Perfect Sound Forever


Family, with Roger in stripes

Roger Chapman is Fearless
Interview by Robin E. Cook
(December 2023)

Fearless was a perfect title for Family's 1971 album. As singer Roger Chapman says, Family was "quite a brave band." For Fearless, Chapman, guitarist John "Charlie" Whitney, multi-instrumentalist Poli Palmer, and drummer Rob Townsend were joined by new bassist John Wetton. On the resulting album, the band romps between barroom blues, quasi-progressive rock, funk, and folk-rock. The result is one of the finest examples of their wildly eclectic approach. Chapman himself shared recollections about the making of Fearless and his subsequent solo career for Perfect Sound Forever.

Fearless has been reissued by Cherry Red Records into a 3-CD edition with 24 bonus tracks, an illustrated booklet and more. You can see more about it here:

PSF: First of all, how did John Wetton come to join the band?

RC: The bass player at the time, John Weider, left the band and we auditioned some bass players. John Wetton was one of the auditioners, is that the word? Auditioneers? He was there and he was great. And so obviously [he] became the choice to join Family.

PSF: You guys had just come off a tour with Elton John in 1972. What was that like?

RC: Fantastic . He's a good man to be on tour with . It was just really good, you know. Exciting, of course, because Elton's gigs are much bigger than we were used to. You know, more people, bigger halls as it were. And himself, all his crew and his band were all good, nice people, and made you feel welcome even though you were just a support band, you know? So it was a great thing to be involved in, really. And it opened your eyes, obviously, because we toured a lot of places we wouldn't possibly have gone to just as Family and seen it such a lot of stuff like that. But I mean, yeah, it was a wonderful thing for us.

PSF: About your previous album, Anyway (1970), which was part live and part studio. Why did you decide to go with that format?

RC: We did a show at [Fairfield Halls] in London. And we actually wrote some new songs that we rehearsed in the afternoon and decided to do them on stage, which was kind of quite brave. We were sort of quite a brave band, to be honest- brave in a musical sense. We thought, 'well, that'd be different to do,' you know, kind of do new songs, but played live, and never heard of before, put it on an album. So, that's what we did. I think we just enjoyed being different .

PSF: When it came time to make Fearless, I noticed that John Wetton, and I think Poli Palmer handled some of the lead vocals. I mean, how did you feel about turning the mic over to them?

RC: Oh, I had no problem. But, but to be honest, they did very little vocals. Poli did "Larf and Sing," because that was his track, he'd kind of set out anyway. He'd recorded it at home in his home studio and really brought it to us. And he'd done the kind of the barbershop quartet sort of harmonies and things. And John Wetton and I, we copied what Poli had already done. what Polly had already done. Then Poli put his lead vocal on that.

John really took a very small part on the lead vocals... I think he only sang a verse here and there. He obviously helped very much on the orchestral side of it, in the sense of harmony vocals, backup vocals. Him and I did some work on that. Well, all the work really on the album, you know, for backup vocals. So, I mean, obviously he was a big asset, you know just through his playing and ideas, you know, to incorporate into what the band was doing anyway. I mean, on Fearless, we'd already started the album without a bass player, and we got most of the tracks down. And then when John joined the band, he came in the studio and put his versions of playing a bass on it, you know, on the tracks. Which was obviously very good. And improved the tracks and made us a better band. So there's nothing wrong with that.

PSF: One thing I noticed is some songs like "Spanish Tide" remind me of some of the other progressive rock bands of 1971. Were you familiar with some of those bands? Like, say, Yes or King Crimson?

RC: I was very aware of King Crimson. Fantastic band...They lived on the coast when they first came into London. They were fantastic when they first came up and stayed fantastic, actually. Yes, I was never a keen fan of at all, really. It was all a bit kind of, dare I say, namby pamby . Some great musicians in it, but sort of, I don't know, a bit wishy-washy. That wasn't my kind of music at all.

