Spike's Free House: The All-Star Tribute Band That Became A Nightmare

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It’s Thursday afternoon at Sweden Rock festival, and the final, familiar, evocative notes of Free’s All Right Now are drifting out across the Baltic Sea. The irony of the song’s title isn’t lost on the five members of the band playing it. Spike’s Free House is a collective of musicians from such rock’n’roll mainstays as The Quireboys, Thunder, Magnum and Free themselves, brought together through a love of cult singer Frankie Miller. But not so long ago, this musical love-in was almost as far from being all right as it gets.

“I’m singing those words, and in the band of my mind I know it could have gone so horribly wrong,” says Spike as we weave back to the dressing room after they finish. The Quireboys’ singer is the hinge around which this project pivots, but he’s not talking about the pressures of the band’s first ever public performance today. No, the setback that threatened to derail Spike’s Free House was something altogether more serious.

The line-up of Spike’s Free House was originally set to feature ex-Free bassist Andy Fraser – like Spike, a Frankie Miller aficionado. It was also significant for fans of Fraser’s former group. His ex-bandmate, drummer Simon Kirke, was also on board, meaning it would be the first time the pair had played together in more than 40 years.

Then, in March 2015, tragedy struck. Andy Fraser passed away after a long battle with both cancer and Aids. After much soul-searching, Spike elected to carry on with his band. But what had started out as a tribute to one musician had inadvertently ended up becoming a tribute to another.

“I couldn’t bring myself to speak to anyone in the immediate aftermath of Andy’s death,” says Spike. “I was speechless. But it wasn’t long before the phone started ringing and people wanted to know whether those shows would still go ahead.”

A few days earlier, the members of Spike’s Free House have convened in a Newcastle recording studio to rehearse for their upcoming debut show. It looks like an all-star branch of the Frankie Miller fan club. Alongside Spike himself, there’s Luke Morley of Thunder on guitar and Magnum’s Mark Stanway on keyboards. Behind them all is Simon Kirke, a man who knew Frankie Miller better than many. Between songs, they swap stories about Miller and the Scotsman’s contribution to homegrown rock’n’roll, his heroic dedication to partying, the missed opportunities that plagued his career.

“In the late 80s or early 90s myself, [former Duran Duran guitarist and Thunder producer] Andy Taylor and Frankie spent an evening together when Andy had a flat in Wandsworth,” says Morley. “We had guitars and a bottle of whisky and the idea was that we were going to do some writing. But we ended up getting pissed and having a sing-song. Frankie had an amazing voice.”

The impetus behind the project is all down to Spike. It was primarily put together to help support Miller and his family 21 years after the Glaswegian singer suffered the brain haemorrhage that cut short his career. The Quireboys man had recorded a pair of Miller songs on his 2006 album It’s A Treat To Be Alive. Frankie’s wife, Annette, heard them and began coming to Quireboys gigs.

“We became great friends,” says Spike, “and within a couple of months of us knowing each other she told me that Frankie had some songs left over – songs that he’d written but was unable to release or perform due to his illness.”

Annette Miller said she’d send Spike some of the songs to see if he was interested in recording them. A few of them weren’t finished, she explained. “But there weren’t just a few,” says Spike. “There were 350. There were five CDs full of songs!”

Originally, he planned to record them for a country album – “Because a lot of Frankie’s songs lend themselves to that style” – but decided that a good old-fashioned rock’n’roll album would reach more people. “Everyone thought Frankie was dead, and I didn’t think he’d like that,” he says with a laugh. “It was my job to use this unheard music to prove otherwise.”

Even fuelled by a limitless tank of enthusiasm, it took several years to compile and record the songs that would make up the album. The finished product, titled 100% Pure Frankie Miller, finally saw the light of day in September 2014. Its impressive guestlist included Ronnie Wood, Ian Hunter and Luke Morley. Most intriguing was the presence of Kirke and Fraser on the same album for the first time since the bassist quit Free in 1972.

“Two years ago, a member of Frankie’s management called me and asked if I’d work on an album featuring his undiscovered songs,” says Kirke, who has flown into Tyneside from his adopted hometown of New York. The drummer played with Miller in the early 80s, appearing on the Scot’s Dancing In The Rain album. “We had a great little band and we became really close friends. When I heard Frankie was seriously ill, I was so upset. That’s why I wanted to be part of this project.”

