FAMILY – by Carol Osborn
Biography writing is the most thankless of tasks – in an effort to please both those who you are writing about and those who you’re writing for, you generally end up pleasing nobody. Thus, it’s a task I generally manage to avoid, but the recent addition of Jim Cregan to the ranks of Family, plus the imminent release of their sixth album BANDSTAND and the departure for their third tour of the United States makes the matter urgent, so here goes.
I first became involved with Family in 1969, when I started working for a newly independent record company, Warner/Reprise. Although, coming as I do from Leicester, I had heard quite a lot about that city’s top group, the Farinas, who became Family somewhere along the 100-mile southbound trip down the M1. Family were then the only British band signed to the label, so naturally came in for a great deal of attention. At the time, they’d just returned from their first, abortive tour of America which included the infamous Bill Graham episode – so well chronicled by now I won’t bore you with repetition. They’d also lost their bass player, Rick Grech, to one of those so-called “supergroups” which sprouted like mushrooms at that time, Blind Faith, but had one stroke of luck in meeting up with ex-Animal man John Weider who stepped into the breech and enabled them to finish their tour.
Thus, the Family I first met back in July 1969 were more than pleased to be back on home ground, playing to enthusiastic, capacity audiences who really appreciated their music. The first gig I saw was an eye-opener. Seeing Roger Chapman on stage for the first time is an unforgettable experience – arms flailing frantically, tambourines flying; his every movement aped by some energetic members of the audience – surely the first of the idiot dancers. The announcement of each number was greeted with appreciative applause – each and every member of that audience was obviously well-acquainted with the band’s two albums MUSIC FROM A DOLL’S HOUSE, produced by Dave Mason, with a couple of tracks by Jimmy Miller for good measure, and FAMILY ENTERTAINMENT. The high-spot of the show was undoubtedly “The Weaver’s Answer” which was featured on the second album, and remained so popular it became a top ten hit for the group a year later.
About this time another personnel change occured. Jim King departed with his distinctive sax, and John “Poli” Palmer, former drummer with Blossom Toes, joined on vibes, electric piano and flute. Thus the stage was set for a further development in the band’s music, which can be clearly seen on their third album A SONG FOR ME. Around the time A SONG FOR ME was released, Family had their first taste of singles success when “No Mule’s Fool” made the lower end of the charts. Many people believe this to be one of the finest singles ever and it certainly should not be overshadowed by the group’s later, more successful releases.
1970 saw Family, nothing daunted, embarking for their second assault on the States. This time the tour went better, but the record company there was rather wary, and promotional support was somewhat inadequate. They returned to the UK determined to concentrate on consolidating their success in Britain, and conquering the Continent, and this is the policy they have pursued with considerable success over the past couple of years.
While the three Family albums this time had all been extremely well-received and correspondingly successful, one point inevitably raised by reviewers was the failure to communicate the excitement of their live gigs on record. Consequently, on the 1970 annual British tour, Family took a mobile recording studio to their concert at the Fairfield Hall, Croydon, and one side of the ANYWAY album contains their only live performance to date.
Two months after ANYWAY’s release in the UK, Family moved shop in America from Warner Bros./Reprise Records to United Artists. UA scheduled ANYWAY for release and only days before it was to hit the street it was learned that the new LP, (at that time) FEARLESS, was prepared to go abroad. Rather than be tardy for two lp’s in the States, UA chose to hold ANYWAY and release FEARLESS in conjunction with its English schedule.
Between ANYWAY and FEARLESS, their fifth album, two events of note occured. The line-up of the group changed again, with John Weider’s departure, and after extensive auditioning sessions, John Wetton joined on bass, guitar and vocals. And Family had their first really big taste of commercial success when “In My Own Time” made the top three in the singles charts.
FEARLESS was described by one enthusiastic record reviewer as “Family’s Sergeant Pepper”. It certainly contains some great songs, and the musicianship is impeccable. The group, never afraid to experiment, featured a brass section on some of the tracks, which worked so well they even took them on tour with them. The vocal harmonies of Chapman and Wetton gave a softer sound than hitherto, and many people who’d previously thought of Family as “too progressive” found there was something there for them after all. This more catholic appeal was reflected in the fact that FEARLESS, helped by the enthusiastic promotion of United Artists, was their first album to make a mark over here.
And now we come to BANDSTAND, the new album and “Burlesque”, the new single, and the third tour of the States. I’m not much good at crystal-ball gazing, and could very well end up with egg over my face by sticking my neck out and saying that I think the single is their most commercial yet and ought to make the top; and the album is their best yet and should be the one to bring the people of America to finally realize that Family are one of the best progressive (in the true sense of the word) groups around.
This biography should, by rights, and on that triumphant note. Except that on re-reading what I’ve written I see I’ve faithfully chronicled record releases and personnel changes without so much as a mention of the personnel who’ve not changed, so without further ado let’s put that right. Roger Chapman, I have mentioned, but he has to come first because if Family has to be characterized by just one person it would be him. A great deal has been written about his awesome presence on stage, and many a journalist, about to meet him for the first time, has tremuously asked me if he’s as aggressive offstage as on. What they forget is that the frantic mike-basher us also the composer of some of the most sensitive lyrics written. His quavering vibrato can be harsh and grating, or tender and loving as the music requires. Alongside Roger comes his fellow composer John “Charlie” Whitney, whose twin-necked Gibson guitar is almost as much if a trademark of the group as Roger’s voice. Between them these two are responsible for writing 99% of Family’s music. And then there’s the third original member of the group, Rob Townsend, on drums. A native of Leicester, like Roger and Charlie, with his roots in rock and roll, his playing has expanded and progressed with the band, and he is now regarded by many as one of the finest drummers in the country.
“Poli” Palmer has recently added a moog synthesizer to his awesome battery of instruments and has turned his home into a fair replica of a recording studio. Along with his experiments in electronics he finds time to write music, and two of his compositions are featured on FEARLESS and BANDSTAND.
And then there’s been another change in the bass department of the group. John Wetton has departed and in his stead comes Jim Cregan, late of Stud. Jim is no stranger to the group, having played along with Poli in Blossom Toes, and he, like Ken, plays bass, guitar and vocals.
So there we have it, Family. A group who emerged from the noise and brouhaha of UFO when jokesters declared that progressive meant underpaid and underplayed and proved they had the talent and the stamina to earn the title of one of Britain’s top bands – and keep it.