In the Britpop series I celebrated Pulp’s Different Class as the greatest of all Britpop creations, then turned around and trashed the shit out of This Is Hardcore, giving it the ignominious distinction of “the album that destroyed Britpop.”
I’m such a treacherous bitch.
Still, I didn’t want to leave readers with the impression that I believed Jarvis Cocker had only that one shining moment before the sudden flip from no-name indie band leader to U. K. superstardom threw him off his game. Even the greats can have an off day, and I’m happy to report that Mr. Cocker recovered from the dual onslaught of too much coke and too much fame and returned to form on Pulp’s farewell album, We Love Life.
Pulp had already made one attempt to record the album, but creative differences and interpersonal noise resulted in a less-than-satisfying result. Island then brought in Scott Walker, whose deep musical knowledge, decades of recording experience on both sides of the glass and broadly idiosyncratic musical tastes made him the perfect choice to produce an album for an idiosyncratic band determined to blur the lines between pop and art. Walker had good material to work with—the collaboratively-written music was fundamentally solid and Cocker’s lyrics demonstrated his typically sharp insight into socio-cultural and sexual-relational dynamics—but the band needed discipline, focus and fresh ideas to make the music come alive. With assistance from longtime production partner Peter Walsh, Walker met all those needs, resulting in a deeply engaging album that gets better with every spin.
The muscular introduction to “Weeds” communicates confidence and intent, telling the listener that Pulp is back with a vengeance. Acoustic and electric guitar form a compelling drone pattern intensified by the introduction of thick bass and expansive drums, establishing a memorable motif in twelve seconds flat. The brevity of the introduction is designed to highlight the importance and urgency of the opening verse, where Jarvis Cocker concisely and powerfully exposes the danger of xenophobic tendencies that would come to the fore fifteen years later in the form of Brexit:
We came across the North Sea with our carriers on our knees
Wound up in some holding camp somewhere outside Leeds
Because we do not care to fight, my friends – we are the weeds
Because we got no homes they call us smelly refugees
“Because we got no homes they call us smelly refugees” is beautifully concrete language describing the stunning lack of empathy for people who lost their homes and livelihoods through no fault of their own, an emptiness now openly encouraged by politicians spouting nationalist, racist nonsense. The feeling expressed here is one of repulsion, but Cocker understood that expressions of repulsion are often a way for people to disguise an underlying attraction to the people or activity being demonized. Once the immigrant weeds get past the paperwork, they wind up in “communities” where they learn to survive by exploiting the “moral weaknesses” of the consumer majority overwhelmingly tempted by the sinful delights of sex, booze and drugs :
This cut-price dairy produce that turns our bones to dust
You want some entertainment?
Go on, shove it up me – if you must
Make believe you’re so turned on by planting trees & shrubs
But you come round to visit us when you fancy booze ‘n’ drugs
We are weeds, vegetation, dense undergrowth
Thru’ cracks in the pavement: there weeds will grow – the places you don’t go.
The transition from verse/chorus to the extended fade is very well-executed, with the underlying drone and rhythm powering forward movement and the background vocals provided by The Swingle Singers ensuring contrast and continuity. The closing message from the weeds—“We’d like to get you out of your mind/For a little time: for all time”—tells us that the weeds can tolerate members of the ruling class when they drop pretense and (to borrow a phrase from a song that appears later on the album) “admit that you’re a fuck-up like the rest of us.” Cocker delivers the pleas for “a little time, for all time” in a voice that gradually loses steam, capturing the exhaustion of people victimized by pretense and oppression. Hey! We’re all human here! Who died and made you King of the Earth? Why the fuck do we have to play these absurd and draining games with each other?
We leave those questions unanswered for now, hoping for more illumination in “Weeds II (The Origin of the Species),” which grows organically from the opening song’s fade. Here the tempo is taken down a couple of notches while a simple background of bass, drums, wah-wah guitar and synthesized ambiance form a backdrop for a Jarvis Cocker narrative, “a story of cultivation, exploitation, civilization.” While he claims “this is the true story of the weeds,” the narrative content adopts the perspective of the ruling class, who have always had a vested interest in defining “the truth.”
A charming naïveté, a very short flowering season;
No sooner has the first blooming begun than decay sets in.
Bring your camera, take photos of live on the margins.
Offer money in exchange for sex and then get a taxi home . . .
Growing wild, then harvested in their prime and passed around at dinner parties.
Care for some weed?
