Suffering from “pissy” production, the funky, philosophical mini-prog LP track was reworked and remixed until “it felt somewhat dangerous”
The making of “The Weaver’s Answer”
Family’s signature song was conceived in the summer of 1968 during an overnight drive in the band’s tour van, a journey hurried along by a selection of late-’60s stimulants. By the time the track was cut for their second album, 1969’s Family Entertainment, it had evolved into a defiantly unclassifiable five-minute epic. The soft, folk-prog intro and outro bookend a ferocious, martial funk-rock tattoo, the verses punctuated by freewheeling instrumental soloing. Roger Chapman’s characteristically intense vocal, meanwhile, is deployed to tell the ‘heavy’ tale of an old man calling upon the “weaver of life” to reveal the cosmic pattern of his existence, ending with a plea to bring the tapestry to an end now that he is elderly and alone.
as it turns out, the band were unhappy with the version released – without their approval – on Family Entertainment. “it’s a bit pissy,” is Chapman’s reckoning. a remixed version, with fresh overdubs, appeared on the “strange Band” EP, in 1970, by which time multi-instrumentalist John ‘Poli’ Palmer had replaced Jim King . This improved rendition gave Family a Top 20 hit, and appeared on the Old Songs, New
Songs compilation. On stage, meanwhile, the song grew into a behemoth. “it was really powerful stuff,” says Jim Cregan, who joined Family on bass in 1971. “it felt somewhat dangerous.”
Family split in 1973 but reunited between 2013 and 2016 without guitarist and “Weaver” co-writer John ‘Charlie’ Whitney, who now resides quietly on a Greek island. “He’s very much under the radar,” says Chapman. “Playing his balalaika somewhere.” No further Family shows are planned, but a boxset of BBC recordings is pending, featuring no less than seven versions of “The Weaver’s answer”. “i actually remember playing it on the very, very, very last gig in 1973, and thinking, ‘my god, it’s the final time i’m going to play this bloody song!’” says drummer Rob Townsend with a sigh. “Of course it wasn’t…” and a good thing too.
“it’s got such a great modern funk groove on it,” says Chapman, who still includes it in his live set. “Once we get on stage we tear the arse out of it, even now. it’s a fantastic groove to play on, and people still dance to it. Just a bit less energetically than they used to!” GRAEME THOMSON
ROGER CHAPMAN: i know exactly where i was when i wrote “The Weaver’s answer”. We had a gig up north and i finished it overnight, in the van on the way. i was dozing, i woke up and just started writing it. What state i was in is another story! it was back in the days when people used to stay up four or five nights on the trot. We didn’t really let a day go by without some form of stimulation, a bit of dope or this, that and the other. i started writing and it all came tumbling out. i had no sense of the music when i wrote it, and i don’t think there was much editing or revising. That was it, and it never changed. it was normal for me to write quickly, i was quite prolific.
ROB TOWNSEND: Now i’m older, i look at the lyrics and think, ‘my goodness, that’s really quite deep and meaningful.’
CHAPMAN: i don’t remember thinking about the concept beforehand. Which is interesting, because it’s a very clear idea. it’s obviously about an elderly man, sort of on his last legs – no comparisons, please! –
going back into his life and thinking about the things which made him who he is. Getting married, having children, growing up, and into the sadness of old age. His wife has gone, and he is looking to follow her… and then the light in the distance. i don’t remember any personal reason for writing it, other than it was a bit far out. For a life story, it’s actually quite a short piece.
JOHN ‘POLI’ PALMER: it’s a morality-tale opera. your life is being woven. Chappo’s lyrics could be quite picaresque, lennonstyle word plays, but there’s no chance that you can miss the meaning of this song. There’s no ambiguity. i know Roger used to get some very strange messages back in the day, from people trying to explain what they got out of it. it could get pretty weird.
CHAPMAN: Charlie and i were already working on a bit of music, so i took the words back to him and we came up with the song. We’d sit together and work through it, as i had to sing the melody. Charlie can’t sing to save a carrot! i bent the melody around the chord sequence. Thankfully i had a pliable voice, a good range, so i could do melody quite well.
JIM CREGAN: The nuts and bolts of Family were Roger and Charlie. No doubt about it. Roger didn’t ever want to sound like anybody else. if it was too straightforward he wouldn’t want to do it; he had to bend it just enough so it would be different. Charlie is one of the great under-appreciated musicians of that generation. His chord work and his writing are like nobody else’s. He has a musical point of view that i only appreciated when Family reformed, and i was brought in as the guitar player. Figuring out what Charlie was doing on “Weaver” was really quite difficult. The harmonic structure was amazing. There was almost nothing derivative about him, he was an original thinker. Roger is like that, too.
CHAPMAN: We started rehearsing “Weaver” and quite quickly took it on to the stage. Everyone went, “yeah!” We were comfortable playing it. it went down well.
TOWNSEND: We thought it was pretty special, and we played it in every concert at that time. We changed our set a lot, but “Weaver” seemed to be a constant.
