When listening to the Backdoor Men, two things don’t quite fit with their sound: One, they’re from Sweden, and two, they’re from the mid-1980s. For the first time on CD, Swedish label Subliminal Studios is releasing a comprehensive disc of the Backdoor Men, who in the 1980s terrorized the Swedish countryside with their mod style and garage-rock sound. Theirs is a familiar story: a bunch of kids who don’t fit in start reading magazines and dressing weird, play some mind-blowing shows, release some catchy singles, meet their idols (in this case, the Jam’s Paul Weller), do some drugs and break up. But what set the Backdoor Men apart was that they weren’t really linked to any movement. Instead of looking toward the future, the Backdoor Men (who began in the early ‘80s as Pow) were reliving the 1960s, and in their hometown of Almhult, Sweden, that was viewed as the opposite of cutting edge.
In the album’s extensive liner notes, drummer Ismail Samie remarks, “The band, the clothes, and the scooters were our life. We didn’t give a shit about anything else. The most important thing was not how we sounded but that we looked good.” Listening to the band’s entire catalog (which fits neatly onto a CD at only 14 tracks), this is evident. The Backdoor Men sound like they look really, really, cool. Original songs like the catchy “Magic Girl” and “Stop Stop” are great fun, as singer Robert Jelinek’s voice tears through them just as deftly as any garage rock hero of the 1960s. The music features cutting, tinny, Stones-y guitars and soulful vocals, and its gritty analog quality makes it sound much older than it is. The band’s music is like their clothes: yeah, those Beatle boots and tight trousers are great, but they beg the question, to whom is the compliment owed? The band’s style and sound isn’t really theirs. The Backdoor Men’s original songs, though obviously the work of skilled, passionate musicians, can’t help but sound like recycled bits of two decades before. It doesn’t help matters that two of the most inspiring performances on the album are covers (the Chocolate Watch Band’s “Are You Gonna Be There (At the Love In)” and The Music Machine’s “The People In Me”).
The Backdoor Men are a great band to put on when you want to feel cool, wear mod clothing, and dance around your backyard. But wouldn’t it sound better coming from a transistor radio? They deserve kudos for bringing back mod garage rock at a most inopportune time, in a most unlikely country, but imitation is imitation, and it will never be groundbreaking. They wanted to look cool, they did, and the moment passed. It reminds me of Enid’s comment about dressing out of time in Ghost World, “You have to act a certain way and drive an old car and everything and it’s a real pain in the ass!” The Backdoor Men made 14 tracks of passionate 1960s music, but in the end keeping up the look, the attitude, and the music of another era was too much of a pain in the ass.