There’s a load of stuff about The Free Story that just shouldn’t work. Released a little while after Free disbanded for the final time, yet just long enough for 50% of the band to enjoy huge success as 50% of Bad Company, and be able to ride that wave of success, there’s an inescapable whiff of cash-in about this compilation.
There’s also the fact that this oddly sequnced compilation rushes over their first two albums, Tons of Sobs and Free, a whopping third of their studio output, in just three songs, which is as many as their much-celebrated, but sonically awful Fire and Water receives alone, and that’s not including the vigorous live recording of “Mr Big”. This disparity might be vaguely understandable, given that Fire and Water is by far Free’s biggest seller, until you realise that the lumpen and unlovely Free at Last also gets three tracks, while their final album, Heartbreaker, the hands-down best album of their career, is represented by just two tracks, and neither of them are it’s best one at that. Reduce that down to just one if it’s the CD version.
So why does The Free Story work? Because it does exactly what it set out to do. It’s a career retrospective which captures the very best bits of the band’s career. While I can bellyache about it not being representative, it is arguably all killer, no filler and puts to bed the assumption that there was nothing more to Free than the iconic, but overplayed, “All Right Now”. Even the other songs on this compilation from Fire and Water (surely one of the worst mixed albums of the 70s, if not the whole of rock music) are great songs, even if they do have the sonic dynamics of a cardboard box that has been left out in the rain for a fortnight.
The Free Story does what almost no subsequent Free compilation manages to do, which is cast the band in the positive light by treating “All Right Now” as just another song by them, rather than the absolute pinnacle of their career. Indeed, such is the great sequencing of this compilation, that the standalone single “My Brother Jake” sounds every bit as vital as the band’s biggest hit, and my personal favourite, “Little Bit of Love” sounds like it should be celebrated as one of the great overlooked rock songs of the 70s.
I can’t deny that there are some obvious flaws in The Free Story. The fact that there’s a track by Kossof Kirke Tetsu Rabbit included, but nothing from the projects attempted by Paul Rodgers or Andy Fraser during Free’s hiatus feels odd, but as they were the ones that released a full album, then that’s fair enough I suppose. However the fact that they chose to include just two songs from Heartbreaker is a real shame, and the fact that neither of them are “Wishing Well” is a major missed opportunity, as it was the band’s last hit in their lifetime, it features their biggest riff outside of “All Right Now” and it would have effectively closed the album in the most chillingly prophetic way possible, given Paul Kossoff’s sad passing just a few short years later. Opportunity missed there.
Grumbles aside, The Free Story is an iconic compilation, one of the best places to start for the newcomer to Free and plays as a celebration of the band, which given it was effectively the Island Record’s eulogy for the band, is exactly as it should be. Free remain one of the great what-ifs of the music industry, and The Free Story is a great representation of an immensely talented band whose albums never really accurately represented the amount of potential they had. From Kossoff’s eerily fluid guitar work, to Fraser’s funky elastic bass lines, to the crisp drumming of Simon Kirke and Paul Rodgers’ definitive soulful rock vocals, Free could and should have been a much bigger act than they were, and The Free Story effectively laments the fact that they weren’t.