Roll over Vaughan Williams


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.

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Posted in Popular music
6 comments on “Roll over Vaughan Williams
  1. T E Stazyk says:

    I must confess I’d never heard of Stackridge, but I enjoyed the clip and listened to a few more. I think I get what you are saying!

    • G.H.Bone says:

      It’s not surprising that you’ve never heard of Stackridge. As I said, they never made the big time.I only knew of them as a friend was quite a fan and had mentioned them from time to time. Some time in the early 1980s I came across a copy of their lovely record “The Man in the Bowler Hat” in a second-hand record shop and decided to take a chance on it as it only cost 50p. I’m so glad I did and I’ve played that record hundreds of times over the years. They have enough of a following that most of their output is now available on CD (in the UK at least) and they’re touring again. But one of the reasons for starting this blog was that I wanted to write about music that I love which is shamefully (and, to me, bizarrely) underrated. Stackridge’s music is so beguiling and intelligent, that I honestly can’t work out why they’re so neglected. Thanks for giving them a try. Did you listen to “The Road to Venezuela”? That’s one of my favourites. And “God Speed the Plough” is lovely. It was the last track on “Bowler Hat”, complete with lush orchestral arrangement but they were to make a good job of it in live performance, without the orchestra.

      Thanks for your comment, and for giving Stackridge a hearing.

  2. JDB says:

    I, too, had never heard of Stackridge…and that’s a pity! Wow, what an eclectic sound….”music of the cow-pat school”, as you so evocatively put it, it most certainly is not. I love discovering new things….thank you.

    • G.H.Bone says:

      Hi JDB. As I said to TES, above, it’s not surprising that you hadn’t heard of them. They’re little known here in England, let alone New Zealand and the US. Anyhow, it’s most gratifying that I have received a positive response to this post.

      As for “cow-pat school”. I wish I could claim to be the originator of the phrase. It was coined by the composer Elisabeth Lutyens (who was the daughter of the architect, Sir Edwin). A lot of English composers, notably Vaughan Williams, were dismissed by the more progressive musical establishment as reactionary “pastoralists”. Peter Warlock, who I discussed here

      (and you commented on it at the time)

      remarked that Vaughan Williams’s Third Symphony was like a “cow looking over a gate”.

      All very unfair of course, but there you go.

      It seems apt at this point to refer to another Stackridge song, a peculiar reggae number. Listen carefully to the lyrics and you’ll see why.

      Thanks, as always, for commenting!

  3. Mike Tobin says:

    Just a quick thank you for the kind words about Stackridge . ( I manage the band , so am somewhat biased ! ). They are still gigging with 2 original members – James & Andy , who were also The Korgis, briefly . Most recent Album was ” A Victory For Common Sense” in 2009 on Helium Records. Lots of gigs coming up in 2014 around the UK.

    • G.H.Bone says:

      Hi Mike

      Thanks for calling in! And no need to thank me. I should be thanking you: Stackridge have given me so much pleasure over the years. My only regret is that readers of my blog number only in double figures so my recommendation will reach comparatively few ears. I am evangelical about Stackridge. I do keep up with current news, usually via facebook, but alas can’t easily get to gigs outside London.

      I loved the “Lummy Days” podcast, by the way. I miss it. But thanks again for your comment. I’m touched, and frankly honoured, that you took the time. Keep going!

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