The most remarkable thing about Free when they formed in early 1968, has to be the ages of the band members; bass player Andy Fraser was 15 years old, lead guitarist Paul Kossoff was 17, and both drummer Simon Kirke and singer Paul Rodgers were 18.
Kossoff and Kirke were in the band Black Cat Bones, but they felt things weren’t happening and decided to move on. Rodgers meanwhile had stayed in London after his previous bandmates gave up on trying to find success in the ‘smoke’ and returned to their native Middlesbrough. That band was called the Wildflowers and featured Micky Moody on guitar. Fraser had been in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers.
The name Free came about while they were rehearsing when Alexis Korner, who recommended Fraser for the band, suggested it.
In November of 1968, they recorded their first album, Tons of Sobs, for Island Records. A typically obtuse (for the time) cover encased this blues-rock masterpiece – Mickey Mouse in a glass coffin with a cactus, gravestone and rabbit does suggest ‘Tons of Sobs’?!
‘Over The Green Hills (Pt 1)’ opens the album. Although less than a minute long it serves as the perfect build-up to Kossoff’s brilliant opening to Worry. Composed by Rodgers, it shows a maturity and awareness beyond his years. It is here that we hear how Kossoff brought a unique approach to playing. He admitted he didn’t like playing chords and yet the way he plays lead breaks throughout was (and remains) a breath of fresh air. It also introduced the world to Fraser’s ability on the bass. Perhaps due to Kossoff’s style he played the bass as a rhythm guitar and even at times a lead.
‘Walk In My Shadow’ is pure blues and a full band composition. It has everything a good rocking blues song should have…great, yet simple riff; soulful guitar solo; solid bass and drum backing and, as always, a vocal that has rarely been surpassed. ‘Wild Indian Woman’ is another example of blues perfection but with a sing-a-long chorus as a bonus. Next up is the first of two cover versions. ‘Going Down Slow’ was made famous by Howlin’ Wolf and covered by many others too. Here we get a piano filling in between Kossoff’s phrasing, played by the ever-versatile Fraser. A classic given a mesmerising reworking.
On vinyl, we would now turn over to side two for ‘I’m A Mover’. This Rodgers/Fraser composition is an object lesson in blues structure, feeling and performance. ‘The Hunter‘, a song by Booker T. was only written a year or so before Tons of Sobs came out. Released in 1967 by Albert King it quickly gained importance within the blues fraternity. (In just two years Blue Cheer, Canned Heat and Zeppelin would cover it). The defining guitar introduction here has never been bettered; the backing is solid and puts in a typically adept performance.
‘Moonshine’, with bass and guitar in harmony is slow burning until the chorus bursts in when we get maestro moments from each band member. ‘Sweet Tooth’ has a traditional feel but is all Free. Brilliant guitar over subtle drums with Fraser’s piano again contributing. ‘Over The Green Hills (Pt 2)’ concludes the excerpt we hear at the beginning of side one. A lovely, albeit short and sweet conclusion to a grossly undervalued and under-played masterpiece.
Although they later become known as the band that released ‘All Right Now’, the first album shows a group of teenagers at home with the blues and already musically mature, adventurous and accomplished.
CD re-masters have added early takes and live versions, but the original is still the best because of its impact at the time.
If you don’t know or appreciate the blues, listen to this superb album. Blues music laid the foundations for heavy rock and all the variations of metal that have since developed. Here you will hear why rock and metal owe such a debt to bands like Free.