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Remembering Steve Free

Features | Published:

Friends and family pay tribute to musician Steve Free who sadly passed away this month...

Early this month the island lost a gifted and generous musician who helped shape the local music scene and gave his time and encouragement to Channel Island musicians.

Steve Free, who became well known to local audiences in the late ’70s and ’80s during his time with popular bands Blue Movies and The Difference, died on 3 March, aged 65.

Born in Sleaford, Lincolnshire, Steve moved to Guernsey in the 1970s, having played with UK band Kettle, who had several residencies on the island and were signed to Bell Records and EMI Publishing. Before that he had been in the band Happy, who supported and toured with big acts of the ’70s such as The Bay City Rollers, Hot Chocolate, Sweet and Mud.

Steve’s younger brother, Richard, said Steve was his childhood hero.

‘He was not only musically generous, he was a special talent and a fine guitarist. From the age of 10, when he received his first guitar, he was rarely seen without it. He learned to play without any lessons, just by ear. We could be sitting on the sofa at home and a song would play on the radio and a few moments later Steve would have worked out how to play it note for note.’

Richard said Steve’s earliest band was The Sheeg.

‘I saw them, when I was aged six, practise in the local church hall, banging out Beatles tunes. Steve would have been just 12 and an obsessive Beatles fan. He worked in several bands playing all over England. In 1972 he was approached by Wigan-based Copper Kettle to be their lead guitarist. They signed to a major label as Kettle and released just one single, co-written by Steve, called Thinking Just of You, which had some success locally, achieving record of the week on Merseyside and Manchester’s major radio stations. They played support to many major artists and had several TV appearances on national television.’

Steve met his wife-to-be, Jane, in Guernsey while touring with Kettle, soon choosing love over the band and moving to the island.

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‘He was sublimely happy in Guernsey, but found music too much of a draw to give up and was soon helping to create a whole new band scene on the island,’ said Richard.

Steve went on to play in local covers band Blue Movies with Brian Lee, Colin ‘Alfie’ Austin, the late George Crossan and Brian ‘Monty’ McMonagle. ‘Like myself and George, Steve had visited Guernsey playing in a professional band and had fallen in love, and stayed, so we had lots in common,’ said Monty. ‘We had a lot of fun, partying, playing four nights a week at the Trelade. Steve and I also worked together at an advertising and signwriting business, AAD.’

Blue Movies morphed into The Difference, which played a mixture of covers and original material. Steve, George, Colin and Monty built up a big following in the island, often with people queuing down the street to see the band playing at such venues as The Savoy Club and The Fermain Tavern.

The Difference, circa 1982. Left to right, George Crossan, Monty McMonagle, Colin Austin and Steve.

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Steve’s interest in sound technique led him to studio recording.

‘He was a real perfectionist when it came to sound – but you could hear the clarity and separation he brought to the live sound,’ said Monty.

‘So it was no surprise when he decided to set up a home recording studio.

‘We recorded a couple of cassette albums, Bedroom Music and Go, with Steve at the controls, in his bedroom studio. By then Nic Cleveland had joined the band on trumpet.

‘We were all equals in the band, but when it came to recording, Steve was the boss.

‘He worked wonders with that little Teac four-track recorder. I remember watching him working and admiring how clever he was. It was clear that Steve was at home in the studio.

‘He single-handedly dreamt up the Guernsey Rock Album concept and with this, and other recording projects, he introduced a lot of local musicians to recording over the years.’

Steve, right, pictured with George Crossan, left, and Andrew Warry, at the launch of the Guernsey Rock Album in 1981.

Monty says he was shocked and saddened to hear of Steve’s passing, ‘but will look back on the happy times we shared – and the music we made – with great fondness’.

One band that Steve helped enormously early on in their career was The Risk, producing and engineering the band’s early recordings.

The band’s lead singer and bassist, Mark Le Gallez, said: ‘Steve was my musical mentor and I idolised him, really.

‘He gave me the ambition and drive to do more, to push more, but also said when he did not think I was up to scratch.

‘A brilliant musician and a top fella.’

Guitarist Nick Windsor, who went on to work with Steve in the studio, says he was a genuine pioneer of local recording and live music performance.

‘I would regularly watch him play guitar in Blue Movies and later on in The Difference throughout the ’80s.

‘Both bands are still lauded by many as the best covers/originals bands to grace a local stage. This was no doubt due to their previous band experience touring and recording in the UK and Europe. It’s fair to say Steve’s penchant for a polished powerful sound inspired many local bands to up their game and invest in better PA equipment and a good soundman. A tasteful, accomplished guitarist, singer/songwriter/producer, Steve’s real passion was recording. He was probably the first ‘‘studio’’’ guy to bring serious recording within reach of local bands.

‘Recording The Guernsey Rock album at his Starless & Bible Black Studios with Limbo was a great experience.

‘Steve was full of fun and encouragement for us and the other bands. From then on he helped many more local bands cut their teeth in the studio with demos and album releases.

‘I have special memories in the ’90s when he asked me to play guitar at his Rose Rouge studios with Jersey singer Ritchie Gouyette then later on play with them in Singapore. Steve was non-stop fun the whole trip.

‘He will be missed by many. My thoughts are with Jane, Joni and Katie.’

Ritchie Gouyette said Steve ‘was truly a one-off’. ‘His ability as a writer, performer, engineer and producer was second to none. As a human being he was generous, passionate, loyal, focused and fun. ‘He had a huge capacity for love and life. ‘I have so many truly life-changing experiences to thank him for over the years that we worked together.

‘Those that stand out include signing my first recording contract, cutting my first solo CD, visits to the Cannes music festival and performing live to over 10,000 people in Brasov, Romania. But above all else he was my friend and I will miss him.

‘My lasting memory of Steve will be of our time recording in the studio, followed by evenings spent eating, drinking and partying with his wonderful family.

‘He will be forever in my thoughts.’

Colin Leach

By Colin Leach
author

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