Stackridge – The Man In The Bowler Hat & Extravaganza: Album Reviews

The story continues – two more albums from National Treasures Stackridge get the Cherry Red deluxe reissue treatment .

Release Date:  25th August 2023

Label: Esoteric Recordings

Formats: 2CD (both albums)  

Prompted by the launch of Cherry Red/ Esoteric’s reissues of the Stackridge back-catalogue, we started to tell the story of this most singular of bands back in June, when the first two releases of the series – Stackridge’s eponymous 1971 debut album and its masterful follow-up, the wonderful Friendliness emerged from the reissue mill. We promised you that there was more to come and, sure enough, here come the next installments: the classic 1974, George Martin-produced, The Man In The Bowler Hat and its highly-rated successor, 1975’s Extravaganza.  Both albums arrive having received the detailed TLC that is a Cherry Red trademark; each 2CD set incudes a remastered disc of the original album, and a bonus disc of contemporaneous BBC session recordings, each is packaged in a fold-out housing featuring fully restored artwork and, perhaps best of all, each comes complete with a booklet containing an informative essay by Mike Barnes – perhaps THE definitive authority on the subject of eccentric British rock music – and bags of fascinating photos.  

Our first installment of the Stackridge story ended in 1972, with the release of Friendliness.  The band was on the rise and the future looked bright – after all, Stackridge was unique: eccentric West Country storytellers, masters of the Music Hall, innovative prog rockers, outré folkies and English pastoralists.  Stackridge were all of these, often at the same time, and their public was becoming increasingly enchanted.  

But, for the moment, let’s recap on the story of how Stackridge had reached this point.  The group’s assemblage began back in 1969 when guitarists Andy Davis and James ‘Crun’ Walter got together with bassist James Warren.  This embryonic grouping adopted the moniker Stackridge Lemon and set out with a vow to ‘Be Different.’  Along the way, the nucleus attracted the services of Dorset-born Michael ‘Mutter’ Slater and violinist Mike Evans and the new band – now operating without the ‘Lemon’ postscript to their name, went out into the big wild world.  

After numerous adventures (covered in more detail in our June review of Stackridge and Friendliness) The band signed to MCA Records and, by 1972, had released those first two albums, with Crun departing, then rejoining, the band’s ranks along the way.  And that’s just about where we left the story last time…  

1973 was a year of consolidation for Stackridge.  The first pair of albums continued to receive ongoing acclaim, single Do The Stanley almost but, sadly, not quite, cracked the charts, they’d become regular guests on some of the more discerning radio shows such as BBC Radio One – In Concert and, in February 1973, they made their first television appearance, on BBC’s The Old Grey Whistle Test.  The band’s lineup was a settled one, too, with Andy Davis on guitar, keyboards, percussion and vocals, Mutter on flute, keyboards, percussion and vocals, Mike Evans on violin and vocals, Billy Sparkle on drums, James Warren on guitar and vocals and Crun on bass.  The course of the good ship Stackridge was, indeed, set fair.  

If anything, things were about to get even better for the band.  Alexis and Gregory, the two eldest sons of Beatle producer George Martin were big admirers of the band’s work and it was via this route that Mike Tobin, Stackridge’s manager of the time, managed to persuade the great man first to have a listen to their new material and, eventually, to take on the production duties for the band’s next album.  Guitarist James Warren takes up the story: “Mike used to have little chats with George, and eventually had the temerity to say to him, ‘Stackridge are on the verge of cracking it in terms of commercial appeal.  But, for their next album, they need to go up a notch and there’s one man who could ensure that they have a wonderfully produced album – and that’s you.  Do you fancy having a listen to some demos?’  And he said, ‘Yes, that’s fine!’  And, amazingly, he liked what he heard.”  

