Whichever side of the Atlantic you’re based, you won’t need reminding what a wretched year we’ve somehow clambered through. But Simon Kirke is feeling relatively chipper now, with 2021 firmly in his sights.
While coronavirus continues to ravage America, this drumming legend’s base this last quarter-century, the vaccines are on their way, he’s ecstatic that President Trump is finally on his way out of office, and he can think about touring again soon. But what odd times, eh?
“It’s been a perfect storm really, especially here, with Trump. Most of us are ecstatic that he’s going, but the last few months have been very dark, with his inaction and inability to bring this country together and at least curb the spread of this pandemic. We have a terrible, terrible mortality rate over here.
“Right now, I’m on Long Island, right at the end, pretty far away from the city. If we didn’t look at the TV, we wouldn’t know there was a pandemic going on. But soon as we go back into the city, it’s terrible. But you know, he’s gone, dragging his heels, but we’re glad to see the back of him.”
It does seem that things finally look a little brighter ahead, changing for the better, hopefully.
“I think so. We’ve never seen anything like it in our lives. You’d have to go back to the Spanish flu in 1918. There’s the UK, and my brothers live in France and the Czech Republic and it’s pretty bad there too, but it seems that a vaccine’s just around the corner. It’s just getting people to take it and trust it. I mean, what does it take? It’s 260,000-plus dead here. Unbelievable what it’s done in nine months, it’s just ravaged this country, with 12 million infected.
“There’s no work for the rock’n’roll industry, but I guess we can get that another time. I was talking with Mick Fleetwood a few weeks ago and we were saying, ‘What the fuck are we going to do when we get the green light? We’ve got around 60 bands who want to go out on the road, maybe we should go out in a package, six big bands at a time, like the old Motown and Stax revues, going out together, playing 45 minutes. That’s in a dream world – it’s not going to happen – but I just want to go out and work again.”
Pandemic aside, it seems that New York life suits you. You’ve been there a long time.
“It’s 25 years now. I always liked New York. It’s a big city and it’s got pros and cons, but I like America, Trump aside and what he’s done to the country. It’ll be a long time before it’s healed again.
“We left England when John Major was in power, and over 50 years I’ve got to know the country well. With my ex-wife, we brought the kids over, they loved it, and we’ve made a good home for ourselves. I’m not saying I’ll finish my days in this country. I don’t know. But at the moment, it’s a pretty good country.”
“That’s where I was born, and I spent the first seven or eight years of my life in London. Then we went to Watford and from there out to the border of Wales, up around Shrewsbury and Ludlow.”
A nice part of the world.
“Yes, my formative years were spent – from eight to 17 before I left for London – up there. Then, after success with Free and Bad Company I spent around 25 years in London. I do miss London, a city I call home. There’s a certain … I’m trying to think of the word … refinement maybe.
“I like the manners of the English. Americans tend to be a little brusque and pushy, and you can’t tell them what to do. That’s why we’ve got such a raging pandemic here. I miss London and that refinement. For the most part it’s a gentle country in areas … although you’ve only got to go to a Chelsea vs Spurs match to see that other side!”
I should add that Simon’s a Chelsea fan, but I won’t hold that against him. It’s his birth-right, after all, even if he was born on the Surrey side of the river.
My excuse for our conversation is David Roberts’ recently-published Rock’n’Roll Fantasy: The Musical Journey of Free and Bad Company. It provides a cracking read, recalling the fast-living exploits of an influential blues-rock phenomenon and the mega-successful (particularly in America) outfit that followed in their wake, the latter co-founded by Simon, Paul Rodgers and ex-Mott the Hoople guitarist Mick Ralphs in ’73.
Within an impressive and somewhat weighty, colourful 400-page hardback tome, we get insightful testimonies from band members, insiders and fans alike, bringing epic stories back to life, with druming icon Simon and acclaimed bluesy vocalist Paul Rodgers at the heart of a five-decade trip taking readers from bedroom practises and the late–‘60s pub and club circuit to packed halls and stadia across the world. Was it a good feeling to see the finished product, Simon?
“Oh, I think it’s a wonderful book, and I’ve always liked the idea of oral history. It’s a very good idea and I love the layouts, the photos … Lucy (Piller), our fan club secretary for over 50 years now, who runs the whole show as far as I’m concerned, did a great job, and it’s quite humbling to hear some of the quotes attributed to fans who wrote in. It’s lovely.”
I guess you’re frequently reminded how much people appreciate the bands you’ve played in. But it must still give you a warm glow seeing that all recorded in print.
