BY ANDREW BAILEY
(Rolling Stone, April 1, 1971)
LONDON- Family’s American press clippings book is nearly empty. And What is in there is the flotsam of Family’s bad times in the States. The group’s British press clippings stuff two books and spill over into a third. That’s because every couple of months, pop paper editors scratch their heads and wonder what Family are doing.
After all, all their albums have been chart successes, which is true of only a handful of groups. And they can fill the Albert Hall on a wet Tuesday night. Which is true of only a handful of groups and not the same handful that does well with albums. And they can sell out concert tours.
And after all, the British pop papers are supposed to be covering the underground nowadays, and Family are underground, aren’t they? Because Family first became popular in the days of UFO, that joss stick joint in Covent Gardens which also produced the Pink Floyd. And nobody seems to know too much about them, apart from that bloke and his lady who wrote Britain’s first groupie book, which was supposed to be about Family.
On the other hand, they’ve never said anything political. Don’t seem to say much at all. That lead singer Roger Chapman with his balding dome-like head; he just keeps repeating “anyway…anyway” during gaps in conversations. And Poli Palmer who plays vibes and flute, doesn’t always seem to be helpful. Like when he went into a rap about how he’d noticed in France that the kids didn’t think you were a star unless you traveled in a black Cadillac and then whe n he was asked if Family had traveled in a black Cadi llac i n France he said “I dunno, that’s the business side of things, isn’t it?”
Trouble is it’s getting difficult to write anything interesting about Family. For a year we called them ”greatly underrated,” then it was “emerging as major talent,” and for the past year it’s been “up and corning” and more recently “well established.”
You could say, like Disc did: “Suddenly one of the most popular bands has crashed through with a magnificent piece of musical development.” Or “this time the group and audience were right for each other— loud and vociferous.” You could say all that except it’s all been said before. And anyway, it sticks in the throat a bit. Family are sort of evil. They don’t smile much on stage. They don’t look like they’re enjoying themselves. And the violinist- bassist fellow, John Wieder, sometimes even turns his back on the audience during a solo. But the group sells records. Maybe they’d sell even more if Chapman cooled off a bit and stopped being so free and easy with the mike stands. Like that time in New York in April ’69 at the Fillmore East.
The Nice and Ten Years After were on the bill as well. The Nice extended an already long set with a 25-minute
encore until Keith Emerson kicked his organ stool off the edge of the stage and hit somebody in the teeth. Then Family came on. Chapman, looking like an epileptic, banged his way through three tambourines. The Billboard reporter didn’t like it.
“Family,” he wrote, “with all the woes of an embryonic rock group still getting together in a neighborhood garage on Saturday mornings nevertheless brought to the Fillmore East the erratic and frightening voice of Roger Chapman. Shrill as a bagpipe and trembling like the eerie vibrato of an Irish folkchant, Chapman’s penetrating wail… threatened the sanity and security of every timid soul. Unfortunately, the quintet soon tumbled into ineptitude, addling insult to injury as Chapman slapped kicked and finally heaved the microphone in a pretentious fit of showmanship.” Pheew. Chapman’s voice sometimes gets you like that in the end. Now if that writer had been backstage, as was Tony Gourvish, then Family’s assistant manager and now the full manager….
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“Warners, who we’d signed with — probably one of the first British progressive bands to be signed to an American company —had done a good job promoting the first album,” says Gourvish.
“There was this huge billboard on the Strip saying ‘Family: Music in A Dolls House.’ Everything looked cool. Dolls
House had become a very underground album in L.A. and the stations were plugging it. We should have toured the States at that point but it got put off. So we waited till the second album was out, Family Entertainment, and it was bubbling under in Billboard. Everything, we thought, was cool.
“Then the day before the Filmore gig, Ric Grech, who we knew had been knocking around with Eric Clapton, told us he’d been asked to join Blind Faith. Ric was paranoic. We’d been friends for years and he didn’t want to let the band down. And going to the Fillmore for your debut knowing that the bass player is leaving and not knowing whether the group will carry on…well that’s a downer… I had to virtually prop Ric up against the amps he was so paranoic about leaving everybody in the lurch and at the same time not wanting to turn down Eric Clapton.
