David Clayton and Todd K. Smith – Free: Heavy Load

David Clayton and Todd K. Smith

This epic chronicles the story of the seminal British blues/rock band Free. Leaving no stone unturned, and with the help of more than 400 photos, authors David Clayton and Todd K. Smith have painstakingly detailed the rise and fall of the band from its early pub gig days in late-’60s London through the massive chart success of “All Right Now,” to the varied fortunes of vocalist Paul Rodgers, drummer Simon Kirke, bassist Andy Fraser, and guitarist Paul Kossoff (VG, May ’00).

Obviously a labor of love, Clayton and Smith have transformed the magic of Free’s music and the chemistry of the band into print through conversation with the surviving members and others, including Al Kooper, Chris Blackwell, Andy Johns, Ritchie Blackmore, and more. Given the perspective associated with the passage of time, the writers are able to give Free its place in rock history as a significant and important musical force.

While never enjoying the huge commercial success of their contemporaries in Led Zeppelin, Free’s early live performances were legendary and often shattered attendance records set by The Rolling Stones and The Who in their native U.K. Heavy Load reads like a comprehensive who’s who of late-’60s/early-’70s rock bands, particularly those British.

The story within is of the genius and tragedy of Paul Kossoff, whose early playing earned him legions of fans, including Eric Clapton. But sadly, the drug use present in his life since late childhood eventually destroyed his body and contributed to his untimely death in March of ’76, at age 25.

Of particular interest to guitar aficionados are the descriptions and superb photographs of Kossoff’s instruments (most are late-’50s Gibson Les Pauls) and amplifiers we now consider vintage and collectible.

In a time of cookie-cutter approach to musical biographies on TV music channels, Heavy Load paints Kossoff, Kirke, Fraser, and Rodgers as vibrant-yet-human musicians, not Spinal Tap-ish caricatures. The quality of the writing and the drama of the story ensures it will appeal to fans and non-fans alike.

At $58 ($35 for the book, $23 for shipping from England) Heavy Load is not cheap, but it’s arguably one of the best books ever written about a rock band, and it’s the definitive Free book. For more, contact Todd Smith at The Cutting Edge, (215) 657-8651, tkscutedge@aol.com.

Kirke, Bundrick on Heavy Load
VG recently had a chance to talk to former Free drummer Simon Kirke and keyboardist John “Rabbit” Bundrick about the new book, Heavy Load, the story of Free. After the breakup of Free, Kirke went on to fortune and fame with Bad Company, and Bundrick has played with a host of big names including Bob Marley, Johnny Nash, Mick Jagger, and Snuffy Walden. Since 1979, he has been keyboardist with The Who.

Vintage Guitar: What went through your minds when you heard a book on Free was in the works?

Simon Kirke: My first thought was, “About bloody time!” It’s been so long since Free was around, but I suppose time has added to the mystique somewhat. The story is such a classic one of humble beginnings and the triumphs and tragedies that befell us. I think it makes for compulsive reading. It also gave everyone involved a chance to tell their tale.

John Bundrick: My first thought was, “Oh boy, they’re not gonna let Free die. Free is still alive and well in the souls of the fans.” Naturally, when I heard that (Free historian) David Clayton was heading it up, I knew it would be good. Dave is very thorough. It’s always a real treat to see photos in books like this, and Dave filled the book up, bringing back all those lovely memories. Very nice touch!

Thoughts on accuracy, completeness of the story, and overall writing?

Simon: I was impressed. David really loves the band, and it shows. He and Todd Smith spent years putting it together. I was also very moved by the stories. Most of the events took place over 30 years ago and I had forgotten them. The oral history aspect of the book worked well, gave it a conversational feel…

Bundrick: I thought it was a very professional job. So good, in fact, I’m gonna give my copy to Pete Townshend. The cover design is excellent, showing the real Free at its best. Overall, the accuracy was spot-on, however, any time you deal with a pot of memories, somewhere along the way, somebody remembers an event a little bit differently, but in all, Dave and Todd juggled it beautifully. The story will never really be complete, because all of us except Koss are alive and still very active – in reality, as offshoots of the original Free lineup.

