago that was about a French-speaking dog ["Perfect Love...Gone Wrong" - it's actually the dog's owner who speaks French] and it was the most amazing song. Then he'll go and do something like "Fragile" which is very personal, all about the disparoos in Argentina. He's an amazing songwriter.

Songwriting can cover a whole gamut of subjects but really, for me, pain and love are my two muses and I've experienced a lot of both in my life.

Songfacts: I would say redemption as well.

Kirke: Oh, that's good. I like that.

Songfacts: Talking about songs that may have some fictional elements, is "Shooting Star" based on a specific musician?

Kirke: I think it was, but you'd have to ask Paul Rodgers. But I've known Paul a very, very long time and I've played the song many, many hundreds of times, and I think I wouldn't be out of line to quote Paul that it was based loosely on musicians who were dropping like proverbial flies in the mid-'70s - Hendrix and Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin.

It was a sort of homage to the pitfalls of being in the rock world. You can let the success go to your head and you can get strung out and you can die. It's very, very simple. And, unfortunately, it's happening with alarming frequency to this day. Addiction will always be with us. But "Shooting Star" was based on a composite of musicians.

Songfacts: Why does everybody think that the name Bad Company came from a movie?

Kirke: Well, it did and it didn't. I've been asked this question many times and I can only tell you what I remember. When we were putting the band together in late 1973 - for God's sake, 43 years ago – we didn't have a name for the band. We were playing in Paul Rodgers' little studio, and I remember him coming home one day. He'd been to Guildford, which is this town just outside London. He'd been walking down the street and he saw an advert for this Jeff Bridges movie called Bad Company - it became sort of a cult movie. But I remember him saying, "That's a great name for the band," and I agreed.

We'd just signed to Swan Song Records, Led Zeppelin's record label, and we had to get them to ask Warner Bros. if we could use the name. We weren't sure if it was trademarked and all that stuff. And I believe everything was cleared for us to use the name.

Now, fast forward many years, and I remember Paul saying in another interview about the derivation of the name, that he was reading an old Victorian book and he came across this oil painting or some sort of drawing of these young kids, a bit like these young ruffians hanging on the street corner, and it said something like, "This is bad company." And he maintains that that was the image that sparked the idea.

So, really there are two schools of thought. I always remember it as coming from this movie but Paul Rodgers would question that. But it's one of those two, Carl. That's as much as I can tell you.

Songfacts: You've talked about certain songs happening in a flash of inspiration. One that has a story of being this flash that has followed you around so many years is "All Right Now." That song, how has it treated you over the years? I'm wondering if you can still play it without any consternation or being sick of it.

Kirke: Oh no, I love it. I love playing "All Right Now." It was born from a bad gig.

You know, Free never really had any uptempo songs. We were a bit of a stoner band - we had this great groove but it was a little bit leaden, a little bit plodding. We came off stage one day, and it was up in Durham, which is up in the north of England, and we finished the set and we walked off. By the time we left the stage, the applause had died down. That's awful, you know, to leave the stage and the applause has already gone. And we had to walk through the crowd to get to the dressing room - it was one of these configurations.

We got back to the dressing room and the general air in the band was, "We need a song that people can dance to." That was really the only criteria that was put forward for this song, "All Right Now." And I believe it was Andy Fraser - once again, it's coming up on 50 years so my memories aren't that clear – but I do remember Andy Fraser, the bass player, sort of bopping around the dressing room saying, "It's all right now," and that was it. Then over the next couple of months, Paul Rodgers and Andy Fraser sat down and fleshed it out and wrote it.

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.

But, by the same token, it's been such a durable song. I play it in my solo shows, I played it with Ringo Starr and I think one of the highlights of my career, you can see it on YouTube, was when I sang it at Detroit with the Ringo Starr Band, Jack Bruce playing bass, Peter Frampton on guitar. It was the most amazing song and I still love playing it to this day. It's one of the greatest songs and it always will be in my book.

Songfacts: When you started up with Bad Company, your first single was "Can't Get Enough," which I think is one that Mick brought to the band. And the first sound is that incredible drum smash that you do to start that song off. Can you talk about how you came up with that?

Kirke: Well, I didn't really come up with it. A lot of people ask me how I plan things. I don't! I don't plan anything when I play. Obviously, I sit down and listen to where certain fills should be or when it gets softer or louder, but the thing about the intro to "Can't Get Enough" was, we were scattered all over this country house. Bad Company were doing their first album and I believe it was one of the first songs that we did.

