Back Door – bless their old boots /1

Colin Hodgkinson tells the story of one of the UK's most creative grassroots jazz-rock bands, as well as delivering first-hand insights into the British popular music scene of the 1960s. Part 1

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Colin Hodgkinson

When Back Door released their self-titled debut in 1972 they caused something of a media frenzy in the UK, a not insignificant achievement when jazz-rock combos such as Return To Forever, Weather Report and the Mahavishnu Orchestra were hogging all the headlines.

As a three-piece consisting of Ron Aspery (alto and soprano saxes and flute); Colin Hodgkinson (bass guitar and vocals) and Tony Hicks (drums) they were an uncommon breed, producing an entirely unique sound with Hodgkinson frequently utilising the bass as a lead instrument in a manner that no musician had previously ventured to attempt.

“I had been playing live in bands from the age of fourteen”, Colin told Jazz Journal when recently interviewed. “Duane Eddy got me hooked on bass with the likes of Rebel Rouser and Shazam. I heard a guy called Rex Gates play Rebel Rouser; he’d been right in at the beginning of the British scene and had played for Marty Wilde and Emile Ford amongst others. We became good friends in the early 60s and he switched to drums and we played together in my first pro band in ’66, and we still keep in touch.

“But Charlie Mingus, Red Mitchell and Ray Brown were the bass players who really inspired me and influenced me early on. For Ron it was Charlie Mariano, and as with every sax player from then until now Charlie Parker played a huge influence.”

When he turned 16, Hodgkinson bought himself a left-handed Fender Precision Bass, and still plays the same instrument to this day. “I bought my Fender on HP. I was working in a foundry at the time and was playing two or three gigs a week so it took me a while to pay for it. Lefties were only made to order then and cost 15% extra, plus I waited three months for it!”

Hodgkinson and Aspery first met in the latter half of the 60s when they began playing regularly at the Starlite Club in the seaside resort of Redcar in North Yorkshire. It was a gruelling proving ground, working nine till two for six nights a week, but did much to hone their talents and broaden their musical inclinations.

“I’d played chords and solos on bass from early on, but now had to play chords, bass line and melody too, because we didn’t have a keyboard player or guitarist, so necessity was the mother of invention

“Early in the 60s, the British bands I was into were the ones playing American R & B, blues and mainly jazz – Georgie Fame, Alexis Korner, Graham Bond, Zoot Money etc.”

In 1969, as members of Eric Delaney’s Showband, the pair landed a 16-week summer season at the Winter Gardens in Bournemouth. In between shows they would creep into the theatre in the afternoons and jam as a duo; taping the sessions on Ron’s ancient Grundig reel-to-reel. From these sessions they began to assemble a few tunes that would crucially form the template for the Back Door sound.

At the end of the stint with Delaney, they made their way to London where they found work in a Mecca ballroom at night which allowed Aspery to pick up session work during the day. Hodgkinson was invited to join Alexis Korner’s New Church and soon found himself touring Europe with a line-up that included Ray Warleigh and singer Annette Brox. Korner, by now already regarded as the “elder statesman” of British blues, did much to nurture the talent of his musicians including Hodgkinson whom he encouraged to begin taking solos. “Alexis announced that I would play a solo the first time I ever played with him in Vienna. I’d been messing around with Johnsons’s 32-20 Blues so did that. I was nervous but I got a positive reaction.”

On completion of the tour Korner decided to dissolve New Church when he and another member, Danish guitarist and singer Peter Thorup (formerly a leading light with The Beefeaters, one of Denmark’s premier blues-rock bands) opted to enlist with the all too short-lived Collective Consciousness Society. An alternating ensemble comprised mainly of session musicians, CCS enjoyed several hit singles and scored a top-five hit with the brass-led Tap Turns On The Water.

While Hodgkinson must have been tempted to join them, he and Aspery were determined to form their own group so decided to return to Redcar where they secured a regular slot at a nightclub allowing them to rehearse their own material during the day. “We played typical night-club music – quiet stuff for the diners and upbeat stuff for the dancers and also backed whoever was the cabaret act for the week.”

It was while playing at the nightclub that they met landlord and former bassist Brian Jones. Evidently impressed with what he heard he offered the duo a residency at the Lion Inn upon Blakey Ridge on the North York Moors. To complete the line-up the pair decided they needed a drummer and after several auditions finally settled on Tony Hicks who had just returned from Australia. His economical style blessed with a light touch perfectly complemented the two lead instruments, and, taking their name from one of their earlier compositions the three-piece wasted no time in securing their tenancy as the must-see house band at the Lion Inn.

You’d be hard pressed to find a more remote spot than the 16th century Lion Inn, Kirbymoorside; isolated upon a bleak outcrop overlooking Rosedale and Farndale. “We had more sheep than people”, Hodgkinson once quipped when recalling the few punters who braved the elements to turn up for their preliminary gigs, but word soon got around and people began to take the band seriously and it wasn’t long before they built up a loyal following.

Local enthusiasm spread by word of mouth prompted them to record a number of demo tapes which they sent out to all the major labels whom they presumed to be au fait with the lingo, but received the standard unadventurous response: “No guitarist, no lead singer, no organ, get outta here!” 

Such curt rejection only strengthened their resolve to record an album. “Every major label turned us down so we recorded an album on a four-track Ampex console in eight hours and mixed it in three!” A local reporter from Middleborough penned the liner notes and arranged a photo shoot and Brian Jones undertook to release the album on his own Blakey imprint. They were soon selling copies at gigs, and in the pub and in local record stores who readily agreed to promote the band.

“The sound was largely due to the instrumentation of sax, bass and drums”, avers Hodgkinson. “I’d played chords and solos on bass from early on, but now had to play chords, bass line and melody too, because we didn’t have a keyboard player or guitarist, so necessity was the mother of invention. I used a lot of top and played with a pick or fingerstyle.”

See part two and part three of this article.