The third and final chapter in Cherry Red’s re-telling of The Stackridge Story.
Release Date: 29th September 2023
Label: Esoteric Recordings
Over the past four months, Cherry Red/ Esoteric have being doing the world a huge favour with their programme of reissues of the entire back catalogue of the original incarnation of Stackridge. The first episode of The Stackridge Story appeared in June, when the band’s first two albums – their eponymous debut and its masterful follow-up, Friendliness received the deluxe reissue treatment. Then in late August, episode two saw the release of revamped and remastered versions of albums 3 & 4 – The Man In The Bowler Hat and Extravaganza. And now, here comes the final installment – a double disc reappraisal of this most singular of band’s final (at least for the time being – but that’s another story altogether…) album, their quasi-concept offering, Mr Mick.
Let’s recap on The Stackridge Story so far. Stackridge was born back in 1969, when guitarists Andy Davis and James ‘Crun’ Walters got together with bassist James Warren with a pledge to “Do something different.” The lineup was consolidated when flautist and vocalist Michael ‘Mutter’ Slater, violinist Mike Evans and drummer Billy Sparkle signed up and Stackridge was ready for liftoff. The band was snapped up by MCA Records and, between 1971 and 1974, they released that superlative trio of albums – Stackridge, Friendliness and The Man in the Bowler Hat.
In 1973, the future had seemed bright but, by 1974, discontent had started to creep into the Stackridge ranks. The Man In The Bowler Hat had performed remarkably well, reaching the top 30 of the UK album chart – despite its off-the-wall quirkiness, yet the suits at MCA had apparently expected more. Nor was the discontent restricted to the upper echelons of the band’s label; within weeks of the release of The Man In The Bowler Hat, Mutter, Crun, Mike Evans and Billy Sparkle had all left the band.
By the end of our last episode of The Stackridge Story, a measure of stability had been restored. Rod Bowkett (keyboards), Keith Gemmell (clarinet, sax and flute), Paul Karas (bass) and Roy Morgan (drums) had all been drafted in, Mutter had rejoined after a short stint manning the pumps at a west country petrol station and the band had been signed by Elton John’s Rocket Records label. They’d released their highly regarded (yet, inexplicably, poorly-selling) fourth album, Extravaganza and they’d just played their biggest-ever gig, opening for The Eagles, The Beach Boys, Joe Walsh and Elton John at Wembley Stadium. However, dissatisfaction was, once more, not too far away…
Following the disappointing sales of Extravaganza, Bowkett, Karas and Morgan all left the band (“It was a financial decision,” says Mutter, today), leaving the core of Mutter, Davis, Gemmell and the returning Crun to soldier on. These Stackridge remnants convened at the house of one of Mutter’s mates (a butcher from Yeovil) in Castle Cary, Somerset. It happened that another tenant in the same building was the author and illustrator, Steve Augarde, who was, at that time, working on a story that revolved around the adventures of an eccentric old man in and around a city refuse dump. The man’s name was Mr Mick and it occurred both to Steve and the band members that a joint collaboration to bring Mr Mick’s story to life might just work.
Clearly, the core Stackridge needed to bring a drummer on board, and Peter Van Hooke – who would later go on to play with the likes of Van Morrison and Mike and the Mechanics – was brought in, alongside ex-Greenslade keyboardist Dave Lawson. Stackridge was, once again, ready for action.
Of all the Stackridge albums, it is, perhaps, Mr Mick that had the most difficult birth. In its original concept, it was intended that Stackridge would put music to Augarde’s lyrics and that the resulting songs would be linked by spoken word – the model that was used successfully for The Small Faces’ Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake – with the objective of producing a cohesive story that would take up the whole album. However, this is Stackridge that we’re talking about, so a number of events did, inevitably, conspire to undermine that idea.
