Bristol 1970: The Stackridge headquarters were in the communal flat we shared at 32 West Mall, Clifton. When not at home we could usually be found at The Royal Oak pub at the end of the street or, after midnight, at The Dugout Club in Park Row. The flat was up seven flights of stairs, we shared one light bulb and the roof really did leak. The band was always short of money and we were kept afloat by our benefactor Brian Coombes, who ran a music shop and let us help ourselves to equipment. The band rehearsed in Yatton in the early days and then in the basement of a shop in Park St Bristol, but one day Bill’s Dad amazed us all by buying a prefabricated building specifically for us to rehearse in. It arrived on the back of a lorry and was erected in the Bent’s garden in Portishead. This was a luxury few bands have, and we made full use of it. For several months we spent nearly every day there jamming, experimenting and running through ideas. The original Walters/Davis tunes started life as fairly loud guitar based rock, but once the violin and flute were added to the line – up, the more gentle Stackridge started to emerge. The typical Stackridge set list circa 1970 contained just four numbers: Teatime, Purple Spaceships Over Yatton, Dora The Female Explorer and Slark. Nevertheless, the set would last just over an hour.
Bill’s garden also had a tennis court and when we needed a break we played “footis”, a game we invented which was a combination of football and tennis, but most of the time we were cooking up ideas in that shed. We played mainly local gigs to start with – places like The Old Granary, The Art College and the Architects Club in Bristol, and we sometimes ventured over the bridge to Wales to play the Tithe Barn in Abergavenny. I can remember the glow of satisfaction on the occasion of our first fifty pound gig at the Winter Gardens in Weston Super Mare. We formed a partnership with First Lite – an innovative light show run by our friends Dave Borthwick and Rod and Nic Bell, and some of our most memorable gigs were when we performed together. Money was tight and by the end of 1970 Crun had decided that the building trade would provide a more secure future. I hoped his departure would be temporary. In the short term we managed to adjust without too much trouble – James switched to bass for the next gig – but long term Crun’s ingenuity would be missed.
After Mike Tobin joined the Sherry/ Copeland agency we started to get more and more work in the London area. Mike shared a house in Munster Road, Fulham with members of “Yes”, and they soon got fed up with us crashing on their floor. We couldn’t possibly afford hotels at that time and accommodation was always a problem. One particular month we had several gigs in the Kent area, and rather than travel back to London every night to sleep on a hard wooden floor we decided to sleep under the stars in Ashdown Forest. We had chosen the spot at random after studying a map of the area. It turned out to be a beautiful place and we returned there to sleep every night until the weather got worse. We only had one tent so the hardier ones amongst us slept in the open air. Bill chose the back of the van and James was strapped in to a deckchair with a roof made from plastic sheeting. We lived with this basic arrangement for some time until one night after playing at the “Revolution”, three girls came backstage to tell us how much they had enjoyed our set. Chris, Janice and Ingrid became firm friends and generously invited us to share their poky little top floor flat in Bayswater whenever we were in town. We were confined to one room and there was one double mattress and some floor space. We had a strict rota system – four of us on the mattress and two on the floor – every night we would move along one place so that we all had a go on the mattress. We lived on an allowance of one pound each per day. Believe it or not, this was adequate. Beer was roughly 1s-9d a pint, ten cigarettes would set you back 2s-6d and a curry or similar filling meal could be had for around 10 or12 bob. This meant all of life’s essentials were taken care of with that one pound note. What bliss! There were no further expenses – no other responsibilities – nothing else to worry about.
A tour of Denmark inadvertently helped shape the distinctive Stackridge sound. On the band’s arrival for the first show in ….. we were informed that we were expected to play for 3 hours plus encores. The Stackridge set at that time was still just over one hour. After much backstage consultation various last minute additions were culled from individual members’ repertoires. These included Beatles songs, traditional reels and jigs and the odd blues. They proved very popular so on returning to England various elements were retained. The dustbin lids were introduced as a direct result of this. Even after Crun had rejoined the band, James always played bass on the fiddle tunes, and so Crun was left with nothing much to do during these numbers. After skulking off-stage for a while he suddenly appeared one night with a pair of dustbin lids. This inspired improvisation evolved into an extended dance routine, in which, now joined by Mutter Slater and Pete Donovan, there was a lot of stamping and brandishing of dustbin lids. Wherever possible, Pete Donovan was involved on stage in some way. Crun usually provided inspiration for this and his piece de resistance was the invention of “Pete Donovan’s magic desk”. Part of the Stackridge legend, this was a lavishly decorated school desk with a flip – top lid. There was a contact mic attached to it’s base so that any item placed inside the desk, typically bongo drums, biscuit tins, bells or cardboard boxes, would be amplified. The audio signal was fed to a Watkins Copycat echo unit and back to the PA. The fans soon began turning up to gigs with lids of their own. You could always tell when Stackridge were playing in your area as all the dustbin lids would disappear. Police the length and breadth of Britain were baffled by this strange phenomenon.