TONY COX: Family’s manager, John Gilbert, was the son of the film director lewis Gilbert, who was well connected, quite affluent and sophisticated. He had signed the band to Reprise in la. He was a bit of a bumptious twit, and Family were pretty provincial guys. John appeared in my office one day and said, “When we make the new album, maybe you could do some arrangements?” mike Batt had done them on the previous lP. Before they started working on it, i went down to a rehearsal room in the arts Theatre in soho to hear the songs. They were extremely loud, and “The Weaver’s answer” just seemed like a racket! it was an onstage favourite. in those days, amplification was crude, and it was all pretty chaotic. i remember Charlie Whitney sticking his fingers in weird places and making strange chords he didn’t know the names of. They made a very full sound, there was a lot going on in the song, and i couldn’t see any space [ for orchestrations].
CHAPMAN: in the studio, the guys put the track down and i went in one late morning to sing. i’d been up, or out, all night, and went straight there without any sleep. That’s when the vocal was done. it was very possibly one take. i didn’t go in for the dubbing-in stuff much. i was quite capable.
TOWNSEND: Glyn Johns was engineering, co-producing.
CHAPMAN: Glyn was fine, he was a successful man and a great producer. But the management was ordering Glyn about, saying this, that and the other. COX: We were recording Family
Entertainment at Olympic. i remember
“It’s a morality-tale opera. Your life is being woven… There’s no ambiguity” JOHN ‘POLI’ PALMER
them all jumping around in the control room when we did the Indian strings on [album
instrumental] “Summer ’67”. That was a great success, everyone was very pleased with it. I’m not sure they were so happy with “The Weaver’s Answer”…
CHAPMAN: We were travelling all the time, doing gigs. I don’t think we felt we’d finished all the tracks, but we got back, and the album was finished. Mixed. Done. We thought, ‘What the fuck is all that about?’ We weren’t happy, and we blew Gilbert out not long after that. It was tin-pot Tsar Of Russia shit.
TOWNSEND: We went up north for a week or so, and when we got back they’d mixed the album. A couple of mixes we weren’t very happy with, and one of them was “The Weaver’s Answer”. We thought we could get more out of this song. I hesitate to say it was insipid… but the mix didn’t enhance it. It always rankled.
CHAPMAN: “The Weaver’s Answer” was just a bit… pissy. We were a good, energetic rock and R&B band, and they thinned it down to make it more radio playable. It wasn’t the way we wanted our music to be presented. It all got thinned out, various riffs got elbowed, they put flutes on things. What the fuck? We don’t do flutes!
COX: My mentor at the time was John Barry, and he suggested a formula that he often used to cut through a lot of racket,
which is to have two flutes and two piccolos playing in thirds and octaves. He said, “That will cut through bombproof steel!” So I took his advice on the instrumentation.
CHAPMAN: Commercially, I suppose you would have to say that they were right.
Family Entertainment was a big album for us all over the shop, and “Weaver” was a big favourite on the album.
TOWNSEND: Some time later the record company wanted to put out a new single. We wanted a song called “Strange Band” as the feature track, but they said, “No, we want ‘The Weaver’s Answer’.” We said, “You can have ‘Weaver’ if we remix it,’ which is what happened. Things were added. Whitney added guitars. We gave it back to the label, and they wanted it as the A-side. We said no, we wanted “Strange Band”. So they decided to put three tracks on the single, including “The Weaver’s Answer”. It came out as a three-track EP, but the media picked up on “The Weaver’s Answer”, it got airplay and went to No 11.
PALMER: I remember we did a Top Of The Pops version, where we recorded a new backing track with an electric flute solo, with a lot of decaying echo on it.
CHAPMAN: It became a standard for Family. People went for it. It became quite a popular piece, sales wise and fan wise. It turned out to be a serious stage number.
CREgAN: When I arrived in the band it was the big hit. I’ve played it as both a guitar player and a bass player, and it’s great fun. On stage, Roger could get really out of his conscious mind on it. He’d be overtaken by the music. He once threw his mic stand off stage and it missed the promoter Bill Graham by a couple of inches. He would destroy a tambourine, just smash it to bits against the mic stand.
TOWNSEND: The song is quite tightly structured, but the soloing is free. Eventually, in concert, Poli was doing vibes on the solo and Whitney put wah-wah all over it. It got wild.
PALMER: There was a lot of Grateful Deadstyle jamming, with lots of long solos. Nowadays, with the advantage of age, we’re probably playing it better than we ever did. More dynamics. It’s not a million miles from how the song started.
CHAPMAN: It’s quite a difficult song for musicians. Everybody has to put their thinking cap on, melodically and with the chords. It’s all quite unusual. You have to seriously be on top of it to keep it grooving.
CREgAN: It’s such a great track – and, typical of Family, it doesn’t belong in any genre at all. It’s its own beast. It doesn’t fit into anybody’s tapestry but our own. Family At The BBC, an eight-disc boxset, is released by Snapper Imprint Madfish in December; Roger Chapman tour dates at: www.Chappo.com; The Blues Band, featuring Rob Townsend, have a new album, When The Rooster Crows; for information on Cregan And Co visit: www.creganandco.com
“It all got thinned out, riffs got elbowed, they put flutes on things…” ROgER CHAPMAN
The original Family lineup: (l-r) bassist Ric Grech, John ‘Charlie’ Whitney, Rob Townsend, Jim King and Roger Chapman, 1968
Overtaken by the music: Roger Chapman at the Brondby Popklub in Copenhagen, 1969