Free: Tons of Sobs: Video Review
How I discovered Free, a look at the vinyl album, 2001 remaster and comparison with the new Andy Pearce remaster from 2016.
My introduction to the band was from The Free Story vinyl album, and I bet there’s many people out there that were introduced to this band the same way. When I bought this, I loved every track, but there’s something about the first track, I’m a Mover, where Paul Rogers’ voice sounds very different to how it would sound on all the other stuff. And you’ve got to remember with Free, they were aged between16 and 17 when they made their first album. I think Andy Fraser was actually barely 16. By the time they did All Right Now, they were only 17, 19 year old kids, so they were a very young band. Although, from their lyrical content they were very mature for their ages and had obviously done a lot of living from the kind of songs that they were writing.
There was something about that first album, that first track, I’m a Mover, that made me want to seek out Tons of Sobs. Now, I wasn’t quite old enough to buy Tons of Sobs when it first came out in 1968, and it was actually in 1976 by the times I got around to buying it. I bought it at the same day that I bought Run with the Pack by Bad Company. I bought them at the same time. I was just enthralled by it. Those of you who have been members of the Now Spinning group will know how another way I was introduced to Free was by their live version of Mr. Big from Free Live and what that meant to me when Alan Freeman played on his radio show. But it was still that first track, I’m a Mover on the Free Story that made me think I must listen to that album, and so off I went to Birmingham and Virgin Records to buy this album, Tons of Sobs.
It’s got such a mysterious cover, with kind of clown looking at Mickey Mouse in a coffin with a rabbit in the background in a graveyard. On the inside cover, you’ve got the band looking very mysterious. Paul Kossoff looking absolutely as if he could rule the world, and then this blurred picture on the right hand side and the fact that it starts with a track called Over the Green Hills, part one and ends with part two on the end of side two. And that’s the back cover. I wonder if I can just open it out, so you can the full glory of that gatefold sleeve. That is the cover for Tons of Sobs, 1968.
Now the version I’ve got has got the island, tropical island on the front, sorry, on the inner label. Now a lot of people get really hung up on what version they should have or have got, and this originally came out on the Pink Island label, and I have to say that kind of thing means nothing to me. I, personally, the album I bought at the time that I bought it, is the one that means the most to me. There like … albums are like dairies in a way. I remember posting a picture of a Soulful of Seekers by Pink Floyd, and somebody commented saying, “Oh, that’s not bad for the early ’70s version.” This doesn’t bother me. This obviously is an early ’70s version of Tons of Sobs, and the one I bought, I’m not bothered if I had the pink label on because this is the one I bought at the time, and this is the one I’ve treasured really.
As the age of vinyl shifted to CD, this originally came out on CD, I think in the early ’90s, and it was pretty ropy, I feel, and it was 2002 that the first Remaster appeared. And this was it. I really look forward to these, and I know many of you bought them all because on the spine, they form a picture of Paul Kossoff or Paul Rogers, depending on which was around you have them. They also came with an absolute abundance of extra tracks, and this one came with quite a few BBC sessions, a blues jam, Guy Stevens blue. He’s on the box head, actually, and also different versions of Visions of Hell, which is a track with an outtake, and the pink label is actually reproduced there.
There’s a booklet. Now, the booklets for this Remastered 2002 came with extensive notes, also some detail on the extra tracks as well, with the original pictures, plus pictures from the time. So, great stuff. And then it was someone on the music group that started saying that actually these Remasters are … sound a bit pants compared with what came in 2016, apparently.
And so almost begrudgingly, I went and purchased this one and the Heartbreaker one First of All to see if really there was a difference with these Remasters. The first thing that almost put me off, which did put me off, actually, for a while, was the fact that there are no extra tracks on the 2016 Remasters at all. The cover work is a little bit dark, not quite like the vinyl, and the other one actually has more detail on the cover. On the inside, again, they’ve reproduced the pink, original pink label, and the booklet this time just has pictures of the band from the period, so they’ve not lost it completely. This is mastered by Andy Pierce, who knows his job, it has to be said.
And so, again, some of the pictures … the reproduction’s not quite as good as the vinyl, however, what does it sound like. I have to say that this trumps this, which was the 2002 one. There’s something about the sound stage, the clarity of the musicians, the warmth of it. It’s probably as close as you’ll get to vinyl without having all the cracks and pops you get with that than you’re ever going to get. It sounds absolutely fantastic. And you have to remember that this is 1968. This is produced by Guy Stevens who probably had them in and out in about 48 hours. It’s raw. It’s probably recorded on a four-track. I don’t know. Eight-track probably max. But it is fantastic. It sounds unlike any other Free album, and Paul Kossoff is on fire on this.
Andy Fraser hasn’t quite got his mojo for writing the songs yet with Rogers. They’re nearly all Rogers’ compositions, apart from Moonshine, who’s written with Kossoff was well. But the guitar, the guitar by Kossoff, this is his most guitar-led album that Free made, I would say. The guitar in on … I mean, Going Down Slow is over eight and a half minutes long, is it? And the notes just pour out, and they’re sustained. And this is when he had that real tremolo affect on the sustained notes is on this album. The guy was, what was he? At this album he must have been about 17, 18 years of age. It’s absolutely incredible.
I mean, Over the Hills part one, the way it comes in, it’s so mysterious, and then the lead work comes in for the track Worry. It’s just absolutely brilliant. You’ve got Walk in My Shadow … but it’s also actually covered by Tommy Bolin in about 1974, as well … and Wild Indian Woman, as I said, Goin’ Down Slow. I’m a Mover, and that song about life’s a game just made for fun, and everything, it’s just the lyrics are just so mature for how old they were as a band. The Hunter, not quite the free live version. There’s some really funky keyboard in there, but it’s really cool. But Sweet Tooth is actually my favorite track. I think Kossoff’s playing on that, and then when it goes into that groove about two thirds of the way through, it’s just absolutely fantastic.
So, should you buy the 2016 Remasters? If you are a Free fan, and they’re one of my favorite bands, and there’s loads of bands who could release their Remasters again and again, and I’m not going to bother. It would be, yes, for me, I’ve bought them now, so if they do it again, unless Steve Wilson gets involved, that’s it. But for Free, they are one of those bands that seven albums they made, but this is the first one, and this is part of the UK Blues Boom. Whatever you might of think of people like Clapton or Gallagher, or whatever, whatever you think, Paul Kossoff, when he arrived with this, was incredible.
And I just think everything about this album, the cover, the mystery behind it, Island Records, it’s just fantastic, so probably one of the best blues rock debuts of all time, and as I’ve said, if you’re fan of blues guitar, this is where Kossoff made his mark. He might have later on pulled back on the amount of notes he was playing. He never played millions of notes. He’s not that kind of guy, but all the notes he plays are on target, and this is a classic piece of blues classic rock. Every home should have one.