Stackridge: ‘Stackridge’ & ‘Friendliness’

❉ There’s silliness, melancholy pop and so much more in the world of Stackridge, writes Chris Browning.

“Stackridge are a right old arse to categorise. There’s undeniably a lot of Folk Rock, and Baroque Pop tendencies, but every time you think you’ve got them pegged they’ll dash off a Bonzo-esque song about a penguin and this is the real beauty of Stackridge: You’re never quite sure what you’re going to get.”

‘Stackridge’ & ‘Friendliness’ Expanded Editions (Esoteric Recordings)

We all have “our” songs. Songs that sum up our world view. Songs you wonder how you managed without it. Songs of rebellion or transgression, empowerment or universal truths. They can be anthemic or personal songs that articulate something in you that has never quite been spoken before. These are powerful and deeply felt songs, something that stirs something deep within you. Almost a mission statement for life.

Unfortunately for me, mine is a six-minute long bucolic song about the restorative wonders of a cup of tea. The first time I heard it I knew that here was my world view in microcosm:

“Goodbye the journey was topping,
We saw all we wanted to see,
I really don’t think I’ll be stopping,
I think I’ll go home and have tea.”

This is the world of Stackridge. If you’ve never been introduced, I envy you. They’re a band who never had a hit (although two members would go on to form the much more successful Korgis). And if you already love these records, then you’ll love these wonderful new editions from Cherry Red and Esoteric, that make these beautiful records even more lovely than they already were.

Let’s briefly talk about genre. Ever since I first fell in love/started obsessing over the music of Nick Drake in early 1995 as a wide-eyed 19 year old, I have been obsessively looking for something that’s a bit like but is also not slavishly copying that music. I was mostly looking for Folk Rock from the sixties and seventies, but occasionally found myself wandering off the beaten track. This is what led me to my fondness for Orchestral and Baroque Pop, which I still think of as the slightly more strait-laced cousin of Folk Rock. And then there’s the slightly more wayward cousin that is Prog Rock. I cautiously dipped my toes into both genres as part of my search and very soon found Stackridge.

Stackridge are a right old arse to categorise. There’s undeniably a lot of Folk Rock there, but also plenty Baroque Pop influences with the band’s Beatlesish tendencies and a similar worldview to bands like Honeybus. But every time you think you’ve got them pegged they’ll dash off a Bonzo-esque song about a penguin and this is the real beauty of Stackridge: You’re never quite sure what you’re going to get.

The abiding view is that Stackridge peak with their third album, the George Martin-produced Man In The Bowler Hat. It’s a fantastic record, with some of their best songs and with the best production/ arrangements they would ever have. But I would argue that their real peak is the album before that, Friendliness. The debut’s no slouch either. It’s a bit scrappy and messy, with lots of ideas, not all of which necessarily work together – compare Essence of Porphyry to later instrumental songs like Lummy Days and Purple Spaceships Over Yatton and the former an awkward bunch of ideas constantly on the verge of collapse. But that’s the charm of Stackridge – a band with a surplus of ideas but not necessarily the ability to work them together yet. But what lovely sounds they make while trying…

Stackridge starts off with Grande Piano which is a surprisingly straightforward calling card for the band. It’s a lovely song, but the silliness really takes off on Percy the Penguin. It’s a slight song in many ways, and how much you enjoy it kind of depends on your tolerance levels for Paul McCartney’s more whimsical moments, but what marks it out as special is the arrangement and melody. It’s got a sad old ending, but that’s not really a surprise for a song with such a melancholy melody and fragile arrangement.

There’s less melancholy in Dora the Female Explorer (no relation), which feels like a significant song in the Stackridge oeuvre. Mixing pop with a folk jig, it convinces fully as both. It then does a very Stackridge thing and resolves into a minor key melody that fades out slowly (it reminds me how the Bonzos do this a lot on Keynsham, take a lovely little pop song and then go somewhere weird with it). Marigold Conjunction and Marzo Plod are similarly joyously daft pop songs.

The more wayward songs are typified by Essence of Porphyry (Is that a rock? a philosopher? an island? all of the above? none of them?). This is a lot more conventionally prog than they would end up being, a knotty piece with lots of time changes and key changes. There’s a sort of joyful naivete to it, the song of a band throwing ideas madly at a song and there’s a real fidgety beauty to it. It particularly uses the multi-instrumentalists of the band beautifully.

