Sunday 21 November 2010
There were few more important bands in the 1970’s than Free, and even fewer whose significance has been so underestimated or misunderstood by posterity. Lyrically utterly conventional, sonically they were revolutionary. An acknowledged influence on Gang Of Four and U2, their clean, plangent dynamics can be heard all over post-punk. Not only were they the first modern band, they were also the first truly European one. Starting at a remarkably young age, they would complete their first two albums while still in their teens, evolving a sound that was unlike anything that had come before.
The key to Free’s sound is their innovative conception of space. The early beat groups had followed the rock’n’roll template of layering their instruments on top of one another to create an incoherent adrenalin rush. Later innovators like Hendrix and The Who would create a more dynamic sense of space by weaving instruments in and out of the mix, provoking a giddy feeling in the listener of the sound arriving and disappearing at oblique angles. The spaciousness in Free’s music was of an altogether different conception. It is almost as if the four players (Rodgers’ voice was very much an instrument) occupy a separate corner of the studio, as though at the apexes of a rectangle. Each one then democratically adds their playing to the mix, without either dominating or surrendering to the others. At all times in the music, each instrument can be clearly picked out in a patient give-and-take that is the antithesis of the frenetic American rock’n’roll that originally inspired it.
The result is a music of clean, clear, angular surfaces, in which Simon Kirke’s unfussy, metronomic drumming provides the deep-piled foundations for Andy Fraser’s sensitive, tentative bass and Rodgers’ misty vocals. Most remarkable is the guitar playing of Paul Kossoff, which, forever weighing the balance between restraint and cathartic release, is at times almost impossibly piquant. A tragic character even by the desperate standards of rock music, Kossoff was an utterly broken man even before he had left his twenties. By the time of the band’s last coherent album, 1970’s "Highway", he had started playing on a different page from the rest of the group. A perfect example is on the opening "Highway Song", in which he interrupts a wry, jaunty exercise in nostalgia with a brief solo of almost cosmic grief. The effect is like stepping out of a caravan and finding that it’s been parked in a cathedral.
Free would struggle on for three more years, recording and touring as best they could between Kossoff’s illnesses, but their career was effectively over. Even so, there would be further moments of greatness that rewarded their doggedness. Never having quite fulfilled their vast potential, they split in 1973, with the tough professionals Rodgers and Kirke forming the kernel of the slicker Bad Company, while Kossoff and Fraser were left to make their own tragic and (in Fraser’s case) ultimately heroic journeys.