Tuesday, 2 October 2018


"I got the idea of what a band should be from listening to Booker T and Otis Redding" - Paul Rodgers

Tons Of Sobs (1969)

In 1968, The Beatles were singing about Rocky Raccoon and the contents of a box of chocolates. The Beach Boys were blathering on about vegetables and wind chimes outside their window. Time then for four young lads from Northern England to grow their hair, put on their tight flared denims and strut around to the sound of pure bass, guitar and drum enhanced by one of the best blues rock voices you ever heard...

Free were, along with Led Zeppelin, of course, a breath of rocking fresh air. They didn't ever change much in style, however, giving us four years of honest, four-piece blues-soaked rock - bass, guitar, drums and occasional keyboards. They didn't really experiment with psychedelia, "concept" albums, have a "soul phase", put out a disco album or one of fifties easy listening covers. They just did what they knew best - played and sang top-notch blues rock.

This was their stunningly precocious debut album, released in early 1969. It is worth noting that none of the band were yet to reach the age of twenty at this point. Indeed, bassist Andy Fraser was only sixteen. Singer Paul Rodgers sounded like a whiskey-sodden man of thirty. It really is a remarkable achievement, and it was done so on a cheap budget too, intentionally so by maverick producer Guy Stevens (of Mott The Hoople and later The Clash fame). He wanted to produce a raw, proper blues sound and he duly did just that - it is by far Free's purest blues album of their six studio offerings. 

Over The Green Hills (Part 1) is a strange opener, being a short, mystical acoustic air that soon fades into the robust blues rock of Worry, which lays down the style and standards that Free would adhere to for the next four years of their career. It showcases the searing lead guitar, pounding drums, throbbing bass and gritty bluesy vocals that the band would become known for. Walk In My Shadow is a similarly chugging, convincingly powerful piece of rock. "She was a wild Indian woman and she drove me wild..." sings Paul Rodgers on the amusingly unreconstructed Wild Indian Woman - he would never have got away with that sort of thing now. Musically, it is a slightly more upbeat, bassy and catchy rocker. I can't help but like it. "You don't need your horses baby, you got me to ride....". Yes, well. Dig those leery lyrics, man. 

Goin' Down Slow is beautifully bluesy. They took the sort of of thing Cream and Eric Clapton had been doing and gave it their own heavier makeover, full of big, deep bass and Rodgers' charismatic, super strong vocals. It is, at over eight minutes, the longest cut on the album, but it never gets tiresome. It was a cover of an old blues song by St. Louis Jimmy Oden
The massive, chunky riffs of I'm A Mover back one of the first Free classics. This is a supremely heavy number, just check that power. The band's cover of Albert King's The Hunter  is the most upbeat track on the album and the most "rock". It also has some dodgy lyrics about being in the sight of his "love gun" and so on. It all sounds harmlessly amusing, I have to say. The tempo slows down again on the evocative, atmospheric Moonshine, featuring a great bass line from Fraser and an astonishingly mature vocal from Rodgers. Man, the deep sound on this just makes your speakers shake. Great stuff. Sweet Tooth features some buzzy, appealing riffage and is probably the only vaguely late sixties-sounding number, with a few slight psychedelic hints, only slight though, the ambience is still blues overall. Over The Green Hills (Part 2) expands a little more on the folky opener, but only just. They are a strange couple of bookends and are at odds, in a way, with the rest of the album's material. Anyway, this was certainly a most impressive debut album from Free and remains one of my favourites of theirs. I know it has been given critical praise over the years, but it should have had more, in my opinion. 

** The bonus  tracks included on the 2002 remaster that do not appear on the album in another format are:-

Guy Stevens Blues is a massive, thumping piece of earthy blues rock instrumental. It features some excellent organ breaks in it as well as the customary deep bass and drums. Visions Of Hell is a pleasant slow burning blues. It is one of Free's most laid-back numbers, initially, but it breaks out half way through into some fast paced rocking before suddenly reverting to the slower pace. It ends as a strong bit of typical Free rock. Woman By The Sea is a mournful-sounding backing vocal accompanies a throbbing single note bass line for a while before a really good rhythm kicks in and we get a pretty good song. There is a nice bit of bass doodling half way through. Impressive guitar at the end too. Good stuff. It suddenly ends, though, as "demo" style tracks often do.

