As I wrote yesterday, Free were heroes in the North East, thanks largely to Paul Rodgers hailing from Middlesbrough. He could be a prickly character and people were often on edge around him, but that side of him didn’t really come out until Bad Company whose manager Peter Grant once told me that Paul was the trickiest artist he’d ever had to manage, and Grant managed Led Zeppelin too, don’t forget.
Here’s my report of catching Free in the North East, from MM in July of 1970. I closed it with a reference to Bath, which must have been the Bath Festival – headlined by Zep – so I probably left Sunderland, stayed at my dad’s house in Skipton for a night and drove down to Somerset the next day. Two months into my new job on MM and I was already catapulted from reporting Slough Magistrates Court to the front line of UK rock. Truly wonderful it was, talk about being in the right place at the right time…
Freemania broke out in Sunderland on Friday. It’s a disease you may not have heard of yet – but it looks very much as though the epidemic will spread. It’s very infectious.
The symptoms are caused by too much exposure to four young musicians who come under the collective name of Free. They are no strangers to the pop world, but the reception they received in the North East was like history repeating itself.
The best known remedy for the disease would appear to be acquiring an Island album just released called Fire And Water. Temporary relief can be gained by investing in a single called ‘All Right Now’, currently reaching for the top spot in the charts.
The scenes at the Mecca Ballroom in Sunderland on Friday resembled Beatlemania in its hey-day. Two and a half thousand packed the dance hall to listen to Free. They surged on the small revolving stage during the closing numbers and a line of staff had to link arms to prevent singer Paul Rodgers being manhandled by excited young girls.
Many were carried backstage suffering from the effects of the electric atmosphere. Some managed to crash the human barrier and clamber behind the tiny stage just to touch Paul as he gulped Cokes between numbers.
“It’s like this every time we play here,” he gasped as the crowd at the front cheered for more. “It’s bloody fantastic. Each time we play the reception is worse – or better – whichever way you look at it.”
Free played for slightly over an hour. Each number they played was greeted with knowing applause. Their albums must sell well in that part of the country.
Because of the huge tension that was building up inside the hall, it was decided by the management to put them on earlier than the supporting acts. Crowds were being turned away at the door and the hall was filled way above the safety maximum. Word had obviously spread around that Paul’s hometown is Middlesbrough. He was greeted like an old friend.
Stalking the stage in Jagger fashion, he grasps the microphone stand above his head like a staff. His beard is taking nice shape since I last saw him, and with his silver flared pants and tight red sweater he is just the part to set the girls screaming.
But it’s not all hero worship. Fans listened to the music. The ovation was for the music as much as for the quartet who made it.
When he did a slow one they sat and listened. When the band played a heavy number, the floor of the great hall shook beneath me as two and a half thousand feet stamped in unison.
Their act reached a tremendous climax with ‘All Right Now’, their current hit. Playing the longer, heavier version from the album, the group put all they had into it –and the fans at the front stood for a better view. Then everybody stood and the whole seething mass pushed forward.
Paul, apprehensive at the approaching mob in his precarious platform, couldn’t have been blamed had he refused to go on. But on he went. Guitarists Paul Kossoff and Andy Fraser leaped around the stage in Townshend fashion and drummer Simon Kirk – looking as though he had just stepped from a shower fully clothed – bashed his drums so hard they kept falling over.
‘All Right Now’ over, the real stampede started. Teenage girls, many looking as though they hadn’t yet reached secondary school, rushed up on the stage. For those who got past the barrier there was a reassuring Paul behind the stage to calm them down.
As the cheers grew louder there was a hurried conference about going on again. And when the crowd had calmed they whipped up the frenzy again. Eventually they stood down – and by a masterly stroke of organisation managed to clamber out of a fire exit, through into the open air and into a back entrance to the ballroom’s private bar.
Peace at last away from the power-packed amplifiers and wild admirers, the boys had a chance to talk about their phenomenal success.
Gulping at a well-earned double pineapple juice, Paul told me what it was like to be at the centre of such a scene. “It just gets better and better,” he gasped for a second time. “We have played up here a couple of times before at Durham and Redcar and now the audiences seem to be getting to know us.
“They recognise us and I recognise familiar faces out there. We have had this kind of reception at some places down south like the Country Club and the Lyceum, and they once went pretty crazy at a college near the Albert Hall.
“We did the Locarno here in Sunderland, or Fillmore North as they call it, and it was the same as tonight. They just seem to love us up here. I think the word has got around that my home town is Middlesbrough and that may help a bit.
“We tried to record a live album at the Sunderland Locarno but the audience rushed the stage there like tonight and the tapes were spoiled.
“It was great when we first went on tonight because they all seemed to say ‘hello’ to us at once. They seem to know all the songs we sing so I think they must have bought our albums. They listen to the music which is good. Even the younger ones seem more interested in the music.”
Lead guitarist Paul Kossoff agreed. After wiping down a sweat-soaked Gibson, he said the audiences had changed since the days of wild adulation just because a group had had a hit.
“I think they gave us that kind of reception because they liked the music. You can tell that because we did a couple of slower numbers and instead of screaming and clapping they just sat and listened. They really seemed to appreciate the song instead of us on stage.”
Champagne arrived from the promoters and with a little help from MM and a squad of girlfriends, several bottles soon went back empty.
With the bottles empty, the promoters a bit merry and the doormen agreeing that it had been a night to remember – “Even Love Affair in their hey-day didn’t get this kind of reaction,” one of them said – the group left for their hotel.
For me, Bath was beckoning – but it had been a night to remember.