James Warren is a musician who has enjoyed pop success. But the guitarist/bassist and vocalist is a steadfast citizen of the progressive world.
In the early 70s he was a member of Stackridge, the West Country band who had a quirky blend of folk, psychedelia and jazz. While they never achieved major status, nonetheless their first three albums – 1971’s self-titled debut, Friendliness from the following year and ’74’s The Man In The Bowler Hat – showcased musicianship of great depth and melodic purpose. The last named was produced by George Martin and is now regarded as a classic of the era.
In 1973, Warren left the band and five years later teamed up with Andrew Cresswell-Davis, another one-time member of Stackridge, to form The Korgis. Often regarded as a new wave pop band, although there was still a strong prog element running through the music, they had two big hit singles in the UK. If I Had You reached No.13 in 1979, while the Warren-penned Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometime did even better the following year, peaking at No.5.
The Korgis split up at the start of the 80s, since which time Warren has worked
as a solo artist, as well as being involved in various reunions of both Stackridge and The Korgis. The former recently celebrated their 50th anniversary with the new collection Stackridge ‘50’ Recordings 1971-2021, and the latter have released their first new album since 1992’s The World’s For Everyone. Titled Kartoon World, this is a concept album about the power of love with a storyline spanning half a century from 1980 to 2030.
Warren puts his own half-century career split between Stackridge and The Korgis into perspective for Prog.
So how did Stackridge start?
In the late 1960s, I used to play regularly at a club in Bristol called the Old Granary.
It was the sort of place where musicians would hang out. And I’d regularly drink with quite a few of these guys. One day two of these musos I knew told me they were starting a new band and looking for a bassist. Basically, they offered me the job, and that was the birth of Stackridge. Little did I know that the only reason I was asked to join was because I was the one bassist they knew with his own amp!
The band were originally called Stackridge Lemon. Whose idea was it to shorten the name?
It was James ‘Crun’ Walter who came up with the name Stackridge Lemon. He had a mad-cap sense of humour and thought we should call ourselves something that meant absolutely nothing. I have no clue why he dreamt up this name. But then we thought it was a little too long, so shortened it to Stackridge. That worked a lot better.
Stackridge played two sets at the first Glastonbury Festival in 1970. How did that happen?
The festival that year was really a ramshackle, improvised affair. It had a crowd of a couple of hundred people and a few dogs in a muddy field. Nothing like the slick organisation it has become. We were asked to open the event, and then at the end the promoters realised they needed someone to close the festival. As we were still hanging around they got us to play a few more numbers. It was as simple as that. Nothing was planned, but in those days that’s the way it was.
What was George Martin like to work with as a producer on The Man In The Bowler Hat?
I adored The Beatles so he was a god to me. I couldn’t believe it when he agreed to produce us. Mike Tobin, our manager, was working for AIR London Enterprises, George’s company. George used to come into the offices every so often. One day Mike decided to take the risk and asked him to listen to some demos we’d done for the new album. And if he liked what we’d done… well, would George consider working with us? Imagine our delight when George said he not only could hear something in what we were doing but was okay to produce the album.
George was great to us. But he was rarely in the studio, as he constantly seemed to be jetting off somewhere. This was after The Beatles had stopped and George was doing sessions for other artists. The bulk of the work we did with him was prior to being in the studio – we’d go round to his London house in Paddington and together we’d listen through the songs. He’d make suggestions for improvements, such as adding a string section. He was always very polite and never told us what to do, but we’d have been crazy not to do anything someone like George Martin was suggesting. Geoff Emerick, his longtime sound engineer, was with us during the recording sessions. The whole process was effortless and only took 12 days. But what a time for all of us – in our wildest dreams we could never have imagined working with such an icon as George.
That album not only got to No.23 in the UK charts – the band’s highest position – but an alternate version also made it into the Billboard 200 in the States. (The renamed Pinafore Days reached No.191.) Why did you never tour over there?
We were just a little too niche. I don’t think what Stackridge did was right for the American market. In fact, I never realised we’d even made the chart over there until you just mentioned it. To us, the USA was somewhere out of reach.
Almost the entire band – including yourself – left Stackridge shortly after The
Man In The Bowler Hat was recorded. What happened?
