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"Born carrying a heavy load, can't go no further down this long road"


Photo by Lucy Piller

Class D

Main Category: Hard Rock
Also applicable: Roots Rock
Starting Period: The Psychedelic Years
Also active in: The Artsy/Rootsy Years, The Interim Years




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All right now! Let us have a short talk about Free, one of the most egregious blues-rock combos of the late Sixties/early Seventies. Nobody knows much about them these days, except for that famous single - you know what I mean, don't you? All right now! - and, of course, lead vocalist Paul Rodgers' later future with Bad Company. But believe it or not, Free was a much better (and certainly much less despised) band than Bad Company could ever hope to be. See, they had the misfortune to always be third-rate. Usually one places them in the category of 'blues rock' or 'hard rock', but they were never one of the 'best-in-the-world' blues-rock or hard rock bands. Their songwriting was highly derivative - mostly recycling blues and folk standards, with just an occasional miraculously original riff thrown in for good measure. Their lead singer had a great gruffy voice, but it was no way one of the best voices in rock, as rabid Bad Company fans sometimes claim: just a good bloozy tone with enough raw emotional power so as not to seem particularly annoying. Their instrumental skills were above average, but significantly beyond 'great' - apart from the legend that Eric Clapton himself learned some of his trademark vibratos from Paul Kossoff, their songs won't raise an eyebrow among the 'blues aficionados'. And, foremost of all, they just weren't that imaginative - on most of their albums you'll find a couple of gems and a lot of dross that shows their aim was to do anything but an impressive, entertaining rock record.

That said, all of these factors are still not enough to account for the band's passing into utmost oblivion (together with other great British blooze bands, such as Ten Years After or Taste). Because, in a certain sense, these guys symbolize everything about yer basic early Seventies rock, that loud, raunchy, sloppy hippie music as opposed to, say, acid hippie music. And at least they never tried to 'fashionize' their music by carefully avoiding heavy metal and glam rock trends. Throughout all of their six studio albums, they remained what they were: a naive, drug-addled, heart-on-the-sleeve, hair-down-the-waist bunch of idealistic young men trying to find consolation in blues riffing and folkish whining amidst a sea of problems. They just weren't particularly talented, but who was particularly talented? Gary Glitter? And, for my two cents, I'd at least take Paul Rodgers' voice over Robert Plant's any day of my horrid life.

And if somebody wants to object to me, asking why the hell I'm putting this 'minor' band into the two-star portion of my site when I don't even have a place there for such a great band as Aerosmith, I'll just say: 'All Right Now'. This, and several other anthemic hard compositions, have rightfully earned Free the possibility of being called the real prototype for Seventies' 'cock-rock': not the Stones or Led Zep, but Free pioneered the 'bash-it-up and roar-it-out' style that united everybody, from AC/DC to Aerosmith to KISS to Bad Company itself. Now of course, classic Seventies' cock-rock is one of the most miserable musical genres in existence, and the real musical bane of that decade, together with watered-down melodyless pop a la Billy Joel and unimaginative disco; but as it so often happens, the forefathers of this genre are well worth getting to know.

Here's the line-up, then: Paul Rodgers - lead vocals (I don't know whether he plays anything on any of their records; everybody knows he plays guitar, too, but we don't see him as a guitarist in his Free days). Paul Kossoff is the guitarist, and a good one at that; he rarely engages in lengthy solos (at least, in the studio), but when he does, they're all very much listenable. Even his acoustic stuff is kinda pleasant, though not terribly exciting. Unfortunately, the guy died of a heart attack (caused by drug addiction) in 1976, several years after the group finally disbanded. Simon Kirke plays the drums (later joined Bad Company together with Rodgers). And, finally, do not dismiss Andy Fraser on bass, arguably the most talented dude of all four. He's usually credited for writing most of the band's hits (yes, it was he that came up with the riff for 'All Right Now'), but not only that, he plays bass like God. Well, not like God, of course (I doubt if God ever played bass), but at least he should certainly be in the 'Ten Greatest Bass Players' list or wherever - listen to his chuggin' dance rhythms on 'Songs Of Yesterday' or the amazing bass solo on 'Mr Big', or, well, anything else.

