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This article was originally published in issue #31
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Legend has it that 'where did he get that vibrato' was a question asked of Koss by no lesser mortal than Eric Clapton, though only Clapton knows whether it's true.
Paul Kossoff, the young British guitarist who made his name with Free and Backstreet Crawler, died almost four decades ago, yet left behind a legacy of tone and feel that few have even approached, let alone matched. In this special tribute issue, Gary Cooper recalls interviewing the great guitar player in the 1970s, and assesses his career.
When the short-lived 'Trad Jazz' craze swept across Britain in the early 1960s it brought with it, almost unnoticed at the time, a passenger that had a far longer lasting influence. While the tooting melodies and strumming rhythms imported from Dixieland were soon more or less forgotten, some of the British Jazz players who championed the New Orleans sound had also brought across from the USA Blues musicians who had been largely forgotten at home. It was no big deal at first. A few tours of dingy clubs, lots of whisky, and a music that, really, had little obvious connection to the musical sensibility at the time. True, British youth, like youth anywhere, was disaffected, grumpy and looking for its own music, but what did that actually have to do with the life experiences of Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf or Leadbelly?
Somehow, though, the seed fell on fertile ground, particularly in the London area, where Blues first smouldered and then caught fire. Cyril Davis and Alexis Korner preached the word and disciples like John Mayall, the Rolling Stones and The Yardbirds went forth to convert the world - always with the guitar to the fore.
One result was a generation of astonishing guitarists. Trying to rank them is a game to while away any rainy afternoon - do you put Clapton above Beck? And if you do, what about Peter Green? Or Jimmy Page? But it's ultimately a futile exercise. In the end all you can say is whose playing moved you the most. And if you're the kind of person who is moved more by feel than raw technique, then one of the most expressive players to have emerged during that truly golden era was Paul Kossoff, who made his name with the band Free, then died tragically young at the age of 26, in 1976.
Kossoff, born in September 1950, was a few years younger than that first wave of British Blues players (and in your teens and early twenties a few years can be a big gap) and Free, the band he made his name with, missed being in the first wave of homegrown Blues superstars - indeed it was seeing Eric Clapton play that made Koss, as he was known, decide to take up the guitar once again - though this time with a different sound in mind than he'd had when he'd taken classical guitar lessons as a child.
Paul had been born into a talented family. His father, David Kossoff was a much loved actor of Russian Jewish extraction who had a successful career in the UK. And here's a factoid to impress at your next party. One of Kossoff’s earlier successes was playing 'Lemmy' - an astronaut in the early BBC radio Sci-Fi series, Journey Into Space. And that is where a certain Mr Kilmister got his nickname from. But I digress...
Kossoff Junior, meanwhile, met with pretty much instant success; his band Black Cat Bones touring with American Blues pianist Champion Jack Dupree and the Peter Green led Fleetwood Mac. He had served his apprenticeship in probably the best town in the world to learn his chosen trade at the time, London, and he took full advantage of it, working in one of the most prestigious shops in town, Selmers in Charing Cross Rd, where he met the new boy in town, Jimi Hendrix, and got to know, and hear, most of the great players of that era. He was soon marked out himself as one of the players you had to hear. A friend of mine, who owned a shop in Denmark St at the time, recalls how Koss would wander in, sit cross legged on top of a cab, take a Gibson off his wall and start wailing away at volumes that made it impossible to think or even talk. He did the same in the Orange shop round the corner, as Phil Harris recalls in our video, and no one would have dreamed of stopping him. Having that astonishing sound howling out of your door was an advertisement no money on earth could have bought.
By 1968, Koss, accompanied by the Bones' drummer, Simon Kirke, teamed-up with singer Paul Rodgers and bass player Andy Fraser to form what was to be Koss's biggest band, Free. They toured extensively, producing two landmark albums, Tons Of Sobs in 1968 and Free in 1969 then hit the jackpot with Fire And Water, released in 1970 and containing the single All Right Now - still a hit on every classic Rock station around in the world over 40 years later. As was the way back then, the song wrapped itself around a short but absolutely unforgettable solo - probably one of the best Les Paul sounds ever to grace an international hit single. Even players who had never heard of Free, or Paul Kossoff, suddenly sat up and listened - who the hell was that? And where did he get that vibrato?
Legend has it that 'where did he get that vibrato' was a question asked of Koss by no lesser mortal than Eric Clapton, though only Clapton knows whether it's true. True or not, it's a question he should have asked because Koss had a style that, for all that it adhered to most of orthodox Blues traits, was instantly recognisable and packed a charge of emotional voltage that few else could match. Whatever was going on inside Paul's head, it was producing tormented playing.
