Friday, 30 September 2016

"Highway" by FREE (2016 Universal/Island Remasters CD Reissue - Andy Pearce and Matt Wortham Remaster) - A Review by Mark Barry...





"...I'm The Stealer...Gonna Steal Your Love..."

This is the kind of CD reissue that does my nut in - one step forward and two steps back. Some explanation is needed...

FREE fans will know that the February 2002 CD reissue campaign of all seven of their albums (five studio and one live) came with great Peter Mew remasters, decent bonus tracks and expanded booklets to match - and were mid-price at the time. But here we are in September 2016 with another reissue campaign of all seven albums accompanied by "The Free Story" compilation (a 2LP set onto 1CD) that strips away those brilliant bonuses entirely – and unwisely substitutes the hugely informative liner notes for band photos.

But – these 2016 reissues do offer us one genuinely worthy consolation prize - new 2016 ANDY PEARCE and an uncredited MATT WORTHAM Remasters that breath wonderful naturalistic vitality back into the albums. With the eight being offered on Amazon at a less than five pounds sixty-five pence per CD reissue – you can of course argue that the price is right and with their generic 'Island Remasters' see-through side panelling on the jewel case – they look good too. But what real fans are essentially getting is great new sound - but lesser discs (one step forward etc). Here are the neutered nadges...

UK released Friday, 9 September 2016 - "Highway" by FREE on Universal/Island Remasters 473 181-9 (Barcode 602547318190) is a straightforward CD Remaster of the 9-track late 1970 UK LP and plays out as follows (36:02 minutes):

1. The Highway Song
2. The Stealer
3. On My Way
4. Be My Friend
5. Sunny Day [Side 2]
6. Ride On Pony
7. Love You So
8. Bodie
9. Soon I Will Be Gone
Tracks 1 to 9 are their 4th studio album "Highway" - released December 1970 in the UK on Island Records ILPS 9138 and February 1971 in the USA on A&M Records SP-4278. Produced by FREE and engineered by Andy Johns - it peaked at No. 40 on the UK LP charts (didn't chart in the USA).

The six missing bonus tracks on the 2002 Island Remasters version are "My Brother Jake (7" Single Mix)",  "Only My Soul" (April 1971 non-album B-side to "My Brother Jake" released in the UK on Island WIP 6100), "Ride On A Pony (BBC Session)", "Be My Friend (BBC Session)", "Rain (Alternative Version)" and "The Stealer (7" Single Version Edit)". As you can see from this list of missing extras - your loss is considerable - every one of these bonus tracks adding huge punch to the overall vibe of the 2002 reissue.

The new booklet is 12-pages with a Tape-Box Photo of "The Stealer" on Page 2, other band photos and reissue credits on the centre colour spread (both guitarist Paul Kossoff and bassist Andy Fraser get a page each) - but there's no liner notes giving history, details etc. Beneath the see-through CD tray are pictures of the seven reissued albums with the eight being "The Free Story" double-album compilation from 1974 (for catalogue numbers see notes below). But a fabulous new remaster from ANDY PEARCE and an uncredited MATT WORTHAM – who did such great work on Pentangle, Frankie Miller, Thin Lizzy, Wishbone Ash, the 2012 Rory Gallagher CD remasters for his Polydor and Chrysalis catalogue and most recently the 2016 3CD Budgie Box Set for their MCA LPs and the Emerson, Lake & Palmer 'Deluxe Editions' for their Island catalogue (see reviews for them all) - resoundingly compensates for all of that distasteful compromise. 

I've had the 2002 remaster and the Japanese 2008 SHM-CD reissue – both of which rock – but this version is better to my ears. There's suddenly staggering naturality and presence to the whole LP. Pearce and Wortham let things breathe (it's a trademark of their work). For sure there's trace amounts of hiss and the new result is possibly louder than the other pressings – but its not loudness for loudness sake – not shrill so to speak – just in your face – huge power and presence - like an original tape should be. Buggering thing is I'll now need the lot if they all sound this good...

As an album December 1970's "Highway" has always been second fiddle to the mighty "Fire And Water" from earlier in the year (May 1970) with it's all conquering "All Right Now". But I'd argue it's the band's "Powerage" or "Communiqué" or "Goat's Head Soup" or "Tusk" - a record that followed monsters and therefore gets unfairly overlooked and slagged off. Granted a tune like the dreadfully weedy "Bodie" is not classic Free no matter how well the Acoustic Guitars now leap out of the mix. But check out the opener "The Highway Song" and suddenly that ramshackle British Rock thing The Stones and Mott The Hoople had in spades starts to fill your living room with trouser-filling swagger (look out ladies). The album cut of the truly fabulous "The Stealer" at 3:16 minutes is actually better than the slightly longer single mix at 3:23 minutes which has different guitar parts and a more accentuated Andy Fraser bass. Here the 2016 LP Version has amazing power - that fantastic 'she stood on the corner' riffage now has the gonads it’s always cried out for (surely Free at their best). Side 1 shows the mellow side of singer Paul Rodgers and songwriting bassist Andy Fraser when they end the A with two superb mid-tempo tunes "On My Way" and "Be My Friend" - massively underrated Free songs – beautiful remasters for both cuts too.

"Sunny Day" opens Side 2 in the same mellow mood - it's a song I honestly didn't think much of at first but now dig - especially as it's followed by the album's other nugget - the fab "Ride On A Pony" which should have been the follow-on single from "The Stealer". The remaster has given it oomph in every area. The Mellotron that featured on "Be My Friend" returns for the pretty and affecting "Love You So" - a very sweet Free ballad. I never could abide "Bodie" but it's followed by an epic "Soon I Will Be Gone" which sounds utterly amazing on this remaster.

Across the seven reissues we probably loose thirty to thirty-five genuinely cool bonus tracks and all that enlightening info in the booklets too - so buying their catalogue yet again may become a chore for fans (docked a star for less instead of more). But we do gain fabulous new audio - and for many that's probably going to be the deciding factor.

Bugger but Universal/Island wins again - because if they all sound as good as "Highway" - I'm gonna have to own the lot...

PS: FREE titles in the 9 Sept 2016 Island Remasters CD Reissue Series are:
1. Tons Of Sobs (March 1969 Debut UK LP) - Island Remasters 473 181-5 (Barcode 602547318152)
2. Free (October 1969 UK LP) - Island Remasters 473 187-1 (Barcode 602547318718)
3. Fire And Water (June 1970 UK LP) - Island Remasters 473 187-4 (Barcode 602547318749)
4. Highway (December 1970 UK LP) - Island Remasters 473 181-9 (Barcode 602547318190)
5. Free Live! (June 1971 UK LP) - Island Remasters 473 187-6 (Barcode 602547318763)
6. Free At Last (June 1972 UK LP) - Island Remasters 473 183-9 (Barcode 602547318398)
7. Heartbreaker (January 1973 UK Final Studio LP) - Island Remasters 473 182-6 (Barcode 602547318268)
8. The Free Story (March 1974 UK 2LP Compilation) - Island Remasters 472 262-9 (Barcode 602547326294)


There is also a VINYL Box Set called "FREE - The Vinyl Collection" on Universal/Island 473 187-9 released 9 September 2016 with seven LPs (Barcode 0602547318794)

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