If I were to say The Hunter was probably the first Free song I ever heard you could say I was technically lying on two counts: 1) it wasn’t a Free song at all as it was written by Booker T and his MG’s and 2) when I learned to play it in my first band, Ten Ton Tears, I was taught the riff by our guitar player who idolized a band that was still struggling to make a name for itself.
When All Right Now was released the next summer I was disappointed – the solo didn’t have enough twiddly bits in it: Kossoff’s guitar work wasn’t like my heroes – Jimmy Page and Rory Gallagher – it was heartfelt and soulful . At that time my rule for guitar solos was quite simple: the more notes per bar it contained the better it was; space, feeling, texture, technique were words that meant nothing to me then.
And then I saw the band play live. Thanks to a long-forgotten support act named Junkyard Angel who over-stayed their welcome and an unrealistic curfew I only saw about 20 minutes of Free’s show that cold night but I was mesmerized: Paul Rodgers’ voice was full of power and suggested he’d had lots of gratuitous sex with lots of eager women which I found fascinating; Paul Kossoff, who I was amazed to find was the son of a famous religious broadcaster, leaned back against his Marshall stack and played so loud that the speakers made his hair move. Neither Simon Kirke or Andy Fraser made much of an impression that night but maybe that was because of the young woman standing beside me who was obviously about to wet herself such was her focus on Mr. Rodgers’ nether neighborhood.
In those 20 short minutes I discovered what soul was. When I subsequently bought their Live album, a recording with all kinds of problems including a guitar that doesn’t work during their most famous song, I studied its every nuance and was struck by the holes and spaces in the music they played. Their simple grooves were so elegant and tight that you could hear the beats echoing around the packed halls in which the record had been taped. What I discovered later was that they were a rock band who played with soul and achieved the ultimate accolade when Wilson Pickett covered not one but two of their songs.
They were also terribly young to be playing music with such force and passion and when they first broke up, with four or five albums under their belt, some of them were still only 21 years old.
They weren’t however perfect. Their lyrics were consistently dreadful. The opening lines of their signature song : “There she stood on the street, smiling from her head to her feet…” is by no means their worst moment, but it encapsulates the essential ingredients of what Free’s music has always represented for me: longing, yearning and sex.
I got my copy of Free “Live at the BBC” yesterday and within seconds I was trasported backwards to that sweaty 20 minute gig only now it’s all tinged with time and knowledge and sadness. Paul Rodgers’ has gone showbiz and sings with Queen, Kossoff’s life descended into heroin hell and he famously died somewhere over the Atlantic in his airplane seat, Fraser is HIV positive and Simon Kirke’s drumming on that Isle Of Wight footage I have of Mr. Big is the most heavenly six minutes of skin-pounding I have ever seen on film.
They were brash, they were young, they were full of ‘the blues’, they were the guys having the sex I wasn’t, they were loud and they were playing music for a living. Wrapped up in a record they were everything I ever wanted to be and I will never tire of hearing them play those same songs over and over.
You’ve all heard All Right Now on the radio a thousand times. If you want to hear rock with a big wedge of soul check out Mr. Big. If you want to hear 4 young men ripping a theatre apart check-out The Hunter. And if you want to experience that longing and that yearning I was talking about listen to Be My Friend. The studio versions are good enough but hunt down FREE LIVE! and I hope you will be transported like I was that night in the 70’s.