The year is 1968. Black Sabbath and Blue Oyster Cult were yet to form, whilst Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin were yet to produce landmark albums within the genres of Hard Rock and Heavy Metal. However, aside from these four bands, few had attempted to fuse the aggression of Hard Rock and the groove-laden rhythms of Blues, making a beautifully creative sound in the process. One of these bands were Free, who, with their first and perhaps most significant album, “Tons of Sobs”, successfully fused two of the most important genres of the late 60’s.
“Tons of Sobs” is arguably the only Free album that was truly inspired by Blues Rock, and it shows quite a lot when listening to each of the album’s ten songs. Although not released until early 1969, the album had already been recorded in late 1968, a time when the band weren’t even out of their teens, and were also only together as a band for six months. Interestingly enough, “Tons of Sobs” comprises a lot of the band’s original material from when they were jamming ideas together at numerous live shows, which perhaps paved the way for Free’s early success and popularity.
Perhaps the most stunning and noticeable thing about Free’s debut album is Paul Kosoff and his outstandingly superb guitar work. Kosoff died seven years after this album’s release, but at least he died in the knowledge that Free’s first few albums were largely assisted by his talent as a guitarist. Literally every song on “Tons of Sobs” features Kosoff playing guitar as excitably and precisely as humanly possible, no matter how fast or slow the songs themselves are. This guitar playing also helped to bring out the Hard Rock side to the album, the aggression and the heaviness perhaps offering inspiration for Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. In fact, just listen to the first albums of these aforementioned bands and tell me that you can’t hear a little bit of Free here and there.
What is perhaps more obvious in regards to the bluesier side of the album is the way in which Paul Rodgers sings. The best thing about Rodgers’ vocals is that he can adapt them to suit the nature of every song, providing various moods that, had this album been instrumental, wouldn’t have worked quite as well. The lyrical content here is mostly predictable for those who have listened to early Blues Rock before, yet Rodgers helps to bring them to life with his vocal abilities. On the haunting chants of “Ah Ah Ah Ah” on both parts to ‘Over the green Hills’, Rodgers begins with a dull vocal tone which gradually becomes higher and higher in pitch as the song progresses. The lyrics themselves are aptly written too, again, suiting the nature of every song perfectly. On the very quirky ‘Worry’, Rodgers uses his hauntingly mysterious voice and singing to the listener “And the sleeping streets have closed their tired eyes/The fear that creeps will move and slowly rise”, whereas on the more Blues inspired ‘Wild Indian Woman’, Rodgers appears to adopt a “sexier” tone when telling his love that “You don’t need your horses baby, you got me to ride/You don’t need your feathers, I’ll keep you warm inside”, which could easily have made the most stubborn young girls lick their lips with excitement.
Diversity is one of the things which dominates each of the songs on “Tons of Sobs”. This diversity is especially used in regards to the tone and tempo of each song. There are the faster paced tracks such as ‘Worry’, ‘Walk in my Shadow’ and the menacing ‘The Hunter’, the latter of which would be covered by Danzig almost thirty years later. There is also the groovier, more laid-back nature of the very aptly titled ‘Goin’ down slow’ and somewhat disturbing ‘Moonshine’, both of which leave a lot of room for Kosoff’s guitar work to come in and show off. The album’s title misleadingly refers to loss of love or songs based on romance and compassion, yet this couldn’t be farther from the truth. In fact, the only song that has so much as an ounce of melancholic melody in its sound is the sorrowful and seemingly Gothic ‘Moonshine’, but the more upbeat nature of ‘Over the green Hills’ and ‘I’m a Mover’ refer to things that a band has to go through when touring, such as travelling around the world and the more relaxing idea of driving by a countryside and smoking some of the “good stuff”.
The instrumentation here is indeed important to note, as alongside Kosoff’s skill as a guitarist, every other instrument appears to make itself prominent on the album. In particular the drum rhythms and bass work all manage to keep up with the guitar work and can also adapt to the tempo of each song, whereas Rodgers’ vocals, as mentioned before, never fail to suit the overall sound of each track. What is not as prominent as the other instruments however, is the piano itself. Whilst not as memorable or indeed noticeable as the other instruments, the piano still manages to make itself known here and there. The fast paced ‘Wild Indian Woman’ and relaxing ‘Goin’ down slow’ both feature excellent piano rhythms and interludes courtesy of Steve Miller, which also seem to flow alongside guitar solos and drum rhythms flawlessly.
Perhaps the only slightly negative thing about this album is the fact that ‘Over the green Hills’ is unnecessarily split into two parts, and when the first part (which strangely opens the album) finishes on a somewhat inconsistent note, it may appear annoying to some. But this still doesn’t take away from the fact that “Tons of Sobs” is a landmark album for two genres that would have been used to make heavier, faster and more menacing sounds by bands that originated in the same country as Free. If you really are interested in discovering the inspirations for bands such as Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin regarding their earlier albums, you would do quite well to seek out Free’s first few albums.
