There are very few singers who could simply be called “The Voice,” and Paul Rodgers is certainly one of them. His raspy, rascally blues-soaked emotations about love and lust and hearty adventures are legendary. From the quintessential bare-bones rockers by Free – “All Right Now” and “I’m A Mover” – to the more mature, deeper anthems of Bad Company – “Rock Steady,” “Feel Like Makin’ Love,” “Can’t Get Enough” and “Shooting Star” to his more recent adventures as lead singer of Queen post Freddie Mercury– Rodgers has spoken to generations of music fans. And now, he has spoken to Glide. In a special interview just prior to the start of Bad Company’s 40th anniversary tour last week (featuring original members Mick Ralphs and Simon Kirke, as well as Heart’s Howard Leese), Rodgers talked about his history with both of his most popular bands, how he and Jimmy Page formed the Firm, some new projects he has in the works and how the blues made him who he is today.
You have a lot going on and a lot of good things happening. Why don’t you start off by telling us about the new Bad Company tour this summer.
Yeah, my manager called me up and he said, “You know in 1973 you started to put the band together with Mick over there. That makes it forty years. Would you like to do something to celebrate that?” And I said, “Yeah, ok, let’s tour.” And he came back to me with the tour that’s just twenty-five dates, cause we wanted to keep it exclusive, really. And some of the dates are with our good friends Lynyrd Skynyrd and some are just Bad Company.
Have you toured with Skynyrd before?
I have. I have toured as a solo artist with Skynyrd and I think we did odd dates back in the day, in the 70’s, with Bad Company, and this is something we’ve always meant to do. So it’s the first actual line-up of dates that we’ve done together, Bad Company and Skynyrd, so we’re flip-flopping, for want of a better word. I hate that word flip-flopping. But anyway, that’s what we’re doing, sharing the headlines, so it’s going to be fantastic.
What is your first memory of music?
Ooh, my first memory of music. Well, we always had the radio on. As long as I can remember, there’s always a radio playing in the background in the house so I was very conscious of it at a very young age. They tell me I used to, when I was a little, tiny kid of two or three, I used to dance to the records. I don’t remember doing that but I do remember, you know, a background of Frank Sinatra and that great 50’s music and it was just always there.
When did you start writing songs? And what were you writing about?
Well, that’s a good question, because there is so much background to that, the idea of writing songs, but the first song that I wrote was a 12-bar blues called “Walk In My Shadow” and that appeared on the first Free album, which was called Tons Of Sobs, and I discovered that if you say 12-bar blues and you write a riff and then you write lyrics to it, hey, you’ve written a song. I did that and that gave me a lot of confidence to move forward into my own song structures and not just a 12-bar blues. And I’ve sort of been doing it ever since, really.
Has the process of writing your songs changed over the years?
I think I still look for the same kind of ingredients. What happens is, I play something that moves me and I go, oh, I like that, and then I’ll just develop an idea from that. It can come from anywhere. It can come from a conversation or it can come from the news or just anywhere in life. I’m always sort of looking for things that catch my attention, really, and make me think, I’d like to take that thing and develop it. You know, like, say “Shooting Star,” for instance. It’s the idea of comparing a person with a shooting star and how it glows and it’s fantastic but it’s a short burst of energy before it burns itself out. And it’s somewhat similar to a person can be like that. So an idea like that I would take and run with it.
You mentioned the blues. What is it about the blues that just caught you and continues to capture you to this day?
There is something very, very special about the blues and it’s very hard to put my finger on it except to say that it is very emotional and it’s kind of in your blood somehow. It has echoes of deep emotion and lots of self-expression. It’s sexual in nature too. There is that aspect to it but it’s not just that. It’s about relationships and about love and life. When those people initially down south, when they started to write those blues, it was a different world for them then. And they wrote about their experiences and it’s very moving and I still find it moving to this day. And I think as well, for me, as a kid from the northeast of England, the industrial northeast of England, when I listened to them singing about jumping on trains and going from town to town, it sounded like pretty good to me (laughs). Like a lot of freedom, really, and I kind of dug that. I think really that’s in back of a lot of what we think of is rock & roll now.
When you first started singing, were you trying to emulate any of these blues singers?