When Annette Miller told Spike that Fraser had written with her husband, a lightbulb appeared above the Quireboys frontman’s head. “You look at a song like Brooklyn Bridge – it sounds like a classic Free song,” says Spike. “Simon and Andy agreed, and both of them came on board.”

It was at this point that things took on an even greater significance. When Kirke and Fraser – who endured a fractious relationship during their time with Free – agreed to follow up their studio contributions by committing to a series of live shows, the project suddenly transcended its initial brief. So Spike’s Free House was born, its name a reference to both Miller’s Full House album and Kirke and Fraser’s old band, with an added pub reference thrown in for good measure.

“Simon and Andy hadn’t played live together for 40 years,” adds Spike. “Suddenly people started talking about a celebration of Frankie and Free. Luke was like a kid in a sweet shop. Without Free there would be no Thunder. We were all so excited. Then we heard the news.”

On March 16, 2015, two months before he was due to reunite with Kirke and join the Free House band for rehearsals in Newcastle, Andy Fraser was found dead in his car near his home in California. A post-mortem later revealed that he had suffered a fatal heart attack. It was a devastating blow for his new bandmates, and for Spike in particular.

“We had seven shows booked,” says Spike. “Andy’s flight was booked. He was raring to go. Then I was told he had been found dead at his home. It was a shock to everyone. There was a lot of soul-searching.”

Spike waited a month to let everyone come to terms with Fraser’s death and decide whether Free House should carry on. Fittingly, it was Kirke who made the decision for him. “Simon called and said, ‘Are we still going to do this?’ I said it was entirely up to him. This band wouldn’t have happened without him.”

Kirke is mindful of how his history with Fraser has impacted upon Spike’s Free House from the start, and he chooses his words thoughtfully.

“I was told Andy was going to play bass in this band and I said I’d love to work with him again. I was genuinely excited at the prospect. Then a few weeks later he died. That really deflated me and the project came to a halt.

“Eventually I said, ‘Let’s still do it.’ Because I wanted to put Frankie’s music out there. This is really about Frankie, always has been. But we can make it a tribute to Andy as well. It was a tough decision but the underlying reason that I’m doing this is because I love Frankie. The fact that Andy passed away stopped me in my tracks for a while. But we still wanted to do this.”

Watching Spike’s Free House rehearse on the banks of the Tyne, it’s clear they made the right decision. Enthusiasm, excitement and expectation, rather than regret and remorse, are the overriding emotions. Staying true to the Miller originals becomes less of a priority as the hours tick by, as the various musicians bring different elements to the mix. Significantly, Kirke refuses to impose his will when it comes to tackling the Free songs they also play, insisting that Spike and Morley put their own spin on Wishing Well, Mr Big and The Hunter.

“Simon could have come in and told us exactly how to play the Free songs and we would have happily done what he wanted,” says Spike. “But it’s been a very democratic process.”

A week later, that democracy is in full swing on the Sweden Rocks stage, although it’s slightly undermined when Spike accidentally cuts out two of Mark Stanway’s piano solos. It was, says Luke Morley, “like playing in the best pub band in the world”. Afterwards, there’s talk of following this show and a subsequent appearance at London’s Borderline club with more gigs, even if it has the potential to be an organisational nightmare.

For Spike, the fact that he’s finally realised his Free House dream is no longer enough for the unofficial custodian of Frankie Miller’s bulging back catalogue – this is simply the beginning.

“When we were approached to do Sweden Rock – long before Andy passed away – they asked what the band was going to be called,” he explains. “I didn’t have a clue. I was speaking to Annette about how Frankie had his Full House, so we thought about Free House – a place where old friends get together for a good night out. That name also means that whoever is available at the time can play in the band and there are no limitations on the line-up. I called up Luke and he said, ‘That’s a brilliant name – especially as you have two musicians from Free in the band.’ That hadn’t even crossed my mind! I didn’t even think about it. But the door’s open to Paul Rodgers if he ever fancies doing a duet.”