The story of Family is a succession of “near-hits” and aesthetical successes. No doubt the group from Leicester was one of the most outstanding progressive rock bands in England in the late 60’s and early 70’s.
Nobody knows the reason for mass success and why one band becomes superstars while another, which is hardly weaker musically, remains only second rate, like Family. Family was equipped with all the things a band needs to have mass-success: a charismatic frontman who was raging like a berserk on stage and who was a singer with an incomparable voice; several imaginative and original songwriters; flexible instrumentalists; and an image which most of the other bands would have liked to have, for Family was considered both as a band for anyone and as genuine representation of the Underground. But Roger Chapman & Co. never broke through; and even this was good, because every LP was an adventure, and the formation did experiments and had not been strait-jacketed by the business.
The Family Story starts in the 60’s in Leicester where John “Charlie” Whitney (24.6.44) and Jim King met at college and decided to form the band Jim King & The Farinas, together with drummer Harry Ovenall and bassist Tim Kirchin. This was standard beat music, although King was out of the ordinary using his sax and flutes. Their only single on the Fontana label flopped and Kirchin left the band while Ric Grech (1.11.1945) came on. A short while later they found a singer with a unique voice, so the Farinas got a distinctive style. Roger Chapman (8.4.1942) had been active before in the groups Exciters and Danny Storm And The Strollers. The Family-formation was nearly complete, only a drummer was missing. So Rob Townsend (7.7.1947) came in after Harry Ovenall had left the band. Townsend knew the group because he had worked like them in the Midlands’s clubs around Leicester with the bands Le Gay and Gypsy.
All members agreed that they shouldn’t use the old name anymore, since they had totally changed because of the new musicians. Earlier they played native, indigenous Rhythm & Blues like London’s bands Graham Bond Organisation and Zoot Money’s Big Roll Band, but now progressive, polished rock-music dominated, including folk and psychedelic elements. But to have success they had to go to the centre of the music-business and so the group went to London in summer 1966 (not yet using their new name) where they found a nice house they rented. At that time the legendary American producer Kim Fowley was in London, famous for his rock’n’roll-hits with Hollywood Argyles (“Alley Oop”), B. Bumble & The Stingers (“Nutrocker”) and the Mermaids (“Popsicles & Icicles”). Chapman & Co. met him to produce two demos: “The Great Pretender” (a rock’n’roll-classic) and “Silver Dagger” (earlier sung by Joan Baez). The name Family was Fowley’s idea.
These demo-recordings have not been released, but the quintet settled down on the Underground-club-level and became regular guests in legendary clubs like UFO and The Roundhouse. In September 1967 they got a contract with the Liberty label because of their outstanding concerts, but the contract included only one single. “Scene Through The Eye of A Lens” was a sensation, totally independent music, not coquetting to any trend. Smooth passages interrupted by virtuous solos; Chapman’s singing changing between controlled moments and wild outbursts. Through this single they got an appearance on John Peel’s show Top Gear, so Family became widely known as one of the best live bands. Here they could present their Music In A Doll’s House material to a wide audience, e.g. “Hey Mr. Policeman”.
In early 1968 they went into the studio together with the producer of their first 7″, Jimmy Miller, to record their first LP. But Miller was also committed to Beggar’s Banquet by the Stones, so Dave Mason was brought in, essentially reversing roles from session musician to producer. Mason had already played on their first single, like all of Traffic. Charlie Whitney: ”Dave Mason had a lot of ideas, e.g. the feedback-violins in “Voyage”, that’s a Mellotron being played backwards. A lot of people say that the album was overproduced because of it’s style. That’s perhaps true from today’s point of view, but in those days Mason did it alright.” Jimmy Miller dropped in only a few times and he did the mixing for “The Chase”. The LP was released in July, entitled Music In A Doll’s House, being one of the best debut-albums in rock music history. Even the cover demonstrates that the group was out of the ordinary, and the music was proof of that, too: a breathtaking mixture of folk, rock and psychedelic music, and Family became, in one blow, one of the most important Underground formations.
