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Music Review: Free – Live At The BBC

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There’s a story in Ken Garner’s history of Radio 1 sessions (In Session Tonight) about when up and coming band, Free, had finished a recording for a John Peel programme in April 1970, a member of the group casually asked one of the engineers present what they thought of one the songs as a potential single.

Island, their record company, didn’t rate it too highly. The band wanted a second opinion. The engineer, the story goes, rang label boss, Muff Winwood to tell them they should release the track immediately. This was just a few months before the release of Fire and Water and the song under discussion was “All Right Now”.

Whether true or not, it illustrates the symbiotic relationship between the BBC and the bands of the day striding into studios with quaintly mythic names such as Aeolian Hall 1 and Maida Vale 5, in the hope of getting a leg-up the career ladder.

The first of these sessions (of which only one track now survives) was recorded just months after they’d formed, and only days after the 16th birthday of the bass player Andy Fraser, who even at such a tender age was already able to put ex-John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers on his fledgling CV.

Free were frequent visitors to the BBC as they slogged around the clubs and halls hewing a solid live reputation as something of a good-time band. With Paul Kossoff’s swaggering, attitude-laden guitar breaks, and the “lick-my-love-pump” innuendo from Paul Rodgers, the patron saint of the leather trouser industry, it’s easy to why Free have been dismissed in some quarters as a bunch of cocky blues-rock bruisers looking to get their collective lemons squeezed.

The problem with this approach in concert was that some of the subtlety that infused Free’s studio albums was set aside for Olympic-standard mike-stand twirling, brow-furrows and other crowd-pleasing tactics.

Yet these sessions demonstrate Free occupied a half-way house somewhere between brain and brawn when it came to the radio. Culled from a variety of sources that includes Paul Kossoff’s personal archive, off-air recordings made by fans, and the regular BBC vaults, several make their appearance for the first time. Given this provenance, it’s not surprising that some of the sonics, (the second disc in particular) are bootleg raw.

Perversely, this very coarseness lends the slower numbers a vintage patina, as though “Over The Green Hills” and the mournful “Free Me” have spilled out from the spools of an old Smithsonian field recording. When the performances are as good as these you happily take the rough with the smooth.

The real star is Andy Fraser, whose bass playing stalks every single moment of this 2 disc set with an inventive flair above and beyond the call of duty, beyond his years and beyond anything most of his contemporaries were managing.

There’s a gratifying ‘first to last’ completeness about this release, spanning as it does their inaugural Top Gear session through to the triumphant finale for John Peel, when “All Right Now” shot them past the grasp of the producers in what must be (if you believe the old tale) something of an own goal for the engineer who made that fateful call.

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About Sid Smith

  • Vern Halen

    Very cool – I’ll watch for it’s release. They were one of my faves when I was younger.

  • Brian

    Quite simply, no, the tale of the BBC engineer is not true. Free wrote “ARN” specifically as a single and a get-the-crowd-up-on-its-feet number, and Chris Blackwell immediately knew he had a great single with a small edit to gain A&M radio play. Full details on the birth of this song can be found in the book, “HEAVY LOAD”, by Todd K. Smith and David Clayton (head of the Free Appreciation Society.) The BBC cd is great, by the way.

  • Hi there Brian,
    thanks for the confirmation on the BBC tale. It’s one of those situations where “success has many parents” etc. And it is a great CD – it’s not been off the player for quite a few days.