So natural, so wild, so unrefined and someone’s going to make a fortune one day
If ony they can market this stuff right>
Come on: do your dance.
Come on: do your funny little dance.
Germination. Plantation. Exploitation. Civilization.
The exploitation of the lower classes is essential to the ruling class definition of “civilization.” Recent headlines about human trafficking, modern-day slavery and the sexual exploitation of minors isn’t news, folks—this shit has been going on for years, shielded from discovery by a tight network of wealthy people who have the juice to protect other wealthy people and the financial resources to ensure that paid underlings keep things under wraps. While Cocker’s concept of social hierarchy bears some resemblance to the pigs-dogs-sheep structure of Roger Waters, he imbues the sheep (the weeds) with greater awareness of the exploitation and the wherewithal to do something about it—as he did is “Mis-Shapes” (“We’ll use the one thing we’ve got more of and that’s our minds”) and “Common People” (“Like a dog lying in the corner/They will bite you and never warn you”). Roger Waters thinks we’re doomed; Cocker thinks we have a shot if we can ever get our shit together and unite in common cause.
The most disturbing song on the album is “The Night That Minnie Timperley Died,” a story about the rape and murder of an innocent teenage girl whose naïve worldview is captured in the opening lines:
“There’s a light that shines on everything & everyone.
And it shines so bright – brighter even than the sun”.
That’s what Minnie thinks as she walks to meet her brother,
Who is nearly two years older, on a Saturday night.
The brother is not the culprit; that dishonor belongs to “an older guy . . . paunchy, but dangerous” who offers Minnie a ride to the dance where her brother is DJ-ing. The murder is thankfully not described in gory detail, but as the brother laments the loss of his dear sister, he tries to get his head around the tragedy by adding, “And he only did what he did ’cause you looked like one of his kids.” That is one sick fuck, and while I’m a staunch defender of the right of the artist to choose his subject matter, I really wish Cocker hadn’t gone there. Musically, the song isn’t half-bad, displaying a different form of muscularity in the duet of distorted and acoustic guitar backed by amped-up bass from Steve Mackey . . . but yeah, I wish Cocker hadn’t gone there. I’m tired of toxic male entitlement stories.
“Trees” was part of a double A-side single with “Sunrise” (I would have preferred it paired with “Weeds”), the orchestral ostinato lifted from (er, sampled from) a piece called “Tell Her You Love Her” that was part of a soundtrack for the 60’s film Otley, described by the late Gene Siskel as “so boring it could put Sominex out of business.” The similarities end right there: through the fascinating process of creative transformation, Jarvis Cocker turned that long-forgotten ostinato into the unifying theme of one helluva song.
“Trees” introduces the second major theme of We Love Life: failed relationships. The milieu for this particular failure is a damp forest in autumn, the beauty of the leaves forming a deeply ironic contrast to the underlying processes of death and decay. After triggering his masculine hormones through the murder of a magpie, the narrator decides to put it to his female companion right there in the forest,
I took an air-rifle, shot a magpie to the ground
And it died without a sound.
Your skin so pale against the fallen autumn leaves
And no one saw us but the trees.
I can’t help but comment that if this guy even suggested that I lay down in a pile of moldy, rotten leaves so he could relieve the tension in his johnson, I would have picked up that air rifle and rendered his member as dead as that magpie. The layered images of death (her pale skin, the autumn leaves) portend the inevitable death of the relationship, for while the girl apparently submitted to the man’s wishes, the experience must have been less-than-satisfying:
Yeah, the trees, those useless trees produce the air that I am breathing.
Yeah, the trees, those useless trees; they never said that you were leaving.
Unable to face his own inadequacies, the man oddly shifts blame from the broad to the trees, calling them out for their failure to grow in straight lines, robbing him of his fantasy of relational permanence:
I carved your name with a heart just up above
Now swollen, distorted, unrecognisable; like our love.
The smell of leaf mould & the sweetness of decay
Are the incense at the funeral procession here today.
Though at this point, the guy seems like a total loser, Cocker inspires us to feel some sympathy for his wretched state through a change in vocal tone on the bridge that expresses naïve innocence as opposed to stubborn ignorance:
You try to shape the world to what you want the world to be.
Carving your name a thousand times won’t bring you back to me.
Oh no, no, I might as well go and tell it to the trees.
We’ve all been that poor dumb bastard, and if we’re lucky enough, we grow up and out of it.
