Casual fans of classic rock radio are likely familiar with Free, the UK blues rock band with the short and simple name. After all, their 1970 single “All Right Now” practically defines the classic rock format, and has received numerous awards for airplay numbers in the millions.
Unfortunately, many would also say the song defines the term “one hit wonder,” as the band would never again find itself near the pinnacle of the pop charts.
That’s too bad, because Free deserves to be remembered for more than that one song. Even 1970’s Fire and Water, the best-selling album that spawned the hit, doesn’t necessarily represent their best work. One can easily make the argument that any of their first four albums, all recorded and released over a period of roughly two years, each contain some of the essential elements of their sound.
But time moves on, and pop culture’s collective memory being what it is, the band, its members, and its art were destined to fade away into obscurity. But pop culture allows for seemingly random acts of recreation, resurrection, and redemption. And so, singer Paul Rodgers and drummer Simon Kirke got a second chance to reclaim their careers, going on to ascend the rock ‘n’ roll throne again, this time under the name of Bad Company.
In an attempt to connect the genealogical dots, sometimes it’s assumed that Bad Company was simply the successor to Free. It’s a little more complicated than that, but the key pieces of evidence are found two ways: First, through some historical time-lining; and second, a listen to what would be the last official studio release by Free, 1973’s critically underrated Heartbreaker.
Start with the history. The hectic circumstances under which the four band members, none of whom were 20 years old when the first album came out, found themselves inevitably took its toll. Free originally disbanded by early 1971, citing musical differences. Guitarist Paul Kossoff and drummer Simon Kirke then formed a new group and released an album called Kossoff, Kirke, Tetsu & Rabbit. Bassist Andy Fraser started a group called Toby, and Paul Rodgers played guitar and sang in a trio called Peace, with Stewart McDonald on bass and the ubiquitous Mick Underwood on drums. Although they performed in public and recorded in the studio, neither Toby nor Peace released any music.
Then, in early 1972, Free reformed. By most accounts, the rift between Fraser and Rodgers, the band’s primary songwriters, had been reconciled. As well, growing concerns over guitarist Kossoff’s problem with addiction motivated the others to pull together in an attempt to help him out. The resulting reunion album, 1972’s Free at Last was decent, the only change from the usual being the use of piano to round out the sound. Still, Andy Fraser realized that Kossoff had become a liability, and bailed shortly after its release. But Paul Rodgers and Simon Kirke decided to have one more go at it.
All of which leads finally to Heartbreaker. Often dismissed as substandard because of the absence of founding songwriter/bassist Fraser and the semi-absence of guitarist Kossoff (who only played on about half the album, depending on whose version of the credits you believe), nothing could be further from the truth. The absence created by Andy Fraser was ably filled by Tetsu Yaumachi on bass and John “Rabbit” Bundrick on keyboards, thus reuniting the Kossoff, Kirke, Tetsu & Rabbit project from 1971-72. And though it didn’t sit well with Kossoff, guitar ace Snuffy Walden was brought in to support Kossoff when he was not well enough to contribute. Rodgers received credit not only for his vocals, but some guitar and keyboard work as well.
As flawless as the playing is, there are still some who would say that not having Fraser’s songwriting skills at hand is the real issue. However, Bundrick contributes two of his own compositions (“Muddy Water” and “Common Mortal Man”) that fit right in with the tone of the proceedings. Paul Rodgers contributes some fine writing, including “Easy On My Soul,” which was tried out as a Bad Company song a couple of years later.
Interestingly, there are at least a couple of songs that have subsequently shown up as originating with Rodgers’ long lost Peace trio (“Heartbreaker” and “Seven Angels”). Parallel to all this, there’s a song called “Lady” which appears on the compilation The Free Story but is generally believed to have Mick Underwood on drums and someone who’s not Andy Fraser on bass. And it turns out the Bad Company standard “Like Water” is another Peace refugee. Since it seems Rodgers had so much material ready to go, it’s hard to see why song quality would be seen as any kind of an issue by anyone.
It’s a really fine collection, but in many ways it doesn’t sound like a Free album, and that’s probably why some listeners never took to it. Sure, some of the players are different, but the real difference is the overall production, which could be characterized as dense as opposed to the traditional open sound found on previous Free recordings. In fact, in the liner notes to the 2002 CD reissue, regular Free sound engineer Richard Digby Smith is quoted as calling it the band’s first “stadium album.”
And that’s the clue, the denouement, the Rosetta Stone. Heartbreaker isn’t the last Free album: It’s more like the Ur-Bad Company, the prototype, the trial run of what would one day become ‘70s stadium rock. It has roots in Free, for sure, but one could just as well say it has roots in Kossoff, Kirke, Tetsu & Rabbit and even Peace.
It seems to make sense that Heartbreaker shouldn’t exist simply as a specter hidden in the shadow of “All Right Now.” Just by moving the light and changing one’s point of view a bit, it’s much more satisfying to see Heartbreaker foreshadowing the success of Bad Company to come.