Oh I wish I could say I did. I listened to those guys and they were my teachers, really. I started off listening to just everyday pop that everybody listened to. But I got a little deeper and once I discovered the blues and soul, that was it for me, that was where it was all coming from, I think. I copied everybody, everybody I could. I would hear Muddy Waters sing something and I would try to do that or Howlin’ Wolf, everybody. Then the soul stuff took it to a different place. Like Sam Moore of Sam & Dave, and the Temptations. I loved the Temptations. (singing) “I know you want to leave me.” But they were my teachers and I’m really still learning. I sometimes have jams with Sam Moore. He’ll come up on stage and we’ll just have a little thing together. We were doing “All Right Now” at one point and we got into jamming, we were exchanging licks and he’d go, “Whoaaaa” and I’d go, “Yeah, yeah” and we’d be like exchanging these licks and I actually forgot, “What song are we doing?” We got so far off into this little jam session (laughs). It was really cool.
That’s how a lot of the blues players did it. And sometimes it would change day to day, show to show.
Exactly, definitely. A lot of songs were actually written on stage by merely exchanging ideas and formulating songs as you went. And even now, I can have the structure of a song and it can definitely change in one night, from one night to the next. It could start out as a mistake. Someone would say, “Oops, shouldn’t have done that” but everybody followed them or each other and you went to a different place. You went, “Actually, I like that. Let’s try it tomorrow night.” And it develops into this whole other thing. It’s good to keep it that loose, I think.
The first band that you started or got into, were you trying to be a blues-based band or were you trying to be more like what was going on?
When I very first started, I wanted to be like the Shadows. I don’t know if you know the Shadows, and they’re great actually, but it’s not really blues and we would do whatever was current at that time. I’d be about fourteen and we’d listen to The Beatles and the Stones, and actually the Stones pointed me in the right direction because, I love The Beatles, don’t get me wrong, but the Stones pointed me in the blues direction because they were playing blues and soul in their early days. I’d listen to “I Just Want To Make Love To You,” their version of Muddy’s song, and I thought, wow, that’s going a little deeper. (singing) “I don’t want you to be no slave, I don’t want you to work all day” and all that and it was a lot deeper, a lot edgier.
When you and Paul Kossoff formed Free, that was really a more blues-based band than Bad Company.
Yes, absolutely. Free, initially, was a blues band, yeah. Thank you for knowing that, that’s great. Paul Kossoff and I, when we formed Free, we were flat-out blues band. Even the songs that I had written up to that point were blues songs, you know. I looked around at that point and I saw, once we had formed, I saw everybody, the bands that had really credibility and meaning, somebody like Jimi Hendrix and Cream. What they were doing was taking the blues to a different place. They were making it their own. I suppose Hendrix was almost like a psychedelic blues and Cream, well, that’s what it was in a way, psychedelic blues. And they took it off in a different direction. And I said to Paul, “That’s what we have to do: Take what we have now and write our own songs and find our own identity, basically.” So it grew right out of the blues.
What is a special memory that you can share with us about Paul Kossoff [he died in 1976 at the age of 25]?
I loved Kossoff. I miss him so much. I think I miss him every day, strangely enough. Every time I play music, he’s there in a way. One of the great things about Paul was that he put everything he had into every note he played. It was never a waste of notes. He wasn’t a shredder, and I’ve got nothing against people that do that high speed shredding stuff, but every note was carefully orchestrated and thought about. And he put his heart and soul into everything he did.
What do you remember most about recording the first Free album?
I remember it being very exciting to be in the studio, actually laying down tracks and writing songs. I wrote a song called “Worry” the night before and we played it in the session the next day and it was recorded. And that was a fantastic step forward for me. You know, having floundered around for a year trying to find the right band and the right songs and all this. Suddenly it was really making sense. That first album was different in the sense that we didn’t do what we do nowadays, which is you lock out time. You say, ok, we’re going to be in the studio a month or two months or whatever it is. Nobody else is using it. But in those days, you’d be in there doing a session and there’d be a band in the lobby peeping through the windows with all their gear in the lobby looking at their watches (laughs). “How long are you guys going to be? We’re ready for our session.” So there was a different kind of pressure then. So we’d do a couple of songs, then we’d go out and do gigs, then we’d come back and do other tracks and that’s how the album came together like that.
How did it differ from recording the first Bad Company album?
The first Bad Company album was a very different scenario, really, because what happened was we were then signed up to Led Zeppelin’s management and Peter Grant called me and said, “Look, we’ve got this mobile studio. It’s parked outside an old mansion in the country in England. Led Zeppelin were due to start their album there but they’d been delayed. So you’ve got ten days of studio time. If you can get in there quick you might be able to put a couple of tracks down.” Well, we went straight into there and put everything we had down. So that’s how different that was. We had the whole place to ourselves for ten whole days so we, BOOM, put it all down.
