“And every time I see your face
It lightens up the whole damn place”
“How About That”
We won’t be seeing Brian Howe’s face anymore.
Calling it Bad Company was sacrilegious. But what are you gonna do when your iconic lead singer moves on and your label won’t sign you unless you use the old moniker?
By time the second edition of Bad Company gained notoriety, this sound was on its deathbed. The hair bands had overloaded the public with attention-seeking ballads and grunge was just around the corner, straight ahead rock was fading, as was AOR…at this point if you didn’t cross over to pop, you were left behind. Many thought Bryan Adams’s “(Everything I Do) I Do It for You” was a sappy sell-out, but Adams was smart, he got out before the whole thing collapsed, he survived.
If you want to understand the second coming of Bad Company you have to look back to Bud Prager (and Phil Carson!) Prager was an attorney who started in the performing rights area but quickly segued into management. He’d tell you his best friend was Felix Pappalardi, how he got him the gig producing Cream. Prager would speak of Felix’s demise as if it were yesterday. But that was Bud, he was dramatic. He was an orator. He was not street, he was dignified.
Not that he could not go gutter.
At this point, Bud is most famous for being the manager of Foreigner. Bud believed, he stuck by Mick Jones when his CV didn’t appeal to labels, he cut the Scotti Brothers in for a point forever to ensure the success of the band. And it broke instantly, and sustained.
This was Bud’s sound. It’s not quite corporate rock, it’s not that calculated, this is what Bud knew and he continued to mine this sound until his passing. Hell, he worked with Giant back at the turn of the decade from the eighties to the nineties, and the band turned out a couple of great, radio-friendly tunes, but AOR was dying and the band didn’t have a brand name and Dann Huff went back to the studio, ultimately becoming a go-to country music producer.
So, the legend of most bands is they started in the garage, maybe they grew up together, maybe they found each other through an ad, but then they bonded as blood brothers and it was them against the world.
This was not the second iteration of Bad Company. This was a band that was put together on paper. It was not sheer luck, it was sheer effort. Brian Howe had had a turn with Ted Nugent, but nobody can stick for long with the Motor City Madman, he’s the star and you’d best never forget it. And Mick Ralphs was an underrated guitarist in Mott the Hoople who finally got his due in the original Bad Company, and he brought “Ready for Love,” but despite his licks, he was not a songwriter from scratch, not somebody who could fill up a whole album all by himself. Brian Howe could write too, that made a good fit.
But it didn’t work. Keith Olsen produced the initial comeback LP, and it made no splash. That’s another person who died, who did not get the obits he deserved. I’m not sure who he pissed off, he was always cool to me, but I only knew him in e-mail, this was the guy who melded Buckingham and Nicks into the Fleetwood Mac we know, as well as much more.
But then the managers executed a master stroke. I’m sure if Bud were still here today he’d take credit. Phil still is here today, he’ll probably take credit, and since he’s English it makes sense but…
Someone had the bright idea of bringing in Terry Thomas.
Yes, the man behind, the man who essentially was Charlie. With great albums with great pop sensibilities on Janus that most people were unaware of.
And the first Terry Thomas produced Bad Company album, “Dangerous Age,” did not break through.
But the managers stuck with the band. Bud was loyal. Phil too. And what do they say, the third time’s the charm?
It started with “Holy Water,” the eponymous opener of the LP. “Holy Water” was heavy, in a way what came before was not. The guitar crunched. And Brian Howe emoted. It had that special sauce, the je ne sais quoi, you know, the sound that penetrates your gut and hooks you, that you want to turn up as you bounce around the house with that guitar shaking the walls, this is the power of rock and roll.
The rock and roll that those in control of the media despise, the same media that despised Led Zeppelin, even though Page’s outfit was on a whole ‘nother level. You see, to resonate with the critics, you had to be punk, you had to strip it down, you had to be out of the mainstream, if anything the mainstream had to come to you, if you were playing in the mainstream lane to begin with you were denigrated, written off, kicked to the curb by the tastemakers, but…the heartland loved you!
So this is when MTV is making the transition from rock to rap. With a ton of overproduced pop, both on wax and on film, in-between. But somehow, “Holy Water” got some traction, you heard it on the dying AOR, it had presence. And then…
“Should have told you by now
But I can’t find the words”
Most people making this music can’t find the words, either in song or in regular life, they speak through their instrument, but the girls are drawn to them nevertheless.
“If you needed somebody
Like the way that I need you
If you wanted somebody
Ah, the way that I want you”
Yes, “If You Needed Somebody” was a ballad. But it rocked harder than Extreme’s “More Than Words,” sure, it was soft, but then it built, it was tough, it had balls, and a bridge. The bridge is the secret to the Beatles’ success, and even though it’s been hiding in plain sight, it seems that today’s songwriters can’t find it.
