The Free Story: A review of the studio albums recorded by Free.

  Tons of Sobs (1969)

The title of Free’s first album ‘Tons Of Sobs’ is both a term for delta blues wailing and a cockney term for loads of money, which is ironic considering the album only cost about £800 to produce. It was recorded at Morgan Studios, London over five seperate days during October 1968 and was released in March 1969. It was delayed to enable the band to record a studio version of live favourite ‘The Hunter’. Originally the album was going to include the Fraser/Rodgers composition ‘Visions Of Hell’ which has since been released on the remastered version.

During the time of the recording Free were playing live shows continously up and down the UK and the album is pretty much based on the live set they were playing at the time. Rodgers, Fraser, Kossoff and Kirke had all been playing on the blues circuit for a while, despite their young age. None of them was yet twenty and although Fraser was still only sixteen he had already done a stint in John Mayall’s Bluesbreaker’s! So it is not surprising that ‘Tons Of Sobs’ is easily Free’s bluesiest album.

They didn’t waste any time getting down to business when it came to songwriting either. The very first rehearsal session, which was held in the upstairs room of the Nag’s Head public house in Battersea, saw the creation of the first original Free songs. Rodgers had already penned ‘Over The Green Hills’, a song which was originally a complete song in its own right until producer Guy Stevens decided it worked better as a split track opening and closing the album. ‘Walk In My Shadow’ and ‘Worry’ two of the albums harder rockier tracks had also been pre-penned by Rodgers and were accepted with enthusiasm by the other members. That initial rehearsal also saw the foundations being laid for the first Kossoff/Rodgers composition ‘Moonshine’, a dark and eerie track in which Rodgers sings about leaning on his own tombstone and waiting for the dawn. It is far more sinister lyric and vocal performance than any Rodgers would ever manage again and is in truth far more menacing than anything the current crop of goth rock bands could conjure up. It makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up in a way most of them could only dream of. The songwriting partnership of Andy Fraser and Paul Rodgers was responsible for the majority of Free’s material and they too composed their first song at that initial rehearsal in ‘I’m A Mover’. It was to remain a vital part of Free’s live show right up until the closing tour in 1973 and was the first instance of that classic Free sound which has been described elsewhere as ‘four flat tyres on a muddy road’. Whilst that doesn’t really do them justice, it sort of gives you an idea of the overall sound. Hard driving powerful blues with a prominent bass line, explosive drum fills and rich heartfelt vocals all topped off with Kossoff’s unique ‘crying’ guitar. Of the other tracks on the album, the aformentioned ‘The Hunter’  was the pre All Right Now live favourite and the studio version differs very little from the way it was played live except it may be a little slower. ‘Wild Indian Woman’ is probably the weakest song on the album but is still a fine tune. ‘Sweet Tooth’ gives a little hint of the more commercial side of Free that was to come along later with its catchy chorus. It also features some nice piano by Steve Miller. If you listen carefully you can tell that Rodgers was suffering from a cold during the recording of this particular song. Not that it lessens his performance. ‘Going Down Slow’ is a lengthy pure blues workout which probably formed the inspiration for later lengthy tracks such as ‘Mr Big’. Even so Rodgers didn’t record anything as pure blues again until his Muddy Water Blues album in 1993.

As opening albums go, I can’t think of a better one from such a young group of musicians. Yes there may have been the odd supergroup of established musicians who have put out a similarly impressive debut but this was virtually their first time in a recording studio. Almost forty years on the album still sounds fresh and exciting. The performances full of anticipation and excitement. It was a glorious time for British rock music with the likes of Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Uriah Heep all arriving on the scene. But Free may have recorded a better debut than all of them. It’s just a pity no-one noticed at the time.

  Free (1969)
Free returned to the studio in April 1969 to begin work on their second album and already there was trouble in the camp. Rodgers and Fraser had by now formed a pretty solid songwriting partnership although they were not exactly the best of buddies. This lead to Kossoff and Kirke feeling a little less than equal as both Rodgers and Fraser had very set ideas as to how they wanted the songs to sound. In fact things got so bad at one point that Rodgers and Fraser were going to leave the band and form a duo. Kirke and Kossoff actually auditioned Overend Watts from Mott The Hoople as Fraser’s replacement and Kossoff himself even auditioned for the vacant guitarist spots in both The Rolling Stones and Jethro Tull.

