In 1972, one of Britain’s best bands, Mott The Hoople, still hadn’t made any impact on the charts. Its record company, Island Records, was getting impatient. Then, a future rock legend walked into London’s Olympic Studios.
“David Bowie said, ‘I hear you guys are on the verge of splitting up, but I’ve got a song you might like,’” recalls Mick Ralphs. “Then he played ‘All The Young Dudes’ for us, and we immediately knew it would be a hit.”
Born March 31, 1944, in Herefordshire, England, Ralphs started playing in bands as a teenager, and joining Mott in 1969 was his first big break. Fronted by the popular singer/songwriter Ian Hunter, the group became one of the leaders of the glam rock movement.
By 1973, Ralphs was becoming disillusioned with Mott’s musical direction, and steered his energy to a new group with singer Paul Rogers, drummer Simon Kirke, and bassist Boz Burrell. Dubbed Bad Company, all of its members had previously played in bands that achieved noteworthy recognition. Its self-titled debut album was a tremendous success and established the band as one of the world’s biggest musical attractions.
The original quartet disbanded in 1982, then re-formed four years later without Rogers. Ralphs stayed on until ’99 then returned in 2008. Another venture, The Mick Ralphs Blues Band, formed in 2011 with singer Adam Bonner, second guitarist Jim Maving, bass player Dicky Baldwin, and drummer Damon Sawyer. Its first proper album, If It Ain’t Broke, is a hard-driving mix of covers and originals. Unfortunately, Ralphs suffered a stroke three days after the final show of Bad Company’s 2016 tour (and following this interview). He is currently undergoing physical therapy in a British hospital.
“We want Mick to fully focus on his recovery, and we have made the decision as a band to wind things up,” Baldwin said in a statement, adding that Ralphs was grateful to fans for their good wishes.
“I’d seen all the Kings live – Albert, Freddie, and B.B. – and they were all my heroes in the day, but Albert was my favorite.”
What was the first record you heard where the guitar really caught your attention?
Oh, the song that really inspired me to want to play was “Green Onions” by Booker T. and The MGs. Besides the groove, the guitar playing on it is really nasty. That record really got me into rhythm-and-blues music, along with soul – the sort of music I really liked at the time, and still do.
Around the same time, in 1962, the Beatles released their first record in England, “Love Me Do.” As a teenager, how did the Beatlemania phenomenon affect you?
I actually saw the Beatles play live before they were big, and thought they were really good. It was at a little club in Carnaby Walls. I thought it was really cool the way George, Paul, and John were in the front line, and Ringo was at an angle at the back of the stage, so he could see everybody and they could see him.
Do you recall what kind of guitar Harrison was playing? Was it the black Gretsch Country Gentleman?
It might have been, or the Duo Jet. In those days, it was hard to buy American guitars in England, but you could get them in Germany, which is where McCartney got his Höfner violin bass. Also, because they were from Liverpool and played Hamburg, which are both big seaports, they’d buy stuff off American sailors – guitars, records, stuff like that. As they say, they stole the march on everybody, because they were the first to really get into the American R&B. Their first album was almost all covers, as was the Stones’ first.
Songs on those early albums by the Stones, Yardbirds, or Cream showed composer credits with names like Ellas McDaniel, Chester Burnett, and McKinley Morganfield – performers who’d always used the pseudonyms Bo Diddley, Howlin’ Wolf, and Muddy Waters.
I know. Great names, weren’t they? Years ago, I did an interview at a radio station in Chicago, and they asked, “Who were your influences?” I mentioned a few then added, “Muddy Waters.” The bloke said, “Where is that?” (laughs) I said, “It’s a person, from right here in Chicago – a blues writer, singer, and guitar player.”
British musicians took to that music more readily than the Americans did. They put their stamp on it and sent it back to America in versions by the Stones and other British bands.
So, when did you seek out the original versions?
