The Last Concert — Family Rocks Arena

Yale Daily News 10/2/72

THE END of an era? Friday evening's rock concert featuring superstar Elton John and semi-obscure Family was announced pre-showtime as the last concert to grace New Haven's beloved Arena, that seedy hockey rink that occasionally doubles as a glorified mausoleum for burnt-out sixties high energy bands. (Last year witnessed Humble Pie, Black Sabbath, Ten Years After, and various others stiffly suffer their moves before the jaded and downed and out young.)

This announcement was, surprisingly greeted by only mild applause and a few catcalls from a glassy-eyed full house. One would think that, at least in New Haven circles, the razing of an acoustic nightmare like the Arena would be on a par with the excitement of the burning of the Reichstag. In any case, the M.C., a rotund black man incongruously oozing a certain hip folkiness ordered everyone present to "take another hit — and not fresh air, know what I mean?" (they did), in what seemed a cynical effort to quell potential trouble through voluntarily induced stupor, and then perfunctorily introduced the bottom of the bill to scant applause. Like — who the hell are Family?

There is a delightful little book, known and revered by only a handful of English rock fanatics, that might have given the great puzzled majority a clue to the band's identity. Groupie — A Sex-Rock Odyssey as Told to Johnny Byrne by Jenny Fabian (the aforementioned groupie), highly reminiscent of a hipper, more youthful Valley of the Dolls without the tacky Hollywood stock characterizations — the book is, more or less, an extended memoir that fondly dwells on the nascent British "underground" music scene of 1967. The focal point for the action is one London club, the U.F.O., and the story unfolds in a breathless, True Confessions style from the club's most ardent camp follower. The book has little in the way of heavy sociological analysis, but is rich in juicy gossip and scandalous detail — the real treat for the cognoscenti is in deciphering the thinly veiled portraits of the musicians, journalists, and hangers-on who were integral to the scene.

Oz magazine spoiled everyone's fun by eventually printing a proper Who's Who list that unravelled those many mysteries — the Satin Odyssey are the Pink Floyd, for instance, the Jacklin H. Event are the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and so on. The big surprise lay in the disclosure that the main meat of the book concerned a weird little provincial band name of Family, down from Leicester and slowly making a name around the edges of London's progressive music scene, and that the central male personage in the book — stupid, egotistical, and a real macho, was Family's bassplayer, Rick Grech.

And that brings us back to the Arena and the collective audience consciousness (though truly, unconsciousness is the more apt description. It is doubtful that there existed in the audience even one Groupie devotee). Yet if many of the crowd had heard of Family previously, it was in reference to the aforementioned Mr. Grech, who surfaced briefly in a blinding flash before the public eye as the bassist for the ephemeral Blind Faith supergroup (quit Family in the middle of their first disastrous American tour). Well, Grech was gone but Family was still around, at the moment setting up on stage at the New Haven Arena. And still the question remained unanswered — just who the hell are Family?

Briefly, Family was formed in 1967 around the remnants of a second generation Leicester soul band, the Farinas. They originally featured a lineup of guitar, drums, bass, and — unheard of at that time — sax and electric violin. Fronting this conglomerate was a lead singer so unlike the conventional English sex-object dandy that a few explanatory words are in order.

The sound emanating from the golden pipes of Roger Chapman has at times been likened to that produced by a goat in heat. It reminds others of nothing so much as a cantor in the guttural throes of a particularly difficult section of the Kol Nidre. In other words, it is a shrill, powerful, and incredibly stylized throat vibrato that is under Chapman's total control. He moves with ease from a honey laden crooner delivery to a flat out berserk pagan bleat. This is coupled with Chapman's epileptic stage demeanor — with the possible exception of Mick Jagger, he is the most compelling stage presence in the pantheon of rock and roll. Ozeditor Richard Neville once described him as a "demented, stoned Trotskyite with incredible madman's eyes." The British music weekly Melody Maker refers to him simply as the "wildman." Once seen live on stage, he is not easily forgotten.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Speedfreak — he is all nervous energy, hyperkinetic, arms flailing the air dervish-like, head bobbling stiffly on alternate shoulders, a rapid blur in time to the music. He is prone to random acts of unconscious stage violence, throwing microphone stands around the stage and breaking tambourines heads with one vicious slap of his hand when the spirit moves him. "Spirit" is particularly apt in reference to Chapman. Unlike the premeditated sham violence of Alice Cooper (and, to a certain degree, the Who), Chapman is for real. Stepping onto the stage, he becomes genuinely possessed by internal demons. Offstage is another matter — he will quietly chat with anyone interested and is the soul of friendliness and cooperation. This dichotomy may strike some as evidence that it's all down to roleplaying, yet Chapman once candidly revealed that upon first seeing a film of his stage performance, he, shocked and unbelieving, became physically ill. It all begins to fall into place when you realize that Chapman, like Robert Mitchum in Laughton's Night of the Hunter, has the words "love" and "hate" tattooed on his fingers.

