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Free and Bad Company

Reviewed on this page:
Fire And Water - Kossoff/Kirke/Tetsu/Rabbit - Heartbreaker - Run With The Pack - Burnin' Sky

Soul-rock band Free was one of the most talented and most frustratingly unsuccessful acts to come out of the post-British invasion blues boom/prog rock generation. With a clean, understated sound that drew heavily on American R & B influences like Otis Redding, they emphasized subtle atmosphere instead of flashy showmanship and self-conscious experimentation, setting them completely apart from their contemporaries. Paul Rodgers' sexy, smouldering vocals made them instantly recognizeable, and his songwriting partner Andy Fraser was a fine, intelligent bass player. On the other hand, Rodgers' lyrics were merely serviceable, and from what I've heard so far, I wouldn't rank guitarist Paul Kossoff as a bona fide guitar hero - but he did have an unerring musical sense regardless of his technique. Alas, Free lasted only a few years and left just a couple of hits and one widely available album (Fire And Water) before transmuting into Bad Company, which I discuss below.

Free originated during the British blues boom of 1968, populating the same London blues club scene that gave rise to acts like Jethro Tull, Fleetwood Mac, and Procol Harum, and was dominated by Alex Korner and John Mayall, both of whom had employed various members of the band before its assembly. Their first two albums earned them a chance to open for Blind Faith during its only tour in 1969, and after hitting the big time with their classic hit single "All Right Now" and first-rate album Fire And Water in 1970, they appeared at the now-legendary Isle of Wight festival along with Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, and the Who. Unfortunately, their follow-up releases were disappointing, and the band fell apart briefly in 1971. Kossoff and drummer Simon Kirke released a respectable Free-style album as a side project before rejoining Fraser and Rodgers for two more albums. However, Kossoff's drug addiction quickly led to another break up; he got out just a couple of solo albums before dying in 1976 of an overdose.

Meanwhile, Kirke and Rodgers' career was only beginning. In 1973 they somehow spirited away leading glam rock band Mott the Hoople's hard-rocking, commercially savvy guitarist Mick Ralphs, picked up out-of-work former King Crimson bassist Boz Burrell, named themselves Bad Company, and landed a record contract on Led Zeppelin's vanity label Swan Song.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Bad Company was a massive commercial success on both sides of the Atlantic from the start. But despite occasionally hitting artistic highs that do recall Free, Bad Company earned a bad rep with rock critics and the punk rock generation alike. Their downfall seems to have been sticking almost religiously to an entertaining, yet stultifyingly workmanlike arena rock formula. And they pretty much shot their wad on their first couple of albums, releasing a string of hit singles like "Can't Get Enough," "Good Lovin' Gone Bad," and "Feel Like Makin' Love," and also getting considerable air play with album tracks like "Bad Company" and the re-recorded Mott anthem "Ready For Love." From what I've heard, their late 70s stuff is dull and formulaic; they had only one modest commercial comeback with the hit single "Rock 'N' Roll Fantasy" before splitting in 1982. Still, though, their big-time AOR hits are all harmless fun, and I certainly do want to get my hands on their debut.

Rodgers has continued ever since with a mostly low-key solo career, putting out a new album every few years and forming another four-man band called the Firm with Jimmy Page in the mid-1980s. Meanwhile, Kirke and Ralphs reformed "Bad Company" in 1986 and have continued to release new product under this name ever since, despite going through a series of frontmen, bass players, and producer/songwriters. I'm not planning to cover any of that stuff, at least not until I have all of the original Bad Company discs with Rodgers.

I tried hard, but I couldn't find a substantial Free or Bad Company fan web site. Everything I saw was either poorly organized or uninformative. Unless you're obsessed, you're not going to get much out of that stuff. (JA)


Free: Formed 1968 with Andy Fraser (bass); Simon Kirke (drums); Paul Kossoff (guitar); Paul Rodgers (vocals). Fraser left, replaced by Tetsu Yamaguchi (bass); John "Rabbitt" Bundrick (keyboards) added, 1973. Band split, later in 1973.

Bad Company: Formed 1973 with Boz Burrell (bass); Simon Kirke (drums); Mick Ralphs (guitar); Paul Rodgers (vocals). Band split, 1982, reformed with Kirke, Ralphs, and a succession of other players starting in 1986.

Tons Of Sobs (Free: 1968)
Produced by Guy Stevens and engineered by Glyn Johns' brother Andy. Includes a cover of "The Hunter" (apparently first recorded by bluesman Albert King, and written by Stax-Volt house band Booker T. & the MG's). At this point Rodgers was writing almost everything, but Fraser gets in a couple of co-writes and Kossoff one ("Moonshine"). Like all of their discs, the band's debut is impossible to find in this country because it hasn't been released on CD. (JA)

Free (Free: 1969)
I've read that "I'll Be Creeping" was the key track here. Produced by Island Records mastermind Chris Blackwell. Everything was written by the Fraser-Rodgers team except for one band composition ("Trouble On Double Time"). Also includes their flop single "Broad Daylight" from a few months earlier. (JA)

Fire And Water (Free: 1970)
Free's distinctive sound is stamped all over this crafted, uplifting, low-key rock record, which marks the band's commercial (and presumably artistic) peak. Rodgers' unmistakable soul vocals are smooth, intimate, and classy (the lullabye-like "Don't Say You Love Me"), and Kossoff earned a cult following with his flawless and understated guitar work (the groovy, plodding, vaguely Beatles-like "Remember"). But what really sets the band apart is Andy Fraser's stately, melodic bass playing, never flashy and always creative; he also co-wrote most of the tunes with Rodgers. Apart from some very basic piano parts, they don't show a lot of stylistic or instrumental variety; the tempos are mostly glacial despite the band's firm grasp of dynamics (Kossoff and Rodgers' fine, bluesy ballad "Oh I Wept"); and their debt to soul pioneers like Sam Cooke and Otis Redding is extreme (the lulling, gorgeous "Don't Say You Love Me," essentially a 12/8 ballad). But everything is solidly enjoyable, and several tunes are classics: the arresting mid-tempo title track, with an uncharacteristically intense acid rock guitar solo; the majestic piano ballad "Heavy Load"; the loping soul-rock workout "Mr. Big," with Fraser's wonderful sliding funk lines; and of course their justifiably famous anthem "All Right Now," set apart by its punchy beat, tension-building three-chord guitar riff, and Rodgers' just-over-the-top vocal improvisations. From this point on the band self-produced all of its records. (JA)

Highway (Free: 1970)
The flop single "The Stealer" is here. Once again, almost everything was written by Fraser and Rodgers. (JA)

Free Live (Free: 1971)
By now the band was a definite presence on the UK charts, although "All Right Now" remained their only US hit. So their single "My Brother Jake" went all the way up to #4 in the UK. The band had suddenly collapsed in mid-1971, so with "Jake" on the charts the record company rushed out this live disc (I don't believe the song appeared on any LP). Includes several Fire And Water tunes like that album's title track, "Mr. Big," and of course "All Right Now." (JA)

Kossoff/Kirke/Tetsu/Rabbit (Kossoff and company: 1972)
Within months of the band's first split, Kossoff and Kirke formed a new group and cut this record. It's remarkably polished, sounding eerily like Free in many places: bassist Tetsu Yamaguchi doesn't write or sing, but he plays the same slow, popping lite funk lines as Free's Andy Fraser; Texan keyboard player John "Rabbit" Bundrick writes half the tunes, and they somehow manage to sound just as Free-like as everything else ("Fool's Life"); and both his vocals and Kirke's are like third-rate Rodgers, with roughly the same tenor soul stylings but none of his emotional power. All of the cuts are carefully recorded, with modest overdubbing, consistent four-minute running times, sober performances, respectable lead guitar work, and tonal variety supplied by Bundrick's electric and acoustic piano, organ, and even mellotron. But not one tune really stands out, and the best shots are all utterly bland: Kirke's gospeley, Carole King-like soft rock ballad "Anna" has a sweetly harmonized refrain, Bundrick's "Blue Grass" and "I'm On The Run" are prototypical Free-style anthems, and his "Yellow House" (fortified by B. J. Cole on pedal steel) nicely recycles John Lennon's East Asian-flavored piano ballad formula (e.g., "Jealous Guy"). Elsewhere they flop with yet more dull soft rock ("Sammy's Alright"; "Hold On"; "Dying Fire"); a repetitive, ominious riff that overshadows Kossoff's undermixed and uncredited attempt at a vocal ("Colours"); and an unfinished-sounding, Free-based instrumental ("Just For The Box"). (JA)

Free At Last (Free: 1972)
Their first reunion record's single was "Little Bit Of Love." It's a weak, almost tossed-off effort, with Kossoff's solos and fills sounding like first-take improvisations, and the song material often just not gelling. No outside players are credited, but there are numerous piano parts and it's possible that Rabbit is responsible for them. All the tunes are credited to the entire band. (JA)

