September 24, 2023

Esoteric’s revisiting of the Family catalogue continues unabated, and just a couple of months after releasing the band’s quirky half-live/half-studio fourth album, Anyway, here we are with a remastered version of the group’s fifth album, Fearless, originally released in 1971.  As usual, the remastered original is supplemented by live sessions from around the same period, resulting in a hefty three CD-package.

There was one change to the Family line-up for Fearless with John Weider on bass being replaced by John Wetton.  That may sound significant in hindsight but of course this was prior to Wetton becoming a global name as a member of King Crimson, Roxy Music, Asia and others. But, at the time Wetton was just the ex-bassist of Mogul Thrash, and fans of Family might have frowned upon his arrival since as well as bass, Weider also played violin, and his loss meant that one of the unique elements of the band’s sound was lost.

The fold-out poster that comes with the box set

Fearless begins with the excellent Between Blue And Me that settles into a comfortable Family groove, with Chapman’s idiosyncratic voice leading the way, building up in passion as the song progresses. But, compared to Anyway, John Witney’s guitar work is restrained, and the song is more of a rock ballad than a heavy number. The excellent accompanying booklet points out that the album title aptly reflects the band’s fearless approach to mixing musical styles, and indeed this is an incredibly varied album, as proved by the next couple of songs, Sat’d’y Barfly and Larf And Sing. If you think those titles sound like they must be some sort of Chas & Dave singalong accompanied by honkytonk piano then you’d be partly correct with Sat’d’y Barfly although you might not expect the very bizarre horn arrangements too! It’s unusual but extremely forgettable, it must be said. Larf And Sing instead opens with some lovely dynamic Wetton bass playing (not something Weiner was famous for!) and continues with strange interjections of a cappella harmonised vocals, a little like the style that 10CC would be known for a few years later. It’s an odd song but a good example of Wetton’s contribution with both bass and voice.

Spanish Tide is probably the highlight of the album, starting acoustically but building up pace and getting into a good groove. It has an epic sort of feel to it as if it could have been turned into an extended prog masterpiece, but its multiple parts are telescoped into a mere four minutes. The first side of the old vinyl release closed with the rather mundane Save Some For Thee, characterized by (more) honkytonk piano and yet more bizarre brass arrangements.

Take Your Partners is the longest track on Fearless at six and a half minutes. Wetton’s funky bass line is the key to the forward momentum of the piece and there’s some fine guitar work by Witney. It doesn’t overstay its welcome, even if it does have the feel of an extended jam rather than a fully formed song. The album then deviates into the unexpected territory with the Crosby Stills & Nash-inspired Children – all acoustic guitars and perfect vocal harmonies – and then the one-minute keyboard doodle of Crinkly Grin. If anything, it gets even stranger in Blind with Chapman singing a very Dylanesque melody like a strangled cat. One wonders whether that was his impersonation of Dylan! The song fades out with yet another unusual arrangement – this time bagpipes. The album concludes more sanely with Burning Bridges, where the mandolin gives it a nice relaxing country-folk feel.  All in all, it’s an entertaining album even if uneven in quality.

Single sales didn’t have Family laughing or singing….

The first CD is completed by the non-album single In My Own Time and its B-side Seasons. Family are not exactly a commercial band so even with the cheerful disposition of the two songs here there was little chance of chart success. In My Own Time wasn’t aided by Chapman’s vibrato which was so strong at certain points that he sounded remarkably like a herd of bleating sheep! 

The second CD consists of three different sessions recorded for the BBC in March, July and November of 1971 – the first two being prior to the release of Fearless. The March set was also prior to Wetton replacing Weider and is therefore centred on material from Anyway, with a fine version of Lives And Ladies being the standout. Also of interest is the lovely folkish Processions (from 1969’s Family Entertainment) which seamlessly incorporates part of No Mule’s Fool, a single from that same year.  The July set includes two tracks from the forthcoming album (Save Some For Thee and Burning Bridges) as well as the In My Own Time / Seasons single. This set is a little uninspired and the sound quality strangely muffled, so any fans listening at the time might have been disappointed. The November set consists of two further songs from the new album: Children and Between Blue And Me. Overall, this second CD will be lapped up by Family fans but might not excite a casual listener.

The third CD is a different kettle of fish, however. This was recorded for the BBC again but this time it was a proper concert with an audience at the BBC Playhouse Theatre. It was broadcast on 28th December 1971, and over ten tracks and just under one hour, Family demonstrated what a strong live act they were. A thunderous version of Good News, Bad News gets things underway, the first of four tracks from Anyway. There are also four tracks from Fearless with a strong version of Between Blue And Me and Spanish Tide that is transformed into a quicker and heavier song. There’s so much energy and urgency here that the studio versions of those two songs pale into insignificance by comparison. The two songs ready-made for jamming, Part Of The Load and Take Your Partners, are both performed well and the concert concluded with an excellent version of The Weaver’s Answer. Considering that Family never released a live album, this CD is an absolute must for fans of the band.

The remastering of Fearless was performed by Ben Wiseman and it has blown away a lot of the muddiness in the original sound. On the other hand, I still had the sensation of listening to a band mired in the anything-goes spirit of the late ‘60s. Deep Purple’s Fireball was released four days prior to Fearless, setting the tone for ‘70s hard rock, while in the more progressive area Aqualung and The Yes Album had been around for several months.  The shape of 1970’s rock and the sharp delineation of the new genres was already taking shape but Family were in danger of getting left behind. Nevertheless, Fearless did well enough in the charts – reaching number 14 in the UK – and it is often cited by fans as one of the best Family albums. If you are not familiar with the group then this set is a good place to start, combining one of their best albums with a fine live performance.   

The neatly colour-coded CD sleeves