“We didn’t go ‘That’s your job’ – we’d say ‘Why don’t you have a go?’ I can remember playing solos on Stylophone… In some places it was like 'the Martians have landed!‘” How Family made Bandstand, and where it took them

Family in 1971
(Image credit: Getty Images)

One of the great and most original progressive bands of the late 60s and early 70s, Family were an influence on so many groups that came along after them. Prog talks to Roger Chapman and Poli Palmer about one of their best albums, Bandstand, 52 years after its original release.

“We weren’t trying to sound different – we just were different,” vocalist Roger Chapman says of his former group, Family. And while never a vehicle for double concept albums or displays of flashy virtuosity, they were one of the first and among the most open-minded of the late-60s/early-70s progressive rock groups, mixing songcraft with a multitude of styles from jazz to soul to heavier rock forms, to folk, classical and Eastern influences.

They were also a dynamic live act, with Chapman a particularly intense frontman. In a time when musically different was embraced by the record-buying public, all this contributed to a series of UK Top 40 albums and singles before Family’s dissolution in 1973.

John ‘Poli’ Palmer had a background in jazz drumming. He’d had spells with Blossom Toes and folk-rock band Eclection before joining Family in 1969, playing flute, keyboards and vibes. Looking back, what does he think of Family’s position in the 70s progressive-rock milieu?

“We used to get on with a lot of the other guys, but any musical kinship was probably more with bands like Traffic than Yes,” Palmer says. “Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but a lot of musicians who talk about Family say, ‘Oh, you were a proper band. You weren’t like a bunch of posers.’ There was no thought of what you called it. We all came from different areas of music and thought whatever sounded good to our earholes would probably sound good to other people. We were naïve as that, really.”

Family formed in 1966, having come up through the Leicester rock’n’roll scene as The Farinas and The Roaring Sixties, and in 1968 released their debut album, the post-psychedelic, proto-prog masterpiece Music In A Doll’s House, produced by Traffic’s Dave Mason with Jimmy Miller.

When Palmer joined he was known by his school nickname ‘Poli’ to differentiate him from John ‘Charlie’ Whitney (guitar) and John ‘Willy’ Weider (bass and violin). When John Wetton replaced Weider in 1971, a nickname was required. Wetton refused to reveal his middle name, but his bandmates found it out by looking at his passport. “So we called him ‘Kenneth’, and he hated it,” Palmer laughs.

“Besides his obviously serious capabilities as a bass player, John was a very warm, really nice chap,” says Chapman. “A great musician, a really good singer, and he played a bit of fiddle. He suited Family down to the ground.” Bandstand, Family’s sixth album, was recorded in the summer of 1972 at Olympic Studios in London and co-produced by the band and George Chkiantz. “George had been involved with Family right from Doll’s House, as a tape op,” Chapman explains. “He became like a sixth member.”

The Woolworth’s organ would only last a little while then go dreadfully out of tune… when we did a tour we brought half a dozen in flight cases

Poli Palmer

Burlesque, Bandstand’s first single, was released with the album in September 1972 and reached No.13. One of Family’s best-loved songs, it’s based on Wetton and drummer Rob Townsend’s strutting, funky groove, with Chapman’s voice snaking around the spaces and answering Whitney’s guitar lines – some of which Palmer doubles up on synth. It sounds like it might’ve been born from a jam, but, like the majority of the songs on the album, was composed by Whitney and Chapman. Chapman’s lyrics describe him ‘heading out west, down to The Burlesque’ in search of good times (a companion to Sat’d’y Night Barfly from 1971’s Fearless album). The titular Burlesque was a club, situated in a converted shop in Leicester and run by a friend of the group.

“In about ’66, ’67, we’d get a gig in Blackpool or Preston, or even Newcastle, and go back and do the all-nighter there,” says Chapman. “It was serious stuff. Even on nights off I’d go down there, get stoned, have a dance, spend the night socialising.” One of the song’s more mysterious lines is: ‘Got all my cards in one shoe.’ What does it mean? “I played chemin de fer as an amateur gambler,” Chapman explains. “The dealers have what they call a shoe, and he’d collect all the cards and put them in it. So it means ‘I’ve got everything.’ I’ve often wondered if other people knew what the fuck I was talking about!”

By complete contrast, My Friend The Sun, the second single, is an acoustic baroque folk song sung with disarming tenderness by Chapman. Palmer adds an instrument that was generally absent from the 70s keyboard wizard’s arsenal: the Woolworth’s organ. “When you plugged it in it had a motor that blew the reeds,” Palmer explains. “It’s a bit like a harmonium without pedalling it. But the bloody thing would only last a little while and would then go dreadfully out of tune. So when we did a tour we brought half a dozen of them in flight cases.”

Palmer explains that Family’s approach to recording could range from playing the song live, to building it up to include “everything but the kitchen sink.” And some instrument swapping might take place. “We didn’t go, ‘Right, that’s your job,’ we’d say, ‘Why don’t you have a go?’” Palmer explains. “On Glove I played organ and Charlie played piano. Charlie would never say he was a pianist, but he had that simplicity, and I would probably have over-thought it. I’d play anything that came around. I can remember playing solos on Stylophone.”