On to the album itself then. Well if “Tons of Sobs” was Free’s blues album then this self titled follow up was probably their folk album. Although Rodgers still insists it’s more of a soul album. The hard powerful blues that was all over the first album is still evident in places but is more controlled. If “Tons of Sobs” was a runaway horse  then “Free” is a restrained gallop.

The album opens with ‘I’ll Be Creepin” which with it’s funky and prominent bass starts the album off in tremendous style. Just to prove the longevity of these songs Rodgers used this track to open his set on his most recent solo tour. ‘Songs Of Yesterday’ has the blues feel of the earlier album and some great Kossoff guitar, but then which of these tracks hasn’t. ‘Lying In The Sunshine’ is a similar type of song to ‘Over The Green Hills’ from the first album but with more of a soul feel. ‘Trouble On Double Time’ is the out and out blues rocker of the album and is the only track on which Kossoff and Kirke get a songwriting credit. It has a Stones like strut about it. ‘Mouthful Of Grass’ closed the first side on the original vinyl issue. Virtually an instrumental with just a choir of aaah’s it is a strangely hypnotic sort of song. It is also possibly one of the Free songs owned by the most people as it was used as the b-side to ‘All Right Now’. ‘Woman’ is classic Free at their best with a nice understated intro and a great early solo from Kossoff. It was particularly effective in a live setting and is as good as anything they ever recorded. Highlight for many is the lengthy almost whispering laid back folky blues track ‘Free Me’. On the live disc which comes as part of the “Songs Of Yesterday” 5-CD box set Kirke introduces this song as “….. one of our favourites actually”. It is not difficult to tell why as all put in faultless performances. Kossoff in particular pulling of one of his trademark crying solo’s. At at time when everyone was trying to be the fastest guitarist alive it is ironic that Kossoff was beginning to attract attention by doing exactly the opposite. ‘Broad Daylight’ was a bit of a throwaway song that wouldn’t have been out of place on the first album and was the first single issued by the band. ‘I’ll be Creepin’ was later released as a single but neither charted. The closing track ‘Mourning Sad Morning’ is an absolutely stunning piece of music that once again highlights Rodgers superb voice. Sounding in places like a two hundred year old folk song the unique mixture of Rodgers’ voice, Kossoff’s guitar and the haunting flute of Traffic’s Chris Wood closes the album on a melancholy but beautiful note.

It is also worth mentioning the album cover as it is one that regularly appears in classic album art coffee table books. It was designed by Ron Raffielli and is a photograph of a naked woman shot from below. This effect was obtained by Raffieli standing in a hole and having the woman stride over him. The outline of her body was then filled with stars and set against a blue sky background. The centre spread of the album featured a picture of a young woman on a beach with building blocks! Each member of the band was photographed in one of the boxes. The box which displayed the photo of Paul Rodgers was being held by the girl up to her mouth and she is blowing sand of it. One of the other members of the band later commented “Typical, the one the girl had hold of had to have Rodgers in it ……”

“Free” peaked at #22 in the UK chart which was not bad at all considering there was no hit single and not exactly masses of publicity. All that would change though in 1970 with two more classic albums, a worldwide hit and a tremendous performance at the Isle Of Wight Festival. Superstardom was indeed due to come creeping around the door very soon indeed.

  Fire and Water (1970)
By the time Free recorded their third album ‘Fire And Water’ two years of solid gigging and two excellent albums had seen them develop their own unique sound. In an earlier review I mentioned how that sound was once described as “four flat tyres on a muddy road”. Nowhere is that sound more evident than on ‘Fire And Water’ although I personally prefer the other description which is again most apt for this release “less is more”.

