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The gigs were sparse at first, and Walter left. Tobin moved to London and began securing more plentiful bookings, while around Bristol, Stackridge began developing their eclectic, whimsical repertoire, with stated influences and preferences encompassing Zappa, the Beach Boys, Flanders & Swann, Syd Barrett, Igor Stravinsky, the Marx Brothers, J.S. Bach, and very significantly, the 1965-1966 Beatles. Their rummage sale stagewear, Slater's exuberant, witty patter (and his development of dustbin lids as a percussion instrument), Warren's wry, rambling story/introductions (contemporaneous with Peter Gabriel's development of same with Genesis), and the almost unique (in a rock group) inclusion of both a flutist and violinist led Stackridge to develop an enthusiastic, loyal following.
They signed to MCA, and with Fritz Fryer producing, they recorded Stackridge in the spring of 1971, sharing Martin Birch as engineer with Deep Purple. Warren wrote four songs alone and three with Davis, establishing him as the group's main lyrical voice. Stackridge was highlighted by the boisterous "Dora the Female Explorer," "Percy the Penguin" (the first of their laments for misunderstood animals), and a 12-plus-minute version of live favorite "Slark," a mythical beast that scoops the hapless narrator out of his car and flies him "beyond the fields we know." Walter was persuaded to rejoin on bass, allowing Warren to move to guitar permanently, while Davis continued to switch between guitar and keyboards.
After releasing two singles in support of the first LP (including a single version of "Slark" and the live instrumental favorite "Purple Spaceships Over Yatton") and touring with Wishbone Ash, the six returned to the studio in August 1972 to record Friendliness, perhaps the classic Stackridge album. It was recorded in just 70 hours of off-peak studio time, with 30 more hours of mixing. There were five songs (including the two-part title track) from Warren, a piano instrumental from flutist Slater, three Walter/Davis compositions (including "Syracuse the Elephant" and "Keep on Clucking," preceding animal rights activism by at least a decade), and the opening instrumental galloper "Lummy Days." MCA released Friendliness stateside as well (unlike the first album), but without promo or performances. Despite modest sales (again), Stackridge had shed the "novelty item" tag and created, as reviewer Chas Keep put it in 1996, "A sort of children's favorites with attitude; a compendium of tuneful melodies performed without the now dated excesses of [their] contemporaries." The release of Friendliness in November 1972 was followed by a tour with friends the Pigsty Hill Orchestra and a new single, "Do the Stanley" b/w "C'est la Vie," in February 1973. Despite its being a catchy and an easy singalong single, DJs failed to pick up on "Stanley," and the BBC hierarchy restricted its airplay due to a lyrical reference to the Queen. Conversely, since 1971, Radio 1 and the Beeb had been recording and broadcasting Stackridge in session and in concert, as they faithfully did with rock and pop acts of all stripes. (Some of these recordings finally emerged on CD in the '90s.)
When a third LP was planned, Stackridge received a boost. George Martin's son had played Friendliness for his legendary father, and colleagues at Air Studios had pestered him to work with the band. Reluctant, until he heard some demo tapes for the new album, Martin agreed to produce what became The Man in the Bowler Hat, easily Stackridge's most financially successful and well-known album. Reviewer Chas Keep reveals that Martin worked on the melodic and rhythmic patterns (especially the vocal harmonies), supervised the orchestration, and even contributed piano on "Humiliation." Andy Mackay of Roxy Music added sax to "Dangerous Bacon," an infectious tip o' the hat to the Beatles. "Bacon" was passed over for first single release in favor of "The Galloping Gaucho," a brilliant poke at glitter rockers and the absurdity of "being cool." Yet "Gaucho" strengthened the public's perception of Stackridge as an oddity, a bucolic rock troupe with dancehall leanings. They were warm when the public wanted cool, intricate when brash was praised, illuminating when obscurity was in vogue. The Man in the Bowler Hat contained some of the finest hybrid rock music ever. Most of the lyrics were group efforts (under the unlikely pen name of Smegmakovitch), while composition fell chiefly to Davis, Slater, and Warren, in that order. "God Speed the Plough," the remarkable instrumental closer, is attributed to Wabadaw Sleeve (again, a full group effort). The band's musicianship and creative talents were brilliantly showcased, and the fact that "Hat" failed to win over record buyers probably contributed to the dissolution of Stackridge.
Watching Martin at work, Slater hated the idea of trying to reproduce the album on-stage, and further felt Stackridge were just dabbling in music. Wanting to study music seriously and not get sucked into the commercial aspect of it all, he quit. Billy Sparkle left also and became Martin's personal assistant for several years, as well as a professional photographer. Davis' restlessness was abated temporarily by recruiting Keith Gemmell (formerly with Audience) on sax, flute, and clarinet, and Rod Bowkett on keyboards, which allowed Davis to switch to drums. This new lineup toured during the 1973-1974 winter with new material as well as songs from The Man in the Bowler Hat, which wasn't released until February 1974. Within a few months, Warren and Walter were both asked to leave. Gordon Haskell, who had contributed vocals and bass to King Crimson's Lizard, joined for a couple weeks and then exited amicably, leaving the band with the song "(No One's More Important Than) The Earthworm." Paul Karas replaced him. Rod Bowkett composed some brilliant instrumentals and both he and Gemmell began to move Stackridge into jazzier territory. Mike Evans, always an outsider, also left, leaving Davis in charge at last. Roy Morgan was added on drums, with Davis returning to guitar. Thus, it was a very different Stackridge that recorded Extravaganza in late 1974 for Elton John's Rocket Records. Released in January 1975, the fourth album had fine songs ("The Volunteer," "Spin 'Round the Room," "Earthworm," and "Happy in the Lord") and clever instrumentals ("Who's That Up There with Bill Stokes?," "Pocket Billiards"), but the essence of Stackridge was gone.
