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This article was originally published in issue #45
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Mick Ralphs may not be the world's most famous guitar superstar but his playing and songwriting have sold millions more recordings than many a manic shredder.
Mick Ralphs may not be the world's most famous guitar superstar but his playing and songwriting have sold millions more recordings than many a manic shredder. A founder member of the iconic Pop/Rock group Mott The Hoople, he went on to found the even bigger Bad Company and still finds time to be an active member of both Mott and Bad Co., as well as of his own eponymous Blues band. In his final interview for Guitar Interactive, Michael Casswell met Mick Ralphs on the eve of the latest Bad Company reunion gigs. Gary Cooper adds some thoughts about a major career.
On his website, Mick Ralphs' biography begins by telling us that: 'Mick Ralphs is one of British rock music’s most tasteful and understated guitarists...' The writer might have used 'underrated' instead of understated because Ralphs, surely, deserves more recognition than he has received by guitar aficionados over the years? In fact if all he had done was to have been one of the founder members of Mott The Hoople, that curiously 'were they Pop or were they Rock?' outfit that flourished from 1969 to 1974, he would have carved a place into contemporary musical history. A significant part of Mott's that success was down to Mick Ralphs not just as a much more than competent guitarist, but also as a songwriter - and if he has still to receive the recognition he deserves as a guitar player of extreme taste, his contributions as a songwriter could do with some acclaim too.
It may be that it was the lack of room for his songwriting that led to Ralphs quitting Mott just as they seemed poised to make some very serious money in the USA. It was a huge gamble that he took, leaving the band to join ex-Free singer Paul Rodgers and drummer Simon Kirke. Mott, for all its acclaim as a seminal band of the early-mid 1970s had had disappointing sales with its first label, Island, and indeed the band was set to give up altogether when none other than David Bowie persuaded them to stay together and shelter under his creative wing. The result, All The Young Dudes, was a huge hit for the band in 1972 but they suddenly found themselves veering more towards the then fashionable Glam Rock scene with Poppier songs and an emphasis on appearance and image that, while it brought them success, must have been frustrating for a more Blues orientated player like Ralphs. So, in August 1973, Mick left to join Rodgers and Kirke, soon to be joined by bassist Boz Burrell. Mott, of course, went on to be a far more influential band than many realise today, but that, as they say, is another story.
It certainly can't have hurt the newly formed Bad Company that they signed with Led Zeppelin's fledgling label Swan Song, though that was far from an open door to success as Zeppelin's manager, Peter Grant, while fiercely loyal to the bands he represented, must always have had Zeppelin as his main priority and by no means all the bands and artists signed to it had massive success – certainly not on the level that Bad Company did. Which means it's only fair to conclude that the band's instant success was really down to their own abilities. You don't go No 1 platinum album in the States with your first album just because of the label you're on, after all.
Bad Company was, by any standards, a phenomenally successful band right from its inception to... well even till today when it has reformed for tours. Only, there's the rub – Mick was not with the band for its most recent US dates, when Bad Company shared the One Hell of a Night tour with another guitar legend, Joe Walsh. In Press statements Mick said that, at 72, he didn't fancy the prospect of so much travelling – and who can blame him? So his place on the US tour was taken by Rich Robinson, a founding member of the Black Crowes.
This may have been even more a shame for US guitar lovers than it seemed because one of Mick Ralphs' great strengths has always been his live playing. Known for his great taste and elegant phrasing in the studio, his live work has an edge and aggression which hasn't always made it onto recorded material. And, ironically, live work, despite his dislike of travel, has occupied a lot of his time in recent years, on the road with his own Mick Ralphs Blues Band, which has yielded a live CD 'Should Know Better', worth tracking down, as are, of course, the numerous live Bad Company releases also now available.
Mick Ralphs is one of that generation of players who gets his tone from his amp and guitar and his fingers. His playing is about feel and melody and sometimes what he doesn't play is, as the cliché runs, as important as what he does. Not that he is unwilling to experiment, famously with open chords, as Jamie Humphries very ably demonstrates us in this issue's Tech Session. It's a set of qualities that have made him a very welcome session guest, notably with his close friend David Gilmour but also with the perhaps less obvious company of The Who and George Harrison.
As a player, Ralphs cites two of his biggest influences as Freddie King and Steve Cropper – indeed in an interview not so long ago he said that it was hearing the immortal Green Onions by Booker T that got him started as a wannabe guitarist. And how many others felt the same way when they heard Cropper's stinging, unforgettable solo?
Purist he might be, but as he told Michael Casswell in our interview, he is not a fan of the vintage guitars. Or, to be more accurate, of the prices charged for them. Instead he is happier playing modern 'reissues' of the Gibsons he is best known for using – notably a '59 Les Paul.
If Mick Ralphs is one of those players you have always known was good but have never really listened to in depth, now is a good time, as the band winds up what it describes as its Swan Song tour. Dig out the Mott and Bad Company CDs, and listen to The Mick Ralphs Blues Band. What was that song he wrote - Can't Get Enough? Not hard to see why, is it?