“Trees” features exceptionally strong forward movement, much like “Weeds.” Mackey and drummer Nick Banks provide understated but effective rhythmic drive that melds well with the ostinato and the “tree noises” developed by Scott Walker. I have to add that the arrangements on We Love Life are excellent throughout, and it feels like the band has more presence than usual—and Pulp was a very good band.
Our second sampled-from-a-movie piece comes in the form of “Wickerman,” allegedly borrowed from the now obscure “Willow’s Song” from the now obscure British horror film The Wicker Man. Unlike the sampling that resulted in “Trees,” the similarities are harder to identify, but I have to confess I broke off my study of the piece because I couldn’t stand another second of Britt Ekland’s airy-fairy vocal.
I’ll never understand the 60’s fetish with doe-eyed girls.
“Wickerman” is the longest track on the album, a narrative poem in three parts set to three slightly different musical themes played in a sub-normal tempo. The song is a combination of reminiscence and fantasy, set in Cocker’s old stomping grounds of Sheffield. Given that the place names (the street nicknamed The Wicker; The Leadmill, a club where Pulp performed in the 80’s; the Broom Hall historic house) will likely have little meaning to listeners outside of South Yorkshire, “Wickerman” appears to demand a great deal from the listener, but the poetry makes it worth the trip. A little preparation and background information might help fill in some of the gaps:
- First, find Pulp: A Film About Life Death and Supermarkets on your favorite streaming site. It’s a documentary about Pulp’s final concert in Sheffield at the end of their 2012 reunion tour that also features views of the cityscape as well as interviews with band members and some of the curiously delightful inhabitants of Sheffield.
- The dominant motif of the song is the river, which presents something of a puzzle because Sheffield has five rivers (or one river and four tributaries, according to some geographers) and Cocker doesn’t tell us which river he’s talking about. He does give us a clue in the line “Yeah, a river flows underneath this city,” which, combined with a bit of online geographical sleuthing, leads me to conclude that the river in question is the Sheaf, the river that gave Sheffield its name. The Sheaf was indeed routed underground in the late 19th century, and a BBC article on Sheffield’s hidden rivers mentioned that “The culverts carrying the Sheaf and Porter Brook through the city are usually only accessed by urban explorers in illicit trips.” That is so Jarvis Cocker.
The poetry integrates the flow of a relationship with the flow of the river, the transitory with the seemingly permanent. After an evening at the Leadmill, Jarvis escorts his girl to a place behind the station where the “river runs through a concrete channel,” the water tainted by centuries of industrialization. As they move on, the river flows through “dirty brickwork conduits” beneath an old confectionery factory “leaving an antiquated sweet-shop smell & caverns of nougat & caramel,” continuing on “beneath pudgy fifteen-year olds addicted to coffee whitener, courting couples naked on old upholstery,” past the place where they first met, where Jarvis discovers that the “child’s toy horse ride that played such a ridiculously tragic tune” continues to operate, “but none of the kids seemed interested in riding on it.” They stop at a cafe, where Jarvis has a transformative experience:
And the cafe was still there too
The same press-in plastic letters on the price list & scuffed formica-top tables.
I sat as close as possible to the seat where I’d met you that autumn afternoon.
And then, after what seemed like hours of thinking about it
I finally took your face in my hands and I kissed you for the first time
And a feeling like electricity flowed through my whole body.
And I immediately knew that I’d entered a completely different world.
And all the time, in the background, the sound of that ridiculously heartbreaking child’s ride outside.
The river eventually reaches the other end of town “underneath an old railway viaduct.” The transitory nature of relationships is punctuated by the line, “I went there with you once – except you were somebody else.” That line would leave one to believe that the female lead is not a specific girl but an amalgamation of amorous experiences, or perhaps a muse of sorts. Jarvis then waxes lyrical about the possibilities that lie beyond their furthest point of exploration, then takes a sudden turn from the fantastic into something more concrete: his own experience of life in Sheffield:
I used to live just by the river, in a dis-used factory just off the Wicker
The river flowed by day after day
“One day” I thought, “One day I will follow it” but that day never came
I moved away and lost track but tonight I am thinking about making my way back.
I may find you there & float on wherever the river may take me.
The ambivalence and ambiguity of the story beautifully captures the tug-of-war that often characterizes our feelings about the place we call home. There is always the drive to want something different, something better, something exciting, but the pull of vivid memories, familiar sights and scents and experiences that shaped our lives form a powerful counterreaction. Perhaps the title indicates that no matter where his artistic journey takes him, Cocker acknowledges that he will always be a Wickerman at heart.
