“The Family”. The use of such a phrase immediately brings to mind Charles Manson’s cult following, where alongside Altamont it sounded the death knoll of the late 60s counterculture dream. In stricter popular music parlance, we think sibling rivalry notably if your surname’s Everly, Davies or Gallagher, or fraternal business problems if you’re an Osmond, Jackson or even a Nolan. It’s in fact the way a former Leicester-based R ‘n B band Family are referred to by a couple of BBC radio presenters on the bonus second CD that comes with this remastered edition of their third album, A Song For Me.
Apparently, they took up the name following a suggestion by notorious US record producer Kim Fowley after him noting their tendency to wear double-breasted jackets on stage. Thus, an implied mafia connection. Ironically, unlike some acts that rose to fame in the 70s they never made such shady managerial connections.
Indeed Family, seemed to suit themselves. Dispensing of their formal attire, and less turning towards the kaftan look of the times more in favour of your grandad’s cardigan and tank top from some of the old photos I’ve seen. Musically they played the blues, folk, jazz, rock n’ roll and acid rock, sometimes within the same song, so got lumped in with that whole early progressive movement. Personality wise, they had some tortured souls and angry young men among them, their personalities grafted on for characters in Jenny Fabian’s Groupie novel, with numerous line-up changes in their lifetime not helping their grip on rock’s slippery rope ladder to success.
A Song For Me finds them having just lost bass player/violinist Ric Grech to the world’s first officially named supergroup in Blind Faith (Cream having been termed a “group’s group”) for all the good that eventually did him, dying an alcoholic at 44. Sensing stability problems were also going to be a problem with saxophonist and keyboard player Jim King, they jettisoned him. Their manager of the time also got waved goodbye halfway through proceedings.
Having received critical favour with their debut Music In A Doll’s House (bit too of-its-time for me), and increased chart success with follow-up Family Entertainment (featuring the excellent ‘The Weaver’s Answer’ single), this wasn’t the ideal time to start messing with a working formula.
Frontman Roger Chapman singer loosely resembled a cross between Joe Cocker and Ian Anderson but had a singular voice that could tear down the walls of Jericho with its ferocity and calmly narrate a gentle ode the next; it also remains a marmite voice you either love or hate. By comparison to the singer’s wild man image, photos of guitarist John (Charlie) Whitney tend to show him a shy, somewhat concerned individual, often seated with a twin neck 12 and 6 string the sound issuing forth pastoral where required but wickedly the most violent of players when he rocked out. The pair were the band’s main songwriters and would go on to form Streetwalkers. Generally, unsung, but with the band through its lifetime was drummer Rob Townsend (who went onto join Medicine Head) and listening to this album you can appreciate both how he keeps the band together through various time signatures while adding his own sense of dynamics.
To fill the gaps, they brought in a guitarist to play bass. This stated, former Eric Burdon & The Animals member John Weider could also play violin, as had Grech. He’d been recommended by Peter Grant who’d been co-managing them in the States, and we can only imagine what might have been if he’d come on board fully, when they ousted their previous manager and replaced him with one their roadcrew. Possibly the most surprising change in personnel was the addition of former Blossom Toes’ John (Poli) Palmer – Where once saxophone had blasted forth under King’s regime, now they featured a more inquisitory flute, and were given the added aural dimension of Palmer’s vibraphone (or vibes), plus keyboards as required.
In the decades that have passed since little Johnny Lydon started admitting his progressive rock influences, rather than the proscribed view of punk’s template solely being The Ramones, Lou Reed and The New York Dolls. To my knowledge, Family haven’t been mentioned, and maybe that’s oversight or actual ignorance on Lydon’s part, because, as evidenced on A Song For Me possibly only Van Der Graaf Generator in their wildest avant-garde moments can prove as savage on record… And yet, there are gentle reflectively moving pieces presented here too.
This variance of tonality and emotive feeling is evidenced in the first two tracks.
Pedalling acoustic arpeggios that are almost medieval in tone, sharp blasts of harsh electric, then strumming acoustics, there is musical interchange between stops and starts as Chapman roars in perplexed vexation and a little fear, all while Palmer’s flute plays around the vocal melody and boldly solos in unwavering tone. This is ‘Drowned in Wine’ and rather than being literal, the song appears to imply the anxieties of having to conform to a prescribed way of being, teetering on being out of one’s depths and not wanting to admit so, and possibly the inner thoughts of a young man as a new tumultuous decade began.
