Free: Tons Of Sobs - Album Of The Week Club review

A debut album from the youthful Free, a band with a couldn’t-care-less attitude honed on the rough-and-ready UK circuit of blues clubs and ballrooms

Free - Tons Of Sobs
Free - Tons Of Sobs

1. Over the Green Hills (Pt. 1)
2. Worry
3. Walk in My Shadow
4. Wild Indian Woman
5. Goin' Down Slow
6. I'm a Mover
7. The Hunter
8. Moonshine
9. Sweet Tooth
10. Over the Green Hills (Pt. 2)

Tons Of Sobs, Free’s debut album, was released in all of 51 years ago. No UK single was released from it, and that was hardly a surprise – I’m A Mover, performed at a slow, steady yet relentless pace, exuded a menace that had no place on Top Of The Pops. Not until All Right Now in summer 1970 would Free be recognised by the fickle chart audience. With Led Zeppelin’s career also taking off, this period was developing into a prime-time one for album bands.

Most first albums represent their performers’ stage act, and …Sobs was no exception. But the stage-hardened Free (they had played five or six nights a week in their short, six-month existence) found the atmosphere of Morgan Studios in Willesden, north-west London, not conducive to producing their best work. 

Even though blues-rock supergroup Humble Pie would knock off their first two albums there a matter of months later, Free singer Paul Rodgers couldn’t settle to the task. “They put vocalists in little, airless cupboards in those days,” he recalled. “I’d turn the lights down, close my eyes and imagine I was on stage. It was the only way I could get a feel for it.”

At least an air of informality was encouraged by maverick producer Guy Stevens who, in an attempt to capture Free’s live élan, took away the soundproof baffles so the band could see each other. The Tons Of Sobs sessions was one of the first jobs for young engineer Andy Johns (younger brother of famed producer Glyn, and of a similar young age to Free), who did his best to ensure smooth running on the technical side.

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Background

At the time when the sunshine 60s were about to give way to the uncertain 70s, the Island Records label was seen by rock fans as a trademark of quality. The record company once synonymous with reggae had seemingly cornered the market in home-grown progressive artistes: bands like King Crimson, Traffic, Spooky Tooth, Mott The Hoople. The ‘softer’ side of rock, from Fairport Convention, Nick Drake and even Cat Stevens, also enjoyed a certain credibility by association with the stark yet stylish pink label.

Free were part of the Island stable, yet they were also a breed apart. Younger than most – bassist Andy Fraser was a precocious 16 – they sported wild leonine manes of hair and a couldn’t-care-less attitude honed on the rough-and-ready UK circuit of blues clubs and ballrooms. Any promoter trying to pay a penny less than the fee the band’s contract stipulated would face a four-square, eight-fist protest. That togetherness also came across in Free’s music.

Other albums released in March 1969

  • Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde - The Byrds
  • From Genesis to Revelation - Genesis
  • Tons of Sobs - Free
  • Freedom Suite - The Rascals
  • Mothermania - The Mothers of Invention
  • Happy Trails - Quicksilver Messenger Service
  • Yer' Album - James Gang
  • At Your Birthday Party - Steppenwolf
  • Blue Matter - Savoy Brown
  • Bull of the Woods - 13th Floor Elevators
  • Family Entertainment - Family
  • New! Improved! - Blue Cheer
  • Spooky Two - Spooky Tooth
  • The Velvet Underground - The Velvet Underground
  • Wheatfield Soul - The Guess Who

What they said...

"Tons Of Sobs is one of those debut releases that create such an punch that you can't imagine its creators ever bettering it. And I am of the humble opinion that they never did. Every subsequent album bore less emotion, invention and out-and-out GUTS as this one. This is the sound of a bunch of cocksure, precocious teenagers getting their rocks off. Hear this marvellous record and you'll end up hating All Right Now even more than you do now." (Head Heritage)

"Perhaps the most stunning and noticeable thing about Free's debut album is Paul Kosoff and his outstandingly superb guitar work. Kosoff died seven years after this album's release, but at least he died in the knowledge that Free's first few albums were largely assisted by his talent as a guitarist. Literally every song on Tons of Sobs features Kosoff playing guitar as excitably and precisely as humanly possible, no matter how fast or slow the songs themselves are." (Sputnik Music)

"Although Free was never destined to scrape the same skies as Led Zeppelin, when they first burst out of the traps in 1968, close to a year ahead of Jimmy Page and company, they set the world of British blues-rock firmly on its head, a blistering combination of youth, ambition, and, despite those tender years, experience that, across the course of their debut album, did indeed lay the groundwork for all that Zeppelin would embrace." (AllMusic

What you said...

John Davidson: To my shame I've never heard this album before, so thanks once again to CRAotW for helping me correct that.

Overall this is great showcase for Kossof's guitar and the band are so damned tight it's hard to believe they were all still teenagers.

The vocal performance comes and goes. Some if it is superb, soulful blues that belies Rodgers' tender years (Walk in My Shadow) but on other tracks (Worry) it doesn't work so well.

