You get the picture: Two British bands with similar roots but little now in common except that they’ve maintained a certain camaraderie since both outfits mushroomed out of the ’66/’67 so-called British Underground boom that also produced, for the record, such notable rock heavyweights as Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Keith Emerson’s Nice and Jethro Tull.
Dialogue goes something like this…
”Come and hear what we’re doing on our new album.”
Various members of Family, in a break from their own labours, file into the neighbouring studio. What follows might best be described as Take 77 of that familiar TYA 12-bar blues workout. You know the thing. Lots and lots of heavy drums and bass. Lots and lots of the kind of Alvin Lee spacey guitar stuff that’s been getting teenage rocks off since Alvin baby first displayed those heart-throb, fiendishly fast fingers on the celluloid Woodstock.
“Not bad, eh?” say TYA as the track fades to its logical conclusion.
“Uhm…” say the various members of Family, or words to that effect (some better, more tactful response failing to come immediately to mind) as they puzzle inwardly how a band of such obvious ability can choose to stand musically rigid through five/six years of changing time.
“Errh… Uhm… yeah, good.” Tactful acquiescence wins the day.
“Wanna come and hear what we’ve been doing?”
Various members of TYA file into the neighbouring studio where Family have just finished cutting “Burlesque”, a Chapman-Whitney composition scheduled as the band’s annual British single. It’s also the opening cut on their upcoming BANDSTAND album but, being originally conceived as a single, is not unnaturally of a much simpler nature than Family’s normal output.
TYA listen diligently through the playback. looks of mild astonishment spreading across their faces. The playback over, they are only too lavish in what they genuinely believe to be sound paternal advice from one 1972 “progressive” band to another.
Rick Lee takes Family drummer Rob Townsend to one side, the arm around the shoulder bit. ”Come on man, you’ve got to make it simpler than that, real and simple. That’s what the kids want, and you’ve got to give ’em what they want. You’ll never sell with that kind of stuff.”
Townsend wouldn’t have minded so much – or should I say been so amused – had not “Burlesque” been in Family’s own estimation one of the simplest, most basic tracks they’d ever cut.
And there that particular anecdote ends. You draw your own conclusions, and if you draw your conclusions on the opposite side to mine, then I suggest you immediately curtail all further involvement in this article and head direct for your nearest TYA album stockist.
The whole point of that is that Family as a band have never allowed their music the barest chance to stagnate. Now into their sixth year and sixth album (that includes BANDSTAND) Family are one of the few of those second generation ’66 Underground bands to have actually set out, not so much to earn, but to deserve the right to keep their credentials as a progressive band in the truest sense of the word.
Contemporaries like Jethro and Zeppelin may have accrued greater fortune and stature than they on an international level, but, on European territory, Family remain among the top dozen or so creative and crowd-pulling bands.
So why don’t I just come right out and say it.
What really gets up my nose is the fact that, up to now, the oh-so-generous and hospitable United States of America has given Family as much recognition as two-penneth of cold tea. That’s English outrage for you – getting back to the roots.
Okay, so if you prefer the Uriah Heeps and the Black Sabbaths (I’m not gonna knock TYA again because they ain’t all bad) then you deserve what you get. But if what you want is one of the most truly original and inventive of bands to emerge out of Britain in recent times – and I’m talking ’bout Family – then you’re gonna get what you deserve. Right.
‘Cause if the great and oh-so-generous United States doesn’t soon get into Family in the manner which they deserve – that is, you let the band remain forever the property of the minority cognoscente – then there will have been committed one of the most tragic of tragedies in the history of rock and roll.
After all that, I have to admit that Roger Chapman’s views on the subject may seem a wee bit bland in contrast to mine. Though I should point out that there’s a powerful undercurrent of deeply felt ambition lurking behind Chapman’s apparent nonchalance when he says:
“America important to us? Well, I suppose it is if we want to go get ourselves country mansions, because you’ll never get country mansions working in England, not in a rock and roll band anyway. But country mansions are not what we are about.”
