It’s hard to imagine nowadays, but in the strict context of the then-emerging British blues boom, Free were a punk band, and “Tons Of Sobs” – their debut album from 1968 - was very much a punk album. In terms of their youth and inexperience (their average age was 18) it was patently ridiculous for them to be making such heavy weather of a song like James Oden’s “Goin’ Down Slow”, and this one track more than any other reveals their initial shortcomings and gives a strong flavour of what they must have been like in the clubs in the early days. Paul Kossoff, that master of understatement, over-playing as guiltily as any teenager possessed of a Gibson Les Paul and a fistful of licks learned off John Mayall albums. Andy Fraser, the purveyor of pared-to-the-bone funk bass, sidestepping semitones with no regard for context or subtlety. Simon Kirke, soon to be the tightest drummer in British rock, bashing away, and, of course, Paul Rodgers, trousers tighter than prudence would suggest health permit, bellowing about having had his fun and “would you please write my mother, tell her the shape I’m in”…
It’s good for a laugh, but it’s strictly a period piece, and there’s very little on that debut album that stands up to closer scrutiny. “I’m A Mover” and “The Hunter” were firm live favourites and consequently are much better on the live album. “Moonshine” and “Worry” are almost worthy of Black Sabbath, but not really. “Walk In My Shadow” is macho teenage trash. Again, good for a laugh. It’s only “Over The Green Hills”, the acoustic tune that bookends the album, that has much to say about what Free would become.
It all came together for the second album, “Free” (1969). Right from the start, you can hear that this is a much better band altogether. “I’ll Be Creepin’” stands to this day as one of the very best bits of funk ever played by a rock band. It’s tough, tight and lubricious as hell – Fraser’s bass line is a hook in itself and Kossoff’s solo is a model of controlled violence: the way it snarls off at the end, that’s how it’s done. On the other hand, “Mourning Sad Morning” is a keening acoustic lament of the most melancholy hue, featuring Chris Wood of Traffic playing his African styled flute. Exquisite sadness with a mutant crossbred Irish-Hebrew melody. Then there’s “Lying In The Sunshine”: a lazy soul ballad singing the joys of…laziness. The sheer poise of it, absurdly classy for a bunch of kids hardly out of their teens. How did they get so good? By playing all the time, that’s how. And KNOWING they were good.
By the time they got to their third album, “Fire And Water” (1970), they were the tightest band in the UK. Tighter than The Stones, The Who, and way tighter than Led Zeppelin. Tighter, not better. The songs were still mostly crap but, my God, they played them like they were gold dust. Some of them were good: “Don’t Say You Love Me” continues in the soul ballad style and extends it to quite outclass something like, say, The Stones “I Got The Blues” – the Stax tribute off “Sticky Fingers”. Paul Rodgers was obviously a better singer than Mick Jagger but usually he “over-souled” everything – a bit like his obvious idol, Otis Redding. On this track, however, he unfolds the story like a master, singing his best lyrics to date about a love affair gone on too long. Then there was “All Right Now”, and that was it. “All Right Now” is so famous, so well known, so well established in the Classic Rock genre that it’s almost impossible to hear it in context. For Free, it meant the end of one kind of career and the beginning of another. Try to listen to it objectively and what have you got? A basic guitar riff that’s incredibly difficult to play exactly right, a throwaway lyric about a casual pick-up, a wonderfully subtle arrangement that’s also perfectly simple, a guitar solo to die for (which Kossoff did, effectively) – sounds like classic rock’n’roll and that’s what it is: Eddie Cochran updated for the 70s and for all time.
But poor old Free: they couldn’t handle success. At first it all looked good. The gig fees went up dramatically, they got taken seriously by the business, they got a decent budget for the next album, but it all went horribly wrong and they split within a year. The problems were obvious on “Highway” (1971). In many ways, this was their best album yet. The songs were so much better, the production was crisp and warm, the playing as good as it ever was – but there were no more “All Right Nows”. The closest to it, the wonderful “Stealer”, was put out as a single and bombed. The album was panned in the press as being too soft and introspective. Free were perceived as a heavy rock band (this was a period in which heavy rock had become commercial for the first time), what were they doing messing about with beautiful heartbroken ballads like “Soon I Will Be Gone”? Or plaintive Van Morrison-esque stories like “Bodie”? They began to lose heart. More worryingly, Paul Kossoff began to use heroin.