Speaking of ambivalence, the opening lines of “I Love Life” offer a more noncommital view of life’s wonders than those expressed by the tragically optimistic Minnie Timperley:
Here comes your bedtime story:
Mum & Dad have sentenced you to life.
Jarvis sings those lines in the gentle, reassuring voice of a parent attempting to lull a child to sleep, while Mark Webber’s descending counterpoint riffs support the tone of reassurance—a tone that shifts to slight mockery as Jarvis explains what it takes to stay alive:
Don’t think twice; it’s the only reason I’m alive.
I feel alright as long as I don’t forget to breathe.
Breathe in, breathe in, breathe out.
Jarvis explained this unusual level of attention to an autonomous process thusly: “The idea of that song is someone trying to regain control of their life, and it’s not all that easy sometimes.” As the narrator later describes the flow of life as “Another day, another major disaster,” the reminder to breathe and the repetition of “I love my life, I love my life” sound more like those useless self-help affirmations than a sincere embrace. The flip from soft music to heavy, rough and dark in the fade (cued by a marvelously understated Webber-crafted transition) gives Jarvis permission to act like a man unhinged, desperate to make sense of it all. In the end, we never know if the guy loves life, wants to love life or wants others to believe that he loves life to avoid unpleasantness . . . and that ambivalence is the point of the song.
“Birds in Your Garden” is a ridiculously delightful tune about “a love affair that I had in a period when I wasn’t really all that together. I thought that I’d fucked the relationship up because I was fucked up. It was the start of me feeling I had to get a bit more natural.” While Cocker may have been referring to one specific relational failure, awkwardness seemed to be his calling card in his formative years. In Pulp: A Film About Life Death and Supermarkets, he talks about the period in his teens when he worked at the local market hawking fish and how after work he would soak his hands in bleach for ten minutes trying to get rid of the smell before bungling his way through the jungle (it didn’t work). Introverts often need a crutch to take things to the next level, and in this piece, Jarvis imagines the birds of birds-and-bees fame offering their unlimited support:
“Take her now. Don’t be scared, it’s alright.
Oh, come on, touch her inside.
It’s a crime against nature – she’s been waiting all night.
Come on, hold her, and kiss her and tell her you care
If you wait ’til tomorrow she’ll no longer be there.
Come on & give it to her. You know it’s now or never.”
Yeah, the birds in your garden have all started singing this
Set to equally corny, dramatic-romantic music in the style of the early Walker Brothers, “Birds in Your Garden” falls somewhere between camp and tragi-comic, a weirdly charming experience.
“Bob Lind” has nothing to do with the 60’s folksinger whose “Elusive Butterfly” is one of my least favorite songs of all time. Jarvis rather liked the piece, and named the song after Lind because “something about the song made me think of him.” You won’t find similarities in either the musical structure or the lyrics, but the song does feature the density of “Elusive Butterfly”, with oodles of words pushing up against the boundaries and the music rambling along on the busy side with classic 60’s plucked arpeggios. Essentially, the song is the doppelgänger of “Birds in Your Garden” where Cocker engages in self-immolation about what a fuck-up he is when it comes to the dance that hopefully results in getting laid:
The recreational pursuits that made you shine have worn you thin.
And it’s oh so fine getting out of your mind as long as you can find your way back in.
You want someone to screw your brains out
I’d say they’re running out of time and they’d only go and cut themselves on the daggers of your mind.
This is your future.
This is the sentence you must serve ’til you admit that you’re a fuck-up like the rest of us.
Interesting that part of the reason he’s a fuck-up had to do with his embrace of drug culture, where getting as fucked-up or even more fucked-up in comparison to one’s peers establishes your cred. Those “recreational pursuits” do indeed wear thin, both in terms of that totally unsexy emaciation and the shallowness that comes from a half-dead brain. I only wish he’d learned this lesson before recording This Is Hardcore.
