‘Desolation Angels’ at 40: Paul Rodgers, Simon Kirke and Mick Ralphs on Bad Company’s Classic LP (The Interview)

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Following up the Burning Sky album, an adventurous excursion into experimentation and wide vista sonic landscapes, Bad Company returned to the charts in a big way with 1979’s Desolation Angels. Bolstered by the smash hit, the Paul Rodgers-penned anthem, “Rock & Roll Fantasy” and featuring strong songwriting contributions from the entire band, the album and successive tour proved to be a triumph.

40 years on since its original release comes a new Desolation Angels 2-CD deluxe edition packed with outtakes, alternate versions and two previously unreleased songs, “Rock Fever” and “Smokin’ ‘45”. Recently, we spoke with original members Rodgers, Mick Ralphs and Simon Kirke for a look back on a shining achievement in the band’s storied career. (Note: Mick Ralphs submitted his answers via e-mail, and this was one of his first interviews after suffering a stroke in 2016).

Rock Cellar: Looking back, what was the state of the band during the sessions for the Desolation Angels album?

Paul Rodgers: The state of the band was very up from my point of view. Time to dust off the equipment, roll up our sleeves and get down to the business that we knew and loved so well, making rock and roll music!

Simon Kirke: We had had some time off prior to recording Desolation Angels. So we were much more prepared when we recorded that album.

Mick Ralphs: Not very good. We had run out of material [with Burning Sky]and it showed. It was a hodge-podge album and not one of our best.

Rock Cellar: The Burning Sky album was a much more experimental record for the band, and it wasn’t a major hit when compared to the three albums that preceded it. What was the thinking going into the studio to record Desolation Angels?

Mick Ralphs: Not very strong. We were not really ready to make a record. We’d run out of ideas by then.

Rock Cellar: Was there a conscious thought to create a batch of more commercial and radio friendly material?

Paul Rodgers: There was always the thought of writing for our live audience or with the fans in mind, for me anyway. I think Mick would be of like mind. If a song works live it is likely to make a good recording, and of course if it makes a good recording it’s likely to get radio play. Most music sounds good in the studio, given the high-end equipment.

Knowing that, we would also take the mixes home and listen on equipment similar to what our fans would be listening on to be sure that it sounded as good as we thought it did. I was and still am concerned with releasing the best quality recordings we can. It is important to be able to reproduce what we record, live on stage.

Bad Company is not a band that includes a lot of sound effects or stage effects. I feel that strong music alone makes a strong show.

Rock Cellar: Set the stage for the recording sessions at Ridge Farm Studios in Surrey, England. How long did it take to cut the album? What was the process, was there much overdubbing or was it more of a “let’s capture the band live in the studio” vibe?

Paul Rodgers: After doing the tax year out it was good to get back to “Blighty” and Ridge Farm, our old stomping ground in the English countryside. The local pubs and warm beer, it’s not really warm, as it happens, just not sub zero!

Yes, they treated us well at Ridge Farm, bangers and mash, bacon and eggs, all the good stuff. That unfortunately I no longer can eat! We had had a lot of creative time together, there so it was good to be back.

Simon Kirke: We were all so much happier recording back at Ridge Farm. Recording abroad really didn’t really suit us, looking back … Recording in Surrey meant that if necessary we could go home should an emergency arise we also loved recording there because the Andrews family were so nice to us.

I don’t think we were at Ridge Farm for more than three weeks. A recording process has always been very strict — lay down two or three takes and we usually have a backing track. Then Mick would overdub his guitars. Paul would overdub his vocals and we would put harmony and percussion on if needed at a final stage.

Mick Ralphs: It took about three weeks and the album had more of a live feel.

Rock Cellar: The album was recorded in 1978, what was happening in the music scene at the time? Did it flavor the songwriting and production?

Simon Kirke: In 1978 we were very much our own band and were unaffected by popular trends at the time. Punk was in full swing, but that didn’t really affect us. If anything it spurred us on to greater efforts … perhaps bands of our stature were getting a little bit too complacent.

And punk certainly gave us a kick in the rear.

Bad Company (Photo: Carl Dunn)

Bad Company (Photo: Carl Dunn)

Mick Ralphs: Music was pretty stagnant in 1978.

Paul Rodgers: I have come to realize that I was inspired by very few records, Muddy Waters (Best of Muddy), Ray Charles (Crying Time), Otis Redding (Otis Blue), and all the Otis records I could get my hands on. Albert King (Born Under a Bad Sign), Booker T and the MG’s, John Mayall’s Blues Breakers album with Eric Clapton, BB King Live at the Regal, some Cream and some Hendrix.

Junior Wells’ “Somebody Done Hoodooed The Hoodoo Man,” Holst’s The Planets Planet Suite, especially “Jupiter,” The Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”, Junior Walker’s “Roadrunner.” And of course The Beatles, what a huge inspiration; pick an album, any album. They were especially inspiring because they were from just down the road, and if they could do it then perhaps I could too.

Music I listened to at school, because at eighteen years of age I began writing songs and my focus was the new music that I was creating with Andy Fraser in Free and with Mick Ralphs in Bad Company so I was head-down going for broke with that and making records.