The evolution of Family's music can be traced to growth and changes within the group. Their first two albums have an Eastern influence derived in part from the deliciously heady atmosphere of 1967-68 (flower power, kaftans, and beads, were very big in London those years) and from composer-guitarist Charlie Whlthey's fascination with Indian scales. Their brilliant debut album, Music in a Doll's House was produced by sometime Traffic member Dave Mason and was hailed in Rolling Stone as the greatest production job of all time. Sgt. Pepper had the Beatles ushering in the concept of Rock as Art, and Family's album reflected this trend, featuring jewellike, heavily orchestrated songs, recurring motifs, and numerous stereo effects. The unique music, containing many extra-rock elements (modal scales, abrupt dissonances, electronic music), saved the album from cloying pretentiousness. The second album, Family Entertainment, continued musically in the same tradition and maintained the same high production standards, though the group was dissatisfied with the mix, which was done by their manager while they were on holiday.

At this point, they embarked on their first American tour. Everything went wrong. Grech deserted medias in the middle with dollar signs in his eyes, the group was banned from both Fillmores after Bill Graham narrowly missed being decked by a stray mike stand flung by the unseeing Chapman, and equipment malfunctions occurred with clockwork regularity. They limped home to pick up the pieces. Saxophonist Jim King left and was replaced by multi-instrumentalist (vibes, electric piano, flute, and percussion) "Poli" Palmer who came from the groups Eclection and Blossom Toes. John Weider, ex-Animal, became bassist and carried on the electric violin precedent.

A strong jazz feel began to creep into their music, due partially to the omnipresent vibes which floated over and under the melodic structures of their songs. Bizarre, choppy, seemingly arbitrary chord changes gave an angry, jagged surface to the music that was a perfect vehicle for the paranoid ravings of Roger Chapman ('Drowned In Wine', off their third album, illustrates this beautifully). The drums were brought more into the forefront as Rob Townshend began moving away from the clichéd four beat, the hallmark of rock drumming, into complex, fragmented and insistent patterns somewhat akin to the current work of the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

Family's music had reached a point where the band no longer needed to rely upon flashy production gimmicks. A third album, released in 1969 with very little overdubbing, was as crude and naked as Captain Beefheart's Trout Music Replica. A Song for Me captured the essence of the live Family, and remains their most representative album to date. To catch them live at this point was to hear a band that transcended mere rehearsal tightness, a band that avoided the phoney histrionics and mechanical showmanship trap of a million other rock groups. The music didn't rely upon blues clichés, fifteen minute guitar solos, or pointless virtuosity. A doomy, Teutonic atmosphere pervaded, a general air of uneasiness and imminent danger boiled and bubbled over the P.A., as if at any moment the music would drive Chapman potty, and he would leap off the stage and run howling through the audience.

They had become one of the most popular groups in England, beating out bands like Tull and Traffic in the music paper pop polls. They were idolized on the continent — it is no accident that they were the only rock group invited to appear at the 1971 Montreux Jazz Festival (where they received a monumental reception). They did a second, short tour of American universities that was a far cry from their first, though they were not nearly as bad as the headliners, a tired-out white blues and boogie band, Savoy Brown. It is painfully sad to think that sixth-generation blues licks mindlessly spewed out by a bunch of limeys who lack a single valid root in the idiom will receive adulatory response by young Americans who think the English invented the whole thing, while groups with music as original as Family are judged "too weird" and summarily rejected.

Back in England, a live album was released with the news that Family was to be dropped from the American roster of Warner Brothers' artists for their lack of commercial potential. Family persevered by concentrating on sell-out tours of England and Europe, where their music was understood and appreciated by fans with a more solid cultural tradition than that of the average American concertgoer. The bass player left, again, and was replaced by a musician who did not play electric violin but was an excellent singer. John Wetton, possessed of a high pretty voice similar to Yes' Jon Anderson, brought a more lyrical sound to Family, and the group began integrating his harmonizing with Chapman into their live shows and on record. "Poli" Palmer added a synthesizer to his already formidable instrumental arsenal, pre-recorded tapes were developed for concert use, and a horn section was added for specific live dates. Revitalized, Family signed a new contract with United Artists in the States (while retaining British distribution through Warner Brothers) and recorded a fifth album.

Fearless showed a more restrained, melodic side to Family than was previously imagined, and one track 'Larf and Sing', featuring a cappella four-part barbershop harmony received extensive American FM airplay. Family's working class origins were still in evidence, however, in songs like the embittered, searing 'Blind' which addressed itself to the Irish civil war and featured shimmering, synthesised bell sounds and a grotesque parody of an Irish Jig; very potent stuff indeed.

After two years of self-imposed exile, Family decided to tackle America again. The decision was based on a sound economic fact — no band is able to sustain themselves financially in England alone, as T. Rex is now finding out. A new album Bandstand, was recorded and was released here several weeks ago to coincide with the tour. The album is excellent, with production that hearkens back to the days of Doll's House and material that is extremely accessible to anyone willing to give more than a cursory listen. The aggressive tension and jolting dissonances are still present but now lay refined under the surface, popping out madly with startling effect at the least expected moment — something one has come to expect from Family — if one knows who the hell they are.

