Simon Kirke, drummer with Free and Bad Company, tells Kevin Cooper about his relationship with Paul Rodgers, the effect upon his life of tossing a coin, the decline of Paul Kossoff and the forthcoming tour of the UK with Bad Company
Simon Kirke is an English rock drummer best known as a member of Free and Bad Company. Born in London he was given just two years by his parents to find a job in the music industry. After twenty three months he met Paul Kossoff who was playing in a band called Black Cat Bones, and he was offered the drumming position.
Kirke and Kossoff left the band and with Paul Rodgers and Andy Fraser formed Free. Together for four years, their biggest hit, All Right Now was a number one in more than twenty countries. In 2000 an award was given to Paul Rodgers by the British Music Industry when the song passed two million radio plays in the UK.
After the disbanding of Free in 1973, Kirke and Rodgers teamed up to form Bad Company with Mike Ralphs and Boz Burrell. The band disbanded in 1982 but Kirke returned to Bad Company when the band reformed in 1986. They toured in 2009 and are currently preparing to tour the UK again.
Ahead of the tour, Simon Kirke agreed to answers some questions put to him by Kevin Cooper, and this is what he had to say.
How is life treating Simon Kirke?
First off life is treating me well. My health is good as I quit drinking a year ago and it has been a huge improvement. I’m no longer writing cheques with my mind that my body can’t cash! (To quote an old Little Feat song).
Does living in the USA suit you?
I like living in America; although if Trump gets in that will definitely change.
Bad Company are about to tour the UK. Are you looking forward to it?
I am looking forward to touring in the UK again. I have a lot of affection for the old country because the fans have always been so supportive.
Does playing live still excite you?
I still love playing live because a good gig is the most exciting thing ever.
You are playing the Motorpoint Arena here in Nottingham on 19th October. What can we expect?
Well, Mick is back in the band. I missed him on the US tour but he felt that he wasn’t up to it so we had to abide by that. So you will see three quarters of the original band because dear Boz passed away ten years ago now. But of course you will hear one of the finest singers ever to draw breathe. Paul sounds better than ever.
You have Richie Sambora opening for you. That’s something a little special wouldn’t you agree?
Yes, Richie Sambora is an amazing guitarist and I understand that his wife is no slouch on the guitar as well. (Did you know that he was a tea boy/gofer at Swansong Records in the mid seventies?)
Do you enjoy visiting Nottingham?
My only recollections of Nottingham are distant to be honest. The Boat Club was a favourite gig of Free back in the day, and didn’t they have a pretty good soccer team led by Brian Clough.
I know that Swan Song is the name of the tour, and also the name of the Record Company, but it can also mean Swan Song as in the end. Could this possibly be Bad Company’s farewell tour?
The Swan Song title refers to the record label that the new reissues of the first five albums are on. I have not been told any differently.
Your relationship with Paul Rodgers has lasted longer than most marriages. What would you put that down to?
Like any long term relationships we’ve had our ups and downs. I like to think that there is still mutual respect between us as well as a love of Bad Company and our music.
Most artists would feel privileged to be associated with one of the greatest bands in rock music. How does it feel to have been associated with two of the biggest bands in the world?
I feel humble that the legacy of those two bands is still intact. It gives me a thrill when people say our music has influenced them in some way or other.
You have had some great times with Free and then Bad Company. Which band has given you the most satisfaction and why?
That is a tough question. There have been highs and lows with both bands. With Free we were initially this little gang of four guys who went around England playing clubs and halls, and getting better and better and knocking people sideways. We never had any great commercial success except for Alright Now. Free never got a Gold or Platinum album (save for Alright Now as a single).
The difference between when we started in 1968 and when we peaked a mere two years later in 1970 was staggering. But as you know it took its toll on us. And by 1971 through Koss’ ill health we started to decline and broke up a year later.
With Bad Company we had it all; a great management, four seasoned veterans who were still only in their mid-twenties (although we hated the super group tag) and a desire to become one of the greatest bands ever and put our old groups in the past.