The new album, Stackridge’s third, was recorded at George Martin’s AIR Studios on Oxford Street, with George indeed manning the control panel.  It is, perhaps no coincidence that the album is littered with Beatle references – the band were big fans, The Beatles were a huge influence and there is little doubt that the presence of The Fabs’ producer brought much of these influences to the surface, particularly in songs like Dangerous Bacon (which actually mentions Beatle Boots in its lyrics), and in the musical stylings of The Last Plimsoll and Fundamentally Yours.  The album was christened The Man In The Bowler Hat.  

The Man In The Bowler Hat was the most successful of Stackridge’s albums, reaching the giddy heights of number 23 in the UK album chart.  However, big changes were just around the corner on Planet Stackridge…  

The suits at MCA were becoming increasingly pessimistic of ever reaping the financial bonanza they were hoping for from Stackridge’s unique appeal and whilst, in hindsight, a top 30 chart placing for such quirky, off-the-wall music can be recognized as the massive achievement it was, the success was neither grand enough nor enduring enough to satisfy those holding the purse strings.  Mutter was the first to break rank – he left even before The Man in the Bowler Hat had reached the racks (amazingly, to take up a job as a petrol pump attendant…) – and he was soon followed by Mike Evans and Billy Sparkle.  Andy Davis shifted to drums and Rod Bowkett (keyboards) and Keith Gemmell (clarinet, sax and flute) were drafted in to replace, respectively, Evans and Mutter.  

And, if all that change wasn’t enough, James Warren and Crun were asked to leave, apparently for not paying sufficient heed to the ambitions of other band members.  They were replaced by ex-Rare Bird bassist Paul Karas and drummer Roy Morgan, with Andy Davis, by now the band’s de facto leader, reverting to guitar.  I hope that you’re following all this…  

Stackridge – 1975 vintage – play The Old Grey Whistle Test [Photo: Bob Harris Archive]

Meanwhile, Mutter had started to recognize the limited opportunities for job satisfaction in the petrol pump attendancy profession and had negotiated his way back into Stackridge and it was, therefore, the Slater/ Davis/ Gemmell/ Karas/ Bowkett/ Morgan incarnation of Stackridge that entered AIR Studios in late 1974 to start work on Extravaganza, the fourth Stackridge album.  This time, it was the gregarious Tony Ashton, keyboard player of repute, formerly of Ashton, Gardner and Dyke and Family and sessioneer to the stars that took on the production role and, following the collapse of their MCA deal, Stackridge had signed to Elton John’s Rocket Records label.  

The various members of Stackridge remain genuinely grateful for the support given by Rocket in general, and by Elton John in particular, as they made their play to recover the ground they had lost; the Rocket connection even furnished the band with the prestige gig to end them all – a place on the bill alongside The Beach Boys, Eagles and Joe Walsh, supporting Elton John at his June 1975 Wembley Concert.  

A day at Wembley!

Extravaganza was critically well-received and the album remains a firm favourite amongst many of the Stackridge cognoscenti but, sadly, it failed to sell and the band was forced, once again, to reconsider its direction and reshuffle its lineup.  The Stackridge story wasn’t over, but the rest of the tale is for another day.  The next installment, encapsulating the concept album Mr Mick, is just around the corner, as Cherry Red continue their Stackridge reappraisal project.  Watch these pages – we’ll be continuing the story very soon.  

But, back to the current reissues.  What about The Man In The Bowler Hat and Extravaganza.  And, equally importantly, what other musical goodies do Cherry Red have on offer in these latest packages?

Well – hearing The Man In The Bowler Hat once again, after what has been a considerable interval, I can confirm that it’s a fine album, one that’s at least as strong as its predecessor, Friendliness.  For Starters, there’s that George Martin polish and those clearly-signaled Beatle influences that we’ve already mentioned but, as a further mark in the album’s favour, it’s crammed full of songs that would go on to become live show favourites and enduring fan-pleasers, and that’s always a strong indication of a great album.  Songs like the rocky, Beatlish, The Last Plimsoll – a song with a Sgt. Pepper feel, in which Mutter’s gentle flute provides the perfect counterpoint to the gritty guitars, the equally Beatlish Road to Venezuela, with its ear-worm “Meet me where the pampas grass will touch the sky” chorus and Andy Davis’s Lennon-via-Neil Innes vocals, Mutter’s quirky The Galloping Gaucho – a song whose fairground imagery and West Country music-hall vocals have kept this writer firmly anchored to the Stackridge cause for more years that I care to recall, the delightful Humiliation, in which James Warren predicts the climate crisis 50 years ahead of its onset (the signs were there, even back in 1974…) via the medium of a string quartet and an Edwardian parlour, the poppy stomp of Dangerous Bacon and, touching on a different set of influences altogether, the chamber-meets-prog explorations of the magnificent God Speed the Plough are all solid-gold Stackridge classics that lasted as long – and longer – than the band itself.  