What do you remember most about your time with Free?

Simon: The high points include performing at the first Isle Of Wight festival, Wilson Pickett’s version of “Fire & Water” – Paul Rodgers was on cloud nine for weeks after! Also, receiving our one and only gold disc for “All Right Now,” shows at Sunderland and Newcastle during our heyday – scenes you would not believe. And, touring with Traffic and the Muscle Shoals rhythm section in ’73, Pete Townshend coming up to our van and saying how much he liked “All Right Now.” Ditto Elton John.

Bundrick: The main vibe I remember was one of honest, completely unbending, hard, hard, work with the four guys who brought me into the fold without any prejudgement. I can recall the smell of Basing Street Studios, the family-type vibe from Island Records’ Chris Blackwell and all their staff, and all the other bands on Island. We were like farm animals in Blackwell’s Barn! Just slopping it out, trying this and trying that.

Touring with Free was always a treat. I felt like I was in the big time, playing with the big boys. These guys really knew their stuff, so I was with the right crowd, you can be sure. Whenever Paul would sing, you knew you were in the right place – onstage with him. Simon and I always got on, and are still good friends today. As detailed in the book, Simon was the peacemaker. He stepped in the middle of trouble several times, but nobody was gonna mess with him, so any trouble soon got dispersed.

Overall, the experience of recording in the studio and doing the wonderful tours was an experience I have never matched.

Since the breakup of the band, do you think Free has been given its proper place in rock history? What should its legacy be?

Simon: Free should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, quite honestly. We influenced a lot of bands and although we didn’t sell as many records in the States as in England, there’s still a lot of respect for us. Whether or not we will remains to be seen.

Our legacy was a blues-based, soulful music played with passion and feel. We lived and died for that band.

Bundrick: I don’t think Free has been given its proper place in rock history! I’m sure it’s due to the fact it didn’t survive long enough to conquer the American market. They hit on it, but never kicked it to death. So they didn’t have the endurance of, say, The Who or The Stones. Free could have been just as big, in my eyes. With a singer like Paul Rodgers onboard, it’s pretty hard for the boat to sink! In fact, I think Paul should have his own place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Free’s legacy is as the band that started it all in the ’70s! The godfathers of white soul music! They influenced a slew of bands like Foreigner, Kansas, Humble Pie, and all of the singers who mimic Paul. His phrasing is very original, and when you hear a singer using his style, you easily pick up on it.

What would you like the readers of VG to know about Free – little-known facts, anecdotes, etc.?

Simon: We schlepped Eric Clapton’s totem pole up and down the West Coast leg of the U.S. Blind Faith tour in our bus. He has it in his garden in Surrey. Also, the guitar he swapped with Koss on that tour (’59 Les Paul Standard) was just auctioned for $100,000 for charity.

Bundrick: I’d like people to know that Paul Rodgers and I don’t hate each other. It’s a myth generated from one bad encounter in ’72. He’s the finest rock singer on the planet, bar none!

What have you done in the years since Free?

Bundrick: Paul and Simon went on to Bad Company, who recently reformed for a reunion tour. Paul is with them off and on, plus he does his amazing solo work. I went on to join The Who. Also, we must not forget Tetsu Yamauchi, the bassist who took over from Andy in Free. Tetsu was an admirable replacement, and he now lives in his home country of Japan. Richard Digby Smith, our resident engineer at Island, was my mentor and helped me wade through all these different English-type muses, and explained what was going on.

So, really, the story of Free goes on!

Simon: Since the Bad Company reunion tour, I’ve been on a couple more All-Starr tours with Ringo. I write songs and do sessions, and at the moment I’m involved with film scoring and supervision. I live in New York City with my wife and four children.

For more on Bundrick, see www.johnbundrick.freeserve.co.uk.

East Coast guitarist/songwriter Tom Guerra is working on the followup to his debut CD, Mambo Sons, on The Orchard Records.

This review and interview originally appeared in VG‘s June ’01 issue.

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