Just one of the problems Back Street Crawler have had to contend with since the death of Paul Kossoff. Terry Slesser explains.
WHEN THE plane bringing Back Street Crawler from LA to NYC touched down at Kennedy on March 18, lead guitarist and leader of the group Paul Kossoff was found dead in his seat.
What happens to a band when their most famous member drops dead?
After the initial press interest and sympathy comes the harsh reality of deciding whether to pack it in or carry on. Both ways involve virtually starting from scratch musically – finding a replacement, rehearsing, and building a following for the new line-up.
What does remain from the past are the legal contracts. Atlantic records paid a lot of money for BSC because Kossoff was in it. Now he’s gone they want to renegotiate, and this, coupled with all the other pressures has put the group under enormous strain.
When I interviewed Terry Wilson Slesser recently I asked him one question – and he talked solidly until my cassette recorder automatically stopped at the end of the tape. He had a lot on his chest and wanted to tell someone about it:
“Right from the day Paul died we have felt that a guillotine came down, communications-wise, from our record company. When we did get round to meeting people about what we were gonna do with our future, after we’d got out guitarist together and everything… I think that because it wasn’t a big superstar like Mick Taylor everybody thought, ‘Uh Uh…’
“We have got to see solicitors to find out exactly where we stand…lawyers, and accountants to check exactly what the situation is regarding monies earned in the past, and negotiate with new record companies…
“In the mean time we are penniless. We haven’t had a penny since we got back from America…”
And to make matters just that bit more difficult, BSC’s roadies left them.
Baz, one of the most famous roadies in town, originally with The Nice, has been helping them free of charge. They have borrowed equipment from Leo Sayers and have received a lot of help from friends in the business. It’s at times like this that a band find out who their friends really are.
” So the reason I came in here leapin’ about and laughin’ and everything was because we have got a gig tonight, and we have gotta just be on that stage and just play! Because I can’t get on stage and tell the audience what a shitty mess Back Street Crawlers in – politically that is.
“For the lads, Terry, Tony, Rabbit, and Geoff, It’s not so bad because they are all session men. They can do sessions they can take over, you see. So I’m living off them now.
“I feel a bit of a heel, like hanging on. We’ll go for a meal – and the lads buy the meal, and I think, ‘Shit, I’m 25 years old. I’m a man for meself y’know, really!’
“How long ago was it when we were accused of having a meal ticket, and riding on Kossoff’s name? It definitely wasn’t the truth. OK, it might have appeared that way because he was the one who was famous, but each member of the band was hand picked for a reason. And any way, it wasn’t as if we jumped at the chance. I was asked four times before I joined.”
That’s another story of course, of how Slesser couldn’t join Kos because his contract with CBS – who wanted him to join Mott The Hoople.
Slesser is philosophically bitter about record companies. “We’re suffering for Paul’s death now, which is unfair. There should be some sort of leeway. We seem to have just been left to take the consequences of the tragedy.”
However, as often happens, the tragedy of Paul’s death has actually pulled the group together. There used to be criticism of BSC for being very
heavy with each other, fighting and cutting up.
Slesser: “Paul did create a tension. You were on edge all the time with him. You never knew whether he was gonna walk in the door and collapse or what, you never could tell. So we would end up fighting with each other on stage and every thing, smashing the stage up, not for show, just…”
Paul’s death has placed even greater pressure on the group, but that has united them. “Its great, everybody has just come together. We are the best of friends. We are all helping each other grow. We all live together. Me and Terry and Tony all live in a flat, the three of us. Rabbit lives with his wife across town. And Geoff Whitehorn is the nicest guy on the planet, he is just so easy going…”
Slesser extols the virtues of their new guitarist and he is right:
“Geoff plays more proficiently than Paul did – he knows more notes…He can play a solo. He just plays until you tell him to stop, whereas Paul would just pick these spots, y’know, and he’d hold a note for about four bars, whereas other guitarists… they’d play all the way through.”
We have had a lot of encouragement from people who have said, ‘Just keep on playing’. I think you have to. But there are a few people who are saying, ‘Should’ve packed it in – it’s Kossoff’s band and he’s no longer there’. There’ve been a few times when we’ve gone on stage and done ‘Common Mortal Man’ off the Heartbreaker album and a few smartasses have shouted ‘Sacrilege…’ “And they don’t know half of it. I mean, we lived with Paul. It’s got nothing to do with ripping anybody off. Rabbit wrote the song anyhow! So you get people who give you a slagging off just for carrying on.
“There are a lot of people who said we should’ve quit, but I disagree. We’ve had a lot of good things from the press. People have reviewed the album with an open mind not saying, ‘Well it was Kossoff’s band, it’s Kossoff’s album’, because it isn’t. That wasn’t the way it was even when Paul was alive. Paul didn’t write, he didn’t arrange, he didn’t… all Paul did was just play lead guitar. That’s all he did…
“It’s still an emotional subject. After all, the guy’s only been dead four months, I don’t want to push it.
Paul’s death has obviously meant a change in the music because, “All of a sudden we can look at Second Street in retrospect. We thought ‘Right, that’s an improvement on the first album. What we’ve got to be careful about now is not to get too laid back otherwise we’re gonna disappear into oblivion. You’re gonna have to get yourself up the speaker to hear us play! – because we’re gettin’ that laid back and subtle. So we thought, ‘Well listen, we need some rock’n’roll songs again’…
“So the music’s gonna change yet again on the third album. Vocally it’ll change progressively. I mean, there’s more blues things coming in – just from personal experience – and from what I was telling you about the politics of the band’s situation we’re writing bitchy songs as well. We’re also coming up with musical ballads.”
Terry Wilson has emerged as the main writer – they’re working on about six of his songs at the moment – and Rabbit is still coming up with musical pieces. There’re even writing songs all together.
“If you keep playing you’ll win through in the end,” says Slesser. “If you lay back it’s just gonna go. We’ve got to keep on it now because if we show weakness then we’re gonna lose it. So we’ve just gotta be so strong.
“We want to go in the studio as quickly as possible. We’re got about half an album finished, all we need’s the other half, just to show that BSC’s progressed from Second Street. OK, that album’s gonna sleep… we can’t afford to bank everything on Second Street anyhow. It’s gone. It’s finished. And if it creeps through at a later date that’s all fair enough, but we’ve got to get the new BSC product finished and available for someone to release and to show the public that we have carried on.
“We’ve got to go out and create a following for this band as opposed to attracting people because of interest from the past. What we need is a following of our own.
“So if you see BSC walking down the street, just check out if they’re smiling or not because we’ve been taking some shit and we’re not gonna take much more. It can’t get much worse.”
THAT EVENING, in the dressing room at the Strand Lyceum, Terry looked happier. “I had to get that off my chest.” The band are relaxed, Geoff Whitehorn changing with great ceremony into a white tennis outfit to coincide with Wimbledon, complete with white socks and headband, kidding the rhythm section of the band, “Where would you Yanks be without us English on top, eh?”
They played a reasonable set considering they went on at 2.30am and played to an audience for the most part out of their brains. When they returned to dressing room someone had propped a coffin in the doorway of the changing room – a real, full size coffin.
Slesser and Geoff ran over and threw it through the window where it fell three storeys and splintered to fragments in the 4 am street below.
Slesser told me afterwards, “God, I thought there was nothing could get to us now but I must admit that coffin did for a few moments…”
© Miles, New Musical Express, 24 July 1976