We were six very different personalities. And there was definitely tension between us on a personal level. Working with George brought us together in a way, but there was still a very unpleasant atmosphere between all of us. It really was horrible. Then a couple of the band said they wanted to go in a different musical direction, one that didn’t suit the rest of us. So we all decided to leave. That was such a massive error all round. We were young and foolish, and never thought about the consequences of our actions. But effectively we shot ourselves in the foot. The band did carry on without us [releasing two more albums], but didn’t get anywhere and split up in 1977.
What prevented Stackridge from becoming as big as many believed you should’ve been?
When we did The Man In The Bowler Hat that was a golden moment for the band. We should have turned it to our advantage. George even said he’d be happy to do another album with us, and that would have been amazing. It could have given us a real commercial boost. Instead, we had this big split and drove the band off the edge of the cliff. As I said, it now seems like a daft thing to do. But that was what held the band back. If we could have found a way to carry on working together, then I believe we’d have been much more successful. That’s the trouble with being so young and headstrong. We should have taken a step back to take in the big picture. But we were too small-minded. If only we’d had the wisdom of our old age back then.
What did you do between quitting Stackridge and starting The Korgis?
I moved to Bath, where I still live, and started to do my own demos. Andy Cresswell-Davis [guitar, keyboards, vocals] from Stackridge played in some pub bands in London and was also doing demos. We’d send one another copies of what we were working on. Then I started to record with a classical composer called David Lord, who wanted to bring a classical element to pop. These sounded so good that I suggested to Andy that he should come down to Bath and do some recording with him as well. Out of this came most of the songs on the self-titled Korgis album [released in 1979].
Was the aim with The Korgis solely to have hit singles?
That was exactly what we had in mind. The idea was to write commercial songs, which would get on the radio. Of course Andy and I also brought in our experience from being with Stackridge. So, I’d like to think The Korgis had a sophisticated approach to the music as well as being obviously more mainstream – something like 10cc. But what we wanted to avoid was being as left-field as Stackridge, as this prevented us from gaining a wider audience.
It seems that Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometime is regarded as being the song that defines The Korgis. Does that frustrate you?
Not at all. I am very pleased it’s so well respected and has been covered many times. The fact the song seems to mean so much to a lot of people makes me rather proud. You should never be frustrated by writing something with such a wide appeal.
How crucial was image to the band?
In the early days it was really important. The photo sessions Andy and I did came out very well and we certainly had a definite look. Also, the artwork we had on our albums was excellent. It all helped to ensure there was a visual focus to the band and what we wanted to achieve. You can never under-estimate how much image can help your career when it comes to the poppier side of the business.
The Korgis had hit singles, but didn’t sell many albums. Why do you think that was?
I think part of that was because we didn’t actually tour at the time, so our profile remained too low. If we had played live then people would have realised that the hit singles represented only a part of what the band did musically. In our own way, we were as eclectic as Stackridge and did nothing to promote this as a positive. Being musically diverse really was a curse that followed me around!
What led to the band splitting up after two albums?
Andy had a way – and maybe still does – of never being satisfied with where he was artistically, and always wanting to move on and try something different. He actually left as we were recording the Dumb Waiters album, which came out in 1980. Andy had already done the lead vocals on four or five tracks when he walked out, so I had to go and redo them, which was a real pain because it meant changing the key they were sung in to suit my voice. But as the two of us were The Korgis, once he’d gone, there seemed to be no justification in carrying on.
You released a solo album, Burning Questions, in 1986, but simultaneously also put out singles as James Warren & The Korgis. Do you think this confused people?
It probably did. But to be fair, once Andy quit I was releasing records as James Warren & The Korgis, but this had stopped before I did the solo album. So there was little overlap as far as a I can recall. However, I accept using these different project names inevitably made people wonder what I was up to!
Why did The Korgis reunite in 1990 to re-record Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometime?
At the start of that decade, there were a lot of high-profile people being taken hostage around the world. A charity called International Hostage Release was set up in Bristol to support the families of those who’d been kidnapped. They decided to record an album [Set Me Free by Worldstars For Freedom] to raise funds. There were all sorts of artists involved, from Barclay James Harvest to Todd Rundgren, Steve Hackett, Mike Oldfield and Roy Harper. The people behind the album asked me if I’d re-record Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometime and they’d make it the lead track, and put it out as a single. That’s why it was done. A good cause, and I was happy to be involved.
