Isle Of Wight festival
One of the best and most successful of the Progressive Blues bands that flooded the scene in the late 60's. Although the tradition was for musicians to have played in Dance Bands or in freelance backing bands for touring vocalists, Free bucked the trend by becoming established at an early age after having served only a limited apprenticeship in the music biz.
Paul Kossoff, the 17-year-old son of actor David Kossoff, had started playing guitar aged twelve and played in his first band, Black Cat Bones, along with 18 year old drummer, Simon Kirke. Wanting to develop their sound, they soon left the band and recruited 18-year-old lead singer Paul Rodgers who had played briefly in some bands around his hometown of Middlesbrough before moving to London in 1968. Completing the line up was bassist Andy Fraser, who remarkably was already a veteran of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers aged just 15. Blues stalwart Alexis Korner was an early supporter of the band, suggesting the name “Free” and recommending them to the flourishing Island label.
At their first rehearsal, the band jelled immediately and straight away they bought out the best of each other playing the blues music they loved but feeling confident in each others ability to start writing new songs. With the agreement of the others, Andy Fraser declared himself to be the bands leader and began booking gigs where the band soon established their reputation as a outstanding live act.
In October 1968 the band went in to the studio to record their debut album. They were assigned the maverick producer Guy Stevens who oversaw the sessions but relied heavily on engineer Andy Johns to convert his ideas into sound. “Tons Of Sobs” was released in November 1968. Containing mostly self-penned songs, it relied heavily on the songs played at the live shows. Given the young age of the band, they translated their version of the blues with remarkable feeling. Book ended by the acoustic “Over The Green Hills” the band soon hit their stride with “Walk In My Shadow” with some soulful guitar and vocals that were soon to become their trademark. The album also contained the standout track “The Hunter” a Booker T and The MG’s song that featured in Free shows throughout their career.
Disappointedly, the album failed to make much of an impact commercially and they soon returned to the studio to record the follow up. This time produced by the head of Island, Chris Blackwell, “Free” was a huge leap forward in both sound and texture. A quieter album overall than the predecessor.The mournful guitar from Kossoff is most effective on “Free Me” and “Woman” , while Fraser and Kirke had developed a rhythm section of both power and subtlety.
Tensions however were mounting within the band. With eight of the nine compositions supplied by Fraser/Rodgers, they were becoming both the creative and business leaders of the band. Kirke and the fragile Kossoff were feeling sidelined and only the diplomacy skills of Blackwell allowed the album to be completed. Blackwell decided that the band would be the perfect support for Island Supergroup Blind Faith and their tour of the States. Despite some early sound problems at the important Madison Square Garden show, the seven-week tour proved to be a positive learning curve, particularly for Kossoff, who felt empowered again after mixing with “God” Clapton.
Back home again, the band played at the Isle Of Wight festival and continued to gig, building up a strong fan base that helped push “Free” into the charts, reaching number 22 upon its release in October 1969.
Anxious to keep momentum going, they returned to the studio, often between gigs, to record the next album. Disappointed with the sound that Blackwell had overseen on the last album, the band persuaded their boss to let them produce this next effort themselves. With Rodgers favouring more soulful vocals and Kossoff playing his most refrained guitar to date, “Fire And Water” is a somewhat dark album containing some of Free’s most trademark songs. Its most upbeat track closes the album. “All Right Now” gave the band its breakthrough. With its driving beat, rolling bass, enthusiastic vocals and a guitar solo to die for, the song (edited as a single release at Blackwell’s insistence) shot up the charts reaching number 2 in the UK and number 4 in the States. The album followed this success reaching number 2 in the UK and 17 in the States. The band were now stars and sell-out gigs in large halls were common-place climaxing in an appearance at the third Isle Of Wight festival along side the likes of The Doors, The Who and Jimi Hendrix.