Then, there are the (perhaps) less well-known songs that all convey that signature, wholly unique, Stackridge sound and imagery.  Opening track Fundamentally Yours is pleasant, poppy and channels late 60s McCartney in a way that few other bands of the day could even contemplate – and, believe me, there were many that tried.  It’s quintessential Stackridge; thoroughly absorbing and just on the right side of the line that divides quirkiness from normality.  Pinafore Days, written by Mutter and sung by Mike Evans, evokes the pastoral Englishness of the 1930s, whilst, on To The Sun and Moon – another of Mutter’s and sung, this time by James Warren (because, as Mutter admits, he couldn’t reach the high notes) is another example of Stackridge’s orchestral leanings; a preference that George Martin brings out magnificently with his grand orchestrations.  

And then, there’s a return to the mould that created the majestic Syracuse The Elephant, for The Indifferent Hedgehog (such an archetypally Stackridge title…)  The lyrics – “There’s a hedgehog on my fence – it treats me with indifference, And I, in turn, ignore him” – are an object lesson in the art of English whimsy, the talent at which Stackridge – way beyond any of their contemporaries, with the possible exception of The Incredible String Band – led the field.  

The BBC session recordings which comprise Disc 2 of the Bowler Hat… package have seen the light of day before, most famously, perhaps, as part of Cherry Red’s 2012 Radio Sessions 1971-1975 package but are, nevertheless, highly enjoyable – as much so to the Stackridge novice seeking access to what this most singular of bands were all about as to the devoted completist.  The first six tracks of the disc are taken from an ‘In Concert’ session, recorded on 18th January 1973 and they reveal a confident, well-rehearsed band at the very top of their game.  By the time of the recording, Stackridge was well-established and had gathered the nucleus of the fanatical following that would stick with them to the end of their days.  Indeed, judging by the whoops, cheers and yells that dominate the recording, it seems that many of that following were present in the BBC studio on that January evening!  

Stackridge chose their setlist wisely, opening with Anyone for Tennis, unveiling their forthcoming single Do The Stanley (not as rough or raucous as the recorded version, but great fun nevertheless) before moving on to note-perfect runs through Syracuse and Purple Spaceships over Yatton.  They once again show off their Beatle chops with a faithful reproduction of Twist and Shout – Mike Evans nails John Lennon’s shredded vocals perfectly – before closing the show with a full-pelt run through Dora the Female Explorer.  The sound is excellent and the audience is fully engaged, responding noisily to Mutter’s regular cries of “’Ank yew!”  Indeed, my only criticism – if it can be classed as such – is that, once again, the show’s producer had insisted that the songs were introduced by the show’s compère, rather than by the band members themselves.  Why did the BBC do that?  There really was no need for such a safety net when a band as creative and articulate as Stackridge was at the centre of attention.  

Tracks 7-10 on Disc 2 were recorded at an audience-free BBC session for “Whispering” Bob Harris on 7th February 2023, and it’s here that we find the band looking towards their future.  The Lyder Loo, Stackridge’s dire warning of the perils of smoking was intended for release as a single, but the release never happened.  And that’s a pity, because it’s an entertaining song that showcases the band’s close affinity with The Bonzos.  It’s a clever slice of Vaudeville, with lyrics (“If you smoke at such a rate, then you’re bound to suffocate, and be old and grey before you’re 23”) that successfully wrap the song’s dark message in an alluring shroud of pure humour.  

