Preceded by their debut “Tons Of Sobs” (recorded in October and December 1968, released in March 1969) and their 2nd album “Free” (recorded in April and June, released in October 1969), Free’s third landmark LP “Fire And Water” was delivered to an expectant public in all its 7-track simplicity and glory on 26th of June 1970 as Island ILPS 9120. Prepped by the edited single of “All Right Now” in May 1970 (Island WIP 6082), which raced up to number 2 in the charts, the album delivered what the public seemed to already know – here was a truly great British band hitting its stride.
This is the 3rd CD incarnation of the original LP, a 1986 crappy non-remaster, a far better 2001 Remaster with 6 bonus tracks – and now this – a 30-Track 2CD Deluxe Edition issued on 18 March 2008. For fans who already own the 2001 remaster and probably also have the 4CD “Songs Of Yesterday” Box set that went before it in May 2000, for all its comprehensiveness, this 2CD set offers only 5 Previously Unreleased Tracks. So if you can buy the 2001 remaster for a fiver or less anywhere, why pay £15 for this 2CD set – the answer is threefold – the packaging, the extras (4 out of 5 of them are actually great) and above all – the sound – which is the best ever. Here’s the breakdown…
The booklet contains black & white photos, reproduction of concert tickets, press adverts, in the studio colour photos and a detailed history of the albums path to number 3 in the UK charts in July 1970. The CDs themselves reflect the original `Pink’ Island label design on 1st pressings of the LP and the original master tape boxes are pictured underneath the two see-through trays – a nice touch on both counts.
There are five previously unreleased versions:
Track 9, Disc 1: “Mr Big”, from the BBC’s John Peel Show, recorded 15 Jan 1971
(very disappointing, not a great recording, with really muddy sound; it’s easy to see why it’s been left off previous releases)
Track 7, Disc 2: “Fire And Water” (Backing Track)
(a really interesting `work in progress’ from February 1970 mixed in 1999, Take 5 contains studio chatter at the beginning and then the band working nicely through the backing track – Kirke’s drumming fantastic, but it ends oddly and abruptly)
Tracks 11, 12 and 13, Disc 2: “All Right Now” (Takes 1, 2 and 3)
All three takes were recorded as part of filmed promotional shorts for “All Right Now” and “The Stealer” in October 1970. Instead of miming, the band played live (the two videos turn up on the “Free Forever” DVD set) and these `live’ takes are superb and genuinely deserve the moniker `bonus tracks” – they even include the squeaking of Simon Kirke’s drum stool! Fans will have to have these.
Even though the outside packaging seems to be saying that the remaster is ‘new’, the 20-page booklet confusingly states that the remaster used is the 2001 one done by Peter Mew at Abbey Road – the same as the single disc that’s been on the market for years? But the sound on this release is different – it’s far better.
Free were a `loud’ band and the recordings at the 8-track Trident Studios reflected their hairy-arsed live rock band nature – in other words the recorded results were not exactly going to win audiophile gongs. The tapes were then remixed onto the 16-track facility at Island’s new studio in Basing Street. But even then, Chris Blackwell, label founder and leader, hated the results. So more mixing was done. But even to this day, the further mixing and remixing before the album was finally released still gave us a less than great sonic result. I mention all of this because the liner notes to this release talk of major audio restoration having gone into the 1999 and 2001 remastering process – and now again on this 2008 version – and man can you hear it!
Take Side 2 of the original album, “Mr Big”, “Don’t Say You Love Me” and “All Right Now” – when I A/B the sound on my 2001 issue to this 2008 issue, the huge difference is the removal of `almost’ all of the hiss that was omnipresent on the 2001 remaster which marred the listen enormously. The result is that instead of being saturated in a rough and ready hissy wall, the band suddenly explodes out of the speakers with an intensity that will thrill fans to their very core! I would describe it like this – it’s as if I’m listening to the full power of Free for the first time. With this new clarity, the opening and eventual build up in “Mr Big” to a guitar crescendo has to be heard to be believed! It’s enormous and just awesome to hear! The beautiful “Don’t Say You Love Me” is truly gorgeous now, especially when the lovely piano addition comes in, while the fantastic anthem that is “All Right Now” has you hearing Kossoff’s plectrum scratching off the pick-ups – little guitar flicks before he goes into the big riff, the clarity of Fraser’s bass work and other nuances that I’ve just never heard before. Don’t get me wrong, there is `hiss’ on these recordings, but the removal of even half of it has made the band come alive to my ears. Wonderful stuff!
