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    John, County Kildare : Free

    john.j.doyle@nuim.ie presents : Tons Of Sobs( 1968 )
    Over The Green Hills (Part 1) / Worry / Walk In My Shadow / Wild Indian Woman / Goin' Down Slow / I'm A Mover / The Hunter / Moonshine / Sweet Tooth / Over The Green Hills (Part 2).

    Being the late 1960s norm, Paul Rodgers, Paul Kossoff, Andy Fraser, and Simon Kirke were already teenage veterans of the eclectic British Blues scene before fate would unite them as Free, a name far more pleasing than the original suggestion of The Heavy Metal Kids. Island Records were trembling with excitement at the group's prospects, and sensing the quartet were capable of something special, assigned the eccentric Guy Stevens to knock their material into shape. "Over The Green Hills" is edited into 2 halves, begginning and ending the album in an anything but distinctive Free manner. Rodgers and Kossoff trade acoustic and electric licks, and all four members chip in vocal harmonies. Something of a dark horse, its full potential would be realised as a single track on the 2000 boxset "Songs Of Yesterday". Listening to the 3 or possibly 4 Free tracks likely to get exposure on daytime FM radio doesn't really prepare newbies for "Tons Of Sobs". Stevens being an energetic type, pushes the band to the limit, so what stands out, are tense Blues numbers like live favourite "The Hunter", while originals like Rodgers' "Sweet Tooth" sound both grimey and polished at the same time, possibly due to some strange use of tracking and a needlessly intrusive piano from Steve Miller, even for the group's debut, an already overused phenomenon and not really part of a vital format.

    Kossoff and Kirke excel under Stevens' unusual approaches, "Moonshine" is red light blues for purists and hard rockers. Koss catering for both factions on an early indication of his gifts. Rodgers, still sounding like a nervous schoolboy, attones by writing most of the material. Andy Fraser would have to wait another year or so before laying down his marker as musician and songwriter, at barely 16 though, he had done much to make men twice his age growl with jealousy. More confident than actually competent, Free's first album wins through on a punky vitality, although Guy Stevens wouldn't be around for future glory, he had introduced the lads to some badly needed studio discipline while snippets of quality would weave their way into something altogether more special before too long. The hype would soon pass and Free could settle down to more important things.

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    john.j.doyle@nuim.ie presents : Free 8 ( 1969 )
    I'll Be Creepin' / Songs Of Yesterday / Lying In The Sunshine / Trouble On Double Time / Mouthfull Of Grass / Woman / Free Me / Broad Daylight / Mourning Sad Morning.

    The birth of the classic Free sound. Chris Blackwell is now at the helm and introduces a live feeling to the recording sessions, from which the benefits are immediate. "Broad Daylight" was a commercial non event, but merges harmony and raw power to produce a mature rock sound, making much of the previous albums material seem close to obsolete. Fraser and Rodgers' songwriting axis heralds instant triumphs. "I'll Be Creepin'" is fantastically smooth, Koss warms to the challenge with a slightly distoted riff matched by the steady Charlie Watts feel of Simon Kirke's drumming. A lot of the American Soul scene, Wilson Pickett especially, were starting to take notice of Free, with Rodgers now a sharp alpha male figure having exploded from his shy and timid shell. "Mouthfull Of Grass", a semi-instrumental, showcased the underestimated harmonies of all 4 members, even Koss, although "Mourning Sad Morning" is possibly too experimental. Blues and hard rock are welcome by all means, flute laden sombre folk is not as easy to digest in the hands of Free. Then again, the favouritism shown to the piece by superior compilations puts this writer's views into a small minority.

    If it had been my decision, then "Woman" stands out as silky masterstroke. Paul Kossoff, his Les Paul, and Marshall (and sometimes Orange) stack are one of the greatest collective icons of British music, creating an intro possibly anybody could do, albeit nowhere near Koss. Alongside the opener it laid the path for a specialist boogie, where halls misty with sweat would demand every last dribble of emotion until the guys often ran out of material to play. Good times. And of course, a quick mention to Ron Rafaelli who really captured the imagination with one of the most lauded album covers of all time. It could've easily discommoded Free, with another Guy Stevens upstaging scenario working against them, this time with a second album under their belts, they were now equal to any challenge.

