By 21st century lights, Free sound ever so slightly turbid. But they were in no sense unintelligent. They were "slow" because it meant something. They were earthy, reflective, sad, fugitive, engorged - they were soulful provincial English yeomen on the run in vice-like trousers. Theirs was the slowness of real cooking, the long gaze, the sexual grind.
"The apotheosis of cock-rock," was what one American critic, Dave Marsh, heard in "All Right Now", their greatest hit. And viewed with hindsight, "All Right Now" does come off now as all mouth and trousers. But it behoves civilised students of our culture at least to attempt to get in touch with the real Free story - not only because there's a marketing campaign coming your way, with a DVD and previously unreleased recordings to titillate your senses, but also because Free were great,an almost-perfect model of how rock 'n' roll genes work. If there has ever been another band so perfectly attuned to the formal imperatives of rock's debt to rhythm and blues, then I haven't heard it. And when they were good, they were amazingly good - soulful, funky, graceful, romantic, searching, formally stringent. At the top of their game, their sonic imprint was as spaciously sophisticated as anything coming out of late-Sixties Memphis and Muscle Shoals . And they were sexy. In the early Seventies they were the blues-rock band that girls liked.
"Maybe it was because we were small," muses Free's drummer, Simon Kirke.
"Oh, I don't know," interjects the bassist, Andy Fraser, looking slightly hurt. "I thought we were quite good-looking guys." ("Actually," says a musician friend of mine, who saw them when she was 14 and still remembers the sensation with an excited shudder, "they were sexy because they were so good. That slow, funky, dragging sound, with lots of space for you in it, that was sexy. There's nothing sexy about rattling along.")
But the Free story is a sad one, freighted with the usual baggage of druggy death and disintegrating relationships. The guitarist Paul Kossoff's demise, 30 years ago, to heart-failure brought on by excess self-medication with, chiefly, heroin and Mandrax, is the ostensible reason for all the new commercial activity this month, and for that reason alone it's hard to escape the slightly dismal pall that hangs around the band's memory.
In their five-year career, the group squabbled and broke up and reconfigured several times. Simon Kirke is a recovering alcoholic. Andy Fraser has Aids. The singer, Paul Rodgers, (who now works with Queen while also pursuing a solo career) doesn't get on with the other two - a mixture of old wounds and new frictions, not least over what would appear in the forthcoming DVD. "He's a difficult, angry man," says Kirke. Rodgers says ("diplomatically") that the original breakdown was essentially a tug of war between himself and Fraser over the musical direction of the band, but you can tell there's more to it than that. Fraser, for his part, clearly thinks so. "It's a shame. He was like my brother - we were totally on the same page once."
Free were between 16 and 19 at point of formation in 1968. Kossoff expired on a transatlantic flight in March, 1976. He'd been out of the band for three years by then and had pursued a fitful and depressingly unfocused solo career, of which the cover art to his debut album was only emblematic: the guitarist, looking like he's spent the night in a skip, slouches eyelessly over a drain, his guitar lead disappearing under the lid of a dustbin, while on the reverse he gives the viewer a V-sign. This is a picture of waste that is less amusing for the viewer than it clearly was for the protagonist. (He was the son of the prominent actor-"evangelist", David Kossoff, who spent much of the decade following Paul's death touring a one-man show devoted to the theological elucidation of the perils of drugs.)
Accounts vary as to how Free came together, depending on whether you're talking to Rodgers on the phone in Vancouver, or Fraser and Kirke in a Mayfair hotel, but it would appear that Free were formed out of a mutual passion for making the blues speak English, and with soul. They were mentored by that doyen of English blues culture, Alexis Korner, and they toured their nuts off. Ask them what they were into at the time and all of them reel off the same list: Albert King, BB King, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix, Stax, the Marvelettes, Wilson Pickett, Dylan, Mozart, Segovia, Charlie Parker... it is what we think of when we think of sophisticated late-Sixties taste.
It's hard to see blues in the hands of 21st-century white men as the vessel of anything other than mannered nostalgia or a kind of gothic novelty. But, in the late 1960s, the blues stood for many thunderously compelling things. It was rich, dark, simplifying, it was American and it was as serious as your life. It certainly seemed to have more to it than most of the things you could experience in post-war Shrewsbury. Simon Kirke wanted to play like Al Jackson, the drummer with Booker T and the MGs: "simple, solid, framing". Paul Rodgers wanted to be Wilson Pickett from Middlesborough. Andy Fraser was already the boy-wonder bassist in John Mayall's Bluesbreakers. Kossoff was a Hampstead-born, classically trained "artful dodger", "who played every note as if his life depended on it."
