The trio-crux of the band has remained their only constant throughout: Roger Chapman on patented manic vocals (also lyricist extraordinaire), John “Charlie” Whitney on the double-necked Gibson (the musical arranger/genius behind their various changes) and powerhouse percussionist Rob Townshend. Grafted onto this corpus have at times been the likes of Ric Grech, John Wetton, Poli Palmer (vibist/synthesizist/keyboardist incredible) and finally the inimitable Jim Cregan (ex-leader Stud and Blossom Toes) on bass and the inspired keyboards man, Tony Ashton. Indeed Family was a home for some of the most well-respected of wayward London free-rock players.
True to form, Family bids us a fond farewell with a tribute to Americana. “It’s Only a Movie”, the title track, is eclectic as ever. Recorded in Todd-ao Grand, although I know that it’s now almost passe to say that “ya gotta dig it on da phones”, this epic cut is the singular grandest spectacle of sound these ears have heard of late. And what a story—this line about some John-Huston-gone-stale, has-been of a Western Movie maker who never quite made it. At one and the same time, an interesting perspective from a bunch of lads from Leicester and an informative allegory for the state of Family as a band…brilliant, yet unnoticed. But what the hell! “It’s only a movie/It’s only a show…” The horses, the roping and rustling ensue behind the major melody line in stereophonic glory. Talk about cinematographic rock’n’roll!
Continuing the Americanization of Family, “Boots ‘n’ Roots” opens with a clarinetted “Swanee River” quote, extremely effective. The title of the tune, fairly self-explanatory, deals directly with this wanderlust vagabond, don’t tie me down cause “there’s so much I still gotta see”. The instrumental back-up catalogues a traditional American folk idiom, sounding like a transcendant cross between The Band (one of Whitney’s favorites), Taj Mahal and Randy Newman (one of Chapman’s fave raves). Speaking of which, “Leroy” (with Medicine Head’s remarkable harpist Peter Hope-Evans guesting) further highilights this whimsical bent: the story of this slick cat who knows what he wants and gets it—marrying the campus queen and all. Classic.
And then, thank God, there’s some good ole manic-ampheto Family wham-bam raunch. Based in Berry and the Coasters, “Boom Bang” shows off Chapman’s patented neanderthal growl—perhaps, indeed, the most unique voice to emerge from the sweat of hell-bent rock history. “Boom Bang Shotgun Man!” — Chapman’s vocal stylization is about as pedestrian as Captain Beefheart’s. Grizzled. Working Class kids, grey industrial town background—it all shows in Chapman’s vibrato-dosed hardness. In actual fact, he’s quite a nice laid-back cat, even though that microphone stand (a 50-pounder) did only miss Bill Graham’s head by two inches during Family’s first American appearance.
The album closes with “Check Out”. Appropriately. Sadly. Standard Family, it’s destined to fry speakers across the land. Deciding to leave with some dust in their wake (more like a tornado really), the band cooks to hell. Ashton’s Larry Young-like organ solo flies, as Whitney’s razor-blade guitar slashes along like Great Zeus in mating season and, then, he wails it out through fade. Some of his screamingest work to date.
Like a line at the end of that song, “it’s too late to stop now”, there can be no stopping the intensely fruitful and prolific creative spirits of Family’s members. I’ve heard it said that Cregan has gone on to produce and lead the back-up band of his talented lady, Linda Lewis. God knows that Tony Ashton will come up with something eventful (like co-leading John Entwistle’s much-renowned band of mutants, Rigor Mortis). And, most importantly, it seems that Chapman and Whitney will stay together as a writing/recording pair with Chapman up-front as a “solo” act. Which is cool. And now if maybe Townshend could session-work the duet’s percussion tracks, it seems we wouldn’t be losing much at all, except for the name, Family.