To sum up, “Fire And Water” is a great album, and this Deluxe Edition of it gives the great record a stunning sonic upgrade. Throw in all the live versions and alternate takes around its release, decent liner notes and packaging, all topped off with 4 out of the 5 previously unreleased tracks actually worth owning – then indeed you have something special.
There have been some stunning issues in Universal’s Deluxe Edition series (check out the Whiskeytown “Strangers Almanac” double) and this is another. Regardless of the price, Free fans will have to own it, and the uninitiated can discover why Britain and the world went mad for the Free and their `rawk’. What a band!
“Fire and Water” is quite an apt title for Free’s third and arguably most successful album. Firstly, it is closed by one of the band’s most well known and instantly recognizable tracks, ‘All right Now’, and secondly-and more importantly-it is the only Free album to have ever been reissued in America. Free’s third album was released after a mere two years of being together as a band, and in that time there had been quite a lot of extensive touring and two albums that seemed completely different from one another.
In contrast to the startlingly impressive debut “Tons of Sobs” and the mellower, somewhat quieter self-titled second release, “Fire and Water” almost seems to live up to its name, wherein no track sounds like any other. These 30+ minutes of precise songwriting and even more precise musicianship do indeed work towards an outstandingly good sound on the whole, and one that would finally deem Free as a successful band in the early 70’s. Both the opening title track and ‘Oh I wept’ appear to be mid paced all the way through, but before you shake your head in disappointment as a result of expecting something a little faster and livelier, Kosoff’s well executed guitar picking and Andy Fraser’s driving bass rhythm each give more action to the general sound of each song. It also seems that with each and every song, the musicianship does indeed get gradually faster and more prominent, from the relaxing, laid back nature of the title track and ‘Oh I wept’ to the the eventual, almost out-of-control instrumentation that ends both ‘Mr. Big’ and the band’s defining song, ‘All right now’.
The structure here does appear to be more thought out than ever before, but what is more noticeable is the nature of the lyrical content, which this time round appears a little more personal than usual. In particular Rodgers comes across as a man just taking his sweet time with his own life, harmonizing that “I take my seat on the train and let the sun come melt my pain/Come tomorrow I’ll be far away in the sunshine of another day”, whereas on the lighter, somewhat folkier nature of ‘Remember’, he reminisces that “In the summer days we were lazy/And sometimes the heat would drive us all crazy”. These lyrics alone give off a realistic image of what it is truly like to tour in the summer, and the various enjoyments that can be obtained from it. Free therefore sound like they are having fun as a band on “Fire and Water”, taking their time with each song so as not to be too inconsistent with their sound or indeed not fall prey to too much repetition.
The instrumentation here, as hinted at before with Kosoff and Fraser, is equally as impressive as the general sound itself. The usual drum rhythms and bass lines are prominent, but this time round each instrument appears to shine fully and make itself useful in an appropriately big enough way, as opposed to merely existing in the background. On ‘Heavy Load’ and ‘Mr.Big’ we hear a much louder and arguably heavier guitar sound than on the album’s first three tracks, thus giving the album more of a Hard Rock influence as opposed to the first two Free albums, which largely depended on Blues. The solos themselves are very carefully placed, and never seem to take away from any of the songs’ structures or make the songs go on for longer than they should. The guitar solos are somewhat controlled and clearly played with a lot of technique, and even towards the end of ‘Mr.Big’ Fraser uses the remaining time to his advantage and closes the song in a somewhat funky fashion, the bass almost sounding like a voice itself. Fraser also uses various piano interludes throughout the album, as on free’s other two records, yet it is only on ‘All right now’ when, alongside the other instruments, it features an ecstatic solo that makes the song a much more interesting one than ever before. ‘All right now’ also has one of the very rare moments where each and every instrument collides together, and gives off the impression that the band had recorded this in one, perfect take.
At a mere 36 minutes however, the album feels like it goes much quicker than you thought it would, and even though it is roughly the same time length as Free’s self titled album, it still manages to be quite short and at times even a little too soft. But this is merely something that serves as a disadvantage to some, and an instant highlight to others, for “Fire and Water” really does come across as an album of fun, enjoyment and a collision of four very talented musicians. Unfortunately, the band had only released three more albums after this, and not one of them would reach the quality found on “Tons of Sobs” or this one, and consequently, after a mere five years of being together, Free would finally split up. Nonetheless, these five years would see them sell a total of 20 million records, a stunning live performance at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival and even play over 700 arenas. Sometimes the bands that last for a short term are the ones that truly succeed in the long term.
Review This is an imported 5 cd anthology which summarizes the career of the British band Free.
The first three discs contain remastered versions (excellent sound), alternate takes, non-lp tracks and unissued tracks from their career. The fourth disc contains alternate versions and unissued tracks from their live album. The last disc summarizes the solo career of the members of the band.
