Paul Rodgers and Bad Company Live for the Music

Any band can sound good in the studio, but it’s the live stage where artists really have to prove their mettle night in and night out, especially if they’re interested in a little ol’ thing called longevity. One group that owned the planks from the minute it first stepped onto them is Bad Company, the British blues-rock collective that further legitimized Led Zeppelin’s Swan Song label upon the release of its mega-selling self-titled debut in 1974.

Even though Bad Company became a hugely successful arena act, they never released a live album to properly chronicle their ’70s heyday — until now, that is, thanks to the double-CD offering Live in Concert 1977 & 1979 (Swan Song/Rhino). The first disc comprises the May 23, 1977 set at the Summit House in Houston, Texas, in support of that year’s Burning Sky LP, and the second disc covers the March 9, 1979 show across The Pond in London in support of 1979’s double-platinum juggernaut, Desolation Angels. This energetic pair of shows showcases both hits (“Shooting Star,” “Feel Like Makin’ Love”) and deep cuts (“Heartbeat,” “Evil Wind”) alike, with limited overlap between the two sets. (More on that in a bit.)

“There have been bootlegs all over the place, but this is the first ever official live album release from the ’70s Bad Co.,” confirms vocalist and band co-founder Paul Rodgers. “And I have to say, I’m very happy with Rhino Records. I requested they master from the original 24-track tapes, not from digital, and they honored that.”

The live stage is also where you can find Bad Company this summer, as they hit the road with tourmate Joe Walsh in Dallas at Gexa Energy Pavilion on May 12. Ex-Black Crowes guitarist Rich Robinson will handle the lead duties for the first time, taking over for Mick Ralphs. This month, the band also travels to Chicago to cut an episode of Soundstage (airdates yet to be determined as of presstime).

If you want to compare material from Live 1977 & 1979 with the respective studio versions, much of it can be found on Rock ’N’ Roll Fantasy: The Very Best of Bad Company, released on both CD and 180-gram vinyl late last year. You may also want to scope out the double-disc deluxe editions of Bad Company (1974) and Straight Shooter (1975), both of which are also on 180g wax. Rodgers can’t yet confirm if the rest of the Bad Co. catalog will receive similar deluxe treatment, but it certainly seems possible (if not inevitable).

And though he’s always on the run, Rodgers, 66, found time in his packed schedule to get on the line with me to discuss the finer aspects of live performing, loving analog, and how to best honor the band's legacy. That Bad Company sound is their claim to fame.

Mike Mettler: Before we get into the live material, I have to say it’s encouraging to hear how Rhino has embraced the analog approach to the overall Bad Company catalog.

Paul Rodgers: A lot of people are jumping on the vinyl bandwagon, but they’re copying from digital, and it’s not the same. Rhino uses the original tapes, which makes me happy. It goes to the soul of the music, so buyer beware! When I recorded my last solo LP, The Royal Sessions [in 2013], it was done all analog. We went from that to the vinyl, and released it on 200-gram virgin vinyl.

Mettler: I bought that LP at your solo show in New York [at Town Hall on June 19, 2014], and we really get to hear that classic Memphis material sing on vinyl, especially when it comes to the vocal choices you made. I’m also hoping I can drop the needle on this live material at some point so I can catch all the nuances of how you play with the vowel sounds in “Heartbeat” on the 1977 disc, for example.

Rodgers: Yeah yeah, there is something about that, isn’t there? Somebody told me that digital sounds hit your ear in sharp steps, but analog hits your ear in waves. And although it seems to sound the same, it affects you differently.

Look, it’s convenient to have digital. If you sit in a car, you can’t really put a record player on. But for the real deal, you have to get the ol’ vinyl going. I even like to hear the kee-koooo [mimes sound of needle hitting vinyl for the first time], you know. (chuckles)

Mettler: Yeah, I love that sound too. And you’re right — digital is all 0s and 1s, and when you’re working in the box like that, you’re looking at squares. You’re not getting that analog feel.

