They were bad before that meant good. Way back in 1973, former members of three British bands hooked up for a new venture dubbed Bad Company, its title borrowed from a Jeff Bridges Western. Singer Paul Rodgers and drummer Simon Kirke from Free joined forces with ex-Mott the Hoople guitarist Mick Ralphs and bassist Boz Burrell, late of King Crimson.
The quartet, signed to the Led Zeppelin-owned Swan Song label in the U.S., adopted an orchestrated outlaw-drifter image and released a self-titled debut that proved the group's mettle. Soulful singing, heavy guitar riffs and reliable blues-rock rhythms fueled a string of instant hits: "Can't Get Enough," "Ready for Love," "Rock Steady," "Movin' On" and the title track from the quintuple-platinum debut disc. More would follow: "Feel Like Makin' Love," "Good Lovin' Gone Bad," "Shooting Star," "Silver, Blue and Gold" and "Rock & Roll Fantasy."
"It's very simple music, but it seems to carry a strong message," Rodgers says from Vancouver, B.C., where he's mixing his sixth solo album. "We were playing music that we felt we wanted to play, and people really went for it."
For better or worse, everything old is new again in the '90s. Classic TV series are reborn on the big screen. Funk riffs are sampled by hip-hoppers. Foreigner, Styx and Journey reunite. Jam-band rock thrives via the HORDE festival.
And now here comes Bad Company. Rodgers -- absent from the band since 1982 -- and Burrell have rejoined old pals Ralphs and Kirke, who had re-ignited the band in 1986. The original lineup is staking its claim to old turf in a big way, with a pair of warm-up shows at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater to be followed by a live, pay-per-view concert Friday, May 21, at Hard Rock Live. Those shows are among 30 or so dates scheduled in support of "The Original Bad Company Anthology," a double-disc set that includes four tracks recorded especially for the occasion. "Hey, Hey," penned by Ralphs, already has seen some chart action.
"We got together to discuss the catalog because [the songs] still get a lot of airplay," Rodgers says of the reunion's genesis. "We talked about the idea of putting together a box set or an anthology, and I said to Mick, to really make it interesting we should perhaps put something new on there."
Rodgers originally left Bad Company because of what he calls a "general malaise" that characterized the music industry in the wake of Zep drummer John Bonham's death in 1980. He went solo on 1983's "Cut Loose" but soon found himself collaborating with Zep guitarist Jimmy Page for the Firm and later with Who drummer Kenney Jones for the Law. The singer gained even greater attention for the Grammy-nominated 1993 disc "Muddy Waters Blues" and 1996's "Now and Live."
Bad Company, meanwhile, weathered on, with singer Brian Howe and various bassists and rhythm guitarists joining Ralphs and Kirke for five discs, including 1990's platinum-selling "Holy Water" and 1992's "Here Comes Trouble," which went gold. Rodgers had allowed the pair to use the Bad Company name. Still, he can't say he wasn't bugged by certain aspects of the revived group.
"I could have done the same thing with the Firm, but I didn't," he says. "I gave them permission. But what did start to bother me was that nobody had the integrity to make it clear to the fans and the public that I wasn't with the band."
Expectations were high when Rodgers, Ralphs, Kirke and Burrell reassembled last year.
"It is a little uncomfortable at first, because 20 years is a long time, by anyone's standards. The thing I did was just to count off some of the old material, because in the old days, when we had a long break we'd run through some of the old tunes before moving on to the new material. Later, we went to New York and had a jam session, for the cameras, mainly. We played anything and everything, and you could tell that the musical intensity was very much rejuvenated. We've had time to clear the air and grow up a little." But not too much. "The music of our teens," says Rodgers, "is still churning through our veins."