Back Door – bless their old boots /3

In part three, bassist Colin Hodgkinson and Lin Bensley guide us through the later years and recordings of Redcar's singular jazz-rock trio

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The last Back Door gig with the original line-up, at the Lion Inn in 2003. Photo by Andy Johnson

Feeling a need to expand their sound for their next album, Another Fine Mess (Warner, 1975) Back Door were joined in the studio by keyboardist Dave MacRae and guitarist Bernie Holland. Previously a member of those punning phunsters Matching Mole, MacRae was working with Ian Carr’s Nucleus when introduced to the band via Hicks, with whom he had worked in Australia. “Dave brought some new colours to the band. We played the Montreux Jazz Festival with him later in the year and went down a storm.”

Hodgkinson’s former New Church bandmate, Peter Thorup, agreed to produce the album and a good time was guaranteed for all. “He was a very competent producer and a very good friend and some of my favourite Back Door tunes are on that album.”

Indeed, from the outset the band are firing on all six as they motor through the upbeat I’m Gonna Stay A Long, Long Time which benefits from MacRae’s harmonious accompaniment. They continue to cruise with Blakey Jones (their musical tribute to the ever dependable Brian J.), Candles Round My Hat and Streamline Guitar as well the meditative tones of Detroit Blues, enhanced by Mike Gibbs sensitive string arrangement. Then there’s the hot-five hoedown of Manager’s Shirt, replete with scat vocals courtesy of Thorup, before they close with their hairy-haggis take on the traditional Scottish reel, The Dashing White Sergeant.

After the release of Another Fine Mess, the band went on an extensive promotional tour. “We toured for three months supporting ELP, six weeks in Europe and then on to the USA. That’s how I first met and befriended Carl Palmer and came to play on his solo pieces for ELP’s Works album. Sadly, although we continued to get excellent reviews from the critics and enthusiastic audiences it didn’t translate into album sales so we decided to hire a harder-hitting drummer and go back to the trio format for Activate. To be honest this is my least favourite album; we’d got away from the original concept somehow and for me there’s too much going on, but some of the songs turned out really well. There are some good moments as with You Got Evil and Train Won’t Blow, especially the 5/4 section which grooves along and I love Ron’s playing on that track.”

Adrian Tilbrook had replaced Hicks while Carl Palmer took over production duties. To decry the album might be tantamount to treason, but it is generally unsatisfactory. It belatedly picks up pace with Eliminate and Speedwalker though they do sound on occasion to be straying too far into Brand X and National Health territory. Perhaps the blues-drenched swansong Cryin’ Inside says it all.

The band continued to tour the university circuit and played several festivals such as Reading in 1976 where they rubbed shoulders with other cross-over bands including Jon Hiseman’s Colosseum and Osibisa and remained a popular live act. But when Activate failed to do business Warner’s chose not to renew their contract. “Again, sales were disappointing and later that year we decided to call it a day.”

‘I played on and off with Alexis in various bands, and we often appeared as a duo until his death in ’84. He taught me so much about life as music and I still miss him even now’

Aspery returned to session work, while Hodgkinson hired out his services to the likes of Cozy Powell, Jan Hammer, Whitesnake, Mick Jagger, Pete York and the Spencer Davis Group to name but a small fraction of his clientele, while also continuing to play regularly with Korner. “I played on and off with Alexis in various bands, and we often appeared as a duo until his death in ’84. He taught me so much about life as music and I still miss him even now.”

The original Back Door line-up reunited in 1986 for a night at Ronnie Scott’s, followed by a short UK tour. In 2003 they reunited again, and with the aid of the Cultural Foundation recorded a new album entitled Askin’ The Way, which featured reworkings of six old songs and 13 new recordings.

It soon becomes apparent to the listener that the essential doctrine of jubilant abandon remains at the core of their music-making. The interplay between Aspery and Hodgkinson still embodies all the frolicsome nature of a Tom And Jerry chase, their complex exchanges sounding so effortless yet energising. In many ways this album not only equals their debut 30 years previously, but on occasion surpasses it – a truly wondrous achievement.

“We released the album later that year and played a couple of nights at Blakey Ridge where we first started out in 1970. It was great to see so many friends from those times and play that material again. We wanted to tour, but Ron was not in the best of health.” Sadly, Ron Aspery died from a stroke a few months later, aged 57.

“I thought that was the end of the band but Tony had played with a saxophonist from the North-East who was a fan of the band and said he knew all the tunes! I didn’t believe it but he came to my house and he did know all the tunes. He was Rod Mason, a really big guy nicknamed ‘The Room Darkener’. We played some shows and then Tony returned to Australia, his home for quite a few years.”

Hicks had been planning to return to England at some stage to record another album but while preparing to go on stage he suffered a brain haemorrhage and died, aged 58.

“I’d written quite a lot of stuff with Rod for the band and wanted to keep the spirit of Back Door alive so asked my old friend Paul Robinson to join us on drums. He had been working with Nina Simone for past 15 years. It was a great combination, and as the Colin Hodgkinson Band we recorded an album in a day and called it Back Door Too. We played a few shows, but gigs were hard to come by at that time.”

Hodgkinson is still playing and is currently a member of Ten Years After, having joined the band in 2014 together with lead guitarist Marcus Bonfanti. “I have much fun with Marcus playing ragtime – we’re both into that, so the learning never stops!”

There may never be another three-piece quite like Hodgkinson, Aspery and Hicks. Never forget Colin, Ron and Tony. And remember them always as Back Door.

“What really defined my style was Back Door, because with no lead instrument I had to play chords and lead lines out of necessity. I never set out to be different, it was just a natural progression.”

Many thanks to Colin Hodkinson for his time and patience.

See part one and part two of this article.