The band didn't carry on for too long - about four or five years, but at least its lineup was always stable. True, they never had much of a commercial success even at their peak around 1970-71, but well, neither did the Velvet Underground. I don't even know if any of their records are in print in the US today - this is where we Russians have caught up with you Americans, since I was lucky to get four of their most important albums without any serious trouble recently. And, of course, try as you might, you won't find anything significant about the Free on the Web. I know that, since I tried - Jesus, I couldn't even find a decent photo of the band on the Web, until a very nice guy mailed me this modest representation of their collective personality. And hey, if you know where to find Free lyrics on the Net, drop me a line, and I'll give you a piece of sugar! No, THREE pieces of sugar! That's how rich I am!!!



Year Of Release: 1968
Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 10

Mostly just blues and early "blues-cock-rock", but delivered with enough hotness and passion to make it work.

Best song: WORRY

Track listing: 1) Over The Green Hills Pt. 1; 2) Worry; 3) Walk In My Shadow; 4) Wild Indian Woman; 5) Goin' Down Slow; 6) I'm A Mover; 7) The Hunter; 8) Moonshine; 9) Sweet Tooth; 10) Over The Green Hills Pt. 2.

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.



Year Of Release: 1969
Record rating = 10
Overall rating = 12

Very nice. Stripped down, and there are much too many slow numbers, but at least the slow numbers are soulful.


Track listing: 1) I'll Be Creepin'; 2) Songs Of Yesterday; 3) Lying In The Sunshine; 4) Trouble On Double Time; 5) Mouthful Of Grass; 6) Woman; 7) Free Me; 8) Broad Daylight; 9) Mourning Sad Morning.

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.



Year Of Release: 1970
Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 9

Some of the greatest hits on here, amidst a sea of filler.


Track listing: 1) Fire And Water; 2) Oh I Wept; 3) Remember; 4) Heavy Load; 5) Mr Big; 6) Don't Say You Love Me; 7) All Right Now.

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 basslines. '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 overarrange 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.



Year Of Release: 1970
Record rating = 4
Overall rating = 6

A bland, hookless country-rock album. There are probably thousands of records like this all over the world.

Best song: THE STEALER

Track listing: 1) The Highway Song; 2) The Stealer; 3) On My Way; 4) Be My Friend; 5) Sunny Day; 6) Ride On A Pony; 7) Love You So; 8) Bodie; 9) Soon I Will Be Gone.

Yyyyyuck. Perhaps this was just rushed off in a hurry after the flawed, but still vastly superior Fire And Water. Perhaps not, and the band was just running out of steam at a fifty miles per hour rate. But anyway, this album is a Totally Tasteless Turn-out of Torpid Trash. The band has suddenly decided, with next to nothing to directly stimulate them, that what they really wanted to be was a first-rate country rock band. Like, you know, 'this is our true emploi and we're gonna stick to it no matter what you think'. Well, personally I think that at least six of these nine songs stink, since country rock was really one thing that Free were never destined for. Blues - yes, folk - yes, even trashy cock rock, all right. But country? Man, these were weird times!

Anyway, the album starts out decently. 'The Highway Song' and 'The Stealer' are both prime songs, in fact. The first one shows that... well, to put it short, when you're intent on writing a dozen country-rock songs with not the slightest knowledge of how to write a good country-rock song, you're still bound to come up with at least one winner - incidentally. This one features a silly narrative about a farmer's daughter, set to a jolly boppin' piano rhythm. Especially interesting, though, is the drumwork, with Simon Kirke cropping out an odd, almost war-march, pattern that really lifts the spirits up. And as for 'The Stealer', their unsuccessful single follow-up to 'All Right Now', it's, like, just about the only song on the whole album that has some rockin' energy; here, though, it's Andy who steals the show, with his exciting bass 'zoops' underpinning the main melody.