They wanted to do a tour together with Traffic, but that idea did not come off because Dave Mason left Traffic and Steve Winwood became ill, so Jethro Tull and Ten Years After helped out. After the concert tour they recorded their second LP. In advance the 7″ “2nd Generation Woman” was released, one of the best Ric Grech compositions, but more reserved than the material on Music In A Doll’s House. So it’s not surprising that there’s a difference in style between Family Entertainment and Doll’s House. Whitney: “Our manager John Gilbert wanted Glyn Johns as sound-engineer and Gilbert didn’t like Dave Mason, so we produced with Glyn. After the recording we went to Scotland and John Gilbert was in Rome. When we returned John showed us the acetates… he had mixed the recording while we’d been absent!” So the band stopped working with Gilbert, but the album became the first chart success and reached No. 6 in the LP-charts because of the remarkable songs “Weaver’s Answer”, “Hung Up down”, “Observations From a Hill” and “Face in the Clouds”. So Family was near their big break, and it seemed only logical to do a U.S. tour, but it was to become chilly over there…
After the first successes in the U.K. the jump to the States ended with disaster. Here’s why:
After “Family Entertainment” the big breakthrough seemed to come very soon. The reviews were excellent, the concerts in England and Europe were brilliant and a US tour had already been booked. But first of all there was a splitting in Family: Steve Winwood made an offer to Ric Grech to join Blind Faith, a supergroup (with Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker) which could make each member a potential millionaire. So Ric said “Yes!” A substitute for him was found very soon: John Weider (from Eric Burdon and the Animals) who could play bass and guitar. He fitted perfectly in the flexible formation. So they were well prepared for the US adventure (with this setting out for overseas, the novel Groupie by Jenny Fabian ends; Family plays the leading role; in Germany the paperback is released by Fisher-Publ.).
The first appearance in the USA was to be a gig in the legendary Fillmore East (Bill Graham’s hall) which had been booked. But what took place was an infamous confrontation. Roger Chapman: “I just made one of my numbers with the microphone stand, when Bill Graham appeared to see the last part of the show. Obviously he was shocked when he saw how I dealt with the microphone; it was absolutely unusual and he was totally startled. So he ran down the corridor and pulled down all of our posters. Well, we understood one another afterwards in spite of that, and we did several concerts for Graham later, but I think several other concert organizers and other people in the music business followed Bill’s example because he was an important person in the business, and expelled us.” It’s difficult to say why Family couldn’t get a firm footing in the States. Perhaps it was the negative run of their first tour, although the band had been 8 weeks in the States where they had some good shows; but they just couldn’t convince all the audiences. So Family are outsiders till today, although “Bandstand” sold 180,000 copies.
“A Song For Me” is regarded as the most mediocre album of Family. This could be a reaction to the negative US experience or the departure of Jim King, who was ill and could not stand the group pressures. Charlie Whitney’s comment: “The album is thin for various reasons: 1.) The mixing could be far better; 2.) The bass player, Will Weider, wasn’t solid like Ric, he was no support for the group. 3.) the LP was mainly played by a trio: Rob Townsend, Will Weider and I played all the basic tracks. Jim King wasn’t able to add a contribution and so we asked Poli Palmer, who played some overdubs, which is never very good. Some songs would sound better with Jim’s tenor sax than with Poli’s flute”. The title track had been in the band’s stage show since 1966, and it’s an improvisation of Howlin’ Wolf’s blues song, “How Many More Years”. In the studio it was not realized as well as live versions.
Another LP was cut in Autumn: “Anyway” was conceived as a live record, although in fact only the A-side was recorded at a concert. Some songs were very old (Leicester period), e.g. “Strange Band”, which had been written by Chapman together with an old friend, Williamson. He also appears in “Lives and Ladies”, a song in which Chapman remembers his old times and describes some old friends. “Anyway” is remarkable mainly because of two factors: 1.) Poli Palmer added tone colours; he played not only flute, but also vibraphone, keyboards and bass. 2.) Roger Chapman was in very best form, so “Anyway” became an exemplary live record. The only mistake was that they only recorded one gig (Fairfield Halls) so they were not able to take better interpretations for the record. This third lineup of the band was surely the best ever. After problems at first, Weider fitted in perfectly in the group, and Palmer was a substitute for several musicians, because he was able to play simply everything! The guys contributed this musical variety to the records.
Like “A Song For Me”, the “Anyway” album got an excellent place in the UK Charts. Ironically “A Song For Me” became the most successful record of Family (No. 4 in the charts; “Anyway” reached No. 7). The next news heard from Family was of another split. John “Willi” Weider was tired of playing bass and he preferred to change to the new Blues-rock formation Stud where he was offered to become the lead guitar player. There he met the earlier rhythm section of Taste (Ritchie McCracken and John Wilson) and Jim Cregan, earlier Blossom Toes guitar player. Chapman & Co. got John Wetton (bass-player of Mogal Thrash ), who began his career as a well paid musician-for-rent. Weider still played on the “Old Songs, Now Songs” sessions, in a way a “Best of” album that contains singles, B-sides and the most loved tracks, which had been remixed or edited. So this LP can be totally recommended.
The single that had been recorded at the “Fearless” sessions (“In My Own Time”/”Seasons”) reached No. 4 in the UK single charts; Family was again in the limelight. While “In My Own Time” was a commercial song, “Fearless” was a surprise with its compact, restrained sound that was not expected after the rocky “Anyway” album. But “Fearless ” is inconspicuous when you hear it the first time; the more you listen to it, the better it becomes. It’s a good example of a well-conceived record which you’ll still like decades later. The next album was to become an absolutely different one.