"Alexis Korner said," says Rodgers, down the line from Vancouver, "that it's very important what you don't play. 'There's got to be space in between the notes. That's where you breathe and that's where there's room for the listener to step inside the music.' It's all about restraint. The secret is holding back and holding back until you can't resist letting something go. It's that moment when you have to let something go that is the point of the whole thing..."
This sounds like a metaphor, or even a manifesto... "Well, life is serious as hell in that moment. I learned that from the soul guys: you have to be uncompromising. This music has to come from the heart, without apology. It is your sense of self." So, not clever or amusing or ironical or self-reflexive or judicious or artful then.
There is no unified position on what precipitated Kossoff's and, by extension, the group's decline. Rodgers insists that "when I left the band [in 1973, shortly before forming Bad Company], Koss was in perfect health, on top of his game. He went downhill very quickly after that. I do wonder about the company he kept. I couldn't seem to reach him. We did a couple of recordings together later on, out at my place in the country, which I still have - real scratchy demos. Strangely enough, the last thing we did was a song called 'Bye'... Koss was just too sensitive for this world."
But Fraser and Kirke don't have such a tidy perspective. Kirke remembers the moment it dawned, during the recording of the last album, Heartbreaker, watching Kossoff nod off, guitar in hand, with loud music splashing out of his cans. "I've never forgotten that moment.
"He clearly had a predisposition," Kirke goes on. "He'd had a bout with leapers [amphetamines], Dexedrine, before the band even formed, and sought medical help for that when he was a 15-year-old mod pillhead. And with us, he sought refuge from the band's troubles in Mandrax and never really came back. The smack came right at the very end... Koss was such a cuddly little bloke - you couldn't get angry with him. But the three of us ran the gamut - you know: you little wanker! Koss, what are you doing!?..."
Fraser takes up the tale: "He lost his confidence, too. I think he wanted to be remembered alongside the other drug cases - Hendrix or whoever. Then, if people heard him and he didn't sound so good, it wasn't because he wasn't good: it was because he was stoned. There's the hint of an excuse there. As I say, a loss of confidence. But it was just a matter of time. I remember playing the Albert Hall and we were doing this new song, 'Little Bit of Love', and Kossoff was five minutes behind the rest of the band, and I looked around and the audience was just crying for us. They didn't boo us off. They wept. It was just sad."
Kirke: "There was an obvious spiral of shame. Koss hated himself for sabotaging the band. He loved Free. He loved Paul - not sure about me and Andy, but he adored Rodgers - and to have us saying, 'Oh Paul, what have you done this time?', it kind of spiralled down and down..."
Fraser: "There was nowhere for him to go after the band finished. He just couldn't see a future."
Thirty years on, the cultural prism tells us that Free were the chewing-gum-ad band; that they ranked only behind Led Zep as rockers of period cock; that they had a truly great singer whose hippie-stud moves and mono-browed commitment to his cause gave rise to the kind of mythology explored so lovingly by Cameron Crowe in Almost Famous; that their biggest hit still gets fat ladies singing in East Anglian discos; and that they had a tragic little guitarist who died despite playing as if his life depended on it.
But the best bits of light come through too. Try listening to "Ride on a Pony" one day and then yourself that provincial English white boys don't have feel, touch, swing, formal sophistication and subtlety to go with their genitals.
The three surviving members were asked to nominate their most salient or exalting memory from being in the group. Paul Rodgers asked to send an e-mail: "You know your trousers are too tight," he wrote, "when you stand forth at the front of the stage at London's Lyceum, the house is packed, your record is zooming up the charts, all the press are out, with pens in hand (remember that this was the Seventies) and with one grand gesture your trousers split from crotch to knee! All that remains for you to do is get off the stage without anyone else noticing."
Andy Fraser: "I have many memories. After many of those sessions, I'd drive home with the song ringing in my head, in love with the guys. There was real camaraderie then; we really watched each others' backs. People say to me it must have been the Isle of Wight - three quarters of a million people - that was a memorable event! But the same could be said for when we played in front of 12 people when we were really good."
Simon Kirke: "I remember coming out the studio after recording 'Ride on a Pony, and we'd worked on it through the night and nailed it - what a great song - and the sun was up and we were coming out the door early in the morning behind Basing Street and... well... [long pause] it was just great to be alive."
The retrospective double DVD 'Free Forever' and the double CD 'Free Live at the BBC' are released on 18 September by Universal. Paul Rodgers tours the UK from 1 to 13 OctoberReuse content