Well, you couldn’t really get those records in England until the embargo was lifted in the late ’60s. Then you could buy American imprints. The first time I went to America in 1970 or ’71, I’d go to all the record shops, buying all the blues and soul albums I could find – Otis Redding, stuff like that. I’d read all I could about the artists, but information was not as easily available. If you wanted to talk to someone who had a really good album, they’d try to explain to you who was playing on it, but it was all a bit of an unknown quantity, which made it quite exciting.
The new album has an authentic feel, like a band playing a small club.
Yeah, the whole idea was to capture what we sound like in a club. I don’t like to waste a lot of time in the studio. Get in, lay it down, and nail it as soon as you can, you know? We play mostly small venues, but it’s good for me to keep my hands in and play songs I like. It’s all good fun.
There are two Freddie King tunes – “Same Old Blues” and “Going Down.” Was he was one of your heroes?
Yes, he was. But I was also a huge fan of Albert King, who I saw many years ago when he was on the same bill as Mott The Hoople at the Fillmore West. I went backstage, and was just in awe of him. He was a huge guy, maybe six and half feet tall. I’d seen all the Kings live – Albert, Freddie, and B.B. – and they were all my heroes in the day, but Albert was my favorite. Those Stax records had such a great groove and feel. I also had a Flying V like Albert played.
What gear did you use on the album?
These days, I’m mainly playing my ’02 Les Paul reissue and ’57 Fender Esquire, which is a wonderful instrument.
Do you keep a collection of guitars?
Probably 25. I haven’t counted lately, but I used to have a lot more.
Any particular favorites?
A vintage Gibson Everly Brothers, which is great. Also my ’58 Les Paul Junior and a ’59 Epiphone Coronet. Most of the others are reissues or new-ish. If I find a new-ish guitar I like that sounds good and plays good, I’ll buy it rather than spend thousands on something that might not be as good.
There are good guitars coming out these days, Fenders especially. We all love vintage guitars, but to me, the prices are ridiculous when many cost around $200 when they were made. I’ve had vintage Les Pauls, but they go for silly money. You have rich people paying $300,000 for a Les Paul or Jimi Hendrix guitar. You know it’s just going to be hanging on a wall somewhere and never get played, which is sad, really.
What’s in your typical effects/amp setup?
I like going straight to an amp – no pedals, nothing, just right into the amp and make it work. I’ve played that way since I started. On club gigs with the blues band, I use a little Holland combo that’s based on an old Fender with two 10″ speakers and about 50 watts output – a bit like a Victoria or Matchless. It’s perfectly adequate for the club gigs, but for bigger shows with Bad Company, I use 100-watt Marshalls.
What was behind the formation of Mott The Hoople?
Guy Stevens was a talent scout for our label, Island Records, and he wanted to form a British version of Bob Dylan and The Band. We went along with it to a degree, but kept our own identity. Mott went through a lot of changes trying to get acceptance. We weren’t really a glam band – we evolved into that because of our association with David Bowie. When we started, we were more like a punk band, a really hard, heavy rock band.
Ian played amazing piano on Mott’s records, especially “All The Way From Memphis.”
He was a big fan of Jerry Lee Lewis. I did a couple of tours with him a few years ago and he still really rocks out on the old piano. When he auditioned for Mott The Hoople, he didn’t play guitar at all. He only started that with us.
Mott was a very successful band, yet you left to help form Bad Company, which ultimately became much bigger.
Well, when I was in Mott the Hoople, Paul and Simon were in Free. We were signed to the same label, and we would go on tours together. So I got friendly with both… well, all of the band, really. I remember talking with Paul about songs, and I said, “I’ve got these songs I’ve written. Ian doesn’t want to do them, or he doesn’t feel he can sing them.” I later played them for Paul, and he said, “Well, I can sing that” and “I can sing that…” I said, “After we finish touring, let’s do some writing and work together on a project.”
So, it came together as easily as that?