I was in the basement, Boz [Burrell] the bass player was in the boiler room, Mick Ralphs and Paul Rodgers were up in the main living room where the guitar amps were. So, in order to get their attention, because we couldn't see each other, I did the count: "1... 1, 2, 3..." and then I did this "guh-brah" to get everyone's attention. And that's how we kicked it off. It was born out of necessity.

Songfacts: That's great because I can imagine how if you're trying to create something like that it would be futile - you'd have a hard time getting it just right.

Kirke: It would be futile, absolutely. And it was out of necessity: "Hey guys, when I do this 'guh-brah' then we all come in." And then, of course, we tried it once and then I had to put a count in: "1, 2, 3, 'guh-brah.'"

When we heard it back I said I really would like to keep the count-in, so we did and it's become sort of an iconic little one-bar. It's funny how these things work out, but there you go.

In "Rock 'N' Roll Fantasy," Paul Rodgers sings, "You find you're dancin' on the number 9 cloud," which to these ears is a riff on the Beatles song "Revolution 9," a trippy tune where a voice repeats "number nine" over and over.

In "Run With The Pack," Rodgers sings, "You never give me my money. You only give me your sympathy," which sounds like it was lifted from "You Never Give Me Your Money":

You never give me your money
You only give me your funny paper
Songfacts: Did Ringo ever give you any grief for lifting Beatles lyrics, like you did on "Rock 'N' Roll Fantasy" and "Run With The Pack"?

Kirke: I don't know, did we?

Songfacts: It seems like you did. Like "number nine cloud." Come on, that's Beatles.

Kirke: Oh, "Revolution."

Songfacts: Sure.

Kirke: It's the first I've ever made the connection.

Songfacts: Really?

Kirke: Yeah.

Songfacts: Well, we hear things differently.

Kirke: We do. But, no, working with Ringo was great but he never brought that up.

Songfacts: You have a really great version of "Feel Like Making Love" on All Because Of You where you play a ukulele. On the original, who came up with that intro?

Kirke: I have to blow my own trumpet a little bit because I came up with that intro on the original. It was just something I was noodling around with and it worked very well.

But when I adapted the new arrangement last year I had just bought this ukulele. My daughter, Lola, has been playing the ukulele for years and she takes one with her wherever she goes. She said, "Dad, you've really got to try this."

They're such dinky little things, they're so small, you can put them in your suitcase, and even though the tuning is so weird, it's got a lovely little vibe to it.

So, I was sitting in my apartment and I was noodling around on it and trying out various things. The original key was D major – I was just sort of strumming C major to F major and back again and back again. Maria, my girlfriend, said, "Oh that's nice, what's that?"

Now, she's a little younger than me so she hasn't really heard the original version of "Feel Like Making Love." I said, "Well, it's a song called 'Feel Like Making Love' that Bad Company did back in 1975, I believe. Obviously, I couldn't do it." She said, "What are you talking about? It sounds great. Do it like that. Do it in that reggae feel."

And I thought, This is heresy. I can't. It's like doing a folk version of "Stairway To Heaven." Can't do it. But, you know what, I actually did a demo, and I sent it to the guys in Chicago – they're younger than my fiancé – and they loved it. They said, "Let's do it."

So,we did it, and I've got to say, I was grinning all over the studio when we did it. I thought, "We've got to get this by Paul Rodgers and Mick Ralphs" - who wrote the original – "I hope they like it."

I sent it to them and I got a thumbs up from both of them - they said it was great. Of course, they're going to get royalties from it because they wrote it. It doesn't matter what the version is, they're still going to get royalties from it. And then everyone at BMG, the record label, they loved it as well. So, from that little, innocent strumming of the ukulele a year ago, we got this kind of tongue-in-cheek but very cheerful version of "Feel Like Making Love."

Songfacts: When you came up with the original intro back in 1975, how did Mick play that?

Kirke: Well, let's go back, because the original "Feel Like Making Love" came out of two songs. I'm not sure of the order, but Mick had the original D to G, D to G, little country: [sings] "Darling when I think about you, I think about love."

And then Paul had a song which just had that [sings riff]. And I said, "Well, why don't you combine the two so that you have the chorus as that heavy riff and then the verse is Mick's verse." And I forget exactly how it all came about but I know all three of us were in the room and I came up with this descending thing in D. But the original song came out of two different ideas.

Songfacts: There are a lot of instances where it seems like you easily could have gotten a songwriting credit but you didn't.