And that place, Headley Grange, has a history of it’s own.
Well, certainly the mobile studio did. A lot of people used that. But the Headley Grange itself, the mansion that it was parked outside, Zep first started to use that place. I guess a lot of people did afterwards maybe but when we went there it was full. Whoever owned the house had put all their valuables and shoved them under the sink and in cupboards. You’d open a cupboard and there’d be all this amazing gold and goblets and stuff. It was an incredible treasure house of old Japanese artwork and all that in all the cupboards. It was quite an amazing place. And the drums would be in the foyer and we’d have the vocals up in the main living room or in the veranda somewhere. We had the whole house and we’d use it for the equipment and it was great actually.
You’ve recorded so much music since then. Do you like how the music industry has changed, the recording part of it with all the new technology?
Well, I’ve gone full circle in a way. I embraced all the new technology and we were in the studio with all of the above and I started to think, I’m not so sure about this. And I’ve gone complete circle now because I like the way we did it in those days, which was very organic. And very often there were mistakes that were left on there because we didn’t want to interfere with the spirit of the thing that we’d captured. And I liked that and it’s one of the reasons I think that blues has stood the test of time too, because it’s very in the moment. You’d get some guy to sit with his guitar and play, just let it go, and they’d record that. And it might have been even a little out of tune but so what. It made you feel something. And I think that’s the key. We have to remember that music has got to make you feel something, it’s got to draw you in and connect with you. And we definitely don’t need to lose that. When you use Pro Tools, you can say, “We can tune this up, we can do that and we can move that there and put that there.” On some level, the listener knows and it can lose the spirit and the emotion and the mood of the thing.
Like vinyl vs CD. With vinyl, you have all the cracks and bings that is lost in a CD recording.
Yeah, I mean it’s so perfect it’s almost bland. It loses the guts and soul, you know.
I want to ask you about a couple of your songs and the inspiration behind them, the first being my favorite Bad Company song, “Burning Sky.”
Ah, thank you. First thing, you know, with that song, I had the chorus for a long time. (singing) “The sky is burning, I believe my soul’s on fire.” And I never did anything with it. It was just on a backburner in my mind. We were recording that album and I was in the hotel in Paris, which is just thirty miles up the road, and I was thinking, oh, I need some songs for tomorrow, and I had that song and I was thinking of it and I thought, well, maybe we’ll do this. And I didn’t have any lyrics at all but I wrote the verse chords, if you like. So I had (singing) “The sky is burning” and then I had verse chords, right. And I took it in the studio and I said to the guys, “Let’s do this one. It goes like this,” and I showed them how I did it. I didn’t tell them I didn’t have any lyrics. I only had the chorus. So they went into it and they played it fully confidently that I was going to come up with the story that went with it (laughs). I didn’t have it. I adlibbed it completely from start to finish, right in the studio. (singing) “The judge said this man’s a danger to humanity” (laughs). I made it up as they went along.
“I’m A Mover”
Oh, “I’m A Mover,” right, that’s Free, isn’t it. Yep, wrote that. And again, actually, it kind of has a story to it. (singing) “I was born by the river.” I must admit, I was influenced by Otis Redding with that one, or Sam Cooke, I think, because Sam Cooke was born by the river in his little town. But I took the song and wrote a story about a guy, footloose and fancy free, out in the world finding his way and that’s really what the song is about. About being a mover, about being ready to move on at the drop of a hat. But you know, by that time I was getting a little philosophical in my youth, I guess, because I said, (singing) “I met a wise man, he said follow your heart and look for yourself.” And I sort of got that in there because I was thinking in those terms. I was doing meditation and I was thinking about the meaning of life and trying to put some of that into the lyrics, I guess.
When you played at the Isle Of Wight in 1970, you played on the same day as Jimi Hendrix and Jethro Tull and Richie Havens. Did you get to see any of those people perform?
To my eternal shame, we were in there and gone. We should have so seen Hendrix, for crying out loud. But I didn’t. We flew in, we flew over the crowd in a helicopter, we did the show and we were pretty much flown out again. That’s the way it was at that time in those days. But it was an amazing event to be a part of. The whole front part of it was all media and they were all making notes and looking down and we thought, “Oh, they’re not very interested.” We didn’t know how we’d gone down at all but apparently we went down very well. It was only afterwards we realized it was recorded and filmed. People didn’t make DVDs in those days so they just happened to be some footage knocking about which is interesting to see. But it was like the gathering of the clans, with all the colors and everybody had their little fires going and cooking and it was great. It was our little Woodstock (laughs)
When you started singing with Queen, you had all these songs that they had created but you also had all these songs you had created. Did it feel kind of weird when you first started singing with Queen? Cause you’re like on the same level as they are.