It would be easy to say 'ah, that was the drugs' but it's just as likely that the drugs were also a consequence of Paul's inner demons. Without dipping down into the seamy stories of the time (and this was decades before 'rehab' became a buzzword) drugs were cheap, easy to come by and, most importantly, consumed by many without the slightest understanding of what they were taking.
Though drugs were to be Koss's undoing they weren't the only thing tearing the young band apart. Kossoff and bass player Andy Fraser had a very uneasy relationship and there were other tensions that saw the band break up following the release of Highway, in 1970. A live album followed a year later, following which, Kossoff went off with Japanese bass player Tetsu Yamauchi and the American keyboard player John 'Rabbit' Bundrick. They released one album, Kossoff, Kirke, Tetsu and Rabbit.
Free had become an on again/off again project, whose fluctuations were eagerly reported by the weekly music press of the time. The band reformed for the album Free at Last, released in 1972, then Fraser left to be replaced by Tetsu and Rabbit for one final Free album, Heartbreaker, in 1973.
This time, the split was final. Rodgers and Kirke formed Bad Company, while Koss wandered off to associate with some very bad company indeed - the genius acoustic player and songwriter John Martyn. Both were prodigious consumers of illicit chemicals so the 1975 tour they undertook together must have been...quite an experience.
My own encounter with Koss was during 1975. He'd recorded a single album, Back Street Crawler (the title explains itself), in 1973, and following his survival of the John Martyn tour, he put together a band named after the album. I'd arranged to meet him in West London's Basing St studios, the home of Island records, and then one of the coolest places in town. With the wonderful gift of 20/20 hindsight I should have spent longer and tried to get more material but I'd been asked to produce a very short article and who was to know that within a few months he would be dead, having suffered a heart attack while flying across the USA with his new band.
I say 'who was to know?' because the story at the time of my interview the story was that Koss had got himself together at long last and was, in the parlance of the time 'healthy'. I'm no psychopharmacologist, even if I can spell it, and all I can say is that he seemed straight to me. He was small, nervous, well mannered, articulate and for some reason I broke with my usual unwritten rule (avoid the tabloid stuff - stick to music) and asked him about his drug problems. That wasn't very cool back then, either. Many of the people you interviewed in the 1970s were either out of their heads, had been out of their heads, or were pretty soon going to be. But Koss had been quite public about his problems before, so I asked him how he had managed to defeat his demons.
“Honestly it was the final debasing of myself that ultimately brought my conscience back.” he told me. “It had got to the stage when my best friends couldn't even trust me with £6. I didn't resent that but I feel better for having passed that stage”. He also said (though I didn't include it in my article, which eventually appeared, un-bylined, in a guitar mag of the era) that what had finally stopped him was hitting rock bottom and realising that he simply could not have got any lower.
How true that was, and whether he later relapsed, is a moot point. My friend, the American journalist Steven Rosen, recounts in an interview he wrote a few months after mine, that Koss was in a pretty bad way when he interviewed him, which was in January '76. Having said that, a coroner's report said he was free from drugs when he suffered a heart attack en route to New York in March 1976 and I remember being physically shocked when I heard the news, because he had seemed, if frail, at least coherent when we had met, not so long before.
It was Koss's style and playing that were more germane to my article at the time, which, as I say, had been commissioned as a short, 'one-pager' (itself a measure of how far Koss's star had fallen since the demise of Free - once he would have made the cover). He told me how he didn't like skinny necks - hence his Les Paul. “I've always played a Les Paul because I like a square fat neck. I just don't like these tiny little flat frets and skinny necks because you can't get hold of them. The same with strings. I use Gibson Sonomatics for fourth, fifth and sixth which are very heavy, I use a plain banjo string as a third, which is also thick like a wire-wound, and I use a pretty heavy first and second.
“The reason is that I pick very hard and if you've got light strings they vibrate too much and sound floppy. The way I string the guitar you've got to fight for your sound and it comes out with a straining feel. Anyway, if I played with ultra light gauge strings, I'd bang out a big fat chord and everything would be out of tune.”
Indeed, when questioned by another interviewer about his occasional use of a Strat, its relative inability to remain in tune was one of his complaints and one of the reasons why he was mainly a Les Paul man.
Back to the tensions with Andy Fraser that made Free the fun gig it must certainly not have been, I asked Koss about the curiously subdued presence of the guitar in so many Free mixes. As a guitar nut, it was something that had really frustrated me about the band's albums. I loved what the rest of the band did but I wanted to hear more of the guitar, damnit!
