Free - Biography
By Bob Fagan
Free was a hard rock band from London that came together in spring of 1968, preceding the formation of Led Zeppelin, a sometimes similar sounding blues/rock band that would quickly outstrip them in success and popularity. The band members were all remarkably young at the time of the band’s formation; bassist Andy Fraser, who had already served an apprenticeship in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers band, was only 15 when he joined. The rest of the band members – Simon Kirke (drums), Paul Rodgers (vocals) and Paul Kossoff (guitar), were all under 19. Born perhaps just a little too late to have fully succumbed to The Beatles, and subsequent British Invasion bands musical style, they were perhaps most similar to the early Fleetwood Mac (who had also emerged from Mayall’s Bluesbreakers) in their combination of blues structures combined with proto-metal leanings of such late 60s fare as The Rolling Stones’ “Street Fightin’ Man” and The Yardbirds’ “Train Kept a Rollin.”
Their name was bestowed upon them by Alexis Korner, another elder statesman of English blues musicians, and one whose band Blues Incorporated had incubated the careers of countless British musicians, including The Rolling Stones. Free were an exciting live act and they were soon signed to Island Records. With producer Guy Stevens (whose blues knowledge had inspired The Rolling Stones and many other British blues acts, and who would later go on to work with Mott the Hoople and The Clash) they recorded and released Tons of Sobs (1968 Island). The record was entirely blues-based and the young band displayed a technical proficiency at odds with their youth. The record consisted largely of their typical live set, although unlike many blues bands’ initial outings, it was almost entirely original material. Produced like a live album by Stevens, the record, even today, retains an exciting and raw feel that their later work
Their second album, Free (1969 Island) was similarly blues-styled, although the band had become more restrained, and Rodgers had begun to affect a gruff if non-ironic Mick Jagger-like feel. The band exchanged some of its blues roots for a bit more pop/hard rock feel. Fraser wrote many of the songs in collaboration with Rodgers, and Kossoff reportedly chafed at bassist Fraser’s increasingly dominant role in the band both as a songwriter and arranger.
Neither of the first two LPs were particularly successful, and made next to no impression whatsoever in the US. Their third release changed all that, thanks to the inclusion of “All Right Now,” a song strongly resembling the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Woman.” It was a number two single in the UK and rose to number 4 in the US. The single as well as the album (Fire and Water, 1970 Island) had been consciously planned to appeal to a wider pop audience. Their performance before more than half a million fans at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, coupled with the success of “All Right Now” made them sudden superstars on both sides of the Atlantic. The album reached number 2 in the UK, and made it to number 17 in the US. Their success came with a price, however. Kossoff, the staunchest blues purist in the band, felt that the band had betrayed their roots with the chart-chasing pop sound of the album. The record would be their only popular success. The follow-up, Highway (1970 Island), recorded and released quickly to cash in on the success of “All Right Now,” only reached number 41 in the UK album charts, and just barely scraped into the US charts. The songwriting of Fraser and Rodgers again dominated the record, and the quieter, subdued tone of the songs further alienated guitarist Kossoff, who had come to feel like a session man in his own band, his playing and solos increasingly dictated note for note by Fraser. He retreated into drug abuse, and the record’s failure in the charts eventually fractured the songwriting team of Fraser and Rodgers.
The band broke up in 1971. Island released the live album Free Live! (1971 Island) in an effort to keep the band’s name alive in the public eye. By 1972 the band had temporarily reformed, long enough to release the final LP by the original lineup, Free at Last (1972 Island). Sadly, Kossoff’s drug addiction had continued to worsen, to the point that he began missing gigs and became a liability to the success of the band. Fraser quit and was replaced by Japanese bassist Tetsu Yamauchi, who would go on the following year to perform a similar role in The Faces, replacing Ronnie Lane on bass. Kossoff and Kirke combined with Yamauchi and keyboardist John "Rabbit" Bundrick to record the little-noticed Kossoff, Kirke, Tetsu and Rabbit (1971 Island). Paul Rodgers joined this quartet to record the final last Free album, Heartbreaker (1972 Island). Surprisingly, given the tensions and deteriorating relationship in the band, the album was a success, reaching number 9 in the UK and the top 50 in the US. The single off the LP, “Wishing Well,” also fared well, at least in the UK, where it reached number 7. However, Kossoff was a now and then presence during the recording and replaced on several tracks by session guitarists. The band booked an American tour in support of the album, but Kossoff’s health precluded his participation and he was replaced for the tour by guitarist Wendell Richardson. The tour was not a success and the band again broke up, this time for good.
Kirke and Rodgers went on to form Bad Company, with Mick Ralphs from Mott the Hoople and drummer Boz Borrell, whose hard rock leanings had been somewhat out of place in his previous band, King Crimson. Bad Company was a worldwide success throughout the remainder of the 70s, and remained a presence on the scene until the early 2000s. Rodgers has more recently appeared live and recorded with the three remaining members of Queen. Fraser formed the bands Sharks and The Andy Fraser band. He has more recently come out as a gay, HIV-positive musician- and passed away from complications connected to the disease in 2015. Bundrick later went on to play keyboards for a number of bands, most notably The Who.
Kossoff formed his own band, Backstreet Crawler, and joined Bad Company as a guest guitar onstage for two shows in 1975. Tragically, his years of drug abuse had taken their toll and a planned double-billed tour of Backstreet Crawler and Bad Company came to naught; Kossoff died of a heart attack in 1976, at the age of 25.