Revisiting A Classic
The cover featured snow, sheep and three hairy blokes grinning and freezing in the doorway of a pub. The whole album lasted about 30 minutes and was done over a couple of days, probably in one take. Yes, the stuff of legend. A true classic.
Back Door emerged in 1973 to rapturous journalese from NME and Melody Maker among others. Reviewers threatened blood lettings if they weren't allowed to write about it. Some even offered to pay hard cash for it. So what did this trio have that was worth all the hyperbolics, not to mention superlatives?
For a start they were a sax, bass and drum outfit . The saxophonist, Ron Aspery, could play all manner of them as well as flute though on this album he stuck to alto, soprano and flute. Bassist, Colin Hodgkinson, had a fondness for adapting Robert Johnson songs for bass and voice, though none appeared on this album. He was more than a bass player and maybe that's one of the reasons Back Door were unusual. There was no lead guitar, Hodgkinson took care of that role too. And this was an era of the 'extended' solo when histrionics with wah wah pedals were de rigeur . Drummer, Tony Hicks was an equal voice in this three way traffic. He wasn't tempted to do 'Toad' or spend 20 minutes tapping around the extremities of his kit while the audience flocked to the bar. Or fled the hall completely.
They played short pieces, like the opening track 'Vienna Breakdown' with its briefly stated theme and Aspery taking off on a lithe, slippery and inventive solo as Hodgkinson strummed and bent the strings of his fender bass. It was all over before you could draw breath in amazement. They slowed down and became almost pastoral on 'Plantagenet' with cool flute counterpointed by melodic bass lines. Hodgkinson played chords too, something quite revolutionary in the rock'n'roll world then.
After their hectic unison romp through the raw-edged 'Lieutenant Loose' they played one of most yearning blues I've ever heard before or since. 'Asking The Way' shifts easily from a cool, searching sax theme into a grainy bass/sax motif and back again. Simple but effective, as the blues should be. Aspery opens and closes 'Turning Point' with compact solos and manages to cram in more blues, Ornette-like licks and a few other unclassifiable riffs. Hodkinson gets a solo too on the stately 'Catcote Rag', a model of restraint with single lines and chords combining to produce a small masterpiece. 'Back Door' which closes the album has Aspery honking like a demented goose while his partners set up an elastic groove. A joyful noise indeed.
This unassuming virtuosity pervades all 12 tracks and in the heyday of prog. rock it is easy to see how most record companies showed them the door with cries of 'no commercial appeal'. Having consummate faith in their own music they recorded it themselves and it came out in a private edition on the Blakey label, being sold with pints over the bar of the Lion Inn at Blakey Ridge on the Yorkshire Moors. Hence the frozen images on the album's cover. Later, Warner Bros saw sense, or dollars signs, and took it on.
They made other albums but only the follow-up '8th Street Nites' retains some of their raw, gritty edge. Produced by Felix Pappalardi in New York, it's a far cry from the Yorkshire Moors and somewhat smoother than the debut, as you might expect. Both albums are now available again on cd though, significantly, none of the subsequent ones are. Each one is worth a listen and the debut will definitely refresh jaded ears, I promise.
© Paul Donnelly 2001