So, MTV picked up on “If You Needed Somebody” and it was gigantic. Sure, the name was Bad Company, but it was clear the frontman, Brian Howe, was the star. He and Terry Thomas wrote both of these hits. And if you bought the album it was eminently playable. “Boys Cry Tough,” “Stranger, Stranger” and “Walk Through Fire” all had major impact at rock radio (appealing only to those listening, which was a declining number), and the latter even made it all the way up to #28 on the pop chart.
So, this second edition of the band had built itself into a business, it had momentum, this is what you were fighting for back in the day. You released albums, hoped for radio/video exposure, toured incessantly, waiting for it all to catch fire, so you could sell arenas. No one played an arena on their first time out. Flash in the pan was looked down upon, you had to pay your dues, you had to have a catalogue.
So, the new Bad Company is ready to capitalize on “Holy Water”‘s success. But in the interim, in the fifteen months between “Holy Water” and its follow-up, “Here Comes Trouble,” grunge arrived, Nirvana and Pearl Jam, no one wanted the sound Bad Company was making, it was seen as passe. And not being hip to begin with, the band had no hit and broke up.
But there was a hit on rock radio. Which was not playing grunge. Which meant less every day, to the point where today it’s a niche, albeit a harder rocking niche.
And that hit is quoted at the top of this screed.
It’s “How About That.”
“Last night when the moon was new
I couldn’t sleep, I was thinking of you
And how much I need you
How ’bout that?”
“How About That” is the apotheosis of the second coming of Bad Company. It’s got an inviting guitar intro, the kind of sound you used to live for, that you used to fantasize to.
And one thing about Brian Howe…HE COULD SING!
A lot of lead singers, even famous ones, cannot. But they were there in the beginning, in the garage, it’s too late to kick them out now. But when you’re building a band, or filling a hole, pipes are a requirement. Howe could hit the high notes, he could emote, he could sell it. He was a totally different animal from Paul Rodgers, really not even in his league, but when it came to what was coming across the airwaves Brian Howe was a solid B, and live this meant everything, you couldn’t fake it on stage, this was before all of the fancy sound-processing equipment of today.
So this was back in the era when being on the company mailing list was everything. That built the rock critic business, the free records. You wanted ’em, and those you didn’t want you sold so you could stay alive. And if you were a fan of a band, you always spun the new record. And this was in the era of CDs, the transition from vinyl and cassettes was complete, and this meant you could dial up the track you wanted to hear and…PLAY IT OVER AND OVER AND OVER AGAIN!
That’s what I love to do most, find a track I love and burn it into the ground. Usually the magic works for a day or two, sometimes a week. Doesn’t have to be loud, just has to have some magic. And “How About That” had some.
Now I don’t even remember playing the rest of “Here Comes Trouble.” Earlier, when the stream segued into the second cut, “Stranger Than Fiction,” I was stunned how good it actually sounded. But despite everybody crowing about the album, it started to die with the CD, albums were one long sonic sludge, there was no second side, you focused on the single. People still focus on the single.
The hoi polloi never understand why a band breaks up. You’ve got a good thing, keep at it, make that money. But that only happens late in the band’s career, when the members make up and go on the oldies circuit, usually because they need the cash.
So the band imploded. Brian Howe probably thought he was the band anyway, along with Terry Thomas, they were writing the songs, Thomas sculpted the sound but…
Howe was just the singer. Bad Company was the brand. And without the brand, he was an unwanted character. It’s not like rock was dominating the airwaves.
And it became an issue whether Howe could employ the name Bad Company to sell his shows. And when the dust settled, he could not sell his appearances as the band, and he played to ever smaller audiences and became a faded rock star.
Prior to the internet you wouldn’t even be able to look them up. They faded away, and they did not radiate.
And yesterday Brian Howe died. It’s everywhere. Google news coughs up 148,000 results.
But tomorrow it will be nowhere.
That’s how it is. You die, and life goes on. In the internet era the news is spread far and wide, but there’s new news the next day, if not that afternoon. And if you’re lucky, people will remember you died at all. Especially if you were not a superstar.
Brian Howe came from England. He was a rock and roll lifer. It was different over there, here you could always fall back on your middle class lifestyle, the one you grew up with, but that’s not the way most of the rockers grew up over there.
So, you have success and it’s hard to give up. For everybody. You were somebody, to some people you’re still somebody, you’re gonna switch to being a nobody? I don’t think so.
So, you sell your soul to rock and roll.
Howe died of cardiac arrest. He’d had a heart attack previously. Was it genetics? Did he not take care of himself?
He knew it was over. He was speaking, then he passed. What flashed before his eyes when the curtain fell?
I’m sure his family.
I’m sure his desire to live.
But mostly his success, he’d made it, he’d thrilled thousands, he’d played in the bigs and…
Some people will never forget him.