Article – Family (Trouser Press)

(by Karl Seebacher, Trouser Press #8 – 1975)
In the history of post-Beatles English rock, Family is one of the few bands to achieve massive British and European success, while remaining virtually unknown to American audiences.

Family was formed in 1966 out of several local bands in the city of Leicester. Most notable of these were The Farinas, a soul band, which consisted of John Whitney, guitar; Ric Grech, bass; and Jim King, sax. This line-up was augmented with percussionist Rob Townsend and, at the request of Whitney, Roger Chapman as vocalist, additions which completed the personnel of Family phase one. The band went off to London where they took up semi-residence at the UFO Club and were discovered by John Gilbert, producer of Alfie, who became their manager. From this period (mid-’67) came a single on Liberty called “Scene Through the Eye of a Lens,” of which nothing is known but the title.

Their first album, Music In A Doll’s House, was released in early ’68. This was a record more of moods than of songs. “The Breeze” and “Mellowing Grey” were haunting pieces capturing the feeling of drizzly days; “Hey Mr. Policeman” gave off a bluesy feel; and in “Peace of Mind” and “Old Songs, New Songs” soaring harmonies could be found, making Family sound much like a church choir.

Music In A Doll’s House boasted Dave Mason as its producer, with the help of Jimmy Miller on two songs. The album’s overall production, though, was rather heavy handed. Excessive studio effects only served to depreciate many of the songs. One thing that I particularly like about this record is its use of stereo to the fullest, something which very few discs ever do. All in all, Doll’s House is an impressive first album, one which holds up well today.

To pay Mason back for his production work, Family backed him up on his first solo single “Little Woman”. This was a cross between Far Eastern and traditional English folk music in sound, a song which would have fit in very nicely on Doll’s House.

The band’s second album, Family Entertainment, fared better production wise. This time the producer was Glyn Johns, an ace engineer who recorded nearly everything to come out of Olympic Studios. (Although John Gilbert is also credited as producer, he had very little to do with the recording.) The flaws in this record lay in the material itself, most notably in the Ric Grech compositions – “How Hi-the-Li,” “Second Generation Woman,” and “Face In The Cloud,” all adolescent attempts at social comment, written with little maturity and insight.

On the other hand, the writing team of Whitney-Chapman was improving. Two of the songs on Entertainment have since become Family classics. The first is “The Weaver’s Answer,” a powerful, dynamic song about an old man looking back at his life. (It later became Family’s tour de force on stage, running for nearly 20 minutes.) The second classic is “Hung Up Down,” one of the most eccentric energetic rockers Family ever recorded. Roger Chapman bleats out his unique lyrics like a man possessed, while the rest of the group calmly plays the tune.

In the spring of 1969, Family embarked on their first tour of the colonies. It was a disaster. The now legendary story of their run-in with Bill Graham occurred at the eight o’clock show at the Fillmore East on April 10, 1969, when Roger Chapman hurled a mike stand which just missed Graham’s head. Bill Graham retorted by promising that Family would never appear at one of his shows again. He even went so far as to have their name removed from the marquee. So went the first date of their tour.

Family’s problems were compounded by Ric Grech’s announcement of his departure for the then-forming Blind Faith. A replacement was found in John Weider, an ex-member of the Animals (basically a guitarist/violinist, he had to practice his bass while on the road), who was flown in from Los Angeles where he was doing sessions.

Their troubles continued as Roger Chapman lost his voice (over-exposure to air-conditioning) and then his passport (cavorting with the female natives). Family limped back to Britain, bruised and broken.

Upon their return, two changes were made. First, manager Gilbert was fired for mismanagement of the American tour. The next to go was sax player Jim King, who the rest of the band felt no longer fit in musically or socially. Rather than replace King with another saxist, they acquired multi-instrumentalist John “Poli” Palmer, formerly with Blossom Toes and Deep Feeling (a group which also included Jim Capaldi and Dave Mason). Poli plays piano, vibes, and flute, as well as occasionally appearing as second drummer with Rob Townsend.

With the new line-up, Family began to rehearse extensively, emerging now and again to play a few concerts. One of these was the Rolling Stones’ free concert in Hyde Park, where many writers and fans alike felt that Family, and not the Stones, were the high point of the day.

After a few months, Family graced record shops everywhere with a new LP, A Song for Me. This album was, as ever, a slight change in direction from their previous discs. With the addition of Poli Palmer, jazzy influences began to emerge in their music. This is evidenced most clearly in the instrumental “93’s ok J” and “Drowned In Wine.” This record is also the most rocking of any Family album. More than half the album is comprised of up tempo numbers with sharp dynamics. One of the songs, “Love Is A Sleeper” (with Zoot Money on organ) positively burns.

Family decided to try their hand at touring America again. Things ran much more smoothly the second time around. The only real problem that Family had was getting a major hall to book them. Their last fiasco left them with the reputation of being troublemakers. They did find work though, mostly in clubs and colleges, flooring the audiences everywhere they played. This tour brought Family most of their small but faithful group of American followers.

An album of old tracks re-mixed and sometimes completely re-recorded was released to the British public, entitled Old Songs, New Songs. The most interesting thing about this record is the inclusion of “Today,” “Hometown,” and “The Cat And The Rat” for the first time on any album, making it a good way to discover Family if you’ve never heard of them before. Oddly enough, it was released in America, but not on record. It is available only on eight track and cassette tape.