Free had been disappointed with the production on their second album and never being ones to beat around the bush had told Island boss Chris Blackwell exactly that. They had also told him they intended to produce their next album themselves. Perhaps surprisingly, and maybe in retrospect unwisely Blackwell let them. Whereas the first two albums had been recorded in only a few days of studio time the sessions for ‘Fire And Water’ took considerably longer. Fed up with months of 20 hour days and constant bickering engineer Andy Johns declared himself on the verge of a breakdown and withdrew from the project. His replacement Roy Thomas Baker would go on to achieve great things with Queen but at the time he was a total unknown.

There quite honestly isn’t a bad track on ‘Fire And Water’ and incredibly every single track was played live at some point in the next year or so. The title track is certainly one of Free’s best songs from the instantly recognisable introduction right through to the mini drum solo at the end. Paul Rodgers claimed to have had Wilson Pickett in mind when he wrote it. Strangely enough Pickett recorded his own version a short while later. ‘Oh I Wept’ is a very sad and gloomy song which would not have been out of place on the previous album. ‘Remember’ started life as a track called ‘Woman By The Sea’ way back on the sessions for the first album and is a clear example of how the “Free Sound” had been developed. ‘Heavy Load’ is another very sad and gloomy song with a an old blues style lyric and a very prominent piano. Something which Free would develop even more on the follow up album. ‘Mr Big’ is another lengthy blues influenced jam with Rodgers sounding menacing as he threatens over a superb driving rhythm from Fraser and Kirke and classic Kossoff guitar. This one would build to a real crescendo in a live setting. On many an occasion being the highlight of the show. ‘Don’t Say You Love Me’ is a chance for Rodgers to shine and features a really soulfull vocal over a steady bluesy rhythm. It is quite possibly the type of sound they wanted for the “Free” album as it is far more rough around the edges than the similar track ‘Free Me’ from that album. ‘All Right Now’ ends the album on a rare cheery upbeat note and if you need me to say anything about it at all then I can only assume you have been living on another planet for the last 30 or 40 years.

This is without doubt one of the best blues rock albums ever released. If you are in any way interested in blues or classic rock music as they tend to call it these days you really can not afford not to hear this album. Yes the original production is a little muddy at times, the remaster is worth getting just for the stereo remix of the title track, but it’s still a five star classic.

  Highway (1970)
Such was the way of the music industry in 1970 that Free were back in the studio on August 21st barely a few months after the release of the “Fire and Water” album to begin recording the follow up “Highway”.

Through the first three albums they had built up a solid reputation as a hard working solid blues rock band. For each of these albums the songs had been written and honed on the road, so much so that the entire previous album was played live at some point or another in the year of its release. That wasn’t the case with “Highway” though and for the first time the band were forced to write in the studio. The irony of this is that the recording of the second and third albums had been frought with difficulties as the band disagreed with record company people and producers alike despite having the material all prepared. “Highway” though had none of these problems and was generally regarded by the band as the easiest to record.

There is a marked change in styles again on “Highway”. Just as “Tons of Sobs” had been very bluesy, “Free” very folky (even though Paul Rodgers claimed it to be a soul album) and “Fire and Water” very rocky, “Highway” was drenched in melancholy, soul and even tinges of country and southern boogie. With far more piano than on previous albums “Highway” is certainly the softest of the Free albums although this does give added punch to the harder Free rockers on there.

The album starts with the curious ‘The Highway Song’. Curious in subject matter anyway,  for you don’t get many rock songs about farming. Okay so its only loosely based on farming but you get my point. A nice mid paced piano and drum shuffle it sets the tone for the album and casts thoughts of lazy summer days. The idea behing the song is said to have come from Rodgers’ love of “Music From The Big Pink” by The Band.

‘The Stealer’ was the single and supposed successor to ‘All Right Now’ and is one of the two real out and out rockers on the album. A great strutting peice of classic Free it is still a mystery to many as to why it bombed so terribly as a single. Lyrically it is not dis-similar to ‘All Right Now’ but it does lack the latters trademark solo and bridge so is musically inferior. Which makes the decision to use the single edit on the album even more surprising. There is a great “extra Koss” version which is now available which extends the song by over a minute and is virtually all Kossoff guitar. Quite why this wasn’t used at the time is beyond me. Incidentally when this was recorded, on first take at 3AM in the morning engineer Andy Johns woke Island boss Chris Blackwell and demanded he come and listen to it straight away as it was a surefire hit. Luckily for Johns Blackwell agreed with him, unluckily for Free the record buying public didn’t and it never even charted.

