Free | Review

Classic Albums Free

‘Free’ Island Records 1969

The first lineup of Free, Paul Rodgers, Paul Kossoff, Andy Fraser and Simon Kirke, with an average age of only 17, broke new ground in British Rock and their legacy continues. Only five studio albums and one live album were produced by that famous lineup but the music they made during a short turbulent career is still a potent force.

Today, Paul Rodgers is still strutting the stage and Simon Kirke is still banging his drums yet, sadly, Andy Fraser the bassist who was only 15 when he joined the band, passed away in 2015. Most tragically though, the guitarist who shined so brightly in those early Free days, Paul Kossoff, succumbed to a heart attack in 1976 at the age of 26, debilitated by years of addiction.

Kossoff’s condition caused dysfunction during the band’s career but his brilliance as a guitarist shines through on every album. But it all came unstuck when a much anticipated concert in LA was aborted because Koss was too out of it to get on stage. At that point in 1972 Fraser had had enough and left the band.

It was hard to choose the definitive album from the classic Free lineup. ’Fire and Water’ their third album with the mega-hit ‘All Right Now’ was undoubtedly the biggest commercial success. But it was the self-titled second album that marked the group’s truly unique studio sound and set their course as a successful hard working live outfit.

The good news for Free fans is their catalogue has been thoroughly vetted and the re-mastered albums are available with extra tracks, alternate versions, B sides and outtakes. For that reason alone ‘Free’ is an interesting selection to revisit. The original album had only 9 tracks yet the re-release has an extra ten songs.

‘Free’ followed their debut ‘Tons Of Sobs’ which was produced by the eccentric and volatile Guy Stevens. The 2nd album was released soon after even though it was recorded during an extensive touring schedule. Sessions were interrupted, often stalling the creative process. Hence the ‘Free’ sessions were begun with Guy Stevens at the helm and later rescued by Island Records chief Chris Blackwell.

Artistic tension between the four young members was always brewing but when they got it together on stage and in the studio, there was a special chemistry. Essentially a blues based rock album, ‘Tons of Sobs’ was highlighted by a steamy version of the Albert King blues classic ‘The Hunter’, which Free infused with their own unique musicianship.

Having written original material from the outset Free were insistent on creating their own songs and their own sound. With two of rock’s great instrumentalists in Kossoff and Fraser, combined with the swaggering blues-rock vocals of Rodgers and the solid but subtle backing from Kirke, Free was a potent combo indeed.  

Of the nine tracks on ‘Free’ eight are credited to Fraser/Rogers and one ‘Trouble in Double Time’ is credited to all four band members. In it’s entirety Free is only 28 minutes long. Yet every second delivers an enriched sound of blues and earnest rock.

Starting with ‘I’ll Be Creepin’, Kossoff uses the wah-wah pedal to enhance the riff played with military precision by Kossoff and Fraser. Following with more of the same, ‘Songs of Yesterday’ features Fraser‘s sinuous bass playing as a foundation to vocal and guitar sparring between Kossoff and Rodgers. Koss‘s distinctive soloing is a standout.

The pace is slowed for ‘Laying in the Sunshine‘, with an acoustic guitar as simple partner to Rodgers’ lazy vocals. Yet Fraser drives the song on Bass with almost lead guitar-like playing.

It was the Kossoff-Rodgers dynamic that made the Free sound. Rodgers’ blues howling on ‘Trouble on Double Time‘, with the 17 year olds confessing “I’ve Been a bad bad boy, I know I should be good”. Once again the band demonstrate a knack for controlling the tempo then closing out with a lightning solo from Kossoff.

The instrumental ‘Mouthful of Grass‘ is the album highlight. With some haunting harmonies, it later appeared as the B-side on the single ‘All Right Now‘.

It’s back to the basics with ‘Woman‘, where Rodgers improvises on the pretty simple lyric “I’ll give you anything except my guitar“.

The album’s longest and slowest song ‘Free Me‘ could move you to a hypnotic state with its lack of melody and structure. It’s clearly an album filler, but interest is restored with the catchy and popular ‘Broad Daylight‘, where a punchy riff introduces Kossoff’s skillful playing.

Closing the album is ‘Mourning Sad Morning’. As the title implies it’s a sombre ballad with some atmospheric flute accompaniment throughout by Traffic’s Chris Wood. Constant repeats of this one could have you running a hot bath by day’s end.

The additional tracks on the remasterd ‘Free’ hold great interest.

There’s the lost recording of ‘Sugar For Mr Morrison‘, the BBC versions of ‘Broad Daylight‘ and ‘Songs of Yesterday‘, plus the Guy Stevens produced mono versions of ‘Broad Daylight, ‘The Worm’ and ‘I’ll Be Creepin’. The extra dimension of these lost gems is evident when compared to the originals.

Free was an outstanding live act with Kossoff ’s spontaneous playing responding to Rodgers’ blues wailing vocals.  According to legend, Koss found it hard to play and learn structured chording and rhythm, he had to be coached by Fraser to play certain parts.

Free toured Australia in 1971, playing support to Deep Purple and on the same bill were Manfred Mann and Australian band Piranha. That Sunday afternoon of rock ’n’ roll at Randwick Racecourse cost a hefty 3 Aussie dollars. Yours truly was there and Free were the stand-out act. Photos of Free in action from that gig appear on a vinyl bootleg which I found in the vaults of an Amsterdam record shop.

Free reformed briefly in the studio in 1972 to record the creditable ‘Free at Last’ album and the following year delivered ‘Heartbreaker’ with Tetsu Yamauchi replacing Fraser on Bass, and John “Rabbit” Bundrick on keys. Kossoff played lead on six of the eight tracks on ‘Heartbreaker’, including the hit “Wishing Well”. But it was Paul Rodgers’ album and was the pre-cursor to the Rogers-Kirke-Ralphs combo Bad Company.

It was Fraser’s departure to form Sharks in 1972 when the Free dynamic changed forever. The Fraser-Rodgers songwriting duo was broken up for good.

Kossoff went on to record an album with Kirke, Tetsu and Rabbit, which is largely forgettable, then recorded the excellent solo album ‘Back Street Crawler’. He recorded two albums under the band moniker ‘Back Street Crawler’, of which the second album ‘2nd Street’ is definitely worth a listen. It was Koss’s last work.

Paul Kossoff’s father David, a British actor of some eminence, went on the speaker circuit after his son’s death to highlight awareness of heroin addiction and started the Paul Kossoff Foundation. Paul Rodgers donated one of Koss’s old Gibson Les Paul guitars in the 80’s and sold it through Christie’s auction, giving the proceeds to the Foundation.

Harry Steilus

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