The booklet is excellent with many pictures, chart information and other useful information about the band. Free was unjustly overshadowed by bluesy vocalist Paul Rodgers’ and drummer Simon Kirke’s later band Bad Company. I find this band much more interesting.
While the material is less commercial than their later work with Bad Company, this material is delivered with more feeling. The late guitarist Paul Kossoff with his impressive blues laden vibrato attack was highly influential. Ex-John Mayall bass player Andy Fraser was an excellent musician, witness “Mr. Big” for an example. This song along with the anthem “All Right Now” and “Wishing Well” are probably the band’s most requested songs.
Some of my favorites include “I’ll Be Creepin'”, “Broad Daylight”, “The Stealer”, and “Little Bit Of Love” among many others. Free was reportedly a big influence on Lynyrd Skynyrd. The band pretty much burned out with the departures of Paul Kossoff and Rodgers’ song writing partner Andy Fraser.
One album was released after they departed. The band played such festivals as the Isle Of Wight during their halcyon days. It may be useful to compare this set with the domestic 2 cd anthology “Molten Gold”. While this set is much more comprehensive “Molten Gold” does contain some tracks which are not on the “Songs Of Yesterday” box set. Excellent songs such as a cover of Albert King’s “The Hunter”, the great instrumental “Mouthful Of Grass” and “Catch A Train” among others are included on the “Molten Gold” anthology but not the “Songs Of Yesterday” anthology.
Some of the cuts on the “Songs Of Yesterday” box set appear only in alternate versions while the original versions appear on the 2 cd “Molten Gold”. However, this comparison aside I recommend the “Songs Of Yesterday” box set to long time fans of the band like myself or novices alike. The price is worth every penny for the rare tracks and alternate takes as well as the remastering and booklet. If you are on a limited budget as least invest in the “Molten Gold” 2 disc set you will be converted.
Review Many reviewers have said that Led Zeppelin had it all and, to a certain extent, they did. But for me, Free were the band that was masterful in every tempo of song – whether it be the straight blues rocker or the ballad. Not that this review is about comparing Led Zeppelin and Free, but even though Robert Plant was competent at ballads, he could never touch you the way Paul Rodgers did.
My inroduction to Free occurred one night I was going through my record colection and, quite bizzarely, one of my dad’s tapes was in my collection.
This album happened to be “The Free Story”. Almost immediately, I was hooked and subsequently I now own seveal Free albums, including this one. Cd’s 1-3 chronicle a journey through all six Free studio albums with alternate takes, alternate mixes, singles masters, stereo mixes and unreleased recordings. Cd 4 is unreleased live recordings from shows they had done in Sunderland and Croydon in England. This, for me, is the highlight of the box set as it demonstrates the unequivocal talent of Free; one can almost feel how much of a tight unit they were on this disc.
While many of Free’s contemporaries ( Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath ) bludgeoned their audiences with sheer volume, Free mesmerised their audience by laying back; even their heavier songs groove more than they rock. Not one bad song on offer on this disc, my personal favourites are : “Ride On A Pony”; “Be My Friend” ( beautiful singing ); “I’ll Be Creepin'” ( unstoppably groovy ); “Free Me” ( about 3 minutes into this song you’ll hear what has to be the most powerful rock singing ever – a volcano of raw emotion ); “All Right Now” ( of course! ); “Crossroads”.
This is unquestionably the best live cd you are likely to hear in a long time. ( Incidentally, the sound is immaculate as is the whole of the box set, owing to state-of-the-art technology. )Cd 5 is various recordings that the individual members of Free created during the band’s couple of break-ups which occured during 1971 and 72. During these break-ups Paul Rodgers formed “Peace”; Simon Kirke and Paul Kossof formed “KKTR”; Andy Fraser formed “Toby”. I have to say although this is competent enough, it is the weakest of all the 5 discs – the musicianship and emotional zest of the Free ensemble is absent and you feel that they needed each other, as they complemented each other pefectly.
Overall, this is an exciting journey through the Free legacy – refreshing with a phenomenal sound on each disc. It’s pristinely packaged and the 60 page colour booklet is intelligently compiled. Free were the most charismatic, talented band to grace the planet… ever!!
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.
Gee, what a nice collection of songs… I actually hated it first time around, but this is one Free album that really grows on you, unlike most of the others.