There was a failed attempt to reform Stackridge in 1992. Why didn’t it come off?
Well, it did to a certain extent. I reunited with Jim ‘Crun’ Walker, who was on bass, and Mike Evans [violin/vocals] from the original band, and we did the album Something For The Weekend [released in 1999]. But the others weren’t interested in being part of this at the time. So it wasn’t a failed attempt… more a case of only being partially successful.
A full-blown reunion did eventually happen later at the start of the 21st century. How did this come about?
It was an era when a lot of our prog contemporaries were getting back together and it seemed to work out for them. It was suggested that maybe we should try and do this ourselves. Everyone was contacted and seemed happy about giving it another go. Enough time had passed so that the old problems were pushed aside and we could concentrate on the music. It was nice to be back in harness with the guys.
Both Stackridge and The Korgis have recorded the song Something About The Beatles. Were they the biggest influence on the two bands?
That song came about because I had no lyrical ideas in my head. I was co-writing new songs with a friend of mine, and admitted to her that my mind had gone totally blank. She told me that maybe what I should do is concentrate on one subject that interested me and this could trigger fresh inspiration. I thought about this and felt that it might be good to write a song about how The Beatles influenced me when I was starting out, and still do.
Stackridge did a version of the song, but then I thought The Korgis should also record this; as we had a reputation for having hit singles, there was good chance that radio stations would be prepared to give this some airplay. Guess what? I was wrong – we got none! That’s a very roundabout way of saying that The Beatles were hugely important to me, and I’m sure the rest of the two bands.
In 2014, the Stackridge line-up at the time toured as The Korgis. Was that a statement that the two were interchangeable?
I’ve never thought about it like that, but yes I suppose it does underline the strong connections between the two bands. It’s also a way of trying to get people interested in Stackridge through The Korgis, but I’m not sure this really worked. The two fanbases are widely different.
The Korgis have just released their first new album in nearly three decades. What prompted this?
When we did The World’s For Everyone [in 1992], it was really just myself and John Baker [guitar/vocals/keyboards]. I had known John since 1978, and as Andy didn’t want to know, we carried on the name. Then we met an Australian guitarist called Al Steele and decided to do a few gigs as The Korgis. That worked out rather well, and in 2014 I contacted Al to see if he was up for writing new songs together. Al ran a studio called Shabbey Road just outside Cardiff so we got together there and came up with material that both of us felt was rather good. We had no intention of doing an album, but then suddenly found we had 12 songs written and that’s when we thought it was a good idea to do an album.
Kartoon World is about the spirit of love. Where did this idea come from?
I have to give Al credit for this. When lockdown happened, we couldn’t obviously get together to write. So, Al would send me ideas over the internet and I’d add
something to this, and vice versa. We were going to and fro. But I’ll admit to being lazy – I honestly couldn’t be bothered to sit down and write lyrics. So, I left all that side of things to Al and what he came up with was excellent. He then noticed there was a theme running through his words. The songs were referring to our experiences throughout lockdown, and the fact that what we all needed was to press a reset button on society. That’s where the storyline came from. As I said, the fact I couldn’t be bothered to stir myself to write anything means this is all down to Al.
Are there any plans for The Korgis to tour properly?
That’s very much in our minds. We already have dates booked in. In 2022 we’ll really push ourselves and do a lot more live work.
Would you like to do the whole of the album live once the band get on the road?
That’s certainly the idea. We want to do all of Kartoon World when doing gigs in December and also on the road next year. I think the album lends itself to being performed live, and I am really looking forward to seeing how the audience reacts to the music.
Stackridge stopped four years ago. Can you ever see another reunion happening?
Well, if it was left to me then I’d be very happy to do it at some point. However, I can’t see certain other members of the band being as enthusiastic as I am. And it’s not as if we are all in regular contact. I’ve had no communication whatsoever with either Andy or Mike for ages. Yet, stranger things have happened and it’s just possible this is not the end of Stackridge.