Brian Hogg looks back at one of Britain’s most imaginative bands of the late sixties and early seventies, whose early rarities are now very collectable
Record Collector, No. 84 , Aug. 1986Family still remain one of the best and most inventive groups to emerge out of 1967 and the Summer of Love. While the efforts of several of their contemporaries now seem rather dated, each of Family’s records is still as powerful and innovative as ever. Between 1967 and 1973, the group survived a succession of personell changes, many of which seemed likely to spell the end of the band. In retrospect, however, each alteration in line-up gave Family a new direction, and helped to refuel the spirit of adventure at the heart of their best work.
Family’s origins can be traced back to Leicester Art College, where John “Charlie” Whitney formed The Farinas in 1962. Over the next five years, the Farinas built up a solid reputation in the Midlands, with Whitney being joined by Jim King (sax), Tim Kirchin (bass) and Harry Ovenall (drums). This was the line-up which cut the band’s only single in August 1964, and it is doubtless Jim King who was responsible for the superb harmonica solo on the A-side, “You’d Better Stop”, a passage which completely lifts the whole performance. Backed by a somewhat laboured version of Chris Kenner’s “I Like It Like That”, the single made little impression saleswise, and the Farinas were quietly dropped from the label.
In 1965, Ric Grech came in on bass to replace Tim Kirchin, and the following year a new vocalist, Roger Chapman, joined. Chapman had previously been in the Exciters, and Danny Storm and the Strollers, and his arrival not only freed Whitney and King to concentrate on their instrumental prowess, but also brought the group one of rock’s most distinctive voices.
The group then altered direction a little, and for a while they worked as the Roaring Sixties. …by mid-1967 the group had settled in London, and met up with Kim Fowley, the legendary American producer who was over in Britain to work on a freelance basis. He had produced the “You’d Better Run” single by the In-Betweens (later Slade), masterminded the first Soft Machine session, and pieced several ex-Them members into the Belfast Gypsies. It was Fowley who turned the Farinas into Family, and who produced their first demos. Sadly, none of these were ever released, although titles like “The Great Pretender” and “Silver Dagger” suggest that the group was still in a period of transition.
The main difference between the Farinas and Family was their material. While the former group was still essentially and R&B band, the new one concentrated on self-composed songs, the strength of which was immediately apparent. …Family’s debut single, “Scene Through the Eye of a Lens”, remains one of the strongest first efforts ever released; its quiet, haunting structure was burst open in a series of vibrant, exciting instrumental breaks. Chapman’s voice was at some points controlled, at others soaring, and the song’s atmosphere of Middle East mystery, built by its wind section, assured it a place in Underground legend. Sadly, it wasn’t a hit, and a combination of its reputation and the fact that neither side has ever been reissued has made it one of the era’s most sought-after singles.
Family continued to build their reputation with an early session on John Peel’s “Top Gear”, which confirmed their excellence for anyone who hadn’t managed to see them live. On this appearance they previewed some of the material which would appear on their later releases, including a superb version of “Hey Mr. Policeman”. Much of the early part of 1968 was spent consolidating their reputation with live work, mixed with sessions for their first LP. The first single had been produced by Jimmy Miller, who no doubt tied up a link with another group he worked with, Traffic. It was Traffic’s lead guitarist, Dave Mason, who produced “Music In A Doll’s House”, Family’s July 1968 debut album.
Not surprisingly, some moments on the record were reminiscent of Traffic, but that aside, “Music In A Doll’s House” did much to assert Family’s great potential. There was a succession of great tracks – “Peace of Mind”, “The Breeze”, “Hey Mr. Policeman” and others, linked together by snatched instrumental versions of other songs on the album, entitled “Variations on a Theme of…”. If nothing else, the album confirmed the special songwriting team of Roger Chapman and Charlie Whitney, aided occasionally by Ric Grech. They wrote practically everything on the album, which was a fine accomplishment considering the wide ranges of styles covered on the record. The only outsider was Dave Mason’s “Never Like This”, which naturally did much to continue the comparisons with Traffic. Sadly, “Music In A Doll’s House” is no longer available; anyone wanting an original copy should bear in mind that the very early issues came with a free poster.
Two tracks, “Me My Friend” and “Hey Mr. Policeman”, were lifted as a single in June 1968. The A-side appears to feature a slightly different mix to the album version.
