Kiss-and-tell convent girls! Disappearing bass-players! A highly-strung leading man called Roger! It was the knockabout farce that ran and ran. John Bungey tells the trouser-dropping tale of Family. [MOJO, August 1996]
In the annals of rock’n’roll mayhem, the night of October 13, 1973 has a small but distinguished place. The last ever show by Family was to prove an unforgettable night for fans jammed into the hall of Leicester Polytechnic – and also for the management at the local Holiday Inn, who had the misfortune of taking a booking for the end-of-tour, end-of-everything party.
Roger Chapman was at his larynx-searing, tambourine-trashing best, as the band bid farewell to their home city fans. The set took in every stage of their seven-year career, from the psychedelia of Peace of Mind to the pastiche Americana of It’s Only A Movie. The singer, resplendent in top hat flung from the audience, fell from the stage during Burlesque. After disposing of sundry tambourines, he hurled a glass backwards, which bounced off the wall and hit drummer Rob Townsend, who gamely played on with splinters in his back.
The newest recruit, Tony Ashton, had rolled up at the gig with some drinking mates in an ancient yellow Daimler hired for the occasion. On stage he discovered someone had nicked the chord charts taped to his organ to help him through unfamiliar early Family songs. Panic ensued until the sheets were recovered. He too took a tumble mid-set on a stage slippery with spilt beer. The audience joined in a misty-eyed singalong to My Friend The Sun.
And then came the Family anthem, The Weaver’s Answer, the song the fans had never let the band drop. As ever the handclaps completely lost the beat as the pace accelerated. It was a moment of mixed emotions for the group.
“I was sad it was all over,” says Townsend, “but I do remember thinking, Thank God I won’t ever have to play that again.”
And then they were gone – one of the most exciting British acts from the post-Pepper era, wayward, erratic, utterly baffling to the Americans – having the good grace to quit while ahead.
Back at the Holiday Inn, the management had rashly allowed the farewell party to be held at the bar next to a swimming pool. With record company executives among the guests, proceedings began demurely enough. And then the first person was pushed in the pool. The band, expecting what was to come, had dressed accordingly. The suits had not. Ashton: “By the end, out of two or three hundred people, there were only three who didn’t get pushed in, including the waiters and the manager who came up to complain.” “I was sad it was all over,”
says Townsend, “but I do remember thinking, Thank God I won’t ever have to play that again.”
“We had a minder from Warners and he had the whole sub-aqua gear on. He was sitting in the deep end to rescue people who could not swim too well. I went in to look for some glasses belonging to John Fiddler [of Medecine Head]. Headless sardines floated past because somebody had chucked all the sandwiches in.” In went booze, in went bottles of bubble bath.
Then, when it was at last over, soon after the last sodden reveller had collapsed into bed, alarm bells rang out through the hotel. The bomb scare meant the building had to be evacuated. The guests, some still wet, filed out to stand bedraggled in the freezing dawn. It was the management getting their own back. And with that, the band checked out.
When Family first came to London in 1967, Roger Chapman’s cropped hair and manic stage persona were at odds with the mellow hippiedom billowing around them in the underground scene. John Peel recalls seeing them early on at a small club in Picadilly: “Family were powerfully agressive and rather alarming, which was not the way of doing things then. Roger Chapman had LOVE and HATE tatooed on his fingers – the first time I’d ever seen that. I was sitting at a table with John Lennon who was also well impressed.
“It was just the manic tambourine playing that struck you – and the strange looks, which reminded me, oddly enough, of Gene Vincent when I’d seen him in Liverpool as a teenager. He had the same manic quality, and at concerts you were always grateful for a few bodies between yourself and Roger.”
The group’s arrival on the scene as the Next Big Thing had followed several months’ hard gigging based in Leicester. But the roots of the band went way back to 1962, when John “Charlie” Whitney formed The Farinas at Leicester Art College. Routine purveyors of R&B with a dash of soul, they were joined by Roger Chapman in 1966. When the two began to write together the mutation into Family began. Whitney cites influences from folk to Chuck Berry, while Chapman listened to The Coasters, checking out the songs of Leiber and Stoller. What they came up with sounded like no-one before. By 1967 the line-up had stablised to also include Ric Grech on bass, Jim King on saxophone and Rob Townsend on drums. They took off round the colleges and clubs to play some explosive dates.