Once again they rushed back into the studio to record what would be their fourth album in two years. “Highway” proved to be a big disappointment with a lot of tracks sounding the same and some of the “edge” gone. The exceptions are the slower tracks “Love You So” and “Bodine” with some fine keyboards to the fore and the moving “Soon I Will Be Gone”. The album only reached a lowly 44 in the UK, a shock to the band who had only seen upward progress. The already tense feelings in the band came to head and following tours in the US, Japan and Australia, the band split in April 1971. The official press statement announced that “They felt limited in Free” but perhaps the real reason was success had come to quick to these young men, still only 21 or younger. “My Brother Jake” was sitting at number 4 as they split and a live album imaginatively titled “Free Live” was rushed out in September ’71. They were quick to form new outlets for their talents. Rodgers formed Peace; Fraser launched Toby, while Kossoff and Kirke teamed up with Rabbit and Tetsu in a new four piece.
As all four took stock, it was apparent that the split hit Kossoff the hardest. The fragile confidence and camaraderie that the band gave him had disappeared. Already dabbling with hard drugs and now convinced that he alone was responsible for the failure of the band he loved, his depression worsened acutely as his habit escalated. Dismayed at the guitarist decline, Andy Fraser was the first to suggest that reforming the band would help their friend and give him a focus once more and so in early 1972, they were once again “Free” and in June that year a new album “Free At Last” was released. Using mostly songs that had been written for their solo projects, the album contained some decent tracks. Kossoff was subdued but then so was the whole album with only rare glimpses of the fire that had previously burned. Rodgers song writing had become introspective with emphasis on the birth of his soon to be born child and although this resulted in some beautiful tracks like the heartfelt “Guardian Of The Universe” and “Child”, it was the hit single “Little Bit Of Love” that helped the album to go high in the charts. Touring was proving to be a huge problem, however, with Kossoff either not showing up for the gigs or only lasting for a couple of songs and by the time a Japanese tour was ready to start, Andy Fraser, tormented by what was happening to Kossoff and the effect it was having on the rest of the band, left the band for good. Kossoff also pulled out of the tour promising again to get help and Rabbit and Tetsu were recruited to see the band through the dates.
Desperate to keep Kossoff working, they hit the studio again to record “Wishing Well” and set out on a UK tour that was disastrous. Back in the studio to record “Heartbreaker”, Kossoff was marginalized. Only able to play in short bursts, and contributing only on 5 tracks, session players were forced to help out. Despite this, the instantly recognisable guitar lines in “Come Together In The Morning” were sublime. With “Wishing Well” yet another big hit single, the band arranged a tour of America. After deciding to leave Kossoff at home, the guitarist announced he was leaving the band and ex Osibisa guitarist Wendell Richardson was drafted in. Everyone was by now unhappy to be in the band and as “Heartbreaker” climbed to number 7 in the UK charts, they knew it had to finish. "Free" had run its course and the band were no more.
Rodgers and Kirke went on to form Bad Company with Mick Ralphs and Boz Burrell and became a stadium-rock band having many hit albums and singles. They have just announced a UK tour in 2010, without Burrell who died in 2006. Acknowledged as one of the best vocalist in rock, Rodgers also took over the vocal duties for Queen.
Fraser formed the short-lived Sharks and the Andy Fraser Band without great success. He went on to write best selling hits for the likes of Joe Cocker, Robert Palmer, Paul Young and Chaka Khan.
Paul Kossoff carried on his self destructive way. Releasing a solo album in 1973 and forming Back Street Crawler who released two albums of mediocre rock with precious little signature guitar. He did play a couple of shows in the States being joined on stage by Rodgers and Kirke. He played well, happy to be on stage with his best friends. These were his last ever shows and he died on a while on board a flight in America in March 1976 aged just 25.
One of the best of the Progressive Blues bands of the late sixties, the soulful vocals, driving rhythm and magical guitar became a statement for everyone else to match. Few did. Maybe success came too easily and too fast for the band ever to sustain their initial impact. In hindsight, it would be easy to predict the tensions and the drug problems. Maybe, most remarkable of all, is that they made seven albums. The power and raw chutzpah of the first three releases make them classics of the genre and this is how I like to remember the band.
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