“The gig started and people were amazed. I felt this strongly… that people were asking themselves ‘is this shit or real good.’ At the end of the set Roger was uptight about not getting feedback from the audience and from knowing
they’d played a bad set that was rushed and violent. He picked up the mike stand and flung it to the side of the stage. Where Bill Graham was sounding. Well, Bill goes berserk. Roger isn’t even looking where he threw it. He’s still standing stiff on stage eyes, looking out front.”
Graham took Family’s name off the marquee like he did with the Nice after the seat incident, and said Family would never play there again. Backstage and in the audience were promoters, agents and hustlers having their first look at the latest British import. They didn’t like what they saw. Some of the British businessmen present cooled off Graham and told him that Family really were a big name back home, and please give them another chance. He did, and Family played the second house. But the word was around that Family meant trouble. Being Family’s first time in America, they didn’t understand what air conditioning can do to a throat. Chapman woke up the next day in his hotel with no voice at all. So the second gig was done as an instrumental show. Then Chapman, unfamiliar with the ways of some New York girls, lost his passport. Ric Grech soon left and John Wieder, who after leaving the Animals had been doing session work in L.A. joined and finished off the tour. Everybody, says Gourvish, was telling them to go back to Britain.
Back on home ground Family continued to be one of the hardest worked bands around, steadily building up a dedicated following. A new agent for America was fixed. Everything worked out fine the next tour. The reviews were kinder. The promoters reasonably happy. Family even played the Fillmore West. But the album, A Song For Me, wasn’t selling. They were getting some airtime and ads; like one Warner-Reprise effort which didn’t help Family’s sweet image, says Gourvish, by connecting the group in an indirect way with Charles Manson. This was in February, 1970, and people, fans and in the trade, were beginning to realize that British bands weren’t necessarily good just because they had funny accents.
Back to Britain again and Family kept going, earning between £10,000 and £20,000 in a two-month spell in Britain and Europe. A third tour of America was set up. No British bookings for the tour period were accepted. Passports, visas, work permit, all checked out. Two weeks before they were due to leave, says Gourvish, the tour was·called off from America. It seemed like a case of inter-agency politics, a nd Gourvish is now involved in legal action over the cancellation. Dates had been fixed in America and promoters were fed up with another Family fuckup. Gourvish went to L.A. to talk with the chiefs of Warner/Reprise. “I told them they didn’t seem to be enthusiastic about the band. They were really nice about it and said, ‘Fair enough, we’ll let you out of your contract.’ We’ll never leave Warner-Reprise in Europe because they do a great job and we’ve established a good relationship. They’re enthusiastic about the band.”
So, free if they wanted to be from Warner-Reprise in America. Gourvish opened talks with other record companies. He wanted a $40,000 advance, which is perhaps high ($20,000 is normal for a British band big at home but unestablished in America) but not exorbitant.
“I’ve talked with every major record company in America.” says Gourvish. “None of them has said that the advance is too high. After all, we’ve sold highly respectable quantities of albums in Britain.” (On the other hand, Song For Me only sold about 12,000 copies in America. Which must be the largest discrepancy ever.) “The record companies’ reactions were all the same,” says Gourvish. “Great, they said, then three weeks later the answer is ‘No, we don’t want it.’ Now I am beginning to think this is a bit suspicious. Looks to me like somebody somewhere is putting the spoke in. The situation at present is that Family, by any commercial standards one of Britain’s top ten groups, have no record label in America — apart from Warner-Reprise, technically. Meanwhile, scores of Britain’s bottom-of-the-barrel groups (commercialy) do have American record contracts.
Family, meanwhile, are still packing the concert halls, getting unsolicited press coverage every couple of months. They will keep on working in Britain at full steam. You don’t become rich on British record sales. The 35 cents which Gourvish says the group gets per album is split six ways. “We don’t want to become monsters in America, just to be able to play to four or five thousand each night. We’d like to mean the same in America as, say, Steve Miller or Quicksilver over here.”