“I have to say Free held more affection in England than in America. For some reason we tapped into something. We were only really around four years – ‘68 till ‘72. The following year was pretty fraught with tragedy, but for some reason we settled in the hearts of many, many people in England.
“That’s so evident in some of the quotes, and we still get letters on our websites and through social media from people now in their 60s and 70s, so affectionate towards me and Paul, and of course Koss and Andy, who are no longer with us.”
Paul Rodgers and Simon, the survivors of that initial legendary group, clearly retain their love for the profession and continue to inspire old and young fans alike. But the book also provides a fitting tribute to Free guitar legend Paul Kossoff, lost in March 1976, and bass maestro Andy Fraser, who died five years ago.
The book also pays homage to Bad Company’s ex-King Crimson bass player Boz Burrell, involved from the early days – their 16th auditonee, according to Simon – to 1982 and again from ’86/’87 then ’98/’99, passing away aged 60 in 2006. And while the story of the band from 1986/94 seems to be airbrushed out – with no mention of Paul’s vocal replacement Brian Howe, who died in May this year, aged 66 – that was hardly a period in which they were on form, even though they continued to shift lots of units.
Meanwhile, chart positions tell their own tale, Free scoring seven UK top-10 LPs (Fire and Water and compilation The Free Story both reaching No.2) and four UK top-10 singles (‘All Right Now’ charting twice, reaching No.2 first time), while Bad Company failed to make an impact in the UK beyond 1982’s Rough Diamonds, despite the first three LPs going top-five (although 2010’s The Very Best of Free & Bad Company Featuring Paul
Rodgers reached the top-10), with three top-40 singles. However, across the Atlantic, Fire and Water was the only Free LP to dent the US top-20, yet Bad Company went platinum many times over, continuing to make an impact on the US charts in the ’90s. And it’s fair to say the latter band never matched the critical acclaim on these shores afforded Free, as Simon duly acknowledges.
“With Bad Company, I was reminded of something I read about The Beatles. When they left for London, there was almost a wake held in Liverpool, because they knew that once they got there, their talent would be spread all over the world from there. I think the same held true with Free.
“Once we broke up and splintered, when Paul (Rodgers), myself and Mick (Ralphs) formed Bad Company and came over to America, that affection for Free never really carried over to Bad Company the way it did in America. A lot of people here thought we were an American band, but we’d say ‘No way, we’re from England, mate! Don’t you worry!”
You say at any given moment somewhere in the world a Free or Bad Company song is being played. What were the strangest circumstances in which you heard a record you played on?
“Well, this is the story of all stories! In 1971 I was in America, we’d finished a tour and I borrowed a car from someone in our record company, taking off north from Los Angeles up Route 5. I was caught speeding, and the cops searched the car and found a little roach, a joint. Back in those days that was a federal offence, I was arrested and spent the next six days in jail in Salinas, California.
“During my stay they piped music every now and again into the cells, and I heard ‘All Right Now’. The guys in the cell said, ‘What’s that music?’ I said, ‘That’s my band!’ They said, ‘Cool. What’s the name of the band?’, I said Free, and they just cracked up!”
You say how you were mesmerised by the drums from the start, the moment you saw All That Jazz on an old black and white TV set. And from Buddy Rich to Ringo Starr and Charlie Watts, plus Motown’s in-house drummers and the likes of Booker T & the MG’s and Stax Records’ Al Jackson Jr., you were, as you put it, ‘transfixed’. Do you still have that enduring love, through either playing or listening to fellow drummers?
“Oh, without a doubt! That’s a very good question. I’ve been playing nearly 60 years now, and still love playing drums. I’ve just done an album with an English band, LoneRider, and it’s fantastic – playing with Steve Overland (formerly with FM, and with whom Simon guested in pre-FM outfit Wildlife) and Steve Morris on guitar was so good, sort of resurrecting my love for playing drums.
“I’m not a big technician – I don’t sit down and do paradiddles on the kit. My love of drums only comes when I’m actually playing. I’ll be honest with you – I don’t practise. I spend more time playing guitar and at the piano now. That awakens other things in me. But once I got playing along with this second Lonerider album over the summer (their follow-up to Attitude), I played the best drums I’ve ever played.”
From the tracks I’ve heard, I agree. And all that certainly suggests you’re not just going through the motions all these years on.