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    john.j.doyle@nuim.ie presents : Fire And Water 9 ( 1970 )
    Fire And Water / Oh I Wept / Remember / Heavy Load / Mr. Big / Don't Say You Love Me / All Right Now

    At a gig in the north of England a figure less than 50 had turned up to watch Free perform. Demoralised, the band discussed their future backstage, when tired of all the negativity, they began to craft "All Right Now" as a wildly optimistic response to the disaster they had just been part of. Now the jury is still out on this tale. Urban myth or actual fact, the story of how their most popular song emmerged does tell you that even in the darkest of times, Free's fighting spirit was never going to let their music be anything less than a full blown passionate culmination of 4 men tearing against many a seam, often each others'. Their 3rd album is also the last time there was any any kind of solid personal harmony between the quartet, as difficulties with recording affected technical matters, more so than personal relationships. Having problems with the mix, Island gave them a second chance to put matters right, and with the warning taken on board, Free's piece de resistance was ready for some serious exposure at the Isle Of Wight festival where they mingled with The Doors, Dylan, The Who, and Koss's hero Jimi Hendrix.

    "Mr. Big" works in both studio and live environments. Co-written by alll 4, everybody has a moment to shine particularly Andy Fraser. Jumping in between support and lead play, Fraser offers a mazy intricate piece, swirling in between chord changes and tempo breaks, his playing draws justifiable comparisons to James Jamerson. At the time of writing (September 2007), Andy is not in the best of health. Pay a visit to his website and offer your support. His anecdotes often match his fretboard alchemy, and it's good to keep in touch, after all, not all celebrities bite. That was a bit too much like Bob Hoskins wasn't it? Just say hello to Andy, trust me on that. Messers Rodgers and Kossoff rarely wrote together, "Oh I Wept" is one of those that transcended the rule, both men in confessional mode, Rodgers laments his "Silver Tears", Kossoff's notes wail for mercy into the "Sunshine Of Another Day". Absolutely endearing. "Heavy Load" is a moment of good judgement in the keyboard department, mostly piano led, a dark mid tempo document with Rodgers' deceptive lyrics of toil and woe standing out. "Don't Say You Love Me" is a ballad Otis Redding would have been proud to call his own.

    A welcome hit single finally arrived and the popularity of Free was starting to match early 1960s pop adoration. The title track, seething with venom and Kirke's thumping solo would often whisk a concert into a voodoo style frenzy and in August 1970 as they started to write new material, Free were being marketed as major league players. It's a worn out story that success destroys many bands. Free were to learn that in a cruel and hard way with Paul Kossoff's story the most heartbreaking of all. "Fire And Water" in that sense is a precipice from where an older and wiser Free could have taken healthier routes.

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    john.j.doyle@nuim.ie presents : Highway( 1968 )
    Highway Song / The Stealer / On My Way / Be My Friend / Sunny Day / Ride On A Pony / Love You So / Bodie / Soon I Will Be Gone

    "Highway" cleverly conceals the affairs of a band in crisis. They were in fact a band in name only, Kossoff's addictions were further fuelled by the death of Jimi Hendrix, Fraser and Rodgers' relationship was at rock bottom, only Simon Kirke really seemed interested in keeping the momentum together. An easy laid back introduction from "Highway Song" finds Rodgers interpreting Fraser's lyrics for a change, in a tale of humourous mishaps while working in a cornfield. "On My Way" sticks to the same nearly tranquillised routine. Nothing too amiss so far. Take the songs "Bodie" and "Sunny Day", a pair of ignored but potent punchers in the Free frontline, and you'll find Rodgers barely able to contain his abillity of masking fractured friendships behind external metaphors. "Bodie" tells the story of a simple country boy blinded by metropolitan lights, probably anyone from the Free inner sanctum but more than likely it's Kossoff, who himself was taking emotional refuge in songs like "Be My Friend" where he was making the most of the limited harmony. Another hint of irony is that folk flavoured tracks previously a no go area for Free, now seem to fit much more cosily, unfortunately the lack of domestic bliss wasn't doing their critcal prospects much in the way of favours.