Well, I didn’t actually intend to form a group at that time. I was still in Mott The Hoople when Simon dropped in Paul’s house one day. We had just been chucking around songs, and Simon said, “Do you mind if I play drums on them?” We said, “Great!” I immediately said to Paul, “All we need now is to look for a bass player.” We tried out a lot of people before we ended up with Boz.
Did Bad Company offer more artistic freedom than Mott?
It was really just more my cup of tea because it was a blues-rock band. Paul and Simon were also into blues, so we had common ground, whereas Mott had become a glam band, which was groovy in Britain at the time, but I wanted to get into something simpler – more rock-and-roll, less flashy.
Its first album was a big hit, and songs like “Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love” had a very underproduced, almost demo-like quality.
Yes, on the first two we were keen on keeping it simple, bare, and minimalistic, so it would sound like a live album. Actually, a lot of it was live because we’d all been in situations in studios where people said, “Oh, let’s overdub this. Let’s overdub that.” So, Paul and I made sure to keep the songs in their bare-boned state, and only add what was really necessary. A lot of the backing tracks were done quickly because we didn’t see the point in spending months in the studio. We just wanted to get in there and lay down the tracks quickly, as long as they sounded good.
How does Led Zeppelin fit in the picture?
Peter Grant was Zeppelin’s manager, and he managed us. Then we got on the same label, Swan Song, and got to know all of the Zeppelins as individuals. They became great friends, really. I’m still friends with Jimmy and Robert, though I haven’t seen Jimmy for awhile.
What special memories do you have of those first American tours?
Oh, they were great. It was all a runaway success that we weren’t really prepared for. It was all a bit of a shock, but we went along for the ride because I remember saying to Paul, “This will never last, so let’s enjoy it while it does,” but here we are 40 years later, still touring.
Who were some of the best-known bands Bad Company toured with in the ’70s?
The first time we came to America we supported Edgar Winter’s White Trash, who were great. The next tour we were headlining, but in the Mott days we toured with Traffic and Mountain. Those were great days. The Humble Pie were up and coming, and it was a really good time for bands.
What did you think of the emergence of punk in England in 1977, when people like John Lydon referred to the older British bands as dinosaurs?
Well, by that time, Bad Company was well-established and we were also spending a lot of time in America, where the punk thing didn’t really take off. So, it didn’t really affect us at all. I think their comments were really aimed more at those self-indulgent prog-rock bands I never really liked anyway. Punk was the antithesis of that. It stirred things up, getting back to more simplistic stuff which, I think, was a good thing.
The music business has changed so much since the ’70s, when Bad Company was distributed by a major label selling millions of albums, to your now being on a small indie.
It is different, but that’s fine. These days, people don’t actually buy albums. You sort of rent the music online. In my day, it was nice to save up to buy an album you really liked and to physically hold it and read the sleeve notes while it was playing. For kids today, music has become very transient. Bands come and go much quicker than they used to. I don’t see any long-lasting bands, but change is inevitable, I’m afraid. When I started in music, it was a strange hobby to have. It was more of an exclusive club, where now everybody is into music because, with the internet and downloads, it’s all so instant.
Are there three or four Bad Company songs you tend to favor after all these years?
“Can’t Get Enough” has to be one because I wrote that in the Mott The Hoople days. I also like “Ready For Love,” another one I wrote. “Shooting Star,” which was written by Paul, is another favorite, as was “Bad Company,” which Paul and Simon wrote. I mean, they’re all good. They still stand up, which is great, and half the reason we still tour. The thing is now we can do a whole set of songs that everybody knows without having to say, “Here’s a track from the new album,” because we haven’t done one for years. We all live in different countries, so we don’t see each other that much.
You’ve been in two bands many believe should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame…
Well, I think we should be in there, because as you say, having been in two big bands of the ’70s, it would be a nice accomplishment. I don’t really know how they go about the vetting process. If you’d like, put in a good word for me!
This article originally appeared in VG April 2017 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.