There were all kinds of reasons Free imploded, it’s a shame says frontman Paul Rodgers
- Credit: Archant
Fifty years have passed since Free’s Paul Rodgers and the late Paul Kossoff met. Devoting an entire tour to the band’s songs for the first time since those days, he says performing them without his friend is heartbreaking.
Every time Paul listens to a Free record the memories of “Koss” come flooding back.
The guitar great died from a drug-induced heart attack while on a plane flight from Los Angeles to New York in 1976. He was just 25.
“Fame and success floods you with 10,000 volts or more of electricity and that can blow some people’s minds. Those days there weren’t the facilities to look after people (battling addiction),” says Paul.
“It wasn’t really understood. If one got attached to some drug there was no help. We didn’t know what to do. We were on our own thinking ‘what do we do’. We actually put the band back together in 1972, thinking that would do it but we weren’t experts.”
The singer and songwriter - who also fronted Bad Company, The Firm, The Law and later Queen - remembers belting up and down the motorway to gigs with Koss in the driving seat.
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“He was a very together and organised person. It was only after Free split he declined somewhat. We can all psychoanalyse after the event but I think without the band he needed something and that’s where the drugs came in.
“The area he was living in wasn’t perhaps the greatest idea. There were people who would’ve been ‘hey man try this’... There was that weakness there. When we were together we smoked a little weed, but that’s all. There wasn’t anything of any heavy nature - it was all about making the music.”
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Koss’ drug problems, differences between Paul and bassist Andy Fraser plus inconsistent record sales led to a temporary split in 1971. After setting their differences aside in the bid to save Koss the reunion didn’t last.
Paul regrets the way Free ended.
“A lot of people loved the band and it was a shame we imploded together and then we exploded out. There were all kinds of reasons... It was too intense. At some point we had to get away and rediscover our individual selves. Looking back - and I’ve heard other bands say similar things - if we’d had older, wiser heads to say ‘guys take a break, go off and do something else and come back in six months’...
“But we were always adamant about everything we did so it was ‘right we’re done’,” he laughs.
“And off we went. It was very hard to put back together. We did try but somehow it was fractured after that. There are bands that survive that (living in such a pressurised bubble). You think of the Stones. They’re amazing and still going but they’ve had members coming and going. I suppose it’s life.”
The pair regularly bumped into each other on the same club circuit in 1967. Paul remembers seeing a long-haired Koss with flared Levis sat on an amp playing guitar at the record store where he was supposed to be working.
It seems like yesterday they first jammed together at the Fickle Pickle Blues Club in Finsbury Park. Paul still remembers telling him “right, you and me we’re forming a band”.
“Time is very elastic. At the time it seems very slow, then when you look back it’s gone very quickly. We should treasure every moment, that’s what it comes down to,” he says.
The duo were so compatible, so of one mind as to what they wanted - to be free to play the music they loved, blues and beyond.
“We knew we had something special between us when people told us that when we played, time stood still.
“Not only was Koss the soul of the band, playing every note deeply... From his very soul... Everybody loved him and rightly so.”
The first song they wrote together was Moonshine. Paul remembers Koss playing the music and asking him if he could write the melody and lyrics.
It was the song they were playing when Alexis Corner walked into rehearsals and suggested Free At Last as a band name.
It won’t be the same on stage without Koss, sighs Paul.
“It’s heartbreaking. I’m listening back to the music and all the guys really. So many memories flood back, it’s amazing. All the struggle for survival, finding oneself, writing this music and getting it out there; all the intimacy, the fights, the emotional content of the whole world at that time. I listen to Come Together in The Morning and I think Koss’ playing is just... It makes me cry what he puts into his guitar playing.
“I think that’s possibly the best record Free ever made in my humble opinion. The tour’s called Free Spirit and that’s the only way we can have Koss there. We’ll be thinking of him and hopefully he’ll be there looking down on us.”
Other bands have come and gone, each with their own memories. Free has a special place in Paul’s heart.
“It always will. I feel honoured to be connected with all of those bands, all the experiences I’ve had with them. When I set out from my home town I didn’t realise this but, looking back now, I was searching for something. What I wanted to do was survive, to find peace of mind and to make music. Well I did that.”
Joining Paul on tour is Deborah Bonham and her band, who feature players from Black Sabbath, Steve Marriott and Rory Gallagher. She’ll be performing songs from her albums, being re-released this month. Special guests include Nigel Kennedy and former Robert Plant guitarist Doug Boyle.
The Free Spirit tour is in support of Willows Animal Sanctuary and Assisted Therapy Unit, whose motto is “people helping animals helping children”. Paul and his wife Cynthia are patrons of the charity, which also offers therapy to adults including soldiers returning from conflict.
The tour takes its name from a foal born after a dramatic rescue on the Shetland Islands.
“The back story is two ponies were abandoned by their guardians when concerned neighbours contacted Willows. After a 14-hour ferry ride the two arrived, one heavily pregnant and both full of worms,” Paul recalls.
“The drugs needed would most assuredly kill the unborn foal. However miracles do happen and a healthy foal was born and christened Free Spirit.”
Paul and Cynthia were amazed at the work the charity does with little money.
“They help people by connecting and grounding them with these animals and they find it’s a very healing process... It’ a lovely connection between the natural world and the human world and its helping both people and animals.
“It’s all hand to mouth really, they really struggle and we said we’ve got to try to help them you know, so we’ve been doing various things for a number of years. We thought ‘wouldn’t it be great to do the tour and give my entire profits to a charity’.”
Paul says audiences can expect songs like Travellin’ in Style, Magic Ship and usual fare like Fire and Water, Mr Big, Little Bit of Love and All Right Now.
“There are many songs we’re going to examine and revisit... I think people expect those songs but we’ll dig a little deeper and it’s going to be an exciting thing for all of us, musically.”