Thursday, December 15, 2022

When the world is wrong

The Free released only one single, and what a marvel it was
I'd been watching the Free's "Decision For Lost Soul Blue" 45 in an eBay auction; I lost out, but was able to grab a copy (for less than what I would've paid in auction) via Discogs. Either way, its arrival feels fated. Occasionally a song makes contact through the ether and rearranges things.

The Free's scant history has been unearthed by the usual intrepid sleuths; the folks at Garage Hangover and Kossoff1963 tell the story here and here, respectively. In short, the Free were short-lived. Detroit-based, the band included guitarist Joe Memmer and singer Dave Gilbert, who together wrote "Decision For Lost Soul Blue." Area radio DJ Tom Shannon owned and operated Marquee Records with Nick Ameno and Carl Cisco, the latter of whom also managed Shannon and earned a production credit on the single, which was cut at Tera Shirma Studios. Released at the end of 1968, "Decision For Lost Soul Blue" enjoyed regional success, including a three-week stand as the “Pick of the Week” on CKLW. The major label Atco took interest in the local buzz, and in March of 1969 this good thing happened:

Alas, despite the national distribution push from Atlantic, a Billboard mention, and a title change, the single vanished from the charts soon after, enduring the all-too-common fate of glorious misses: a future of used record stores, thrift shops, online marketplaces, shuffling among hands of avid collectors, and  appearances on obscure compilation albums, including Psychotic Moose And The Soul Searchers and Sklash—Rare Tracks From The Psychedelic Aera, both ‎in 1982, and, more recently, Garage Daze: American Garage Rock from the 1960's ‎in 2017. The Free split up within twelve months of releasing the single, their only record. Within a couple of years, Memmer and Gilbert were working together again in Shadow; Memmer has gone on to play and tour with several groups, while Gilbert, who died in 2001, at one point toured with Ted Nugent and later joined New Order with the Stooges’ Ron Asheton and MC5’s drummer Dennis Thompson. He also sang with the Rockets.

What an astonishing single the Free left behind. Before the song begins, the title declaims. The tune's a soundtrack to a resolution of sorts, music to decide by. Who's Blue? (And did they at an earlier junction mean Blues?) It was the era of lost souls, Summer of Love realists, early acid casualties. The opening ten seconds give the impression of things elevating, and it sounds as if we're escaping something, tom drum to rhythm and wah-wah guitars, eighth notes propelling things upward. Then the singer arrives, and the litany of complaints, or heavy-lidded observations: the generation's wrong, he's sittin' home wonderin', people are turning their backs on each other, doctor can you help? The chorus is sung in  drone, and things are laid out starkly:
This is wrong, that is wrong
What do you do when the world's wrong?
The second verse is less articulate—a shrugging anti-answer maybeeeeee is stretched out over three bars, answered by its anguished cousin don't ever know a few long bars later—but doom's still in the air. Everything feels a little more complicated, things churn. The chorus returns, and feels more dimensional now, but the answer to "What do you do?" feels further away than ever.

Something remarkable happens next. At the 1:40 mark a shriek tears at the fabric of the song, and nothing short of a different song begins. The rhythm section begin an aggressive, four-on-the-floor drone-march while for just over a minute the guitarists—one screeching in fuzz, the other answering in wah-wah, both languages foreign to the singer but native to the song—drag the song into a darker place. On some listens it gives the impression of a randomly plotted acid trip—many songs of the era attempted to sonically reproduce such a thing—, on other listens it feels as if two things inhuman have landed onto and into the song, electrified and amplified, arguing. Nothing's solved. But it sounds great loud. Viva Detroit.

The third verse repeats the laments of the first, and to my ears the final chorus somehow sounds prettier, even though the song's disgusted with the world, and jaded in the face of the thin promises offered by culture, friends, drugs. But the melody's nice, and that's something, if not an answer.


"Decision For Lost Blue" was not a hit, did not unite millions of listeners and take its place in the open-air festival culture. It was not used numbingly often on soundtracks of films twenty years later "set in the Sixties." That was the Free's bad luck. It's my great luck. Because the song was not embalmed with the others of the era that are hauled out as Classic Rock, Oldies, Nuggets—you know them, are already humming them, I don't need to mention them—the song feels, is, fresh to my ears, and is in a very real and accurate sense undated. I've only recently discovered it. I don't have to blow off decades of tiresome, sentimental bullshit about the decade, didn't have to endure an actress in a flower power costume selling it to me on a Time-Life commercial, suffer its misuse in car or medication ads, or watch as an eleventh-generation Free Featuring One Original Member hauls out the song on tour. (Though that might've been nice for him.)

I watch the single spinning on my turntable in real time, turn up the volume, close my eyes and am timeless, out of time, with the song's eternal question: what to do when the world is wrong? Of the era, indeed.

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