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!

My favourite albums – 51–60

I’ve realised that time is of the essence here as my time with a reliable internet connection gradually peters out before our move, so here’s another 10 albums for your perusal…

#60 Hedningarna – Kaksi: The breakthrough album for this Swedish/Finnish folk band, ‘Kaksi’ combines electronics, ethnic instruments and strange high pitched female vocals in an extremely effective way. You wouldn’t think this combination could rock, but it does and ‘Ful Valsen’ has a pagan joy about it that doesn’t need electric guitars to make it ‘heavy’. It’s not just heavy, it’s super-massive.

#59 Robin Trower – Bridge of Sighs: Almost the perfect guitar album from the ex-Procol Harum player and only let down by a couple of weak tracks. The title track is long on ambience with some gorgeous Univibe guitar and ‘Day of the Eagle’ is a Hendrixy rocker. ‘Too Rolling Stoned’ and ‘Little Bit of Sympathy’ are great too. Sure, Trower wears his influences on his sleeve, but although Jimi’s spirit never seems far away, Trower has his own style and it cuts through on this breakthrough album.

#58 PIL – Compact Disc: John Lydon’s attempt at a more commercial sound, for which he gathered a strange group of people – Cream’s drummer Ginger Baker, shred guitarist Steve Vai and multi-talented Ryuichi Sakamoto amongst others – to produce quite a glossy album but still full of his trademark roughness. ‘Bags’ is my favourite track here with its techno groove and disturbing lyrics.

#57 Funkadelic – Maggotbrain: Phew…this was a hard one to choose. Funkadelic have made a fair few albums and all good in their own way. The title track is a long guitar instrumental by Eddie Hazel who was Jimi’s true heir. The rest of the album’s great, but you should hear it for ‘Maggotbrain’ alone. It’s possibly the most mournful guitar instrumental you’ll ever hear and if you’re a guitarist, this is as much soul as you’ll ever want from one player.

#56 Guns ‘n’ Roses – Appetite for Destruction: GnR were the curate’s egg of hard rock. Everyone in the band was OK at what they did but together on this album they sounded like rock gods. You can stick ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ where the sun don’t shine, but I’ll keep the rest, thanks. Not too sure which of the rest is my favourite track but ‘Rocket Queen’ will do for today…

#55 Free – Tons of Sobs: The first Free album and still their best. Everything that made this band great was already there. No-one in British rock before or since ‘loped’ the beat quite like Free did. Kossof’s guitar has sublime sparseness and idiosyncratic vibrato, Roger’s vocals are raw to say the least, Fraser’s bass is constantly inventive but rock solid and Kirke’s drumming is in the pocket all the time. Not a duff track!

#54 Green on Red – This Time Around: Tales from the Paisley Underground with an alt-country band that were alt-country before the term was invented. It’s depressing stuff in the main, with Dan Stuart’s stoned vocals over Chuck Prophet’s Keef’ish guitar in tracks that cover suicide, religion, paranoia and despair but somehow end up strangely invigorating. Not one bad track to be found in its knowing downer perfection. Highly recommended if you think the Eagles lost it after ‘Desperado’ and the Stones blanded out after ‘Exile on Main Street’.

#53 Iggy Pop – Lust for Life: Iggy and Bowie with a perfect album. Like all the best Iggy material, guitar-based but never gratuitously ‘rawk’. Everything comes together for this one – massive drum sound, wry lyrics, typical OTT iggy vocals, Carlos Alomar on guitar and Hunt and Tony Sales on drums and bass. Bowie never dominates – yes, you’ll hear him on backing vox and keyboards but this is very much Iggy’s album. I really can’t single out a track – it’s all very good shit indeed.

#52 Hoven Droven – Grov: Insane Swedish folkrock which sounds like Motorhead meeting a fiddler and a sax player who are equally as badly behaved. ‘Slentbjenn’ is an adrenalin-fuelled gallop showing the band at their rockingest with manic playing from the whole band. ‘Grovhalling’ is impressive too and leaves you wondering whether the bass player’s speakers actually survived the recording. Best heard live – ‘Jumping at the Cedar’ is the album to get really – Hoven Droven rock…that is all.

#51 Richard Thompson – Across a Crowded Room: Maybe not his best-known solo album but to me it’s very consistent and the songwriting, whilst still bitter, manages to show a little optimism. Yes, he’s a miserable curmudgeon, but he plays guitar like a god in a style that is uniquely his own and – believe me – very hard to copy. The opening track – ‘When the Spell is Broken’ – is a good taste of the overall sound – quite dense with layered guitars courtesy of Thompson and Simon Nicol on a Rick 12 and more care taken on the vocals than on his previous releases. Collister and Gregson on backing vox are a really good addition and sweeten the austere lyrics very nicely. I saw him tour with this band and they gelled really well – shame they aren’t still together.