In 1975, Bowkett gave way to Dave Lawson (ex-Greenslade) and Pete Van Hooke replaced Roy Morgan. Slater had rejoined somewhat earlier, freeing Gemmell to focus on sax and clarinet, and joining Davis in the vocals once again. Finally, Walter was asked to rejoin, replacing Karas on bass. This final lineup created Stackridge's only true concept album, Mr. Mick, released in March 1976. Unfortunately, the released version was a far cry from what Stackridge submitted. Davis recalled, 20 years later, that "Rocket hacked the tapes to pieces, rendered the whole thing unintelligible, and precipitated the band's demise." Mr. Mick wasn't very popular with concert reviewers either, who either couldn't follow the story (narrated by Slater), yearned for the exuberant antics of yore, or both. Despite a marvelous cover of the Beatles' "Hold Me Tight," two remarkable instrumentals composed by Slater ("The Slater's Waltz" and "Coniston Water"), and good Walter/Davis material, Stackridge disbanded.
Do the Stanley, a fond retrospective issued in late 1976, gathered all the non-LP tracks, the live fiddle fest "Let There Be Lids," and a few signature album tracks. Stackridge's practice of melding clever, often sympathetic lyrics and complex but hummable melodies with innovative mixes and crisp arrangements paved the way into the pop rock charts in the '70s for the likes of Queen, 10cc, and Sparks; in the '80s for Split Enz, Squeeze, They Might Be Giants, and Prefab Sprout; and in the '90s for Barenaked Ladies, Trashcan Sinatras, the Bats, and Divine Comedy. Davis and Warren returned to mainstream music in 1979 as the Korgis. Finally, they achieved the singles success they'd sought in Stackridge with "If I Had You" from their debut LP, The Korgis (number 13 U.K.), and especially "Everyone's Got to Learn Sometime" (number five U.K., number 18 in the U.S.) from the followup, Dumb Waiters. After two more LPs (Sticky George and This World's for Everyone) escaped notice, they again parted ways. Davis released a solo LP, Clevedon Pier, in 1989, and has remained active in both performance (with the Andy Davis Band, which made an eponymous, limited-edition CD in 1994, and a trio with Stuart Gordon [Korgis] and Peter Allerhand, named Los Caballeros) and production through 1998. Warren released a solo LP in 1986, but was rarely heard from musically, for many years.
Beginning in 1992, with the issue of Stackridge: BBC Radio 1 Live in Concert, interest in the band was rekindled. By 1997, everything was available on CD, including Radio 1 Sessions, a second BBC live offering. Warren and Walter, noting this and the lively interest coalescing on the Internet, thought perhaps the world was ready for Stackridge again. Warren put together a four-track demo called Stackridge: More in Late '98, featuring three songs he wrote or co-wrote, plus one by old friend Roger Cook, with Andy West. According to Mike Evans' wife Jennie, now their business manager, all original bandmembers were approached by Warren and invited to "do it again." Slater, Sparkle, and Davis declined for varying reasons, but Evans, who remained active in folk music after leaving Stackridge, came back on board. A new Stackridge full-length CD, tentatively titled Sex and Flags, was slated for release in the spring of 1999, and the reborn group agreed to be the opening act on the folk stage at the annual Glastonbury Festival in June 1999. Later that year the band's new LP was indeed released, under the title Something for the Weekend (the Sex and Flags title to be used later).
Following a management dispute that brought their reunion to an end in 2000, Stackridge again went their separate ways. But after performing a series of gigs as James Warren & Friends, whose lineup included Crun Walters, keyboard player Glenn Tommey, and violinist Sarah Mitchell, James again floated the idea of resurrecting Stackridge. This time he succeeded in persuading two more founding members to give it one last shot: Andy Cresswell-Davis and Mutter Slater were always key ingredients as composers, instrumentalists, and lead vocalists, and their reunion with Warren and Walter meant that the band -- later augmented by violinist Rachel Hall and drummer Eddie John -- was now restored to something very close to its classic lineup. Sex and Flags (2003) consisted of just six songs -- all demos recorded by the individual members -- originally released as a privately pressed mini-album called Stackridge Lemon and bolstered by tracks from Something for the Weekend. It wasn't until 2007 that the band began to tour in earnest, however, culminating in 2008 with a performance at the Glastonbury Festival 38 years after providing its very first act. Even more improbably, buoyed by the joyous response of audiences of all ages, Stackridge began collaborating on a new album with producer Chris Hughes. A Victory for Common Sense, set for release in July 2009, is the first to feature all four principal composers since 1973's The Man in the Bowler Hat. ~ Elessar Tetramariner & Christopher Evans
Track List: The Man In The Bowler Hat
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