‘On My Way’ is a lovely mellow track which is a great vehicle for Rodgers’ voice and the Kossoff guitar. It leads perfectly into ‘Be My Friend’ a beautiful brooding cry for love which Kossoff maintained was the best thing they ever did. There is far more guitar on the live versions due to the lack of piano in a live setting (Andy Fraser played bass and piano in the studio) but Kossoff still turns in an impressive performance especially as the song builds. ‘Sunny Day’ though is possibly one of the two weaker cuts on the album along with the even more countrified ‘Bodie’.

The second out and out rocker on the album is ‘Ride on a Pony’. A dirty classic Free riff that just leaps out of the speakers and grabs you by the throat. The song just stuts along throughout its entirety. Nowhere else is the description of Free’s sound as “four flat tyres on a muddy road more apt”. It has long been my favourite Free song, is still my ringtone on my phone and once led to me sacking a guitarist on the spot for declaring it boring and refusing to play it as an encore !!! One strange little thing about the song is that no-one seems to actually have the definative answer as to what it is really called. It has appeared and been introduced live as ‘Ride on a Pony’, ‘Riding on a Pony’ and ‘Ride on Pony’. ‘Riding on a Pony’ would be the obvious choice as those are the actual lyrics but the original album used ‘Ride on a Pony’ and the “Free Live” album used ‘Ride on Pony’. Fact of the matter is whatever you call it its one blinding rock tune and along with ‘Be My Friend’ became a staple part of the live set even before the album was released.

Two more brooding bluesy love songs with soul tinged vocals make up the album. The tremendously melancholy and heartfelt plea of ‘Love You So’ which will doubtless trigger many a personal memory in every listener and the lonely despair of ‘Soon I Will Be Gone’ which closes the album.

For some reason “Highway” did not reach the dizzy heights of its predecessor sales wise and it has become something of Free’s forgotten album. For me at times I think it is their best. Sometimes “Fire and Water” just edges it. Whatever, one thing for certain is that never again will a band record and release two such classic albums in the same year. By the time “Highway” hit the streets Free were fast disintegrating as Rodgers, Kossoff, Fraser and Kirke developed as musicians and men, they were all still ridiculously young at the time. However there was still many a twist and turn for those flat tyres to negotiate on that muddy road.

  Free At Last (1972)
After splitting briefly in 1971 Free reformed at the end of the year and soon after the Christmas and New Year period found themselves once again in the familiar environs of the Island Recording Studios in Basing Street, London.

Much has been written about the way this all came to pass so I won’t elaborate too much here. But basically a mixture of the disappointing reaction to “Highway”. Internal feuds between Rodgers and Fraser, Rodgers and Kossoff, and Kossoff and Fraser added to Kossoffs increasing dependency on, and inability to perform because of, illegal substances meant that the band literally fell apart shortly before it would have torn itself apart. The time away from Free did little to help Kossoff, despite the fact that his and Kirke’s splinter group the unimaginatively monikered Kossoff Kirke Tetsu and Rabbit were the only ones to record an album. It has been suggested that in truth he never recovered from the death of close friend Jimi Hendrix during the “Highway” sessions.

In a spirit of reconcilliation Rodgers and Fraser the groups main songwriters brought with them the unfinished tracks from their respective splinter projects Peace and Toby (the naming of bands does not appear to be one of the individual members talents although credit to Kirke for coming up with Bad Company some years later !) and agreed that all tracks would be published as group compositions. This was very much a first for Free and was something that Rodgers never did again throughout Bad Company, The Firm or The Law. Only doing it again on the Queen+Paul Rodgers collaboration.

The albums title was initially going to be the name of the band way back in the beginning and was coined by Alexis Korner their early mentor.