One night in 1971 Mike Tobin brought David Howells from MCA Records to see us play at the Victoria Rooms in Bristol. Despite the fact that we all got his name wrong and called him John, he still signed us. We recorded the first album at De Lane Lea studios in Kingsway, London. It was produced by Fritz Friar of “The Four Pennies”. The engineer was Martin Birch and the tape op. was a chap called John Accock who has remained a friend ever since. We were of course new to recording and I remember it felt quite strange playing our parts separately. The bass and drums were recorded first, then guitar and keyboards were added and finally flute, violin and vocals. It was a disjointed way to do things and I think the album suffered as a result. In typical Stackridge fashion, the songs we recorded for the album were entirely different from the ones in our stage act. Purple Spaceships, Teatime and Syracuse the Elephant were not included, despite being the bedrock of our live show. Some of the songs were rehearsed and performed for the first time in the studio. Three Legged Table, 32 West Mall, and Percy the Penguin were played live a few times and then dropped. Three of the songs were never performed again: Grande Piano, Marigold Conjunction, Essence Of Porphyry. Now this may be controversial, but I reckon that if our debut album had contained the songs from our live show which had got us signed in the first place, Purple Spaceships Over Yatton, Teatime, Syracuse The Elephant and Slark, it would have been more successful. It would not have confused people so much. These four songs are indisputably by one band with a recognisable character This is head music, mantra like, trippy, weird and wonderful. But instead of this unified, collective sound we gave them the musings of disparate individuals – short, wordy, self-indulgent songs. It was the first example of the Stackridge self- destructive gene, which would repeatedly make its presence felt.
We were beginning to build a large, enthusiastic fan base by 1972. We played non-stop and practically lived in the transit van which, by the way, was never called “Bessie”. For a while we had a large sofa tied down in the back. We used to stave off the boredom of long journeys with word games or arguments. In fact arguing was a very popular pastime, invariably sparked by some outlandish comment from Crun, which was automatically opposed by Pete Donovan. The rest of us would slowly be dragged in. I distinctly remember our longest ever argument – timed at an impressive thirteen and a half hours without a break. It was on a travel day from somewhere in the south way up to the north of Scotland. We had decided to do the journey over two days and to stop for the night at an isolated inn at Chapel-en-le Frith in the Yorkshire Dales. It was raining when we left and somebody said, “I’m soaking wet”. Someone else ventured, “I’m only slightly wet”. Crun’s opening gambit was, “You are either wet or dry – you don’t get degrees of wetness!” That was the trigger. The ensuing argument kept going all day – through various stops at petrol stations – through toilet and meal breaks. It never let up. It was still going as we signed the register at the inn and only stopped briefly while we dumped our bags in our rooms. It started again as soon as we came back downstairs – and throughout dinner it caused us to spit food over one another. It raged through a lengthy darts match and gathered fresh momentum in the bar afterwards. Thirteen and a half hours later we were slumped around the fire – it was two or three in the morning – we were falling asleep through sheer exhaustion – and the “degrees of wetness” argument finally petered out. Nobody won. We would have argued in our sleep if we could.
By this time the show had changed beyond recognition from the original shaky first performances. We had taken it around the country several times but we were still an acquired taste. When asked what she thought of the band Elkie Brooks famously said one word – “Pathetic!” Others were fanatical. One bloke from Doncaster hitch- hiked to nearly every gig. To make life easier for him we gave him fifty quid to buy a moped. Crun’s return had meant we could expand the sound with a permanent keyboard set-up and so we purchased a mellotron. An almost mythical beast. –The word mellotron had been whispered with awe since the early days, and now we could finally afford one. Despite proving very temperamental, it made a huge difference to our sound and we had to rearrange some songs to make room for it. It featured prominently on Friendliness, the second album. Again we put to one side many of the elements which had made us such a good live band and recorded a collection of songs which we learnt for the first time in the studio. At least this time we included Syracuse and Teatime but still left out Purple Spaceships. Seven out of the eleven songs on the album were rehearsed for the first time in the studio, recorded and practically never performed again. This in itself is not a bad thing. But when you record a song almost immediately after your first hearing of it you can’t be expected to give it your deepest reading. It’s much better to have played it a few times and see how an audience reacts. Our early stuff had been played and played for months in Bill’s Dad’s shed, and in front of an audience, and contained ideas and arrangements to which we had all contributed. The album had some nice production touches with sitar and harmonium, and had more of a band feel, though I don’t think it was engineered as well as the first one. Our friend Dave Borthwick came up with the old tramp for the sleeve.