But for me the early days of Free are those closest to my heart.
Do you have a favourite Bad Company album and if so why?
I think Straight Shooter is my favourite album. It showed that we were not a flash in the pan. Great songs from Paul and Mick (and I had Weep No More on it, which was a real thrill).
In 2006 Boz Burrell sadly passed away. Was there ever a time that you thought that would be the end of Bad Company?
After Boz passed away I felt that really might be the end of it all. We had gone through some changes in personnel over the previous few years. Paul was off on his own in those days with The Firm and his own solo career. We had recruited other singers (a decision I regret to this day) and there just wasn’t the enthusiasm anymore.
But the flame still burns…it just refuses to be blown out!
Was it always going to be a career in music for you?
From early school days I wanted to be a drummer. When I was fourteen I had a little band called The Heatwave with two school buddies, then a semi-pro band called the Maniacs. My dream was to go to London and try my hand there. My parents made me take my A levels which I passed (three) and gave me two years to get something up and running otherwise it was off to University.
On the 23rd month of the allotted 24, I got a break.
Had I not been a musician I always wanted to be a photo journalist a la Don McCullin or Robert Capa.
At what stage in your career did you feel most musically satisfied?
I fee musically satisfied now and again but it is always fleeting. I am musically satisfied after each album I’ve been involved in; after a good gig and so on. After writing a song there is a different sort of glow because then you have to get it past the others in the band!
Who would you say is your single biggest non-music hero or heroine?
Jesus what a question! I have a few, Obama for instance. But I admire anyone who helps the refugees flooding into Europe from the war torn areas.
Which single artist would you most like to record with?
An artist that is no longer with us, well, that would have to be Otis Redding. Still living would be Bruno Mars who is a phenomenal talent.
Are there still any ambitions left for you to achieve?
I would like to score a movie, produce a band or artist, and travel around the world recording indigenous music. I would also love to act and write a book (I am working on that as we speak).
What would you say is your single biggest achievement?
Recording a really good solo album called All Because Of You, which is out soon! It is out on BMG Records. What a shameless plug but I stand by every word.
What would you say has been your most embarrassing moment?
I have had several actually; completely missing the gong behind me with my fist at the beginning of Bad Company and falling on my ass! The rest I will save for the book.
Which new artists do you find the most exciting?
I love Bruno Mars, he’s got the lot. Jeez, there are so many. I mean on The Voice every week there are some amazing vocalists. Does Adele count? She’s 26 and yet the world loves her. She has sold a zillion albums this year (not downloads). She is a great singer, with great songs. She gives us all hope.
Who was or is your most influential artist of all time?
Bloody hell Kevin! In no particular order it would be, Jimmy Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Bob Marley, Charlie Parker, Mozart and Django Rheindhart.
Which single event would you say changed your life forever?
That would be tossing a coin in my bedsit in Twickenham at age 18. It was heads I stay in or tails I go to a club to see a band called Black Cat Bones across London which was featuring a great guitarist named Paul Kossoff. It came down tails.
You have been covered by some amazing artists. If you were to record a cover record which artist would you chose?
Otis Redding and it would be his song, Champagne & Wine.
You have been in the music industry for a long time, do you feel frightened by how things are changing with technology, and how are you adapting to it?
I don’t feel frightened by the new technology today but I do think the internet is a completely double edged sword. On one hand piracy has decimated record companies but on the other people old and young can write and perform a song and it can be seen anywhere in the world by people who have a computer. That is amazing. But NOTHING will take the place of a good live show, ever. It’s still about the writing, rehearsing and performing well; it always has been and always will be.
When you were twenty did you foresee yourself having such a long career and did you think that you would still be relevant at this point?