Free (1969)

Following on from the full-on blues of their Guy Stevens-produced debut from March 1969 this second album from Free arrived in October of 1969 and was produced by Island Records' Chris Blackwell. The group developed their sound somewhat, using Andy Fraser's bass a lot more pro-actively, almost like a rhythm guitar, to drive the sound along, rather than just backing it. It merged pure blues with a heavy rock sound a bit more than on the straight-ahead blues of the debut. That album had two old blues covers on it too, this one featured all band originals. The tensions that were to blight the band over subsequent years started to develop as lead guitarist Paul Kossoff was said to have resented Fraser's sound seemingly usurping his. It must be remembered that the band were either not yet in their twenties, or barely there. That considered, the sound is remarkably mature. The album was not a commercial success, however, that would come in the following year with the release of Fire And Water and a successful performance at the Isle Of Wight Festival. This was a shame because this was a good album and deserves to be remembered as such.

I'll Be Creeping is a lively opener, introducing that melodious, commanding bass and serving to exemplify Free's unique brand of blues rock. I can say it over and over again, but the power on so many of these Free recordings is mightily impressive. Kossoff had no reason to complain about his contribution here, either, his guitar solo is superb. Fraser's bass is even better on Songs Of Yesterday, and it is here that you can hear just how it was used to control the song. It is deep, rubbery but deliciously tuneful as well. It is on material like this that Free showed how unique and special they were, nobody else really played blues rock quite like this. Check out that rhythmically quirky drum beat too. 

Lying In The Sunshine is a peaceful but sonorous slow ballad once more pushed along by the bass and Paul Rodgers' vocal taking on a more wistful quality than his usual gruff growl. 
Trouble On Double Time sees that bluesy voice return on a chunky, staccato number. The beat is slightly funky in places, in its backbeat. Once more, Kossoff's lead guitar solo is a killer, as indeed it is on the semi-instrumental Mouthful Of Grass (it contains just a few backing vocals). It has a sort of Fleetwood Mac Albatross vibe to it, or The BeatlesSun King in places. Woman is a prototype for what would become standard Free fare over the next few years - pounding drums and bass and an impassioned Rodgers vocal proclaiming love for his woman. The bass line on the slow burning Free Me is so deep my speakers can only just cope with it. The song contains an excellent, laid-back guitar solo but it is probably a little ponderous for a little too long. Broad Daylight is sort of in the same vein, but more rocky, cohesive and powerful. Mourning Sad Morning is an almost folky, plaintive lament, featuring some flute, unusually, played by Traffic's Chris Wood. It was a strangely low-key ending to what had been an energetic and stirring album.

** The non-album tracks issued with the 2002 remaster and that do not feature on the main album in another format are:-

The WormThis robust bluesy number was the 'b' side of the I'll Be Creepin' single. It has a big, deep bass line, some sharp guitar interjections and a strong Rodgers vocal. There is a bit of a funky keyboard backing it as well in places. Sugar For Mr. Morrison. This is a rhythmically bassy bit of instrumental fun, with a bit of bar-room piano tinkling around. Inconsequential but enjoyable. There is a searing guitar solo in it from Kossoff. 