Yet again “Free at Last” sees the band developing a slightly different sound. Fraser had developed significantly as a piano and organ player and his playing is much more evident and more to the fore than on previous albums. That doesn’t mean there is less Kossoff though. His playing is far more brooding, dark and mysterious than on the early albums. The Gibson literally wails and shrieks in agony and pain through tracks like ‘Child’ , ‘Guardian of the Universe’, ‘Magic Ship’ ,’Soldier Boy’, ‘Sail On’ and ‘Goodbye’. Even on the more upbeat and faster paced numbers like ‘Little Bit of Love’ which gave them another UK Top Twenty single, ‘Travelling Man’ and ‘Catch A Train’ the mellow cry of his earlier sound is replaced with a much more agonised tone. All this gives “Free at Last” a much fuller sound than the earlier albums. There is also a fair bit of mellotron on the album as well as some acoustic guitar from Rodgers. More of the gaps have been filled here than on the early albums but without losing that classic Free sound.

Lyrically the album is very dark and gloomy too which was to be expected I suppose given the circumstances that led to their conception. Fraser had actually kidnapped Kossoff during the split to get him away from his drug related associates. At the time many people heard the lyrics as pleas to Kossoff to sort himself out although Rodgers has always maintained this was not, at least intentionally, the case.

“Free at Last” is very much Free’s grown up album. At times it resembles the majestic cry of a dying beast. It is drenched in emotion, melancholy and darkness far more than any other Free album yet it also shows shafts of light and a hint at what could have been had the demons that took over Kossoff been slain. Only Free could take one song (‘Child’) and fill it full of sorrow and optimism at the same time. Make no mistake these were musicians and songwriters whose creative talents were at their peak. Lyrically this album may be Rodgers’ finest hour.

Sadly it all fell apart again as quickly as it had been put back together. Kossoff was unable to play on numerous occasions and tours and gigs being cancelled was a regular occurrence. On other nights Kossoffs playing was a sorry sight by all accounts and yet in typical Free fashion there were still some nights when it all sounded as good as it had done just a year or two earlier.

Despite the album selling well and reaching #9 in the UK album chart Fraser decided he couldn’t take anymore and jumped ship for one final time before an American tour. Tetsu and Rabbit were recruited but Kossoff was left at home to undergo the neuro-electric therapy, which had worked for Eric Clapton and Peter Green, leaving Rodgers to take over guitar duties.

It looked all but over for the band that just a year or so earlier had been widely touted as the successors to The Rolling Stones but there was still one last turn to take on that muddy road even if the road was getting rockier by the day.

  Heartbreaker (1973)
The reformation of Free in late 1971 had not exactly gone to plan. The plan such as it was was to get the old Kossoff back and help kill the demons that tortured his soul before they killed him. There is an argument that all it actually did was to make things worse but that does not give credit to Rodgers, Kirke and Fraser for their intention was only good.

Despite recording a brilliant and brooding album in “Free at Last” the venture had turned to disaster before the hit single ‘Little Bit of Love’ even had chance to slide down the chart. Cancelled gigs and tours, internal friction and turmoil all led to Fraser quitting and Kossoff being regularly sidelined. Texan keyboard wizard Rabbit Bundrick  and Japanese bass player Tetsu Yamauchi were drafted in. Suddenly Free had been transformed from four hungry ambitious lads from England into a multi national ego filled volcano of Vesuvian proportions. Or as someone remarked at the time “The Paul Rodgers Band”. That though is a little unfair on Rodgers who had been in something of a power struggle with Fraser since day one and quite rightfully saw himself as Free’s leader with Frasergone. Kirke had never been one for taking charge, he’s too laid back for a start and Kossoff of course was in no fit state to take charge of anything.

However, Bundrick had different ideas entirely and never one to hide his light under a bushell demanded creative input ……. he was a member of the band not a session musician. This led to a great deal of friction between him and Rodgers so much so that proper fist fights were a regular occurrence. Bundrick has even stated that he spent much of the US tour tending his wounds. Not something you would expect from a band constantly writing about peace and love but these were sad times for Rodgers and Kirke. The sad fact of the matter is that if Rodgers and Bundrick could have sorted their differences out they could have been anything as Bundricks organ sound fitted perfectly with Rodgers’ voice. Similarly Rodgers sang Bundrick’s songs far better than anyone else ever has (‘Muddy Water’ for example).

