After the delayed release of The Man in the Bowler Hat in 1974, Stackridge imploded from their lack of success, with most of the group either leaving or getting fired. It’s a miracle that any of the band remained and they were resurrected by the ‘management’ with four newcomers including Keith Gemmell of Audience on saxes, clarinet and flute. A radical departure from the ‘classic’ line-up that can be heard on the first three albums, it’s no wonder that this version of Stackridge sounds completely different. It’s a shame that Andy Davis was disappointed by this incarnation of the group because Extravaganza is undoubtedly my favourite Stackridge album; it’s apparently one of Paul McCartney’s favourites too, according to Paul Aitkenhead.
It’s a concern to myself that I admit that because it suggests that I never really liked what Stackridge were about before, which is possibly true. I’d always felt their hodge-podge eclecticism resulted in some particularly dull experiments and that the group erred on the side of folk a smidge too often for my tastes. When I realise that the band essentially had to be broken apart and forced back together in a boardroom-meeting fashion for me to like them, I have to admit some embarrassment about that. But the fact is, this new version of Stackridge, which lacked “a certain hard-to-define chemistry” according to essayist Mike Barnes, provided a far more satisfying batch of tunes to the progressively-inclined ear than the original ever did.
Extravaganza’s two sides are like day and night, the first leaning towards the whimsy of the past. Spin ‘Round the Room opens the album in full pomp fashion, with rolling drum fills and dixie-esque clarinet to tell the story of a socially awkward guy. Having heard the original version of this song on this recording, which is closer to hall music, it’s interesting to note the heavier direction the band took the song. As we’ll see later, these aren’t the only songs that the band made ‘heavier’.
Grease Paint Smiles is a low point, the melancholy saga of a clown that sounds like a discarded Supertramp demo. The band has three listed vocalists, so it’s difficult to tell who’s singing, but they don’t do a good job here.
The Volunteer is a much older song which has all the feel of classic Stackridge but is updated to a more progressive sound with lush Mellotron and crisp drumming. It can only be Mutter Slater singing in that thick Southwestern accent, which adds to the comedic narrative of a soldier who leads an unfortunate life. At five minutes, it’s a little longer than it needs to be, however, it’s not a bother like The Road to Venezuela was, because of the delightful blend of progressive and funk instrumentation, as opposed to folk.
Two weaker tracks fill the next eight minutes. Interestingly enough, Highbury Incident was originally released on the U.S. pressing of The Man in the Bowler Hat – issued there as Pinafore Days – as One Rainy July Morning, meaning they got to hear this song (as well as Spin ‘Round the Room) before British audiences did. Are you confused yet?
From here on out, it’s only gold. Happy in the Lord is an upbeat satire of entrenched English religiosity with a remarkably bouncy and infectious rhythm. At first glance it seems to be pro-religion, but sneaky lines such as “We’ll be back in church from time to time / When Granny snuffs it eight years later” reveal the true cynicism of this song. I was astounded to find out that this is not a Stackridge original, but borrowed from friend of the group Phil Welton, who released the song as a single with his band Fat Grapple, their lone recording. Welton revealed in a YouTube comment that the song is about the sadness of waiting for a higher being who never shows himself. While the original version, featuring Eddie Jobson of Curved Air and U.K., is delightful, Stackridge’s rock-fuelled powerhouse with a thunderous bassline blows this song into the stratosphere. A total banger.
And then it’s time for side two, where the band fully embrace progressive rock with three medium-length instrumentals that borrow freely from Frank Zappa. With tight, crisp playing and complex yet jovial themes, each is just as delightful as the last. The glockenspiel runs played by Slater are what remind me of Zappa the most, and his dexterity and restraint on the instrument are impressive. While Stackridge had recorded instrumentals before, none had been nearly as complex or jazz-led as this and, remarkably, the group opted to not only change their style so drastically but to lump all of these tracks on the same side rather than space them out. Perhaps it was so that people who preferred this side of Stackridge, such as myself, could just play side two if they wanted.
The instrumental tracks are broken up by the exceptional Mellotron-led crooner No One’s More Important Than the Earthworm. With guitar and sax solos filling the instrumentals of this slow-paced track, this is an absolute belter, with daft lyrics about ostriches, zebras and, indeed, earthworms; it’s classic Stackridge, really. That’s why I was so surprised to find out it was another cover; this time of former King Crimson singer Gordon Haskell’s song Worms. Haskell had once flirted with joining the group, and clearly, the song remained with them. Haskell’s initial version is an interesting listen but Stackridge’s arrangement feels definitive, giving a sense of weight to this song with nonsense lyrics.
Esoteric once again append a bonus disc featuring yet another BBC appearance, this time by the new line-up just a week or two before the release of Extravaganza. Five of the album’s best tracks are showcased (though sadly, no Happy in the Lord) with the band only returning sparingly to their back catalogue. The essay by Mike Barnes is once again highly illuminating and details the band’s unpleasant 1974 split and the members’ feelings about how it went down. Barnes also goes into why there were more covers on this record than on previous albums and notes that Slater and Davis have differing opinions on the matter. I didn’t receive a PDF of the booklet, which is a shame as I would have liked to check Esoteric’s reproduction of the original sepia gatefold sleeve, designed by Cream.
Extravaganza was the album that made me want to do a full deep dive on the group, which is unfortunate as it is one of the least representative albums you could pick and does not feature the band’s ‘classic’ line-up, as defined by fans. However, they would take a step even further away from their established brand of whimsy with the concept album Mr. Mick, coming to Esoteric in late September. A broken clock is correct twice a day, and Extravaganza is evidence that unfortunate circumstances can occasionally create something extraordinary.
01. Spin ‘Round the Room (2:45)
02. Grease Paint Smiles (4:02)
03. The Volunteer (5:05)
04. Highbury Incident (4:01)
05. Benjamin’s Giant Onion (4:04)
06. Happy in the Lord (3:51)
07. Rufus T. Firefly (4:49)
08. No One’s More Important Than the Earthworm (5:11)
09. Pocket Billiards (4:04)
10. Who’s That Up There With Bill Stokes? (4:35)
Time – 42:32
DISC TWO: BBC Radio One “In Concert”, 17th January 1975
01. The Volunteer (5:26)
02. Who’s That Up There With Bill Stokes? (5:22)
03. No One’s More Important Than the Earthworm (5:36)
04. The Galloping Gaucho (3:49)
05. Pocket Billiards (4:09)
06. Spin ‘Round the Room (3:03)
07. God Speed the Plough (5:53)
08. Dora the Female Explorer (4:18)
Time – 37:40
Total Time – 80:12
Andy Cresswell-Davis – Mellotron, Guitar, Vocals
Michael “Mutter” Slater – Flute, Vocals
Keith Gemmell – Saxophone, Clarinet, Flute
Paul Karas – Vocals, Bass Guitar
Rod Bowkett – Keyboards
Roy Morgan – Drums