What matters more to Family is their stubborn refusal to be rejected by the States.
“That’s the real point,” says Chapman through clenched teeth. “The point is refusing to be f*king refused. And of being for so long frustrated because of it… frustrated because we knew we could go over there and please a few audiences but that, because of business and promotion haslles it just couldn’t be got together. That was the frustration. And it’s not ego that makes me say that we can please a few audiences, because if we didn’t feel we could, then we’ve no right to be in the bloody business anyway. We all of us have enough faith in the band.”
I don’t know how much of you know of Family’s previous two attempts to get it on in the States, but the stories have virtually passed into rock folklore in Britain.
To brief you briefly, the first tour in 1969 was the one that contained the infamous Bill Graham episode when, while playing the Fillmore East, Roger Chapman went into his fearsome mike-hurtling routine. Unfortunately the mike landed in an area not too far removed from Bill Graham’s ear (which was almost itself removed), and a good deal of bad vibes on Family immediately spread from that spot out among promoters across America.
Not only did Family get themselves branded as troublemakers as a result of that little episode, but also suffered several other unconnected disasters that turned the tour into something resembling a debacle. Roger Chapman lost his voice and his passport – barring the band from fulfilling the Canadian gigs on the tour – and mid-way through their trip the band lost bassist Rick Grech to the ill-fated Blind Faith.
The second tour couldn’t possibly have been so accident prone, but this time there were hassles due to the lack of promotion.
Says Chapman: “Warners, our record company then, did a fair promotion job on the first tour. The trouble was, we let them down. On the second tour we didn’t do so badly as far as playing was concerned, but this time Warners didn’t really want to know. They’d lost interest in us, which was understandible I suppose in some ways. Like, they thought ‘Once bitten twice shy’… “
For a year, Family’s career as a potential British Stateside attraction lay fallow. The band themselves had written the whole thing off as a bad job, instead turning their attentions to widening their reputation in Europe, which they did with great success.
Eventually, Warners in the U.S. offered them a release from their contract. “That was cool by us,” says Chapman. “They said: ‘Okay, if you can get yourselves a better deal then take it.’ It was a good thing that they recognized that they’d lost interest in us, and that they were prepared to let us go.”
Still, it had been a ludicrous situation that, for over a year, one of the top dozen British bands had been totally without U.S. representation of any kind. It was only when articles in American rock magazines began to bring this peculiar situation to public notice that an increasing number of U.S. labels began to show a feverish interest in the band.
Eventually, United Artists brought home the bacon and so far, according to Chapman, have been lavish in their promotion of the band. Equally, Family are aware, the rest is down to them.
So who is this Family of whom I have spoken so highly. A working class band, I will answer you, formed out of the merging together of various local groups in the Midlands industrial town of Leicester. A band whose first initiation into top-grade rock and roll was stage managed by such stellar names of the idiom as Dave Mason and Jimmy Miller. That was the first album, MUSIC IN A DOLL’S HOUSE.
The band then comprised Chapman, John “Charlie” Whitney on guitar, Rob Townsend on drums, Rick Grech on bass/violin and Jim King on a multitude of various other instruments.
The thing that will never cease to amaze me is how Family went into the studio for the first time in their lives totally without any definable sound of their own and somehow emerged with a brand of music so rich in inventiveness that DOLL’S HOUSE can survive the passing of time as one of the most stimulating debut albums ever made.
Though somewhat naive in its of certain West Coast recording touches popular at the time, DOLL’S HOUSE is still a pungent mixture of a bizarre medley of styles, the source of which it is difficult to pin down.
The band themselves have never seemed able to explain how they went into the studio with Miller and Mason with so little and came out with so much, although music writer Charlie Whitney obviously played a major role in that process of creation.
