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Music

How Freebass tried and failed to take over the world

Forget XYZ and the much-ballyhooed return of Lee Mavers, after 30 years in hiding: Freebass are the ultimate “what if” of rock glory. True, they completed an album – and a very good album at that – but it was hardly the reinvention of rock and roll many had pegged it to be. But it was a start and seemed to pinpoint the beginnings of an evocative legacy, if only the three star players had the stomach to stick at it. 

The reason for their name ‘Freebass’, was to acknowledge that the three musicians within the band were bassists from popular Manchester bands, determined to bring their instrument of choice to the next logical level of development. It wasn’t entirely a novel idea, but between them, the star bass players had the acumen and the talent to put it to good use. 

Of the three men, Peter Hook’s credits were the most noteworthy, having performed on club hits ‘Blue Monday’ and ‘True Faith’, but that’s not to say that Mani – best known for his work with The Stone Roses – couldn’t match him for musicianship. And then there was Andy Rourke, arguably the least famous of the Freebass boys, yet was ironically the one who had played in the best band of the lot: The Smiths

Their early jams seemed promising, leading Hook to excitedly announce the formation of the trio in 2005. Keenly aware that their project was fuelled by brilliance, ingenuity and folly, the New Order frontman sounded equally ebullient and bullish when he described the prospect of an all bass playing indie band to the presses. “The reason we decided to do it was because everyone laughed in our face when we suggested the idea,” he said. “So we thought, ‘Fuck them! We’re gonna show them.'”

By the time the band released their debut It’s A Beautiful Life, five years had elapsed, Rourke had quit, and Mani had taken it upon himself to slam Hook in public. Hook’s wallet, he felt, was stuffed with “Ian Curtis blood money”, a pointed reference to the bassist’s decision to perform Joy Division music with off-shoot band, The Light. By 2011, Mani had also jumped ship, having committed himself to The Stone Roses, and their efforts to record a third album (still unreleased as of 2022.) 

The feuding, boasting and tweeting seemed to overshadow their recorded efforts, which was a shame, considering the quality of the material in question. They were hardly in a rush to salute the bands that made them famous, although there are some splashes of The Smiths thrown in, particularly on the frenzied ‘The Good Machine’, bolstered by Gary Briggs anthemic falsetto. ‘Bury Me Standing’ sounded more contemporary, one of the better lo-fi rockers the radios never quite got their head around. It wasn’t entirely alternative, as electronic digital-single ‘Live Tomorrow You Go Down’ demonstrated. Laced by a heart-felt vocal, the single showed that the band weren’t impervious to the charts, throwing out a strangely romantic tune that was probably written for the females in their fanbase. 

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But given the age of the artists, it was harder to make a break into the realm of indie-pop, particularly when they were competing with trendier groups The Killers, The Strokes and The Shins. It didn’t matter that the competition had grown up listening to New Order and The Smiths, the trio had to put their back into their act if they stood any hope of making an impact. 

Invariably, Rourke appeared to lose interest, and quit before Freebass were happy to release their recordings to the public. Having lost one of the star bassists, it was growing harder to sell the group to younger audiences, particularly when it seemed like the two remaining bandmates didn’t appear to be getting along. Worse still, the band mistimed their release, having just latched onto the digital wave, but critically, not in time for the rising interest in vinyl. If they’d held out until 2013, when vinyl was selling in corner shops-much to the bewilderment of the trendy music mags-they may have sold much better, and made more of an impact. 

A full band reunion then is as unlikely as a four piece New Order reunion (we could easily put The Smiths and The Stone Roses in that bracket), but that’s precisely the beauty of the band. They can live on in the mystery, knowing that they could have been the band that changed the perception of bass guitar forever. What broke the band up wasn’t failure, but the certainty of time, and changing fashions. 

Stoically, Hook chose to reflect on the band with fondness in 2019: “I think the problem with that was too many chiefs. It was me, Mani and Rourkie, all of us out of groups, all of us wanting to do our own thing. We did one sell out tour that I am very, very proud of, then we called it a day.”

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