Yeah, it was. When we first talked about doing something together, Brian May and Roger Taylor said to me, “We would do half of your songs and half of our songs.” But at the time, I said, “Now, you guys haven’t been on the road for a long, long time and everybody is waiting for Queen. So we’ll make it Queen heavy.” As a result of that, we only did five or six of my songs but they did them fantastically well. We did “All Right Now,” “Feel Like Making Love,” “Shooting Star,” “Wishing Well” and they did a great version of my songs. But looking back, yeah, maybe we should have done more of mine. But it was a great experience and I loved it.
I hear that you are a fan of history.
Oh I think yes, I am. I like to know how we got to where we are now. I find it fascinating.
Do you have a special era in history that intrigues you the most?
I’m interested in military history, not because I particularly like war but because it fascinates me that it’s always been about who had the biggest gun at the end of the day. It’s not about whose better than anybody else. It’s about whose got the biggest gun. If you go back to the British Empire, we just had big gun boats. We used to call it gunboat diplomacy, so if anybody gave us a problem, we’d send a big gun boat, park in the harbor, or I should say moor I suppose, and then we’d blast the crap out of them until they diplomatically saw it our way (laughs). But it does interest me how cultures clash and then absorb each other and all of that.
When you left Bad Company, before you started the Firm, what were your initial plans? What direction were you thinking about doing?
Well, at the end of Bad Company in about 1979 or 1980, whenever that was, the initial break-up, I left the band because I felt it was all getting a little bit too crazy for me. And then when John Bonham died and he was such a good friend and I loved him to pieces and I still love and miss his drumming, I thought, well, I’m going to come off the road and just make music at home. I’m going to put a studio in my house and I’m just going to make music. That’s all I want to do. And that’s really what I did. And then with John Bonham’s death and Zeppelin stopped functioning and Jimmy was at a loose end, he came around to my place and we just started to hang out together. He was listening to what I was doing and he, we had cassettes in those days, he’d bring a cassette along and he’d say, “I have this music here, can you write some lyrics on it?” And I’d say, “Ok, I’ll give it a go,” and we started to write songs. One thing led to another and all of a sudden, I was on the road again (laughs). And we were the Firm.
What about touring keeps you doing it after all these years, when I’m sure you could sit back in your nice little garden with your family? Why get back on a tour bus with a bunch of other smelly guys?
(laughs) That is such a good question. You have no idea. I do think to get me out of the house, it’s got to be something that really excites me. I recently came back from a tour of Germany. I did twenty shows out there with a fifty-piece orchestra. They orchestrated some of my music and it was quite an amazing experience, actually. So that kind of thing I dig and do. I’ve just been down to Memphis and recorded some soul tracks at the Royal Studio with Al Green’s band. It was fantastic. Talk about organic, we just put track after track down without hardly any rehearsal at all and it was just so cool. Bad Company, it’s been a while and to play with Lynyrd Skynyrd again, I love those guys, so that will get me out of the house (laughs)
Is your wife coming with you or is she going to enjoy the peace and quiet at home?
Oh my wife is definitely going to come with me. I don’t think I could function without her.
Do you like living in Canada?
I love living in Canada. I’ve been here for a while now and I’m actually a Canadian citizen. I’ve kept my British citizenship so I have dual nationality. I love it here because it’s very English in many respects but there’s so much more space. When I go back to England now it’s like a pressure cooker, it’s so crowded. So I love the space out here. It’s beautiful.
After the tour, what are you going to do? Are the recordings you did in Memphis going to see the light of day?
Oh yeah, for sure. Hopefully this year. I’m going to be mixing that and doing the tour. I’m working with a friend of mine called Perry Margouleff on writing songs and recording a new album. We’re doing that. And he has an analog studio, speaking of the old school of doing things, and we’re going to be putting an album together. So it’s very exciting.
You think that might be out this year?
The soul album should be out this year and the new album, sometime next year.
And you don’t get tired of it at all? You sound like you still really enjoy it.
Oh yeah, I think I’ll only do it as long as I am really enjoying it, and I always do enjoy it, so I guess I’ll bop till I drop, dear (laughs)