Sunday, September 24, 2006

Blues-Godzillas Menace Sunderland Locarno!

Free was my favorite band for a long time in the early seventies. I was born at the wrong time for classic-rock credibility, so I managed to miss out on seeing them live in real reality. I did see Paul Kossoff much later, which is another story, but I regret missing out on Free. This week, a retrospective DVD was released with all the existing studio and Isle of Wight footage on it, all pristine and restored and in some cases from several camera angles.

There was a big surprise for me in the videos: Kossoff's sheer physicality. On stage he is never still. He plays guitar with his whole body, swaying and rocking and stomping – and screaming, head thrown back as he leans against 200 watts of Marshall stacks. Of course I'd be screaming if I were leaning against Marshall stacks too, but that'd be because the outrageous volume would make my kidneys bleed. With Kossoff it appears to be more feeling the mood than actual pain. Watching him do it is a plain joy.

It was Kossoff's birthday last week (September 14th). I'd just finished an SF story dedicated to him (not actually about him, though, Free fans) and mailed it off to a British magazine. In the run up to writing the story I'd listened to every Free track I had. I am currently soaked in Free music and a very nice feeling it is too.

For me the best album is the first, "Tons of Sobs", which is so raw that it jumps if you sneak up on it and poke it in the vinyl. There's not much actual production going on by the producer, as far as I can tell, but the band has twice the presence of most young blues bands, so that more than makes up for it. Most of the compositions are original, based on strong bass riffs that just don't quit. There's some acoustic numbers, even, but nothing like most of 68's blues-rock output, which seemed to suffer from a Great Folk Scare hangover of fire-breathing pink-elephant proportions. Free clearly never got caught in that stampede and failed to cover any totally crap English folk songs, including not covering Greensleeves, and especially not covering Dobson's Morning Dew, for which I am truly grateful. Instead, for standards they go for the serious blues.

I've seen a review somewhere that said the teenage Free were perhaps too young to be taken seriously singing grizzled old blues bar standards like "Goin' Down Slow", but I think it's tailor made for teenagers. What 18 year old doesn't think he's past his peak and dying? I think it was even a theme in Adrian Mole. It sounds somehow very English, and very fine indeed. And talking of the blues, the concentration of hormones in the band at that age was sufficient to generate the Testosterone Event Horizon, only beyond which does playing a song like Albert King's "The Hunter" seem like a good idea.

"The Hunter" has to be the crassest song ever written and Free tackle it as though they intend to wrest the Crass Crown from the then-current owner, Crassula McCrass, winner of the 1967 Crassest in Class Competition. The song is about hunting down pretty little women with a loaded Love Gun and the music, unbelievably, almost manages to match the lyrics in caveman rockist stomp. The track starts out with a guitar-and-drums full-frontal assault that roars in like black bomber berserkers out for dripping scalps, and throughout the song the band genuinely sound as though they are charging recklessly forward like a herd of hungry Godzillas. (Five foot six inch, hairy, eighteen year old white British Godzillas, mind you, which now I'm old makes them seem cute rather than sexually threatening.) There isn't anything from that time period to touch it. The big three albums of 68-69 (Terry Reid's Terry Reid, Led Zeppelin's Led Zeppelin and Jeff Beck's Truth) couldn't get near that level of sheer attack. It's not at all clear to me why Free didn't win the British hard rock race that started then.

I surely do love that whole album. Even the cover, which seems to invent heavy metal covers all on its ownsome.

Led Zeppelin and almost everyone else covered "The Hunter" at about the same time, in fact, with similar but less high-octane results. Led Zep themselves even penned a top-three entry in the crass women-hunting genre, Whole Lotta Love. But Paul Rodgers, evidently taking as some sort of a challenge the fact that the crassest song ever written was already out there, wrote several songs of like sentiment – "The Stealer" ("I said 'Hey good lookin', you're comin' with me,") and "I'll Be Creepin'" ("You can change your address; you won't get far,") and of course "All Right Now" ("Maybe she's in need of a kiss.") I think All Right Now takes the (king) biscuit (time) away from Whole Lotta Love, there, but YMMV as they say.

I know you've heard "All Right Now". You can't have missed it, and your brain is probably humming it all right now. Oops. What you may not remember is the structure. The song starts off with guitar and drums alone, and then the vocal comes in, for the first verse. It isn't until the chorus that the bass guitar joins in. Only when you hear it do you realize it wasn't there before; the bass drum was doing its job. When it does join in, it's a typical Andy Fraser bass run, not exactly hiding its light under a bushel. It disappears for the next verse, and Free is back to a two-piece with a vocalist. That two instruments alone can more than keep your interest is remarkable. For the middle eight, the piano joins in and provides the rhythm playing for the guitar solo. I don't have to describe the solo, which must be the most played one in the world (save perhaps Stairway), and certainly the most imitated. It starts low, builds to high and loud and seems to provide a commentary rather than an instrumental. Kossoff's guitar actually speaks. You can almost work out the words. When Rodgers sings the girl's disgusted line, "Love? Lord above!" the guitar restates her words by saying something. . . wry. Something very expressive. Something Yiddish. Wait, I got it! The guitar says, "Putz!"

All three Free crass contenders featured excellent riffs, classic bass, the best rock drumming ever put down and some of the most soulful, accomplished vocals you can imagine. I never played them for any of my friends because all of them were feminists and I'd have been thrown out of the yoghurt-weaving club if I was caught listening to lyrics about being ambushed in the shadows and given what's in store. (This little secret of mine got more complicated in the eighties when I bought a Zodiac Mindwarp album ("Kiss the barrel baby, meet your god.") At that point even the male feminists gave up on me. I'm just so unreconstructed.)

As with many things about the early seventies, it's a shame Free's not around now. The biggest loss is the little lion Kossoff himself, dead now for thirty years. I hope he had a nice 56th birthday, wherever he is.

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