music reviews

fire and water

by Peter Grainger

Fire And Water

"Together on the front cover of an album for the first time, Free looked fierce to me — sullen, insolent, pensive, daring for a fight."

"'All Right Now' remains a clarion call to all who want to celebrate the return of good times."

Fire And Water

by Peter Grainger

Another classic from the summer of 1970, Free's "Fire And Water". Paul Rodgers is without question my favourite rock singer. I’ve maintained for decades that he could sing the phonebook and you would still be moved! Bassist Andy Fraser played in a highly melodic, bouncy style, similar to The Who's John Entwistle. Drummer Simon Kirke was a human metronome, so solid, so simple, so tasteful. And in lead guitarist Paul Kossoff, they had one of the most passionate players ever. Together on the front cover of an album for the first time, Free looked fierce to me— sullen, insolent, pensive, daring for a fight.

Like many British groups at that time, Free began as a blues band, but they sure added a lot of soul music to the mix. This album- their third-- was initially self-produced, recorded raw, live off the floor, on an 8-track tape machine, at Trident Studios, with a young Roy Thomas Baker engineering (who would soon go onto great fame producing Queen, Foreigner, Journey and The Cars). They were striving for sonics similar to what they created on stage. When Island boss Chris Blackwell heard it, he liked the songs, but hated the mix, saying it was too sparse; so he dubbed it over to a 16-track machine and demanded overdubs. The band weren't happy, but begrudgingly agreed. Unfortunately it reduced the stereo image, making it sound muddier, almost mono at times. Worse still, Blackwell took the 6-minute song "All Right Now", removed a verse and cut most of its landmark guitar solo, for a single. The band was livid! But the record boss was proved right, as it was soon a number 2 hit in the UK, and soon to be a world-wide winner.

Kicking off with the title track, “Fire And Water” is a punchy, bluesy rock tune. Kirke’s drums are mixed higher than most records of the day, allowing you to really hear him. Their arrangement isn’t cluttered; it is as clear and direct as one would want, despite Blackwell’s tampering with the mix. Kossoff’s trademark sustain is put to the proverbial test throughout, while Fraser’s bass bobs and weaves along like a randy rooster; all the while Rodgers wails, strutting like he really means it.

“Oh I Wept” is one of those dreamy slow blues they did so well. I loved Kirke’s drumming. You feel him in the room with you. In fact it is another uncluttered song, presented to the band by Kossoff during a rehearsal; Rodgers helped him finish the lyrics. Again Rodgers comes across so convincingly. Yeah, he’s leaving you babe, but not without tears and regret.

“Remember” is bitter sweet; it too is riddled with regrets, but the sorrow is softened by the remembrances of happier times. Again Fraser excells playing his bass lines as cocky counterpoint to the swooning, sorrowful solo by Kossoff. It is Rodger’s favorite on the album.

“Heavy Load” immediately jumped out, because it is primarily a piano-led ballad, something new for the band; it is rudimental, played by Fraser, who was just learning piano. Yet the very simplicity of Fraser’s chords, allows Rodgers to sing unfettered, in one of his saddest and most soulful performances. Kossoff pulls off a melodic solo, reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green, who next to Clapton and Hendrix, was one of his guitar heroes.

Flipping the vinyl, Andy Fraser’s finest bass solo yet, rolls off his fingers like pinballs in “Mr. Big”. Rodgers wails like a banshee, Kossoff’s rings out distorted chords, Kirke holds down the rhythm like a rock, freeing up Fraser to give us his all. It’s a fabulous track.

“Don’t Say You Love Me” had to be written from personal experience. It is tender and sad. Rodgers gently rebukes a lady whose love he cannot reciprocate. I love hearing Kirke hit the very top of his cymbals, creating a subtle tinging that really serves the song.

The album concludes with the band’s best known song. “All Right Now” remains a clarion call to all who want to celebrate the return of good times. I think that is one reason why it was such a big hit—it is so happy. A simple boy-meets-girl scenario, with a killer guitar solo on the full length album version. Oddly on first takes, “All Right Now” starts with an acapella reading of the chorus, before Kirke’s drums kick in and Kossoff’s stuttering chords ring out. As they finessed the arrangement on later recordings, they began adding percussion overdubs, with tambourines, maracas and bass pedals being hammered by the hands of Fraser and Kirke in complete abandon. You can hear some of these gems on the “Fire And Water” box set released on Universal in 2008. Rock doesn’t get much better than this.

Fire And Water

Release Date: 1970

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