Kirke: Mmm. Well, look, and I have to say by the same token Paul Rodgers was very generous back in those days. Nowadays, you see some country songs or hip-hop songs and they've got six or seven writing credits because some guy had a pull on the joint and then came up with a line and so he has to get his. And really, I wouldn't really expect a credit for that. I mean, it helped.

On a song called "Wishing Well" by Free, it was Paul's song but he was so knocked out with the way we all played it that all five members of the band got a credit. So, it's swings and roundabouts. Sometimes I think maybe a credit would have be nice and I didn't get it but, then again, I played on songs where I didn't write anything and I did get a credit. So, it all evens out.

Songfacts: On your new album you have a track called "Trouble Road," which you did with Warren Haynes. You sing about getting in a bar fight and ending up in a church. Is that based on a true story?

Kirke: Pure fiction. I wrote that with two other guys: Rob Taube, who lives in New York, and Mark Barnowski, who lives in Nashville. They had the bare bones of the song and I finished it off with them, on Skype, believe it or not.

No, it was pure fiction. I never stumbled into a church, I never got beat up in a bar. And, also, "Warm Gulf Water" is pure fiction. I thought it was a very tender idea. Once again it came primarily from the brain of Rob Taube and we finished the song off together.

Songfacts: How about "Into The Light"?

Kirke: That's me. That's me in dealing with addiction. I've been in and out of the program. I'm honest enough to say that I'm not 100 percent sober. I try not to drink. Drink was my drug of choice. It's better if I don't drink. But I stay away from hard drugs and I haven't done hard drugs in 20 years.

But "Into The Light" actually, it's funny. I'm on the board of this program for teenagers and kids in their early twenties called Road Recovery; it's based in New York. They wanted a song to go on their little sampler CD. Every year they put out a sampler CD with all the kids, and one of their alumni was a 15-year-old rapper. This kid was so amazing. I can't name him for obvious reasons, but he was amazing. He contributed the second verse, and we knocked out this song "Into The Light" pretty quickly.

I think when the muse is something that's very close to your heart, the results are pretty quick. It's the songs that take months and months to write that lack a certain kind of magic. You can make the magic work in the end but it's the ones that come quickly that really have that little spark of magic.

Anyway, we wrote this song "Into The Light" and I recorded it in Chicago. I've always wanted to have a gospel choir. I love Gospel and The Empty Pockets, they're all from Chicago. The leader of the band, he said quite matter-of-factly, "Oh, I know this Gospel choir. I can get them to do it." And I was like, "Wow! Really?"

So, when I was away, he got them all together – 14 of them in this tiny studio – and I think they did an amazing job.

Songfacts: Simon, I'd like to get your thoughts on which Bad Company songs are the ones that are kind of unheralded - that would be great to dig out and play off the album?

Kirke: My goodness. I'd have to go back and look, we recorded so many. Well, I've got to say, one of my songs... am I allowed?

Songfacts: Of course.

Kirke: "Weep No More" from the second album, Straight Shooter. "Weep No More" was the first song I ever put forward to the guys in Bad Company, and I was so nervous because Paul is such an amazing singer and he wrote such amazing songs. He still does and he still is an amazing singer. But I was very nervous about putting this song forward because it was a little complex - it wasn't particularly bluesy. And he really liked it - the whole band liked it and they actually got a full orchestra to play on it. "Weep No More" really makes my heart sing whenever I hear it.

And "Simple Man," which is one of Mick Ralphs' finest songs. "Do Right By Your Woman" from Run With The Pack. That was recorded around a campfire. It was a little acoustic song and if you listen really hard you can hear the flames crackling.

Songfacts: It was literally recorded around a campfire?

Kirke: Literally recorded around a campfire.

Songfacts: How do you even get recording gear to a campfire?

Kirke: You get a very long lead, Carl. A very long cord.

We had the Rolling Stones' mobile unit for Run With The Pack. We recorded it in the South of France. The mobile studio was parked about 50 yards away and we were sat around the campfire just playing this song of Paul Rodgers. And the engineer said, "Guys, this sounds so good, come and hear it."

We said, "What?"

"Well, I've recorded it. I put a microphone out while you weren't watching."

We went in and, blow me down, it sounded great. There was a couple of crackles from the fire and we thought, "Yeah, that's cool."

So, off the top of my head, those are the three that stand out.

February 8, 2017. All Because of You is available on iTunes.
Photo (1): Bob Wolper

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Comments: 1

  • Gary Hailey from Washington, DcI'll always remember "All Right Now" because it was all over the radio the week I started college. It's a great record -- simple, straightforward, no filler.
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