“A lot of the time when I was in the studio with Free, I was pretty dominated by Andy, and I ended up playing what he wanted me to play. I started coming out of that with Free At Last and now I'm doing what I wanted to do.”
Re-reading my article from the time (1975 don't forget) I came across one astonishing revelation that I had completely forgotten. Paul Kossoff's sound may be associated with the Les Paul but its inseparable partner was a Marshall stack - and it pretty much always had been. And yet he told me that he had been playing around with Acoustic amps at the time and was considering switching. This is mind-blowing in retrospect (if you'll forgive the lapse back into '70s speak!). Acoustic, for those who don't recall them, was a short-lived US brand that really made its name with bass amps. They were everything that Marshall's were not - most particularly they were solid state, clean sounding and one of the reasons why some American guitarists of the era sounded so... well, anaemic is one word that comes to mind, until they rediscovered the joys of valves. Looking back, I can't imagine why I didn't ask more about this. Maybe I did? The cassette tape in which my interview was recorded is, sadly, long gone and my memory is blank.
One thing is for sure, had Koss switched to a transistorised amp he'd have been hard-pressed to get that trademark wailing, anguished tone, not least because, true to the era, he wasn't a fan of pedals (not altogether surprising, the pedals of 1975 left a lot to be desired). Koss was one of that generation like Peter Green and Rory Gallagher - they just plugged in and got just about everything from their fingers, tone and volume controls.
Koss did use a phaser from time to time but for the most part the sound you hear is a Marshall valve 100 head of the era feeding two 4x12s. He is on record as having said that he had Marshall fit bass speakers in his cabs as he preferred the sound but Phil Harris, GI's resident vintage gear expert, who features heavily in this tribute, is sceptical. He says that Free's roadie of the time told him that the band had just one set of gear and they set it up more or less as it came. That said, it's highly likely that, as was the way at the time, Andy Fraser would have had one of Koss's cabs placed behind him and Koss vice versa, so that they could hear one another better. Monitors? That's just how it was, back then.
There is another consideration too, while we are discussing amplifiers - and it points to a lesson every young guitarist needs to learn. If you look at the YouTube videos that go with this article, you will see that on some of them Kossoff is actually using an Orange rig - no doubt what was available at the German TV studio where that session was filmed. And yet the sound is still pure Kossoff. This doesn't take anything away from the Les Paul/Marshall combination that formed the archetypal Paul Kossoff sound, but it does prove what we on GI are always saying - that gear is important but that a great guitarist's sound comes from his fingers.
Having said at the beginning of this feature that making lists and rankings are a pointless pursuit, it's a game few can resist and if you were to draw one up of who got the definitive Blues sound out of a Les Paul, Paul Kossoff would have to be high on it - ask Joe Bonamassa, who has a spoken a lot about his recognition of Koss's mastery of the instrument.
Back to guitars. We tracked down Koss's first Les Paul, the black mid-1950s, Custom 'black beauty’ which Phil Harris talks us through and demonstrates in our accompanying video. Phil also discusses the '58 'burst that he had once owned and that had been swapped by Koss with Eric Clapton after a Blind Faith gig in 1969. That vies for fame along with the battered '58 (or was it '59? No one seems to know) with the infamous neck break, which Phil Harris borrowed from its current owner, ex-Beckett guitarist Arthur Ramm, at one of the Northern Guitar Shows in the UK last year and demonstrates to great effect in our second video. Joe Bonamassa, too, has played this guitar on stage and he seems to veer towards it being a '59 - though he, too, says it's hard to say for sure. He concurs about the size of that neck, though!
Talk about Paul Kossoff's playing inevitably turns to his extraordinarily effective vibrato technique. This wasn't a fixed quantity, however. Koss himself said how hard he had worked at it and how long it had taken him to perfect. It also changed. Listen to early Free albums and then the Backstreet Crawler and you can hear for yourself how it developed in speed and intensity, though never in emotional impact. It's a cliché, but a well deserved one: Koss could make his guitar cry.
So check out the YouTubes we've selected, check out Phil Harris's videos, then study Michael Casswell's Tech Session on one of the greatest, if also one of the shortest lived, guitar heroes of a remarkable era. Most of all, check out the man himself on his recorded material. Remember, this isn't about technique, it's about feel. And there are few guitar players that have even approached the sheer emotionality of Paul Kossoff's heartfelt playing.