I knew after a year of playing in Free that this fulfilled something in me that nothing else ever did. Music and the creating of it is one of the reasons why I get out of bed in the morning. Of course, at my time of life there are other duties and responsibilities but it all boils down to that moment when you finish a song or find a new chord sequence or hear some piece of music that lifts you above all the drudgery that life throws at you. Or after six hours in a bus and I’m playing Shooting Star for the umpteenth time on stage and Paul is singing and the crowd is joining in; yes that is what makes it all worthwhile.
But did I think that I’d still be doing it at 67? You gotta be kidding! As Groucho said “If I knew I’d live this long I would have taken better care of myself!” But I am extremely grateful that I’m still doing it and doing it well and with validity.
What has been the highlight of your career so far?
There have been so many but the one that stands out is getting Bad Co’s first Gold album on the final day of our first US tour. Free playing at the Isle Of Wight is up there, as is Bad Company’s first headlining show at Madison Square Gardens.
What song or piece of music last made you cry?
Wow! Gary Burr’s What Matters Most. It made me weep, it is a beautiful song.
Who were you listening to whilst growing up?
I listened to a lot of The Beatles, The Stones, big band music, Blues and Soul. I listened to Otis, Wilson Pickett, Ray Charles, Aretha, Gladys Knight, Tamla Motown, Stax, Bob Dylan, John Renbourne and Bert Jansch.
What was the first record that you bought?
She Loves You by The Beatles.
Who did you first see playing live in concert?
That was The Swinging Blue Jeans and The Hollies. The Hollies were so good! Just amazing musicians.
You have worked with some of the greats, Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Keith Richards, Ray Charles to name but a few. Who has given you the most pleasure?
This is a tough one. Ronnie Wood is in there and he’s a good mate. I’ve been through a lot with him back in the day; we’ve had some great times. Wilson Pickett was a gas. We were recording in NYC and half way through a rehearsal he shouted “It don’t get any better than this, roll the goddam tape!” I was quietly ecstatic. Jerry Lee Lewis said to me after I stood in for his sick drummer in Miami; “Son, I haven’t heard drums played like that in years”. I thought I’d gone to heaven.
Is Simon Kirke’s glass half empty or half full?
Hah! Depends on the day really but normally I’m an optimist.
Free made that legendary appearance at the Isle Of Wight Festival in August 1970. Just where would that rank in your top ten of Free concerts?
The Isle Of Wight Festival was a classic. Sure we were all nervous. There were 500,000 people there, so that was a tough one but it was on a Sunday morning and early and the sun was out. People weren’t too stoned or drunk. There was an almost pastoral feel about it. And we played a blinder.
I was fortunate enough to meet Andy Fraser a few years ago now at the Newark Blues Festival and I have to say I found him to be a thoroughly nice and gentle man. What was he like to work with?
Andy was an amazing musician; he was a strange mixture of child and old guy really. Very cocky; cocky sometimes to an annoying degree (I think growing up in London of mixed parents gave him a chip on his shoulder) but Lord what a bass player!
Did Paul and Andy have the opportunity to reconcile their differences before Andy’s passing?
You would have to ask Paul that.
In your opinion just how good a singer is Paul Rodgers?
Paul is one of the best singers; ever.
Paul Kossoff passed away in March 1976. In your opinion just how big a star could he have been?
Koss was a stunning guitarist from a very early age, but he was insecure in many ways. As an addict in recovery myself I know that my achievements tend to give me an overblown sense of worth and entitlement.
Luckily enough I got off that crazy carousel in time. Koss was not so lucky. Back in those days addiction had a terrible stigma which pushed the addict into a great spiral of shame and acting out. Had Koss gone into treatment and cleaned up he would have been up there with the greats.
He was a lost soul until he found Free for a few years but he never survived the first break up. It broke his heart.
After your ‘hell raising’ younger days, do you ever look back and feel fortunate to be with us today?
Shit, I should have died a few times over. Yes I am lucky to be here. I still have work to do. There are people in my life who have helped me both directly and indirectly, such as my kids, my grandkids, people in recovery, people who I love, Maria my fiancée. I’m not going down that path again.