By comparison, there are warm chords, poignant classical turns of phrases, and soloing on guitar as they veer into a gentle jazzy singer-songwriter mode on ‘Some Poor Soul’. Offering lines like “Moon-soaked sky looks down, giving what it has to give,” has one envisage a tale of poachers and those creatures they hunt, be they beasts for feasting on, or the hobbit variety should your progressive mind wander in that more fantasy-oriented direction. Throughout, it is gentle, Chapman phrasing expressively with poetical lyrics, while once more Palmer takes to the band like a duck to water, his flute soloing freely. This is a song for a summer day, resting beside a riverbank, with a large glass of wine in hand.
Already, the listener is aware these are songs born of their time. Some might consider them melancholy in approach, my own feeling is that the glass is half-full here, amidst ever changing times and the circumstances one finds oneself in.
That changing of the guard is keenly felt on ‘Love is a Sleeper’ – Here there is extended many angled blues ‘n rock riffing but with vibes adding unusual and somehow perfectly fitting accompaniment. Then just before the two-minute mark it boogies harder, gets raving mad and faster, an organ revving away with a number of complicated false stop and starts by the band only for Whitney’s guitar to solo away while all manner of inspired creative lunacy plays underneath.
It’s also worth noting, if only as generalisation, how many tunes hitting the pop charts back in the early 70s held English traditionalism to heart. Years before pub rock became a genre, music influenced by singalongs around the pub piano was the in-thing; there was folk performed by jug bands akin to skiffle’s take on rock & roll; this and the chant off the football ground was all being put into a communal cooking pot for us to appreciate. Family weren’t a million miles apart in generating sounds akin to Mungo Jerry, Lindisfarne, Blackfoot Sue and countless others in their less bombastic moments. Three such numbers appear one after another.
‘Stop for the Traffic (Through The Heart Of Me)’ features electric and acoustic guitars playing in tandem over folk come rag-taggle feel-good rock. Here the tune is upbeat but lyrics otherwise, whether they comment on a personal love lost, a concern regarding narcotics abuse or societal indifference is ambiguous. These themes continue over ‘Wheels’ with its intricate guitar patterns prior to a wavering scream as it mutates into a raga roots rock approach over which a flute solo dances freely as if wandering like a castaway on a beach. Rounding this group out, ‘Songs For Sinking Lovers’ has Whitney also playing banjo and Wieder on dobro and violin, where they veer between county and folk with skiffle like approach initially, prior to the violin leading a melange encompassing classical, bluegrass and a kind of pop groove prior to soling prevailing. Unusual, and evocative, and ultimately climaxing in a hoedown jig. Again, lyrically, we find understated poetry revealed.
To ensure we’re kept on our toes, ‘Hey – Let It Rock’ proves anything but. It is also uncannily similar to Van Morrison’s ‘Moondance’, similarly released in January 1970. This proves to be an instrumental, with vibes leading the melody along. The band then suddenly shifts into dance band proto-metal rock & roll mode with the infectious, rabidly so, ‘The Cat And The Rat’. If you can prevent your body parts not doing a St. Vitus dance to this, voluntary or otherwise you’re a better man than me.
Another instrumental turns up with ‘93’s OK J’ where nagging guitar lines, distanced vibes, rollicking drums, and more Indian raga riffs take up the first half, before going to a more classical approach.
The original album then concludes with the title track, A Song For Me’. A progressive epic of sorts, gentle organ notes lurch into a heavy blues rock, and a kind of sinister vocal mugging that paves the way for Peter Gabriel’s ‘Moribund the Burgermeister’ and Genesis’ ‘Mama’. There is inspired warped genius playing of the violin, an electric guitar applying weird atonal sounds and what could be a flock of seagulls flying off in the distance during its performance, only for its main theme to return in speedy rock & roll form before climaxing with a power chord; a cacophony of violin sound and Chapman screaming out “Whooargh!” Way to go.
Both CDs are rounded out with A and B sides of singles, in both stereo and mono format. ‘No Mules Fool’ remains hummable with a catchy acoustic riff and violin melody, sung gently in an upbeat manner, evoking that carefree youth philosophy that: “We’re only doing what makes us happy”. The kind of number Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance would pursue more earnestly. B-side, ‘Good Friend Of Mine’, is piano-led, in what we might term today Americana albeit its lyrics very British in tone, like a young lad’s less romanticised companion to Mike D’Abo’s ‘Handbags & Gladrags’ narrative, ‘Today’ is kind of George Harrison goes medieval folk, and ‘Song For Lots’ a barroom piano and brass knockabout jam with whistling, clapping and whiz-bang rock and roll guitar solos to boot – the kind of thing you can rely on a good 7” vinyl B-side to deliver!
