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by Ryan Reed
Each week, we dig in the crates to tell you about a “lost” or classic album we think you should hear. This week’s covers Stackridge's Friendliness.
Living in the Spotify/YouTube/Shazam era has its perks: We have nearly the entire history of recorded music at our fingertips, only a Google search away from the minutiae of a band's Twitter feed. But what we've gained in immediacy we've lost in romance: For obscure record collectors, there's a thrill in the unknown – of picking up a random LP, thinking "What the fuck is this?" and rolling the dice.
Several years ago, in the basement of a modest Cincinnati record store – a free-for-all expanse of dollar LPs that more closely resembled an abandoned warehouse than a retail space – my wife, Jenifer, stumbled upon a worn copy of Stackridge's second LP, 1972's Friendliness. She was immediately struck by the cover: the flowery title font, the whimsical sketch of a homeless man (wearing two different styles of shoe) finding solace with a flock of pigeons. Having never heard of the British progressive-pop outfit, I pulled out my smartphone and prepared to consult the Internet on the band's merit. "Maybe AllMusic will know something," I said. But Jenifer was already sold on the vibe: "I want it."
Stackridge formed in 1969 in the Bristol/Bath area of England, combining eclectic, often contrarian, influences (spanning The Beatles to Bach to Frank Zappa) to craft their early repertoire. During this formative period, the quintet blindly stumbled into concert history, performing the opening set at the first Glastonbury Festival on September 19th, 1970 – the day after Jimi Hendrix died. The following March, they hit the studio with producer Fritz Fryer, veteran of Sixties vocal group The Four Pennies, and recorded their 1971 self-titled debut.
After blowing their recording budget on Stackridge, they worked at a brisker pace and arrived at a less polished mix for Friendliness, which the group co-produced with engineer Victor Gamm. "In those days, bands only recorded one album a year," guitarist-keyboardist Andy Cresswell-Davis reflected in the liner notes of the 2007 reissue. "We didn't have much of a budget, so we couldn't really do much in between. We never really had a plan of any sort. That's down to immaturity and lack of realization that this could actually work."
But the songs themselves, plucked from what Cresswell-Davis called a "huge backlog," were quirkier and more fluid than their previous work. Two of the album's most ornate tracks – arpeggiated psych-folk closer "Teatime" and shapeshifting, gentlemanly prog adventure "Syracuse the Elephant" – were drawn from the band's live setlist, highlighting their sharpened interplay from touring with bands like Wishbone Ash and Renaissance.
On Friendliness, Stackridge remained in their classic quintet line-up, with guitarist-vocalist James Warren dominating the songwriting – from vocal harmony pieces (the title-track) to sophisticated piano balladry ("There Is No Refuge") to cheeky music-hall ("Anyone for Tennis," on which you can practically feel the band winking at you).
The whole first side is built to surprise, frolicking from those pristine pop tracks to the childlike romp of "Syracuse the Elephant" and thunderous instrumental prog-jig "Lummy Days," both showcases for the talents of flautist "Mutter" Slater and violinist Michael Evans. Side B is only a letdown compared to that dizzying stretch, as the band's eccentricities occasionally come off as forced: "Amazingly Agnes" offers a lightweight calypso groove but no sense of direction, and "Keep on Clucking" is a dorky, half-assed attempt at blues-rock.
Stackridge retained their devoted cult following with Friendliness, and they made one hugely important fan: Sir George Martin, who signed on to produce the band's 1973 follow-up, The Man in the Bowler Hat, which reached their highest U.K. chart position at Number 23. (A slightly reconfigured version, titled Pinafore Days, was released in the U.S. to much duller fanfare.)
Following Warren's departure, the band struggled to maintain a concrete direction. With revamped line-ups, they released two more LPs, 1975's Zappa-leaning Extravaganza and 1976 concept album Mr. Mick, before a full-on implosion. The musicians worked in various capacities over the years (most notably, Warren and Cresswell-Davis teaming for electro-pop project The Korgis) before reuniting in the late Nineties with multiple line-ups. Stackridge experienced a quiet late-era awakening, putting out two final albums, 1999's Something for the Weekend and 2009's A Victory for Common Sense, and even returning to Glastonbury in 2008.
Basking in this renewed interest, the band reissued their early discography on CD in 2007 via Angel Air Records. This new version of Friendliness improves on the original track list by tacking on four bonus tracks, including the psychedelic "Purple Spaceships Over Yatton" and bar sing-along dance number "Do the Stanley." (As Cresswell-Davis explained in the liner notes, the latter track resulted from the band "deciding one day to write a dance tune like the Twist.")
Back at home after our trip, armed with a fresh stack of vinyl, Jenifer and I eagerly fired up the turntable and basked, proudly, in our weirdest new find. We learned two lessons that day: Trust your instincts, and never leave any crate un-rummaged.