So to answer your question, I was very blinkered about what the current scene was doing at any one time, including 1978. This music taught me to be honest in my songwriting, to write it as you feel it. When I left home, I now realize, I had three objectives to achieve. One, to survive, two, to find peace of mind, three, to make music while doing that — and I am still doing that.

I never imagined that our music would have the longevity it has, and that comes down to the fans.

I don’t feel that my songwriting is off the charts like Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Sting or Bryan Adams. I am just a northern lad from Middlesbrough who got lucky, very very lucky.

Rock Cellar: The album is produced by Bad Company. Was there a leader in the studio steering the ship?

Simon Kirke: No real leader … we all chipped in. Paul and Mick did the bulk of the song writing as usual. That was fine by us. They are very good!

Mick Ralphs: There were two of us trying to produce, Paul and myself.

Rock Cellar: What is the significance of the title Desolation Angels?

Paul Rodgers: There was a book written by Jack Kerouac, Desolation Angels, and I felt that the title of the book summed up perfectly the mood of the band at that time. In my view, while we were Bad Company, rock & roll wall to wall, we still had a message of love to deliver.

Mick Ralphs: We used the book as inspiration.

Rock Cellar: Listening back to the sessions /outtakes for the album, did it alter your perception of the record, its strengths?

Paul Rodgers: Sometimes musicians are not happy with re-releases, especially including outtakes, but thinking on it I came to the realization that it might be interesting for the fans to see the structuring and evolution of a song.

As a writer, this is something you take for granted. Some of the outtakes give fans the chance to get a bit of a feel for what went on in the studio. I mean Bad Company performing “Amen,” an old gospel standard, who would have thought? Celebrating 40 plus years as a band, who would have thought?!

Simon Kirke: I’m not really a fan of listening back to outtakes … they are outtakes for a specific reason. They didn’t make the cut.

Rock Cellar: The new 2-CD set features two unreleased songs, “Smokin’ 45” and “Rock Fever.” What’s the back story behind those songs?

Mick Ralphs: Boz wrote “Smokin’ 45” and I wrote “Rock Fever.” “Smokin’ 45” was a good idea but was never finished. “Rock Fever” was OK but not great.

Rock Cellar: “Smokin’ 45” in particular is strong, and to my ears deserved a spot on the album.  

Paul Rodgers: “Smokin 45” was a great song co-written by Boz, where this was one of the few, if not the only time that our manager Peter Grant stepped in and vetoed a song. I got the feeling that he for some reason didn’t like it. Maybe it was the song’s content or the fact that it was co-written with someone outside of the band … we will never know.

Boz and the rest of the band didn’t seem too concerned with Grant’s decision, so the song disappeared until now. I hope that Boz would think it’s cool that after all this time his song is finally out. I hope that the fans enjoy it too.

Simon Kirke: “Smokin’ 45” was a fantastic song. I really wish it had been included on the album. Boz wrote it with a couple of his friends who were outside the group. So maybe that was a strike against it. But I’m glad it’s finally getting an airing.

Mick Ralphs: I thought it was good but there was some management politics involved with it since the co-writer wasn’t in the band; Boz had co-written it with Tim Hinkley.

Rock Cellar: “Rock & Roll Fantasy” was a huge it form the album, what inspired it?

Paul Rodgers: “Rock & Roll Fantasy” was inspired by what we loved to do most, play live. It’s a very simple idea, and I think audiences instantly recognize and identify with where I was coming from, it’s a good groove from Kirke and Boz and everybody has fun with it.

Also, it has really stood the test of time and when we play it live these days it lights the fans up.

For our new generation of fans, time and time again I am told that “Rock & Roll Fantasy” and “Shooting Star,” for some reason, resonate with them and are the younger fans’ favorites; no idea why those two songs, maybe we don’t need to know.

Rock Cellar: Paul, you also played lead guitar on the track.

Paul Rodgers: Actually I played guitar throughout the song, including the solo, and Mick very kindly let me go ahead. He added some unique touches himself as only Mick Ralphs can. I used the at the time cutting edge Roland Synth, which I understand has come a long way since those days, but for me, it was very exciting.

It was the ultimate rock and roll guitar sound that really inspired me. Part of the songwriting process is to play with sound and sound combinations. You never know what you will produce, nor do you know whether or not you will hear something that sparks the idea or concept for a song.

Rock Cellar: “Crazy Circles” is a standout track that was never performed live by the band until a few years back.

Paul Rodgers: I always like to include an acoustic song on the albums and also when performing live. I feel it gives a different color to the heavy electric sound. Mick’s solo on “Crazy Circles” is a perfect match to the mood of the song and as with so much of Mick’s guitar playing, I love it. Mick used a nylon stringed guitar and it is great how the guitar solo rises up out of the song. It is almost classical in essence.

Rock Cellar: Paul, another highlight of the record is the smoldering “Early In The Morning.”

Paul Rodgers: The song for me was beautiful because the end “ad-lib” section was completely free and freeing, it went to a place where we all found ourselves looking around and saying … Phew, what was that?! You know, that real togetherness, that is the magic of a good band. Some call it the “X” factor.