Rodgers: That’s right.

Mettler: And with live material like we have here, there’s a certain interplay between you guys that comes through much better in the analog form.

Rodgers: Yeah. Of course, when we recorded these shows, that was the state of the art. That’s how we recorded them, and they’ve been archived ever since. We had kind of forgotten them, and when the record company approached us — I was a little skeptical. I said we’ll listen and we’ll see if we approve it. I had my doubts.

But when I listened to it, I was pleasantly surprised. It really captured a period of time. I was even surprised at some of the set choices we made. We did “Leaving You” [from 1977’s Burning Sky], and I didn’t remember doing that. It’s got a great groove to it.

Mettler: And there’s minimal overlap between the two sets. Only two songs appear in both of them — “Shooting Star” and “Feel Like Makin’ Love.”

Rodgers: Wow! Good point; that hadn’t actually clicked with me. That’s interesting, yeah. We’ve come to a point now where there are certain song we have to do. We have to do “Feel Like Makin’ Love,” we have to do “Bad Company,” we’ve got to do “Shooting Star,” and we’ve got to do “Rock ’N’ Roll Fantasy.” The set starts to write itself after a number of years, and it’s hard to get away from all of those hits. But it’s a nice problem to have.

Mettler: You’re the one who controls the live pacing, which you do so well here. For the 1977 set in Houston, you come out firing with “Burnin’ Sky” and “Too Bad” before you move into that middle section with “Heartbeat” and “Morning Sun,” where you deliberately change the vibe of the show.

Rodgers: Yes, yes, that’s well put, Mike. I’m very conscious of the set list. For me, it’s not just the list of songs; it’s the actual show. You’re live, and you’re putting across the entire voice of the band, in a way. I’m very conscious of the light and the shade in the set, and where to put it. I don’t know that there’s actually a formula, but in a way, you’ve got to come out with a bang, really, and then you’ve got to get closer. There are a lot of elements to it that you must consider. I like to use the songs strategically, to build an overall mood.

Mettler: And you always have a certain rapport with the audience. Right after “Ready for Love” in the Houston set, you ask, “Hey, what do you think of it so far?” Some artists do that rotely, and you can always tell, but I actually believe you’re interested when you ask people that question.

Rodgers: I am. I like communicating with the audience. We’re all communicating as a band with the songs. Tonight is the only night in the world, if you see what I mean there. It’s always brand new and fresh, because we’re in the moment. I try to be, anyway. Maybe that sounds a bit high-falutin’, but every night is different. You’ve got people coming from all walks of life, and they all congregate in this one place. They’re all separate people until a band starts playing, and then it’s like a one-energy field. That’s what people love to feel a part of, and I’m conscious of that too.

Mettler: I like hearing the differences in how you performed “Shooting Star” in ’77 as opposed to ’79. In ’77, you riff on the word “mama,” and then in ’79, you basically talk your way into the final chorus.

Rodgers: And it’s very different now. It’s recognizably the same song, but it’s really developed. The more we play a song, we get into it differently as a band, and the audience participation also changes. I’ve found the audience loves to sing that particular song, so I’ve worked on that. We’ve really developed that one, and it’s become quite the big stage number now. It was just a “song,” originally, and here it is now — those first chords are recognizable throughout the world (sings): “Johnny was a schoolboy...” It’s a lot of fun, actually.

Mettler: Did you have a sense of how people were going to react to “Shooting Star” after you had written it?

Rodgers: You never really (pauses) — well, I don’t know. For me, I thought, “This is definitely how I feel. This expresses how I feel about the music business, and life itself. This expresses it for me, and I hope it does for other people.”

This was a song I had been thinking about: “Wow, this is not a war zone; this is the entertainment business. Why are so many people dropping like flies?” You know — Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison, just to name a few. And it still goes on, strangely enough.

I liked it from the start. It was going around in my mind, and I was walking around my cottage in England when I started to sing the chorus (sings), “Don’tchoo know that you...” — and I thought, “Oh, I’ve heard that on the radio somewhere. I wonder when I heard that?” Sometimes songs come to you, rather than you writing them. It’s very strange. But then I thought, “No, I haven’t heard that on the radio.” I pulled out the guitar and worked the chords out and everything. It just sort of flowed out.

Mettler: Do you feel as a songwriter that you’re channeling a wave, and sometimes things just hit you and you have to get them out?

Rodgers: I do. Yes, I do. I’ve been asked to analyze what it is, but I find the more you analyze, the less you really know. You just open yourself to it. I think everybody’s got a song inside them, at least one song. It’s just a matter of getting in tune with it. It’s a matter of keeping an open mind, open ears, open eyes, and an open heart — and then listening and being open to it.

Mettler: Both Bob Dylan and Keith Richards have said there’s a wave up there, where the faucet turns on and the faucet turns off — and when you’re ready to receive, you have to let it flow through you. You can’t force it.

Rodgers: Yeah, wow. That’s so interesting that they experience the same thing; that’s how they do it too. That’s amazing.

Mettler: That’s good company to be in, so to speak.

Rodgers: Yeah. (chuckles)

Mettler: It also speaks to the longevity of an artist like yourself – that you can write songs over a long period of time that have that kind of impact on people.

Rodgers: I think part of the art is simplicity, really. The simpler the message, the more broad the meaning, in many respects. I’ve been asked about [Free’s monster 1970 hit] “All Right Now” often enough. It’s the sort of song, a story that happens all the time — boy meets girl, BOOM. And each time it happens, it’s a brand new story. That’s what’s I find interesting.

Mettler: And that was the song that shot Free to instant international awareness. I think my favorite line in it remains, “Let’s move before they raise the parking rate.”

Rodgers: (chuckles) Isn’t that funny? Even then — what’s that, like fortysomething years ago, and it’s still the case, right? (both laugh heartily)

Mettler: Sad but true, yes! On the ’79 disc, a performance of “Hey Joe” in Washington, DC [from June 26, 1979, at the Capitol Center] is included as a bonus track. Why did you decide to put it on there?

Rodgers: Well, talk about a “Rock ’N’ Roll Fantasy” — I’ve always had a Hendrix fantasy. Although I play guitar, I’m not actually a guitar player; it’s not my main thing. But when I first saw Jimi Hendrix, that was the first song he was playing on the television in the UK [on Ready Steady Go!, December 16, 1966]. It just blew my mind! It was like, “whoooosh,” what is this?

First of all, he looked incredible. He was playing this bluesy song, and I’ve always loved the blues — but this was blues rock. And then in the middle of it, he plays the guitar with his teeth — that was it. I mean, the feel of that song (sings melody line), do do, do-doo-doo… So I was indulging my own Hendrix fantasy on the encore there. (laughs)

Mettler: Well, to wrap it up, when you have a good, deep catalog of material like Bad Company does, I love seeing how it appeals to the younger generation that’s getting into rock for the first time. That’s a connection you must be proud to see.

Rodgers: Absolutely! The more people we can reach, the happier I’ll be. It is something of a “Rock ’N’ Roll Fantasy,” after Mick [Ralphs] and I got together in my cottage in the country in England and we started writing songs and then put the band together around that. Like I said, we were looking for a name, and we came up with Bad Company, and then we hooked up with Led Zeppelin’s manager [Peter Grant]. It was kind of like, “Wow!” It all just opened up for us. All of a sudden we found ourselves touring America with a Gold album. It was a wild and crazy ride, and a lot of fun. And it’s fantastic that people are still digging it.

Mettler: I agree. In fact, I think we can say you’re the longest-running artist to have ever been on the Swan Song label.

Rodgers: Yeah, I guess so — and it’s not quite our Swan Song yet!

A longer version of this interview appears on Mike Mettler’s own site,