There was also an element of spontaneity and serendipity in their decision-making. “Olympic was a converted cinema. Studio One was where the seats had been, and the control room was the former projection room,” Palmer recalls. “Seeing the mics with 20-foot boom stands, and music stands left out from a session, somebody said, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to have string parts?’ And we got Del Newman in to do the strings, which was fantastic.”

I didn’t blame John Wetton at all… if King Crimson had asked me, I’d have probably joined them as well!

Roger Chapman

Bolero Babe gets its title from the rhythm. “We wanted a little theme that goes on and on, as in Ravel’s Bolero,” says Palmer. “I played those shimmery synth things, and when the strings come in, it just fitted perfectly. Del read the song and the band really well.”

Top Of The Hill is a gritty, intricate, rhythmically fluid song, with an inspired coda of strings and vibes. Family would often warm up with a studio improvisation before Chapman cued them in. But they liked the spontaneous prelude to the song so much that they kept it for the album and it became part of the arrangement. Palmer had a Gibson Maestro sax and clarinet effects unit, which he also used for his vibes, and he fed Whitney’s guitar through it for his solo on Broken Nose. “That’s actually a synth guitar solo, before anybody had invented a synth guitar,” explains Palmer.

An idiosyncratic love song, Broken Nose is driven by Wetton’s bass with Palmer playing a garish, flamboyant EML synth solo, and Linda Lewis on backing vocals. In the lyrics Chapman tells the tale of a man following his high-class object of desire. “It was actually my skit on those kind of Leiber & Stoller songs, which I loved – The Coasters and all that,” Chapman explains. But his imagination runs riot, culminating in, ‘Oh, the day that I stopped loving you was the day you broke my nose.’

Swathed in Newman’s strings and with a sweet guitar solo from Whitney, Glove is about a woman much less likely to have inflicted physical injury. “I imagined a sort of 19th-century genteel lady, maybe American, with a parasol, walking in a long dress,” he says.

Chapman often used real-life observations as jumping-off points for his lyrics. The poignant Coronation focuses on a coronation mug and ‘tattered empire souvenirs’ in what appears to be a lonely person’s room. “It’s about me!” says Chapman. “The mug was actually on the dresser in my room.”

In some places it was like The Martians Have Landed, especially with Chappo going berserk onstage

Poli Palmer

He had recently moved into an apartment on Exhibition Road, London, with Family manager Tony Gourvish, and Jenny Fabian, author of the notorious autobiographical novel Groupie. When Chapman sings, ‘Doctor Sam going in next door,’ he’s referring to Doctor Sam Hutt, aka country singer Hank Wangford. “He moved in for a while. We let him use part of the lounge for his surgery,” Chapman quips.

Ready To Go begins with a kind of R&B groove, before a shift up into the chorus melody, then has some unusual chord changes. Recently this writer spoke to a prominent prog guitarist who is fascinated by Whitney’s chord shapes. But although musically inviting, the lyrics deal with Chapman’s annoyance at sniping reviews in the music press, with ‘Your crass byline pulpit’s beginning to smell.’

Once Bandstand had been recorded, Wetton left to join King Crimson. “John wanted something probably more adventurous,” says Chapman. “And Crimson were a whole entity unto themselves – and still are, to my mind; a fantastic band. I didn’t blame him at all. I mean, if Crimson had asked me, I’d have probably joined them as well!”

One of Family’s strongest albums, Bandstand reached No.15 in the UK and, like its predecessor, Fearless, sneaked into the US Billboard Top 200. With Jim Cregan now on bass, Family toured the US by invitation of Elton John. He was a fan and had supported them when he was an up-and-coming singer-songwriter. “In the big cities we went down well with Elton John’s fans, but not everywhere,” Chapman remembers. “You’re in the middle of fucking nowhere, and you’re still in a 15,000 capacity venue, and they wouldn’t be so keen on us then. But it was a really great tour and didn’t do the band any harm at all.”

“In some places, it was like, ‘The Martians have landed,’” says Palmer, “especially with Chappo going berserk onstage, and they couldn’t hack it. But mostly it was brilliant.”

I’d say with Roxy Music, Genesis – Peter Gabriel particularly – we were definitely a small influence on their musical lives

Roger Chapman

Despite Palmer having enjoyed recording Bandstand, he left before Family’s next, and final, album, 1973’s It’s Only A Movie. There was no animosity behind the departure – he’s currently writing new material with Chapman – he just needed a change. “It was slowing up a little bit, and it’s hard to maintain that mutual working off each other,” he says. “You want every tune and every album to be really good, and when you don’t think it’s quite there it’s better to just knock it on the head.”

As well as their recorded legacy, Family were one of the most influential of the 70s progressive rock bands. “I’ll say this, and not because of my ego, but guys would come up and tell me how great they thought we were,” says Chapman. “I’d say with Roxy Music, Genesis – Peter Gabriel particularly – we were definitely a small influence on their musical lives. And Queen, really. Even The Police. We were one of the founders and were just before them. They were picking up on us because we were doing something different from the general run of music. Like you have all these ‘influencers’ now, we were a musical version of that.”

Mike Barnes

Mike Barnes is the author of Captain Beefheart - The Biography (Omnibus Press, 2011) and A New Day Yesterday: UK Progressive Rock & the 1970s (2020). He was a regular contributor to Select magazine and his work regularly appears in Prog, Mojo and Wire. He also plays the drums.