The first time I heard about Family was when I saw a photograph in Rolling Stone of a scrawny man with wild, stringy hair flying all over the place in shirttails on stage screaming into a microphone. He had a wild, unkempt look that was jarring. It was a picture of singer Roger Chapman, and the music his band Family played was equally jarring.
My interest piqued, my first audio experience with Family was their album Anyway. The cover was a famous sketch by Da Vinci of a cannon, all packaged in a clear vinyl sleeve.
The music contained therein was some of the most violent I’ve ever heard. Chapman sang in a booming rustic bray that was downright scary in conjunction with the violent music. One of the violent performances on Anyway was Strange Band, “Strange looking band were we”. Standing out in contrast to the band’s violence was a bright, pretty vibraphone played by band multi-instrumentalist Poli Palmer.
The vibraphone added a jazzy element to all the sonic ultra-violence. Chiefly notable was Palmer’s pretty vibes solo on Good News Bad News, bringing a lot of texture to the pummeling fisticuffs sound.
Family fully realized their vision in 1971 with the release of their fifth album Fearless, which deftly combined all the anger and beauty in one brilliant package. The album cover shows a clever computerized photo of each band member in a cascade, with the cell of each picture becoming more and more distorted until each member begins to resemble this one face at the bottom.
Fearless shows a wider breadth and scope than many bands’ efforts, as evidence din tracks like Sat’dy Barfly, a bouncy, drunken saloon number complete with barroom piano and a bevy of booming tubas. Chapman gives a Rod Stewart-styled vocal about a pub regular making his big Saturday night appearance, blowing his dough and cadging free drinks, eventually tearing things up. The tubas do a good job of creating images of a drunken man trying to keep his balance walking.
Crinkly Grin is a brief Zappa-influenced instrumental with Poli Palmer playing the lead melody on vibes. I thought it was a little too brief, to be honest with you. I could have listened to a lot more of that cool jazziness. Definitely not a filler track!
Larf And Sing is a jazzy number with an understated blues guitar lead by Charlie Whitney. The chorus is delivered acapella by the band in wonderfully layered harmonies.
Spanish Tide has a great ascending vocal line with the melody moving from gentle to violent, and when it’s Family violent the vibes come out to play a wild, distorted solo. John Wetton does a terrific job on bass and does some singing on this number. When I met him on a Roxy Music tour several years later I asked him to autograph my copy of Fearless, which registered a surprised look from him.
Save Some For Thee is a soul rocker with a punchy horn section. The song ends with a perky marching band playing the melody, years before Fleetwood Mac did that whole thing.
Family had an endless line of bassists and keyboardists coming and going in their band (some of them were John Weider from The Animals, Ric Grech of Blind Faith, John Wetton and Tony Ashton, among others). They released two more albums and right after Chapman and Whitney formed Streetwalkers, a soul/R&B influenced combo. Not quite the manic art school rage of Family, but still a good way to spend a Sat’dy night.