Stackridge is a West-country circus of looniness and sweet melodies, and arguably England’s finest unsung band. Formed in the early 70’s by guitarist James Warren, flautist Mike “Mutter” Slater, guitarist/keyboard player Andrew Creswell-Davis, violinist Mike Evans, bassist Jim “Crun” Walter, and drummer Billy “Sparkle” Blake, Stackridge presented a frankly amazing mixture of folk, rock, pop, jazz, classical, and English music-hall influences, stirred together with a whimsical spoon. Think somewhere in between The Beatles and the Bonzo Dog Band, and you’ll be in their general neighborhood.
Their eponymous debut album set the stage, as the band put forth a delightful series of musical stories about a lady explorer, an ancient eccentric, a three-legged table, and a penguin longing to fly, topped off with the epic tale of a legendary dragon named Slark, which became an early mainstay of underground FM radio. Their musicianship was top-notch, notably the rare (for a rock band) blend of violin and flute, and the sound they created was rich and distinctive. Their follow-up, 1972’s Friendliness, further established the band’s unique territory, with more delightfully wistful story-songs and bold, genre-blending instrumental pieces.
In 1973, Sir George Martin, fresh from producing the now-defunct Beatles, was approached by his son with demo tapes of new Stackridge material, and jumped enthusiastically behind the console to produce The Man In The Bowler Hat, an album that many fans consider to be their magnum opus. Lush, deep, and opulent, brimming with the band’s trademark lyric wit, the album positioned Stackridge to break out globally as the band that would carry the Fab Four’s banner onward through the 70’s.
Internal friction threw a spanner into the works, however, and the band dissolved and reformed kaleidoscopically, disgorging first Slater, then Warren, Walter, and Evans. The sole survivor, Andy Davis, was joined over this period by keyboard player Rod Bowkett, drummer Roy Morgan, Rare Bird’s Paul Karas on bass guitar, and Keith Gemmell, late of Audience, on saxophone, flute, and clarinet. This lineup produced Extravaganza, an album that, while understandably different, was no less adventurous a musical excursion, presenting a tarter, jazzier sound. Mix a generous dash of Frank Zappa in with the Beatles/Bonzo blend, and you’ll have the general idea.
Again, however, the band failed to connect with a broad enough audience to bring them international fame, despite being the first band signed to Elton John’s fledgling Rocket Records label, and despite a legendary concert as Elton’s opening act, in which the seeds of rampant Stackermania could clearly be seen to be sprouting, and indeed probably would have done, if Rocket had had any idea of how to promote them. Alas, however, they had not.
The good news is that the resulting slump induced more personnel changes, and the reason that news is good is that those changes involved the return of first Slater, then Walter, who with the aid of ex-Greenslade keyboardist Dave Lawson (replacing Bowkett) and new drummer Pete Van Hooke, joined Davis in fashioning the band’s first real concept album, Mr. Mick. The bad news is that they were still in the stable of Rocket Records, whose management decided that concept albums were out, and in the recent words of Andy Davis, “hacked the tapes to pieces, rendered the whole thing unintelligible, and precipitated the band’s demise.” Indeed, despite solid performances and good material, Stackridge disbanded in 1976.
A retrospective collection of non-album material followed, and then 23 years of silence, during which Davis and Warren formed and dissolved the new-wavy electronic pop band The Korgis whose Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometime was
recently covered by Beck for the soundtrack to the Jim Carrey film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
They kept their hands in with solo and/or low-profile projects (Davis, Warren, Slater), doing session work for such artists as John Lennon (Davis, piano on the classic Imagine album), and touring with bands like Tears For Fears (Davis). During this time also flourished many, many acts for whom the way was paved by Stackridge, including Queen and
10cc in the 70’s, Squeeze and Crowded House in the 80’s, and They Might Be Giants and Barenaked Ladies in the 90’s.
Then, in the waning days of the old millennium, the release of the band’s live BBC recordings and the gathering of their original fanbase on the Internet inspired the founding members to speak of a Stackridge revival. Blake and Slater chose not to participate, and an unfortunate internal rift caused the exclusion of Davis. The remaining three, Warren, Walter, and Evans, enlisted the aid of keyboardist/songwriter John Miller, multi-instrumentalist Richard Stubbings, and drummer Tim Robinson, and the happy result was the 1999 Stackridge release, Something for the Weekend, a grand return to form that was refreshingly free of the mawkishness and artifice that plagued the albums of other “reunion bands” from the 70’s. Two years of touring and a live album followed, before internal strife tragically silenced the band yet again.
The Internet fans (known as Rhubarb Thrashers, after a typically arcane line from an early song) kept the faith through another period of flying vitriol and stony silence. Then, miracle of miracles, Christmas 2002 saw the band again stirring with new life. Andy Davis and Mutter Slater came back to the fold and, with James Warren and Crun Walter, concocted a six-song EP entitled Lemon (after the original name of the band, Stackridge Lemon), featuring, amongst great material from each member, a wonderfully Beatlesque song co-penned by one of the Rhubarb Thrashers.
Time and budgetary restraints, as well as a lack of major-label affiliation, have prevented their full-scale return as a touring entity, but their fans are still holding the banner high, and Davis and Warren have both recently remarked upon the band’s resolve to move forward in some direction in 2005. What direction in particular remains in question, but it is as longtime fan Kim “Mott the Dog” Fletcher states in his Amazon review, “therein lies their lasting success, the ability to stand out from the crowd and create clever songs, with witty lyrics and highly original arrangements.” In an increasingly mediocre musical landscape, Stackridge continues to gleam like a dragon’s scale.