August 17, 2023

If there’s a more ‘Stackridge’ song title – or a better one for that matter – than The Indifferent Hedgehog, I’d be keen to see it … and the man who doesn’t find it utterly charming and heartwarming is a man who has a paper-thin soul, as far as I’m concerned.

Ah, Stackridge… a blast from that heady past in the hinterlands of the 1970s, when bands had the freedom to throw whatever influences into their melting pot that they cared to, and still be given the freedom of several albums before being advised politely to perhaps sell a few if that wasn’t too much trouble… Of course, the record companies quickly got wise to that one, as they became far more the province of the bean-counters in the Accounts Department and less of the artistic men with a vision to populate the world with wonderful music. It was nice while it lasted, although of course it would be foolish to imagine that all of this musical freedom resulted in marvellous results – indeed, it would often produce a grim ‘what were they thinking??’ mess – but it was damn good fun all the same. So it was, as much as anyone, with Stackridge – a band who seemed to make it their life’s work to confound their listeners with hairpin bends of style so severe as to induce motion sickness. But those who followed them would not have had it any other way. Let’s look back at these expanded reissues of their first four albums and see just what’s going on behind some song titles which would make Frank Zappa announce ‘Stop that! It’s silly!’, a la Monty Python…

First up we have the self-titled debut, unleashed on the unsuspecting world in 1971. A glance at the tracklist reveals not only the story of Percy The Penguin, but also Essence Of Porphyry, Marigold Conjunction, Marzo Plod and – naturally – The Three Legged Table. And they weren’t even getting started with the surrealism yet. Right away it becomes clear that any review of Stackridge is going to be extremely difficult without constant recourse to the word ‘quirky’. Indeed, a glance into the Q section of any reputable dictionary should by rights include the entry ‘Quirky: adjective – descriptive of the musical group Stackridge’. That it doesn’t, I can only blame the compilers – but we’ll let it go as we look at the material. It’s sometimes not so easy to assess what a piece will be like from its title – Percy The Penguin, for example, rather than being a jaunty tale of a plucky animal, is in fact a rather tragic story of the titular penguin who, despite the evidence of his peers, refuses to believe he cannot fly – rather that they just haven’t tried hard enough. He climbs to a high rock and launches himself off with the gulls (hence the album cover) – and, well, let’s say it doesn’t end well unless you prefer your penguins on the flat side. It’s really rather affecting in a ridiculous way. Elsewhere there are a couple of actual prog epics – the aforementioned instrumental Essence Of Porphyry for one, and most notably the 14-minute Slark, which details a run-in with a Jabberwocky-esque monstrous being of that name. Largely instrumental, and driven by flute and violin, let’s just say it’s like little prog rock you’ve heard before. But in a good way. There are some misses among the hits (Marigold Conjunction and 32 West Mall won’t appear on my playlist too often), but the good stuff is excellent. The Three Legged Table is a piece in two distinct sections, breaking into a full-on rocker midway through out of nowhere, and is very good, but the real gem here is the irresistible earworm of Dora The Female Explorer. Yes, that’s right, decades before the Children’s TV character Dora The Explorer, Stackridge got there first (don’t try to tell me ‘Dora The Explorer’ is a coincidence!), and it’s a cracking track. Evoking the ever-moving explorer herself trekking on through the undergrowth and jungles, it’s a singular pop-rock gem which should by rights have been a big hit. But of course it wasn’t. There are a few bonus tracks, including The Three Legged Table Part Three which was performed in a radio session, and has no connection whatsoever with The Three Legged Table. You get Slark again, though.