What stops this being a 10/10 is the songwriting. They all went on to bigger and better things (in Free and, those that survived, beyond) and there's nothing on here which holds a candle to their later work.

Harrison Wells: Absolutely love this album. Paul Kossof is one of the most underrated guitarists ever. Great distillation of British blues.

Michael McAleer: Absolutely wonderful record. Kossoff blew the socks off Eric bloody Clapton.

Derek Mullen: Raw and rugged no frills heavy blues rock. Still love this album. Outstanding vocals and guitar.

Graham Tarry: The number of great albums that this band produced in such a short time is impressive. There are some mighty fine tunes on here, especially Walk In My Shadow, I'm a Mover, and Sweet Tooth, though the live version of The Hunter is superior to the studio one I think.

Mike Knoop: What I was expecting: An album of blues slavishly replicated by British musicians not even out of their teens who recorded their big FM hit All Right Now once their collective balls dropped a few years later. 

What I got: A fully-realised album by a band with a sound more mature and experienced than one could ever expect. Especially a first album recorded on the cheap and in a hurry. 

Goin' Down Slow is a little too on the nose for me and the lyrics to Wild Indian Woman haven't aged well, but tracks like Worry, Walk In My Shadow, Moonshine and Sweet Tooth mix the blues with something meaner and more aggressive. There's a lot of Cream in these blues but that doesn’t take away from the band’s already awesome musical abilities. And, damn, did Paul Rodgers come out of the womb with that voice?

Paul Kirk: Classic album from my favourite band. Amazing to think just how young they were when they recorded it.

Dean Middleton: Fantastic blues album from one of my top five bands of all time. Sadly underrated band.

Jim Linning: I'd put this album up against Led Zeppelin I and Van Halen as the best rock debut album of all time, never mind the 60s.

Tim Carter: Such an amazing album. I only wish I had heard it much sooner. It's truly underrated, which is why I've never heard any of it on the radio.

Phil Yates: Never realised they were as young as that when this was recorded. It may be a bit rough around the edges but I think it's also a really assured sounding debut especially when you hear that awesome voice come out of the speakers right at the beginning. Lovely raunchy and unfettered British blues with even better to come.

Mike Ollier: A fine, raw album introducing the extraordinary Paul Rodgers and the wonderful Paul Kossoff. What a tone he had.

Also gave birth to the North Eastern cry, heard in pubs on band nights "De yea dee th unter, mate? De yea dee th unter?"

Superb album.

Gary Claydon: No need for in depth analysis of this one. It's Free, which means Paul Rodgers and Paul Kossoff, two of the greatest exponents of their craft we've ever seen, which all equates to top-notch blues rock. I like the fact that it's a bit rougher round the edges than their later work. Best debut album ever? Not in my book, but there will be plenty who think so and with good reason. Brilliant stuff.

Carl Black: This started out well but faded by the end. The first side is killer. Great sound great vocals, great songs. I love it when the vocals go beyond the range of the recording equipment, all ways tells me they are giving it their all. They just ran out of ideas, which was a shame.

James Praesto: Free is one of those enigmas of classic rock. After millions of sold albums, you would still be hard pressed to find an average bear that knows any of their songs, other than maybe able to struggle through humming All Right Now. This once so mighty UK band seems to have fallen between the cracks in people’s general attention spans, and have instead been demoted to representing that one track on endless rock collections in clearance bins everywhere. How is it that a band so full of talent and poise, can so disappear from the annals of rock’n’roll? Why are they not always mentioned in the same breath as Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Kiss and Deep Purple? With reverence, even! Why is Greta van Fleet not trying to be Free, dammit!? 

Maybe it is because of their early collapse as a band? They really only made a name for themselves after their third album, Fire and Water, and by the time their sixth studio album came out (Heartbreaker – my favourite), the band was basically done. Still, during those four years, from the first album to the last, they managed to squeeze more rock out of their stones than most bands do in a lifetime, on six studio albums. Six! Nowadays we’re lucky if our favourite bands shit out a release every five years. Re-visiting their debut Tons of Sobs, is something I gladly do this week, as I get a chance to approach it from the angle of rock’n’roll science - sticking it in the petri dish and taking notes of what grows - rather than just strapping on my guitar and playing along, waking the neighbours with ill-conceived pentatonics – grinning like an idiot. I’ll do that afterwards. Maybe during… We’ll see. Fuck my neighbuors anyway (one of them stole our fire pit a few weeks ago – ashes and all – don’t know which one).

