Ah youth, youth. When the blood sang in our veins. When there were worlds to be discovered, explored and thrillingly conquered. When we were almost sure, almost sure, we were immortal.
Yet, in the dark watches of the night – a sudden shiver.
Youth will, must, in time wither and decay. Beauty, so breathtakingly potent now, will, must, lose its bloom. What if the impregnable certainties of our beliefs should tumble and fall as medieval castles did to unimagined assailants?
The sand in the hourglass flows and flows running down your unknown span of days. Enjoy your youth while you may for it is a currency too easily spent never to be replenished.
These are the days, so soon to melt away, that you must savour. These are the days that will always echo in your soul. These are the days that you must always hold in your heart while it still beats.
Cut to April 1968. To a pub, The Nags Head in Battersea London, where a band of teenagers, named, ‘Free’ are about to make their debut. For all the hard drinking punters knew that day they were just another of the hundreds of the by the numbers blues/rock bands that had emerged in the wake of the pioneering work of John Mayall and his assorted Bluesbreakers including star alumni Eric Clapton and Peter Green.
As it turned out Free before they played their final gig at Newcastle’s Mayfair in October 1972 would justly earn a reputation as one of the great live bands of their era and record seven albums featuring superb singing and collegiate musicianship associated with a series of songs that would echo on in the decades after their days in the sun were long shadowed by time and personal tragedy.
Cut to the Isle of Wight Festival in August 1970. Free, riding high (helicoptering in!) with their anthemic signature song, ‘All Right Now’ topping charts all over the globe take the stage and deliver a performance to an audience of half a million souls which demonstrated beyond any doubt that two years of intense touring has turned them into an awesomely accomplished musical force no sensible competitor would choose to follow.
The brilliance of Free’s live shows are well captured on the essential, ‘Free Live’ CD with their set from Sunderland showing them at their incendiary best. Listen to their own ‘Mr Big’ and their definitive cover of Albert King’s, The Hunter’ and you will encounter magnificent musical control with every member of the band contributing with distinctive skill to create a glorious unified sound.
The sound of a band in its pomp playing with confidence, power and finesse. The sound of a band overflowing with love for their music. No wonder they accumulated a huge loyal fan base that filled and shook concert halls whenever they played.
Free’s singer and a natural born front man Paul Rodgers was 18 when Free formed. He hailed from Middlesbrough in England’s gritty North East. His father warned him that working class boys must learn a trade or face decades of insecure low paid drudgery.
Paul took this advice to heart though not in a way his father could ever have forecast! Paul’s apprenticeship was spent not in a shipyard but criss crossing the motorways and A roads of Britain with Free learning to form his own singing style from the lessons he had learned from youthful hours listening to Muddy Waters, Otis Redding and Levi Stubbs.
Like those masters Paul became a heroic singer able to command the stage and the recording studio using the resource of his smokily sensual voice as each song demanded; now playful, now raging, now tender, now regretful. A band with Paul Rodgers strutting his stuff out front was never going to be overlooked!
Free were blessed that their bass player, Andy Fraser, just 15 when he joined, was a genuine prodigy who had a seemingly inborn sophisticated sense of rhythm which gave the band a lovely organic flowing sound.
Andy as well as being a technically accomplished bass player was also an acute listener who was able to pick up on, channel, challenge and redouble the melodic imagination and songful soul of Paul Rodgers and guitarist Paul Kossoff to create thrilling song arrangements.
With Paul Rodgers he formed a songwriting partnership which would give Free a treasury of songs to draw on. Before his death in 2015 he would go on to write fine songs for leading artists with my own favourite being the exquisite, ‘Every Kinda People’ recorded most notably by Robert Palmer.
Behind the drum kit, escaped from rural Wales, was Simon Kirke, 18 when he joined. Simon anchored Free’s rampaging sound with unfussy authority. When they went into full blitzkrieg mode he was a heavy wrecking ball drummer but he could also rein things back and provide a lulling pulse on ballads and reveries.
His calm and sensitivity was an important element of the overall Free sound and his security playing at slow tempos marked him out from so many of his over busy contemporaries.
Enter, Londoner Paul Kossoff, just 17 when he joined, a genuinely tragic figure, dead at 25 a victim of a drug habit he seemed incapable of resisting, whose extraordinary guitar playing whether in unison passages or in heart rending solos marked him out as one of those rare musicians who has,
The Touch is hard to define but easy to recognise and impossible to learn. It’s nothing to do with technical accomplishment. It’s everything to do with a sound that is immediately distinctive, a sound that bears the unmistakeable hallmark of the human soul with all the blessings, graces, weaknesses and wounds that produced it.
Peter Green had the touch. Jazz pianists Bill Evans and Jimmy Yancey, in their very different ways, had the touch. B. B. King had The Touch.
Players with The Touch stop you in your tracks shaking you out of imaginative torpor. They make you listen. They make you feel. They take you places you didn’t know existed.
Paul Kossoff lived to play the guitar, lived most fully, was most himself, when he played guitar. Playing guitar he transformed his Les Paul or Stratocaster into a wizard’s wand conjuring unrepeatable, inexplicable magic out of the air.
You can hear The Touch in nearly everything he played in his short life. You can hear it in his supernatural interplay with Andy Fraser on Mr Big. You can hear it in the anguished vibrato and nerve shredding trills of his sound in, ‘The Hunter’.
You can hear it in the measured magnificence of his playing throughout, ‘All Right Now’ which I must have heard a thousand times or more on student jukeboxes. Yet, I can still stand to hear Kossoff, Rodgers, Fraser and Kirke another thousand times or more because, ‘All Right Now’ is a real song they play with steady heads and full hearts.
In 1971 Rodgers and Fraser wrote one of the favourite songs of my youth – the dizzying, whirling carousel beauty that is, ‘My Brother Jake’. You can feel their joy in playing together, in getting away with doing just what they always wanted to do and getting paid for it! This is one of my first go to songs if I ever need reminding that it’s a wonderful thing to be alive.
Free were undone by the inevitable personality and character driven disputes that arise between charismatic, forceful young men like Paul Rodgers and Andy Fraser and by the tragic decline of Paul Kossoff despite the best efforts of his bandmates to save him from himself.
We will never know what wonders they might have created had their choices and circumstances been different. Yet it must be better to celebrate the treasures they have left us rather than to mourn what might have been.
As I was thinking about writing this post a song I could not name for several weeks kept edging its way into my consciousness. It was only when I sat down to write this tribute that the overworked minions of my memory vouchsafed that the song was, ‘Get Where I Belong’ which I will leave you with as an elegy for a band who blazed a shining comet’s trail and left us with music for the ages.
Perhaps, with the spendthrift wrecklessness of youth they did go too far, too high, too soon, with little thought of how they would come down but we should always be grateful for the view of the moon and the stars they illuminated for us.
Free issued 6 albums of original material and a live recording in their brief 1968 to 1973 career. They will all repay your time.
The classics are, ‘Fire and Water’ and, ‘Free Live’
There is a handy 19 track compilation, ‘The Free Story’ and, for enthusiasts (mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa!) there is a marvellous 5 CD set, ‘Songs of Yesterday’