“You’d get half the audience booing us and the other half standing up and raving, and shouting matches would develop between them,” says Chapman. “I thought this was great; this meant we seriously had something new to offer. We were out on our own.”
A debut single, Scene Through The Eye Of A Lens, appeared as a one-off for Liberty in 1967. The slow, haunting song introduced Chapman’s cheese-grater vibrato to the pop world – or at least that tiny proportion that bought a copy. The small sales and the presence of the entire Traffic line-up has since propelled the record to extreme collectability. “We were lucky to get Jimmy Miller to produce,” says Whitney. “He got Steve Winwood to play Mellotron and the rest played percussion.”
With Grech doubling on violin, Chapman’s bizarre stage presence and some heavily-fried lyrics, the band soon acquired a reputation as an exotic act, gigging hard at the UFO, Middle Earth and Roundhouse. Their manager, John Gilbert, decided that the first album was to be a grand statement and Jimmy Miller, then Dave Mason, were brought in to slave over its production at Olympic in Barnes, London. The studio possessed a cinema screen and, as work progressed in all-night sessions, Gilbert would dim the lights and show Disney’s Fantasia. “I don’t know if it was the drugs, but he thought our music fitted perfectly,” says Chapman.
The group were worried that their rivals, outfits like Jethro Tull and Ten Years After – were getting their albums released first. “Ours didn’t come out ’til July 1968,” says Whitney, “but it turned out well because our album was better. We weren’t just reproducing our stage act.”
Christened Music In A Doll’s House (a title The Beatles had mooted and now had to reject for The White Album), Family’s debut was an elaborate confection. Trumpets, Mellotrons and strings bounce around the stereo field as songs slide into one another, often returning later in instrumental form. Today the rampant psychedelia ties the album to its era, but it is still a highly impressive debut. At the core is some inspired if unconventional songwriting (you’ll be hard-pressed to find a hook or chorus in much of early Family).
With the album reaching Number 35 in the charts, the group immersed themselves in touring and living the pop life. Gilbert had installed the lads from the sticks in a big house in Lots Road, Chelsea, a shabby locale (now thoroughly gentrified) within stumbling distance of the King’s Road, then the centre of the hippy universe. Townsend: “It was a great period, people coming by all the time. I remember once storming into Chapman’s room at about four in the morning to ask him to turn the music down. I had some old pyjamas on – not very rock’n’roll – and there were half The Byrds in there playing away. So I sort of muttered, Great lads, and crept away.”
Into this all-male household moved Jenny Fabian, a pretty, ex-convent girl and Roundhouse/UFO regular. At first she was the girlfriend of Ric Grech, then Tony Gourvish (who was to become Family’s next manager). The band were thus to unwittingly provide source material for the notoriously torrid tome of the era, Groupie. “She used to say as a joke – or we thought it was a joke – I’m writing a book about all this,” Townsend recalls. “The next thing we knew, Groupie came out and we all went off to the reception at the Speakeasy, opened the book and went, ‘Aarrgh’.” The book, a tale of sex, drugs, rock’n’roll and more sex, is a thinly-fictionalised memoir of Oz-era London, with Syd Barrett and Ric Grech inspirations for the male leads. Family are recognisable as “Relation”. Today, most of the band claim not to have read it. “Well… only the odd page,” says Chapman.
Meanwhile, Family’s second album, Entertainment, had appeared, including such staples from the live set as The Weaver’s Answer and Hung Up Down. Gilbert, wanting a simpler sound, had brought in Glyn Johns to produce and the result is a more mainstream progressive rock set with Chapman’s vocals to the fore. His epiglottis-shredding performance on Hung Up Down is a stand-out. “I’ve always sung like that,” Chapman insists. “It was when we were playing some Family demos to bigwigs in the business that they said, ‘What a weird voice’. I thought I was just singing like Little Richard or Ray Charles.”
The album was mixed in the band’s absence, and the members were unhappy with the balance and the track order. (Remixed, some of the material, including The Weaver’s Answer, would later appear on Old Songs New Songs, a Family cheapie at a mere 30 bob.) The cover – a gaggle of circus freaks – Chapman now dismisses as “a dodgy idea we nicked from The Doors.” To capitalise on the entertainment theme the band played a date complete with jugglers, acrobats and a drag act, at the Festival Hall in London. But this experiment in smashing showbiz boundaries was nearly and embarrassing flop. In the first half, solo spots by band members were interspersed with some lacklustre plate-spinning and fire-eating. The audience, who paid to see a band, became increasingly restive until, after a shortened interval, Family rescued proceedings with a storming 50-minute set. While Entertainment reached Number 6 in the charts, a crueller chapter awaited the band across the Atlantic.