I’ll be the first to admit, I never cared for the intro of Over the Green Hills Pt. 1, and the way it bleeds into the first real track Worry. It is a little clumsy, and I have a feeling that may have turned off some people trying to get into this band for the first time. Worry itself is a perfect showcase for what Free was at the time: an upbeat blues outfit, heavy on the guitar, and sporting a singer with some real swagger. Sure, the song is more of a loose jam than a song, and the whole band sometimes sound like they just met for the first time (but having a good old time nonetheless), but the passion is obvious. Walk In My Shadow and Wild Indian Woman are much better at delivering the band’s full potential, though. Walk In My Shadow is the first chance for Paul Rodgers to show his chops. He gets so into the song that he sends those needles on the sound board shoot all the way into the red, when he leans in. It is kind of charming to get that unadulterated distorted passion right out of your speaker. I also find it liberating, in these PC times, to be able to get to enjoy a song like Wild Indian Woman that belts out “You don’t need your horses, baby – you got me to ride”. Yes, he just assumed gender, race and sexual orientation, all in one song. Triggers…

Going Down Slow is where it really starts to cook. Eight minutes of anything can sometimes be too long, but this song is the quintessential Free tune, and is also where I get to put guitarist Paul Kossoff under the microscope. First of all, this kid was 18 or 19 at the time of the recording. As a U19 football coach (“soccer” to you savages), I can tell you that there has not been one single time I have ever looked at any of the kids I coach and thought of them as anything but mostly clueless children. The notion that any of them could strap on a guitar and wail the blues with conviction, rivalling that of any of the other guitar greats, is purely ridiculous. But here, front and centre, Paul Kossoff delivers a masterclass in the art of blues guitar, ripping those heartstrings to shreds. Blues is supposed to be an expression of your soul, and whereas Clapton’s best cuts come from a place of pain and desperation, Kossoff’s blues on this album was a cry of joy, spirit and youth. His blues was infectious, unapologetic and heavy as hell; the musical equivalent of a big fucking grin. His surrender to drug abuse and tragic early death in 1976 make you wonder how large his footprint could otherwise have been in the bedrock of guitar history, had he lived to stay the course. In my mind, he is up there with the big ones, for sure. 

I’m a Mover finds a little more balance and lets Paul Rodgers shine with his story telling baritone. The funny thing is that I have always considered Paul Rodgers to be one of the best singers in rock, but if I was to be technical in my analysis of his raw and natural vocals on this particular album, they are really rough in spots here and there. However, this is made up for through the passionate and energetic delivery. We also have to remember that most of these tracks were cut live in the studio in a pretty rushed setting on a tight budget. One take and out; that kind of thing. 

The Hunter is more straightforward in the kind of format that would do well as any old cover in any old bar setting. Easy to hum along with, perfect for jamming, but not exactly the most memorable tune on the album. On the next track, Moonshine, however, Free open up in a slow groovy number that allows the band to really come together as one solid unit while Rodgers gets to both croon and wail. I am usually not a fan of bands recording two lead guitars on top of each other, when there is only one guitar player in the band, but with the dual harmonies in the solo here, all is forgiven. It may not be doable live, but it sure is pretty on record. Kossoff’s tone is just so luscious. Sweet Tooth closes the album before the outro of Over the Green Hills Pt. 2 (much better than the intro version - should have skipped that one altogether). I love the verse, but find the chorus a little underwhelming, even for the simple format of the song. With the fat and juicy guitar riff, and the bass and drums sitting solid in the pocket, Sweet Tooth sums up the album in a way: pure blues rock with great vocals and fantastic guitars, but with some structural integrity problems in the songwriting department. 

When the album is over, I am just reminded what a great band Free was. Sure, Tons of Sobs is way bluesier and much rougher around the edges than later releases, but it serves as such a great testimony to what true artists can pour onto tape – no matter their age, experience or budget – and it should get newcomers interested in following their musical journey over the next five albums until the bitter end.

Kenny Burns: I remember saving up to buy at our local record store back in the day. It had a different cover. I played it everyday for a year. Still think it may be their best album front to back.

Shane Reho: First time hearing this, and I gotta say, this is some good stuff. It's easy to see why they're considered one of the best bands to come out of the late 60s blues scene, this album is just as good as any other in that category. Not a fan of how they split up Over The Green Hills (kinda sloppy imo), but that's a minor complaint. 9/10.

Brian Carr: Years ago, I did a trial membership to Spotify’s paid subscription service. During the trial, I read a Classic Rock article about Free’s Fire And Water album, so I thought “cool! I can listen to it!” That album by itself probably convinced me to continue paying for Spotify every month. I even added Apple Music later.

So after a year plus of Classic Rock’s Album of the Week Club, we have Free’s debut, Tons Of Sobs. I’m rather surprised I haven’t checked out other Free albums, even James Praesto’s favourite, Heartbreaker. I’m such a slacker. At first listen, I didn’t dig it like I did Fire And Water. I chalked it up to debut album syndrome: hints of the greatness to come, but raw and very much a straight replication of their blues influences. I found the songs to be slightly lacking and Rodgers wasn’t yet “the voice” (but still pretty damned great for a teenager). 

On the plus side, wow - Kosoff kills on this entire album. Great tone and feel. Moonshine instantly reminded me of Dazed And Confused with its dark vibe; probably my favourite track on the album. Tons Of Sobs isn’t a bad album by any means. I just feel like Free hadn’t yet found their unique sound. It’s amazing to think they had it down within a year and were kaput within four.

Final Score: 8.00 ⁄10 (106 votes cast, with a total score of 849)

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