But from then on it's all exclusively downhill, and recommendable only for those who feed on rednecky, sloppy, melody-less muzak. 'On My Way' tries to follow the mood of 'Highway Song', and Kirke essays his 'war-marches' again, but second time around, it just don't work, cuz the song's so darn slow and the melody simply non-existent. Even worse is the gospel stylization 'Be My Friend', with sickening overblown orchestration and an overlong, banal coda. If anything, this song is a typical example of the band's failure: what they were going for was an imitation of the 'big band' scheme, with a 'wall-of-sound' production and a 'musical storm' to raise the emotional level as high as possible. But they fail miserably, maybe because there was no Phil Spector around to help 'em. Rodgers just sounds whiny - hell, I swear he's hardly trying at all, I know he can sing better than that. If this quiet, restrained mode of pleading was his idea of emulating Rod Stewart, well, he's a pretty weak imitator then. The strings don't do nothing, and for a long period of time there's no guitar at all, just a bunch of sentimental piano chords. Even when the guitar finally finds its place, Kossoff can't do nothing but play a few unconvincing, weak lines that do not represent even a dozenth part of his talent. Maybe he was passing out the day when they were recording this song, but anyway, there's a good chance wasted - the song could be good if they'd only tried better.

The second side of the album, though, is the main stinker - well, it's just dull without any hope. Rumour has it that their main idols at this point were the Band, and it shows: however, where the Band had at least several fine songwriters and an 'authentic' feel, carefully crafted by immaculate production and all kinds of atmosphere creating devices, Free just had Fraser - pathetic, ain't it? Yes, there's a funny, groovy number built on a charming pop riff ('Ride On A Pony'), but, again, I feel it's kinda slow and draggy. Even so, it's a real highlight when put next to the sickeningly dull ballads like 'Sunny Day' and 'Love You So'. The latter is especially disgusting - I can't understand who is it that Paul Rodgers tries to emulate this time (Elton John, perhaps? George Harrison? Joan Baez?), but I detest the song. It has no energy, no truly emotional power, nothing, nothing at all. And what about 'Bodie', their pure country send-up? Isn't it enough to lure you to sleep if you're not a rabid country fan? Yes, I must admit that this song and a couple of others do emanate some kind of hidden charm - when you're in a particularly relaxed, loose mood, you might even enjoy listening to this stuff. But just as non-offensive background music, nothing, nothing more.

I was at least hoping for a solid album closer, but disappointment again - 'Soon I Will Be Gone' only leaves you completely agreeing with the song's title. I can't even understand what happened - it's the same kind of slowly plodding dirgey style they were elaborating on Free, but somehow along the way they have completely lost the atmosphere and the catchiness. Just a dull thump - thump - thump - thump and more Rogers whining.

Indeed, it's no wonder that the band never managed to get on top of the whole 'All Right Now' hype - an album like this one effectively cancelled all hopes of international stardom forever. Which is fully understandable: Fire And Water never even hinted at this unexpected countryish twist their music took all of a sudden. Heck, if they'd recorded this stuff in my recording studio, I'd personally see to it that this would be the last stuff they'd recorded ever. Oh, if only I had a recording studio... in 1970... gee, I wasn't even born in 1970. The Lord God can be so unjust at times!



Year Of Release: 1972
Record rating = 3
Overall rating = 5

Gee, are these guys trying to establish themselves as the most Boring of all Rocking bands on Earth?


Track listing: 1) Catch A Train; 2) Soldier Boy; 3) Magic Ship; 4) Sail On; 5) Travellin' Man; 6) Little Bit Of Love; 7) Guardian Of The Universe; 8) Child; 9) Goodbye.

Eh... Free disbanded, spent a year nowhere, probably working on their drug problems, then reformed and proved to the whole world they were still as musically inane as on Highway, maybe even more inane. Seriously now, I don't really remember when was the last time I listened to an album that was able to bore the nerves out of me. The most 'wonderful' thing about that is that I'm still puzzled as to why I can't help falling asleep in the middle of every song on here. See, this record is significantly different from Highway - that mellow vibe they had, er, um, 'perfected' on that album, is largely absent here. Instead, the band returns onto 'rock' territory, with loud, gruff, anthemic arena-rockers, all featuring plenty of distortion, vintage riffage, squealy pseudo-metallic guitar solos and, well, you know all the attributes that usually go with hard rock, they're here.