Fire And Water (1970)

This was the album that broke it big for UK blues rockers Free, together with a triumphant appearance at that summer's Isle of Wight Festival. Although their first two albums had been bluesily brilliant, for some reason, it was this album that really took off for them. Together with Led Zeppelin and with Deep Purple making themselves heard too, heavy, hairy blues rock was really popular at the turn of the decade. Cream had also been playing blues rock in the late sixties as too had their ex-member Eric Clapton by the seventies in his may incarnations (Derek & The DominoesBlind Faith). So, muscular blues rock was the thing and Free supplied it, to the nth degree. Singer Paul Rodgers and his mates strutted around in their tight jeans and tie-dye t-shirts, pumped full of testosterone, leering at girls and bemoaning being tricked in love.
Fire And Water is deliciously booming and bassy, deep as hell itself, enhanced by a cutting guitar solo from a then on fire Paul Kossoff, a pounding drumbeat and Paul Rodgers' ebullient vocals. Oh I Wept is a copper-bottomed slow burning Free rock ballad, with a monster bass line and titanic drums. Remember is also played at the slow, metronomic pace that many Free songs are. Kossoff's guitar is sensational on this, he never sounded better. Indeed, probably from soon after this release, everything started to go downhill for him, as he spiralled into serious drug addiction. Most of Free's songs are dignified and insistently slow in their pace, very rarely do they speed it up  and the robust bass and piano blues of Heavy Load perfectly exemplifies this. The piano, played by bassist Andy Fraser (obviously recorded separately from his bass), is used more on this song than on most and Kossoff's guitar is hauntingly memorable.

Mr. Big has an addictive drum beat and an almost funky bass sound from the always excellent Fraser. From a band that was still so young, the musicianship and confidence is stunning. Check out that guitar-bass interplay just after three minutes in until the end. Cracking stuff. As huge as Led Zeppelin had become by now, you have to say that Free deserved to be up there with them, because they were great. It is a shame and a bit of a mystery as to why they didn't ever really reach those heights. As detailed in the reviews of their subsequent albums, it all started to implode a bit after this. In keeping with the perhaps surprisingly laid-back tempo of most of the album, Don't Say You Love Me is the tenderest number on offer, with a yearning vocal from Rodgers and yet another delicious bass backing. The track suffers a little from hiss at times, but it is easily overlooked by the quality of the song. 

Oh did I forget? How could I? - "I said love - Lord above - now you've gone and tricked me in love...". One of the greatest rock riffs of all time, if not THE greatest introduces the truly magnificent behemoth of beat that is All Right Now. Look, it doesn't matter how many times I hear this/have heard it over many, many years I simply never tire of hearing it - that riff, Fraser's sublime bass runs, Kossoff's guitar and Rodgers' sensational rock vocal. It actually sits slightly incongruously with the rest of the album as it ups the tempo and is a commercially-orientated rocker. It duly gave the band their longed for big hit, reaching number two in the charts.

** The 2002 edition has several bonus tracks, two of the best are stonking BBC live studio performances of Fire And Water and All Right Now. The power on these tracks is awesome.

This was probably Free's finest album, although it is not necessarily my favourite. It often works out that way - the acknowledged best album is not one's personal favourite. I could make a case for the first two, but actually, thinking about it, yes, this was their finest half hour and yes, I probably would vote for it accordingly. 

Highway (1970)
This was recorded in the late summer-early Autumn of 1970 after Free's successful performance at the Isle Of Wight Festival in late August. It is an album of relaxed ambience on the whole, more low-key than the bluesy hard rock of its three predecessors. Like Mott the Hoople did on Wildlife, Free tried to dabble a little in country rock and a general feeling of mellow, bucolic looseness. However, don't despair, hard rocking Free fans, because even the supposed "romantic" numbers are supremely robust and brawny. Free didn't do gentle, they never had. It has always been my least favourite of the six Free studio albums, yet each time I listen to it I find my affection for it grows. It was far less successful than its predecessor, Fire and Water, however, and it was said that the album's commercial failure and the death of Jimi Hendrix during the recording sessions contributed to guitarist Paul Kossoff's descent into drug addiction that would see the band temporarily splitting up in 1971.
The Highway Song is an appealing, rhythmic bluesy whisky-swilling number with a slightly tinny intro that deepens in resonance as it progresses. Its lyrics, concerning a "farmer's daughter" seem very typical of rock at the time. Free liked a bit of this sort of rusticity, as did Thin Lizzy and Deep Purple. Back to the music, there is some attractive piano bits on here and some classy lead guitar. The Stealer has a big, chunky, piledriving riff and is a solid, muscular piece of strutting Free blues rock, the sort we had come to expect. When the guitar crashes in after a minute and a half or so you think "laid back? Are you sure about that?". Listen to that massive bass too. On My Way is a laid-back number but is still in possession of a sublime bass line and the now ubiquitous excellent Paul Rodgers vocal. There are vague hints of country rock to it, but it still retains some typical Free power. The same applies to the ballad, Be My Friend, which, although a slow and reflective number, still carries a huge, bassy thump to its backing. Both these tracks could be described as being comparatively laid-back, yet, Free being Free and Rodgers being Rodgers, they are still blessed with immense strength.

