Another discovery for me. What can I say, finding unearthed treasures is as Harvey Pekar put it in the 2003 film, American Splendor, “It’s like the Treasure of the Sierra Madre or something, you go to Thrift Shops and you go to garage sales ‘cause you’re going to find something that’s you know real rare. And most of the time it’s a total waste of time. But once in a while, you’ll come up with something that’ll whet your appetite”.

That came to me when the music of Stackridge landed upon my lap with their third studio album, The Man in the Bowler Hat. Originally released in 1974 on the MCA label and championed by people not just Jonathan Ross, but real artists such as Marillion’s Steve Hogarth and Rosalie Cunningham, I knew I had to trust them when they mentioned about their music in PROG Magazine.

So here I was, putting this album on my iPod touch, thinking to myself “I hope the two of you are right about this”. And they were. Produced by George Martin, The Man in the Bowler Hat is a mixture of their love of the Beatles, music hall, carousel, Gilbert & Sullivan, prog-pop, humour, and glam rolled into one.

From the opening introduction of the harpischord on ‘Fundamentally Yours’ it flies through the landscape of England in the West Country, being stuck inside your room filled with maps in your bedroom, soaring melodies, and getting away from your dead-end jobs. The thing that caught me is the violin section that Mike Evans does to create those ascending arrangements before landing back to Earth.

You thought that was over, guess again. ‘Pinafore Days’ starts off with this waltz in the Victorian-era of London setting. There’s something nursery rhyme about this track with its rhyming scheme that the lyrics have inside the circus in its heyday, reflecting the wonders and loss of childhood innocence while the clock-ticking groove of ‘The Last Plimsoll’ reflects the rough day at work with some heavy guitar riffs, pounding bass drum and walking bass line with its jazz motif that Billy Sparkle and Crun Walter would do.

Then, it becomes a call-and-response in the midsection between the rhythm section and the organ by turning into the ticking time-bomb of letting it all out to confront your boss and telling to…. you get the general idea. It starts to calms down with Mutter Slater’s flute improv as he follows the melodic guitars down the yellow brick road, towards the Vaudeville routine with synths and a scream down the hallway.

 

George Martin’s orchestration swifts through the beauty behind ‘To The Sun and The Moon’. With its operatic-sque vocals and wonderful horn and string sections, Stackridge writes their own take of a lullaby to let everyone relax and hope a new day will be better before the sounds of a flamenco guitar goes up and down the fret, closing off the track as it segues into a bossa-nova punch as they take ‘The Road to Venezuela’.

I love how the strings do a little nod to Aaron Copeland’s ‘Hoedown’ before going into a percussion and violin echo chamber that Andy Davies, Mutter Slater, and Mike Evans would do as it switches gear honouring the Ub Iwerks-era of ‘The Galloping Gaucho.’ Taken its name from the 1928 Mickey Mouse short, the band are having a ball with this track.

You can tell that it’s not just the Fab Four that’s written all over this composition, but as I’ve mentioned, the Gilbert & Sullivan textures is their nod to the duo’s boundary. Slater’s vocals fits the sing-along bouncing ball beats to fit Mickey’s short and the silent films of the O.K. Corral of the serials that you would see in the movie houses before the future becomes grim and in its decline with a sombering electric keyboard on ‘Humiliation’.

The song answers the question “How can you be happy and joyful when the world is on the brink of collapse?” Martin’s orchestration puts us into Orwellian’s universe where big brother is now watching us, 24/7. And the reality, there’s no coming back to turn back time before they put on the glam rock stompers for ‘Dangerous Bacon.’

The lyric “Growing up and throwing up on social security, I spent my time perusing the zoo. The endless conversations with the man from the Ministry”. I felt some tugs between not just Bowie, but Bolan, Welsh rockers Badfinger and Man, and adding that wildly sax solo done by Roxy Music’s Andy Mackay who was doing the Stranded album next door, adds his own touches to the song.

Now that is a lyric. If I had been in the studio listening to a lyric like that, I would definitely be like “Holy shit! That’s how songs are done!” As we get close to the end, the gentle acoustic ballad throughout ‘The Indifferent Hedgehog’ which as the liner notes mentioned from the 2-CD Esoteric set by Mike Barnes, that it could’ve been written by the Incredible String Band, but Davies’ arrangements return to the lullaby children’s composition once more to bring it all home.

The closing track ‘God Speed the Plough’ is a dramatic instrumental piece with its progressive rock tones. Starting off with a beautiful piano melody, Evans’ violin work sets up the sun to rise ahead for Slater’s incredible flute work and Walter’s bass to make breakfast and head out the door for a brand-new day.

But oh no, this is where they channel the approach to Curved Air’s Darryl Way and his ‘Vivaldi’ approach that Evans tips his hat to. I was quite blown away with Martin’s arrangements on this track as it punches the beats as if he’s hitting you in the gut section, piece by piece before Slater calms everything down with his orientation to give the acoustics a breather.

Once the epic sounds of strings and percussion sets up the tone, you can hear reprises of ‘Fundamentally Yours’, ‘Anyone For Tennis’ thrown into the mix as it ends on a sombering note. Then, we get to the second disc. The group did two BBC sessions between January 18th and February 7th of 1973.

The group were promoting their second album Friendliness on the January 18th performance, going through the Music Hall take of ‘Anyone For Tennis’, the sing-along dance of ‘Do The Stanley’ with its mellotron rising out of the blue then walking into Thunderclap Newman’s territory with some middle-eastern flute improvisations of ‘Syracuse The Elephant.’ Then they walk into the bluegrass wonder from the Bob Harris session for an imaginative children’s TV show called ‘The Lyder Loo’ before entering their own orchestral approach with a pounding version of ‘God Speed the Plough’.

It was a tip of the hat to George Martin as they showed how much they can take his arrangements with incredible piano work, violin and flute arrangements, not to mention the clouds parting to reveal a bright, blue sunny day while the Mellotrons flow into view to bring the massive string sections as raindrops before closing it out with the clavinet hop-along of ‘The Galloping Gaucho’.

What an amazing reissue Esoteric had done last year with the Stackridge catalog. I remember watching them on The Late Show with Craig Ferguson a few years ago on YouTube, and I thought they were interesting, but had some amazing beats. And then I completely forgotten about them. Until now.

This here is progressive music done right. When you think of 1974, you think of Gentle Giant’s The Power and the Glory, Jethro Tull’s War Child, Tangerine Dream’s Phaedra, Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Yes’ Relayer, King Crimson’s Red, and Magma’s Köhntarkösz. Stackridge deserves to be on that same list with the big names that I’ve mentioned.

Yes, they were often under the radar during prog’s golden-era, but man, Stackridge can really play. And if you’re very new to their music, The Man in the Bowler Hat is the one to start off. If you want proof, just ask Rosalie Cunningham.

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