Heartbreaker (Free: 1973)
Their second and last reunion record before Rodgers and Kirke formed Bad Company. The drug-addicted Kossoff apparently dropped out of the group before the record was finished, and by now Fraser was gone, so they replaced him with Yamaguchi and also added Bundrick (Yamaguchi briefly joined the Faces soon afterwards). Things are such a mess that although Rodgers dominates, Bundrick even gets in a couple tunes (the stately, somewhat Carole King-like piano ballad "Muddy Water" and dramatic, hard-hitting "Common Mortal Man," where Bundrick's playing is particularly strong). But the album is surprisingly good, full of the soulful, mid-tempo emotional catharsis that makes this band great ("Seven Angels"). The lurching single "Wishing Well" and its rock-bottom-simple hook will have you waving your cigarette lighter - no surprise it was their third and last UK hit, although Rodgers takes over from Kossoff here. The "Hey Jude"-like ballad "Come Together In The Morning" has an aching sing-along chorus and some gorgeous lead guitar work by Kossoff, who's excellent throughout. Rodgers testifies mightily on the intense, hypnotic title track, he comes up with an intriguing, watery piano riff on "Easy On My Soul," and they even manage to make a low-key country blues a high point (the catchy "Travellin In Style"). So it's not their best work, but it is creative, sincere, and solidly enjoyable. Co-produced by the band and Andy Johns. Rebop guests on "Wishing Well." (JA)

Back Street Crawler (Kossoff: 973)
His first solo album, with Bundrick among the backing musicians. (JA)

Bad Company (Bad Company: 1973)
At the start, Bad Company seemed like the Mick Ralphs show: he wrote their huge hit single "Can't Get Enough," their modestly successful follow-up "Movin' On," and their re-recording of Mott the Hoople's "Ready For Love," and is co-credited on two of Rodgers' five numbers. However, Rodgers and Kirke wrote the equally well-known title track.(JA)

Straight Shooter (Bad Company: 1974)
At this point the band was still a real collaboration; Ralphs and Rodgers worked together on three tunes, including "Feel Like Makin' Love," a major trans-Atlantic hit. Ralphs' "Good Lovin' Gone Bad" also cracked the US Top 40, and Rodgers' "Shooting Star" apparently became a concert staple for them. Kirke is credited with two compositions this time. (JA)

Run With The Pack (Bad Company: 1976)
After just three records, the band seems out of gas. Mick Ralphs was always more of a hard-pounding rhythm player than a soloist, which was fine when he was writing great riff tunes for Mott. But he's a little bit off his game here, contributing one nicely-paced, chorus-laden hard rock ballad ("Simple Man") and a trio of funky, but forgettable boogie stompers ("Live For The Music"; "Honey Child"; "Sweet Lil' Sister"). That leaves you listening to Paul Rodgers' stuff; he delivers the goods with the exhuberant title track, but his other tunes are feather-light love songs that bely the group's reputation for hard rock bluster. Most of them are competent ("Silver, Blue & Gold"; the country-flavored "Do Right By Your Woman"; "Fade Away"), but elsewhere he's bathetic (the 3/4 piano ballad "Love Me Somebody"), and he seems responsible for masterminding the terrible, hokey sendup of "Young Blood" that makes the band seem so foolish - it's amazing to note that it broke the Top 40 in the US. And there's nothing at all interesting about Rodgers' lyrics this time, despite the fact that he knows how to milk his famously soulful voice for all it's worth. I wouldn't rank even one track here as a classic, but you might find yourself slapping the disc on your CD player once in a while if you happen to own it. Produced by the band like all of their original albums. (JA)

Second Street (Kossoff: 1976)
At this point Kossoff had started a band named after his 1973 solo album; they'd already released a record called The Band Plays On, but I don't have the release date. After Kossoff's death, Bundrick changed the band's name to Crawler, recruited a new guitarist, and released two further albums before folding the act. (JA)