But it just don't work - not this time, at least. The problem is that all of these songs are, how would you say it? - overloaded would be a good word for it. At their peak, Free were a simple, ballsy rockin' machine, with unsophisticated, quasi-punkish, energetic melodies that would get into your head and just wouldn't leave it. On Free At Last, they mostly go for a super-slow, tedious drive, with loads of gruff, but dreamy guitars, and even if there's little country influence to be found, the nagging piano is still much too often at the centre of the band's sound. What's worse, the band's songwriting has deteriorated even further - it took the monumental flop of this record to convince Fraser and company to move in a more refined, polished direction on their next album. Here, though, sitting through these numbers resembles slow torture - rather like on some of the worst Bad Company albums.

Out of the nine tracks on this album, there's but two that manage to get at least a tiny, a tiny-tiny-tinny bit of blood flowing or any emotional resonance. I personally enjoy (well, 'enjoy' is not the perfect word here; 'tolerate' would be a much more suitable epithet) the upbeat, punchy 'Little Bit Of Love', with its sly pop insinuation and a jolly, Motown-esque beat. Kinda reminds me of stuff like 'Ain't Too Proud To Beg', you know? Remember that famous Stones arrangement? However, the song, with its happy mood and generic orchestration, is not at all typical of the average material on the album. The first side that's all built on 'rockers' is rotten to the core. Whether they try their skills at creating a moody, psychedelic song ('Magic Ship'), jump on the by now obsolete anti-war wagon ('Soldier Boy') or try to update their Band-influenced style with a little power riffage ('Travelling Man'), it all comes out crappy. Perhaps it's Paul Rodgers to blame? His singing reaches an all-time low, as he just whines his way through most of these songs without ever realising the full potential of his voice. Then again, even when he lets go on 'Travelling Man', it still doesn't work, oh, I guess it's just the fact that the song has no interesting melody at all. Dang it, even when they try to resuscitate the old formula on 'Catch A Train', the album opener, they still manage to sound pretty unconvincing. Where's the riffage? Where's the deeply concealed slyness? Rodgers is pretty nifty, and Kossoff's solo playing is pretty hot, but somehow they don't gel; perhaps it's because of the rhythm section - very loose and weak-sounding on this particular track.

Oh, I know. Must be the mix. Somehow, all these gruff riffs and squeaky solos sound so muffled and flat, that maybe they just can't get there, right into the spotlight. But is this an excuse? Nah. The record was self-produced, so that's an accusation. And, further, no mix, good or bad, can save the second side from being an even bigger disaster in that it sports two of the least palatable Free numbers ever. 'Guardian Of The Universe' is horrendous, a quasi-gospel number that tries to be bombastic and spirit-rousing, but instead becomes a bleak parody on true classics, like the Stones' 'Shine A Light'. Where's the melody? The piano is consistent but hidden deep in the background; the only thing Kossoff plays are occasional wailing licks; the bass is rudimentary; and what the hell happened to Rodgers? He can't be heard half of the time, and when he can, he sounds like a bleeding sheep! If that's Free's conception of a 'spiritual', they must have been pretty stoned at the time. But never you mind, if you thought that was bullshit, wait until you arrive at 'Child', an overblown acoustic ballad that's an attempt to recapture their dark-folk vibe that was so good on Free. Sounds like an uninspired, lazy take on a mid-period Jefferson Airplane ditty with Grace Slick replaced by a half-comatose Rodgers. Yyyyuck, again. So the last song here, aptly titled 'Goodbye', jumps out as some kind of a surprise for you - its unpretentious, Dylanish chorus, decorated by unexpectedly loud Kossoff licks, is about the most welcome aspect of the whole record.

But is one decent pop song, one friendly folk-rock 'farewell song', and, well, one more or less acceptable rocker ('Catch A Train'), enough to make a good record? No, no, and no. Kudos to the boys for trying to rock out once again and not falling into a complete Band-style decadency, but I think everybody will agree that their next try would be far, far more interesting than this forgettable tripe.



Year Of Release: 1972
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 11

A really solid hard rock/roots rock effort, with songs actually saying something, not just whining...


Track listing: 1) Wishing Well; 2) Come Together In The Morning; 3) Travellin' In Style; 4) Heartbreaker; 5) Muddy Water; 6) Common Mortal Man; 7) Easy On My Soul; 8) Seven Angels.