Family’s first US tour remains a case study in how not to win over the Colonies. The first blow came when, soon after landing in New York, Ric Grech announced he would be off shortly to join Eric Clapton’s Blind Faith. Disconsolate and jetlagged, the band proceeded to Bill Graham’s Fillmore East. They were to play second on the bill between The Nice and Ten Years After for eight shows. At first, The Nice had already got Graham’s blood up by ignoring his diktat and burning the Stars And Stripes during America.
As Family, on less than top form, began their set, Graham was standing quietly fuming in the wings. “He had never seen us before, and Roger was getting totally carried away,” recalls Townsend. “He pulled the mike out of the stand and threw the stand away. But unfortunately he threw it too far and the stand, which was very heavy, just missed Graham’s head. Graham seemed to think the band was trying to make its name by killing him. It was all a mistake.” Graham swore they would not work for him again once the shows were over. Chapman, frightened of upsetting anyone else, took to performing with arms pinned to his sides: “Other promoters were there because people were expecting big things from us, but all they saw was a pile of crap. So we had nowhere to go except down.” Grech was “in a horizontal position” most of the time offstage thanks to a prodigious intake of drink and drugs. The singer lost his voice and then his passport, so the band could not play in Canada. Hastily drafting in John Weider from Eric Burdon’s New Animals as new bassist, without any warm-ups the band played a few more dates around New York. Then they shuffled off home. “If the plane had crashed that would have put the icing on the cake,” says Whitney.
Back in London, Family changed managers, appointing Tony Gourvish. Out too went sax player Jim King, to be replaced by Poli Palmer, a remarkable musician who had last played with the highly-rated Eclection. From Worcester, Palmer was originally a drummer and was also a dab hand on flute and piano, but it was his preferred instrument, the vibes, that did so much to define the Family sound. Palmer: “I remember Chappo saying, `Them bottle things, they don’ `arf sound good, shall we have him in the band?'”
The new line-up made the self-produced A Song For Me which soared to Number 4 in the charts. Palmer remembers this as a period of great experiment. “It was a case of throw something at the wall and see if it sticks… We would record a rock’n’roll thing with flute and vibes or flute and violin. Sometimes it didn’t work but sometimes it was unique. On Drowned In Wine the engineer stopped the tape suddenly while we were mixing and someone said, ‘That sounds good, let’s keep it like that.’ So one stage we learned to play it like that, stopped dead on the fourth beat of the bar, rather than the first.”
“Them bottle things, they don’ `arf sound good, shall we have him in the band?”
Trekking around Britain and the Continent, Family honed their live reputation. They played two Hyde Park free shows, supporting The Rolling Stones in 1969, and event – epoch-defining for some – about which Family remember little. Townsend was called on to perform a 10-minute drum solo when the PA packed up, and then they scurried off to another gig that evening.
The band appeared at two Isle of Wights. At their second, in 1970, as other groups haggled about running orders and refused to go on before dark, distraught promoter Rikki Farr implored someone, anyone, to take the stage. Family held out their hands and said they were game – in return for cash up front. “A lot of people had trouble getting paid. I think we were about the first people to get our bread there,” boasts Palmer proudly.
About this time Chapman’s stage antics were credited in Melody Maker as the inspiration for idiot dancing, which was rapidly becoming the favoured means of self-expression among festival goers. “He would just get carried away,” says Townsend. “I’ve seen him injure himself, split his eye open, and he’s not known about it until we got off stage. It wasn’t drugs, it was just him.” Former colleagues describe Chapman offstage as a quiet man “almost to the point of shyness”, at odds with his stage persona. Chapman’s demons still haunt him come show time: “Some people think I’m mad now, and it’s 25 years on. I’m a bit aggressive on stage but I like to think it’s creative aggression. It’s just my nervous attack that hits me when I get on stage in front of hundreds of people.”
John Peel and his wife-to-be got to know the singer through numerous Radio 1 sessions: “Roger was always our favorite in the band. The others might have got a bit starstruck at some stage because they had had hits and knew famous people and made a few bob, but Roger seemed to stay essentially Roger. He was always a slightly dodgy Leicester lad.”