Rock Cellar: Paul, “Evil Wind,” another song you penned for the album, was featured in the band’s live set back in ’79.

Paul Rodgers: I remember mixing “Evil Wind” at Air Studios on Oxford Street in London, where it is reputed that the Beatles mixed the song “Good Morning, Good Morning” with all of its recorded oddities, a rooster crowing, a lion roaring, a horse neighing, et cetera. They used the sound archives that were stored there for the BBC.A little side point of interest.

Back to “Evil Wind” I didn’t have the lyrics to the middle eight until we were in the mixing session and they came to me on the spot then and there. When I was writing the song, the definition of an evil wind was a wind that was so evil that it blew no good for anyone.

Rock Cellar: The final song you contributed to the album was “She Brings Me Love.”

Paul Rodgers: “She Brings Me Love” creates its own intense space. The intensity building up as the band builds the song to its natural climax. On this recording I played an ARP string synthesizer, and to the best of my recollection this is the only time that I used the ARP.

Rock Cellar: Mick, tell me about one of the strongest tracks on that album that you wrote, “Oh Atlanta.”

Mick Ralphs: I was inspired every time that I played in Atlanta. It was a sell-out. We were very popular there. It was so good there. That was the inspiration writing it about that town. It was used in the Olympics in ’95, ’96.

“Oh Atlanta” changed somewhat because it was used on an album by Alison Krauss.

Rock Cellar: “Take The Time” was another strong one from you, Mick.

Mick Ralphs: We never actually finished it properly. We ran out of ideas and time, I suppose. Not my best song. Same thing again with “Lonely For Your Love.” Time. I was feeling lonely at the time for love. “Lonely For Your Love” was another idea that was never finished. I will finish it off one day.

Rock Cellar: From a personal standpoint, what are the songs that stand head and shoulders above the others on the album?

Paul Rodgers: From a personal standpoint, listening to the re-release, I think “Rock & Roll Fantasy” stands out because it very much reflected what we were doing at the time, living and breathing our rock and roll dream of international success and acceptance. It’s not a particularly deep song, like say “Ready for Love” or even “Feel Like Makin’ Love” but a lighter, fun song that we still include in the set today.

It has a unique, distinct sound, three notes in and the fans are up. In many ways it has stood the test of time and tells a simple story; joyfully, it makes people happy and that is all right with me.

Also, the song that I feel is a standout on the release is Mick’s song “Take the Time,” I think is a beautiful song. The key is pitched to where it is an easy listen and the sentiment of the lyric really moves me. I feel that Mick wrote the song directly from the heart from an experience he actually had, “when I see you start to cry, I stop and wonder.”

It’s the way we guys can be at times with a woman, going our sweet selfish way and suddenly realizing that hey, I might be hurting this lady. Then again, I might just be being sentimental and could be way off the mark; I will have to ask Mick.

Mick Ralphs: For me, that would be “Gone, Gone, Gone.”

Rock Cellar: Boz Burrell truly stepped to the table on Desolation Angels with two impressive songs, especially “Gone, Gone, Gone.” As Boz did not contribute many songs during the group’s career, what made them both distinctive and special?

Simon Kirke: Yes, Boz did get two songs on the album, “Gone, Gone, Gone” and “Rhythm Machine.” Boz’s approach to music was slightly different from ours, including slightly more complex arrangements and chord progressions. He was influenced by jazz quite a bit, whereas me and Paul and Mick were more blues and soul oriented … I found his approach very refreshing.

Mick Ralphs: Just good songs. I was always trying to get a song from Boz on the album, as I was very fond of him.

Rock Cellar: Who came up with the idea for the striking album artwork?

Simon Kirke: The artwork was from the brainchild of Hypnosis: Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell.

Mick Ralphs: They were a company we’d previously used and they came up with a lot of good ideas.

Rock Cellar: Bad Co toured extensively behind the Desolation Angels album. In fact, I saw the band twice on that tour in Philadelphia. What are your most vivid memories of the tour?

Simon Kirke: It was one of the best tours we ever did and also one of the longest, bolstered by the hit that we had with “Rock & Roll Fantasy.” I believe it went into the top 20. The band was very much reinvigorated.

I thoroughly enjoyed it and taking into account your final question, yes I believe that because it was such a rigorous tour we were ill-prepared to take on another tour and album so soon after finishing. I was also doing a lot of substances, which certainly didn’t help …

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3 Comments

  1. Hi RCM,

    Dr Bob here. I wrote a couple of articles for you a few years back. I knew Boz Burrell. He was from my neighbourhood. In the early 60s. He taught me my first jazz guitar chords and rolled me my first doobie.

    A wonderful generous spirit and a great musician.

    I miss him.

  2. I’m very curious to know under what conditions this interview was done. We’ve know for awhile that Mick had a stroke recently and was in a bad way for quite some time. Do I take from this that he has, hopefully, recovered and is back on his feet? Mick is one of my all time favorite guitarists and it was heartbreaking to hear that he had gone through this. Can anybody verify Mick’s current status?

    • Hi Mark — this was one of the first interviews Mick has participated in since his stroke, and his answers were sent in via e-mail.