A free-for-all can be defined as ‘a competition, dispute or fight open to all comers and usually with no rules’. It’s ironic that Ted Nugent should choose to title his 1976 album thus, because behind the scenes, lines were being drawn and hatches were being battened down firmly.
Nugent, formerly an unheralded, underappreciated Amboy Duke, had reinvented himself as a guitar-playing nutcase the previous year. Mega management team Leber-Krebs helped him snaffle a deal with Epic Records and a self-titled debut for the label ram-raided its way to No.28 in the US chart.
But it wasn’t all about Ted at this point – his band were totally top-notch. Vocalist/rhythm guitarist Derek St Holmes was tall, sultry and charismatic; Rob Grange was a stoic bassist in the hippie-haired Entwistle mould; Cliff Davies was a studious, technical drummer, having previously been a member of British jazz-rockers If. All eyes might’ve been on the crazy-eyed, bushy-tailed beardie dubbed The Loudman, but it was a team effort that put the ‘Great’ into Gonzo.
That all started to change on Free-For-All. Nugent was marched, stormtrooper-like, into the spotlight and his sidemen became increasingly, well, sidelined. On the ’75 Ted Nugent album, St Holmes’s classy, measured approach – both vocally and stylistically – helped mollify his master’s hot-headed antics. But on Free-For-All, the beast broke free of its cage and St Holmes was forced to scuttle for cover, even going AWOL during recording sessions. (A young Meat Loaf was drafted in as his replacement.)
The classic Nugent band would endure for one more record, 1977’s Cat Scratch Fever. Since then, Ted has been content – and likely delighted – to employ a succession of nonentities as back-up.
Despite its troubled genesis, Free-For-All gained a higher US chart position than its predecessor and even cracked the UK Top 40. But in truth there are only two outstanding tracks: the barking-mad title song and the howlsome Dog Eat Dog.
While no one really noticed at the time of release, these being pre-Bat Out Of Hell days, Meat Loaf’s vocal contribution is much more conspicuous to modern-day ears. He takes lead on five tracks – Writing On The Wall, Together, Street Rats, Hammerdown and I Love You So I Told You A Lie – and his signature operatic waverings, while muted compared to future endeavours, do sound slightly off.
A raw-as-you-like bonus track with St Holmes singing Street Rats is much more what the doctor ordered./o:p
FINAL VERDICT: 6⁄10