“Oh no, and doing it by myself, just playing along to the track without any people in the room, was rather strange, but really works, and I was a good taskmaster to myself. If I didn’t think it worked, I’d just do another take. I have my own studio, it worked really well, and I still love playing – that’s the bottom line.”
That also seems to take you full circle from your teenage apprenticeship playing at local dances on the Welsh borders, adding live drums to hits of the day.
“Ha! That’s a very good connection. I hadn’t thought of that.”
Remind me how you got that first gig.
“That was from my school bus driver, Mr Lane. He had a stack of 45s and a couple of turntables in a sort of forerunner to discos, and we’d go around village halls. One minute he’d play Jim Reeves’ ‘She’ll Have To Go’ or ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ by The Beatles, ‘Baby Love’ by The Supremes …
“A whole different array of songs over about three hours, and I’d have to play along and keep in time, otherwise it would sound like a train-wreck! That was around Clun, Craven Arms, Knighton, Ludlow, Bishop’s Castle, that whole area on the border between Shropshire and Wales. Yeah, I’d never thought of that connection, but it helped me to be able to play to other people’s songs when they weren’t there.”
On your website, it mentions your ‘powerful backbeat drumming’, and you describe your style as ‘simple and solid and powerful where necessary’. That’s not a bad code to live life really, is it?
“Ha ha! Keep it simple. Yeah, that’s true.”
It seems to me that 1968 marked the beginning of the Free story, starting with your Underground ride across South West London to see the Black Cat Bones at the Nag’s Head in Battersea. You were clearly impressed with Koss, if not his band. Did it strike you straight away that you’d like to be in a band with him?
“I’d been given two years by my parents to make something of this or knuckle down and go to university. I had pretty good exam results (Simon keeping up his studies for two years to do A-levels before heading to London to try and make his name). So when I went to the Nag’s Head, there was a kind of air of desperation, as this was the last month of the 24 months.
“I was quite resigned to it – I’d had a go and it hadn’t happened. I literally tossed a coin to go out that night or stay in Twickenham, heads being for the Nag’s Head. Luckily enough it came down heads. And when I say luckily enough, that’s the understatement of the century! If I’d stayed in Twickenham, I wouldn’t be talking to you now.
“When I saw Koss, he just blew me away. He was so good, set apart from the other four guys in the band, who were older than him by a few years. The drummer wasn’t very good. He was dragging, I remember to this day trying to urge him along, speed up a little.
“When Koss came off stage at the end of the first set, I said to him, ‘You’re a really good player, wow! But I don’t think your drummer’s very good.’ And he said, ‘Well, it’s funny you should say that. Tonight’s his last night. We’re auditioning drummers tomorrow.’ So yeah, that was the start of it all.”
It was clearly meant to be.
“Yeah, and I should have framed that coin I tossed!”
Was it a similar feeling seeing Paul Rodgers sing and Andy Fraser play bass that first time?
“Oh yeah! Koss had told me about this singer that he’d jammed with, in secret as the other Black Cat Bones would have been upset. He said, ‘I met this singer who was so good. I want to form a band with him. Would you like to be the drummer?’
“We went up to this big house in North London, in Golders Green, and this guy opened the door, looking a little uncomfortable that I was there. I only found out later he was also a drummer, Paul Rodgers had befriended him, and he was up for the job.
This guy, Andy Borenius, sadly no longer with us, it was his house and his kit, so when we walked into this very big living room, with a little kit there and a PA set up, Andy Borenius played the first couple of songs, and I knew straight away he wasn’t the guy for the job. He was very jazzy, and we had a solid backbeat.
“When I played, it didn’t even occur to me that he was also up for the job. I played a little shuffle and slow blues, then me and Koss left after an hour or so, Koss calling me the next day asking if I’d like to be in this band that the two Pauls were forming. It was years later that I learnt Andy Borenius was really upset I’d come along and kind of stolen his gig!
“As for Andy Fraser, we found him through Alexis Korner …”
Alexis (who Simon describes in the Homegrown interview linked below as ‘like the godfather of the British blues scene’) was a great supporter, wasn’t he?
“Yes, and I don’t have to tell you about Alexis, whereas over here I have to explain who he was. Anyway, Alexis told Koss, ‘You have to see this kid … and I mean he’s a kid’. He’d just got the boot from John Mayall’s band, but that wasn’t a big deal to be let go by him. That band was like a college. You came and served your apprenticeship, then left after a few months.