Kossoff deserves an essay to himself but suffice it to say that, in the opinion of this writer, he played with more heart than any other British guitarist bar Peter Green. Both of them London Jews. Both of them casualties. Interesting. Peter Green burned out and spent 25 years of his life in and out of mental institutions. Kossoff died at the age of 25. The comparison with Green is germane also because Kossoff idolised him (with good reason) and couldn’t accept it when people compared them. There’s a heart-breaking story about when Free supported Blind Faith in one of their only UK concerts. After Free had done their set, Eric Clapton appeared in their dressing room to ask Paul Kossoff how he achieved his finger tremolo. Kossoff was completely thrown; thought Clapton was mocking him. But, no, not a bit of it, Eric was completely genuine – he has always been a real musician, whatever else one may say of him. But Kossoff had massive self-esteem problems, and they led him – as they have led so many others – to heroin.
The rest of the band looked on in horror as he fell apart. Although he wasn’t the youngest, he was the baby of the group. He had come from a wealthy show-business background, he was closeted, shy, hypersensitive, timid, belying his lion’s mane hair and wildly emotional on-stage demeanour. Free was all he had in his life that he cared about. When they split, he became a full-time junkie. In an attempt to rescue him, his former colleagues decided to put the band back together. Their commercial standing was still good – they had scored another minor hit with the beautiful “My Brother Jake” where Andy Fraser reveals himself as at least as good a pop piano player as Paul McCartney – and Island were happy to bankroll them. They produced another minor hit in “Little Bit Of Love”, which despite featuring another superb bassline, suggested the vacuousness that would later damn Bad Company, but the accompanying album “Free At Last” was an absolute dog. In those days, bands had artistic integrity and Free knew it was all over. They split again. But then, just as before, Kossoff hit the smack again and this time the poison took.
Prematurely aged by his mid-20s, Paul Rodgers wrote the most achingly sad lyric to “Wishing Well” – dedicated to Kossoff - and recorded it, along with the various other songs that make up “Heartbreaker” – the final album put out under Free’s name in 1973. Simon Kirke was still there, just about, but Andy Fraser had gone. Tetsu Yamauchi stood in for him on bass, Rabbit added keyboards and the guitar duties were handled by various sessioneers who were on hand if Koss was absent or too fucked-up to play. It’s an aptly named album: much overlooked by fans at the time who were busy mourning the band and worrying about Koss. There is fine, bittersweet music on the record and if it isn’t as good as Free at their best, it’s still way better than anyone could have expected – and miles better than “Free At Last”.
Somewhere in between Free’s split-ups and re-forms, Island had put out a sampler of live tracks recorded at various colleges on tour in the UK in happier days, “Free LIVE!” It was a feast for the fans featuring Kossoff on blistering form throughout and Fraser’s epic bass efforts on “Mr Big”. Today it stands as proof of just how great they really were on a good night. Also, tucked away at the end, was “Get Where I Belong” – a graceful waltz inexplicably left off “Highway” – with its most plaintive lyric of dislocation and confusion. It’s almost a prayer. How far Paul Rodgers had come from the arrogant strutting of “Walk In My Shadow”.
The massive 5 cd box set, “Songs Of Yesterday”, should be approached with great caution. What it doesn’t say on the box is that (apart from a cd’s worth of unreleased live stuff, some of which is excellent) it is entirely comprised of alternate takes, oddities, jams and odd bits of session work undertaken by various members. In other words, it is strictly for the fan who has everything. For those who have yet to acquaint themselves, start with “Fire And Water” and take it from there.
It’s funny: Free were one of those bands whose reputation suffered the most with the advent of punk. I remember selling all my Free albums in 1977 in case someone should find them in my collection – nestling with The Ramones or The Damned. Then I had to buy them all back in the 80s!
These days I have only the highest regard for them. It’s incredible how young they were, and how in those days, being that young and that proficient didn’t seem all that remarkable. How times have changed. It would be impossible for a band like Free to make it now, but the sound they made pioneered so much of what rock became – without ever really sounding like a straight-up rock band at all. All their songs were slow: “All Right Now” is by far the fastest thing they ever did. They worked a slow burn like no others, they were subtle, and they took their time. That’s why their records still sound good. If you’ve not heard them, check ‘em out. If you have, listen again.
Adam Blake. London