9 Reasons to Love Simon Kirke
by Patrick Berkery
Bad Company, whose self-titled debut and second album, Straight Shooter, were recently reissued as deluxe editions, enjoyed more success than Free did, so its catalog is more familiar to the masses. But if all you know of Free is “All Right Now,” you’re strongly urged to go down the rabbit hole at your earliest convenience. That band was a force, and the drumming, while admittedly a work in progress on the earliest recordings, is tasteful and sharp beyond Kirke’s tender age at the time. Here, Simon discusses nine of his most memorable tracks.
“All Right Now” (Free, 1970)
Aside from the crazy jam in the middle, which Kirke paces with a relatively busy 16th-note snare pattern and wraps up with a quick buzz roll, much of Free’s signature tune finds Kirke doing what he does best: holding everything together with a big, fat beat. His groove in the verses sounds particularly heavy, as there’s no bass guitar taking up space on the low end. This enables the meaty tone of his kick—tuned a little higher than normal—to voice particularly well. “I read somewhere that Al Jackson tuned his bass drum pretty high, and I was such a fan that I tried it,” Kirke shares. “That really helped create that tone.” And let’s put a word out there for those 8th-note claves pulsing throughout the tune, played by Rodgers. If SNL ever needs another “More cowbell!”–type sketch for the next time Christopher Walken hosts, one built around “All Right Now” would kill.
“Fire and Water” (Free, 1970)
It’s no surprise to learn that the drum solo at the end of this slow-grind groover, which Kirke introduces by pumping steady 8th notes on the kick, is a tip of the hat to Ringo’s solo spot on the Beatles’ “The End.” Kirke’s starring-role performance on “Fire and Water,” featuring plenty of sweet extended tom fills and a driving double-time climb in the chorus, was also influenced by another, somewhat surprising track. “During the session for ‘Fire and Water’ I heard ‘Fire and Rain’ by James Taylor, with Russ Kunkel on drums,” Kirke recalls. “And I heard those wonderful tom-tom fills. There was just something about the simplicity of his drumming and fills. It turned a light on inside of me.”
“My Brother Jake” (Free, 1971)
“My Brother Jake” finds Free taking a break from the hard stuff and laying down a jaunty little shuffle rooted in New Orleans R&B. Kirke approaches the piano-based tune with a light touch, at times accenting the 1 on the kick and floor tom, with snares on 2, 3, and 4. He alternates this pattern with snares four across the bar in some spots and a straight 2/4 shuffle with tasty buzz rolls interspersed to set up the transitions. “It wasn’t a shuffle where the right hand bounces,” Kirke says. “It was almost like a precursor to the beat on ‘Can’t Get Enough.’ And I took it from Al Jackson on ‘Soothe Me’ by Sam & Dave. I think that’s subconsciously where that groove came from. I was really happy with my drumming on that, because it was a departure from what I’d normally done. I felt it was one of my most musical drumming tracks.”
“The Hunter” (Free, 1971)
You can feel the raw power of Free’s live show in this balls-to-the-wall version of Albert King’s “The Hunter,” taken from 1971’s Free Live! Kirke drives the band with slamming force, linking his quarter-note hi-hat pattern with Paul Kossoff’s guitar part (he opens the hats in certain spots to accent Kossoff) and keeping his right foot in lockstep with Andy Fraser’s bass. Everyone’s letting it fly, while Kirke controls the chaos. “We usually played it as an encore, by which time the gig was complete mayhem,” Kirke says. “How you hear me playing it is the combination of ninety minutes of sheer hysteria. I was slamming it. Very simple groove, but so powerful. Well pleased with that.”
“Can’t Get Enough” (Bad Company, 1974)
The first thing you hear on “Can’t Get Enough” is Kirke counting the band in. “We were spread all over Headley Grange [studio],” Simon remembers. “I had to bring them all to attention, and we decided to leave [the count-in] on.” The last thing you hear is Kirke bringing the song to a close with a little floor tom crescendo—the calm after the storm of an extended jam. In between, the drummer is the song’s anchor, pumping bluesy blood into Bad Co.’s debut single with a simple shuffle that features quarter notes on the hat and double kicks on 1 and 3. Occasional embellishments, like the hi-hat grabs in the second chorus, are perfectly placed, and the rolls around the kit are classic.
“Rock Steady” (Bad Company, 1974)
The secret to “Rock Steady” is the simplicity of the groove. Oh, Kirke gets his licks in. But it’s what he doesn’t play—namely how he resists the urge to accent the offbeats of Mick Ralphs’ guitar riff and just powers through the groove—that gives the song such a nasty feel. During preproduction, Kirke discovered that stripping back his hi-hat pattern in the verses really allowed him to dig in. “At first I started playing 8ths on the hi-hat, and the feel was a little strained,” he explains. “So I started playing just quarters. At that time Ziggy Modeliste of the Meters was a big influence on me. He said somewhere that by playing 8ths it kind of froze his right arm, but by playing quarters it gave him a way of creating a more relaxed groove. I applied that to ‘Rock Steady,’ and it became so much easier to play. And by being easier to play, I could apply more power.”
“Ready for Love” (Bad Company, 1974)
Before rock ballads turned into arena-ready exercises in soullessness in the ’80s, bands like Bad Company executed them with subtlety, dynamics, and conviction. Kirke’s best ballad work can be found in the soulful and spare “Ready for Love.” His 8th notes on the hi-hats fill just enough space in the verses, and his signature double-time climb in the pre-choruses and choruses provide the perfect lift. When he’s not grooving, he’s controlling the dynamics and delivering tasty snare licks, like the buzz rolls between sections and the triplet fill after the last chorus. “I didn’t want to have a drum part that was too intrusive,” he says. “My drumming on that is meant to be like a soft-feathered mattress in the verse. And when it came to the chorus, I gave it a little kick in the ass.”
“Feel Like Makin’ Love” (Bad Company, 1975)
Were it not for Kirke’s suggestion to fuse a ballsy Paul Rodgers riff and “a simple little country song” that Mick Ralphs was working on, the world might never have known this slow jam, which is soundtracking make-out sessions to this day. Kirke can take credit for more than just suggesting that the singer and guitarist Frankenstein the track together. His sensibilities as a song-first groover are firmly intact by this point, and he shows them off with the snare-to-tom fill that ushers in the first verse, and with the rock-solid support he provides as the mellow verses give way to the crunchy choruses. “It was no great mystery what a lot of our songs needed from me,” Kirke says. “I’m just supporting the song. When I start laying into the fills at the end, we’re building, and I’m reacting to Mick’s great guitar playing.”
“Burnin’ Sky” (Bad Company, 1977)
This is Bad Company at its funkiest. At bassist Boz Burrell’s suggestion, Kirke plays off the keyboard and bass line in the verse, with the snare hits on the “&” of 1 and on 4, giving the tune a tightly wound feel. When Kirke transitions to snares on 2 and 4 in the choruses, the song starts to swing hard. “That little hiccup [in the verses] was hard to do, quite honestly,” the drummer says. “It started as a straight 2 and 4, and it got a little ho-hum. By doing that little hiccup, when you got to the chorus it was kind of like a release. It really gave the tune a rhythmic identity.”