Sunny Day is as close to a peaceful song as Free were going to get. It is slow and melodic, but once more very potent. Whatever Free did dripped in testosterone. That is brought right up to the fore again on the infectious staccato rock of Ride On A Pony. The chorus has some great riffage to it and Rodgers' vocal is irresistible. There are definitely some gems to be found on this album. Love You So is another relatively solemn ballad as also is the tuneful, slightly folky Bodie, the lightest number on the album. As with the others, though, it retains its torque, especially at the end. Soon I Will Be Gone has echoes of the slower material to be found on the band's first two albums. It features some heavy guitar interjections in it as well. Overall, this album could probably do with a few more upbeat numbers, and the non-album single, the jaunty blues of My Brother Jake would have been a suitable candidate.

** The other bonus track, Only My Soul, is a melodic and appealing number. Rain is a surprisingly laid-back, gentle number too, with a bit of a country rock feel to it.

Free At Last (1972)
By April 1971, blues rockers Free had released four excellent studio albums and one live album in a little over two years. Then, unfortunately, tensions between singer Paul Rodgers and bassist Andy Fraser spilled over and they fell out, big time. The group split up for the rest of the year, Rodgers and Fraser went off to undertake comparatively unsuccessful solo projects, before the band made up and started recording again, which resulted in this album.

They seemed to make a conscious effort to record smoothly again, mainly for the sake of ailing guitarist Paul Kossoff, whose drug dependency was increasing rapidly. However, this album is thought by a fair few to be the group's worst offering, containing, for them, few real rockers in the All Right Now style. Let's be honest, though, Free's music was never about breakneck rockers, was it? It was always a slow-paced, stately, solid blues rock. For me, this was not a bad album at all, indeed, I much prefer it to Highway.

Things were not to last, however. Kossoff was unable to complete a chaotic tour and a disillusioned Fraser left the band for good. Japanese bassist Tetsu Yamauchi was drafted in, along with American keyboardist John "Rabbit" Bundrick and another album was released, 1973's Heartbreaker, which proved to be Free's last. The title of this album would seem to signify a coming to an end here, though, as did the final track. It was the last album from the original foursome.
Catch A Train is a pretty impressive piece of Free rock to open with. Yes, its pace is slow-ish but it packs one hell of a punch, and features some searing guitar and a sumptuous, rubbery bass line. Rodgers' vocal, it goes without saying is right up there. I would put it on any "best of Free" playlist. Soldier Boy is an atmospheric, comparatively low-key number that ends possibly before it should. Its instrumentation is impressive and showed that Free could do the subtle passages when necessary. Magic Ship has a beautifully deep, warm bass underpinning it and Rodgers' vocal complements the slow dignity of the track superbly. Kossoff's lead guitar is seriously good as well. The guitar/drum/piano interplay towards the end is excellent. Free were pretty unique in producing this sort of stuff. They really were special. Sail On continues the quality. After a quiet vocal and piano intro that old Free power kicks in. It is heavy, bluesy rock of the highest order. The rock power of Deep Purple and the blues of Led Zeppelin merge here in places with Free's undoubted individual talents to give them their own unique sound. 

Up next are two proper Free classics - the blues rock nirvana of the majestic Travellin' Man and the catchy Little Bit Of Love, propelled along by a most melodious and infectious bass line. With tracks like these two in it, this could never be a disappointing album, could it? This is top notch fare.

