‘You hear these jazz musicians play a song’s theme and then suddenly take off, but you know that behind the solo you could sing the tune. It all fits; these people are just improvising around the theme. I’ve always tried to play that way, to work around the context of the chords I’m using. I’ve heard guitarists do great leads, but they can’t play rhythm for anything. I’m more like a combination of lead and rhythm; I’m not particularly brilliant on either, so I’ve developed a style that is a mixture of both.’
- Mick Ralphs
Born and raised in Herefordshire, an English county that nurtured and brought together the musicians that would become Mott The Hoople, one of rock’s most inspirational bands, Mick was something of a late-comer to music, learning guitar when he was eighteen years of age. His musical influences included Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran, Buddy Holly, Ricky Nelson (‘mainly for the guitar playing of James Burton’), Buffalo Springfield and Mountain guitarist Leslie West.
Ralphs’ early groups were The Mighty Atom Dance Band and The Melody Makers before he joined The Buddies, in 1964, who made one single featuring the Ralphs/Norman composition ‘It’s Goodbye’, Mick’s first recorded work. Future ‘Motts’ Stan Tippins (vocals) and Peter Overend Watts (bass) joined The Buddies and worked continuously with Ralphs until 1969 when Guy Stevens signed them to Island Records, thanks predominantly to Mick’s relentless determination.
The Buddies were a slick beat outfit who quickly obtained regular work in Germany and Italy and would travel to and from the continent, ultimately using other band names including The Doc Thomas Group and Problem as ‘flags of convenience’ – (please consult the sleeve notes to Angel Air’s stunning 2 on 1 CD – Doc Thomas Group The Italian Job and The Silence Shotgun Eyes – for an extensive history of Ralphs’ early years). After recording The Doc Thomas Group album in Milan in 1966 and making two subsequent appearances on RAI Television (by which time drummer Dale Griffin had also joined DTG), Mick worked with future Mott The Hoople organist Verden Allen in Jimmy Cliff’s backing band, The Shakedown Sound. Eventually Ralphs, Tippins, Watts, Griffin and Allen joined forces and became Silence, who auditioned for Guy Stevens.
Mott The Hoople
Between 1969 and 1974, Mott The Hoople created astounding music. Fired by the powerful, percipient writing of vocalist Ian Hunter and buoyed by Mick’s blistering guitar playing, they cemented their position as one of the most influential British rock acts of the decade and unquestionably THE precursors to punk. Ralphs contributed some of Mott’s best material including ‘Rock And Roll Queen’, ‘Half Moon Bay’, ‘Thunderbuck Ram’, ‘Whiskey Women’, ‘Midnight Lady’, ‘The Moon Upstairs’, ‘Moving On’, ‘Ready For Love’ and ‘One Of The Boys’.
Ian Hunter confesses that he did everything possible to convince Ralphs to remain in Mott The Hoople. ‘I didn’t want Mick to leave. I spent three hours with him trying to talk him out of it, but it was getting ridiculous. I even offered him half my royalties on a total co-writer basis and he was writing maybe an eighth of what I was writing. I believe in Mick Ralphs. His taste is impeccable, that’s why I say he’s one of the best guitar players there is.’
‘Mott survived on struggle, adversity and disappointment and that gave us the spirit to carry on. We’d always said, sod convention, sod the system, but there comes a point where you can’t be famous and be like that. We were always the underdog and that was part of the reason we were so spirited and so exciting. And then we got into this thing with David Bowie, which was a great success and helped everyone, but in a way we’d become part of the system we were always dead against. We’d had success, but there was a different feeling in the band and it was time for me to move on. I didn’t have the same commitment and interest because of the change. Mott was like my adolescence and I decided it was time to go off and do my own thing. I just wanted to play some different music. It was like leaving your parents; it’s not that you don’t love them, you just want to go and do something else.’
‘When Mott toured with Peace, I couldn’t believe that someone of Paul Rodgers calibre was supporting us, although his band weren’t that great,’ says Ralphs. ‘We all loved Paul and got him up to sing with us one night, and I said to him backstage that I’d got some songs we weren’t doing in Mott and would he like to do them. So I played him ‘Ready For Love’ and he liked that, and then I played ‘Moving On’ and he liked that too. Initially, I was just going to do some recording with Paul, but when I started working with him, it was obvious I was more interested in that.
‘We were doing the Mott album and Paul wanted to record and put a band together but I told him Mott The Hoople had a US tour coming up and I had to do that. I couldn’t just tell them I’m leaving, it wouldn’t be fair. So I said to Mott I’d do the American tour and that would give them time to get somebody else in to take my place.’
