A Buyers Guide to Free

The late 60s were an exciting time for blues based rock in the UK, Cream was the supergroup, Fleetwood Mac had genuine hit singles and we haven’t even mentioned Led Zeppelin yet. Hot on the heels of these heavy hitters were four little skinny guys, younger than their contemporaries, they could still play the blues in a way that only British white boys from suburbs know how to play the blues.

Tons Of Sobs is the Free album rooted in the blues, which for a band so fond of the blues idiom is no small statement. Where their future albums would expand their horizons eventually, this debut wears the band’s influences proudly, a solid platform from which to build their later success. The majority of the ingredients were already in the mix. Paul Rodgers established himself here as a vocalist of note, Simon Kirke demonstrated that he was a fine drummer and Paul Kossoff’s finest guitar work can be found within the run time of this album. The only member of the band that seems a little subdued is Andy Fraser, whose bass work here seems a little anonymous compared to his later work.

Yes, sticking strictly to the blues does mean that this debut is Free’s most one-track album by some way, but in a way that’s no bad thing, as it allows Kossoff’s guitar work to romp all over the thing, just about the only time in the band’s career where his guitar work wasn’t kept in check and it’s a much better album for it. Conversely some of the lyrics could be clumsy and crude, with Rodgers trying a little too hard to emulate his blues heroes, thankfully the power of his voice carries it, so he can be forgiven his weaknesses here.

It’s when Fraser shares credits with Rodgers that the material is lifted to the next level, with “Wild Indian Woman” and “I’m A Mover” being two of the highlights of the album. Also worthy of mention is “Sweet Tooth”, which although perhaps a little obvious, is Rodger’s strongest solo composition here. The album is bookended by “Over The Green Hills”, not a song as such, but an intro and a coda to the original album as a whole, but it still much stronger than you’d expect it to be.

A solid base from which to build future success then and a brilliant showcase for Paul Kossoff’s guitar work, Tons Of Sobs is exactly the kind of album that these shockingly young and talented young men needed to record at this time in their lives. It’s full of ambition, yet it betrays their lack of maturity in places.

Free managed to avoid the traditional second album pit falls by building on the solid foundation of their debut, making the mellow parts mellower, giving the songs a slightly more commercial edge, yet remaining true to the band’s blues influences.

The most notable difference on their self titled sophomore release is the fact that the bass is much more prominent than on their previous album, giving an altogether more funky feel to the proceedings. Paul Rodgers goes on to cement his position as one of the UK’s best rock vocalists and Paul Kossoff showcases the beautifully fluid yet restrained guitar work that would become his trademark. The thing is there’s something missing, an element present on their debut that’s strangely absent here, perhaps the excitement of being in a recording studio had worn off or something, whatever the case, although Free is a progression from Tons of Sobs it’s obvious that they’ve left something behind. It’s nothing vital, but the lack of it means that Free falls short of being an improvement on every level. It’s a sporadic album, it has moments of greatness, but there are bits which fall flat as well. Perhaps this unevenness is rooted in the stop-start nature of the recording sessions.

It’s obvious from Free that the band were also picking up more in the way of contemporary influences as well, given the broader range of sounds demonstrated, be it the acoustic intro to “Mouthful of Grass” or the Jethro Tull-indebted flutes of “Mourning Sad Morning”, touring with other top-name bands was obviously paying off.

When a band decides to produce themselves for the first time it can often be a leap of faith. Sometimes they demonstrate that by taking the lead in the studio, they can bring out nuances in their own music that only they were aware of before, something which a producer may have missed entirely. Sometimes they can fall flat on their face. On their third album, Fire And Water, Free fell flat on their face.

Fire And Water is Free’s strongest collection of songs, no arguments there. They had expanded on their limited blues beginnings and established themselves here as a band that really did matter. Sure Led Zeppelin had got the drop on them sales wise, but here was evidence that Free could reach the same plateau of success if luck was with them. Luck wasn’t with them.