"I ain't never seen so many geezers gettln' up to take a piss," Roger Chapman bawls in his strange Midlands accent at those members of the audience who rowdily jam the aisles of an overflow sweat-soaked Arena. They sluggishly travel in waves down the hall, searching for their friends, or a better seat, or some dope. Family are quietly setting up, and the very few members of the audience who are aware of the band proper are suddenly startled as yet another new bass player shuffles on stage. He is Jim Cregan, a consummate guitarist from Blossom Toes and an old friend of Family. Apparently, John Wetton has split to join a reformed King Crimson. Cregan's wearing the "shoulder-crusher," a double necked bass and 6-string guitar that is the counterpart to Whitney's traditional double necked 6- and 12-string. And, as I later learn, up until three weeks ago, Cregan had never touched a bass in his life.

A few of the livelier members of the crowd begin the typical "hurry up and start the show, dammit" cadence as Family, oblivious, tunes up. I have wedged myself in a mass of bodies at the front of the hall and am standing at Family's feet at the foot of the stage. I am surrounded by little girls sitting trancelike on the floor at my feet, staring straight ahead, unwavering, into the cloth that drapes the stage front. They will remain in place motionless throughout the set, totally unable to see the group, and totally beyond caring.

Chapman guzzles some liquid refreshment from a Dixie cup, grins sardonically, throws the cup to the floor, and the band breaks into their latest single, 'Burlesque', probably the most, uncomplicated straightforward piece they've ever recorded — funky even. Chapman is getting into his thing, caressing the tambourine head with the mike stand, dragging it with him as he staggers about the stage. He looks and sounds like a drunken Popeye, balding, sinewy, in a red Wallace Beery shirt, croaking out the saga of 'Rita and Greta' (pronounced Gree-tah) and having a hell of a good time. Cregan is playing his bass as if born to it — the only betrayal of his past involvement with the guitar is in his use of finger vibrato for each note. The drums and guitar sound good and loud and propulsive. Off to the side is the added visual treat of tiny Poli Palmer running from vibes to keyboard and back again without missing a change, rudely jerking his body a la Chapman in time to the rhythm. Their rapport is ridiculous, their playing a joy to witness. They are simply — magnificent.

The number crashes to an end.

I yell encouragement for a moment, and then turn to check out the larger reaction. The audience is, in a word, unmoved. They pays their money, see, only to be forced to suffer through these noisy dudes. And who is that weird cat beating hell out of the mike stand?

The infamous Arena has turned Family's complex web of sound into mushy oatmeal, into a fathomless wash of white noise. All subtleties have been lost out there on the paying side of the hall, all the classical filigree of vibes against contrapuntal bass and guitar parts has been reduced to tinny cacophony. I realize that I have been picking their sound up from the stage monitors directly in front of me, where it has been properly mixed and balanced and from my vantage point it sounds great. Out there it's pure muck, and the visual side of the band is not enough to compensate for the pitiful sound quality. Divorced from the music, Roger Chapman is just one more amphetamine casualty from England, and he isn't nearly as good looking as Alvin Lee.

Unfazed by the lukewarm reception, Family storms through the rest of their hour set without a pause between numbers. They are playing much better than I remember them from that second U.S. tour — they are using new arrangements for old favorites like 'The Weaver's Answer' and it's a new song entirely — great cascades of vibes plugged into the synthesizer over the basic melody. They end with a long number that Incorporates two of their newer songs, 'Take Your Partners' and 'Burning Bridges' into the standard 'Song for Me'. The change from one number to another is incredible — I am watching them ever so closely and fail to see any sort of signal or look of recognition, even any sort of visible group counting — at some wildly irregular internal — they just do it. Telepathy, maybe. They end the extended number with a coda, a fast old rock and roll shuffle, the only concession made during the set to a conventional mode of rock, but not made as a peace offering to an indifferent audience — they're just having a blow. (After the show, I am told that the coda was entirely spontaneous — Cregan had never rehearsed it with them.) After every 12 bars the music ascends a step higher until it seems Family have reached their absolute limit — Chapman is wordlessly shrieking at the top of his range, blindly jabbing the air with his tattooed hands as if suffocating, teetering dangerously on the brink of the stage about to collapse — and then it goes one step higher, the band races through the changes, and then screeches to a halt.

The people at my sides, and those three feet behind me, those fortunate enough to have heard the band clearly, are jubilant, screaming for an encore. The remainder of the crowd are up getting hot dogs. Family splits, the hip M.C. waddles out. "Wasn't that something. In just 20 minutes, people — ELTON JOHN!" General pandemonium. The lights go on. I blink through the smoky haze, dazed and confused. My head is ringing. The end of an ear, maybe? I wonder — will Family ever reach American ears in a manner befitting their enormous talents? Tonight, the Arena has had its say in the matter, and, thankfully, its final say. I turn and survey those cracked cement walls for a last time, and then split — quickly.

© Gary Lucas, 1972