What we do know about Whitney is that he was well into Indian music at the time. “I had a sitar,” he says, “which I couldn’t play that well, but it opened up my mind to what could be done on one chord. Like, just because we’re Western, and we’ve grown up in a different heritage, we can’t really hear the harmonies that they can hear. They can hit notes on a scale that are totally alien to our ear. When I first heard Indian music, I thought it was out of tune. It wasn’t of course… it was just the difference in traditions. The main thing for me about Indian music is that it gives me a mood, and I had all that in mind when we did ‘Doll’s House.’
“But what you have to realize is, when you try and transpose those ideas derived from Indian music onto an electric guitar, then it is bound to come out sounding somerthing totally different again.”
What we also know about Whitney, an importamt cog in the Family machine, is that his background is that of show business at its most basic level – the circus. His parents were an animal impersonation and acrobatic act, the young Whitney having spent the first five years of his life travelling with a circus.
Something of that, too, has permeated into Family music… the feel of the circus and the fairground.
Harder to pin down in origin are the charging, hunting-type rhythms that characterized the first album and have remained a vital, distinguishable feature of Family music through its countless changes.
“Possibly Roger had a lot to do with that,” says Whitney “Because he’s a very forceful personality. But I suppose basically it all comes down to our own interpretation of the early rock and roll stuff that all of us had been through.”
So the respective roles of Chapman and Whitney in the formation of Family’s sound can, on it’s simplest level, be brought down to words from the first and music from the latter.”
And there lies a strange paradox, because, while the music has tended to major towards the bludgeoning aggression of attacking rhythms, the lyncs more often than not lean towards the reflective and the tender. And the music comes from the retiring, introvert Whitney; the words from the demonic, extrovert (on stage that is) Chapman.
Watching Roger Chapman work in concert – rocking back and forward trance-like on the perimeter of the stage, hands punishing with relentless, almost deranged fury the ever-present tambourine, veins standing out on his arched neck – it is difficult to conceive of such a fearsome figure writing lines of such simple sensitivity; for example, of those in the classic The Weaver’s Answer:
Weaver of life, let me look and see The pattern of my life gone by Shown on your tapestry Just for one second, one glance upon your loom The flower of my childhood could appear with this room
Ex-building site labourer Chapman, who cut his teeth on Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis and Ray Charles – his “greatest influence” – is the fulcrum of the band, his quivering vibrato its most distinguishing feature.
He’s the epitome of the intuitive, untrained musician. And I use the word musician advisedly because that’s precisely what he is, despite the fact that his only instruments are vocal chords and body.
“I regard myself as a musician really,” he agrees, “But I don’t think of it as a voice. I am more into making sounds, more as an instrument… it’s like singing the horn line or something.
“No I wouldn’t say that made me a frustrated musician. Maybe I was before I realized I had an instrument right here in my voice, because I just don’t personally see any dividing line between vocalist and instrumentalist. With Family there is no such the line… we are like five different instruments on stage at any given time. Because, on stage, the lyrics are part of the arrangements and, just like any musician, one of my roles is to play around the arrangements. In between the verses I blow.”
Much of the continual evolution in Family music is down to the personnel changes they’ve been through – most of them in the bass department. Up to the second FAMILY ENTERTAINMENT set, which contains many of the bands classic cuts, the original line-up remained constant.
That album merely discarded the unnecessary West Coast embellishments of the first set, solidifying the sound away from the underlying fragility of much of the “Doll’s House” material.
By A SONG FOR ME, however, Jim King had been replaced by Poli Palmer on vibes, piano and flute, and Rick Grech by former Animals bassist John Weider. Weider brought in certain country influences that permeated through into the material but, of the two of them, it was Palmer who was to prove the most effective influence.
One-time percussionist, his roots lay to a certain extent in jazz, also in the classics, and his work on vibes and flute, set against the by now firmly established charging rock feel, opened up vast new directions for the band to exploit.
The fourth album, ANYWAY – rich in deft instrumentation and surefooted in its classy use of tempo changes – lent a sophistication to the new approach.