There was no obvious single on the album and despite our protestations we were pressured into recording a single version of Slark. An impossible task. We ourselves decided this would be a chance to finally record a version of Purple Spaceships for the B side. An equally impossible task. What were we thinking of? Both these songs lasted 12 or 15 mins on stage. James wanted to have a bash at arranging an orchestra for Purple Spaceships, so he and Mike worked away diligently for days before the recording session. The end result was (ahem) unusual. Legend has it that the trumpet parts were written in the wrong key, but such was the overall density and scope of the adventurous arrangement, nobody noticed! The orchestra was mixed so low on the final recording that it was all but inaudible. As a foot note though; I heard the record recently for the first time in 25 years and it sounded inspired, and totally original. Well done everybody!
The typical Stackridge set list in 1972 included Lummy Days, Anyone For Tennis, Syracuse, Teatime, Dora, Purple Spaceships Over Yatton, Marzo, 32 West Mall, She Taught Me to Yodel, Let There Be Lids and Slark. Our popularity continued to grow, and was given a further boost with a tour Britain and Europe supporting Wishbone Ash. It was a slightly odd pairing in musical terms. Though they were undoubtedly an impressive live band Wishbone were a pretty straight ahead no nonsense guitar band. It was testosterone overload. I always thought they had a bit of a nerve claiming to have invented lead guitars in harmony, as any fan of Fleetwood Mac or Blossom Toes knows, they had been there six or seven years before. (Try and find a copy of the album “If Only For A Moment” by Blossom Toes.) Also on the bill were Renaissance or Forever More, who were a very nice bunch of guys doing some tasty folk/rock – two of them went on to form The Average White Band. All four bands were part of the Sherry/Copeland agency. The agency was the hub of all activity and seemed to have a monopoly on the college circuit, which is what kept us working very hard. Meeting up with chums from other bands was always a pleasure and besides the aforementioned we were always running into Sassafras and Fumble. Through Sassafras we met another Welsh band called Kimla Taz who always put us up in their flat in Splott (Cardiff), whenever we played in Wales. We were now earning the heady sum of fifteen pounds a week each and were the proud owners of two vehicles. A three ton truck for the equipment and a Ford Zodiac for the band. Luxury!
The “Almost The Greatest Show On Earth” tour in early 1973 was our first headlining tour. We had Camel in support and this time I think the bands were well suited. The tour was a great success, we had universally good reviews and each show more or less sold out. We had a longer set now and had incorporated God Speed The Plough, The Road To Venezuela, Galloping Goucho and Do The Stanley into the set. Mutter was in his pomp, his alter-ego was rampant on stage, holding audiences entranced, like rabbits frozen in the headlights – he could do what he wanted with them. The band were at the top of their game. Pete Donovan’s magic desk was long gone, but he made a dramatic appearance in Purple Spaceships Over Yatton playing a marching drum, his head swathed in bandages and a long black cloak around his shoulders. Stackridge were one of the hottest bands around, but we still couldn’t turn the success into record sales. Even though Do The Stanley was going down a storm all over the country, when we released it as a single it made very little impression. The music press still didn’t know what to make of us. Who can blame them? I really can’t think of any other band who would dare to play a set as diverse as: Lummy Days, Anyone For Tennis, Syracuse The Elephant, Teatime, The Laughing Policeman, Purple Spaceships Over Yatton, The Road To Venezuela, God Speed The Plough, Dora The Female Explorer, The Galloping Goucho, Let There Be Lids, Twist and Shout, Slark and Do The Stanley.
Mike Tobin was moving things along too. He had been offered the post of managing director of George Martin’s new artist management company, to be called Park Street Management, and Stackridge were to be a part of the deal. Legend has it that George’s son Greg (the now infamous love-rat) was a fan and had already played Friendliness to his father and told him he should produce the band. There may be some truth in that but it was far more likely that it was Mike’s hard work behind the scenes at Park Street that persuaded George to work with us. Anyway, we didn’t really expect it to happen, but his name was being whispered. Then suddenly there we were – starting an album with him. Three of the new tracks on the album were already introduced to the live set, but most of it was put together in the studio. We had great fun working with George. He was scoring the music for the Bond film Live And Let Die at the same time as producing our album, and we called on him several times at his home. In his music room he had a large editing machine with a rough cut of the movie on it and we got to watch him at work. He was obviously a bit of a hero to us and his skill and experience were pretty awesome. His glorious touches are all over the album, from the lovely Wurlitzer piano and strings on Humiliation to the arrangement on Pinafore Days.