Disc Two takes as its main source two BBC Radio Sessions. The first being for Top Gear, in the summer of 1969. Its presenter, though not credited, I believe to be Brian Matthew, and in a brief interview with Chapman he enthusiastically asks in the polite tones of the times, atypical questions. Surprisingly, Chapman comes across as slightly nervous, rather than being wary, as he tries to express himself, talking about the growing interest in underground bands at seaside towns among other things, yet come time for the band to perform he is fearless as he confronts the microphone.
We get a version of ‘Drowned In Wine’ that is warmer on acoustic and vocals, while featuring a dirty great raging saxophone, for Jim King is still with the band at this stage, Weider having replaced Grech though. Both versions of the song are worthy of your attention, though in the context of the album they made the right choice in opting for Palmer’s flute. Further extended sax solos appear on ‘Wheels’, while the album version of ‘No Mule’s Fool’ is much the stronger to this listener but ‘The Cat And The Rat’ suitably manic, with radio spiel either side referring to them as “The Family” as does John Peel during the Sunday Concert tracks that follow.
Recorded in January 1970, with Palmer now in place, Peel was apparently a strong supporter of the band from their debut album on, and in his supposedly droll, but frankly just monotone manner here, expresses how he’d travel whole continents to see them.
In a brief interview with new manager Tony Gourvish, they discuss the failure of a recent US tour (the fault blamed on Chapman having a throat infection, though I recall having seen online historic press cuttings that played up other angles). Sadly, Peel, comes across like a faux hippy playing a game of one-up-man-ship in a smug know-it-all manner that would’ve got his head kicked in down the wrong boozer. You can feel how see he polished that technique in the decades to come, and albeit his whole dialogue lasts but minutes it leaves a nasty taste in the mouth, making me wonder how much he influenced Malcolm McLaren in far too many ways.
The version of ‘Love Is A Sleeper’ offered here is a little faster yet with less bite, however you can really hear the musical interplay between the band members and that truly makes up for it. The instrumental ‘93’s OK J’ is extended by two minutes, but ‘Songs for Sinking Lovers’ can’t be completely live, despite the crowd applause, because the first thing I noticed was intricate and thoughtful bass lines but there are also great swathes of violin, so how can Weider be playing both? The same applies to a previously unreleased track, ‘Here Comes The Grin’ a jazzy instrumental deep on interplay between bass (with a solo featured later) and vibes, then guitar and a distorted electric violin park up nicely, and we get more impressive musical interplay as various solos are taken. If other band members are doubling on instruments or swopping them mid-song, I need to know.
What I do know is that Whitney, like his contemporary Ollie Halsall, was a truly unique and innovative guitarist, without the need for grandstanding but when you heard him really slam into something the devil made the right choice inn possessing him. The interplay between the musicians is fantastic, whether with King or Palmer involved, and the range of music encompassed broad in scope, and far from being dated still sounds revolutionary in places.
To these ears, this remastered edition of Song For Me stands as the strongest album collection in their body of work; not everyone will agree but I couldn’t care less. Any young band, looking to delve into crossover music that plays by its own rules would do well to start here.
- Reviewed by Paul H Birch.
- A Song For Me is released via Cherry Red/Esoteric Recordings and is available now.
- Drowned in Wine
- Some Poor Soul
- Love is a Sleeper
- Stop for the Traffic (Through The Heart Of Me)
- Songs For Sinking Lovers
- Hey – Let It Rock
- The Cat And The Rat
- 93’s OK J
- A Song For Me
- Bonus track – No Mules Fool (A-side of single)
- Bonus track – Good Friend Of Mine (B-side of single)
- Bonus track – Today (A-side of single)
- Bonus track – Song For Lots (B-side of single)
Disc Two: BBC Radio Sessions
- Roger Chapman interview/Drowned In Wine (BBC session August 1969)
- Wheels (BBC session August 1969)
- No Mule’s Fool (BBC session August 1969)
- The Cat And The Rat (BBC session August 1969)
- Love Is A Sleeper (BBC John Peel Sunday Concert January 1970)
- Stop For The Traffic (Through The Heart Of Me) (BBC John Peel Sunday Concert January 1970)
- 93’s OK J (BBC John Peel Sunday Concert January 1970)
- Songs for Sinking Lovers (BBC John Peel Sunday Concert January 1970)
- Here Comes the Grin (BBC John Peel Sunday Concert January 1970)
- No Mule´s Fool (Stereo Mix)
- A Good Friend Of Mine (Stereo Mix)
- Today (Edited Promotional Version)