The earliest solo ventures of Family’s dynamic frontman, Roger Chapman – remastered and expanded
Release Date: 29th April 2021
Label: Esoteric Records
Formats: 5CD boxset
Roger Chapman is best known as the frontman of Family, the psychedelic/prog/acid rock band he formed in Leicester in the late 1960s with guitarist Charlie Whitney and drummer Rob Townsend, which went on to record a string of classic albums including their still-stunning debut, Music In A Doll’s House (1968), the half live/ half studio Anyway (1970) and the ambitious Fearless (1971) and which scored a sequence of marvelous hit singles – The Weaver’s Answer, In My Own Time, Burlesque, My Friend the Sun and Sweet Desiree in the early 1970s. Family were a regular feature on the festival bills of the late 60s and early 70s – they supported The Stones at their free concert in Hyde Park in July 1969 and their Friday evening set at the massive 1970 Isle of Wight festival earned generous plaudits from the music press and, for a while, it seemed like Family were set on an unstoppable course to superstardom.
It wasn’t to be, of course. Like a number of other bands of the era – Fairport Convention spring particularly to mind – Family suffered from line-up instability. No fewer than eleven members passed through their ranks during the six-and-a-bit years of their existence, and they never managed to really crack it in America. And so Family called it a day in 1973 but they left a timeless legacy and a hoard of dedicated fans who relished the lasting quality of the band’s music and, particularly, the idiosyncratic talents of their unique frontman.
So it was that Chapman had a ready audience when, in 1973, he put together his post-Family band, Streetwalkers, with Charlie Whitney. Originally including fellow ex-Family travelers Ric Grech, John Wetton and Jim Cregan amongst their ranks, Streetwalkers would expand to include players such as keyboardist Blue Weaver, future Iron Maiden drummer Nicko McBrain and super-guitarist Bobby Tench. Streetwalkers’ sound was a step forward from the edgy psychedelic folk-laced rock that had been Family’s trademark and started to incorporate wider influences, notably jazz and funk and, for while, it looked like Streetwalkers would pick up on the momentum that Family had lost and go on to great things.
Unfortunately, by 1977, Streetwalkers had run out of pavement, and the band broke up. Commentators had blamed the demise of Streetwalkers – a band that had, just a couple of years before their disintegration, seemed packed with potential and loaded with promise – on the arrival of punk onto the UK music scene, but this is an assertion that Roger Chapman himself strongly refutes: “[Punk] didn’t affect Streetwalkers at all. The management side of it wasn’t going well and relationships within the band deteriorated a bit, and that’s really what broke it up. To be honest, with my personality, which has been sort of volatile at stages in my career, I almost had an influence on some of that punk stuff. I’m not saying I was any sort of godfather, but I even got offers from some of the punk bands to sing with them…”
So, with an established talent for writing, an enviable ability for interpreting the works of others and with a solid – if somewhat fearsome – reputation, Roger Chapman embarked upon the solo career that endures to this day, and it is the formative years of that solo career that provide the material for this latest offering from our friends at Cherry Red/ Esoteric Records. Moth to a Flame is a five-CD set that gathers together the three albums that Roger released in 1979 and 1980 – Chappo (1979), Live in Hamburg (1979) and Mail Order Magic (1980), along with a previously unreleased 1979 BBC Radio One In Concert recording and a whole host of live recordings, studio out-takes and demos. As we’ve come to expect from the Cherry Red stable, it’s a package that truly deserves to the label Deluxe, with the five discs – each in its individual cover – housed in a robust clamshell box and including the usual detailed booklet, with a Mike Barnes essay, comprehensive track listings, lyrics and full details of the participating musicians. As usual, it’s a beautiful product.
Discs 1 & 2 of the set are dedicated to the Chappo album, a piece of work that Roger started to put together in 1977, following the Streetwalkers break-up. A remaster of the original album is included on Disc 1, along with Roger’s take on the Stones’ Let’s Spend The Night Together, which he released as a 1979 single and the usual mixed bag of bonus tracks – a couple of out-takes, a demo and a live cut. Chappo is a well-played, well-produced album with a rich sound that avoids the over-compressed production that was just becoming de rigueur when the album was recorded. Roger had managed to draft in the services of some marvelous musicians – the likes of saxophonist Ron Aspery, pianist Billey Livsey, former Family man Poli Palmer and guitarist Geoff Whitehorn (who plays in Roger’s band to this day) and the album includes some outstanding tracks – a great version of Tim Hardin’s Hang on to a Dream, the funky Always Gotta Pay in the End and the gospel-tinged Don’t Give Up amongst them.
As a solo artist, Roger has been consistently more popular in Germany than he has over here in the UK. Roger attributes his enduring success in Germany to the willingness of German radio stations to go “off-piste” and include more creative and challenging music in their playlists than tends to be the case in the UK, where playlists are more pop/chart focused. Live in Hamburg, recorded on August 28th, 1979, is testimony to Roger’s German popularity. With a band featuring Tim Hinkley on keyboards, Geoff Whitehorn on guitars, Mel Collins on sax, Jerome Rimson on bass, “Stretch” Stretching on drums and Helen Hardy and Kathy O’Donoghue on backing vocals, Chappo is at his scalp-tingling best. The band’s enthusiasm is palpable, alongside their sheer musicianship and the result is a joyous live album. As Roger says: “When we did a gig in those days, afterwards we would go to a local club. There would be a band on stage and we would turf them off, and start playing all night. It was f*cking madness, but in a good sense. The enthusiasm was ridiculous.” Live in Hamburg forms Disc 3 of this set and the original track listing is bolstered by five additional numbers, including blistering versions of the Family songs Hey Mr Policeman and Burlesque and a sublime take on Otis Redding’s Can’t Turn You Loose.
Roger’s next solo outing, Mail Order Magic – Disc 4 in this collection – had a difficult birth, as Acrobat, Roger’s record label, had started to run into difficulties. Despite those difficulties, and despite initial problems in finding musicians of the desired calibre to participate, Mail Order Magic eventually made it to the marketplace in 1980, and it’s a fine album. Alongside the – by now – regular suspects: Jerome Rimson, John Wetton, Geoff Whitehorn, Tim Hinkley and Poli Palmer, the album’s lineup also features drummers Les Binks, John Halsey and Mitch Mitchell and it’s a powerful piece of work, packed with excellent tracks like the hilarious He Was, She Was, the boozy, sleazy Barman, the outright rocker Unknown Soldier (Can’t Get to Heaven) and – my personal favourite – the archetypally Chapmanesque Ducking Down.
This excellent collection is completed by a second live disc, this time recorded at the Hamburg Markthalle (venue for the 1979 live set) in January 1981. If the production for this disc is rougher and less polished than for its predecessor, then that, in my opinion at least, just adds to the excitement. The sound is good, yet unadulterated and the stellar band (usual suspects again…) are on top form. There’s a good mix of material with great covers of two Willie Dixon standards (I Just Wanna Make Love To You and Hoochie Coochie Man) and – probably – the best version of Ducking Down that I’ve ever heard. Moth To A Flame is an excellent collection, lovingly compiled and tastefully presented. Cherry Red/ Esoteric Records have done it again!!
Watch Roger Chapman and his Band – The Shortlist – perform Unknown Soldier (Can’t Get to Heaven) here:
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Re: the Fairport comparison, am reading RTs autobiography at present, and Family keep getting mentioned, if mainly as the earlier employers of a run of roadies.