Firstly, although Steve Augarde did provide plenty of lyrics that were turned into songs by Andy and Mutter, the band’s writers were all producing songs and tunes that didn’t really fit with the Mr Mick narrative but were too good to be left off the album – Andy’s awesome Breakfast With Werner Von Braun and Mutter’s sublime Coniston Water, two of the finest instrumentals in the Stackridge canon – are two examples. Secondly, the management at Rocket Records were uncomfortable with the spoken dialogue content of the album and, after a short period of deliberation, instructed the band to remove that element, destroying the story into the bargain. Thirdly, the label management rejected the band’s suggestion that Andy and Crun’s song, Hey! Good Looking should be used as the album’s lead single and, instead, persuaded Stackridge to record a version of The Beatles’ Hold Me Tight, from the 1963 With The Beatles album as the single and the album’s opening track. And the result of all these deliberations? An album that is charming, melodic and a durable favourite amongst many of Stackridge’s still-significant following; but also an album that is far away from the concept that it originally set out to be.
Stackridge did eventually release the original – dialogue inclusive – version of Mr Mick via their own DAP imprint in 2001 and now, for the first time, it’s possible to compare the original concept head-to-head with the official version of the album, courtesy of our friends at Cherry Red. Disc 1 of this new reissue contains the original 1976 album, whilst Disc 2 features the original concept album – the version the band intended. As usual, it’s a beautiful package; the two discs are housed in a fold-out case and the package includes an illustrated booklet that features a detailed essay written, once again, by that knowledge font of all things prog, Mike Barnes, plus contemporaneous photographs, interviews with band members and a full set of lyrics. Once again, it’s an artefact to be treasured.
But – what of the music?
Stackridge followers will, without doubt, be fully familiar with the official album – indeed, I’m sure that most are equally familiar with the aborted original. There’s no such thing as a duff Stackridge song, and it’s certainly the case that Mr Mick has some fine moments. Breakfast With Werner Von Braun is typically melodic, with a tasty Indian flavour; with The Steam Radio Song, Stackridge demonstrate their chops with both bouncy rock and tasteful prog, Hey! Good Looking surely should have been the single that the band wanted it to be, The Slater’s Waltz – sung by guest Joanna Karlin in the character of a pair of ballet shoes is atmospheric in a fairground-ish kind of way and closing track (on both versions of the album) Fish in a Glass is another example of Stackridge at their quirky English best – it’s a song that could have graced any of the band’s albums.
Stackridge could always ‘do’ The Beatles and the reggaefied version of Hold Me Tight that opens the official version of the album is flawless – but I’ve always thought it was a little pointless, too, but at least I now know why it was included! But, for a taste of the sheer pleasure that Stackridge could always deliver, Mutter’s Coniston Water is an utter delight. Piano, sax and mellotron blend together as the tune wavers between grand melodicism and avant garde; it’s surely a tune that’s high up there with Syracuse The Elephant, Purple Spaceships Over Yatton and God Speed The Plough on the list of Stackridge’s finest moments. These are songs and tunes that stand for themselves outside of any conceptual framework that the band may have imagined.
But, comparing the album decreed by the record company and the version that the band envisaged is a fascinating exercise and there’s no doubt that Mr Mick hangs together far more effectively in the form in which it was originally conceived. Mr Mick’s is a complex and extraordinary story but at least with the connecting dialogue of passages like Mr Mick’s Walk, Hazy Dazy Holiday and the concluding Mr Mick’s New Home, the story starts to make some kind of sense. And I’m baffled as to why the acoustic ballad Can Inspiration Save The Nation? was left off the official version of the album. Indeed, the unexpurgated version of the album turns a diverse collection of – excellent – songs into a cohesive concept album. Rocket Records should have let Stackridge do it their way – of that, there’s no doubt.
Mr Mick marked the beginning of the end of the first life of Stackridge. They took the album on tour, with Mutter donning an old overcoat and a cloth cap to adopt the guise of the lead character, but the end was nigh, and Stackridge played their final show in Yeovil in April 1976. Punk was on the horizon and the various members of the band were each starting to realise that the breakthrough they deserved just wasn’t going to happen. Andy Davis and James Warren did see some success during the 80s with The Korgis, and, in 1998, Stackridge reformed, with new energy and a raft of new material – but that’s a story for another day.
Cherry Red have done Stackridge proud with this reissue series. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to re-evaluate the work of this outstanding band – and I heartily recommend that you do a bit of rediscovery work for yourselves.
Listen to Coniston Water – an outstanding track on this, or any other, Stackridge album – here: