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Mick Ralphs: The Gibson Interview

Russell Hall
|
09.11.2013
Mick Ralphs

In the early ‘70s, during the glory years of Mott the Hoople, Ralphs was the instrumental force behind such classics as “All the Way from Memphis” and Mott’s definitive version of David Bowie’s “All the Young Dudes.” Then, in 1973, along with singer Paul Rodgers, drummer Simon Kirke and bassist Bozz Burrell, he co-founded Bad Company, one of the few bands that more than lived up to its “supergroup” tag. Songs such as “Can’t Get Enough,” “Shooting Star” and “Feel Like Makin’ Love” merely skim the surface of the Bad Company hits that have since become classic rock staples.

This summer, Ralphs, Rodgers and Kirke celebrated Bad Company’s 40th anniversary with an ambitious North American tour that touched down in nearly 30 cities. In November, Ralphs will take the stage again for a series of reunion shows in England with Mott the Hoople. In the following interview, he reflects on his history with both bands, while sharing his thoughts on his go-to guitars, songwriting, and lead playing versus rhythm work.

Did the Bad Company reunion tour go as well as you hoped?

It was incredibly enjoyable. We hadn’t played together in a long time, but the chemistry is still there. It all sounded so fresh and energetic. Simon was playing great, and Paul is singing better than ever. I still get chills when I hear him going for certain notes. It’s hard to believe it’s been 40 years since we started. It doesn’t seem possible. I think we played the best we’ve ever played on this tour.

Were there a couple of songs you especially enjoyed performing?

I enjoy them all, but we this time we put in a couple that we hadn’t done in a long time. One was “Live for the Music,” a song I wrote for Run with the Pack, the third album. That one sounded great on-stage. We also played “Oh, Atlanta” on some nights. Paul tends to like to change the running order. Every night we might have a slightly different set, just to keep things fresh. It depends on where Paul’s mood takes him.

Mick Ralphs

What was it like, 40 years ago, to be hailed as one of rock’s first “supergroups”?

We weren’t thinking about that when we put the band together. That’s what they dubbed us, I suppose, because we all came from well-known bands – [bassist] Bozz Burrell from King Crimson, Paul and Simon Kirke from Free, and me, from Mott the Hoople. It was all very exciting, but that aspect of the attention took us by surprise. What we played was pretty simplistic and bluesy – good, straightforward songs with no frills. People seemed to like that right off the bat, which was great for us.

How did your role as a musician change when you went from Mott the Hoople to Bad Company?

I learned to play a lot of rhythm guitar in Mott, because Pete Watts, the bass player, was always at the front doing his thing. I needed to play something solid in the rhythm section to tie in with the drums, to tie it all down. For that reason I developed a rhythm style that was very full, where the lead work was secondary. So, when we formed Bad Company, I already knew how to play in that “full” way. That’s something you have to do, in a three-piece. It sort of came naturally. In Bad Company it was just myself, Bozz and Simon making the music, most of the time – whereas in Mott there was a keyboard, and a bigger sound.

In what ways did Mott change after Bowie entered the picture?

Bowie came along at a time when we were all disillusioned. He came up with this great song – “All the Young Dudes” -- which we jumped on, and suddenly we had a big hit. I suppose we all wanted success, but we became like a pop group. We were on TV – it was all during the glam period. I wanted to get back to something more basic and bluesy, something rougher. That’s why I decided to leave and go with Paul to form Bad Company. Everybody said, “Oh, you must be mad. After all this time, you finally got success, and now you’re leaving.” But I just had a gut feeling it was the right thing to do.

Do you remember writing “Can’t Get Enough”?

I wrote it during the Mott days. I had written several songs while I was in Mott—“Can’t Get Enough,” “Movin’ On,” “Ready for Love.” Ian felt they were great, but he said he couldn’t sing them in the way they needed to be sung. Paul was touring with us at the time, in a band he had called Peace. He and I got to talking about songs and such. I played him a couple, and he said, “Oh, I could sing that, really well.” That’s how the idea germinated, that we would work together as writers, rather than form a band. That was the initial idea. I went off and finished the Mott album, and then went to the states with Mott the Hoople, on tour. Afterwards I got with Paul again, to record some songs. And then Simon turned up out of the blue and sat in on drums. I said, “Well, all we need is a bass player and we’ve got a band.” Eventually we found Bozz, by which time we pretty much had the songs for the first album. We went in and recorded the whole album in about two weeks.

Did you write “Can’t Get Enough” originally in open C?

Actually I originally wrote it in open G. When I played it for Paul, he said, “I like the song, but can you change the key?” I told him to pick a key that suited him, and it turned out to be ‘C.’ I thought, “Okay, so what do I do now?” I basically tuned the Open G up to open C. The strings had to be very tight in order to get the same effect, so I ended up using lighter strings. That was the only way it would work. “Movin’ On” is in that tuning as well, as is “Honey Child.” It’s funny. We would sometimes be out on tour with other bands, and they would say, “Come up and sit in with us, after the gig.” They always wanted to do “Can’t Get Enough.” I couldn’t keep saying “Oh, it’s in open C,” so I had to play it in regular tuning. You can do it in standard tuning, but it doesn’t sound the same.

Did you stick with the same gear when you went from Mott to Bad Company?

Pretty much. I always used Les Paul Juniors and a Marshall, throughout Mott. I’ve always been a Gibson man. On one of the very early tours Mott did in America – a tour we did with Mountain – I heard Leslie West play a Junior. I thought, “God, that’s the sound I want.” Before that I was playing a vintage Goldtop, which also sounded great, but suddenly I became hooked on Juniors, after hearing the huge sound Leslie West got out of it. In the beginnings of Bad Company I continued to use Juniors a great deal. That’s a Les Paul Junior on the solos on “Can’t Get Enough.” In fact Paul played a Junior as well, on the solo of “Can’t Get Enough” during the live shows. I showed him the harmony part and we played it together live. Later I got into the ’59 Les Pauls, the ‘bursts, when we were touring America around ’74 or ’75.

Which of your solos are you most proud of?

It’s interesting. I came up with that opening intro for “All the Young Dudes.” From that point forward, whenever Ian wrote songs, it was my job to come up with a little figure – a hook -- at the beginning. That was true of “Roll Away the Stone,” “Honaloochie Boogie,” lots of others. That was my role. On the Mott album, I’m especially proud of the bits I did on “All the Way from Memphis.” There’s an accidental harmonic during one of the lead parts – a complete fluke, but everybody went, “Wow!” So we kept that in.

Your solo in “Hymn for the Dudes” is a great example of how brilliant a solo can be, while still being economical. Was that solo done spontaneously?

Oh, yes, I never planned anything as far as the solos went. I would just play whatever came to mind, that fit the song. I supposed being a writer, and starting off basically as a rhythm player, were the main reasons lead guitar was always secondary to me. I always figured that whatever I played should fit the song, and take it to another level, rather than be a showcase for my guitar. It was like, “What can I do that will add something to this song, that will take it up a notch?” People used to ask me, “Do you play rhythm, or do you play lead?” My answer always was, “I just play guitar.” Some of the songs I write don’t need solos. They’re in there only if they’re warranted.

What are your main guitars these days?

I play a Les Paul Historic that’s chambered -- a chambered version of a ’58 Les Paul reissue. I came across it by chance at a music shop in London. It looks the same as a regular ’58 Les Paul, but it’s actually hollowed out slightly, which makes it lighter. I’ve always found that a lighter guitar has a sweeter tone. It gives it more of an airy sound, more of a warmer, woody sound – like a cross between a 335 and a Les Paul. I’ve been playing it since 2007. I love the sound of it. I’ve got a couple of them, in fact.

What about other guitars?

I found a ‘58 double-cutaway Junior in Chicago recently, while I was in the states. I’ve wanted one of those for years. I also bought a ’59 Epiphone solid body. It’s kind of like a Junior, but with a slab body – quite rare. It’s a great guitar. But most of my guitars these days are relatively new. I used to have a big collection, but I’ve pruned it down over the years.

Are you writing much these days?

I tend not to write much unless I’m working with a band. For a few years I wasn’t doing anything. That’s why I put my blues band together – the Mick Ralphs Blues Band -- because I wanted to go out and play. Since I’ve been playing with them I’ve started writing again. We just put out a live CD and there’s an original song of mine on there, which could become a Bad Company song, actually. The best songs I’ve written have come out of nowhere. They’re the ones people seem to like. You know you’ve written a good song when it comes easily, and people identify with it.

Any chance we’ll see a new Bad Company studio album?

It would be nice to do some more recording, if we come up with the songs. We always leave that door open. Nowadays most people want to hear the songs they expect to hear – like “Shooting Star,” “Ready for Love,” “Movin’ On,” “Can’t Get Enough.” And that’s fine. It’s not as if we don’t enjoy playing them. If we felt we were just going through the motions, we wouldn’t do it. As long as the songs sound valid and fresh, we’ll continue. But yes, we might do some new stuff. We’ll see what happens.

Photos: Carl Dunn

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