First two albums from National Treasures, Stackridge, get the deluxe reissue treatment
Release Date: 30th June 2023
Label: Esoteric Recordings
Formats: CD (Stackridge), 2CD (Friendliness)
My heart always soars when I get the news that one of my long-term favourites are to receive the Cherry Red deluxe reissue treatment. A month or so ago, Family’s seminal 1970 album, Anyway, was rejuvenated by Cherry Red offshoot, Esoteric, and now, I’m so pleased to say, it’s the turn of the one and only Stackridge. First out of the traps are expanded, remastered reissues of the band’s first two albums – The eponymous Stackridge (1971) and it’s illustrious, classic, follow-up, Friendliness (1972).
Eccentric West Country storytellers? Masters of the Music Hall? Experimental and innovative proggers? Folk Rockers with a twist? English Pastoralists? Bristol’s Beatles? Stackridge were all of these, and much, much more; for the sake of simplicity, let’s just call Stackridge a National Treasure.
The components of Stackridge came together in Bristol in 1969, when guitarists Andy Davis and James ‘Crun’ Walter from local blues band Griptight Thynne (named after the rascally villain from The Goon Show) joined forces with James Warren, bassist and vocalist with West Coast imitators, Dawn. The new outfit was determined, right from day 1, to be original and non-derivative and that resolution started with the selection of the band’s name. Crun came up with a suggestion – Stackridge Lemon – that seemed to fit the bill, and was adopted, although the “Lemon” part of the moniker soon fell by the wayside.
The embryonic combo needed a drummer and local sticksman Billy ‘Sparkle’ Bent was drafted in after placing an ad in Melody Maker. Flautist/vocalist Michael ‘Mutter’ Slater was already a fixture on the Bristol music scene and was asked to join, and violinist Mike Evans made a serendipitous appearance in the band’s local, toting his violin, just as the band had decided they could use a violinist – he, too, was in.
Stackridge played their first gig in early 1970 – a prestigious spot at The Temple on Wardour Street, Soho, formerly The Flamingo – home ground to the likes of Ronnie Scott, Tubby Hayes and Georgie Fame – and, later that year, opened (and closed) the first Glastonbury Festival. In a thriving musical environment, Stackridge absorbed influences as efficiently as a sponge and their music duly incorporated the melodicism of The Beatles, the grounded musicianship of the original Fleetwood Mac, the wild humour of Spike Milligan and The Bonzos, the progressive experimentalism of Zappa and the pastoral whimsy of Traffic.
In an era of musical envelope-pushing, record companies were keen to incorporate innovative operators into their portfolios and Stackridge duly attracted the attention of MCA Records, who signed the band in 1971. By this time, Crun had left the band to become a brickie, so it was a four-piece band that settled into Kingsway Studios, London during March and April 1971 to record the band’s first, self-titled, album. Eschewing the easier route followed by most bands of populating the debut album with a smoothed-out version of the live set, Stackridge decided to fill their first record with a bunch of new, untested, songs such as Warren’s Marigold Connection, Three Legged Table and the robust, almost avant-garde, Essence of Porphyry.
In a way, the debut album crystallises the influences that Stackridge had absorbed, and set the route for everything they were to become. Outré lyricism and supreme melodicism are constant, right from opening track to the epic closer, Slark and the choice of subject matter still manages to charm, even after 52 years. I still can’t watch the penguins at the zoo without singing Percy the Penguin to myself, I’ve still not figured out quite what James Warren is getting at with lyrics like “Nothing could be finer, say, I bake my nose in the sun, stretch in South Carolina Bay…” in Three Legged Table, and I’ve yet to hear a more succinct description of the challenges of finding enough money to pay the rent than in 32 West Mall.
There’s lots of fun to be had on the album, too. Dora the Female Explorer, the album’s utterly joyful single, became a huge live favourite – one of many Stackridge “signature” tunes. Mutter drives the song along with his harmonica riff whilst Sparkle and Warren add an irresistible thumping rhythm. And the vaudevillian Marzo Plod introduced the 1971 rock scene to the concept of Rhubarb Thrashing, an idea that so caught the imaginations of many in the growing throng of Stackridge followers, that right until the band’s final days, the audience at every Stackridge show featured a bunch of frenzied rhubarb wavers in the front rows.
Perhaps, though, the focal point of the entire debut album and its most indelible imprint is the 14-minute closing track, Slark. Set to an unforgettable folky, East European-flavoured tune, Slark tells the story of the violent abduction of a motorist by the mysterious long-clawed monster of the song’s title. Mutter plays some beautiful flute to add to the part joyful, part deadly atmosphere of the song, and Mike’s violin elevates things to an altogether higher plane.
This reissue of the album is completed by four bonus tracks; the delightful, pastoral Everyman – originally the ‘B’ side to the Dora… single, a version of the cacophonous Let There Be Lids – more about this tune shortly… – and live versions of Slark and The Three Legged Table from a 1971 John Peel Top Gear radio session. It’s perhaps the latter two of these that will be of most interest to the army of still-committed Stackridge devotees, but new entrants to this magical world will surely be delighted by Everyman and ‘Lids.’
