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Simon Kirke explains the rise and fall of Free in 1970

U.K. blues-rock sodbusters Free soared to unimaginable heights and then crashed in a fiery heap.

1970 was the year U.K. blues-rock sodbusters Free soared to unimaginable heights and then crashed in a fiery heap.

Formed two years earlier, Free — comprised of singer Paul Rodgers, guitarist Paul Kossoff, bassist Andy Fraser and drummer Simon Kirke — had spun the raw, organic dirt of its proto-metal sound into gold with the smash-hit single “All Right Now.”

The album that spawned “All Right Now,” Fire And Water, hitched a ride up the charts, and Free was a worldwide sensation. By the end of 1970, however, Free was coming apart, and with the March 23 release of the two-DVD collection “Forever Free” from Eagle Rock Entertainment reviving interest in the band, Kirke tells Goldmine how it all unraveled.

1970 was such an amazing year for Free, with the breakout single “All Right Now.” How did that year begin for the band?
Simon Kirke:
Oh ... well, in 1970, we were in the middle of endless touring. We had a little transit van, which was the stock automobile or van of the time to go around in. And we were bombing up and down the freeways of England. I think there was two — the M1 and the M4. That’s all there was in England.

But we managed to cover many, many cities and towns, but we had a bad gig if I remember ’round about March or April of ’70. We had this sort of loping beat, sort of middle-paced signature-time way of playing. It was very ponderous, if the truth be known.

It was very dynamic, but it could be a bit ponderous, so we had a very sort of lackluster reception from one crowd in Durham (England), and we came off saying we really need an up-tempo song — something lighthearted, something we can bop around to. And I remember Andy Fraser just sort of singing, “All right now,” and Paul Rodgers sort of joining in, and pretty much the bare bones of that song were written as a knee-jerk reaction to that crowd response, or lack of response.

And then Andy and Paul went away, and within a couple of weeks, they’d written the whole thing. And we recorded it in Island [Records] studios. I believe it was in May or early June in ’70, and it was released the next month, and it went all the way to #2 [on the U.K. singles chart]. We were held off by [U.K. folk act] Mungo Jerry (laughs).

That’s kind of hard to believe nowadays.
Oh, I could believe it. A bloody jug band held us off, yeah (laughs).

Did the LP Fire And Water feel like a progression for you guys, or did it feel different from your previous albums?
Kirke: Well, yeah. For me it did, and I can’t really speak for the others, but I had a breakthrough in my drumming style.

The first two records or albums ... well, the first record, Tons Of Sobs, was basically just a re-creation of our club set. And the second one, Free, which I still think is a marvelous album — it was a lot more countrified. The Band, Music From Big Pink, were on the scene, and they were knocking everyone out.

And I remember Paul Rodgers and Andy were quite enamored of them, and I think it influenced their writing to a degree. So Free was a little bit not quite as raw bluesy, although I still think it stood out as one of our best albums

"Fire And Water" was a sort of return to that raw, bluesy sound, opening up with “Fire And Water” and then ... I don’t have the list in front of me, but I just remember it was much more gutsy, ballsy album, and then we topped it off with “All Right Now,” which was about six minutes. There was an extra verse in, and I remember the engineer calling up [Island Records founder] Chris Blackwell, who was living in his apartment above the studio, and it was about midnight. And he said, “Chris has got to hear this, man. Chris has got to hear this.” And we said, “Ah, don’t wake him up. He’s the boss.”

And anyway, we did, and Chris came down and he listened to it, and the first words out of his mouth when the track stopped were, “This is a hit.” The other few words he said were, “By the way, it’s too long. We’re going to have to edit it.” And we were going, “Oh, no,” because in those days, you used a razor blade. You didn’t have hard drives. You didn’t have cut and paste. You had to use a razor blade. And we hated it, because he cut out an entire verse, but it came in around three minutes. And the edit wasn’t even a very good one.

Did the success of the song and the album take you by surprise, or did you feel that you’d been working toward that?
Kirke: Well, it did take us a bit by surprise, but we’d been struggling all around England and bits of Europe, laying down a good, solid fan base, so we were ready for the work when it came along.

What we were unprepared for was the traveling we were doing now. Instead of playing a different town every night, we were playing a different country. We went all over Europe, and we had this great set. We were a blues band, but we had this kind of actually almost poppy sounding anthemic song that brought people on their feet and brought the house down. We usually finished the set with it.

So I guess for about the first tour, or maybe two tours, we had a blast. We were up to the task. And then a couple of things happened. Island Records wanted a followup. You know, we didn’t want to be classified as a pop band. We were a hard-rock, bluesy, soulful, R&B-sounding band and that’s what we wanted to stay as. And Island Records was saying, “Well, we’ve got you all these shows, and we need another album.” And we were just getting over making Fire And Water, and they wanted another one. And then our relationship with the record company got a little bit strained.

