This is where I began my Stackridge journey. On the first listen, I didn’t think much and presumed that this was another bland AOR band, but how wrong I was. Certain tracks on this album were utter growers and I was soon blasting the upbeat album opener Fundamentally Yours on repeat. The song’s delicious production, which includes a propulsive bassline, elevates this pop tune to something transcendental. The final twenty seconds include a key change and proggy keyboard solo that make it seem as if the track is going to head to a new place before flatly dropping the listener on their arse. It’s quite the tease but I still think it’s a brilliant track.
Why is the production so good? A quick glance at the liner notes might make your jaw drop; the album was produced by none other than George Martin. Imagine if Steven Spielberg directed an episode of Coronation Street. Stackridge, who were very clearly disciples of the Beatles, were suddenly paired with the man that had produced all of their favourite music. A better pairing couldn’t have been made, and Martin’s genius can be found all over the record, especially in the tasteful arrangements of these vastly differing tracks. Guitarist James Warren rightfully calls the Wurlitzer piano on Humiliation a ‘masterstroke’.
The fine production doesn’t prevent some of the songs from being a little dull, however. As with all Stackridge’s albums, the eclectic mix of songs results in some inevitable hits and misses. Pinafore Days, To the Sun and the Moon, Humiliation and The Indifferent Hedgehog are too quiet and lullaby-ish for my taste, and I frequently find myself hitting the skip button, even if there’s nothing really wrong with them.
The Last Plimsoll is much more prog with the bombastic organ contrasting with Mutter’s flute. The blend of genres on this song makes it sound like an early Genesis offcut. The Galloping Gaucho is more along the classic Stackridge comedy route, delivered in a deep Southwestern accent, but made more laughable by how earnestly it’s played. Dangerous Bacon sounds virtually identical to a latter-day Beatles song, from the daft lyrics down to the double-tracked snare drum, guest musician Andy Mackay’s saxophone recalling Savoy Truffle from The White Album. What more could you expect when a group of Beatles fans who are trying to copy the Beatles’ successful formula are produced by the Beatles’ producer?
The biggest irritation for me is The Road to Venezuela, which is far longer than it needs to be at nearly five minutes. The simple tune suffers from its instrumentation which relies too heavily on the whine of the violin. The verse-chorus structure is mind-numbingly repetitive and is only broken up by a brief instrumental. In this quieter section, it feels as if something interesting is about to happen, but the band simply return to the next verse all too quickly. Inspired by the 1941 film Road to Zanzibar, I wonder if the name Venezuela conjured up more romantic notions in the ’70s than the images of refugees and political strife it does now.
The name of the closing tune – God Speed the Plough – doesn’t inspire much confidence but it happens to be quite a serious instrumental. Opening with melancholic piano, the piece showcases evocative solos from both Mutter on the flute and Mike Evans on the violin before the piece ends with an orchestration by Martin. With no drumkit in sight, it doesn’t really fulfil my prog tastes, but it’s still a great, serious piece to end the album on a high.
The bonus disc features two BBC performances from early 1973, long before The Man in the Bowler Hat was recorded and a full year before it was released in February 1974. The initial recording BBC Radio One in Concert features only selections from the first two albums, and doesn’t really feel appropriate alongside this one; nevertheless, the inclusion of the high-concept tracks Syracuse the Elephant and Purple Spaceships Over Yatton prompted me to explore even more Stackridge and do this full deep dive, so I guess it’s a good advertisement. The band also play a stomping rendition of the classic Twist and Shout, Mike Evans purposefully hamming it up for comedic effect. The band refer to this track, which was only a decade old at the time as a “rave from the grave”; what would that make Stackridge’s music, then?
The closing four tracks are taken from the Bob Harris show session in February 1973 and contain three songs from Bowler Hat which are remarkably complete. I particularly enjoyed how God Speed the Plough is closed on the Mellotron when played in a live setting. It’s a mark of how much of a prog fan I am that I preferred the Mellotron timbre to that of Martin’s orchestration. There’s also a godawful folk track The Lyder Loo, the insufferable The Road to Venezuela and the rather ‘meh’ The Galloping Gaucho. Hardly the finest selection of songs, but I suppose I’m glad that they are represented for completeness’ sake.
I still don’t have the physical reissue packaging but I was furnished with a PDF booklet, which I felt was ample to represent what I needed to know. The original album was released in a gatefold sleeve with no artwork, only lyrics on the reverse, and an inner gatefold featuring six photographs separated by what looks like wooden tiling. In the booklet, the tiling is gone but the photos have been preserved. I’ll take it. The essay is once again well-written and informative but the author’s name has been left off! I’ll just presume it was Mike Barnes again who has been a terrific guide to all things Stackridge.
Even though the band’s hap-hazard formula results in a series of hits and misses, the highs are so incredible that I tend to forget about the lows, which can be skipped at the click of a button. The band have been getting better since their first album and the growth would only continue with Extravaganza, though only after a few setbacks. The Man in the Bowler Hat is also a surprisingly good place to comprehend George Martin’s genius at production and musical arrangements and feel just how instrumental he was in the Beatles’ success too. We tend to think of a band as just the musicians that play in it but we forget about just how important other people can be in terms of shaping that overall sound. This album is as much of a triumph for George Martin as it is for Stackridge.
01. Fundamentally Yours (2:36)
02. Pinafore Days (2:36)
03. The Last Plimsol (4:31)
04. To the Sun and the Moon (2:50)
05. The Road to Venezuela (4:53)
06. The Galloping Gaucho (2:48)
07. Humiliation (3:33)
08. Dangerous Bacon (2:43)
09. The Indifferent Hedgehog (3:14)
10. God Speed the Plough (5:28)
Time – 35:16
Disc Two – The BBC Radio Recordings 1973
BBC Radio One “In Concert”, 18th January 1973:
01. Anyone for Tennis (3:42)
02. Do the Stanley (3:40)
03. Syracuse the Elephant (8:26)
04. Purple Spaceships Over Yatton (9:45)
05. Twist and Shout (3:09)
06. Dora the Female Explorer (3:14)
BBC Radio One Bob Harris session, 7th February 1973:
07. The Lyder Loo (3:17)
08. God Speed the Plough (5:43)
09. The Road to Venezuela (4:19)
10. The Galloping Gaucho (3:22)
Time – 48:43
Total Time – 83:59
Andy Cresswell-Davis – Keyboards, Guitar, Percussion, Vocals
James Warren – Guitar, Vocals
Michael Evans – Violin, Vocals
Michael “Mutter” Slater – Flute, Keyboards, Percussion, Vocals
Billy “Sparkle” Bent – Drums
Jim “Crun” Walter – Bass Guitar