Kossoff meanwhile was plummeting new depths and eventually Rodgers could take it no more and brought in Snuffy Walden as the bands new guitarist. He also played much of the guitar on the album himself. Kossoff was only used when he was in a fit state to play so subsequently only appears on five of the eight tracks. The decision to relegate him to that of a session musician and not a member of the band was surely unnecessary though and in retrospect I’m sure it is something that everyone involved in the decision regrets. Especially as some of his playing on the album is as good as anything he ever laid down on tape. Case in point being the superbly atmospheric and heartbreaking solo on ‘Come Together In The Morning’.

The album kicks off with Free’s final hit ‘Wishing Well’. A classic rock riff that sounds as fresh today as it did back then was written by Rodgers but in a similar show of unity as he had displayed on “Free at Last” he gave it to the band and it was published as a group composition …… including Kossoff, even though he played no part on the final released version. He did however appear on the US version and on later remixes that have been made available recently.

The rest of the album features four solo Rodgers compositions ‘Come Together In The Morning’, clearly the albums highlight despite the presence of ‘Wishing Well’. The bluesy and menacing title track during which Rodgers’ cries of “make a new start” are more than prophetic as this album is as much an introduction to Bad Company as it is a farewell to Free. Incidentally it was hearing this track that made Ritchie Blackmore adamant he wanted Rodgers to replace Ian Gillan in Deep Purple. The soulful lapsed Catholic torment of fighting through pergatory that was ‘Seven Angels’ all of which featured classic Kossoff performances and the piano led gentleness of ‘Easy on my Soul’, a track which Bad Company would later re record as a B side.

The second single ‘Travelling In Style’ was a camp fire singalong song about travelling on a train which was again credited to the band as a whole although it bears all the hallmarks of a Rodgers composition.

The remaining two songs ‘Common Mortal Man’ and ‘Muddy Water’ were solo Bundrick compositions and highlight eactly just how good this incarnation of the band could have been if Kossoff had been fit. Obviously hammond and piano led they fit Rodgers’ voice perfectly and the former features some more classic crying Kossoff guitar.

The accompnaying tours were a disaster. Snuffy Walden was unavailable and Kossoff was indisposed so Rodgers handled guitar until eventually Wendell Richardson from Osibisa was drafted in. A strange choice that frankly was doomed from the start. Free fell apart in chaos. It all ended at the Hollywood Sportatorium in Florida on February 17th 1973.

Rodgers and Kirke formed Bad Company a stadium sized version of Free that stode American like a collossus througout the seventies. Bundrick went to The Who, Tetsu to The Faces. Kossoff put together Back Street Crawler but just as they were gaining some recognition he succumbed to the demons and drifted away forever on a plane flight to New York on March 19th 1976.

“Heartbreaker” may just be the most apt title for an album ever but it remains a testament to one of Britains finest rock/blues bands and despite all that went on around its creation it is worthy of the name Free on the cover. I just wish someone had had the decency to restore Kossoff to the band line up on the recent remasters for even though it was his failings that led to the demise of the band his talent and uniqueness as a guitarist has done as much to ensure they we will never be forgotten as anyone.

(C. Martin Leedham All originally published on RYM in January 2008 and October 2010 )

About Martin Leedham

Music critic, Horse Racing Tipster, Hapless Dreamer, Defender of the Underdog
This entry was posted in Album Reviews, Classic Rock, Free, Music, Music Reviews, Rock, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Free Story: A review of the studio albums recorded by Free.

  1. Great read Martin. A friend forwarded me this blog as we were questioning the venue of a photo I took of Paul Rodgers. The slide mount was dated Feb 73, but I had long forgotten the south Florida venue. I knew it was near the end of “Free” but am thankful for your reference to their final gig at the Hollywood Sportatorium. Mystery solved. Cheers Jon.
    The photo:

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