Rock history recalls Family’s fifth album, Fearless, as one their best, favouring it second only to their debut Music in a Doll’s House. Continuing their turnabout with bass players, John Wetton had joined (Having served time with Mogul Thrash who would curiously mutate into the Average White Band). Still ever present were their unique frontman Roger Chapman, twin-necked guitarist John ‘Charlie’ Whitney, drummer Rob Townsend, and three albums in multi-instrumentalist John ‘Poli’ Palmer.
This remastered 3 CD collection comes with the addition of singles, BBC radio sessions and a live concert – Across which are featured classics and more renditions of hit singles. While unseen at the time of this review, there’s a booklet featuring memorabilia and an essay on the band during this period, and if past evidence is anything to go by, they’re usually a good quality read.
Originally released in October 1971, Fearless made #14 on UK album charts, and cracked the US Billboard ones too. Its original vinyl cover is apparently now much sought after, being an expensively produced multi-layered affair featuring successive photos of band members. Co-produced by the band and George Chkiantz, it finds them in good form. Some might say less adventurous, others that they flitter less all over the place. They shear earlier psychedelic leanings, that were probably more cosmetic if not producer-led and concentrate on songs here. After many listens, where I’d made copious notes about how the record appeared to have its foundations in folk music, on reflection I’m feeling that less so now, but there’s certainly a more fundamental approach to both the construction of music and its overall delivery. The latter, in part I’ll put that down to Wetton’s involvement, for having recently read the book An Extraordinary Life, about him, and also independently speaking with a producer who’d worked with him, Wetton’s early schooling as a chorister and implicit knowledge of vocal and harmonic arrangements often comes into early formal play here. That there was also a good bond between the participating members during this period is also apparent, with them staying together for the following Bandstand album and scoring several hit singles along the way.
The remastered CD of Fearless plays in its original running order, with a few additional tracks tagged on. Chapman sings sweetly in the opening salvo of love gone astray that is ‘Between Blue and Me’, though there’s an underlying crepiness about it, as if wrought from some folk murder ballad. Wetton’s bass playing through the chord changes acting as melody until Whitney switches to electric guitars, of which there’s a least two, with twin harmony lead melodies ringing out (Live footage on Youtube shows that while Whitney was armed, as ever, with his 12 and 6 string double neck, Wetton was also using one when on stage, for bass and six string accompaniment). The number gets harder and grittier, Chapman anguishing out high notes with severe determination, Whitney meeting him with a whiskey-necked attack, and once the emotional rage has passed the band once more begin to subside in their playing as again bass leads us towards fade-out.
Gilbert & Sullivan go ragtime on ‘Sat’d’y Barfly’, a barroom piano-led Saturday-night-on-the-town heavy drinking tall-story, where a guest appearance by The Ladbroke Horns brass section take it to a whole other level. Some might point to the Bonzo Dog Dog Doo-Dah Band, other’s Family’s final album It’s Only A Movie, for similarities, I just know the various components should not work together but become more and more engrossed each time I play this one. The joyful innocence of ‘Larf and Sing’ comes next with Wetton joining Chapman on vocals and its diminished barbershop quartet arrangement is harmonically extraordinary while allowing Whitney to add lead textures on guitar in between.
The more progressive rock orientated ‘Spanish Tide’ again finds Wetton adding vocals while harpsichord and vibes tinkle away, guitars wah-wah funking or emitting great shrieks of background noise, all with the afterbite of their own ‘The Weaver’s Answer’ and even a little of The Who’s ‘Pinball Wizard’ somewhere in an arrangement that a more Bolshevik Traffic could themselves have easily have fell upon in a fertile field Genesis would plough early in their own career.
‘Save Some for Thee’ is another feel-good number, Chapman particularly coming across melodiously, while The Ladbroke Horns return and the underpinning drive of Townsend’s drumming keeps the whole thing moving. Progressive, maybe a little jazzy in a big band way, hard rocking too, is ‘Take Your Partners’ where Whitney’s guitar refrains from outrage but seeks ever to redefine its purpose in creative ways, his nearest contemporary possibly the late Ollie Hassall (of Patto, Boxer and indeed The Ruttles), before they collectively begin to get rowdy as early synthesisers sounds bubble and burp about.
Acoustic strummed ‘Children’ is another pleasant number with happy melodies that you could well have imagined as one of those folk rock numbers that hit the lower reaches of the singles charts back in the early seventies. Some might actually consider it the weakest number on the album, due to its very simplicity, but it has charm. Palmer’s ‘Crinkly Grin’ is far too short, vibes led it is energetic in its spright delivery and offers directions bands like Greenslade will explore instrumentally within but a few years. Less easy on the ear is the scouring country rock gone avant-garden soundscape that is ‘Blind’ with unholy washes of slide and affecting squalling bag pipe melodies (created by Palmer looping a piece of pipe through a string, allegedly), while Mr Chapman rages over the top.
Fearless’ final album track, ‘Burning Bridges’, mirrors opening number ‘Between Blue and Me’ and to a lesser degree lyrically echoes some of the others too, with religious allegories aplenty such as “Burning your bridges on Cod’s holy fire, and all of the children you sire.“ This time round it’s Chapman’s vocals that initially sound sinister (and often duplicated in their melody by various quieter instruments) yet becoming a more calming factor even as he hits a higher register as the song progresses. Whereas, in contrast, Whitney’s mandolin, while vaguely oriental in rhythmic pulse, carries a happier folk refrain the rest of the band develop upon as they ease in and out to make their presence felt as required.
For me, this is the band’s most coherent album. There’s a confidence in the individual performances and with each other, the songs emboldened by this with no great personal desires to flurry off into more erratic musical arenas, but rather progress within the framework established.
Of the two bonus tracks on this CD, you can’t go far wrong with ‘In My Own Time’, a number that demonstrates how open listeners were in ancient times with it having reached #4 in the singles charts back then – Chapman shrieking away from the opening bars, it developing into a bouncy semi-marching upbeat rock-jig with the lead vocalist espousing values many perceived as his natural non-plussed savoir faire of the time. ‘Seasons’ may well have been that single’s B-side, some nifty acoustic playing amid another quiet jolly and inspired performance from all concerned on a song that probably hardly got a listen – But then, that also shows the creative productivity going on, able to release two sides of a single that didn’t feature on your latest album. Imagine that but a decade or so later.
Disc Two features assorted BBC radio sessions from 1971. There are two sets of tracks recorded for Bob Harris’s show, and initially from June where first impressions are that the overall sound is going to maintain a more laidback folk vibe for Fearless’ when released in October. They lead with ‘Processions/No Mule’s Fool’, the former brief, the latter far less country had rocking. Bass player/violinist John Weider’s featured here, so it’s before he left to form hard rock band Stud, presumably later in that very month – His violin weaves nicely alongside Palmer who interchanges between vibes and flute. On ‘Part of the Load’ there’s a funky bass over which Whitney scours guitar lines that rock hard, blur the lines between west coast psychedelia, British blues and a little country, frenetically, as Chapman and Palmer join in suitably, Townsend both powering it all through while attempting to keep it on an even keel as it fades into jamming.
From the Anyway album, ‘Lives and Ladies’ is predominantly a piano led number until Whitney’s mellow, yet expressive extended guitar solo is proffered on this thoughtful anti-war song. Next up, is the first track I ever heard from the band and never was a number more apt than ‘Strange Band’, though the version here might be said to reflect the more progressive musical elements of Family than the savage ravings I have on an EP. Bongo-tapping hippy, raga violin, gentle hippy-folk finishes this set off with ‘Hometown’, from the budget-priced odds and sods collection that was ‘Old Songs New Songs’. Next up are four BBC Top Gear Sessions from the 2nd July, presumably with Wetton on board, leading with the defiant anarchy of hit single ‘In My Own Time’ with everyone on crystal clear, tight and on eloquent form. Underpinned by a distorted bass melody, ‘Save Some for Thee’ follows suit, then ‘Seasons’ as a pretty serenade. ‘Burning Bridges’ concludes this selection, where it can’t be denied the recordings capture the interplay between musicians and Chapman’s voice quite sublimely, the inclusion of disc jockey John Peel’s commentary however while presenting a certain historic providence tend to drag matters into the dreary, but that’s just my opinion.
The tail-end of the year sees them back for another BBC Bob Harris Session in November, albeit briefly. ‘Children’ has a distinctly live feel with Whitney on acoustic alongside an atmospheric Chapman, while ‘Between Blue and Me’ feature a fine Traffic-like delivery from band with Wetton, unusually for him, applying a number of harmonics during his bass playing.