The Three Legged Table and Slark are the two standouts on the debut. I’ve been listening to a lot of Euros Childs and Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci lately, and I would not be surprised at all if Euros is a fan of Three Legged Table because it shares something of the Incredible String Band’s long, multi-part pieces but with more eccentric abandon and joyous silliness. Slark starts as a pop song but soon extends itself into a thrilling folk/prog. It feels like the biggest sign of where the band are about to go, synthesising the structure and huge amount of daft ideas into a cohesive, if wayward, epic.

Friendliness is not only my favourite Stackridge album but one of my very favourite records ever made. It straddles the fine line of the scrappiness of the debut and the sparkling pop of Bowler Hat. There’s silliness, melancholy pop and so much more. It’s the sound of a band who have managed to articulate something of the oddness in their heads, but also have a newfound confidence in their skills. It’s both wayward and poppy at the same time and in a just world would have been a HUGE seller.

Friendliness starts with a sort of overture in the form of instrumental Lummy Days and then on to the first of two appearances of the eponymous title song. The harmonies on the first half are lovely, but it’s the second half of the song that really points towards how fast Stackridge had come in a short period: a lovely, haunting closing instrumental that is happier at evoking mood than knotty musicality.

Of course, the daftness is still there – Anyone For Tennis, for example, is the sort of thing Neil Innes would be envious of and then there’s another bunch of silly character songs. The big difference is the arrangement of something like Syracuse the Elephant sounds absolutely massive, suitably so considering the title character. Two thirds of the way through the song it suddenly tilts into a flute/ violin/ mellotron workout that sounds like the band are trying a passable go at Indian music (or at least a Stackridge version of it)

Amazingly Agnes is another character piece (a cow this time!), and this time with the band trying a bit of reggae (it works!) and then, to top off the trifecta of animal songs, we have the pretty self-explanatory Keep On Clucking, a lovely bit of rock and roll silliness about chickens (obviously).

Story of My Heart is one of the most perfect bits of music ever made, as far as I’m concerned. A low key waltz that feels a little bit like Satie and a lot like what would become known as Folktronica. It’s strange, beautiful and otherworldly. And the. we have Teatime. I can’t fully express quite how much this song means to me, a beautiful lyric and a beautiful tune that highlights the skills of the whole band, particularly flautist Mutter Slater and violinist Mike Evans. Evans is by far my favourite musician in Stackridge, because he clearly doesn’t come from a pop or prog world, but a classical, jazz and folk one. Sometimes he nudges the records into a sort of pastoral fantasia that Vaughan Williams would have hopefully approved of.

Two years later and George Martin would be honing Stackridge’s skills even more. Bowler Hat is a glorious record, but sometimes you miss the more wayward moments and flights of the imagination of early Stackridge. There’s gold on each and every record, but the first two records have the shared wonder of sheer weight of musical gold and the audible glee and joy of a band who are producing it. If you’ve never experienced them before, this is a perfect opportunity to do so.

And if you already love these records, the reproduction might make you love them all the more. The albums both sound amazing. I know these records well, and I’m hearing new things (there’s a lovely bit of low-key tape experimentation at the end of Father Frankenstein, deep down in the mix, that I’ve completely missed until now). This is apparent especially with the details and depth to the arrangements. There’s a real attention to detail on the remasters and, now I’m listening to them fresh, to the original records themselves.

The bonus tracks are also tremendous, a bunch of B-sides and live songs. There’s a Peel session and particularly joyously a full live set from just before the release of Friendliness itself. Many fans consider live to be where the band were at their very best, and you can hear the joy of the audience in something like Let There Be Lids, one of their signature songs where band members would use bin lids for percussion (other stage antics include rhubarb thrashing, after a line in Marzo Plod which led to their fanbase calling themselves the Rhubarb Thrashers. Hopefully these beautiful reissues will make a Rhubarb Thrasher out of you as well.

❉ Stackridge: ‘Stackridge’ (Esoteric Recordings ECLEC2834) Expanded Edition was released 30 June 2023 by Cherry Red Group, RRP £12.99. 

❉ Stackridge: ‘Friendliness’ (Esoteric Recordings ECLEC22835) 2CD Expanded Edition was released 30 June 2023 by Cherry Red Group, RRP £14.99. 

Cherry Red Records have been releasing and reissuing the most innovative and independent thinking music since 1978. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.

❉ Chris Browning is a librarian but writes and draws comics and other strange things to keep himself out of trouble: he can be found on Twitter as @commonswings but be warned he does spend a lot of time posting photos of his cats.

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