The remaining tracks on Disc 2 see Stackridge honing material that would make the Bowler Hat… cut later in the year.  All are presented as being close to the finished article, albeit, particularly in the case of God Speed the Plough, lacking George Martin’s polish and orchestrations.  But, polish or not, it’s clear from these early takes that Stackridge had something very special up their collective sleeve…

And, so – on to Extravaganza.  As with …Bowler Hat, this Cherry Red reissue is a two-disc affair, with the remaster of the original album on Disc 1 and a BBC recording on Disc 2.  

Extravaganza is a very different Stackridge album, compared to its three predecessors.  The whimsey that was the trademark of the ‘old’ (some would say ‘classic’) Stackridge is still there, but the band had very definitely taken the decision to move prog-wards.  Of course, the new lineup had helped in that respect and it’s particularly during the instrumentals like Rufus T Firefly, Pocket Billiards and Who’s That Up There With Bill Stokes, brought along to the party by new keyboardist, Rod Bowkett, that the band really stretch out and show what they can do.  And, when they do that, they demonstrate emphatically that they could easily have ended up on the same megastar/stadium register as Genesis, Yes or ELP.  In each case, Paul Karas’s bass work is mind-boggling, Roy Morgan’s drumming is amazing, Andy Davis shows what a great guitarist he really is and Mutter, whether on flute or glockenspiel, adds the trademark English pastoralism that reminds us that prog experimentalism or not, this is still Stackridge.  

But there’s still a lot here for the Stackridge traditionalist to savour, despite the absence of Messrs Crun, Warren and Evans.  Opening track Spin ‘Round the Room is a delightful amalgam of pop and music hall, with Keth Gemmell’s clarinet keeping at least one of the band’s feet firmly anchored in the 1930s, and Mutter’s lyrics to the hilarious The Volunteer are peppered with typical Stackridge observations such as “Hands off cocks and on with socks” and “Now I’ve got whiskers, size ten blisters,” as he tells the story of how a young soldier’s outlook on life is changed by enlisting in the army.  

Elsewhere, band composition Grease Paint Smiles shows how well Stackridge can exercise Pathos, as the story unfolds of a clown’s overwhelming sadness as the circus spotlights fade – all to a brash tune driven along by Paul Karas’s thudding bass and Keith’s sax and clarinet, and Mutter’s Highbury Incident (he took the title from the C.Day Lewis children’s novel, The Otterbury Incident) suggests that Stackridge and the great Ray Davies were, perhaps, tarred with a very similar-looking brush.  

The bridge between the old, whimsical Stackridge and the new progged-up version is provided by Benjamin’s Giant Onion.  It’s Rod Bowkett song that has reference points with Ray Davies and Foxtrot-era Genesis, as Rod’s fantastic lyrics recount how Benjamin becomes increasingly obsessed with the cultivation of his prizewinning onions, to the point that he ends up in a mental health institution where the doctors declare that “Quite frankly, he’s insane!”  

Eyebrows were raised when it was discovered that Extravaganza includes two non-band compositions, but both of those non-original songs are a perfect fit for both the old and the newly-emerging Stackridge.  Happy in the Lord was written by Andy Davis’s friend Phil Welton, from the band Fat Grapple (they went on to release the song themselves as a 1975 single.)  It’s classic Stackridge – an insane thumping rocker with a light, almost angelic, vocal from Mutter, and producer Tony Ashton joins the fun as he assumes the role of the preacher, whose crazed sermonizing concludes the song.  But it’s the other non-original song on the album that is one of several enduring highlights of Extravaganza.  No One’s More Important Than the Earthworm was written by former King Crimson bassist/ vocalist Gordon Haskell but it is, without doubt, a song that Stackridge have claimed securely and permanently as their very own.  Grand and lush, with soaring guitars, an excellent sax solo from Keith and some fantastic Hammond organ parts from Tony Ashton, it’s Stackridge at their very best, and, in truth, anyone would believe that lines like “The ostrich always gets his man” and “Burying the head that he was born with” must have come from the pen of Mutter Slater, rather than a band outsider.  