The band’s next release, Anyway, offered eight strong songs recorded with a much fuller group sound, and if a rock band can swing, then Family swing on this set. One side was recorded at Olympic, the other live at the Fairfield Halls, Croydon. The title track features a set of exotic tuned drums called a boobam that Palmer found in a corner of Olympic. “Because the studio was used for cinema music there would always be tons of gear waiting to be collected the next day. So in the middle of the night you would have a good look through; nobody would know. You’d pull out bits of percussion or a harpsichord and have a go.”
Family’s biggest hit single, In My Own Time, took on the likes of Dawn and The Sweet to reach Number 4. But the band, never one for stable line-ups, then lost Weider, who had tired of bass playing. After over 100 players were auditioned, John Wetton was enlisted from prog rockers Mogul Thrash. Wetton would appear on the band’s two most accomplished releases, Fearless and Bandstand.
Today both stand up as great British rock albums. Recorded in an era renowned for musical flatulence, these are collections of concise, imaginative songs full of unconventional chord progressions, intriguing textures yet still retaining a strong, melodic rock structure – group records in the best sense. The studio experiments, the a cappella singing, the harpsichords, even a plastic pipe being swirled above Chappo’s head through Blind, enhance the arrangements. A few Family fans were upset that the music was becoming more conventional; indeed, the band’s career on record is a gradual retreat from the strangeness of their debut. Chapman offers no apologies: “The choruses came more and more. As you write you can’t help but standardise yourself. If you write a good hook, you want to hear it again anyway.”
The highly proficient Wetton brought guitar, keyboard and vocal skills, and the meanest bass sound around. “There was the ultimate amount of freedom in that band,” he says. “In the studio there were no fixed roles and a lot of swapping of instruments. Live, it wasn’t the most structured band I’ve ever worked with. Sets seemed to be worked out minutes before we went on stage. Performances varied, but some nights it would gel and it would be out of this world.” Wetton recalls a review in a Munich newspaper of a festival appearance. It said that Family came on and played like a pack of wolves.
Supporting evidence can be heard buried at the end of a Radio 1 Live In Concert album. On a scorching, 10-minute version of Part Of The Load the band is propelled by the earthquake of Wetton’s bass. As the synth drops away, you’re left with a trio that sounds like Cream on a hot night. “He was definitely the best bass player we had,” says Whitney. “Me and Rob used to keep it simple so he could do his thing.”
While Family opened many doors for Wetton, the one marked songwriting remained pretty much closed, and within a year he was off to help Robert Fripp fashion a new King Crimson, to be replaced by Jim Cregan. When Elton John offered the band a support slot on a vast US stadium tour, the lure of one last crack at America was too much to resist. With Bandstand and attendant single Burlesque newly released, hopes were high – until they got in front of an audience.
Elton John fans arriving for a dose of Rocket Man stared stunned at the sight of Chapman in full flight. Palmer: “We played places in Texas and down South where there was just no reaction. We would play, finisht, and there would be silence. The audience would just have their mouths open, just looking at Roger thinking, What is this? The only clapping in this huge stadium would be the guys doing the PA.”
If anything broke up Family it was American indifference. The band watched as one by one their British rivals tapped into that vast record market. Band members felt that in Europe they had done as much as they could. “If we had made it in the States it would have given us enough money not to play gigs so often, just that little breathing space,” says Palmer. Given that the States sustained the careers of Traffic, Jethro Tull, Genesis, Yes – even Uriah Heep – it’s easy to see just how unlucky Family were.
Doubts surfaced about the band’s future. “We played a festival in Germany and had to follow Beck, Bogart and Appice, who were absolutely stunning. The set knocked everybody sideways,” Townsend remembers. “We said that we had once played with that passion and that fire and we weren’t doing it now. Perhaps it’s time we called it a day… Mind you, the next night the billing was changed and we had to follow them, and we blew the arse off them.”
Next to go was Palmer, eased out after the tour. There had been grumbles at his input on stage. He had taken to using an early VCS3 synthesizer that required lengthy programming. “It took him a lot of time to set things up, so while he was doing that we were playing as a three piece,” says Whitney, “then he’d do his solo and you wouldn’t hear him again for that number while he set up for the next one.”
