Reflecting on 45 years in music, Paul Rodgers concludes, “It’s been a wonderful journey. I left Middlesbrough as a teenager with a cloud over my head, with a lot of tension and aggravation inside of me that I wanted to understand, and music has enabled me to get to a point where I’m peaceful now. I feel on top of my career at the moment. I feel actually free. In the past, it got unwieldy, with too many cooks. I like to be in control of my own destiny.”
With The Royal Sessions – his first solo release in 14 years – out soon, Rodgers weighs up the key albums in his career, from his early work with rock’n’roll titans Free and Bad Company to his collaborations with Jimmy Page and Queen.
Of all of his many, marvellous musical adventures, Rodgers says, “I look back on the early days of Free with Paul Kossoff with the most fondness of any of my bands. Because I met him at a time when I was in London and very hungry, and we believed in each other.”
Words: Nick Hasted. Originally published in Uncut’s April 2014 issue (Take 203).
For this, their second album, Free dispensed with the heavy blues vibes of their debut, Tons Of Sobs. Singer Rodgers and bassist Andy Fraser came to the fore as songwriters, while the band developed a more personal, soulful sound.
PAUL RODGERS: It was felt, by the record label and everyone, that [Tons Of Sobs’ producer] Guy Stevens was a bit too out-there. So this next LP was cleaner, more thought about and produced. Chris Blackwell was in the studio quite a bit. I did a lot of my writing on acoustic guitar, as I lived in bed-sitters, and that was really all you could play in rooms like that. So I’d bring something like “Mouthful Of Grass” along and we’d electrify it with the band, then I started to visualise how it would be with the band as I wrote. Some of the songs remained acoustic, like “Mourning Sad Morning”. If it sounds hymnal, that might be my Catholic upbringing as a choirboy! I double-tracked my vocal for the first time on that song. I was learning about being in the studio. The idea is you negate all outside noise, booth everything off. But the danger is you lose the band feel. We wouldn’t go in another room, so we could still vibe with each other. I’d close my eyes and imagine I was onstage in front of a crowd, as that’s the real telling time. Paul and I would listen to the way Albert King would sing then answer with a guitar line, and we did that together a lot. We were learning to put something together that was totally original. That was the direction on this album. We were a rock band with soul.
FIRE AND WATER
“All Right Now”, a No 2 hit in spring 1970, prepared the ground for Free’s career-defining album, also a transatlantic smash. Fire And Water balanced the folky melancholy of “Oh I Wept” with wailing soul-blues, showcasing Rodgers’ voice and Kossoff’s guitar.
We produced it, with Roy Thomas Baker’s help. We were all in it together, we felt. We didn’t need someone with a producer’s chair. We’d balance ourselves every night onstage and find the right place to be and get in the groove. That’s what we wanted the record to do. Very often a producer might crank the vocal up so it’s drowning out everything else. That wasn’t where we wanted it to be, we wanted it to sit right, where we heard it onstage. So that was the production we did.
I think we’d learned more about songwriting by Fire And Water. Wilson Pickett had a hit with “Fire And Water”, and I can’t even tell you how cool that was. Because that was exactly my intention – “I wanna write something that one of those soul guys could sing.” I didn’t think they actually would! In those days, I held them as if they lived in Paradise and I would never get to be in touch with them. “Mr Big” is a very tough lyric, I’m amazed I got away with. I used to listen to BB King, and I think I was inspired by his approach to womanhood, if you like [laughs] – his manly stance! And that song’s a lesson in simplicity. Because the simpler the song, the bigger it sounds. The notes have room to echo.
“All Right Now” was the climax of all our efforts. We did it in the small studio downstairs in [Island studio] Basing Street that everybody used to call the Crypt. The guys put the track down first. I went out to put the vocal on, and I could see Chris Blackwell and his entourage come into the control room. It was a nice vibe, actually. I could tell by the way their jaws dropped that we had something. Success took us by surprise, though. The Blind Faith tour that followed knocked the wind out of us. ’Cos from being the headliners and packing out clubs all over Europe, literally on word of mouth – we were underground, you know – our gear was suddenly being flung on these huge stages, and it was just bedlam. We were exposed to the politics of the business, just thrown to the lions. It ripped the lid off our underground pretensions, and there we were, a big commercial band all of a sudden. I don’t think we were quite up for it. We were demoralised.