Family and Traffic were linked together again when the two groups embarked on a UK tour, although by a quirk of fate Dave Mason had left the group by the time the tour began. Illness to Steve Winwood curtailed Traffic’s involvement in the venture, but Jethro Tull and Ten Years After deputised for them, allowing each of the groups a chance to reach a wider audience. The tour over, Family returned to the studio to work on their second LP. It was previewed by an early single, “Second Generation Woman”, which caught the group in a more relaxed vein. This coupled with “Hometown”, a beautiful reflective ballad, scored for Ric Grech’s perfect violin and some restrained percussion work. The latter would not appear on the forthcoming album, and remained unreleased elsewhere until the group’s “Old Songs New Songs” budget compilation LP of 1971.
“Family Entertainment” was duly released in March 1969, and it proved to be the departure in style that “Second Generation Woman” had hinted at. It was generally a much more mainstream album, with the experimental edge of its predecessor blunted, but it was still an excellent collection. “The Weaver’s Answer” and “Hung Up Down” were destined to become Family anthems, but “Dim”, “Observations From a Hill” and “Face in the Clouds” were equally outstanding. The LP gave Family their first chart placing, reaching No. 6, and once again early copies came with a poster. However, the group were unhappy with both the sleeve and the production, and this unsettled atmosphere soon heightened.
In April, the band began their first American tour, which was soon dogged by problems. Midway through, Ric Grech suddenly announced that he was quitting to join the Winwood/Clapton/Baker “supergroup” Blind Faith. Into his place came John Weider, previously a member of Eric Burdon and the New Animals, who remained for the rest of the tour, and returned home a permanent member of the band. All the time, Family’s popularity in Britain continued to grow, but the band were still being bothered by internal difficulties. Nevertheless, they managed a marvellous “Top Gear” session, where they introduced two new songs, “Love is a Sleeper” and “A Song For Me”, splicing them with two blues standards, J.B. Lenoir’s “I Sing Um the Way I Feel”, and Big Bill Broonzy’s “I Feel So Good”.
Family then entered the studio to cut two tracks specifically as a single, and “No Mule’s Fool”/”Good Friend of Mine” was issued in October 1969. Complete with marvellous picture sleeve, it deservedly charted, peaking at No. 29. The topside was memorable, despite the twists and turns of the melody, while the waltz-time flip was more straight-forward. This proved to be the band’s last recording with Jim King, who was asked to leave the same month the single was issued.
His replacement was multi-instrumentalist John “Poli” Palmer, late of the Eclection and veteran of several Midlands groups, including Deep Feeling (which also included Jim Capaldi and Luther Grosvenor of Traffic and Spooky Tooth, respectively). His arrival meant that Family switched from using saxophone to a greater emphasis on keyboards and vibes, a move confirmed in January 1970 with the release of their third album, “A Song For Me”.
[A Song For Me…] This was another strong collection, with its own share of Family classics. “Drowned in Wine” was a marvellously boisterous opening and the new version of “Love is a Sleeper” was different, but as good as the BBC take by the old band. The title song was, in Roger’s words, “a bit of a blow”, allowing the group to stretch out over nine minutes, while “Wheels” proved to be the oldest song on the album, co-written with Ric Grech. Although not quite as immediate as the two previous LP’s, “A Song For Me” was nevertheless a worthwhile effort. Once again early copies have a free insert, this time a lyric sheet, and original pressings also have a gatefold sleeve.
April 1970 saw the release of another single which was actively promoted as not being part of any forthcoming album. “Today”/”Songs For Lots” also came in a picture bag, and the A-side stands as one of the best tracks Family recorded. A poignant ballad, beautifully understated, it surely deserved a better fate than it got. However, it was only a matter of months before the group achieved the breakthrough they wanted, with the release of the “Strange Band” maxi-single in August 1970. The topside was a brand new song, while the flip was taken up with remixed/re-recorded versions of “The Weavers Answer” and “Hung Up Down”, both of which were firm stage favourites. The combination proved irresistible, and the single reached No. 11. Once again the early pressings have a picture cover, a bright red shot of the band with John Weider coloured in green. Above his head was a thought balloon with the single word ‘Anyway’, which turned out to be a quick plug for Family’s next album.
“Anyway” appeared in November 1970, and was a conscious effort to capture some of the group’s undoubted live attraction on record. One side was taken up by four tracks recorded at Croydon’s Fairfield Halls, including a rousing version of “Strange Band”. The other side also had four songs, including the brilliant “Part Of The Load”, and the excellent, irrepressible “Normans”. Once again, the album came in a lavish package, and the cover artwork – taken from a Leonardo da Vinci drawing, “Mortars” – was housed in a mottled PVC wallet.
