A detailed reappraisal of Chapman & Co’s finest hour
Release Date: 28th April 2023
Label: Esoteric / Cherry Red Records
It’s pretty certain that, if Family hadn’t released their seminal album, Anyway, in November 1970, I wouldn’t be sat here now, doing this. As a curious 15-year-old, back in 1970, I’d been utterly entranced by the lyrical depth and sheer musical weirdness of Family’s hit single, The Weaver’s Answer – a song that’s never far from my turntable, even today – and I decided that here was a strand of music that I’d like to explore in much more detail. My first tentative steps down that avenue of exploration involved the purchase of Anyway – Family’s brand-new album – and an artefact that was special in quite a number of ways…
First off, it didn’t come in just a plain, common-or-garden cardboard sleeve. The disc slotted into a folder printed with a reproduction of Da Vinci’s Mortars with Explosive Projectiles illustration and including band photographs and a full set of lyrics. Even better, the whole caboodle was housed in a transparent plastic envelope which had the album’s title and the band’s name printed in lush gold lettering on its closure flap. Secondly, and very unusually for the time, the album comprised one side of ‘live’ recordings, with side two featuring songs recorded at Olympic Studios; the ‘live’ recordings were all new songs too, rather than re-hashes of familiar favourites. But, without doubt, the most ‘special’ feature of my new treasured possession was the unbelievable excitement and the outstanding quality of the music contained within the album’s grooves. At this stage in my development, I’d yet to attend a live show, and the power of tracks like Good News Bad News and Strange Band convinced me that this was an omission that would have to be corrected sooner, rather than later. and, turning to the studio recordings, a whole new chapter of exquisite lyricism and instrumental innovation was opening, right there, in front of my eyes.
Family weren’t with us long – a mere seven years elapsed between the band’s formation in late 1966 and their dissolution in October 1973 – but they left a durable legacy: seven albums, of which Anyway was their fourth, and a whole sequence of unforgettable singles. The albums were all special in their own particular way, but, if pushed, I would have to suggest that 1970 was the band’s golden year and that Anyway was their finest album – their Golden Hour. I’m sure that there will be many readers with a different, equally valid, view – but that’s my position, and I’m sticking to it!
Family assembled in 1966 from the remnants of Leicester band, The Farinas – also known briefly as The Roaring Sixties. They released their debut album, the highly acclaimed psychedelic masterpiece Music in a Doll’s House in July 1968 and followed that, amidst lineup changes that saw the departures of founding members Ric Grech and Jim King, with the albums Family Entertainment (1969) and A Song For Me (1970). By the time of A Song For Me – incidentally, the band’s highest-charting album (it reached Number 4 in the UK chart) – the lineup had settled down: Roger Chapman (vocals), John “Charlie” Whitney (guitars), Rob Townsend (drums), John Weider (bass and violin) and John “Poli” Palmer (keyboards, flute, vibes and percussion) – the same lineup that was to make Anyway. Along the way, Family had developed a signature sound that, along with Chapman’s unique vibrato-style vocal histrionics and Whitney’s versatile and virtuoso guitar, was very much defined by Palmer’s flute contributions and, particularly, his fuzz-enhanced vibes, and it’s that combination that makes Anyway such a distinctive album.
As far as this reissue is concerned, Cherry Red have, once again, done their stuff. The package is a 2CD set with the original album, remastered from the master tapes, on Disc 1, alongside the three tracks from the 1970 Strange Band EP – Strange Band, The Weaver’s Answer and the magnificent Hung Up Down and the edit of the instrumental track, Normans, that features on the US release of Anyway. Disc 2 of the compilation comprises recordings from two 1970 BBC Radio sessions and, whilst completists will, no doubt be disappointed that there’s nothing here that didn’t feature on the 2018 Family at the BBC boxset, the majority who couldn’t stretch to the price of that comprehensive 7-CD collection will find this material fascinating and invigourating. As is invariably the case with a Cherry Red package, the set is accompanied by a well-illustrated booklet that includes an informative essay by Steve Pilkington as well as some interesting background details and observations from Roger Chapman himself.
The ‘live’ side of the original album was recorded at a show at Croydon’s Fairfield Hall in July 1970. The four songs – none of them familiar to the audience of the day, remember – were, apparently, performed in sequence, so there’s a level of cohesion to this side of the album that was unusual on live albums of the time. The enthusiastic audience reaction is a strong presence and was something that made a great impression upon my young self, although Roger C is now able to grinningly admit that the applause was edited to make it sound proportionately louder than it really was! Nevertheless, I’ll never tire of that shiver of excitement that still rushes down my spine during the opening riff of Good News Bad News and Roger’s shriek of “He-y-y-yy yeh.”
Good News Bad News is, without doubt, one of my favourite songs from the entire Family back catalogue. It builds satisfyingly, Roger is at his maniacal best and the solos from Poli (on vibes) and Charlie (on guitar) are the very epitome of Family, 1970. Indeed, I was supremely disappointed when the song was left from the setlist for Family’s reunion shows at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire back in 2013.
But there always was more than mere bombast to Family; the band had deep folk roots, and it’s those roots that provide the calming influence to Willow Tree, a gentle, sedate song that provides the clearest possible demonstration of the band’s versatility. The acoustic Holding the Compass stays with the folky theme, with Charlie’s guitar licks throwing in a bit of country for good measure. Like Good News Bad News, Holding the Compass became a staple of Family’s future live shows and remained an audience favourite right up to (and beyond) the band’s final days.