Palmer’s replacement was the ebullient Tony Ashton, a piano and organ player from the old school. Freed from the responsibilities of running Ashton, Gardner and Dyke (smash hit: Resurrection Shuffle), Ashton wanted some fun. Collectively the band loosened up. Chapman says: “Rod Stewart had started off a whole new good-time approach which we adopted. I’d never really drunk before and we were definitely starting to drink.” The band introduced a rock’n’roll encore and on-stage daftness. “We used to do a thing that went ‘fish and chips, fish and chips, riding through the glen’ to the tune of Robin Hood,” says Ashton. “That could break out at any time. I don’t know if that was the booze or the funny powders we were taking.” Recorded evidence suggests scant respect for some Family favourites. On the Live In Concert CD, largely taken from 1973, the players turn the delicate Holding The Compass into a Chas’n’Dave knees-up.
The band toured successfully if unconventionally, on Continental jaunt threading its way down to Tunisia. “We wound up in a place called Tabarka. Tony Gourvish was there with Germaine Greer who he was living with. We just said, What the fuck are we doing here? Nobody had heard of us. It was a big, dusty old athletics stadium covered in sand dunes and we played there to a few little Arab kids. We all got gut-ache and the shits – and I don’t think we got paid.”
Chapman today is dismissive of this last phase and claims he was getting bored. “We became this sort of boozin’ boogie band, but as far as I’m concerned it didn’t really happen.” However the final album, It’s Only A Movie, is stuffed with good material, including two fine singles, Boom Bang and Sweet Desiree, which flopped as glam rock exploded about them.
The album is the simplest, most direct of their career but it did not sell. Its straightforward chords (Desiree is pretty much Louie Louie) are far from the Strange Band of old. But by now the members had already announced they were to break up. Townsend says he was heartbroken by the split; Ashton remembers his time with Family as the highpoint of his career.
Chapman and Whitney then headed for the more traditional R&B territory of Streetwalkers. They made five good albums, played some storming shows but never captured the wider public’s imagination. Ashton went into production with Medicine Head, drafting in Townsend to play. Jim Cregan produced girlfriend Linda Lewis and subsequently worked with Cockney Rebel then Rod Stewart.
But none of the ex-members achieved the same success as Family collectively. Today Chapman has a solid career based in Germany, fronts a crack band and continues to sell records across northern Europe. A new studio album, Kiss My Soul, is out with a live double, In My Own Time, to follow. But he seldom plays in the UK, and when you ask him about this he mutters darkly about disillusionment with “certain people” in the British music business. When you meet him he presses a CV into your hand to make sure you’re aware that Chappo’s career is still business as usual – and he’s anxious to know what’s going to be written about him.
There are those who are puzzled that he is not celebrated as one of the great English rock voices, like Joe Cocker or Rod Stewart. John Peel suggests it is a reluctance to serve up “hummable songs”. Townsend, now busy with The Blues Band and the Manfreds, says: “He certainly has the voice. But you either love it or you hate it. I work with a musician now who hates it. He says he couldn’t stand it with Family and he can’t stand it now.”
Tony Ashton continues to record and tour, mainly in Germany (“where they’re geared to remembering the old farts rather than condemning them”). He is also a successful painter. Poli Palmer divides his time between computers and low-key gigging, one band including Boz Burrell. Charlie Whitney has dived out of sight, living modestly in Wimbledon and playing with a blues/bluegrass combo, Los Racketeeros, so laid-back they have made just one album in 16 years. The set includes a neat acoustic version of Burlesque. Whitney and Chapman have not seen each other for years. The highest public profile – in Britain and America at least – belongs to John Wetton, after stints with a string of top-draw outfits plus solo career.
Ric Grech died in 1990, his liver the victim of sustained abuse. Family was the last stable line-up he played in. Only a few weeks before Grech’s death, Poli Palmer received a call from the bassist saying he had been offered a tour and album deal for a re-formed group. Palmer says he talked to Chapman who ruled out working with Grech again. There have been other offers, big money – including one from Japan where Family never set foot.
“I’m glad we didn’t re-form,” says Chapman. “That would have destroyed the mystique of the band. It’s always a bit naff when people do.” Chapman is a diffident man, not one to boast, but you sense a fierce pride in Family’s status as one of rock music’s quirkier legends. “We never set out to do anything,” he says, “we didn’t try to be different, it was never calculated. We were just arranging music as we thought it should be done. It was as naive and as honest as that.”