Free – Fire and Water – Classic Music Review

I came across this album while thumbing through my dad’s massive LP collection, looking for his copy of Bare Trees. His albums are carefully arranged in alphabetical order, but I overshot the mark a bit and found this one Free record stuck between Fleetwood Mac and Bill Frisell. I might have been unconsciously attracted to the spot because of the shine from the original plastic wrapping.

“What’s this dad? The plastic’s still on it.”

“Oh yeah, that one. My m.o. when I bought an album was to slice it open with a guitar pick so it remained in pristine condition if I wanted to take it back and trade it in. I meant to do that but never got around to it and forgot all about it until we were packing for the big move. I figured it didn’t have much value so I stuck in the crate along with everything else.”

“What’s wrong with it?”

“Classic bait-and-switch. ‘All Right Now’ came out and blew me away, so I picked up the album as soon as it was available. There’s nothing on it that comes close to ‘All Right Now,’ and the single is better than the long version. Big letdown.”

I took all that in but had a hard time believing that any album featuring Paul Rodgers’ voice could be a “big letdown,” so when I left that day, my shopping bag contained Bare Trees, Close to the Edge and Fire and Water. Though I was planning reviews on the first two, my insatiable curiosity led me to listen to the Free album first. Like everyone else in the civilized world, I’d heard “All Right Now” a billion times, but because the song hit the airwaves eleven years before I popped out of the box, I missed out on the initial excitement generated by the single and didn’t have the expectations my dad carried into his initial listening experience.

The two features of the human personality that get in the way of the quest to achieve the objective evaluation of anything you care to mention are mood and expectations, two filters that are often interrelated. Let’s say you successfully get the broad with a nice rack to come up to your place only to find out that the nice rack was an optical illusion created by a push-up bra “guaranteed to add two sizes to your bustline.” Your dashed expectations take you out of the mood, and the best you can do at that point is honor the implied commitment to B-cup Betty by tossing her a pity fuck. Your disappointment is on you, for if you hadn’t been hungering for Dolly Parton, you might have found out that B-cup Betty gives great head, can take anything you can dish out and can squeeze every last drop out of your tube steak.

The mess created by mood and expectations manifests itself frequently in music criticism, even on altrockchick.com. When I was preparing my ain’t-gonna-happen book of reviews for publication, I came across at least a dozen reviews where I could see either mood or expectations had gotten in the way of a fair evaluation. I edited them accordingly, but like a recovering addict, I know that it’s always possible that I’ll slip again someday.

In this case, as much as I’d love to embarrass my father in a public forum by telling him he’s full of crap, I fully understand his reaction. “All Right Now” is clearly the outlier on Fire and Water, a sexy hard rocker attached to the end of an album dominated by slow to mid-tempo songs in the realm of blues-R&B-soul delivered through rock instruments. Andy Fraser and Paul Rodgers came up with the song because the band lacked a concert closing number that would excite the crowd and make them beg for an encore. If I’m my father in his early twenties with his testosterone set to ignite at the sound of kick-ass rock ‘n’ roll, I might have been seriously pissed off by the extended foreplay represented by the six songs that precede “All Right Now.”

But while the album has other weaknesses (the volume sliders were often set too low on Paul Rodgers’ vocals, sometimes the bass tones are off), the album does have its strengths. Free began life as a precocious group of teenagers riding the wave of the British Blues Boom, and their early education in the blues gave them a solid foundation on which to build their sound. Andy Fraser spent some time playing with John Mayall (at the age of fifteen!), and despite the occasionally odd EQ level from the engineer, he was a nimble bassist good enough to earn a couple of bass solos on the album. Paul Kossoff was a young man who would die way too young, but in that short time established himself as a versatile, soulful and innovative guitarist. Even at this early stage in his career, Simon Kirke had mastered the essentials of beat, and his steadiness on the kit definitely contributed to the band’s tightness. As for Paul Rodgers, well . . . though I occasionally have to crank up the volume to hear him, his performances on Fire and Water demonstrate that he was well on his way to becoming a top tier lead vocalist.

On the title track, though, Rodgers takes a back seat to the magnificent guitar work of Paul Kossoff, who filled both the lead and rhythm guitar roles. If you want to explain to someone what texture means to music, and how well-executed contrasting textures give the music dimensional depth, have them listen to the instrumental break in “Fire and Water.” The rhythm guitar slams out the base chords with rough, pre-metal tonality, bolstering the rhythmic intensity. The two lead guitar parts are split between long sustained notes in a comparatively mellow tone and a series of blues-influenced riffs that kiss the tonal border of the rhythm guitar before pulling back. To my ears, the rhythm guitar is the hot fire, the lead guitar the cool water, and the tonal proximity of the blues riffs mirrors the bipolar but unified personality of the ball-breaking mistress at the heart of the song:

Baby you turn me on
But as quick as a flash your love is gone
Baby I’m gonna leave you now
But I’m gonna try to make you grieve somehow
Fire and water must have made you their daughter

Kossoff receives superb support from Andy Fraser on bass and piano, a relatively restrained but beautifully delivered lead vocal from Rodgers and marvelous cueing from Simon Kirke (who earns himself a multi-tonal drum solo on the fade). “Fire and Water” may not be a burst-out-of-the-gate album opener, but it’s one damned fine piece of work with a tantalizing grind that immediately earned it a spot on my notorious fuck playlists.