A year later came the follow-up, Friendliness, complete with charming cover illustration of a bearded old chap happily welcoming some birds to him. It’s a typically bucolic Stackridge image – as is the other photo within which sees the band posing with a gorgeous -looking dog. One thing that these images, and several tracks here, illustrate is that the band were clearly unashamed animal lovers. The standout track on the album, Syracuse The Elephant, is a nine-minute prog rock opus which tells of an elephant in captivity which, though well-fed and well treated, still yearns to go to the wild. It’s ridiculous, but it’s really rather moving. Less moving if equally well-intentioned is Keep On Clucking, a riotous rocker which rails against the ill-treatment of chickens as it gets as close to 12-bar boogie as the band would ever go. ‘Fun’ is an understatement. There are two other standouts, with the opening Lummy Days, a high-spirited, celebratory and compact prog piece which is irresistible at what it does, and the closing Teatime, which is more serious and multifaceted than the title would suggest. Elsewhere, however, there is a little too much of the quirkier-than-thou side of things, with even the band admitting in the accompanying notes that some pieces were arranged ill-advisedly. Anyone For Tennis is a rather irritating 1920s tea-dance pastiche which pushes the envelope a little too far, while Father Frankenstein Is Behind Your Pillow is much less entertaining than the title and Story Of My Heart is so forgettable that I can’t even remember exactly why I didn’t care for it! Overall, while it has its high points, it’s the weakest of the four albums. It does come with a second disc which contains the marvellous prog piece Purple Spaceships Over Yatton which was relegated bizarrely to the B-side of an edited Slark single. It’s brilliant, as is another single, one of the band’s best-known songs Do The Stanley, a chirpy ‘Cockney singalong’ about an invented dance craze which is so over the top it’s impossible not to like it. A June 1972 Radio One In Concert is as wilfully obtuse as some of the album, as excellent renditions of Lummy Days and Teatime rub shoulders with the theme from Juke Box Jury, a performance of the jig The Four Poster Bed complete with dustbin lid percussion, subtitled Let There Be Lids, and, most bizarrely of all, a romp through She Taught Me How To Yodel – complete with, of course, yodelling. That’s Stackridge for you in a nutshell – get their first national radio live showcase and ensure to make room for yodelling and bashing bin lids together.

Things pick up immensely with the next release, however, as The Man In The Bowler Hat, from 1974, takes that same all-over-the-shop quirkiness but gets it (almost) all dead right. There is perhaps less of the overtly ‘prog’ influence here, with no Syracuse or Slark epics around or over the ten minute mark, but the quality of the songwriting is the best it’s ever been, while the wild eclecticism remains. The presence of George Martin contributing to the arrangements doesn’t harm things either. The first three tracks hit a seam of absolute gold: Fundamentally Yours is a brilliantly Beatle-esque pop song, while Pinafore Days is a sublime exercise in aching nostalgia, and third track The Last Plimsoll may be the best of the three, with a ‘film noir’ Private Eye feeling to it, and a propulsive chorus which is hard to shake. This sounds like Stackridge finally getting everything the way they always wanted it to be, and it’s a joy to hear. To The Sun And Moon is another lush pop-rock piece, while The Road To Venezuela is a shimmeringly sunny travelogue-cum-adventure-tale, with just the right touches of surrealism when you notice them; the chorus begins beautifully with ‘Meet me where the pampas grass will touch the sky’, before you mentally check your ears to see whether you heard the following line correctly: ‘Where llamas fly above the blue lagoon’. (Yes. Yes you did hear it correctly.) The Galloping Gaucho opens what would have been the old Side Two with more than a dash of Gilbert And Sullivan in its Mexican mix; it is, depending on mood, either brilliantly catchy or intensely irritating. Or possibly both. Humiliation and the oddly titled Dangerous Bacon (which has no lyrical connection to either bacon, pigs in general or indeed any sort of coherent narrative) are perhaps the least essential tracks, but we’re right back on track with the final two. If there’s a more ‘Stackridge’ song title – or a better one for that matter – than The Indifferent Hedgehog, I’d be keen to see it, and the song itself doesn’t disappoint, being a lovely piece of whimsy regarding a man contemplating the simple pleasures of his home life (‘There’s a hedgehog on my fence, he treats me with indifference / And I in turn ignore him, even though he’s close to me), and the man who doesn’t find it utterly charming and heartwarming is a man who has a paper-thin soul, as far as I’m concerned. Finally, perhaps the best left until last, comes one of the band’s most celebrated pieces, the epic symphonic sweep of the instrumental God Speed The Plough – with Martin’s perfect orchestral arrangement married to the flute and violin led melody, it evokes open fields under open skies, and the slow pace of true rural life. A brilliant way to finish an album which perfects the template of the first two.

The second disc here is also more than worthwhile, containing another BBC In Concert broadcast as well as a four-track Bob Harris session. The live show gives us such gems as Purple Spaceships Over Yatton, Do The Stanley and Syracuse The Elephant, while Anyone For Tennis is far better than the weak studio version. The run through Twist And Shout is wilfully pointless, and the rendition of Dora The Female Explorer a little disappointing, but it’s a good set nonetheless. The Bob Harris session supplies a couple of weak points (another Galloping Gaucho is perhaps one too many, while the unreleased track The Lyder Loo is utterly hopeless to be quite honest), but it does also give us excellent alternative renditions of The Road To Venezuela and God Speed The Plough. An essential purchase, all in all.