Burnin' Sky (Bad Company: 1977)
Another predictable product that's just one big showcase for Paul Rodgers' cookie-cutter tunes and Al Green-wannabe vocal histrionics - Mick Ralphs wrote only a couple tracks. It's marginal: the rhythm section's good, especially the precise, melodic, and understated Boz Burrell ("Man Needs Woman," with honking sax); only one tune really runs on (the listless, improvised, clueless racial commentary "Master Of Ceremony"); the numerous ballads are harmless ("Morning Sun," ruined by a muzaky flute solo; the extraordinarily clichéd "Like Water"; Simon Kirke's preachy R & B piano testimonial "Peace Of Mind"; "Passing Time" is sprightly); and they could have done much worse with the usual smouldering funk-soul grooves ("Leaving You"; the chipper, self-parodic "Everything I Need") and light rockers ("Heartbeat," not the Buddy Holly, King Crimson, or War tunes; "Too Bad," puffed up out of one dumb riff). Plus Rodgers comes up with an AOR masterpiece in the form of the title track, with massively chorused rhythm guitar, shuffling soul verses, and a huge, bombastic chorus - cheesy, slobbering fun. It's forgettable hack work, with hardly any breaks from the tedium; but at least the few major lapses of taste are more funny than frustrating. Self-produced again; Mel Collins adds the sax and flute parts. (JA)

Desolation Angels (Bad Company: 1978)
The group's last commercial hurrah, with Rodgers' "Rock 'N' Roll Fantasy" becoming a substantial hit in the US. Burrell finally gets a tune in ("Gone, Gone, Gone"), but Ralphs and Rodgers split the most of the credits. Ralphs' "Oh, Atlanta" is not the same as the earlier Little Feat song. (JA)

Rough Diamonds (Bad Company: 1982)
The last Bad Company album before they broke up, with Rodgers never returning. Uncharacteristically, Rodgers plays lead guitar on most of his numbers; Burrell has just as many compositions as Ralphs (i.e, two each). Mel Collins is back to add some horn parts. (JA)

Cut Loose (Rodgers: 1983)
His first solo album after Bad Company split. (JA)

In 1985 Rodgers appeared on the first, self-titled Firm album with Jimmy Page. (JA)

Fame And Fortune (Bad Company: 1986)
Ralphs, Kirke, and Burrell decided to reform the band but couldn't get Rodgers involved, so instead they replaced him with a singer named Brian Howe. I've heard nothing good about the resulting string of records. Produced by Keith Olsen; the tunes are mostly co-written by various combinations of Ralphs, Kirke, and Howe, with executive producer and Foreigner guitarist Mick Jones getting some cowrites (apparently he doesn't play on the record; also, there's some small chance it's actually the Mick Jones of the Clash, but I doubt this very much). The Firm's second and last album Mean Business was released the same year. (JA)

Dangerous Age (Bad Company: 1988)
Burrell is replaced here by Steve Price; producer Terry Thomas plays both keyboards and some guitar, and he has a co-write on every tune with either Howe or Ralphs. (JA)

Holy Water (Bad Company: 1990
This time the bassist is Felix Krish. Thomas is back as producer and again has co-writes on most tunes. (JA)

The Law (The Law: 1991)
Another short-lived Rodgers band, this one featuring drummer Kenney Jones of the Small Faces, the Faces, and the Who. There are just three Rodgers originals and the rest is all covers and donated tunes by guests like (egads) Bryan Adams and Chris Rea; David Gilmour and Pino Palladino also appear. (JA)

Here Comes Trouble (Bad Company: 1992)
Krish is on bass again. This time Howe and Thomas wrote most of the tunes, with Ralphs and Kirke having a much smaller role. (JA)

Muddy Water Blues (Rodgers: 1993)
A blues tribute album with some big-name guests like Jeff Beck. (JA)

Company Of Strangers (Bad Company: 1995)
A remarkably self-aware title. By now Kirke and Ralphs have totally changed the band again, dumping Howe, Thomas, and Krish in favor of singer Robert Hart, second guitarist Dave Colwell, and bassist Rick Wills. Self-produced; Ralphs wrote a lot more this time, but various combinations of the band members have credits on most tunes. A few outside players including session keyboardist Jeff Bova and string arranger Michael Kamen. (JA)

Live (Rodgers: 1995)

Stories Told & Untold (Bad Company: 1996)
A new live disc. Same band as their 1995 record, with an enormous number of walk-on players like Bova, Jim Capaldi, Tim Schmit, country stars Alison Kraus and Vince Gill, Muscle Shoals keyboardist Barry Beckett, temporary Fleetwood Mac member Bekka Bramlett, even Richie Sambora and Kim Carnes. About half the record is actually newly rewritten, but there are covers of old 70s standards like "Shooting Star," "Oh Atlanta," "Silver Blue And Gold," and "Ready For Love." (JA)

Soul Of Love (Rodgers: 1997)

Free at last...

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