It was the successor to that set, FEARLESS, that really saw Family take up the challenge. Having lost John Weider, they also lost with him the violin that Grech had doubled on previously and made such a recognizable characteristic of the sound up till then.
Instead of seeking out an identical replacement, Family took a brave gamble. In Weider’s place they took on John Wetton, a bassist with dues paid also on guitar. Equally as important to the band’s thinking at the time, he could also sing. Wetton’s role, then, on FEARLESS was a lot more than bass – though he added extra weight in that department by being a much more earthy player than his predecessor – but also to provide dual lead guitar work alongside Whitney and vocal harmony work with Chapman.
Again, Family had allowed its music to go into the melting pot. Chapman’s most quoted reply to questions about policy is that they simply write the material, play it with the arrangements that suggest themselves and just wait and see what emerges from the process. What emerged on FEARLESS was a trend towards the mixing of softer, more harmonic styles with some inventive hard rock while featuring the guitars of Whitney and Wetton, and Chapman, now allowed more freedom by the new-found vocal support singing at his peak.
Wetton – though since departed to join Bob Fripp’s latest edition of King Crimson – is still there on the new BANDSTAND collection which saw Family move one step further into the softer, move lyrical vein.
The result is a set of cultured and sophisticated rock that experiments even more so than its predecessor with vocal harmonies and instrumental textures. Also, with the contrasting subtleties, string arrangements – a 22 piece orchestra on 3 tracks – and Poli Palmer’s latest acquisition to his lengthening list of “various instruments,” a synthesizer.
The Moog makes its debut discreetly on the previously mentioned Burlesque, the opening cut, where Chapman’s vocals – bluesier than it’s previously been heard – rides out of the careening rhythms and insidious riffs. Yet it’s on the second track, Bolero Babe that the new “instrument” makes its possibilities more apparent. Here, on a softly understated Chapman-Whitney composition, the strings take up a melody line that harken back to DOLL’S HOUSE, alternating with the synthesizer in a way which never jars but enhances the poignancy of material.
“My Friend the Sun,” which, along with certain other tracks betrays the band’s influences by the Neil Young school of songwriting, has a similar, understated poignancy – not unlike the “Children” off of FEARLESS. As he lightly breathes the lyrics over melting acoustic guitar here again is revealed a totally new aspect of Chapman’s vocal range.
Roger’s vocals have, in fact, gone through a lot of changes on BANDSTAND, largely one presumes because of the new found freedom provided by having Wetton in support. On tracks like “Glove” and “Coronation”, this is a lot bluesier than the Chapman we’ve heard before.
On the former, a stand out cut, Charlie Whitney also takes an excursion into a realm he’s avoided so far – spreading himself out on a bluesy guitar break set against a background of subdued strings, after Poli Palmer’s piano and Wetton’s deliberated bass figure have picked out the intro.
Apart from synthesizer, which is used throughout with discretion and a tastefulness rare among his contemporaries on the instrument, Palmer majors on BANDSTAND for the main part on piano, rocking the keyboards for instance on the hard-edged “Broken Nose”, the lyrics of which have that typical Family sense of the ridiculous merged to reality: “The day I stopped loving you was the day you broke my nose…”
BANDSTAND represents a mellower side rather than a mellowing of Family, more laid back than anything that’s gone before and lacking the schizophrenic intensity of some of their earlier offerings – although there are a couple of tracks here that are in direct lineage from DOLL’S HOUSE. The difference is that the naivete of the first offering has been, replaced by maturity in approach and execution.
I wouldn’t like to say if this album marks a new direction of any performance. Going by the band’s previous track record, I would think not. And since the album was recorded, Wetton, as I said, has quit the band.
His replacement is Jim Cregan, formerly a guitarist of substantial ability with the Anglo/Irish outfit Stud. Cregan, like Wetton, will be able to bring an extra voice to Family as well as playing bass. What else he will bring to Family is hard to predict – except that the band will keep on pushing forward.
If you know what I mean, then jump on fast before you get left behind. Or get two-penneth of cold British tea emptied over your head.