It was followed five months later by a budget-priced compilation, “Old Songs New Songs”, titled after one of the tracks on “Music In A Doll’s House”. It served as a kind of greatest hits collection, and also found a place for several non-LP tracks. “Today”, “No Mule’s Fool”, “Hometown” and “Good Friend Of Mine” were all included, as were a handful of titles from the first three Family albums – “See Through Windows”, “Peace Of Mind” and “Observations From A Hill”. What made the collection worthwhile, even for fans who already had everything, was that all the tracks had been remixed, some had been redubbed, and the group took a production credit in place of those who had originally done the work. A band’s dissatisfaction with the way they had been handled in the past was never made more obvious.
“Old Songs New Songs” marked the end of the most successful Family line-up. John Weider, tired of playing bass, quit in June to play lead guitar in Stud, a newish group made up of two ex-Taste members, John Wilson and Charlie McCracken, and Jim Cregan, once in the Blossom Toes. His replacement was John Wetton, previously a member of Mogul Thrash, the band formed by ex-Colosseum guitarist James Litherland. Wetton was also a strong vocalist, and this new facet was exposed to great effect on “Fearless”, Family’s next album, released in October 1971. There was a mature ease about these songs and performances: there were no real standouts, though this was a marvellously consistent album, and in many ways the best the group recorded. As usual, the sleeve had its points of interest, with a multi-layered fold-out that was as complex as some of the time signatures the band were prone to using.
The LP sessions also provided Family with their biggest hit single when “In My Own Time” reached No. 4 the previous July. A stocky, more traditional song, it was also very commercial, and deserved its success. However, Family then chose to ignore the medium of singles altogether, and it wasn’t until September 1972 that a follow-up appeared in the shape of “Burlesque”. Although it reached a respectable No. 13 (backed by yet another non-LP track, “The Rockin’ R’s”), it served more as a preview for “Bandstand”, the new Family album issued the same month.
This LP returned the group to their harder-edged sound, but took it in a different direction, and it brought them considerable critical approval. Housed in yet another fabulous sleeve, which this time took on the appearance of a vintage television set with the group pictured on the screen, it also marked another turning point in the band’s history. John Wetton soon left to join King Crimson, and Poli Palmer also quit. Jim Cregan came in on bass after the split-up of Stud – a coincidental choice if ever there was one – while the new keyboard player was Tony Ashton.
Ashton had a pedigree almost as long as Family’s. He had joined the Liverpool band the Remo Four in time to appear on their last single (“Live Like A Lady” on Fontana TF 787) and on their recordings for the Star Club label in Germany. He and drummer Roy Dyke were also present on George Harrison’s “Wonderwall” LP, and the duo then added bassist Kim Gardner to (very briefly) become the backing group to ex-Bee Gee Vince Melouney before striking out on their own. Ashton, Gardner and Dyke had a hit with “Resurrection Shuffle” and cut a couple of albums before splitting. Ashton then issued a solo single on Purple Records (“Celebration” on Purple PUR l 09) before joining Family.
“My Friend the Sun” was lifted from “Bandstand” as a stopgap single in January 1973, and proved to be their last release on the Reprise label. They then switched to Raft for their final months, issuing two more singles, “Boom Bang” and “Sweet Desiree” (both with non-LP flipsides), plus an album “It’s Only A Movie”. None of these records sold particularly well, and the failure of LP probably did much to dampen their increasingly frustrated spirits. There was air of resignation about the album, and even the token giveaway – a paper banger the ones given free with the “Beezer” all those years ago – brought much of a smile. Within a month, Family had split up, with Tony Ashton moving off to work with Jon Lord, Rob Townsend going to Medicine Head and then the Blues Band, and Jim Cregan winding up with Rod Stewart. Whitney and Chapman formed Streetwalkers. staying together until 1977, and from there Chapman went solo with great success in Germany, where remains a hero.
Family’s legacy, however, still continues. Reprise issued “The Best Of Family” in 1974, and another compilation, “Rise”, is currently available from Rebecca Records. Meanwhile all of the group’s official LPs (compilation aside) from “A Song For Me” onwards are now available on the German Teldec label, along with an excellent collection called “From Past Archives”, which is filled with non-LP tracks. This includes, for the first time on LP, “Songs For Lots”. So a fair measure of the band’s work remains on catalogue, even if it lacks the bonuses and gimmicks of the original pressings. But in the end it is the quality of the music that counts, and quality is something which Family had plenty of.