Between sessions we would take tea in the Air Studios canteen and there seemed to be only one topic of conversation. We had been unhappy with Bill’s drumming for quite a while and it was during the recording of Bowler Hat that we finally decided we would ask him to leave. We even discussed it with George and he said if Bill needed a job perhaps he would like to become his chauffeur. It seems hard to believe now but that is exactly what happened.
The decision to replace Bill seemed logical at the time but was naive and short-sighted. Bill wasn’t the reason we could not sell records, he was a perfectly good drummer, but we mistakenly reasoned that if we had a slick technician on drums it would open up fresh new avenues for our writing. Still – there is nothing like hindsight.
It was 1973, and briefly things were looking good. The Man In The Bowler Hat entered the Melody Maker chart at 24 (Hooray!), and the following week it dropped straight out of the top 100, (Boo!). Like the first two efforts, our third album failed to sell.
How different the music business was then. A record company would use a group’s first and second albums as a means to get them established. They would not be too worried if they did not shift many copies. But the third LP meant payback time. By then they would expect you to have got things together. The third release should have moved Stackridge on from their small fanatical fan base to a much larger audience, who would then rediscover the earlier releases and sales would pick up on those too. Genesis had done exactly that, but it hadn’t worked quite as smoothly for Stackridge.
I wouldn’t say that we were disillusioned, but there was a feeling that we had come to the end of a chapter. I don’t think it dawned on any of us that this mad few years we had shared might form the basis of a career. We had just been having a laugh, and now it wasn’t quite as amusing any more. Mutter had been growing restless. Working with George had made a lasting impression on him and he had been talking about taking piano lessons and studying music properly. In the back of his mind he was thinking of leaving the group. I sympathised with him. Back in Bristol one night we had been to see a duo called The Shortwave Band. They had a mass of acoustic guitars and mandolins, whistles and flutes and a fold – up harmonium. They were self – contained and independent and, most importantly, they seemed to be enjoying themselves. I envied them, and I wanted a piece of what they had.
Things were about to change at Park Street Management too. Mike’s Tobin’s position was looking insecure. There was a financial adviser in George’s company called Alistair Rainsford who was an enthusiastic supporter of the band. As the weeks went by he seemed to have more and more influence in our affairs. Finally, after a week of strong rumours he informed us that Mike was losing his job, and that he, Alistair, would be taking over. He said that under his control things would be much better. We were too easily persuaded and we met Mike to give him the bad news. Mike had no redress – he had signed away all legal rights to the management of Stackridge when he joined the new company. It looked very much like a stitch-up. Alistair was convincing. He made a particular effort with me. He became my new best friend and was even best man at my wedding. I moved to Richmond with my wife while the rest of the band shared a house in Brixton. Alistair suggested that as I lived several miles away from the rest of the band I should have some transport. He went out and bought me a car! I was convinced!
Meanwhile, we had been casting around for a new drummer and Mutter found a chap in Yeovil called John White. He passed an audition and his first gig with us was to be on a TV show for HTV. We rehearsed with him in Castle Cary for several days and got the arrangements down pretty tight. He seemed very good. Three days before the show he rang up to say he could no longer be in the band. I spoke to him on the phone and asked him why. I shall always remember what he said next: “I think I’ve got a wooden leg”. That was it – he never actually played a live show with us. Session drummer Pete Van Hooke filled in for him on the TV show. It was going to be quite a blow. And on that bombshell Mutter made his move and left the band.
A change is as good as a rest. There were two guys we had long admired : Kieth Gemmell from Audience, who played sax, clarinet and flute, and Rod Bowkett who was a good writer and keyboard player. We asked them both to join the band. I made an impulsive and selfish decision to switch to drums.
This was the band which went on the road to promote Man In the Bowler Hat. This line-up has not been very well documented and remains a bit vague even to those who were involved. We played quite a few gigs. We made an appearance on the John Peel show, but apart from a few bootlegs, nothing remains. We never made any studio recordings with this line-up. Other changes? For the first time since 1970, Crun started writing again, which pleased me; and several extended pieces resulted, usually in three movements for some reason. I particularly remember one set of subtitles Crun came up with for a song called Every Living Hole: a) Enjoying the Pig, b) Amanda Steps In and c) Raw Tomatoes. I also wrote February In Shropshire in this period. Rod produced Pocket Billiards and Rod and I co-wrote Who’s That Up There With BillStokes? Losing Mutter was a huge blow but we seemed to be coping.
Later we were told by MCA that our services were no longer required.