There’s a pretty loud roar from the crowd opening Disc Three’s BBC Radio One In Concert show from 28th December 1971, so based purely on all these dates you could never claim Auntie Beeb wasn’t making sure her Family got heard. The band themselves are well honed as ‘Good News, Bad News’ proves, a damned more bombastic track live here; you initially appreciate the affecting vibes sounds, then get off on Whitney’s solo, but it’s somewhere half way through that you notice Wetton’s bass thundering progressively away also. It’s followed by Fearless’ ‘Spanish Tide’, with a more strident feel right from the get-go, a technical adeptness apparent too, though some may not like the sound of Palmer’s keyboards; there’s a unique sound produced albeit a little harsh, and possibly due to the vagaries of electronics in a live environment back then. ‘Part of the Load’ is less funky, more bluesy, as dictated by Wetton’s bass style and it’s thus interesting to hear how the rest of the band reacts to that. The rendition of ‘Drowned in Wine’ has Chapman roaring expressively away as Palmer plays airily on his flute, the rest of the band hammering down one minute playing it subtle the next, giving both Jethro Tull and Traffic a run for their money. ‘Holding the Compass’ is at times an uneasy blast of country rock jig but the audience appear to have no problem with it. The version of ‘Between Blue and Me’ is a little muddy in the mix, a creepy feeling of terror and dread seeping through nonetheless – It is also interesting to hear two guitars at times. By comparison, the acoustic ‘Children’ while feeling of its time and a little melancholy has Chapman singing of the joy of youthful innocence, before contrasting with the self-opinionated rage of ‘In My Own Time’ – Notable for Townsend’s almost bongo percussive approach, a more upfront bass, and Wetton joining Chapman on many of the vocals. Continuing this contrary variety, the rendition of ‘Take Your Partners’ is part krautrock with smatterings of jazz rock, avant garde punk, and musical box melodies, the concluding number ‘The Weaver’s Answer’ comes as a dose of relative sanity, but no less unique in this live setting once the familiar classic moves into its instrumental section, with first Palmer then Whitney raging away, the rhythm section thundering down hard and Chapman offering no quarter. What this third CD demonstrates is that Family played by their own rules, integrity standing tall within the maelstrom of dervish musicality they performed, with songs not so much evolving over the years but repurposing themselves to those gathered together in their collective performance.
Chronologically, you ought to play CD2, then 1 and finally 3, but across them you hear a band defining who they think they want to be, while being ready to accommodate and accept what tomorrow might bring. This collection demonstrates a fertile period for the band that was Family, with some strong songs to boot. A good solid place to start for those new to the band, and a welcome addition to my particular collection.
- Reviewed by Paul H Birch.
- Fearless (Expanded Edition) is released via Cherry Red Records on 29th September 2023.
Disc One: Fearless Remastered
- Between Blue and Me
- Sat’d’y Barfly
- Larf and Sing
- Spanish Tide
- Save Some for Thee
- Take Your Partners
- Crinkly Grin
- Burning Bridges
- In My Own Time (Bonus track)
- Seasons (Bonus track)
Disc Two: BBC Sessions 1971
- Processions/No Mule’s Fool (BBC Bob Harris Session 01.03.1971)
- Part of the Load (BBC Bob Harris Session 01.03.1971)
- Lives and Ladies (BBC Bob Harris Session 01.03.1971)
- Strange Band (BBC Bob Harris Session 01.03.1971)
- Hometown (BBC Bob Harris Session 01.03.1971)
- In My Own Time BBC (Top Gear Session 02.07.1971)
- Save Some for Thee (Top Gear Session 02.07.1971)
- Seasons (Top Gear Session 02.07.1971)
- Burning Bridges (Top Gear Session 02.07.1971)
- Children BBC (Bob Harris Session 08.11.1971)
- Between Blue and Me (BBC Bob Harris Session 08.11.1971)
Disc Three: BBC Radio One In Concert 28 December 1971
- Good News, Bad News
- Spanish Tide
- Part of the Load
- Drowned in Wine
- Holding the Compass
- Between Blue and Me
- In My Own Time
- Take Your Partners
- The Weaver’s Answer