Saturday, August 15, 2009

Reasons To Be Cheerful (Part Four)

Revisiting old records that influenced you during your formative years can sometimes be a bit of a letdown. Songs that you remember as exhilarating during your youth often sound a little pedestrian when you listen with the somewhat jaded ears of middle age. Many of them suffer from being saddled with the overblown production techniques of their era, and so sound gimmicky to the point of distraction. Records released by Free back in the early 1970s are not among them.

When I was a young lad trying to feel my way around my first electric guitar, most of what I learned to play was gleaned from listening to Rolling Stones and Free albums. For rhythm playing I'd look to Keith Richards; for lead playing it was always Free's Paul Kossoff. Looking back on it, even though I'm sure I sounded horrible trying to emulate them with my cheap Les Paul copy and gnarly Carlsboro fuzz box, I had good instincts.

Listening to their records today, I can't help but think that despite being the unadulterated fan that I was, I had no grasp of how great they really were. There's such a self-assured yet understated power in their playing; like they knew how good they were, and so never felt the need to show off. They could rock pretty hard, but they reeked of soul, and rather than overplay, they seemed to leave spaces in all the right places. It's ridiculous to think that these guys were so incredibly young (bass playing phenom Andy Fraser was barely 16 on the first album, I believe), yet they had the maturity and restraint to simply settle into the groove and make every note truly count like they did.

Of course, it doesn't hurt when you have a voice like Paul Rogers' out front. No matter how simple the lyric (and theirs usually were of the tried and tested blues rock variety) his voice sounded absolutely brilliant singing it. Actually, it barely mattered what he was singing; his voice was just another great sounding instrument along with Kossoff's guitar, Andy Fraser's bass and Simon Kirke's drums.

Listening to Fire and Water now is so thrilling for me, I have to wonder if there was ever a better rock band than this. It makes it almost impossible to refrain from retreating into old fogey-dom and uttering old chestnuts like "They don't make them like this anymore".

They don't make them like this anymore.