We eventually did Highway, which had the worst cover. It was a terrible cover. And we were so disappointed in them. No. 1, they pressured us into doing this album that we were a little bit unprepared to do, but we did it. And No. 2, they’d gone ahead and put together one of the worst covers ever without even consulting us. It was bad.

What do you remember about Free’s Isle Of Wight performance in 1970?
Kirke: Well, I remember flying in to the place, which was unbelievable, because we flew in on helicopter from the other end of the island. And I remember the pilot pointing down, and we saw this rolling mass of humanity going over all these fields and this tiny little stage at the end of it. And that was my first impression.

We were going to play on a Saturday night, if I remember. And we got there in good time. I think we got there around 6 o’clock, so it was still very light. And we were kept waiting and waiting and waiting, because bands ran over time. I remember ELP ran over time, and then I believe Sly And The Family Stone ran over time. But the bottom line is: We didn’t get to go on.

Our spot got later and later, because I guess we were the new kids on the block. And our manager, Chris Blackwell, came into our dressing room at about 10 in the evening and said, “You’re not going on tonight. No way. I’m not allowing you to be pushed around like this.” You can go on as one of the first acts the next morning, on a Sunday morning.

And that was a very good act on his part, because we were a little bit drunk. We’d been sipping beer all day, you know, a bit nervous, and smoking the odd joint. So we were a little bit ... and we were tired. We’d been there all day.

So it worked out well. I think we went on about midday on a Sunday, and people were sort of stretching and yawning and getting out of their sleeping bags, and it was a lovely sunny day. I remember that.

Going back to "Highway," you didn’t have any say at all in the cover?
Kirke: No. Well, no, we didn’t. We were too busy doing gigs. And our other album covers had been pretty good, you know. Free was beautiful — the second album was a beautiful cover. The first one was an original. And the third one, Fire And Water, had a very good front cover. The back wasn’t too good, but it wasn’t bad.

But when "Highway" came out ... ugh, it was so bad. And we were sort of on this merry-go-round of tour — a four- or five-week tour — one week off, three weeks on, one week off, and quite honestly, we were very tired. And then we released the followup to “All Right Now,” called “The Stealer.” And that was a flop, and that was the writing on the wall for us.

Basically, we were very young. We were very, very young, and we weren’t equipped to handle this popularity, this worldwide popularity on such a scale. And we had a bad relationship at that time with the record company, and we tended to isolate ourselves and just get on with the job at hand, and resentment started to build up until Paul and Andy said, we want to break up the band. And that was a killer for us, for me and Koss. We never really got over that.

It’s incredible what happened to Free just in that year’s time. It all started off with such promise and ended with such disappointment.
Kirke: Well, the other thing that was starting to happen was Paul Kossoff was starting to get into drugs, and I’ll tell you what happened.

We were in the final mixing sessions of "Highway," and I’ll never forget. I think it was one of the last sessions, and me and Koss walked in, and I was living with Koss at the time. We only lived around the corner from Island Records. We walked in and Andy and Paul were already there, doing some mixes. And I remember the engineer looking at me and Koss and sort of rolling his eyes, and I remember Andy saying, “Listen, we’ve got talk. After this tour and this album, me and Paul want to go our own ways.”

And I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was just like unbelievable. And that was it really. We thought maybe it was just something they were going through. We’ll get Chris Blackwell in on it, and we’d sit down around a table and talk about it like grown men. But it never happened.

And that’s exactly what happened — a big shame. That’s really when Koss went in a downward spiral, because he lived for the band. He loved Paul’s voice. I don’t think he saw himself working with any other band. And quite frankly, neither did I.

We were committed to doing a Japanese tour, which we did, and Australia, and we did these two tours and everyone was so tense and uptight, it was a terrible atmosphere. And we broke up after the Australian tour.

What do you remember about hearing when Koss died?
Kirke: Well, I was on tour with Bad Company. We were in New Orleans. March 19 — I remember the date. And I remember Peter Grant came on. He called me and he said, “Simon, I’ve got some bad news.” And I knew straightaway. He said, “I don’t want to tell you over the phone.”

He was in the hotel, and he said he’d come right down. And he told me that Koss had died, and we didn’t tell Paul. We were just about to go down to the show in New Orleans, and one of the songs is “Shooting Star,” dealing with “ ... Johnny died one night, died in his bed.” And I lost it. I had to bow my head and I cried. And Paul noticed this. And at the end of the show, he said, “What’s going on?” And Peter Grant said, “Listen, Koss died tonight.” And that was that, the end of an era.