In “Alright Now”, the title track and “Mr Big”, Free had created three undisputed rock classics, the rest of the album wasn’t exactly filler either. Musically they were peaking (check out the bass solo on “Mr Big”) and the Fraser / Rodgers songwriting team was firing on all cylinders. Free were obviously capable of great things. Sadly producing their own albums wasn’t one of them.

What’s wrong with it? The vocals are buried in the mix for much of the album (the vocals at the beginning of “Oh I Wept” are barely audible), the bass is strangely leaden even though it is immaculately played, the drums are far to prominent in the mix (they’re where the vocals should be). This is probably one of the worst mixed albums I’ve ever heard, a case of snatching defeat from the jaws of success. All the elements are here to make Fire And Water one of the all time great rock albums, but it fails due to some questionable mixing decisions. Not even this remaster has managed to salvage the sorry situation.

The only track to escape this mess and sound reasonable is “Alright Now”, the one Free song that everybody knows. Sure it’s one of the most overplayed songs of all time, but listening to it in the context of this album, it’s still wonderful.

Given the huge success of “Alright Now”, it remains a mystery just why Free’s sales went South after Fire and Water. There’s nothing on their fourth album, Highway, to suggest that Free were losing their way, infact due to a vastly improved approach to production, it’s actually a better album than its predecessor. While Highway on the whole lacks the killer commercial songs that were the backbone of Fire and Water, musically it’s yet another step forward, it’s a touch more considered and mature than anything they’d released previously and it’s actually a little more consistent, with much more attention being given to the dynamic flow of the album.

Quite why “The Stealer” stalled in the charts as a single is still mystifying. Granted, it doesn’t have the commercial immediacy of “Alright Now”, but it’s still a fine single in the grand scheme of early 70s rock. The Fraser / Rodgers songwriting team, although not noted as lyrical geniuses, are in fine fettle here. Simon Kirke still drums exactly like Simon Kirke and Paul Kossoff is quite happy to take a back seat and only unleash his stunningly fluid guitar work when it is absolutely necessary. From a group performance point of view Free were at the apex of their career, success had instilled within them the confidence that they could mix it with the big boys of early 70s rock.

The relative commercial failure of Highway had a profound effect on the band, something which knocked the confidence of a band whose oldest members were barely out of their teens. It certainly was a major factor when they temporarily went their separate ways in early 1971. As fate would have it as they split, they had another big hit single with “My Brother Jake” (included on some copies of Highway as bonus material), but it was too late to stop them disappearing off to lick their wounds for the time being.

Perhaps at the end of the day the commercial failure of Highway can be put down to bad marketing. Apparently Island did little to promote he album, the drab album artwork is the worst of the band’s career and Free’s name was barely mentioned on the original sleeve. This litany of errors combine to provide us with one of the overlooked gems of early 70s rock by one of its finest bands.

Free Live! was released after the band had broken up, ostensibly to commemorate what a great live band they had been, but equally an excuse for the record label to squeeze a bit more cash out of the band’s fanbase. Unlike many of their contemporaries Free’s one live album wasn’t a double album, but it still captured the band in full flight, at the top of their game as a live act. They may have been four short-arses in stature, but they had made an almighty racket. Where some times their studio material sounds restrained and restricted, here the material is rampant and benefits from a much looser approach, particularly the guitar work of Paul Kossoff. On stage Free could play to their strengths, Paul Rodgers could preen and give his best blues howl, Simon Kirke could thrash away at his drum kit to his heart’s content, Andy Fraser could show off on the bass and Kossoff was the perfect antidote to those guitarists that prized technical perfection over emotion. In many ways they were the blue-print for the majority of four piece rock acts to come.

Free were wise enough to realise that although their louder material could get the crowd growing, it was also beneficial to showcase their more mellow and soulful material at regular intervals throughout the show. “Be My Friend” is a particular highlight, easily outstripping the not-bad-anyway original. It’s not the only cut here to be an improvement on the studio original, the material taken from Fire and Water in particular is improved on all counts. Check out the bass solo on “Mr Big” on Free Live! if you need further proof.

