Review – Back Street Crawler – The Atlantic Years 1975-1976 – by John Wenlock-Smith

This set has been a long time in coming, especially if you consider that the main attraction of Back Street Crawler, namely one Paul Kossoff, died way back in 1976 (some forty four years ago). This compilation collects all the recordings the band made for the Atlantic label over a brief two year period. Kossoff was, of course, the guitarist in seminal British rock band Free and his fluid, soulful guitar fuelled the albums they made for the Island label.

Included in this retrospective are the ‘The Band Plays On’ (1975), ‘2ND Street’ (1976) and the ‘Live at Fairfield Hall, Croydon’ set from shows recorded in 1975 that were released after Paul’s death in 1976. The fourth disc is from Paul’s final show on 3rd March 1976 at the Starwood Club, Los Angeles, although this is an illicit (bootleg) recording along with studio outtakes and two unreleased tracks.

Paul was a not only a great talent, he was also a troubled soul, gentle at times and fiery at others. His lack of height and his red hair made him more volatile than others. The fact that he was also a drug addict made him unpredictable and unreliable but he was also in poor health as a result of his addictions. Back Street Crawler was his attempt to regain what he’d lost since the demise of Free in 1973. After Free parted company he made a solo album that Back Street Crawler was named after, he’d also been a part of the Kossoff, Tetsu, Kirke and Rabbit project (also in 1973) that had released one self-titled album on the Island label. 

Back Street Crawler were a five piece band featuring Kossoff on guitars and Terry WilsonSlesser (ex Beckett) on vocals, Mike Montgomery (keyboards), Terry Wilson (bass) and Tony Braunagel (drums), releasing their debut album, ‘The Band Plays On’ in 1975. The debut is actually rather good in parts, it certainly has Paul playing well, even if the material is generally not really very strong or as good as it could be.

There are some sparks on songs like It’s A Long Way Down To The Top and The Band Plays On, to name just two. Singer Terry Wilson-Slesser is a strong and versatile vocalist who gives his all on this album, the generally broody music allows Paul’s guitar to shine through and he plays lots of his trademark solo’s wailing suitably over strong backing from his bandmates. The album would be considered short now but was of its time. One thing this album does have is some great piano for Paul to play off, especially on the funkier tracks like Stealing My Way, which sounds like it could be a lost Free track as it has their bluesy swagger to it. 

Disc 2 contains the album ‘2ND Street’, issued in 1976. However, Paul had been unwell and was only featured on certain tracks. These were a far better representation and vehicle for his unique talent kicking off in good form with the track Selfish Lover on which Paul’s incisive guitar slices through, sounding typically startling and oozing with emotion.

I’m writing this review in the week that that other great British Blues talent Peter Green has left us. In his own way Paul Kossoff was equally as stunning, when Koss played people listened, his tone and his playing were all about making each note speak. This was a talent that was very different to others. Why play 100 fast notes when one well placed note can say it all? that was his gift to music.

Blue Soul is another of his tracks, again he soars on this one. Sweet, Sweet Beauty is another excellent track, as is Some Kind Of Happy.  This album is a far mellower proposition than the harder edged debut and it has its own charm because of that fact, it certainly acts as a graceful tribute to the genius that was Paul Kossoff. This is an album of songs that act as a tribute to a man and fallen friend whose days were numbered and would sadly end before the album was even released.

Whilst ‘2ND Street’ marked he end of Paul Kossoff’s recording career and he may have gone, his legend and his skill remained. His presence was still there in the influence he has been on many contemporary guitarists, many citing him as such, or a hero even. However, there was more to come because recordings had captured Kossoff in fine form at Fairfield Hall in June of the previous year (this is presented here on disc 3).

The live albums here are very interesting, especially Fairfield Hall as it was recorded on one of Pauls better nights where his playing is hot, fiery and exciting, bringing the songs from the debut to life onstage. He also adds covers of Free’s The Hunter and his own Molten Gold. This live disc features all ten tracks from ‘The Band Plays On’ but here they are imbued with the power of a live performance. Obviously touring had consolidated the group significantly and these live versions are vibrant and vital, bristling with an energy that the studio versions somehow seemed to lack.

The sound is clear and full well mixed and captured in full flow, it’s a great joy to hear this show all these years later, one weeps for the loss of Kossoff. Standout tracks also include It’s a Long Way Down To The Top and The Band Played On, where Koss is all over the song, adding frills and stepping out to take some incendiary solos. This is everything the debut wasn’t as a studio release and validates the bands existence. I sadly missed the chance to see this tour at Birmingham Town Hall and I really wish I had made the effort I think I Missed something special, ah the folly of youth eh?.

Disc 4 is also of interest as it contains Paul’s last ever performance at the Starwood Club in Los Angeles. This being a bootleg tape the quality is fairly raw and rough sounding but its certainly listenable and featuring Free’s Common Mortal Man is a nice touch. Opening Who Do Women is a good entrance but the sonic limitations of the recording dilute the power of the performance. Although you can hears Koss’s guitar clearly, the rhythm section sound a bit muffled and clipped. The swagger of Stealing My Way is next and you cant believe that you are hearing such a historical and monumental performance. Sadly Paul would pass away on an airplane between Los Angeles and New York from a pulmonary embolism just 15 days later, the legend was gone but, as this set clearly attests, his talent would live on forever.     

I’ve not seen the finished box set of these discs yet but, in any event, these reissues by Cherry Red/ Esoteric bring to life again that tragically short period of Back Street Crawler featuring Paul Kossoff and the final period of his life. Back Street Crawler continued with Geoff Whitehorn replacing Kossoff and released 2 further albums for Columbia, namely ‘Crawler’ and ‘Snake, Rattle and Roll’. After the band split in the late 1970’s, Whitehorn joined Procol Harum where he remains to this day.  

Released 16th June 2020

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