Bad Company’s success seemed preordained upon the British rock supergroup’s formation in 1973. Each of the members came into the band with established musical pedigrees: guitarist Mick Ralphs from Mott the Hoople; singer Paul Rodgers and drummer Simon Kirke from Free; and bassist Boz Burrell from Mott the Hoople. At a time in the 1970s when rock became so bombastic (i.e., progressive rock) and theatrical (i.e., glam rock), Bad Company were the polar opposite of their arena-rock brethren. Their brand of guitar-driven rock was minimalist and back-to-basics while heavily rooted in American blues and soul.
Their lyrics, mostly penned by Rodgers and Ralphs, reflected a blue-collar sensibility that was also steeped in romantic American West outlaw imagery. And while Rodgers distinguished himself as a formidable frontman, there wasn’t one main person in Bad Company who dominated over the others. It’s a contrast to other bands whose lead singer and guitarist are the focal points. In a way, Bad Company were kind of the anti-rock stars, even though most people easily lumped them with the other ‘corporate’ rock bands of the era.
There’s no denying that the original Bad Company were reliable when it came to rock radio airplay. Each of their albums had at least one bonafide single fueled by Ralphs’ power riffs, Rodgers’ bluesy voice, and Burrell and Kirke’s solid rhythm playing. On the 45th anniversary of the release of their first album, a new box set, The Swan Song Years 1974-1982 collects all of Bad Company’s six albums fully-remastered in a clamshell box. The title of the set is a reference to the band’s output for Swan Song Records, Led Zeppelin’s label; Zep’s manager, the late and inimitable Peter Grant, also managed Bad Company.
The definitive Bad Company album is the group’s self-titled 1974 debut, which has since sold five million copies in the US. The record might as well as have been called Bad Company’s Greatest Hits because nearly all of its songs were played on radio and appeared on the group’s previous compilations. Today one could not avoid turning on the radio or sitting at a bar without hearing “Can’t Get Enough”, “Rock Steady”, the title song, “Movin’ On”, or “Ready for Love” for the umpteenth time. And while those songs showcased Bad Company’s rough and tumble side, the group’s penchant for soulful romantic ballads, especially “The Way I Choose” and “Don’t Let Me Down”, were also quite evident on the debut.
Straight Shooter (1975) didn’t suffer from the dreaded sophomore jinx, and the band’s winning streak continued with more recognizable tracks: the prototypical power ballad “Feel Like Makin’ Love”, the turbulent “Good Lovin’ Gone Bad”, “Deal With the Preacher”, and the groove-fueled “Wild Fire Woman”. The album’s other best-known track was the poignant “Shooting Star”, a cautionary tale about the excesses of the rock and roll lifestyle that claimed the lives of Bad Company’s contemporaries. Again, amid the bluesy rockers, the band showed their reflective side with the gospel-tinged “Anna”, a songwriting contribution by Kirke
Bad Company reached the peak of their popularity with 1976’s Run With the Pack, another album stocked with more radio-friendly rockers: the scorching opener “Live for the Music” and the driving “Honey Child”, the dramatic title track, and a 1950s-styled cover of the Coasters’ “Young Blood”. The true gem of Run with the Pack was the tender and lovely ballad “Silver, Blue and Gold”, with Rodgers’ singing at its most tender and exquisite.
Unlike the previous albums the group’s fourth album, 1977’s Burnin’ Sky, was perhaps the only entry in the group’s catalog that didn’t have a surefire hit song. For the first time, it seemed the band finally hit a creative drought. None of the songs from that album ended up on Bad Company’s first compilation album 10 From 6 from 1985). While sporting no recognizable songs, the record had its good moments with the title cut, the kiss-off track “Leaving You”, and the poppy and uptempo “Everything You Need”.
Released in 1979, Desolation Angels was Bad Company’s unofficial comeback record, proof that the group was still a viable entity amid the popularity of punk and disco. The album’s single, “Rock N Roll Fantasy”, another track about the rock and roll lifestyle, hinted at New Wave with its use of synthesizers. That song dispelled any concern that Bad Company were in danger of becoming a dinosaur along with other standout tracks, including the Boz Burrell thumper “Gone, Gone, Gone”, the danceable “Rhythm Machine”, and the Southern-inspired “Oh Atlanta”. Unfortunately, that revived momentum didn’t carry over to the original lineups’ final studio album, 1982’s appropriately-titled Rough Diamonds. By that point, one could immediately hear the group going through the motions despite some sparks, such as the moody “Electricland”, the rhythmic “Untie the Knot”, and the funky “Downhill Ryder”.
After Rough Diamonds, Bad Company splintered with Rodgers going solo in 1983. Ralphs and Kirke carried on the band with a new singer, Brian Howe and achieved varying degrees of success. In the late 1990s, the original Bad Company lineup reunited and recorded four new songs for the double-disc Anthology set; Burrell died in 2006, and the band still tours with original members Rodgers and Kirke.
Despite a few spotty moments towards the end, Bad Company’s albums have been fairly and consistently good — all of them crucial to the development and popularity of album-oriented rock. The Swan Song Years is a perfect and convenient way to get all of the band’s first six albums in one package. However, a word of warning: this new set features none of the bonus tracks that appeared on the deluxe reissues of Bad Company’s studio albums from the last few years. The set sums up the essence of Bad Company: bare-bones playing with the occasional flourishes, catchy hooks, and relatable lyrics that altogether find a way to sink their hooks into you.