Speaking of UK blues-rockers (as we were in this semi-recent post regarding Catfish‘s acoustic EP Bound for Better Days), this next release is from a band that’s been around for quite a few decades now, having opened for the likes of The Who, Eric Clapton, The Kinks, Sting, and others during what you might call the band’s heyday. Fortunately, Nine Below Zero is still going strong following the pandemic, but their latest album is actually a previously unreleased one from quite early in the band’s history, culled from the tapes of their first studio recording back in March of 1979. It was so early in their history, in fact, that the band hadn’t even yet adopted its longtime name (taken of course from a Sonny Boy Williamson song title), going at the time instead by the name of Stan’s Blues Band, even though there wasn’t anyone named Stan in the band nor did they seem to know a Stan to have been inspired by at the time.
Founding member and guitarist Dennis Greaves discovered the 1/4 inch tape of the recording during an inventory of his loft earlier this year, and then passed it to UK producer/engineer and drummer Wayne Proctor to master. And, boy, are we glad he did! The result is a crisp, delightful listen to a band on the verge of hitting it big, with the quartet both changing its name to Nine Below Zero and signing with A&M Records within the six months after this session.
Kicking off with a full-tilt take on “Rock Me Baby” that efficiently delivers the first harmonica and guitar solos by two minutes in, it’s pretty clear these guys came to the studio meaning business, keeping up the tempo through much of the album with such numbers as “Juke”, “Route 66”, “Hoochie Coochie Man”, “Rocket 88”, “Dr. Brown”, “When My Baby Left Me”, “Watch Yourself”, “I Wanna Be Loved”, “Pack Fair and Square” and the closing “Going Down”.
When they do occasionally ease up on the pace, that’s all good too, with the band delivering quality takes on the midtempo “Temperature” as well as some slow-burners like “Sugar Mama” and “Last Night”. As solid as the whole project is, the band’s versions of “Walkin’ Blues” and “It’s Hard Going Up (But Twice as Hard Coming Down)” in particular are among the best we’ve heard.
Renowned producer/engineer Glyn John, who produced several of the band’s early albums, at the time called Nine Below Zero the best he had seen since The Who, and it’s easy to hear on Back in the Day just why he thought that, capturing a hungry and talented young band that could easily compare to and compete with The Who and the Rolling Stones with their takes on songs from the likes of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson, B.B. King, Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter, Freddie King, and others.
What’s a bit more difficult to comprehend is how a recording this good ever managed to sit unreleased for so long, and how Nine Below Zero never became the household name those other bands have. But those are questions best left to ponder another day, as all we really want to do now is listen to this one again and again.
Back in the Day is available only as a limited edition CD via the band’s website and shows, but it’s well worth seeking out!