Disc 2 of the Extravaganza package is a real treat.  It’s a BBC Radio One ‘In Concert’ recording, made on 17th January 1975, just a few days prior to the original release of Extravaganza.  Unsurprisingly, the band showcase their new material, with five of the disc’s eight tracks being songs that would feature on the new album.  The sound quality is excellent and the band are tight and in full control.  OK, there are still those slightly annoying DJ intrusions that take the place of the band’s own inter-song announcements, but, in this case, that’s a minor criticism and the quality of the band’s music and the clarity of the production carry the day.  

The band reproduce the new material faithfully, with a few noticeable differences.  Mutter’s Dorset accent is even more pronounced than usual as he frolics through The Volunteer and his glockenspiel parts are, happily, more noticeable on the live take of Who’s That Up There With Bill Stokes (a title of typical Stackridge whimsey, notes the programme announcer…) than they are on the studio album. The version of …Earthworm is simply stunning – Rod’s keyboards brood nicely, Andy’s guitar weeps and wails and Keith’s sax is, alternately, soothing, soaring and simmering.   

Andy Davis has remarked that Stackridge always took particular care to ensure that they never became overly serious and the wider prog experiments are offered an effective antidote by the inclusion of The Galloping Gaucho in the setlist.  Mutter delivers great vocals and the fun that the band are having, revisiting this relatively recent ground, is palpable.  The introduction of Pocket Billiards garners a few sniggers from the assembled throng and, once again, the delivery of one of Extravaganza’s more complex tunes is spot-on.  

Spin ‘Round the Room provides another few minutes of light relief.  It’s more restrained than the cut that made the album and less overtly poppy as a result, and Keith’s clarinet is, once again, exquisite.  God Speed the Plough is, perhaps the track on …Bowler Hat that offered the clearest indication of where Stackridge might next be headed and the version they perform here is excellent, despite the absence of Mike Evans.  Mike’s violin parts are covered admirably by Keith on clarinet, and Mutter’s flute parts are awesome.  

The short live set ends, of course, with Dora The Female Explorer.  Paul K’s vocal sounds a little incongruous, at least to ears used to the James Warren interpretation of the song, but Keth Gemmell’s sax part is a genuine bonus.  The appreciation of the audience is clear, as they bay for more, as the set, the programme and the disc reach their respective ends.  

As I’ve already mentioned, Extravaganza didn’t sell – maybe because it was just TOO eclectic for mid-70s tastes, but it’s a fine album that has, without doubt, withstood the test of time, and there are still many of Stackridge’s devoted following who name it as their favourite.  

Cherry Red/ Esoteric have really hit the jackpot with this one.  Two classic albums from one of the most singular bands ever to grace our collective consciousness have been given a thoroughly welcome, enjoyable and respectful makeover.  I can’t recommend these reissues highly enough.  

And – look out for installment of the Stackridge reissue programme.  As I’ve already noted, the Cherry Red reworking of Mr. Mick, the final album from the first life of Stackridge, is well down the pipeline and will be with us shortly.  Watch this space…

Watch Stackridge perform No One’s More Important Than the Earthworm – a standout track from the Extravaganza album – live on BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test in 1975 here:

Stackridge online: Website / Facebook (fan forum)

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2 replies »

  1. What a truly GREAT! review and I have to admit I jumped on board straight away with these new reissues of Stackridge by Esoteric Recordings. They have done a cracking job with the remasters too and it’s a shame that none of the original multichannel master tapes could be recovered to do 5.1 mixes with their albums that would have really floated my boat because this was a band that was incapable of making a bad album and a band I have loved ever since I came across them in the seventies.

    • Hi Lee – Many, many thanks for your feedback! And I couldn’t agree more – Stackridge were, indeed, incapable of making a bad album. Watch out for the next instalment in this series – the reissue of Mr Mick is next – in November. Best wishes, John

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