In spite of good sales, Family throw in the towel after “It’s Only A Movie”. Roger Chapman and Charlie Whitney continued with the Streetwalkers acting in the old spirit of Family.
The years 1971 and 1972 were the peak for Family: ”Fearless” and ”Bandstand” were their most matured albums, and “Bandstand” was the most rocky one. Almost all the singles reached the Top Ten. “Burlesque”, released in late 1972 (a preview for “Bandstand”) got it’s name from a club in Leicester. The combination of Chapman, Whitney, Townsend, Palmer and Wetton was surely the best one. That was the main reason why you can see “Bandstand” as the first Family album that is really a proper rock album. There’s a bundle of good rock: songs presented by Chapman, Whitney & Co. with the outstanding tracks “My Friend The Sun”, “Top Of The Hill”, “Burlesque”, “Bolero Babe” and “Coronation”. “Coronation” was one of two titles not written only by Chapman and Whitney: John Wetton helped them. Older bands would have had leaned back after such an album and made a concert tour to build upon this esthetical and commercial success.
But not so Family: the next thing heard was that both John Wetton and John Michael ”Poli” Palmer had left the group. Substitutes were Tony Ashton (successful earlier with Remo Four and Ashton, Gardner & Dyke) and Poli Palmer’s Blossom Toes colleague Jim Cregan (he played earlier together with ex-Family member John Weider in the group Stud). But enthusiasm had gone; you can recognize that in “lt’s Only A Movie”, which is too seasoned, although there are a few strong songs like “Boom Bang” and “Sweet Desire”. Chapman commented with frustration: “I think we’re lethargic at the moment. We like to appear in concerts, but Tony Gourvish (manager) has his production company, Jim has his projects with Linda Lewis and we all have Family, but this doesn’t work all well and the industry sees it. The music is still there, but we have not overcome the problems. We have made ourselves an island in the business and we cannot manage to push into another area.” About ten years later he says more drastically, “We had been totally bored by the music – always the same tracks year after year; that makes you ill.”
So after about five years of hard work the group was still medium quality. The final “Farewell Tour” in 1973 (England/ Europe) became a triumph, the fans and the critics were enthusiastic perhaps because this was the first Family tour that went off well without problems. The quintet was able to concentrate only upon the music. After the split Chapman and Whitney remained together. Tony Ashton teamed up with Jon Lord and was also solo. Jim Cregan is probably the most successful ex-Family member: Since 1978 he has played in Rod Stewart’s band. Poli Palmer, Rob Townsend (who became drummer in Medicine Head and Blues Band) and John Wetton emerged again and again in Chapman/Whitney projects. John Wetton became a highly demanded musician (King Crimson, Uriah Heep, Brian Ferry, Roxy Music) . He founded Asia in the early 80’s. John Weider joined various groups, too: an excellent Moonrider album; a solo record; the Canadian guitar player Domenic Troiano; the American hardrock band Gulliver; an acoustic record in 1988.
Chapman and Whitney stayed together. As a team they wrote a lot of splendid songs for Family albums. Therefore they got a “solo” contract, but with the first album they made the old mistakes: a multitude of intimate friends/musicians in the studio prevented a good album. Chapman: “The album was irregular – of course, because of so many musicians. But through the work for this album Charlie and I became interested again in playing with a steady number of people. So we asked Bob Tench if he wanted to join us and he came.” Bob Tench had been in Jeff Beck Group (“Rough And Ready”) and he started the fusion-group Hummingbird where he played together with his Jeff Beck colleague Max Middleton. Bob Tench proved that as singer (and later as guitar player with Streetwalkers ) he is one of the best in the business. The 2nd album of Chapman and Whitney (in USA/GER: “Streetwalkers”; in UK: “Downtown Flyers”) presented the strong points of the new formation. That album was by far more consistent. Chapman, with satisfaction, said in 1976: “I’m very happy to work in a group again and I’m proud of Streetwalkers’ music.” But unfortunately the commercial success did not keep pace with the quality of the music: Although the LP’s were excellent (especially Red Card, Vicious But Fair ) there was no breakthrough. So that chapter ended with a fantastic live double-LP (a bit uncleanly recorded) with a great version of “Chilli Con Carne”. A song with which most other bands cannot compete.
After that all members went their own ways: Charlie Whitney founded Axis Point (with Eddie Hardin, Charlie McCracken and Rob Townsend); they only made tired average rock. Bob Tench disappeared, unfortunately. Only a solo single for Stiff as a tribute to the late Phil Lynott and a guest-appearance at the Humble Pie reunion. In 1987 Line released another solo-single. He is now in Chris Rea’s backing-group. More about Chapman in part 4 of this story.