But King Crimson, very aware of King Crimson. And so was John obviously, because John joined King Crimson from us.

PSF: Did you stay in touch with him after he joined Crimson or in his subsequent career?

RC: All the time. Yeah. I mean, John and I were very close friends, and right through. I'd made a solo album called Kiss My Soul. Mm-Hmm. And, I was over in the States with my wife and we were there, and I met John 'cause John was living in the States. And we wrote songs together, songs I wrote with John on that particular album, Kiss My Soul. Yes. I mean, we were big friends for a long, long time, unfortunately, until he death.

Family at the 1971 Bilzen Fest

PSF: One thing I noticed, you started branching out doing more harmony vocals, and I don't think you did a whole lot of that with Family's earlier material.

RC: No. That kind of wasn't the sort of musical direction we were in, you know. It was very much a kind of jazz, blues, R&B situation. And if anybody was doing backup, there was a guy called Jim King [who appeared on Family's first two albums], who played saxophone and harmonica. And actually also had a fantastic voice, but there was only falsetto on those early Family albums. Then Jim King would've been doing that.

PSF: One of my favorite songs on Fearless is "Between Blue and Me." Can you give me some background on that song?

RC: Well, it's, it was a song really originated by the guitar player who actually John Whitney and myself- he wrote quite a lot of the song for Family. It was his original concept, and he brought it into the studio. I mean, lyrically I didn't actually add too much towards it lyrically either. So I think it was probably almost a little of John's background. I think we used to write basically about ourselves or our, or our backgrounds, you know, hidden depths and things like that.

PSF: I noticed that you also started using more horn sections on the album. Can you give me some background on that?

RC: That again came from John Wetton, and actually the horn section from that was the Average White Band before they became the Average White Band. John was sharing a flat with Molly [Malcolm "Molly" Duncan], the sax player from the Average Whites. And so we got to meet him just because we became friendly, you know, going out drinking or dinner, whatever, just gigging and things.

So that's the brass section really, from them. But that came from John. Again, John was friends with them. And, so all led just very naturally into using them because they'd become friends of ours.

PSF: And I also realized Poli Palmer contributed so much in terms of switching off from different instruments.

RC: Well, Poli's very much a synth guy. I think he started off as a drummer. And then that was that kind of not enough for him. He was obviously a bit more, I was gonna say a bit more musical . Don't tell a drummer I said that! I'd say that he played vibes, vibraphone, you know, 'cause then he was basically playing a rhythmic thing, but, but with melodies involved. And then I think he took up the flute as again, just another musical instrument. But he got heavily involved in the synths where he was actually playing his electric vibes through a synth machine on stage.

So yes, Poli's always been a very much an electro-minded person. My last new album [Life in the Pond], actually, Poli and I produced that and wrote it together, just the two of us, in his home studio.

PSF: I'm curious what it was like to be working with him again on your album after so long together.

RC: We've always done things together... I mean, obviously, I've had a solo career for thirty-odd years. And Poli's always been involved in what I did. And when Family split, John Whitney--Charlie--and myself, we started another band called Streetwalkers. I mean, Poli was even involved in that, getting in the studio and did some stuff, you know, synth-type stuff. And so, when I started my solo career, which was about '79, I think, he was involved in that as well.

We were writing songs even then for my first two or three albums, you know, and right through my career, we've always been pals, you know, we've always been good friends.

PSF: But I think what I like about the album is it goes from a song like "Larf and Sing" to "Sat'day Barfly" to "Take Your Partners" to "Children," which is an acoustic song.

RC: Well, we were like that. Just very varied in taste... I mean, obviously the five of us, we all had different tastes in music, but also there was a combination where certain types of music, everybody liked. And we were open, I suppose, very open to letting people in the band have their say, you know, in a musical sense. If somebody thought that the song was rubbish, you know, I suppose it wouldn't have happened, but everybody liked, seemed to like, what you've heard on the album. Family-Fearless-lineup

Family at the time of Fearless

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