But the song that REALLY took my breath away during those formative 15-year-old days was the closing track on Side 1 of the original album. And, happily, Strange Band sounds just as frenzied, manic and revelatory today as it did back in the heady days of 1970. The band are in total control as the song gathers pace, Chapman’s vocals are way beyond wild, and the audience reaction – enhanced or not – is ecstatic. THIS is what live music is all about.
It was always a sobering experience to flip the album onto the studio side of Anyway, particularly after the madness of Strange Band, but a whole different set of emotions continue to be stirred by the calmer, yet equally well-crafted songs on the album’s second side. Part Of The Load is a funky, rocky number that recalls the tribulations of touring in vivid, amusing detail and, as later songs like Burlesque can adequately testify, funk is a style that Family could do extremely well.
Anyway, the album’s title track, was a real departure and remains something very different to just about any other song in the Family canon. It’s a melodic, percussion-dominated tune that shows the band’s gentler side to as great an effect as anything they ever did, and the instrumental, Normans, is a slice of lazy jazz that, again refuses to be lumped in with any of the band’s more flamboyant numbers. Many fans have, over the years, puzzled over the origin of the tune’s name and, finally, Roger has decided to shed some light on this enduring quandary: “Where that actually came from was a café which we used to call in when we were travelling in the van – I want to say the M1, but it was certainly one of the main roads that we used all the time. I think it was up north, anyway, around Doncaster way or somewhere like that, but the café was called “Norman’s” and we would stop in there whenever we passed and get a cup of tea or what have you. Now, over time, when you’re in a band, or any situation like that, you start to develop daft little sayings which catch on, and so, ‘let’s a have a Norman’s’ meant ‘Let’s have a cup of tea.’ That’s all there really was to it…”
The closing track to the original album was the epic Lives and Ladies, a pleasant, tuneful anti-war song that namechecked a couple of the band’s Leicester acquaintances. It’s another song that manages to drag in some nice, choppy, drops of funk and it was a satisfying closer to an album that continues to hold its place on my “easy access” shelf.
But, of course, the original Anyway album, plus those picture-completing Disc 1 bonus tracks, is only half the picture, as far as this new Cherry Red package is concerned – there’s still Disc 2, and those BBC Radio sessions to think about yet…
The sessions in question are both from 1970 – a Top Gear session recorded on 5th September and a John Peel In Concert recording from 27th September. Both sessions are of reasonable sound quality, with the Top Gear recording maybe just edging it for clarity but the In Concert tracks, with an in-studio audience, way ahead on excitement. The band are promoting Anyway at each show, and the three tracks that comprise the Top Gear session are all songs that were to feature on the album.
The version of Good News Bad News that opens Disc 2 is grittier and harder-edged than the Croydon recording that made it onto Anyway, with Chappo’s vocals clear and vivid to an extent that is almost disconcerting. An oven-ready Lives and Ladies is followed by a version of Holding the Compass that shows the song still in its development phase, with aspects of the song’s structure still yet to be settled. Still, it’s a great song-in-the-making, and John Peel won’t have had many detractors when he – like I did, earlier in this review – describes Anyway as “Family’s finest hour.”
I’m sure that there will be many At The Barrier readers with fond memories of John Peel’s Sunday evening Radio 1 In Concert shows. The nine Family tracks included here were recorded on one such show on 27th September 1970, just nine days after the death of Jimi Hendrix. Once again, the forthcoming Anyway album features prominently in the setlist, with Good News Bad News, Holding the Compass, Lives and Ladies and Strange Band all included, but this time, we’re also treated to a storming Drowned in Wine, with Poli and John Weider both outstanding on, respectively, flute and violin and Chappo on top vocal form, a pastoral Wheels (from A Song For Me) and a medley of Processions – from the 1969 Family Entertainment album – and 1969 single No Mules Fools that is absolutely stunning in its seamless construction.
And, it wouldn’t be a 1970 Family concert without Weaver’s, and the version here is a sizzler. OK, the sound is a little muddy, but the band are on fire. Poli’s flute and piano are both superb and add a psychedelic edge to the song that is missing from the single version, and Chapman – who, it’s often been suggested, would replicate the horrific extremities of a bad acid experience during his performances – seems to be doing exactly that. It’s a generous, fascinating and exhilarating version of one of the greatest songs of a productive era.
Family carried on after Anyway, with still more changes to their lineup. Poli and John Weider moved on, to be replaced, variously, by the likes of Jim Cregan, John Wetton and Tony Ashton. They made three more albums: the excellent Fearless (1971), Bandstand (1972) and, finally, their – slightly underwhelming – swansong album, It’s Only a Movie (1973). They had more chart success, too, with singles like In My Own Time, My Friend The Sun, Burlesque and Sweet Desiree all following in the footsteps of The Weaver’s Answer. But, for now at least, let’s leave the Family story here – with Anyway – Family’s Golden Hour.
I’m genuinely delighted that Cherry Red have taken the time to revisit one of my all-time favourite albums and, in doing so, have managed to make things even better!
Watch Family perform their 1970 single, The Weaver’s Answer, here: