I have been listening to this band since the summer of 1980 when my brother’s group used to perform both “The Wizard” and “Stealin’” in their stage sets. It was the same year I discovered UFO, another truly fine British metal band, and the wondrous Moodies, so I would say it was a very useful and productive year for rock discoveries as a teenager.
This was my first Heep album, definitely not my last, and I’m very pleased to say that, after all these years, this album still stands up as solid and consistent a Heep classic lineup opus as any of the others often bantered about verbally. Now, a lot of people dismiss this as the album with “the hit” on it, but it’s my second favorite in the Heep catalog, and I still feel the magic each time I play it from that great summer so long ago. okay, I confess, this album is a treasure to me for the most unapologetically sentimental reasons. I hope someone else out there feels the same, regardless of what Ken Hensley and others have said about it.
“Dreamer:” A good, funky blues rock opener that’s not a favorite track, but it definitely far from sucks. Check David Byron’s great, spirited vocal performance, the best thing about it.
“Stealin’:” The hit, and what a hit. Still played in heavy rotation here in the States after all these years, one cannot deny every classic moment of this fun cowboy song. I just think it’s very funny that they tried to ban this song because of the line, “I done the rancher’s daughter.” Please, it seems so polite compared to…well, I can’t say that here, so how about nailed? That’s borderline rude, at least. Mick Box’s guitar solo and Ken Hensley’s organ are what really make this one of the greatest Heep songs ever recorded, and without the distinctive vocal stylings of Mr. Byron, it just wouldn’t be the same.
“One Day:” It’s hard to believe the band was going through all kinds of personal mayhem while recording this album with such uplifting, emotional songs as this in the mix. Considering that fact, maybe lines like “And though I’ve traveled across the desert of despair, I knew I’d get there one day” need to be read into more.
“Sweet Freedom:” Among the strongest songs on SF, the song is as powerful as it is touching and sweet in its forgiving breakup stance. It is a classic heep ballad with all the hallmarks of those from other albums during that era, and is still a favorite of fans today.
“If I Had the Time:” Beautiful melody and always a personal favorite of mine. Play this a few times when you’re in a bad mood, really channel into it, and see if its message doesn’t work on you:
“If I had the time to relive my life
I don’t think I’d care to change a thing
As long as I find just a little peace of mind
I can dream and laugh and I can sing.”
“Seven Stars:” This song is just great, and I love Ken’s organ on it. Lee Kerslake’s drum fills are really brought to the foreground here more than other tracks, and you imagine he was pretty much winded after the final take. Check out Byron singing the alphabet backward and foreward nearing the song’s end!
“Circus:” Always my favorite track, a lowkey acoustic ballad with a latin jazz influence copenned by Box, Kerslake, and Gary Thain who also happens to be one of the best bassists from the 70’s rock era. The song sounds just a bit like ELP’s “From the Beginning,” and describes the weariness and fatigue I often feel at the phoniness of some of the people I know.
“Pilgrim:” What a great wah-wah guitar, grinding organ driven epic about the disasters that befall someone who is all wrapped up in a power trip after starting out with good enough intentions. The pilgrim tells his tale of how he compromised his values of love and freedom for the egotistical headtrip of being a ruler through his wartime victories. “Those of us who don’t know war,” he states, “We shouldn’t try to make it.” He tells of how the cheers of the crowds made him swell and he lost the woman he loved over it. The last lines are the most revealing:
“I only knew I had to win and build a world where I was king
But leaders come and leaders go and that’s the truth I came to know.
Love or war I couldn’t choose, and so both I had to lose.”
One can take that on an symbolic personal level as well: Be wary of what you’re after, or you will lose the things that you discover all too late really matter. Well done!
As far as the bonus tracks go, I can live without “Sunshine,” a throwaway B-side from the “Stealin’” single, and definitely one of the band’s most unfocused cuts from that time. Extended versions of both “Seven Stars” and “Pilgrim” are welcom treasures, and the piano driven demo of “If I Had the Time” is interesting if a bit raw and awkward. The live recording of “Sweet Freedom” sounds so close to the studio recording, you really get an idea how good a live band this lineup was, and the live version of “Stealin’” is also very well done and more fun than the studio recording.
I would like to add that this version includes great liner notes, photos, and the lyrics,so you’re really getting a great buy here. I would also like to express my regret that I wasn’t old enough to appreciate this lineup because I was a little kid, and regret that, due to Gary Thain and David Byron’s passing, we will never get to experience a reunion. Heep have gone through several vocalists over the years and, though they were all capable, there was nobody like David Byron. He was one of a kind, and I have never heard anyone who sounds quite like him. Buy Sweet Freedom, even if you don’t feel the same passion for it that I do. It’s a quality album in any decade.