Catching Up With The Past
In the last few days I've been catching up with the past again, or letting it catch up with me. My listening past, that is. As ever, some things still sound fresh and it's easy to hear what attracted you to them in the first place and why you raved about them to the indifferent faces of friends.
Back in the 1970s Back Door were the band least likely to enjoy huge commercial success. Bass, sax and drums ? Bassist, Colin Hodgkinson's paraphrase of the record companies response says it all ; 'No guitarist, no lead singer, no organ, get outta here'. Too late for the blues boom and too bluesy for the prog rockers they didn't fit neatly anywhere. They didn't make a concept album, dress up or appear terribly photogenic either. Of course, they did have a sizeable critical following. But when was that likely to pay the bills. So they made two excellent albums mixing Ron Aspery's wiry saxes and Hodgkinson's clanking bass on a range of material including idiosyncratic blues covers and their own compositions. Then having produced another couple of vinyl turkeys they split.
Now, a bunch of BBC sessions from 1973/4 have been unearthed. They cover their early trio sessions for Bob Harris and a John Peel show when electric pianist Dave MacRae was added to the line-up. Part of me wanted them to remain faithful to that sparse gutsy sound that made their first album so refreshing. But, of course, change is inevitable and the addition of a fourth member wasn't wholly detrimental. They were probably drawn towards a jazz rock dalliance as a means of making a few quid. Who knows ? Whatever, these 14 tracks document some of their best 'live' moments and there are some previously unavailable tracks as a bonus.
Their raw 'live' sound is most apparent on old favourites like 'Vienna Breakdown' and 'Blue Country Blues'. Hodgkinson's solo bass feature, 'Captain Crack Up' is equally lo-fi and greasy. The relatively basic recording facilities of the time suited their sound. After all, their staple was the blues, particularly the sort produced by Robert Johnson. Although Hodgkinson was no great blues singer he does justice to the Johnson songs here.
However, the five tracks recorded by the quartet offer a different view of them. 'Slivadiv', a tight little gem from the first album contains some of MacRae's assaults on the electric piano, complete with over the top fuzzbox. Rather than screw up what was always an excellent track it gives it an edgier, fiercer attack . Aspery still gets a chance to wail. 'The Spoiler' and 'Blakey Jones' veer further towards jazz rock terrain, again, as defined by MacRae in particular. The latter track even has one of those convoluted themes beloved by jazz rockers as well as a bit of fretless bass. But the music remains spiky, never lazy or plodding, as much of the genre did when soloists ran out of steam. One of the strengths of Back Door was their ability to rein in the solos. Just like some of the best of early Charlie Parker tunes, these tracks are never more than 4 or 5 minutes long. I can recall certain drummers spending that long on a cymbal solo. To close the album they've chosen their 'novelty' single, 'The Dashing White Sargeant'. It was a crap but harmless diversion then and still is but 13 out of 14 isn't bad, is it ?
I was never that keen on Matching Mole's studio output in their brief heyday but 'Smoke Signals', the 2001 'live' archive release was a revelation. I mean it didn't sound dated despite its 1972 vintage. Far from it. The music sounded fresh and bristled with electricity. 'March' is another set of unearthed 'live' material from the same year and is less essential. It doesn't have the invention of the previous set and even a great player like guitarist Phil Miller sounds a bit tired and uninspired in places. Bill MacCormick's bass provides an endless loop under 'Instant Pussy' while Wyatt improvises a vocal some way below his best. The whole track sounds limp. Similarly, 'Smoke Signals' doesn't ever seem to gather momentum and, again, Miller's normally incisive guitar appears to splutter, losing all its usual fluidity. Tracks continue in this vein, vaguely directionless, occasionally erupting into some semblance of the fire they could produce. Miller's 'Part Of The Dance' does this, at least his and Wyatt's contributions liven up the piece and compensate for the pedestrian bass playing that deadens much of the track.
There are two oddities here too, Kevin Ayers' 'No 'alf Measures', a vehicle for more of Wyatt's wordless vocalising and a bit of noodling from MacCrae. Then there is an old Caravan number, 'Waterloo Lily' minus the words, for some reason. It's spiky turns and twists are mildly interesting but it sounds like a filler to me.
So it didn't exactly fill me with a desire to go back to seek out the original Matching Mole albums. But, in the case of Back Door I already have and if you can get hold of their eponymous first and the second '8th Street Nites' you'll see how totally unfashionable but entirely vital they were - and still are.
© 2002 Paul Donnelly