Free – the best band ever?

Having found the lead that connects my laptop to the TV, I’ve been able to watch YouTube videos in large-screen luxury.

In the course of viewing last night, I found some superb video showing the band Free in their magnificent heyday.

Arriving on the scene a little too late for the mid 1960s ‘British Blues Boom’, Free had a lot in common with the movement and were named by the late, great Alexis Korner – sort of. He suggested ‘Free at Last’, which was shortened to ‘Free’. Or did he suggest they shorten the name? Fuck knows…

What a lot of people don’t know is how young Free were when they started playing together.

Free

Lead singer Paul Rodgers and drummer Simon Kirke were both 18, guitarist Paul Kossoff was 16 and bassist and keyboard player Andy Fraser only 15.

Within 6 months they’d recorded their first album ‘Tons of Sobs’ which was very blues based, but showed their funky side, which was what made the band stand out from the rather leaden groove that most hard blues/rock bands seemed to fall into.

There must have been real chemistry at work when they got together .

Rodgers on lead vocals had – still has – an amazing voice. With Free he took centre stage and used the mic stand to great effect as he strutted about and indulged in some proper groin-thrusting.

Kossoff on guitar had a great Les Paul/Marshall sound and he played using a very distinctive vibrato. Whilst he didn’t stray too much from the pentatonics, he used them melodically and his rhythm playing was sparse, with some interesting chords using the open strings together with fretted ones. No power chord thrashing for Kossoff!

Fraser on bass was amazing. Using a short scale Gibson bass, he played a heady combination of melodic lines on the upper frets and heavy root notes on the bottom ones. Above all, he left spaces in his bass lines which remind me of reggae bass styles and really let the music breathe.

Making up the quartet was drummer Kirke who always kept it simple, powerful and exciting. Using an extremely small kit – snare, kick, two toms, ride and crash cymbals and hi-hat – he could be almost jazzy at times, which tied in well with Fraser’s syncopated and spare bass lines to create a rhythm section that floated and skipped but never plodded.

The old adage ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts’ applies to Free very, very well. The combination of the instruments and Rodger’s charismatic and souful demeanour combined to produce a drive that was intense, but never bludgeoning and their use of dynamics was second to none, with the band dropping back when necessary and then cranking it up in complete contrast.

Not only was the band a musician’s delight, but in their glory days, they were a pop phenomenon, too. Live recordings at the time of ‘Alright Now’ (their biggest hit) reveal teenage girls screaming in the same way that the Beatles experienced and the band became pin ups.

But what of the band today?

Rodgers went on to form Bad Company with drummer Kirk, ex-King Crimson bassist Boz Burrell and ex-Mott guitarist Mick Ralphs. He then went solo, joined Queen (a disaster in my opinion; as fine a singer as he is, he’s no Freddie Mercury) and then reformed Bad Co last year. He’s still a force to be reckoned with, solo, but has never regained the success he once had.

Kossoff left Free in a heroin haze. His playing was so erratic that he was sacked. He went on to form Back Street Crawler, which was OK, but then died of a drug realted heart attack at the age of 25. A total waste of a great talent.

After Bad Co Kirke didn’t do too much until their reunion, although today he’s on the Grammy awards committee and still plays in bands.

Frazer has possibly the most interesting post-Free career. When Free broke up, he went on to form the underrated ‘Sharks’, ‘The Andy Fraser Band’ and then …very little else. He contracted HIV, came out as gay and then embarked on a bizarre but pioneering series of projects that culminated in the formation of the McTrax group of companies.

Nothing that they went on to do, however, comes anywhere near approaching the magnificence that was Free, and that magnificence stands out best in a live situation.

Fortunately, a fair amount of footage still exists to illustrate this and there’s one show in particular that captures the band perfectly. Iit was produced by Granada TV and shows the band in a TV studio with a fair-sized and appreciative audience. It’s well-shot, with good sound and the cameramen made sure that they gave equal attention to all four players.

It’s astoundingly good.

Actually, it’s better than that.

It’s totally fucking amazing!

Rodgers struts about like some randy cockerel, Kirke plays his tiny kit with his typical high arm movements, and Kossoff gurns a lot (although I think he means it) and plays some beautiful guitar.

However, it’s Fraser who really shines, as far as I’m concerned.

His body movements and playing just scream exuberance as he rocks back on one foot and just soars over and rumbles under the rest of the band. There’s such deep joy in his playing and I’m certain that he’s not putting on a show. He’s just happy playing what he’s playing, who he’s with and tyhe zone that he’s in.

Enough words.

Here’s some of that footage. Unfortunately, embedding has been disabled on the ‘All Right Now’ video, so you’ll have to go straight to YouTube to watch it. It’s worth the detour though!

Over 40 years old and still as fresh and vital as it was back then.

It really doesn’t come any better than this!

5 Responses

  1. Great post, thanks!. Fantastic band, among the very best….still got the classic ‘envelope’ live album (bit dog eared…). Happy days…..

    Paul K and Simon had actually already played together in Black Cat Bones before the others joined them in 68 to form Free (BCB went on to record a fine blues album ‘Barbed Wire Sandwich’).

    I love the ’1970′ era…Groundhogs, Keef Hartley, Colosseum, Rory, etc etc.. etc. There is a huge amount of brilliant music of all genres that few of the modern generation have heard. At least they are now accessible via the net….

    Thanks to YouTube I’ve rediscovered Steamhammer…

    ‘Contemporary Chick Con Song’

    and one UK pubs perhaps….

    ‘When All Your Friends Are Gone’

  2. You are so right. The performances you’ve found are fabulous. They remain one of my all time favourite bands.

  3. Happened upon this a bit late so I expect this’ll slip by.

    As a kid I played Mr. Big (from ‘Free Live’) every morning before I went to school, for 2 years. It remains my favourite track of all time and I still play it now, 40 years later. Fraser’s bass lines at the crescendo ending still make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

    I was always torn between Andy Fraser and Gary Thain as bass players but mostly I prefered the more laconic style of Fraser.

    Did you know that Island Records tried to rename them ‘The Heavy Metal Kids’ when they signed them? The band were having none of it (obviously!)

    At their very first meeting as a band they wrote four songs which appeared on the ToS album.

    Andy Fraser was touring America with Jon Mayall’s Bluesbreakers before becoming part of Free. He had just turned 15. He got sacked from that as he and the drummer according to Fraser himself, “Were not the tightest rhythm section going!”

    I’ve still got all the albums and I’ve even got The Andy Fraser Band album (silver cover with pic of the man on the front). Interesting for the fact that the bass lines are played by a keyboard player on pedals and Fraser plays all the lead/melody lines on his bass!

    I usually listen to/watch the utube vids a couple of times a month, reminds me of far simpler times.

  4. No, your comment hasn’t slipped by. All comments get read and then posted. Nice to hear from a fellow Free fan. I must investigate Andy’s solo band album.

  5. Great band, never bettered – and Koss was the most passionate guitarist, said everything in a few notes and could play subtly or build to a thrilling crescendo; for subtlety try ‘Come Together In the Morning’ from ‘Heartbreaker’ and for an exciting solo the live ‘Hunter’…

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