    For those trying to avoid the internal troubles, the change in direction from strutting muscular blues rockers into country and folk tinged introspection does not mix particularly well. Commercial success was badly affected, some sources even trying to blame the admittedly simplistic album cover. It was all unravelling in the worst possible way, the music was being punished and gems like Simon's "Love You So", another area of refuge for Paul Kossoff were generally lost to the public at large. Just as many diehards have remained loyal to this troubled album as there have been dissenters. A brave display from the terminally ill outift, it's as good as anything any troubled band would have cobbled together in such circumstances. "The Stealer" remains the high point and helped many keep the faith in musicians who a few years earlier could do no wrong. Genre jumping aside, "Highway" has many inviting dimensions, all open to be explored in difficult circumstances.

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    john.j.doyle@nuim.ie presents : Free Live( 1971 )
    All Right Now, I'm A Mover, Be My Friend, Fire And Water, Ride On A Pony, Mr. Big, The Hunter, Get Where I Belong.

    Maybe the intention was to unveil a live album completely "warts n' all", in keeping with then current trends. It has to be argued that guitars cutting out due to dodgy cables, thus putting extra responsibllity on the bassist to plug the gaps, does overstep the mark somewhat. Free's U.K. apperances of 1970 realistically deserve better representation than this messy collection. Certainly studio trickery would destroy that obligotary rawness that all classic live albums have, on the flipside is that even taking the unavoidable aspects into consideration, live material from the same tours and wisely dispatched on latter CD re-issues puts the original executive decisions to shame. Recorded at the same time, "Moonshine", "Crossroads" and 1969's "Trouble On Double Time" were ommited from the original, and later surfaced on the fine 1986 collection "Blue Soul" as raw as rust, yet pristine. In a nutshell, they should have been included as part of a possible double set, with some subtle changes in the final mix to create the perfect Free concert souvenir.

    Yet a collection of songs from lads obviously exhausted and road weary surface here, rendering incomprehensible that a better result from the 1970 performances wasn't chosen. Hindsight is an abused phenomenon, testifiable with the now superior available version of "Free Live" bringing the final mark up by at least 3, in 1971 it wasn't quite that simple. A bright light is "Get Where I Belong", from the early 1971 studio sessions where only Simon Kirke was keeping the flame alive. A Country ballad, it's worthy of more dignity than the after-thought it obviously was here. Stick with the modern re-issue of "Free Live", it's a luxury record buyers in 1971 weren't so lucky to have.

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    john.j.doyle@nuim.ie presents : Free At Last 7 ( 1972 )
    Catch A Train, Soldier Boy, Magic Ship, Sail On, Travelling Man, Little Bit Of Love, Guardian Of The Universe, Child, Goodbye.

    Free disbanded in mid '71. Sick of each other's guts, they were equally unable to deal with the stardom which saw them deliver 5 albums in quick succession. Less than 6 months of solo projects, each varying in quality, but none too commercially productive, saw the foursome hastily re-unite. To the other three's credit, there was also genuine concerns for the wayward son Kossoff who was knocked senseless by the break-up and placed himself at the mercy of his dealers. As photos show, he was often struggling to even stand up straight and treat his Strat with some well earned respect. Politeness may dictate, but the truth is that hype was the only thoroughly substantial aspect of this thawing. Everything is just so tense, nearly all the songs stick to the chorus first, verses later routine, piano is saturated everywhere stifling Kossoff and Fraser, while Kirke sounds so bored he probably should have taken the wise decision to walk out before the midway point. Whether it's pre-meditated or not, Rodgers becomes the album's messiah, injecting punch into "Catch A Train", some smart ad-libbing on "Travelling Man", while his poetic alter-ego grows in stature with the acoustic cautionary tale "Child", "River casts aside the dust/And grows and grows/As it flows". Something the matter, Paul? He deserves praise though for putting his heart and soul into these tension cursed 36 minutes, his devotion to "Little Bit Of Love" saw another visit to the charts, nothing like the response of 2 long years earlier, but at least people found out Paul and co. were still hanging in there.

