It was 1969, and three albums would arrive to typify British Blues: Jeff Beck’s Truth, Led Zeppelin I and Free’s Tons of Sobs. Two of these are venerated for having been the building blocks of blues-based rock. If you have both of those and think that you know the whole story, then I’m here to tell you that you’ve been missing something.
Free was still two albums away from the song that would put them into their little corner of rock
A quick listen to all three albums shows the same influences, but their execution is completely different. Jeff Back’s group was never totally cohesive, and even the “live” blues on their first album was a studio effort with overdubbed audience. (in fact, there is a better version of the same song on the remastered CD available now, with no overdubs). Zeppelin I sounds huge, massive, as if somehow, even from the first notes of "Good Times, Bad Times," Page and the rest had already shed the remnants of The Yardbirds in a single tour and were already a completely different entity. Tons of Sobs puts us front and center at the club show of a band that exploded from the first rehersal. Free , in fact, would be amazing live, and the records would only carry part of that weight. Lets listen in
Tons of Sobs opens and closes with a fragment of a song, "Over the Green Hills," and bleeds straight into "Worry," with Kossoff’s repeating guitar triplets letting us know that we walked into the pub in the middle of the performance. As the guitar solo ends, Kirke’s drums and Fraser’s menacing bass stalk in and we know that we’re in a whole different space. “If it’s the cold black night/that eating up your heart/the cold damp sweat/keeps you and sleep apart” sings a young Paul Rodgers. Free isn’t pretending to be anything other than what they are: a young blues playing their favorite music.
"Walk in the Shadows," and "The Hunter," show just how good and tight a band they were. Both have Fraser, whose bass was both melodic and inventive, locked in with Simon Kirke’s drums, riding the back beat while Kossoff alternates between riffing and some absolutely incendiary fills and solos. Rodgers is in amazing form already at the age of 18, putting real edge to such lines as “When I get you in the shdows baby/I’m going to give you whats in store.”
"Going Down Slow," sounds like it should be on Beck’s album, even opening with the obligatory boogie woogie piano, but this sounds like it really is live, a full band that doesn’t need the studio to make the thing work. "The Hunter," is uptempo from Zeppelin’s version, with some great guitar work, and, without the bolero ending that Page and Plant grafted on the end, sounds a lot more like Howlin’ Wolf then either of the band’s could manage.
In fact, Free was as preoccupied with getting some as Robert Plant or Howlin’ Wolf were. Two of the songs, "Wild Indian Woman," and "Sweet Tooth," have more double entendres than anything that the 60’s had run across in a long time; “You don’t need you horses baby/you’ve got me to ride/you don’t need your bed/I’ll keep you warm inside.” Lets spend the night together indeed. Sung in Paul Rodger’s most seductive voice, gliding on the back of a rhythm section that knew how to swing, one shudders to think of how well this worked for him in the pubs of North London in 1968.
On the deluxe version of the CD, the most readily available version, are a number of alternate takes and missing tracks, the most significant being the live BBC version of "I’m A Mover," which is certainly less polished than the studio, but far better in terms of sheer effort and energy. Loose and loud, Free has swagger, and a drummer who sounds even better when not compressed in the mix.
Two albums from now, on the Deluxe Edition of Fire and Water, you can flip from the classic "All Right Now," studio track to another live BBC track, and its like getting run over by a bus. Free could bring it all right. Bad Company had the hits, but I’ve never heard anything live from them that had the spark that Free had. Tons of Sobs is where it all starts however. Do yourself a favor and jump on the bandwagon 40 years later.
--The Fearless Rock Iguana
Buy here: Tons of Sobs