Just one thing, though, that I don’t understand nohow, is what the hell made people classify Free as a ‘hard rock’ band. Out of the nine tunes here, three are folkish acoustic ditties, two or three more are moderate blues rockers, and then there are a couple really ‘weird’ numbers thrown in, like ‘Songs Of Yesterday’ and ‘Free Me’. Just because a band records a couple hard rock classics like ‘All Right Now’ doesn’t mean it’s “hard-rocking”. This is their most consistent and enjoyable album, and there’s maybe, like ten or fifteen seconds of hard rock on the whole album, for Chrissake! But it’s still really good, anyway.
Paul Rodgers is the star on this album, reveling in its overall gloomy, creepy atmosphere, whether it be the mid-tempo blues numbers or the dreary, dragging along acoustic stuff. The way the record opens, with those ominous wah-wah notes and Andy Fraser’s famous bass riffing on ‘I’ll Be Creepin’, shows you you’re in for an ‘evil’ record – of course, just a moderately evil record, after all, these guys were no Black Sabbath, so calm down! More gritty blue-rock can be found on ‘Woman’ and ‘Trouble On Double Time’, but I’m not really discussing these here: there’s little to mention about them except that both are based on catchy little riffs, all played by Kossoff in his gruff, nonchalant manner, and dumb little lyrics, all sung by Rodgers in his gruff, raunchy way.
Not to mention that, in the best ‘blues’ tradition, he proudly announces in ‘Woman’ that his lady only comes third for him after his guitar and his car. Now that’s what I call a man who got his priorities straight… In case you’re wondering, these songs rule.
Personally, though, out of the ‘fast’ numbers (yeah, right, the quotes are there and they’re gonna stay, because ‘fast’ for Free is always mid-tempo) I prefer ‘Songs Of Yesterday’, a groovy rocker that’s distinguished by the clever way it alternates the fast, boppy parts and the slower, bluesier parts. It also has the best bass workout on the entire record – Andy is giving it his all, and Kossoff inserts an intoxicating guitar line now and then. If anything, this song is way more sophisticated, exciting and entertaining than ‘All Right Now’, although, of course, it’s nowhere near as gut-spinning and if you drink beer you probably won’t like it. I mean, if you drink beer and listen to it at the same time – ‘All Right Now’, on the other hand, is a generic beer-drinkin’ anthem.
And say, even the acoustic stuff on here is friggin’ interesting. Yes it is yes it is ohhh yes it is. There’s the totally gorgeous ballad ‘Lying In The Sunshine’ – you have to appreciate that lazy folky vibe, of course, but the acoustic guitar there is just stunning – a relaxed, almost comatose intonation that, nevertheless, totally suits the song and its lazy, distracted lyrics. Then there’s ‘Free Me’, a song that, unfortunately, drags on for far too long (it would be much better if trimmed in two), and at first glance dismissable as based on a riff stolen from Led Zep’s ‘Dazed And Confused’, but don’t you dare dismiss it until you’ve given it a couple of accurate listens. It has a certain charm of its own, you know, like that drugged out Grateful Dead stuff – not an inch of energy or anything, but so darn pleasant to listen to in any case. Oh well, maybe it’s my masochistic instincts rearing up their head (no, I’m not a masochist, but to a certain extent, we all are).
The best, of course, is still ‘Mourning Sad Mourning’, a deeply tragic ballad that’s also draggy, slow as a tortoise and creepy as a rattlesnake (no, forget that last metaphor, it ain’t one of my best), but when Rodgers chants that magic line ‘mourning mourning sad day – AAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!’, you can bet your life that they really succeeded in capturing some of that hard-to-capture genuine folk tragedy feel and stuff it into the song. Definitely second best on the record, and maybe their best ballad overall.
So, despite a couple tracks that are typical Free-filler (the instrumental ‘Mouthful Of Grass’, for instance, is just plain unnecessary, a stupid acoustic shuffle based on the same melody as ‘Lying In The Sunshine’ but nowhere near as captivating – and it keeps dragging on for what seems like eternity; the dull plodder ‘Broad Daylight’, that was perversely released as a single and did nothing but mar the band’s reputation), this here record works and does everything it is supposed to do. Which is, yes, which is to present Free as a good, drunken roots-rock band with heavy folk and blues influences.
But no hard rock in sight! Not a teeny-weeny bit of hard rock! Of course, if you do not consider Paul Rodgers’ voice a hard rock instrument all by itself. I know I don’t, and, like I said, the guy’s abilities as a vocalist are somewhat overrated. All the more exciting is the fact that with so many slow, dirgey, lethargic numbers they still manage to stuff the record with various kinds of vocal and instrumental hooks and make it truly atmospheric. Unfortunately, they managed to almost completely lose that magic power by the time of their next album – perhaps the ‘cock-rock’ image was taking away too much energy.
