Back Street Crawler – Atlantic Years 1975-1976
Released 28 August 2020
4CD set comprising two studio albums and two live sets by the ill-fated Paul Kossoff’s post-Free hard rock band Back Street Crawler, including his very last on stage performance on 3rd March 1976 at the Starwood Club in Los Angeles….LTW’s Ian Canty hears the beat of the street….
In the time between 1968 and 1973, the band Free managed to claw their way into being arguably the top hard rock band in the UK. A potent live force, they also scored big hit singles with My Brother Jake, Wishing Well and of course All Right Now, the song they are most remembered for. All good things have to come to an end and after the Heartbreaker album, Free went their separate ways, having taken a hiatus prior to that in 1971.
Talented guitarist Paul Kossoff played a large part in Free’s success, his solid riffing and fluid solos vital to the band’s impact. The son of BAFTA-winning actor David Kossoff, he took to the guitar at an early age and worked his way through the 1960s blues scene, joining the Black Cat Bones band where he played alongside drummer Simon Kirke. In the spring of 1968 the pair joined up with singer Paul Rodgers and bassist Andy Fraser in the original Free line up. After a stuttering start, years of success followed when the band really kicked into gear on third LP Fire And Water. So when they split for good in 1973, fans were eager to know what Kossoff would do next.
Paul had been a drug user since early adolescence and the final stages of Free’s career this had a negative impact on his playing, making live gigs sometimes a trial. When Free temporarily split in 1971, part of the impetus to get back together was to help him through his drug addiction. During Free’s 71/72 downtime, Kossoff played on the album Kossoff Kirke Tetsu Rabbit. All of these would play on the final Free LP, with keyboardist John “Rabbit” Bundrick also joining Kossoff’s next band project, Back Street Crawler, for their second album.
The name was arrived at as a result of Kossoff’s sole solo LP. Put together with his ex-Free bandmates and Alan White (Yes) and Trevor Burton formerly of the Move amongst others, Back Street Crawler the album wasn’t a huge success but did offer Paul a route back and the decent critical reaction to it helped lead to the new band. In what must have been confusing at times, the band featured two Terry Wilsons, with singer Terry Wilson-Slesser fortunately having having a suffix to differentiate between him and the American bass player.
Keyboardist Mike Montgomery was pivotal for the band early on, also being the chief writer of their material. Along with Wilson and drummer Tony Braunagel, he had featured previously in the band Bloontz. Back Street Crawler included two of their songs Jason Blue and It’s A Long Way Down To The Top on their first LP. Kossoff’s misadventures were still taking up a lot of space in the weekly music papers, meaning that Back Street Crawler’s music tended to be overlooked in favour of his rock & roll hijinks. Which is a shame, as we will find out below.
Back Street Crawler’s debut album The Band Played On is a convincing document the band’s talents put to good use. The lyrics are on the whole standard mid-70s rock fodder, but the music is super. Garnished with a subtly deployed but hefty dose of keyboards, Back Street Crawler use both power and taste in their efforts on this recording and man it’s funky too. A summery soul organ sound welcomes us into the opening song Who Do Woman and The Band Played On LP. As the album goes on, the keys are featured strongly throughout and though the good-time feel could lead to comparisons with the Faces, generally BSC manage to imbue what they did with a good shot of their own personality.
It soon becomes apparent that it was a bit daft that Crawler never released a single, as they had a raft of catchy numbers on here that could have broken the band through. I suppose it was more credible to be an “album band” at the time, in the Led Zeppelin mode. Even so the fast funk punch of Rock & Roll Junkie has a great big chorus that surely would have given them a chance of the charts (despite the song’s title and subject matter being a bit “on the nose” with regards to Kossoff’s predicament) and the hard rock punch of New York, New York (not the Sinatra song) is full of infectious fire.
Perhaps the best item is It’s A Long Way Down To The Top, a highpoint of their live set. Starting off relatively sparse with guitar, piano and voice (there’s no doubt Wilson-Slesser was a very capable singer), this piece elegantly balances the sensitivity, emotion and raw musicality of the band. The story of the pitfalls of rock & roll, though not being penned by Kossoff himself (he only co-wrote bluesy Stealing My Way with Montgomery), it could have been about him. Finishing with the grandstanding title track, The Band Plays On is a promising debut record that marries tunes, power and taste.