After Family’s failure to capture the hearts of America, Reprise, their U.S. label, gave up on them. The ads that were taken out for the band were terrible. The line “No Death In The Family” was used in one. In others, Reprise thought that it would be good promotion to connect the group with the Charles Manson clan. Family bid farewell to Reprise and went searching for a new company, their search lasting a full year.

United Artists was the new company, but at first they didn’t treat Family any better than Reprise had. In fact, they were worse. The album Anyway was supposedly released at this time (late 1970 – early 1971) but no store had the record. Calls to the company only brought denials of its existence. Anyway was finally released about a year and a half ago with its original catalog number, and with the inclusion of Family’s British hit “In My Own Time.”

Anyway is Family in the raw – Side one was recorded live at Fairfield Hall, and side two in the studio using minimal amounts of overdubbing. The jazzy feel of A Song For Me, although still in evidence, is pushed to the background in favor of a bluesier sound. Although all of the tracks are uniformly good, the album’s real standout is “Strange Band.” It starts off harmlessly enough with just John Weider and his violin playing nicely, until John Whitney soon enters the scene with power chords, followed shortly by Rob Townsend beating all hell out of his drums. Roger Chapman turns in an especially frantic performance, so much so that you can almost see the veins bulging in his neck. At the end of the song, the audience rises – cheering, whistling, and stomping as frantically as Family had played, bringing the live side to its conclusion with screams for more.

In the summer of 1971, Family and John Weider went their separate ways. His replacement was John Wetton, formerly with Mogul Thrash and who, like his predecessor, was doing session work just prior to his joining the band. Wetton immediately went into the studio with Family to record their best album, Fearless. This album is a masterpiece, with every song a gem. On it, Family attempted and succeeded in giving each track its own distinctive feel. “Sat’d’y Barfly” tells about a guy cruising for a pick-up wearing “a funky hat/Mohair suit and new white spats.” It sounds as sleazy as the barroom that it’s sung about. “Larf And Sing” is a lighter song. Bleak verses are offset by optimistic choruses. Wetton provides backing vocals here, his much-needed voice lifting some of the burden from Chapman’s shoulders. Other highlights include “Save Some For Thee,” “Burning Bridges,” and “Between Blue And Me.”

For their seventh album, Bandstand (fall 1972), the subdued side of Family is made clearly visible. The jagged anti-melodies are set aside for a more simplistic approach. This is an album of quiet rather than frantic intensity, played and written with authority, maturity, and confidence.

‘”Ready To Go,” a bluesy song (with a fine guitar solo by Whitney), is an open reply to their critics. A truly beautiful song is “My Friend The Sun,” a delicate acoustic number with fragile lyrics and a haunting melody, an absolute delight to the ears. From Bandstand, a single, “Burlesque”/”The Rocking R’s,” was released. “Burlesque” tells of a night spent bar-hopping with three women and winding up with one for the night. “The Rocking R’s” is Family’s tribute to rock and roll, done without the usual cliched lyrics and tired riffs used by everyone else. When Chapman sings, “music fuels my blue suede shoes/ couldn’t stop if I tried,” he means it.

With the album’s American release, Family came to the states for a tour with Elton John. The conservative Elton John fans were bewildered by Family’s unorthodox approach to music, but, nonetheless, received them warmly. The band wanted to follow that tour with another one immediately, but UA refused to subsidize the tour and thus dealt the final blow to Family’s chances of making it in America.

A major upheaval occurred in 1973 when Poli Palmer left due to musical differences, and John Wetton took off for what he thought were greener pastures in King Crimson with Robert Fripp. Their replacements were Tony Ashton (formerly of Ashton, Gardner and Dyke) and, on bass, Jim Cregan.

After one single with the new band (“Boom Bang”), Chapman and Whitney decided to put the name Family to rest. .In their opinion the music had become stagnant. Before calling it a day they promised to do a final album and tour. Their last album is entitled It’s only A Movie. Like the cover photo of a old west gunslinger, the music inside is countryish. On the title track, the honky tonk barroom piano of Tony Ashton is prominent. Ashton and Chapman trade lines, using the elements of love, hate, and revenge in telling the story of making a cowboy picture.

The country feel gives way to actuality when the brass intro to “Boots ‘N’ Roots” is recognized as none other than “Wait Till The Sun Shines Nellie.”

It’s Only A Movie brought to an end an illustrious career which included seven top ten British singles and an equal amount of best selling albums. Their lack of promotion and faith on the part of the record companies in America left the band a non-entity here – from their early existence through their demise and to the present.

Chapman and Whitney, however, weren’t to remain idle. Several months after the death of Family they returned with an album called Streetwalkers, recorded with the assistance of their friends Max Middleton, Tim Hinkley, John Wetton, Ric Grech, Neil Hubbard, Ian Wallace, Mike Giles, Poli Palmer, Jim Cregan, Boz Burrell & Mel Collins.

This album is, as obviously it should be, an extension of what the two had done with Family. The songs range from the flamboyant in “Hangman” to the delicate in “Systematic Stealth”; from the King Crimson sax lines supplied by Mel Collins in “Creature Feature” to the blues number “Call Ya.” This is a fine debut album, which surprisingly did little in their homeland.

After two European tours using the name Streetwalkers (one in which the manager of a hotel refused the band admittance stating that he didn’t want his establishment used for a convention of prostitutes), Chapman-Whitney have not been heard from since. But, for the good of musickind, they’ll hopefully reappear soon.

One response to “Article – Family (Trouser Press)”

  1. Brian Avatar

    of course, this writer’s views of Ric Grech’s songs are – umm – “laughable” would be the most diplomatic way of saying it . . .

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