The success of Free Live! and the single “My Brother Jake” convinced all four members of Free that maybe they had been premature in splitting the band, so they reconvened for sessions that would eventually become Free At Last.

As it turns out Free At Last isn’t actually that good. By this point in their career and following their split Free had totally established their sound and saw no reason to fix what wasn’t broken. As a result this is the most obvious sounding Free album, the one which sounds like it could have been recorded by a competent sound-alike band. It’s not terrible, it just lacks the punch of their other albums. It does have its highlights though, “Little Bit Of Love” was a pretty good single, “Travellin’ Man” has its moments and “Catch A Train” is a reasonable opener. Ultimately though Free At Last fails to excite like the very best Free albums do.

Free’s final album, Heartbreaker, is an odd album, as it’s one of only a few examples of a where resounding success was snatched so resoundingly from the jaws of defeat. At this point in their career it wasn’t looking good for Free, Andy Fraser had quit having tired of the pressure of being in such a talented band at such a young age and having had a number of creative differences with the rest of the band. To make matters worse Paul Kossoff was strung out on various substances and was little more than a session side man through the sessions for the album. Given the circumstances Paul Rodgers and Simon Kirke bit the bullet and recruited texan keyboard wizard John “Rabbit” Bundrick (later to find fame as part of The Who’s live touring ensemble) and Japanese bassist Tetsu Yamauchi at the last minute.

Given that Rodgers had previously had a strong writing partnership with the now absent Fraser, it’s a testament to his ability to work under pressure that the material he penned for Heartbreaker is among his best. Actually it doesn’t stop there, as Heartbreaker is Free’s best album by some distance. Sure it may have been even better if Fraser had been on board, but as it is it is the band’s broadest and most diverse album by some distance. Sure they had distanced themselves from their blues roots, but based on the results here, it was well worth it.

It’s also worth noting that Kossoff only appears on five of the eight tracks on the original album (Paul Rodgers took on the majority of the guitar work). There seems to be some confusion over whether he is present on the most best track of the album  “Wishing Well”, an all out rock single that’s even better than “Alright Now” any day of the week and boasting one of rock’s all time great riffs. Whether the song was intended as a comment on Kossoff’s drug abuse is a matter for debate, but whatever the case it remains the band’s best straight forward rock song.

Rodger’s wasn’t alone in writing material for the album though, as Rabbit rose to the occasion and brought material of his own to the table. Although it’s markedly different from other free material, it’s a good indication of what Rodgers could do with material that either he didn’t pen or wasn’t a blues standard.  Sadly this full-on attitude on Rabbit’s part would convince Rodgers and Kirke that this incarnation of Free would only be temporary.

It’s actually the presence of Rabbit that makes Heartbreaker so different from previous Free albums. Where previous albums had occasional piano adornment, here keyboards and an extra dimension to the band’s sound, again it goes against the band’s original manifesto, but it’s worth the compromise.

So Heartbreaker then, it has all the elements that should spell out disaster (key original band members missing, other’s mashed out of their heads, hastily recruited replacements), but the contradictory little fellas that Free are, it turns out to be their best album.

Having salvaged a classic from the smoking remains of Free, Rodgers and Kirke would recruit Mott the Hoople guitar ace Mick Ralphs and ex King Crimson man Boz Burrell to form Bad Company and head for America where their radio-friendly sound was basically Free with a considerable amount more studio polish and as a result was hugely successful for them. Fraser by contrast slipped away into dignified obscurity to pen songs for others and live off his royalties. Kossoff would sadly never escape his demons and died at the age of 26.

Due to the ubiquity of “All Right Now”, there are far too many Best of Free compilations clogging up the racks of music stores. Pretty much all of them do the job well enough, but The Free Story was one of the first, and remains relatively definitive, though it is desperate need of remastering. One to avoid is All Right Now: The Best of Free, on which all the songs have been subjected to a hideous remixing job which obliterates everything positive about the band and their musical legacy.

Free are a band that have too long been associated with just one song. Their six studio albums and their live release deserve investigation by any fan of rock music and forms an oddly uncelebrated body of work.

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