The second and final Back Street Crawler album 2nd Street doesn’t quite live up to the debut, but given the circumstances that it was created in, that is no real shock. Montgomery had quit and had been replaced by Kossoff’s old Free pal Rabbit Bundrick on keyboards and some writing duties too. Terry Wilson stepped up in the songsmith stakes as well, giving a different emphasis to this record. More seriously, Paul’s addiction problems had accelerated to such an alarming degree he couldn’t contribute to the album sessions, later playing over the top of the band’s tapes they had completed with W. G. Snuffy Walden filling in on guitar. The band also had to perform live gigs without Kossoff during this time on occasion, with Walden again substituting.
The piecemeal production of this collection didn’t help its overall impact, but on the plus side probably made for an easier recording process and perhaps a more consistent record. The horn parts that had done so much to help the band stand out from the herd had been dropped for this LP and to be honest Montgomery’s tunes are missed. Despite all this, there is enough to enjoy here for hard rock buffs. Stop Doing What You’re Doing is what BSC did best, a very jolly funk rocker which rolls with a catchy and knotty sound. It also picks its moment for full-on guitar attacks with admirable stealth. Sweet, Sweet Beauty starts off as prog folk before piling into the blues and the quite subtle On Your Life is an organ-enhanced charmer. There’s nothing really awful on this album, but 2nd Street just didn’t have the freshness of their debut for me.
The first live selection is on disc three, where we get a show at the Fairfield Halls Croydon from 15th June 1976. This set has decent sound quality, with the keyboards sometimes a little low in the mix and the odd dodgy moment. Most of the first LP gets an outing and the soulful Molton Gold from Kossoff’s solo album turns up too, with Booker T And The MGs’ The Hunter (also covered by Free) also featuring towards the end of the set. The band, after a slightly iffy start and with Kossoff occasionally wandering out of tune, recover well to sound like a bundle of pent-up goodtime energy.
There is ample time made available to stretch out and they generally do so in a cool but intense manner, though something is lost with the keyboards going in and out of audibility. That said, Train Song is full of sharp guitar work, a real tough-nut rocker in this guise and Survivor has a freewheeling charm and nimble playing that just about pips the studio version. Jason Blues teases out its soul elements nicely with some great brass and the unrecorded r&b riffing We Won and Bird Song Blues bring things to a thrilling finale. All things considered this is a good document of Back Street Crawler’s live power at their best, on a good night they were fully adept in sparking up some true hard rock mayhem.
The second live offering is the self-explanatory Final Performance, with unreleased four bonus tracks tagged on at the end. The sound here is ok, if not quite up to the last disc’s quality. So near to his sad decline Kossoff is in blistering form and the band hot and heavy. The most interesting tracks are the late-period Free number Common Mortal Man which even has a bit of the Doors in its lengthy keyboard intervals, the prog pop nugget Cheat On Me and Kossoff’s own Just For The Box. This disc ends with two relatively unadorned versions of Jason Blue and It’s A Long Way Down To The Top, plus unreleased tracks Evening Time and an underdeveloped She’s Gone. The former is an okay street rock/boogie sound, but the latter has a laid-back cool which could have been worked into something special.
After Kossoff’s death the band carried on as Crawler, bringing in Geoff Whitehorn on guitar. They lasted until 1979 and had some success in America, a place more receptive to hard rock at the time. Back Street Crawler themselves only lasted a couple of years and didn’t quite make the impact they deserved. They certainly had all the tools to succeed in the same way Free did, but changing times and their leader’s troubling circumstances stymied their progress. The first album in particular sums up everything that was good about the band.
The one thing about this set is that it is missing a history of the band – yes their lifespan may have been short, but a bit of background information wouldn’t have gone amiss. Slightly filling the gap is a poster with various articles about the band from the music press of the day (the older folk amongst us – reading glasses on!). Other than that this box has most everything you could wish for from Back Street Crawler. Their song words may have been pretty much filled with the standard posturing of the day, but they were a band with some neat musical ideas that injected new energy into the hard rock format. Sadly their potential was not to be fully realised due to Kossoff’s decline, but there’s a great deal on their two studio albums to enthuse about and the live sets find them truly in their element. Atlantic Years 1975-1976 is an accessible introduction to the band, with the bonus tracks and live sets tempting for the confirmed fan too.
All words by Ian Canty – see his author profile here