The dissolution of the Beatles in 1970 left a vast chasm in the contemporary music scene that other bands were only too eager to fill. One of the first to arrive, picking up right where the Fab Four left off, was Stackridge, who had formed in Bristol in 1969. Their eclectic range of songs, whimsical subject matter and musical talent earned them the nickname ‘West Country Beatles’, but their inspirations were far broader, from the psychedelic leanings of Frank Zappa and Syd Barrett to progressive artists such as King Crimson and Traffic, and even incorporating folk music such as jigs. The band saw strength in their material’s diversity, and were proud of their ‘lack of direction’.
When I first began listening to Stackridge, it was only to review their third and fourth albums, to be released later this month by Esoteric. I hadn’t expected much but before too long, I was belting out the chorus of a song called No One’s More Important Than the Earthworm. Because of the band’s haphazard songwriting style, I can’t say that every track was a hit with me. Still, the highs were so good that I decided to expand my review to encompass the entirety of the band’s 1970s output, noting that their fifth album Mr. Mick will also get a reissue by the end of September.
The self-titled debut is a quieter affair, more rooted in folk than subsequent efforts, although the band starts with a slab of pure rock with Grande Piano, a bass drum beat on nearly every quaver. Percy the Penguin stands in opposition, a far quieter and gentler piece, showing the band’s contrast. It must be said, though, that neither song is particularly interesting, and the band do have a streak of writing songs with a regular verse-chorus format, which could be off-putting to the average prog fan.
As if to call me out for my criticism, The Three Legged Table showcases a broad range of styles from folk to jazz to blues to hard rock, never quite blending the styles but moving between them with ease. This was quite intentional, according to writer James Warren, as he wanted to write something in opposition to a regular pop song. Putting several pre-existing styles together in the same track is certainly one way to make a song progressive, but it seems like a bit of a shortcut. Interestingly, one of the bonus tracks includes the final part of this song, but made to sound more stereotypically Latin American, in a way that I’m not sure I’m comfortable with.
Nickelodeon ought to owe Stackridge some coin, because Dora the Female Explorer was one of the group’s biggest hits back in the day. With the bouncy rhythm, folksy violin and harmonica, this song can feel a little unbearable at times, but I do like the vocal harmony in the chorus. It’s just far too repetitive though; I’m reminded why I like prog so much.
Time for a digression: at senior school, I was shocked to be asked to compose actual music as part of my GCSE examination, because I felt as if I had no creative talent whatsoever in that regard. We were allowed to pick from the genres we had previously studied, so I decided to pick Serialism as my genre of choice, as it was an entirely rule-based style of music that didn’t need to sound ‘good’. I simply picked a random order for the twelve notes and then played them back to front, upside-down, slower, faster, etc, for approximately three minutes. To me, it was a meaningless exercise, a means to an end, and deserved an equally meaningless title. I decided to pick the most obscure words I had heard that week and throw them together to form The Querulous Nephron. I believe I got full marks for my piece.
I sometimes wonder if Dave Greenslade was being serious when he named his second solo album The Pentateuch of the Cosmogony or if he was also poking fun at how pretentious prog rock can be. Maybe I should have asked him when I interviewed him. I’m also similarly sceptical of Warren’s title of the next song, Essence of Porphyry, which seems so abstract and esoteric as to be utterly meaningless.
The song itself is rather unusual for a rock band, an eight-minute episodic instrumental chamber piece, played mainly on the guitar, violin and flute. This meandering piece just keeps going and going without any clear direction. It’s only in the seventh minute that the rest of the band gets to join in and bring the song to a climactic finale, but it’s too little too late.
Three shorter pop songs follow, each with their own intonations and personality, before the final showstopper. We’re at the 36-minute mark, a time when most contemporary albums would be coming to a close but, incredibly, Stackridge find the room for a 14-minute epic to finish. Slark tells the tale of a fantasy creature that whisks the narrator away in its claws through folky, sing-song lyrics. Slark’s main theme reminds me greatly of the folk sections of Papillon by Latte e Miele but, unlike Papillon, Slark unfortunately doesn’t feature any dizzying, pyrotechnic musical displays. Instead, Slark is happy to plod through pastoral themes for several minutes before finally letting the rest of the band join in for a harder section. The close of the song features a couple more verses and then a rather self-congratulatory audio clip of rapturous applause. I’ve grown to appreciate this piece more on subsequent listens, and the full-length live version included as a bonus track also furthered my understanding of the inner workings of this behemoth, but I honestly like a little more bang for my buck.
I’ve whinged about every song on the album, so it must come as no surprise that it’s my least favourite of Stackridge’s output. Nevertheless, the band showed a lot of promise, even at this early stage, and would go on to do far greater things. Stackridge is not a terrible album by any means, but it’s definitely not where I’d start.
As for Esoteric’s reissue, it’s hard for me to be very conclusive as we’re now in the age where it’s a lot more cost-effective for companies to send us digital files, so I’ve not had eyes on the final product and cannot tell you whether the Hipgnosis-designed gatefold album cover has been recreated sufficiently. I did appreciate Mike Barnes’s essay, however, which went track-by-track and gave me a lot of insight into how the band formed and how the songs were written. The bonus tracks include a B-side and some live tracks, giving a more rounded view of the band at the time. Of the five Stackridge albums to be reissued, this is the only one to not receive a bonus disc; as this is my least favourite Stackridge album, however, I’m not really gutted about that.
01. Grande Piano (3:21)
02. Percy the Penguin (3:40)
03. The Three Legged Table (6:48)
04. Dora the Female Explorer (3:46)
05. Essence of Porphyry (8:04)
06. Marigold Conjunction (4:58)
07. 32 West Mall (2:24)
08. Marzo Plod (3:04)
09. Slark (14:09)
~ Bonus tracks:
10. Everyman (B-side of single) (4:25)
11. Let There Be Lids (3:19)
12. The Three Legged Table, Part Three (BBC Radio John Peel Top Gear session 1971) (3:05)
13. Slark (BBC Radio John Peel Top Gear session 1971) (14:47)
Total Time – 75:56
Andy Cresswell-Davis – Electric & Acoustic Guitars, Lead & Backing Vocals, Piano, Harmonium
James Warren – Electric & Acoustic Guitars, Lead & Backing Vocals
Michael Evans – Violin, Backing Vocals
Michael “Mutter” Slater – Flute, Backing Vocals
Billy “Sparkle” Bent – Drums, Triangle