Which brings us, finally, to the contentious fourth album Extravaganza, released in 1975, before which the band utterly fell apart, with five of the six members departing, leaving only guitarist/keyboard player Andy Davies at the helm of the rapidly sinking ship – though flautist Mutter Slater did return prior to the recording of the album. Four new musicians came in to make up what almost amounted to a ‘new’ Stackridge, and bringing more serious musical ideas and influences with them. Many fans have been critical of the album down the years, claiming that it loses the magic which made Stackridge so unique, and in effect waters down their identity. I am here to say right now, however, that these people are wrong. Extravaganza is, in actual fact, an inspired album for the most part, and to these ears contains some of the greatest music the band ever produced. An album of two halves, the old ‘first side’ is made up of several more ‘traditional’ Stackridge pieces, of which the weakest are actually the opening pair – the relatively forgettable Spin Round The Room and Grease Paint Smiles. From there it immediately picks up, with The Volunteer (a holdover from the previous album) being a darkly comic cautionary tale of life in the military with something of a music-hall flavour, Highbury Incident a cracking Beatles-influenced pop-rocker, and Benjamin’s Giant Onion being a rollickingly entertaining tale of a man driven insane by his onion obsession, set to a sort of late ’60s psych-pop accompaniment, a little like The Pretty Things circa SF Sorrow. Happy In The Lord closes this half in thumping fashion, being a satirical yet good-time pounding pop-rock tune with a foot in both the ‘old’ and ‘new’ Stackridges, as it were. All good stuff for the long-time fan, but the second side is where the real meat for the more prog-oriented listener comes in, as the new line-up reveal an influence of Hot Rats-era Zappa out of the blue, and it’s marvellous stuff. Not that this new-found emphasis on serious musical excellence changes the landscape entirely: this is still Stackridge after all. To record a compact, complex and quite brilliant piece of jazz-prog instrumental gymnastics, and then call it Pocket Billiards, is not something you would expect, but there you have it. The obvious joke would be that that title takes balls, but I won’t stoop that low. It’s right off the Hot Rats playbook, as is most of this side – whereas Zappa had classic jazz-influenced serious rock compositions with titles such as Peaches En Regalia, Little Umbrellas and It Must Be A Camel, so Stackridge hit us with the aforementioned Pocket Billiards, Who’s That Up There With Bill Stokes and Rufus T Firefly (the latter a great nod to Groucho Marx). All three of these are from a rarefied level of musicianship which, for all their charm. wasn’t really where the original line-up wanted to go, but there is still that sense of off-the -wall surrealist fun. Finally there is one of Stackridge’s most celebrated pieces, and yet one which wasn’t even written by them, with the symphonic grandiosity of No One’s More Important Than The Earth Worm. Written in fact by ex-King Crimson man Gordon Haskell for a long-forgotten solo album, it oozes class as it moves in a stately and majestic way with guitar and mellotron underpinnings. It’s a perfectly valid and even laudable ecological statement, but once again there is a moment where, perhaps after several listens, you have to check your ears in the chorus, when the utterly deadpan and earnest line comes in announcing, along with the humble worm’s importance, that ‘The ostrich always gets his man / He jumps out from a bush’. This may be so, but I cannot recall this habit ever being covered by David Attenbrough. With Stackridge, ’twas ever thus. And you have to love them for it.

There is an excellent second disc with this final album of the four, showcasing the new line-up delivering the highlights of Extravaganza, along with a few oldies such as a fine God Speed The Plough. It makes it the pick of this clutch of releases, especially for the hardcore prog fan, though The Man In The Bowler Hat is not far behind. Get those two, and the investigate the earlier ones as taste dictates. Perhaps the best way to sum up the whole Stackridge ethos is the means by which they enlivened their early live shows – many bands have had signature live components: Iron Maiden have Eddie, Black Sabbath huge crosses, Pink Floyd had flying pigs and Genesis had banks of Boeing 707 landing lights. Stackridge, meanwhile, had Rhubarb Thrashing. This odd sounding practice is a real pastime, treated as a competitive sport in some odd corners of Yorkshire, mainly, whereby two combatants are blindfolded and standing in barrels or dustbins, and take turns to try to hit each others’ heads with sticks of rhubarb until one submits. Stackridge, scorning the more usual aspects of live spectacle, encouraged their audience members to bring sticks of rhubarb to shows and thrash the stage in time to the music. There was even a ‘fan club’ of sorts called The Stackridge Rhubarb Thrashing Society. Frankly, if you need any more than that to love this band, then I really don’t know what to say!