A friend recently posted a Slade track on facebook. I remember Slade with affection. They were pop-chart regulars when I was a lad. The track that my friend posted, though, was not one of the group’s hits, but a B-side number called “Man Who Speeks Evil”.
While discussing Slade I shall avoid the temptation to insert “[sic]” regularly throughout. I shouldn’t want to come across as a pedant.
“Man Who Speeks Evil” was the B-side of the 1972 hit “Mama Weer All Crazee Now” (see what I mean about that “[sic]”?) Enjoyable though “Mama…” is, the B-side is the real gem. It’s a classy piece of songwriting, confounding expectations at every turn with sneaky syncopations and a couple of choice modulations. It leans more towards prog rock than to the boisterous glam rock that was then becoming Slade’s stock-in-trade. It avoids, however, many of the pitfalls of prog rock. It is succinct and wears its cleverness lightly. It has a twinkle in its eye. There’s no self-importance here.
This got to me to thinking about another great English group of the 1970s that likewise had prog rock leanings, but expressed themselves with warmth and humour and cherishable individuality.
Stackridge never had the chart success that Slade enjoyed. They remain, nonetheless, for me at least, one of the truly great English bands of the 1970s. I say English, because their musical sensibilities tended towards the pastoral, or at least the English provincial. The story of Stackridge is rather a complicated one which deserves a post of its own, but I will summarise here. Their roots are in the West Country, in and around Bristol. Urban coolness is eschewed in favour of a folkish affability. Tracks such as “God Speed the Plough”, “The Indifferent Hedgehog” and “Purple Spaceships Over Yatton” have the scent of Somerset loam about them. This is popular music that is less Roll Over Beethoven and more Roll Over Vaughan Williams.
Music of the cow-pat school, this is not, however. Their songs place the endearingly twee in surreal settings, and they are just as likely to come into town from the countryside, with their Betjemanian fondness for the everyday, and a cheeky, schoolboyish humour. And they were outstanding musicans, able to create appealing, well-crafted pop songs but equally adept at more extended, adventurous compositions. They managed to craft a distinctive style from a hotchpotch of influences: music hall, reggae, the Beatles, Frank Zappa, nursery-rhymes, hymn-tunes.
Despite having been taken under the wing of the great George Martin, who produced their 1974 album, “The Man in the Bowler Hat”, Stackridge remain something of a cult band. The group’s two main song-writers, Andy Davis and James Warren, did have a certain commercial success when they left to form the Korgis in the early 1980s. But they returned to the Stackridge fold and a version of the band is touring to this day. I managed to see them for the first time ever this year when they played an excellent gig in central London.
But let’s give the last word to the band themselves. Last word. Last Plimpsoll.