“Alexis told us Andy was really good and we’d have to go and see him. We were like, ‘Yeah, okay, 15 years old – how good can he be?’ But we were just knocked sideways! I still remember seeing him at Ken Collyer’s club in London, me and the two Pauls. We were like, ‘Fucking hell! Who is this guy!’ He was unbelievable!”
Andy Fraser reckoned that when the four of them first jammed upstairs at the Nag’s Head, ‘It was instant magic – we all knew it.’ Many times I’ve read about those big moments when bands come together and it just seems right, whether it’s just about brotherhood, shared dreams or manifestos. In Free’s case, the bonding moment seemed to be about Monday nights at Andy’s mum’s house in Roehampton, playing Motown and Stax records, yeah?
“Ha! You’ve done your homework. Yeah, I’ve never known a band before or since who did that, but I believe it was Andy’s idea, and he had a very good system – Wharfedale speakers and a Leak amplifier. How do I remember that? Well, I do!
“We didn’t just play Stax, we played some classical music. I was really into Mozart and Bach, and we played a lot of Beatles of course. But foremost it was Stax and Motown – that’s how we bonded those Monday nights, and I believe that really cemented us musically for quite a while.”
There’s a lovely description in the book from Mick Austin about June 15th, 1968 at another Nag’s Head, this one in Wollaston, Northamptonshire, Mick having gone along to see Alexis Korner, who was also on the bill. His vivid portraits of the band members include talk of this ‘long, straight-haired muscle-bound man dressed in a red singlet and brown corduroy trousers’, adding, ‘I still recall him taking a few strokes of the snare drum, and I instantly knew (being a drummer myself) that this bloke wasn’t taking any prisoners.’
He also reckons Simon ‘really hit those drums like I’d never seen before’ and mentions how, ‘sweating, hair stuck to his face, facial contortions in competition with Kossoff’, the drummer looked ‘as though he would be equally at home in a boxing ring’.
“Ha! Well, in those days, I was all out, and with songs like ‘The Hunter’, ‘All Right Now’ and ‘I’m A Mover’, they’re all pretty hard-hitting songs, so there is a parallel there.”
You talk about having Guy Stevens at the controls for the first LP, Tons of Sobs, and how it was all about a live feel, cutting it in two days and mixing it in two more. You describe Guy as ‘very endearing … when he wasn’t hurling himself around the studio spilling wine’. I’ve read a lot about his 1978 sessions for The Clash’s London Calling LP. He was a character.
“A tortured genius, and knowing what I know about drink and drugs, I believe he was an addict with a substance abuse problem, but like most geniuses had this streak of madness and self-destruction about him. But what I liked about him was that we were very young and inexperienced and he had the ability to bridge the producer/artist continents, if you will, with endearing child-like behaviour.
“On one hand he was quite a serious producer, coming up with these great ideas, yet then he could be like us – almost like a kid, not serious at all. I think that was where his spark of magic lay.
“Like his cross-fading on Tons of Sobs. We had this acoustic song, ‘Over the Green Hills’, a Paul Rodgers song, beautiful, and he said why don’t we have a cross-fade into the first song, then on the other side of the album the last song can cross-fade into the second part. What a great idea!
“Paul and Andy had written a couple of songs, quite a few actually, but overall he said, ‘Just play what you would normally play on stage’, and that’s basically what we did. Tons of Sobs was really our stage set, and most of it was (recorded) live.”
Moving on into Bad Company territory, you made me laugh when you rather succinctly explained the difference between Free and your next band as not only a bit more mature but also a lot more ‘free’, not bogged down with drinking and drugs … at least initially.
“It’s true. I’ve a lot of affection for Free … the good days in Free, breaking through, amassing the fanbase we got, amazing, with hundreds of gigs all over England. But looming over everything and the history of Free would be the drug use of Paul Kossoff, and how he went downhill so quickly. It breaks my heart that the appropriate action wasn’t taken – putting him in rehab. Simple as that.”
Was there a feeling of inevitability when you heard about Koss’ passing?
“I was upset – very much, I went off the rails for a few days with grief – but I wasn’t surprised. Back in the ‘70s there wasn’t the awareness of drug use there is today. And I speak from experience. I’m in recovery myself. Back in those days no one went to rehab. You just had a cup of tea, stayed at home a few weeks and got on with it. There was no 12-step programme.
“There was AA, which had been around a long time, but there weren’t the resources for recovery there are nowadays. And I still gripe and hold a little grudge, to be honest, that Island Records and the management were so effective in combating Koss’ addictions. They could have done more.