As 1972 came around, Stackridge continued with their touring activity and, happily, Crun decided that bricklaying wasn’t for him, and was welcomed back into the band to take over the bass playing duties, with James W switching to guitar. After a tour supporting Wishbone Ash – who were in the process of hitting paydirt as their recent Argus album stormed the charts – Stackridge headed to Sound Techniques Studio in West London to record their second album, Friendliness.
At the risk of incurring the wrath of the many Stackridge fans with other ideas, I’ll come clean. Maybe because it’s the album that first drew me towards the band, I don’t know, but Friendliness is my favourite Stackridge album. Band members, James Warren in particular, have, over the years, been critical of detailed aspects of the album; James has spoken of the muddiness of the sound quality and the too-high (in his opinion) pitching of his voice on Anyone For Tennis, but I fear that these are the typical nit-picks of a parent who seeks perfection in his beloved offspring. To me, Friendliness is the album that defines Stackridge.
From the sheer, unrestrained, joy of Andy Davis’s opening instrumental, Lummy Days to the closing chords of Teatime, Friendliness is a delight. Lummy Days is one of the brightest, most infectious tunes to be found anywhere on this Earth, title track Friendliness is as sweet as treacle pie and the hilarious, nostalgic Anyone For Tennis brought the sunshine of a 1920s summer into so many dull 1970s bedsits. James Warren exposes his Buddhist and Hindu interests on the tuneful, restful There Is No Refuge, whilst the trials and tribulations of being a cow are sympathetically addressed in the cod-reggae Amazingly Agnes.
I love the clarinet and the baffling lyrics of Father Frankenstein is Behind Your Pillow and the chugging rock of Keep on Clucking but my favourite track – probably my favourite Stackridge song of all – is the incomparable Syracuse The Elephant. Syracuse was already a live favourite before the first album was committed to vinyl. At nine minutes in length, it’s something of an epic, but those minutes fly by as the sad tale of Syracuse, born and bred in Bristol Zoo and brought up on swedes, emerges. The tune is grandly wonderful and the middle section with Mutter’s flute and the sitar-like guitar sounds is otherworldly. A magnificent song, I can never drive past the brown “Bristol Zoo” signs on the M5 Motorway around Bristol without it coming to mind.
This remastered version of Friendliness comes as a 2CD set, with the original album on Disc 1. Disc 2 is something of a curio, with lots to interest the Stackridge obsessive. The disc opens with the much abridged, single version of Slark – the catchy-grim story-song from the debut album, coupled with the magnificent Purple Spaceships Over Yatton, the original ‘B’ side to the Slark single. Purple Spaceships is yet another Stackridge masterpiece. The tune’s jokey title (Yatton is a village just west of Bristol, and it’s unclear whether any spaceships spotted in that vicinity were actually purple in colour…) belies a wonderfully complex, widescreen slice of jazzy progressive rock. At times almost orchestral in texture, the tune is highlighted by Mutter’s delightful flute parts and memorable for the rhythmic S.O.S bleeps that grow louder and louder until it feels like the world is about to explode. It’s a truly magnificent piece of music.
Next comes a sequence of eight songs taken from a June 1972 Radio One In Concert broadcast. The selection of material provides a great example of what a Stackridge show was like, with songs from the first two albums – including Lummy Days, Grande Piano, Amazingly Agnes and 32 West Mall interspersed with lighter material – the Juke Box Jury theme, Hit and Miss, and Mike Evans’s party-piece, a version of Frank Ifield’s She Taught Me to Yodel. The live set is brought to a close with a stirring Four Poster Bed (Let There Be Lids) with Mike almost sawing his fiddle in two whilst Mutter and Crun crash their dustbin lids.
The sound quality of the live recording isn’t too good, and some of the vocals are noticeably off-key, but the excitement and vitality of the performance compensates for any such deficiencies. What is rather annoying are the song introductions by the show’s presenter – I’m not sure who he is but he’s got an irritatingly incongruous Leicester accent. If only he’d allowed the band to make their own introductions…
The set is wrapped up by another pair of Stackridge gems. C’est La Vie surely deserved more exposure than its place on the ‘B’ side of Stackridge’s most successful single allowed, so it’s good to see it included here, and the set’s closing track is, of course, the raucous Do The Stanley. …Stanley is a fantastic, life-affirming song that sounds as fresh today as it did back in 1973, when it almost, but not quite, brought Stackridge to national attention. The song made the lower reaches of the Top 30, but stalled. And just think how differently the Stackridge story might have turned out if they’d made it onto Top of the Pops – rhubarb and dustbin lids and all..
Both Stackridge and Friendliness are packaged with the loving care that is the hallmark of the Cherry Red stable. Both albums come in covers with fully restored artwork and each includes a booklet with an informative essay by Mike Barnes, author of A New Day Yesterday, the definitive story of UK progressive rock.
And the Stackridge reissue story doesn’t stop here, either. Look out for remasters of The Man in the Bowler Hat (1974) and Extravaganza, (1975), the next two chapters in the Stackridge story. We’ll be bringing you news of THOSE packages very soon…
Stackridge relive their early 70s glory days with a storming show at Fairport’s Cropredy Convention, August 2008:
Listen to Purple Spaceships Over Yatton – Stackridge at their very best – here: