Beat Instrumental – August 1971
There was a time, not so very long ago, when the word Underground had some real meaning when used to describe a rock band. Back in the richer years (excuse my nostalgia) of ’67 and ’68, musicians who were unknown to the masses were blowing the minds of freaks and Flower Children whose bright robes matched their attitude to life. Grey and stark, the realities of life killed the dream of that generation, but the better outfits kept their audiences and continued to make good music. Family are such a band.
Underground? Yes, once they were a part of that short-lived scene. Progressive? Yes, their music has continued to alter and move, enabling them to maintain a high standard. It says much for the band that although they left the hip haven of obscurity behind for the more lucrative pastures of big-selling albums, they have never lost the respect of their audience. Their integrity has been questioned only by the hysterical few, the Sell-Out Screamers. But, to the more logical observer, Family have never been seen to compromise their music for the sake of making money. That is almost certainly the reason their music has made them money.
On a showmanship level, the nucleus around which their stage act has revolved has always been the contorted, cavorting, sweating, swearing, singing, screaming, wire of energy called Roger Chapman. On a big gig he really lets loose. Mike stands are clutched and squeezed, then pitched across the stage. Alert roadies swoop to repair the damage. A towel soaks up the sweat from his crazy face, then is hurled high into the air. When Chapman is really moving he is insane; a freaked-out marionette. But at the same time he is an excellent performer.
Off-stage, however, he is a very different person. Throughout the interview with B.I. he appeared completely relaxed, but the words kept coming in an even stream. Only occasionally, when pursuing a point of interest, did he jump to his feet and act out his sentence.
“When we started playing (in Leicester),” he said, “me and Rick (Grech) were in a group called The Exciters. Charlie (John Whitney) was with another local band. I decided to split for Germany and Rick joined Charlie. When I got home I came in as well. Jim King was
also in the band.
“We used to do a lot of Stax and Blues things. There were some jazzy things too- I’m talkabout Jimmy Witherspoon songs, jazz-tinged. The music was pretty wide then. The jazz came from Jim King. The rest was country and blues, with me coming on very strong on rock. I don’t know where the classical music came in. We found it creeping into the songs when we started writing our own material.”
The line-up for the first Family album was completed when Rob Townsend came in on drums. That was about four years ago. “When he joined we
started writing our own material,” Roger explained. “That’s when the whole change came. John (Whitney) and I got the songs down for the first album, Music In A Doll’s House. It was around this time that all those earlier influences came bubbling up. I’d done a little writing before, even when I was 17, but it never really gelled. Then in two or three months we had a whole batch of new songs. It was early ’67 so we had the influence of Flower Power.
“I only hear that album now if somebody else happens to be playing it. All I can say about it is that it was strong at the time. But doing that album gave us a bit of confidence. It was our first time in the studios and we were all very nervous. Even now I get a twitch when it’s my turn to lay down a vocal. I have a little time to get into it. It’s the same on gigs, I still get a bit nervous.
“We were still in Leicester when the album was recorded. Jim and I used to get the train down to London and try and find our way to Olympic studios. We were still gigging around to keep some money coming in.”
The album was released in April, 1967. The group finally headed south in the following January. “We found a house in Chelsea, facing the dustbin place and the power station,” he smiled. “We all had a room each. That whole scene was good for us. At first it was very exciting for us to come down. Then after three or four months we started to get on top of each other. There were five or six months of strange vibes. Then it calmed down and we came to accept each other’s faults. We came out of it with a lot of mental discipline.”
In a situation like that the group could have easily split, but they held on. The line-up has since changed, but a basic foundation of understanding on a personal as well as musical level, had been laid. The domestic hang-ups did not affect the band’s professional progress.
“We started playing at The Roundhouse in the U.F.O. days,” said Roger. “It was the centre of Flower Power, a good gig to play. In fact, playing there was really what we wanted to do most in those days. We were playing with bands like Pink Floyd, Soft Machine and Pretty Things. Then you’d get a lot of really crazy bands just freaking out on stage. But really, I can only remember the one who came out of all that.”