Wow, how annoying. I’m lucky I have this album paired together with Free on one CD – which means I have the best Free album in the world that money can buy (hey, don’t you notice the contradiction in that last sentence?).
Basically, this record features three songs that are absolutely essential to any Free collection, three of their most renown numbers; so that’s why the album is often hailed as Free’s most artistically successful, and while this point is debatable, there’s no doubt that it was also the peak of Free’s commercial success: the band really hit the big time with it, albeit for not more than one year in total. And yet, as you can see, my overall rating of it is significantly lower. And why? Why, would you ask? Would you suspect me of being able to bash the band’s biggest hits as if they were a damn bunch of fluff? Why, not at all! I’m just giving it a low rating because these three songs (which we’ll discuss below, as some kind of dessert) are immersed in a sea of filler.
Truly, now, these other four songs (and they’re all long as hell) have almost nothing to redeem them. The biggest embarrassment comes on ‘Remember’, a pedestrian rocker that… oh horror… yes, I just realized that it is a complete rip-off of Jimi Hendrix’ ‘Remember’ with changed lyrics. Gee, how cute. Considering the fact that I was never thrilled by the original (I still consider it one of the weakest cuts on Are You Experienced?), you can guess how pleased I am to be hearin’ this carbon copy of it. Sue me if you’d like to, but this can’t be no small coincidence.
The other stuff that I prefer to turn my nose away from are three ballads that simply don’t hold a candle to the intricate, delicate material on Free. Like, for instance, ‘Oh I Wept’ has a more tight and a little more fast melody than all those lethargic numbers back there, but it also turns out to be far less memorable – because it has no atmosphere. Come to think of it, it has no melody – Paul is just standing there in the background playing a two-chord riff or something, and the only gulps of refreshment are again provided by some of Fraser’s exciting bass lines.
‘Heavy Load’ is one of their most pretentious songs of the period, and no, ladies and gentlemen, Free had better stay away from pretentiousness no matter how life conditions turn out to be in the end. It’s a gospelish number with huge emphasis on the piano that the band members didn’t actually figure out how to put to good use, and Rodgers sounds anything but convincing – maybe he is trying to pull a Rod Stewart (one of his idols, as far as I know), but he sure ain’t one. To put it short, they over arrange the number so it loses its potential folkie charm, but forget to substitute something for it. Maybe it would have sounded better with an acoustic guitar. And finally, ‘Don’t Say You Love Me’ just plain drags, another lethargic ballad, but this time it’s just sappy and generic instead of heartbroken and pessimistic. Blah.
Now that the filler is out of the way, I can describe the three BIG numbers to ya. What’s the biggest, you wonder? Would it be ‘All Right Now’? Nah. The best song here is the title track, built on a fantastic distorted Kossoff riff (some hard rock at long last, right?), catchy, strong, tight, and compact, and it also has one of their best instrumental breaks, with Kossoff showcasing those famous vibratos that Eric Clapton so longed for. And then there’s ‘Mr Big’, a social protest song (at least this is how it sounds to me without the lyrics sheet) that sucks, but it is completely redeemed by the magnificent instrumental passage (yes, also one of their best) which is really all you need to be stunned by the playing power of Mr Andy Fraser. What he does is play a bass solo… wait, no, don’t run away! I hate bass solos as much as the next guy, but this is different.
They play as if it was not him, but Paul, who’s playing the solo. But Paul is actually just standing in the background (again) and playing loads of muffled power chords, like, you know, as if he was holding the rhythm down, while Andy goes all over the fretboard and actually concocts a lovely – and a finger-flashing at that – melody! It’s really undescribable, but I challenge everybody to hear that song and try not to agree with me that this mid-section is quite unlike anything you’ve heard before or since! Andy was a wonderful guy, certainly fit for a much ‘bigger’ band. Gee, what if we paired him with Alvin Lee of Ten Years After? Eh?…
So, that’s about it. Oh! No! How come I’ve been prattling so much about their biggest hit ‘All Right Now’ and haven’t still mentioned its presence on this record? It’s here all right, and it sure is famous, and I sure like it. I must say, though, they did songs far better than that. I’d guess it all stems from the population’s love towards simplistic, easiest-to-access riffs (the same thing accounts for the immense popularity of, say, Deep Purple’s ‘Smoke On The Water’); but I guess I may be wrong here, too. That said, the song has easily the best Paul Rodgers vocal effort on this record, and is certainly the most raunchy, cock-rockin’ anthem that the band did.
If only the refrain were a little cleverer than just the dumb stutter ‘all right now, baby it’s all right now’, it could have been a timeless classic! As it is, it’s just a trademark for Free – symbolizing both its main strengths and its main weaknesses.