November 11, 2020

If you are one of those people who never filled in the Kossoff-shaped gap in your post-Free collection, this set is absolutely perfect as your all-you-can-eat starter.

When Free finally called it a day in 1973 after a slightly untidy end, most of the attention was focused on Paul Rodgers and Simon Kirke’s founding of Bad Company – and rightly so in many ways, as they were a remarkably good band. Andy Fraser didn’t do a whole lot to stay in the public eye after leaving the slightly underachieving Sharks, but the piece of the puzzle which often gets overlooked is guitar maestro Paul Kossoff. Of course, he tragically succumbed to the effects of his prolonged and severe heroin habit in 1976, but as a result of that untimely demise his public persona has taken on an air of ‘left Free then died young’ about it, and his work in between, albeit brief, gets forgotten. Thankfully, this four-CD release fills in those gaps in the picture and reveals once and for all that Kossoff was far from a spent force after the dissolution of Free.

The origin of the band he assembled, Back Street Crawler, is a slightly confusing one, in that when Free disbanded his first action was to release an album called Back Street Crawler. He clearly liked the title, as when he came to assemble a band soon afterward, he named them Back Street Crawler, creating a situation whereby the self-titled album wasn’t by the band at all. This wasn’t a unique situation (Leslie West released a solo album entitled Mountain before forming, you guessed it, Mountain), but it was and is sufficiently unusual to require regular explanation to perplexed listeners. In any case, that solo album doesn’t get into this collection despite its title, so it will not concern us further here.

The two studio albums

The first disc here contains the debut Back Street Crawler album The Band Plays On, released in October 1975 but recorded earlier in the year. Three of the band, bassist Terry Wilson, keyboard player Mike Montgomery and drummer Tony Braunagel, had already been together in a band with the unfathomable name of Bloontz, and indeed two Montgomery songs on this record are remakes of songs which appeared on the sole Bloontz album, in case anyone has it. Together with this seasoned threesome, vocalist Terry Wilson-Slessor was recruited – much to the further consternation of people who mixed him up with Terry Wilson, to whom he was no relation! In fact, Wilson-Slesser was a real find, as he possessed exactly the smoky, soulful voice that Paul Rodgers so memorably had (and still has), and he imbues the album with a great deal of welcome familiarity in that way. In fact, the musical template is not too dissimilar to the Free mould in general, being largely a loping, bluesy soul-rock hybrid with a fuller instrumental sound and slightly more funk in its mix to differentiate it from that previous band. Good though all of the band are, it is Kossoff here who steals the show from start to climactic finish, as this is an unashamed guitar masterclass. Some, though not all, of the material here is a little lacking on the songwriting front, but Koss single handedly lifts every single track to a whole new level by showering it with exquisite aural fairydust. Even though at times it could be said to be almost one long guitar solo, it never seems to be overplayed, as Kossoff’s particular genius was always to play just what sounded right, and leave spaces where necessary. As an example, New York New York (no, not that one, before you ask!) is something of a leaden rocker as the band churn it out unexcitingly, but as Koss works his magic, you realise by about halfway through the song that it is, against all its limitations, sounding quite magnificent. Obvious highlights are live favourite It’s A Long Way Down To The Top and the brilliant closing title track, but this is just great stuff throughout. If I wanted to play one record to someone to illustrate the genius of Paul Kossoff, it might just be this one. And that is high, high praise.

The box unpacked

A few months later, in April 1976, a follow-up appeared called 2nd Street (quite a clever name in itself), but by the time it came out, Kossoff was no longer with us, having passed away on a flight back to the UK following some US gigs, and the album was dedicated to him. Mike Montgomery was also gone, to be replaced on keyboards by John ‘Rabbit’ Bundrick, which changed the feel of the album somewhat, given that Montgomery had been the most prolific writer on the debut. What affected it more seriously, however, was that, owing to failing health caused by his substance demons which led to a UK tour cancellation in Autumn 1975, Kossoff was unable to take part in the studio sessions for the album. Session player ‘Snuffy’ Walden played the basic guitar parts (uncredited), with Kossoff playing lead over the top of the recordings when his condition improved. Make no mistake, he still manages to turn in a superb performance here, and in truth you can hardly see the join, but he doesn’t quite command the album in the same way as his magisterial work on the debut. The record is a little looser and funkier, but doesn’t stray too far from home base, and this time out Wilson-Slesser’s vocals are a real highlight. Wringing marvellous soulful emotion and depth from his voice, the Paul Rodgers influence is still strongly there, but on one or two tracks he also manages to evoke the spirit of prime early-period Rod Stewart, which is never a bad thing. He was becoming a real ‘find’ at the mic at this time. The standout piece here is the wistful and, given the circumstances, quite heart-rending closer Leaves In The Wind, surely placed at the end as a sort of farewell to Kossoff, as it seems to conjure up the sadness of him departing. It’s a wonderful moment.

The Final Performance, Disc Four

In addition to these two excellent albums, we also get two live discs here. The first is a show recorded at Croydon Fairfield Hall in June 1975 (a full four months before the album’s release), and shows the band to have been a tremendous proposition in the live environment. The opening version of The Band Plays On cracks and sparkles with energy and magic even more than the studio take, and there is barely a duff track among the fourteen included here, which include a version of Free out-take Molten Gold (which appeared on Kossoff’s solo album), the Free live stormer The Hunter and a fine dynamic final encore called Bird Song Blues. Nine out of the ten songs on the first album are included, as well as some which were never released in studio form, including a neat composition called Sidekick To The Stars. The show has been released on CD previously on occasion, but never as a major label release, and isn’t easy to find, so this is a real prize. Despite the occasional issue, which has been suggested in some quarters as being due to a faulty stage monitor, Kossoff is in superb form throughout most of this disc, and with perfectly acceptable sound for a vintage recording not intended for official release at the time, this is an essential document.

The final disc here is far less sonically perfect, but in this case that is far from the point, as what is preserved here is seven tracks from Paul Kossoff’s very last public performance, in Los Angeles on 3 March 1976. Never before released, the show was recorded by an audience member, and is here issued for almost unbearably poignant posterity. Despite the undeniably bootleg-quality sound, Kossoff can be heard giving an excellent performance, despite only recently having come back from missing a string of shows where Walden had to fill in. It only points to what might have been, and is arguably even more sad as we can hear that, far from being a spent force, Kossoff’s muse was still strong up to the end. There is a marvellously unexpected version of the Free deep-cut Common Mortal Man, and the opening track is the opener from the first album Who Do Woman, which oddly was the only one omitted from the Croydon set. Four more out-takes, including two unreleased songs, round out the set.

If you are one of those people who never filled in the Kossoff-shaped gap in your post-Free collection, this set is absolutely perfect as your all-you-can-eat starter. If you’re a fan and have the two studio albums, this is similarly essential for the quality (Croydon) and significance (LA) of the live recordings. The band did indeed play on, recording a couple more albums under the abbreviated name Crawler, which are themselves worthy of investigation as long-time Procol Harum guitarist Geoff Whitehorn did a sterling job in the thankless role of replacing Koss, but really, this box is where the true magic lives. Paul Kossoff’s name might not carry the mainstream recognition of other rock and roll casualties such as Hendrix, Tommy Bolin, or even Rory Gallagher, but the material here proves that he could hold his own toe-to-toe with any of them. A double-sided poster here collates a host of press cuttings from the time which put the work in the contemporary frame in a quite fascinating way.

This is a fine memorial.