This debut album is certainly not the best that Free had to offer us, yet it is already competent and self-assured. Perhaps the biggest ‘technical’ difference of this record from the next ones is that Andy Fraser, the band’s main – but unobservable – creative genius, isn’t yet involved as heavily as he’d be supposed to. He only gets credited as co-writer with Paul Rodgers on two of the songs, while all of the other originals are solely Rodgers-credited. Worse, judging exclusively by this record, it is hard to guess that Fraser is actually a bass virtuoso; he only shines is maybe a couple of places, leaving Rodgers and Kossoff as the main heroes. Thus, a large part of Free’s uniqueness is missing here; Kossoff is a fine player, and he’s actually more brash and energetic here than on almost any other record, but that’s not to say his riffs and solos completely blow me away. He’s just professional and tasteful, that’s all.
Paul Rodgers is another story, though: his powerful vocal deliveries on the album show that he certainly found his voice and learned how to make the best of it way before the band was even formed. Sometimes loud, sometimes quiet, excellently modulated to fit the mood of the song, winding its way cleverly around the various obstacles… just a perfectly flowing voice. He’d be more “screaming” later on, but hasn’t your mother taught you that screaming isn’t everything?
As for the songs… well, what would you expect. These guys play blues-rock; I’m not gonna use oblique suggestions and slant insinuations and say that they offer us ‘a previously unimagined perspective on the most basic elements’ or something like that. This is just solid, self-assured blues-rock. [Haters of blues-rock all over the world now rise in indignation, slam the door behind them and proceed to listen to their Soft Machine and Throbbing Gristle collections out of violent protest.] Now that that’s settled, let me share this information with the rest of music lovers: this is a very good blues-rock album, and if it hadn’t been marred by a thoroughly generic, unnecessary eight-minute ramble (‘Goin’ Down Slow’), I’d have easily given it a nine. Don’t get me wrong – I have nothing against Rodgers and Kossoff hammering it out on a slow eight-minute groove, but slow lengthy blues only works in an ideal way when it’s performed by one of the absolute greats, maybe Eric Clapton on ‘Have You Ever Loved A Woman’ or ‘Sittin’ On Top Of The World’. Okay, gimme ‘Voodoo Chile’ over this at least.
Simply because, you know, they get it so much better on the faster, more compact numbers, that this one just sticks out like a half-sore thumb. Rodgers’ short acoustic ballad ‘Over The Green Hills’ makes a perfect introduction and conclusion for the album, and in between are stuffed all these redhot bluesy deliveries like, say, the majestic ‘Walk In My Shadow’, based on a mighty fine riff and featuring Rodgers at his very very best. Their cover of ‘The Hunter’ is also quite renowned, but my personal favourite is probably ‘Worry’, where everything just comes together: a grumbly fuzzy rhythm track, pretty accompanying piano lines, Kossoff’s usual frenzied guitar tone, and Rodgers’ ominous voice throwing out the lyrics: ‘If it’s the cold black night that’s eating up your heart…’.
Of course, Free’s take on blues-rock was always cocky, from the very beginning – how would we otherwise interpret lyrics like ‘You don’t need your horses baby, you got me to ride, you don’t need your feathers, I’ll keep you warm inside’ in ‘Wild Indian Woman’?
Fortunately, Free’s cockish attitude was never as blatantly obvious and ugly and unrestrained as Led Zeppelin’s, and Rodgers’ gutsy voice more than justifies it. How could we have vintage blues-rock without a hint of sexism if it’s blues-rock we’re talking about? Throw out the sexism and what you get is Renaissance! It’s the amount and proportions of sexism that matter, and in that respect, ‘Wild Indian Woman’ is far less offensive than even ‘All Right Now’.
Apart from ‘Goin’ Down Slow’, the obvious weakness of the record is that it doesn’t offer us that much diversity, of course; apart from all the bluesy originals and covers, and the short snippets of ‘Over The Green Hills’, the only thing that deviates from the formula is the slow dreary ballad ‘Moonshine’, and while it does pave the way to the hypnotic atmospheric masterpieces of Free (like ‘Free Me’ or ‘Mourning Sad Mourning’), it’s not particularly impressive by itself, much as Rodgers strains his voice to keep things interesting.
Still, what do you want from me? These guys have their own style; yes, it’s not yet fully developed, but at least it’s miles ahead of the purist blues approach of the early Fleetwood Mac, for instance. I really hate it when Brit bands were just making carbon copies of their blues influences; but if you try to add some flavour of your own, as in the case of Cream or Taste, for instance, this can easily work. And Free do have plenty of their own flavour. Should we complain? Nice songs, with constant signs of creativity all over them, good arrangements and singin’ – I don’t see why this one shouldn’t deserve at least an objective 10/15. I can’t call it a ‘blistering debut’, but I certainly heard worse debuts.