“Bad Cover Version” was the lead single, and deservedly so. Candida Doyle’s fluid melody is delivered in the style of the dramatic renderings of the “brother groups” (Righteous and Walker), complete with soulfully angelic female backing singers, integrating the concept of a bad cover version into the music itself. While the song is remembered largely for the list of bad cover versions in the fade, the brilliance of the song is found long before that litany of substandard sequels. In the very first verse, Jarvis a.) exchanges his wimpy relational persona for a guy with some balls and b.) subtly echoing his legitimate claim to share initials with Jesus Christ in “Dishes” from This Is Hardcore, he dismisses the savior as someone not up to par in comparison to what he has to offer:
The word’s on the street; you’ve found someone new
If he looks nothing like me
I’m so happy for you
I heard an old girlfriend
Has turned to the church
She’s trying to replace me
But it’ll never work
“A bad cover version of love is not the real thing” he opines, likening the rebound experience to the “bikini-clad girl on the front who invited you in.” Perhaps it’s our fetish with familiarity that drives us to seek bad cover versions, and the film industry has capitalized on that weakness to produce dozens of dreadful remakes and sequels that rarely come close to the real thing. Whatever the drive, the bad cover version is an inspired metaphor beautifully suited to the experience of modern relationships.
When we get to the fade, Jarvis makes sure we get the point by listing a series of “sad imitations that got it so wrong.” The talking version of Tom and Jerry. The Stones since the eighties (my favorite). The last days of South Fork. The television version of The Planet of the Apes. Generic cornflakes. The most awkward reference is to one of Scott Walker’s least successful efforts:
. . . in the end section of the song there’s a list of inferior things, but unfortunately in this litany I included Scott Walker’s fifth solo LP, ‘Til the Band Comes In. Because that record’s always mystified me, because it starts off with original material, and it’s pretty good, and then suddenly on the second side he just does six cover versions, and it’s like he just kind of gets sick of the whole thing and just gives up halfway through the record. So I’ve always found it a very strange album for that.
I wish he’d added “90% of Paul McCartney’s post-Beatles career” and the Clash album Cut the Crap, but I think Jarvis won the day. Inadvertently, he also created a great drinking game! It starts when the first player selects a great contribution or contributor in any field (arts, science, music, politics, whatever). The rest of the players compete with each other to come up with the perfect bad cover version, then the whole team votes on whose response was the most painfully perfect match. The winner downs a shot of whatever you have handy! I played it with the extended family during my recent escape to Ireland, and we had a great time. I haven’t been that drunk since I was seventeen!
p. s. The video, filled with celebrity look-alikes, is an absolute hoot.
Though the theme of relational issues continues in “Roadkill,” the mood turns melancholy with an extended introduction featuring two acoustic guitars playing slow arpeggios in separate channels over distant background music supplied by Philip Sheppard on five-string cello with occasional shimmery cymbal highlights and ambient fills. Jarvis approaches the vocal as if he’s talking to himself as he calls up images of his ex, “the things I don’t see anymore.” The mood is disturbed at the start of the third verse when Jarvis encounters a traffic jam caused by a dead deer in the road and the volume rises to reflect the irritating stress that accompanies such a moment. Once the road is clear, the music returns to the painful stillness that accentuates the sense of loss and the utter helplessness that accompanies the death of a cherished relationship. “Roadkill” may not be on anyone’s list of favorite Pulp songs, but its design and delivery are exceptional.
Counterintuitively, We Love Life ends with a song called “Sunrise.” I don’t think much of the song itself, as I think the theme of wasting the night away to greet the dawn had already been captured to perfection in “Bar Italia,” but I will give Jarvis due credit for the opening couplet:
I used to hate the sun because it shone on everything I’d done.
Made me feel that all that I had done was overfill the ashtray of my life.
The core song is actually quite brief—two verses sung to an uninspired melody—and most of the five minutes and fifty-seven seconds is filled with an extended uptempo passage featuring ripping guitar and “choir engineering.” There could have only been one purpose for such an appendage—to make sure Pulp could generate some crowd excitement during live performances and transform that energy into an encore. It’s sort of a “meh” album closer, and I wish they’d found a way to close with a reprise of “Weeds,” as the socio-cultural theme virtually disappears a quarter of the way through the album. Placing the relational issues in the larger context would have strengthened both themes.
Nonetheless, We Love Life itself was a strong closer for Pulp, a clear reminder of just how special they were. One of the most interesting interviews in Pulp: A Film About Life Death and Supermarkets featured a Sheffield resident who talked about Blur and Pulp and said she preferred the latter. When asked why, she said, “More melodic . . . and better words, actually . . . it makes you think . . . and I like music that makes you think.”
Pulp reaffirmed the notion that pop music can in fact rise to the level of art, and in a world dominated by auto-tuned, formulaic crapola with lyrics that rarely rise above the infantile, at a time when we desperately need intelligent, melodic music to help us make sense of a world that appears to be crumbling before our eyes, music that inspires you to sing along and makes you think at the same time would be a welcome change of pace.
Everyone should miss Pulp.
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!