Ooh! They're really back! Unfortunately, this proved to be Free's last album - for better or for worse. And easily their second best. The band sat in for a really tight, well-performed, no-bullshit solid record, and managed to hit a high score - finally. Maybe they just got rid of their drug problems for once, but both Kossoff and Rodgers are back with a bang, the first with solid, respectable guitar work, the second with his typical holler that he somehow forgot to bring along for the last two albums. The hard rockers are back, and some of the lighter stuff seems to be enjoyable just as well. Of course, there's still a large percent of filler - what Free record hasn't got its percent of filler - but even the filler has improved. It's no longer unlistenably dull, it's just somewhat iffy.

Anyway, the first side here is all great ('great' in the Free-sense, of course). What better way to kick off the record than with a crunchy, echoey hard rocker ('Wishing Well')? Wisely enough, it was also the lead off single, although I'm not too certain about its actual chart success. Rodgers cranks out an eerie performance, and the guitar parts are outstanding. Essentially, it's just another Band imitation; but this time it's hardened, almost leadened up, kinda 'Iron Band' sounding (heh heh). It's good, despite the awfully cliched lyrics.

Then there's the drunken love and peace anthem 'Come Together In The Morning' that is actually able to be distinguished in my memory by having a wonderful, friendly refrain. Totally out of style at the time, of course, with its hippie motives, but you gotta remember that bands like Free were already totally out of style altogether. Paul Rodgers didn't believe it, though, so he blatantly calls the next song 'Travellin' In Style', and it's a blast, one of their best country-rock successes. It reminds me of 'Highway Song', but it's even better, with tasty steel guitars and that strange instrument going tickle-tickle-tickle all the time. What is it? A mandolin? A stringless banjo? Kossoff picking his guitar with a needle? Who knows? Like I said, I'm not a country fan, but I know what I like, and this is a country tune I'd be happy to keep by my side - catchy and joyful, with a carefully constructed memorable melody, quite unlike the jello-style ramblings all over da wall on Highway. Finally, the side finishes with the title track, another dark, dreary rocker that has little to do with Led Zeppelin's song sporting the same title (except that the riff does remind me of Page's work on that one): it's slower, moodier and not as raunchy, although just as dumb lyrics-wise. But if it were a little faster, it would've been a total blast. Dang it and darn it, why did these guys never play fast? Were they too stoned to play fast? Of course, it doesn't hit you as hard as it would soon hit you on Bad Company records, but it's still painful.

Unfortunately, the second side is much less easily accessible. You really have to grow yourself an appreciation for the Band and Southern rock in general before you can digest songs like 'Muddy Water' or 'Common Mortal Man'. I'm still in doubt as to whether this second side (sporting four country-gospel originals) has any serious artistic value, but at least it is able to draw my attention, which is more than I could say about, say, Highway. 'Muddy Water' is even emotionally resonant - for once, Rodgers' low-key, mumbling manner of singing really fits the song's bluesy mood. In general, however, it is obvious that by and large they come to the entire domination of their sound by keyboards - Highway's piano is augmented by a thick layer of organs, now played by John 'Rabbit' Bundrick (who later became notorious by playing with the Who since 1979), and some of this piano work is magnificent, especially the gentle, warm runs of 'Easy On My Soul'. Sometimes I'm so charmed that I even forget about the lack of melodies.

Nevertheless, the closing track, 'Seven Angels', gotta also qualify as one of their strongest numbers, an intense gospel number that has it all: a strong bass riff underpinning the song, a shrieky lead guitar party accompanying Rodgers, and, of course, organs, organs and organs. Of course, it could have been more energetic - they could have speeded it up, they could have mixed Rodgers' vocals better, Kossoff might have played a more energetic solo, but aren't we being much too exigent? It's the Free dammit! I gave 'em a 1, so they're free to revel in their mid-tempo wanking as much as they want, as long as it's not offensive! Since it's the Free, this song rules! Yeah, it's no 'All Right Now', of course, but what is?...

Whatever. This was the last album they ever did - a decent swan song and a last splash of acceptable taste before the Seventies 'hard' scene fell completely under the control of gory cock-rockers. Soon afterwards Rodgers and Kirke went to form Bad Company and Kossoff just plain died of an overdose. No more midtempo wanking! No more country rock! No more melodyless schlock! No more...

...wait! Didn't I just say Paul Rodgers and Simon Kirke went to form Bad Company?


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