Guardian Of The Universe is powerful enough in its rock ballad way, but is probably a minute too long. While it has some convincing moments, it has a bit of an air of studio demo about it for me. Child is an understated slow number with a great Rodgers vocal and Fraser's bass once again without compare. The rousingly anthemic Goodbye would appear to be a melancholy farewell from the band - "we've come to the end of our road together..." sings Rodgers, prophetically. As this was the final offering from the original foursome that formed one of the UK's best-ever blues rock bands, the words were apt.

** Bonus tracks on the 2002 edition include Molten Gold (Burnin') which is a steadily cooking piece of archetypal Free blues and a bluesy cover of The Rolling Stones' Honky Tonk Women.

Give this album a little bit of love. It more than deserves it.

Heartbreaker (1973)

Free bowed out in 1973 as they had begun in 1968, with more blues-drenched rock. No pretensions here or in any of their six studio albums and one live album. You knew what you were going to get from these tight denim-trousered lads - big, ballsy blues rock. This was also the first album to feature Japanese bassman Tetsu Yamauchi who also went on to (briefly) play with Rod Stewart & The Faces. However, as already mentioned, it was to be their last album and it has a sort of Beatles' Let It Be feel to it. Bassist Andy Fraser had left (replaced by the afore-mentioned Yamauchi) and guitarist Paul Kossoff's soon to be fatal drug habit (1976) meant that he only featured on about half the album. There was, therefore, a fractured nature to the album that contrasts strongly with the cohesive bonhomie of the previous offerings. Keyboardist John "Rabbit" Bundrick also arrived and the album was made up with material from several different sessions. American session guitarist "Snuffy" Walden plays on some of the tracks, Kossoff on others, both on one ("Seven Angels") so there is a slight disjointed feel to it. Only just though, the talents of Paul Rodgers and Simon Kirke still carry it through to be a very good album. Like The Faces, who called it a day in the same year with the similarly good Ooh La La, both bands would be much missed. 

The album kicks off, ironically, with an absolute copper-bottomed Free classic in Wishing Well. It is full of solid, riffy power and is in possession of an archetypally superb, resonant Paul Rodgers vocal. Not too many bands come up with one of their best ever tracks on their swansong album, but Free certainly do here. Just listening to that intro takes me right back to lying in bed with a winter cold in early 1973 and hearing it played several times on the radio. Whenever I hear it, even all these years later, I feel that I have a heavy cold! As that big thumping intro arrives it serves as quite a pick-me-up. Come Together In The Morning slows down the pace but still has a coal-mine deep rumbling bass line supporting Rodgers' late-night bluesy growl. The track also features some sumptuous organ and surprisingly subtle guitar, at times (not the big, buzzy solo, though). As usual, Simon Kirke's drums were solidly reassuring. Travellin' In Style is also a latter-day Free classic - a melodic, slow blues with Rodgers effortlessly delivering his vocal over acoustic and electric guitars and a quirky piano. Just check out that wonderful bass line. Heartbreaker is a stately piece of muscular slow burning blues. Whatever inner turmoil the group were clearly going through, you simply can't argue with tracks like this. Pulsating, no nonsense stuff. 

Muddy Water is a soulful, almost gospelly number, again it is slow and insistent in its tempo. Free always played most of their blues rock at walking pace, but this album is even more that way inclined, and Common Mortal Man continues that trend. There is some nice piano on it too. That piano also enhances the seductive soul of Easy On My SoulSeven Angels ups the brute power but its pace remains the same. Paul Rodgers would form Bad Company with Mick Ralphs in the following year, and this is a track that was very much like some of their subsequent material. The guitar near the end is excellent. Although this was a fine album on which to say farewell, it somehow lacks some of that je ne sais quoi of earlier Free albums. It plods along soundly enough, but without ever reaching any real heights. 

** A fine inclusion, however, would have been the non-album 'b' side, Let Me Show You, which has a livelier, more urgent feel about it.  

Related posts :-
Bad Company
Paul Rodgers

No comments:

Post a Comment