Free dials it down even further in the notably introverted piece, “Oh, I Wept.” While the biblically melodramatic title is a bit of a turn-off, the low-key arrangement is disciplined and surprisingly engaging. The dynamic peak occurs in the instrumental break, where Kossoff leads with a solo of sweet bends that highlight his precise but sensitive picking while the rhythm section of Fraser and Kirke add a touch of muscle to the mix. Rodgers’ vocal is the polar opposite of his high-heat vocal on “All Right Now,” his tone of emotional exhaustion rarely rising above the level of private conversation.

“Remember” lifts the energy level a bit, a mid-tempo rocker with classic backbeat emphasis. The song opens with a nice bit of foreshadowing, again with Kossoff on lead and rhythm, the rough chords offset with a slightly dampened, reverb-kissed melodic riff. Rodgers vocal is nice and loose, marked by his stylistic lean to fill in the gaps between the lines with additional vocalizations (grunts, oh yeahs and his fallback word, “baby”). The centerpiece once again is the Kossoff solo, with the guitar separated from the rest of the sound field through the magic of reverb, his melodic echoes spot on, his clean tones ringing out with gorgeous clarity. I’m guessing that the lyrics to this Fraser-Rodgers piece came from Rodgers, as the line “We would wander around in the northern heat” points us in the direction of Rodgers’ hometown of Middlesbrough and not to the kid from London.

Andy Fraser opens “Heavy Load” with some rather stiff piano playing, probably echoes of his classical training. He loosens up a bit in the instrumental passage, but he still sounds like I did before I discovered Thelonious Monk. The best parts of the song still belong to Kossoff, who plays two lead patterns in opposite channels during his too-brief solo. Kossoff was a master of the short and sweet melodic riff, and these tiny snippets are little bursts of beauty that lift the song to a higher dimension. As is true of most of the songs on Fire and Water, the lyrics don’t present much of an intellectual challenge, but Paul Rodgers has the ability to lend credibility to even the tritest lyrics.

We continue in downtempo mode for “Mr. Big,” where the lyrics cross the line into horrible and don’t give Rodgers much to work with. Mr. Big seems to be someone who has dissed Rodgers’ squeeze; the line “and she saves it all for me” probably indicates that Mr. Big may have implied that said squeeze had been squeezing Mr. Big’s member. I can understand how that might get a guy’s dander up, but threatening to place the alleged perpetrator in “a great big hole in the ground” is clearly over the top. Free decides to move on from this lame tale in relatively short order, ramping up the tempo for an extended instrumental break. Andy Fraser gets the solo this time, but unfortunately for Andy (who played his part well), his bass sounds more like a rubber tuba than a bass guitar, thanks to poor engineering.

Free attempts to get up from the canvas with the slowest song on the album, “Don’t Say You Love Me,” a song that Al Green might have done justice to had he not been fully capable of writing his own stuff. This song represents my dad’s strongest argument against the album, for at this point, I’m ready to scream, “Get the fuck on with it and kick some everloving ass!”

Ah! There it is! At last! The famous two-power-chord riff with a Dsus2 on second go-round! As simple and straightforward as a deep thrust and just as effective! Rip that Les Paul to fucking shreds, Paulie baby! Oh my—is Paul Rodgers feeling it or what? That little scream sounds like a man who came home, opened the door, turned on the lights and found three stacked and naked broads waiting to tend to his every need. Ah, but Paul is a professional, a disciplined and intentional vocalist, so he closes his eyes, puts all those delectable racks out of his mind and tells us what happened to him just the other day:

There she stood in the street
Smiling from her head to her feet
I said hey, what is this
Now baby, maybe she’s in need of a kiss
I said hey, what’s your name baby?
Maybe we can see things the same
Now don’t you wait or hesitate
Let’s move before they raise the parking rate

Clever line, that last one, but 99% percent of the people I know sing “Let’s move before they raise the fucking rate!” In addition to being damned satisfying, the word substitution is helpful for people who can’t sing a note but desperately want to match the intensity in Paul Rodgers’ burst of exuberance. Most of those Rodgers wannabes are unaware how skillfully Paul Rodgers has set them up for the great explosion through the masterful self-imposed restraint he exercises in the first six lines. The restraint starts to unravel with his deliberate flutter of the vowels on “wait” and “hesitate,” creating an overwhelming tension that demands not just resolution but near-orgasmic fucking resolution. The chorus in this context is incredibly grounding, giving the girls in the audience a chance to freshen up and sop up any wet spots.