“Free reunited for the first time to help Koss, but he needed a longer stay in rehab, so that just poured fuel on the fire really. It was done with honourable intentions, but it didn’t work and ultimately I think it cost him his life.”
In 1994, my friend Neil Waite (who also contributed a Free top-10 feature for the splendid Toppermost website, linked here) saw you guesting with Paul Rodgers at The Forum, Kentish Town, for a couple of Free numbers, writing in this book how thrilled he was to see you invited on, reckoning you still had the ability to play drums with such energy and passion. And that seems to be how so many fans put it.
“I think so. Look, I’m 71 years old now, but I think I’m playing as good as I’ve ever played. In fact, going back to when I was using, I had youth on my side but didn’t have the head. I never really played stoned, it was always after the show, so I like to think the standard of my playing has remained pretty constant … without wanting to appear big-headed.
“But my life overall is so much better now I don’t drink, and you’ll have to listen to this new Lonerider album so you can judge for yourself.”
By 1996 you were touring with Ringo Starr, for the first of three All-Star band tours to date. How did that make your inner teenage Beatles fan feel?
“It was a real honour, and I’m forever grateful to Ringo for taking a chance with me. I’d just got out of rehab and he called me – he didn’t even get his manager to do it – and my daughter said, ‘Ringo Starr’s on the phone,’ and I thought she was kidding.
“I picked up the phone and he said (adopts a great Ringo impression), ‘Hello, Simon,’ and added, ‘Would you like to do a tour? I’ve heard you’ve just got out of rehab.’ That’s how small a village we live in, in the rock’n’roll world! He said, ‘Do you think you can do it?’ I got a bit tearful, but said, ‘I’m willing to give it a shot’.
“And of course, Ringo is one of the patron saints of recovery – him and Eric Clapton are responsible for a lot of people getting sober, I believe. So I went out to LA to meet him, and our styles are quite similar – he’s very simple and solid, and of course one of my influences. And it was a great band – one of the best I’ve ever played in – with Peter Frampton, Jack Bruce, Gary Brooker … wonderful.
“After the first show in Seattle I was in my hotel room, and Ringo called me and said (adopts that impression again), ‘Well, I thought you were fucking great!’ And we both got a bit tearful. It was the start of a lovely relationship.”
I guess, to paraphrase John Lennon’s rooftop farewell with The Beatles at Savile Row in 1969, you’d passed the audition, a timely chance to bounce back presenting itself. And beside the downs, it’s certainly been a grand career. So what advice would you offer that young lad who used to play along with Beatles records and many more at those local dances back in the day?
“Ah, what a great question! Erm … don’t give up, you know. Look, it’s a different world to what it was 60 years ago, but I still believe you need to keep your head on straight. Don’t do drugs – it’s a waste of fucking time. Most kids are going to try it, peer pressure and whatever, but it never ever helped. Just believe in yourself, and practise.
“There’s no shortcut to success. If you practice and dedicate yourself, whatever instrument it is – I don’t care if it’s a bloody triangle! – just practise and listen to your peers. And just follow your heart, not your head – your head’s a mess sometimes. Ha ha!”
There was much more I’d loved to have got on to, not least Bad Company’s formative days on my old Surrey patch. Maybe next time though. Besides, I was acutely aware of the fact I’d promised a quick 15-minute chat and we’d already doubled up on that, Simon good enough to call me back after technical issues first time around. Instead, we said our goodbyes, me telling Simon it had been a pleasure talking with him, and how I appreciated his time and honesty.
“Well, an interview is only as good as the questions … and that was a very good interview.”
For more details of Rock’n’Roll Fantasy: The Musical Journey of Free and Bad Company by David Roberts for this Day in Music Books, head here. And to check out Simon’s website and keep up to date with his various projects, follow this link. You can do the same with Paul Rodgers, heading here.
There’s also a revealing interview online from October, Simon joining Harry Wareing for Homegrown on LTV East Hampton, talking about everything from Red Cross volunteering in the aftermath of 9/11 to movie soundtrack scoring, life in the US, Free and Bad Company days, hia drug and drink battles, meeting his wife Maria Angelica at the Cutting Room, New York, and great anecdotes about friendship and meetings with various Rolling Stones, and great anecdotes involving Bob Marley and Ginger Baker. He also plays a lovely acoustic guitar version of Free’s ‘Love You So’, gives a snippet of his take on Bad Company’s ‘Feel Like Makin’ Love’, and finishes with the wonderful ‘Maria’, a song about his beloved from 2017 solo LP All Because of You. Just follow this link.