    Fraser was close to breaking point for quite a while by 1972, and shrewdly handed back his keys before too long, everyone had gone the extra mile to make it work, but secretly they knew better. Probably Koss as well, who soon joined Andy, pushed by a critical mix of ill health and emotional trauma. Rodgers and Kirke soldierded on with Koss's buddies Testu Yamauchi replacing Fraser and Rabbit Bundrick becoming Free's only official keyboardist. Rodgers himself become more reliable in taking over the lead guitarist role, if a lot less capable than Paul Kossoff, and roused by the positives gained on a reasonable Japanese tour, things seemed to look a little more harmonious for the unfamilliar looking Free.

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    john.j.doyle@nuim.ie presents : Heartbreaker( 1973 )
    Wishing Well, Come Together In The Morning, Travelling In Style, Heartbreaker, Muddy Water, Common Mortal Man, Easy On My Soul, Seven Angels

    After experiencing the kind of circumstances that would reduce a French Foreign Legion Sergeant Major to tears, a much depleted Free braved the elements to reach this criminally ignored finale. With all hell breaking loose, the wisdom of "Heartbreaker" is slightly unexpected amid the insanity. Rabbit takes Free to pastures new with the eerie "Common Mortal Man", huge production helps a band who have started to find a purpose again. Naturally Rodgers finds time for a psycho-analysis of Paul Kossoff's troubles with the popular "Wishing Well". Those troubles can be understood for many reasons, not least, the once driving pulse of Free now mocked with the status of a guest player, to the recognisable anger of many. In their clear skies prime, they searched for a career defining moment, a song that would make Free the envy of their critical peers. "Be My Friend", "Moonshine", "Heavy Load", and "Don't Say You Love Me" championed the cause, then in the final days came "Heartbreaker". Written by Rodgers, the group's masterpiece is a searing culmination of Yamachi's ascending/descending bass lines, Kirke's volatile rhythms and Koss defiant against his many demons, leading Rodgers' classic riff into the folklore of 3 genres, hard rock, Free's own brand of blues, and even shock horror, prog rock. At 6 minutes, 13 seconds, not a single note is wasted on frivolities.

    "Seven Angels" is so removed from anything on "Tons Of Sobs" it's actually frightening. Grinding electric guitar leads Paul Rodgers' exestential wonderings right through to a frantic close with Bundrick directing the chase as if more evidence was needed regarding the hope he brought to the withering dream. Testu Yamauchi never tries to replace Andy Fraser, let alone emulate him, hence the rhythm section finds a new definition where Kirke becomes a leader again, something he hadn't enjoed since 1968. "Come Together In The Morning" is a nocturnal piece of reflection with Koss's wailing lead breaks creating a mental picture of what the word "blue" means. A close runner to the title track for Free's creative pinnacle. It seems like they were breathing easily again with "Heartbreaker" allowing Free a sense of functionality and productivity they hadn't enjoyed since "Fire And Water", what a shame Rodgers carried some of the bullshit through, now picking on Bundrick where Fraser used to stand, leaving this fesity album to act as Free's "adios amigo, it's been sweet, hasn't it". Hell yeah.

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    Readers Comments

    Paul paulwatts@optushome.com.au
    While this album was a very good swansong indeed, the title track is not a patch on that which appeared on The Free Story (vinyl double LP), and which was criminally removed from that compilation to make it of suitable length for a single CD. The version here may be technically superior, but sounds slow and plodding by comparison. The Free Story version, apparently a live-in-studio recording, is rough around the edges, a tad screechy in its production and a little shorter at around 5.40, but is a performance of rare verve and passion, particularly Kossoff's guitar and Rodgers' vocals. Indeed, Kossoff shows himself to be the equal of any axeman in rock with this performance.

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    this page last updated 3/10/07

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