I’ll cover the second verse on its second go-round, but I want to get to the instrumental passage so I can ask my dad a question. “Hey, dad! Are you out of your fucking mind? The single version is better than the long version? What? Let me quote Joe Strummer here. ‘ARRRGHHHGORRA BUH BHUH DO ARRRRGGGGHHHHNNNN!!!!’ Sorry, but I simply could not find the words to communicate how violently I disagree with your opinion. Love you too. Ciao.”

The instrumental passage in the long version of “All Right Now” demonstrates just how well the guys in Free clicked when they were on. Simon Kirke’s drumming is more like the guidance of a conductor, holding back to allow the instrumentalists to establish space, prodding them to rise to the occasion by adding a varied cymbal attack and cueing the end of the sequence with an assertive but not overbearing drum roll a few measures before the conclusion. After a brief duet featuring Kirke and Kossoff, Andy Fraser takes over with a commanding bass line that drives the chordal and tempo shift that opens to an extended Kossoff solo over Andy’s steadying piano chords. Beginning with his trademark short phrase/rest pattern, the feeling of exuberance finally catches up with Kossoff and he extends his lines while increasing the speed and intensity of his picking. His dying note is like the vocalization of satisfaction following an orgasm, but he rights himself in a hurry to deliver the main chord riff with all-out power while Paul Rodgers shouts from the wings.

The Paul Rodgers who appears in the second rendition of the second verse has GOT THE FEELING, PEOPLE! If there’s one moment when Paul Rodgers crossed the barrier between a damned good lead singer to a great one, it’s right here. Imbuing the blue line “watching every move on her face” with trembling tension, he relaxes his phrasing to conversational level, allowing him to not just sing the words but actually play both the male and female roles in the dialogue. You hear the female skepticism in the rendering of the line, “She said look—uh—what’s your gammmmmmmme.” Feeling those questioning eyes bearing into his horny soul, Rodgers attempts to defend himself, deliberately and lamely: “Baby I said slow—SLOW!—don’t go so fast!” then pleadingly, “Don’t you think that love can last?” The response is the beautifully bemused, dick-shrinking outrage of a woman with no tolerance for bullshit—there’s a definite laugh and a hidden question behind the outrage when Rodgers (playing the broad) spits out the word “LOVE,” as in “That is the lamest fucking pick-up line I’ve ever heard.” You can see her lift her eyes to the heavens now as she shouts “LORD ABOVE,” almost giggling as she sings the goodbye line, “Now you’re trying to trick me in love!” The fade can go on forever as far as I’m concerned . . . like I said, I’ve heard it a billion times, but “All Right Now” is one great piece of rock ‘n’ roll.

Alas and alack, “All Right Now” was also the death knell for Free. Simon Kirke explained how that happened on Songfacts:

It became a bit of an albatross around our necks, I have to say. Even though it elevated Free into the big leagues, it became a bit of an albatross because we couldn’t follow it. It became a huge hit all around the world, only because we wanted to have something that people could dance to, but then, of course, we had to follow it up, and Island Records were desperate for us to follow it up. Really it was just a one-off for us, and when the follow-up to ‘All Right Now’ died a death – it was called “The Stealer” – and the album that followed, Fire and Water, from which ‘All Right Now’ was taken, when that didn’t do very well, we took it to heart and the band broke up. So, in an indirect way, ‘All Right Now’ was not very good for the band, I have to say.

There’s a bit more to the story, of course. Free disbanded for a while due to a conflict between Fraser and Rodgers, reunited, then Fraser left when Paul Kossoff’s addiction rendered him unreliable. After one last album (Heartbreaker), Free split up for good, with Rodgers and Kirke moving on to Bad Company, Fraser to Sharks and Paul Kossoff in limbo until his death from a pulmonary embolism at the age of twenty-five.

So I can understand why my dad felt that “All Right Now” was kind of a tease, as that kind of kick-ass rock ‘n’ roll really wasn’t what Free wanted to do. That follow-up single, “The Stealer” is pretty dull in comparison, completely lacking the bite and excitement of their greatest hit. With their grounding in the blues and their impressive collection of talent, they certainly could have changed direction and fully committed to that kind of rock, but it just wasn’t their bag. The bulk of Fire and Water is the real Free, comfortable with slow to mid-tempo blues-tinged music that they felt suited their talents. They played well, but the kind of music they chose to produce was never going to set the world on fire . . . and except for that one great single, they didn’t.

Still, Fire and Water is a pretty good record with some fabulous performances that didn’t deserve to spend the rest of its temporal existence wasting away in plastic wrap on my father’s immaculately organized shelves.

Nuts to you, dad!

One response

  1. Free couldn’t follow ARN? They did have another goodie, albeit not as big chart-wise:

    Like

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