1968, and Family were something of a cult band. Underground meant something then.
“In those days,” explained Roger, “it was really only in London. Before we started doing our own songs we used to do well in Manchester, Sunderland, and even Liverpool. But after coming to London, we found that when we played a gig in Manchester the people used to find it a bit freaky.”
The second album, Family Entertainment, was the clincher. Its success left even the most wary members of the group with no doubt. Family had won over the audience; they were established.
“Entertainment was a raw album,” said Roger. “That was nice. The first album lacked that – it didn’t really sound like us on stage. It was tasty – over tasty. It was just a sound. But good music should give you an immediate reaction. A lot of people said they liked Dool’s House and I didn’t like to say I didn’t. It was a downer for them. But, you see, when you are so close to it, you are so critical. No matter what album it is, you can pick holes right through it.
“Entertainment did establish us. It did really well. It went to number five in the first week. That amazed us – we were just a working band. We hadn’t visualised that sort of reaction.”
But despite the success, the group did not really dig their “baby”. What happened was, they had finished recording and still had to mix the album. They had to be out of town for five days and planned on mixing it on their return. But when they got home, they found someone else had mixed it. There was nothing they could do. Of course, they didn’t like the mix. After a lot of hard work, the album had been ruined for them at the last stage. Roger still feels bad about it.
“It annoyed us because someone who had a lot of faith in us had so little respect for what we’d done. It pissed us off. We didn’t like the way it was mixed. That was the real reason, the heavy reason, we didn’t like the album.”
Moving on to brighter things, Roger revealed with a wry smile: “We seem to have a habit of going away whenever a record is released. We did it with Entertainment, then with the Song For Me album. Really, from the business point of view, I suppose you should be around at least a couple week just in case something happens. Still, I don’t think it’s bad planning. It’s just that we don’t bother.”
That sort of easy-going attitude can be dangerous if it is taken too far. Many bands have been crucified by sharks. I wondered if he was ever worried about getting rolled by the businessmen?
“Yes,” he replied, ” because we’ve had it done to us. We’ ll only work for people we have respect for. That’ why we won’t work for the Albert Hall. You pay them £1,000 and they still shit on you. We’ve got a
manager, record company and agency we respect and who respect us. We’ve ended up how we want to be. At one time we got to be very distrustful, there was just nobody you could trust in the business. ow we won’t work for anyone who pulled moodies on us in the old days. All we want is mutual respect. If we don’t get that, we blow it out.”
As a unit, Rogers say Family are stronger than ever. John Weider came in on guitar and violin after Rick Grech split half-way through the first American tour. Then the vibe , piano and flute of John Palmer replaced the sax of Jim King. The music has changed. But much of the material still come from Chapman and Whitney.
“I find it very difficult to make up songs,” Roger explained. “They usually have to be sparked off in some way. It’s hard to say how I write them. I might be tinkling around on guitar and get into a certain mood that gives a song. Or it might even be as corny as being out somewhere and saying this is a really nice place, and sitting down and writing a song about it.
“John and I used to write together all the time, but now we do some of our own things as well. I used to write all the lyrics because I couldn’t play an instrument. Now I play a little guitar and the songs stem from that. John will help with the music and I might give him a hand with his lyrics. But when we work together I still concentrate on the words.”
Talking about his antics on stage he said: “It’s natural. People think I do it on every gig. I don’t. But when it happens it’s an instant thing, an emotional thing. It comes out when we are really moving; I’m just picking the whole thing up. It’s just a release.”
Finally, he talked about Family s evolution as a band.
“I think we are a natural band. Basically, as far a the music goes, we just play what pleases us a musicians. This is a different band to the one that made Doll’s House. We have four years of musical education behind us, four years of playing on the road. All our music is putting down i what affects us from the outside – very rarely the inside. That’s the best way I can explain it. Really, the only
thing I can say for certain i that we aren’t going to stay where we are now for long.”