It was possibly in my Standard 9 year in High School that a couple of the guys in my class had a discussion about their favourite rock bands. At the time my knowledge of the past and present of rock music was still pretty sketchy, based mostly around the book The Story of Rock and the first two volumes of The Encyclopaedia of Rock, which respectively dealt with the big names of the day (mid-Seventies) and the rockers of the Fifties and early Sixties. I was not cool or hip and had a very small record collection of probably about five albums. Eager to impress, I could only think of Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin as names to bandy about though I knew only a few Purple songs and hardly nothing of Led Zeppelin. Fortunately nobody quizzed to on my knowledge.
In any event, a couple of other names were mentioned, that I knew, and then Dion Kriel mentioned that his all-time favourite band was a group called Free. He did not expand or elaborate. I had never heard of Free and thought that he was making it up. What kind of and name is Free anyway?
Bad Company had recently become big with their first two albums but it was a while before I found out that lead singer Paul Rodgers and drummer Simon Kirke had originally been members of Free, along with guitarist Paul Kossoff and bassist Andy Fraser. I'd read about Fraser in Hit Parader as bassist for English band Sharks, and knew that Kossoff had been in a band called Back Street Crawler, had all kinds of drug troubles and died young.
"Wishing Well" (from the 1973 album Heartbreaker) was the first Free song I ever heard. It seemed to be given a bit or airplay on Radio 5. It sounded pretty much like standard mid-Seventies hard rock to me. It was a good few years before I finally heard "All Right Now" (1970) the stone cold killer classic Free cut that has been a hit on more than one occasion, mostly because it was licensed to some television commercials in the Nineties, both in South Africa and elsewhere.
Although a couple of best of compilations were available I never actually wanted to spend money on the band. I had listened to a enough Bad Company songs to realise that it was not that great of a band and that it's hard rock was close to cliché and my attitude was, if Paul Rodgers was the singer for Bad Company, then Free would not really be that much better, apart from the few well known songs.
Over time I read more about Free and learnt that the band started out in the late Sixties as a typical blues band, although the band members were very young, and that Kossoff had been rated as one of the best, most tasteful blues and hard rock guitarists of his time. Their trademark was the slow burning track, of which "All Right Now" is a perfect example. The band broke up and reconvened and the two different phases, of which "All Right Now" and "Wishing Well" are good examples, gave us in effect two different bands with the same name.
For a long time I had a cassette with "Songs of Yesterday" on it, apparently some demo version of the tune off the Free album (1968), that was a another slow burning, piano led song that was quite impressive except for the somewhat stupidly pretentious lyrics.
In June 2014 I found the compilation CD Classic Free (part of a series such as Classic Lynyrd Skynyrd, Classic Status Quo and Classic Mötley Crüe) with a 15 track overview of the Free oeuvre. This was the first time I'd heard their versions of Albert King's "The Hunter" and "My Brother Jake," "Fire and Water" and "Mr Big." It seems that the best free tracks over their career are present and correct here.
In general Free makes the kind of music I am quite fond of and this collection is a fine sampler. It's a pity "Songs of Yesterday" is absent and I do not think that I am now going to be tempted into the original albums. If these songs are the best of the bunch than I'll be satisfied with them, as there is a sense of enough is enough when the final track, "Mr Big," fades out. It's been enjoyable but not particularly compelling. Not like the Lynyrd Skynyrd or Status Quo sets.
Having said that more time spent with the music revealed some subtleties I had missed the first time around and the undulating groove of the rhythm section and the fierce lead guitar made more of an impression even if some of the lyrics still sound a tad trite and glibly "poetic." Free was a band to be reckoned with and the hits on the Classic Free compilation represent an excellent introduction to one of the slightly forgotten hard rock, as opposed to metal, pioneers? Free did not just boogie and they did not play Southern juke joint rock and roll either? There seems to be more, for better or worse, a more thoughtful approach to how one could integrate blues into rock to avoid some of the terrible clichés so many of their contemporaries were trapped in.
Presumably It is far from hip to like Free nowadays but I am glad I took the plunge for fork out R39,99 for this compilation to remind me a little of my ignorant youth and to bring me the enjoyment of the best Free had to offer.