‘Ralphs quits Hoople’ announced the music press in August 1973 and Bad Company was born. Rodgers, Ralphs and Kirke recruited Boz Burrell, who had previously been with King Crimson where he learned bass under the tuition of lead guitarist Robert Fripp, and joined Island Records in Britain and Led Zeppelin’s US record label, Swan Song, managed by the late Peter Grant. ‘He was a lovely man,’ says Mick, ‘and another big influence, as Guy Stevens was, but in a different way. If it hadn’t been for Peter, Bad Company wouldn’t have been as big as they were, just like Guy with Mott.’
Bad Company’s self-titled debut album was a huge hit that year reaching No.3 in the UK and No.1 platinum status in the US charts. Produced by the group, the record included Ralphs’ Mott The Hoople songs ‘Ready For Love’, ‘Moving On’ and the top 5 single ‘Can’t Get Enough’, plus two fine ballads co-written with Paul Rodgers, ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ and the acoustic ‘Seagull’. Bad Company departed on their first American tour for six weeks as a support group, but were instantly promoted to headlining status.
Their appeal increased on both sides of the Atlantic with the 1975 release of Straight Shooter, which reached the top three in the UK and spawned two hit singles, Ralphs’ ‘Good Lovin’ Gone Bad’ and ‘Feel Like Makin’ Love’ composed with Rodgers. Mick also co-wrote ‘Deal With The Preacher’ and ‘Wild Fire Woman’. ‘Once I got working with Paul I got into a roll,’ says Ralphs. ‘I unleashed a lot of songs because I had the perfect vehicle; I had the greatest singer in the world and the greatest drummer, and everybody was into the blues, so I was able to exploit my songwriting to the degree that I did.’
For their third album, the excellent Run With The Pack, released in 1976, Bad Company worked in France recording and producing the LP using The Rolling Stones’ Mobile Studio. Once again they had a top three album in the UK and a US single, ‘Youngblood’, reached No.20. Ralphs composed three songs for the LP, ‘Live For The Music’, ‘Simple Man’ and ‘Sweet Lil’ Sister’, and co-wrote ‘Honey Child’, a second US single.
Peter Grant’s management policy of a world tour every two years kept audiences hungry and perhaps explained the group’s lifespan of ten years. Their subsequent top 20 LP’s – Burnin’ Sky, Desolation Angels and Rough Diamonds – were not as strong as their opening trio, although their 1979 single, ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy’, reached no.13 in the American charts. In 1983, Paul Rodgers quit and the band folded, reforming in 1986 with Dave Colwell on guitars and ex-Ted Nugent vocalist Brian Howe. They enjoyed considerable renewed success with several hit albums for Atlantic/Atco Records in America, including Fame and Fortune, Dangerous Age, Holy Water and Here Comes Trouble, the latter two achieving platinum awards. Although they were always a major concert attraction, Bad Company didn’t issue a live album until 1994, the excellent What You Hear Is What You Get, after which Howe departed.
In 1984, during Bad Company’s temporary demise, Mick Ralphs released Take This on Rock Machine records, but with no singles and no major promotional activity, the album passed un-noticed. Self-composed apart from one track, and assisted by Simon Kirke and bass player Micky Feat, Ralphs played all other instruments and arranged and produced the record with Max Norman. ‘I enjoyed doing my solo album,’ admits Mick. ‘I had all these songs I’d written for Bad Company and Bad Co wasn’t functioning, so I got the songs, arranged them, booked the studio, hired the players, mixed it, put it all together, did the cover but basically lost a fortune! It was a shame, it went nowhere and I had to split the group.’
1995 saw the release of a self-produced Bad Company album, Company Of Strangers, featuring new singer, Robert Hart, who bore an uncanny vocal similarity to Paul Rodgers. Containing five tracks self-penned or co-written by Ralphs, the band undertook a lengthy promotional tour of the USA with Bon Jovi. Griffin Music of America also re-issued Take This! on compact disc. Bad Co’s 1996 album, Stories Told + Untold, contained seven new compositions and seven acoustic versions including ‘Can’t Get Enough’ and a superbly revitalised ‘Ready For Love’, which is still, perhaps, Mick’s finest composition.
Running With The Pack (Again)
1999 saw the long awaited reunion, with the band not only completing a rousing 30-date U.S. tour that drew sell out crowds and much critical acclaim, but also oversee the release of the acclaimed Original Bad Company Anthology double CD. Ten year later, in June 2009, the surviving members — singer Paul Rodgers, guitarist Mick Ralphs, and drummer Simon Kirke (Boz Burrell passed away in 2006) — reunited again for a successful 10-date U.S. tour.