Alec Palao – The Action producer talks to Louder Than War
As previously covered for Louder Than War 1960’s mod band The Action are scheduled to have their entire career released via Grapefruit/Cherry Red Records with a lovingly compiled 4 CD/limited edition vinyl release, set to be released in October 2018. Alec Palao has had the task of compiling and remastering the tracks for the collection, which he has done magnificently. Matt Mead chats to Alec for Louder Than War to get his version of events.
What do you remember your very first musical memory? What was the first record you bought? Who were your first musical heroes? Have you ever played in any bands?
Hmm, growing up in Crouch End (north London) my first real recollection of pop music – if not a subliminal absorption of the Beatles like most of my generation – was Amen Corner’s (If Paradise Was) Half As Nice playing on the radio. Ironically enough, in recent times I have been working closely with Shel Talmy, who produced it. As for the first record I actually spent my pre-teen pocket money on, that was Hey Rock And Roll by Showaddywaddy; ever so slightly embarrassing, though at the time I did also really like Bowie, Sparks, Roxy, T. Rex and hipper stuff. When punk came along I was fourteen, just the right age, but I always dug 50s and 60s stuff just as much. After hoovering up the obvious such as Elvis, Little Richard, Who, Stones, Kinks etc… I discovered both 60s garage via the Nuggets comp, and vintage soul and R&B. It was the time of 2-Tone, so all of a sudden you didn’t have to be a revivalist to enjoy older pop and rock, of any kind, for that matter. That led to of course to parlaying my enthusiasm for music by playing in various bands, both in the UK, and later once I moved to California in 1988. Still playing today. But thankfully as a reissue producer and music historian, I can scrape a living celebrating the careers of the great and good, which frankly is preferable to becoming a wizened old geezer out on the stage.
When did you start to get into music remastering? Did you study this at college/university? Who have been some of the musical highlights that you have been able to work with?
In truth, The Action box set and a few other things aside, I don’t tend to do that much mastering, in the main. As you can get so buried in the music when putting a project together, it’s often better to have a fresh pair of ears attend to that crucial last stage. I do however tend to otherwise supervise the audio on most of the releases I am involved with. Normally this entails transferring the original tapes, remixing when necessary, and general editing and sound restoration, if not the final tweak. I am a little unusual in the reissue/back catalogue business in that on any given release I tend to wear multiple hats – compiler, deal broker, liner notes author, photo research, art direction, you name it. Invariably, this has been on behalf of UK company Ace Records, to whom I have great loyalty, and whom I will always rate as the best label in the still somewhat crowded reissue market. However, I have also done a lot of work over the years for the premiere US catalogue outfits such as Rhino, Numero Group, Omnivore and Light In The Attic.
Never formally trained as an audio engineer, but as a musician, I’ve always been interested in the recording side of things. I became frustrated with the time and expense of using standard studios to copy tapes, and so about twenty-five years ago, with the encouragement of Ace, I invested in some pro gear and basically taught myself how to do my own transfers. Since then, I have travelled throughout the US and have gotten to dig into many legendary vaults, and finding a lot of gold in the process. Thanks to enough years working with tapes from the world’s great studios – Abbey Road, Sunset Sound, Gold Star, Stax, Fame, Ardent etc – and just being a huge fan of the music, I have a relatively intuitive feel for balance when preparing old masters, at least when using the methodology that the engineers of the time would have used (I still prefer to mix through an old-fashioned analogue board). Too many remixers of vintage material still try to make things sound modern, with predictably unsatisfying results.
Though I’m mostly known for 60s rock packages, I’ve assembled a lot of pop, soul and R&B collections too, and certainly have a fair tranche of both 50s and 70s-era material in my CV (not much chronologically past that, I have to say). As to artists that I’ve been fortunate to work with, a brief list of the better-known would include the Zombies, Sly Stone, Dan Penn, Big Star, a lot of vintage West Coast garage and psychedelia such the Sonics, Chocolate Watchband, Music Machine and Seeds (also worked on the Nuggets boxes), and most recently the Shel Talmy catalogue. In most cases, getting to know the artists and or producer/label owners in question is a necessary part of the process, and a hugely enjoyable one too – I’ve made friends and have even gotten to play music with quite a few of my heroes. Repertoire-wise, my predilection is always to ferret out stuff that either hasn’t been out before or, like The Action, can stand a major upgrade – I prefer to rehabilitate rather than regurgitate . . .
When did you first hear The Action? What are your favourite songs by The Action?
I first encountered The Action on a cheesy compilation called My Generation. This was back in the punk days, and the song included was Baby You’ve Got It. Though I love the track now, at the time I wasn’t that impressed because on that particular collection it’s in awful rechannelled pseudo-stereo. When The Ultimate Action comp came out I picked up a copy and I recall playing it a lot, but my gobsmack moment with the Action came a little later, when I heard Wasn’t It You on the jukebox at the Hope & Anchor in Islington (this was in the days when it was a great rock’n’roll bolt-hole, not a gentrified hostelry trading on former glories). Though atypical of the rest of their work, it will always remain one of my top three Action cuts, along with I’ll Keep Holding On and Never Ever.
The new set by The Action that you have remastered. When were you first approached to be involved with the project? Who approached you to be involved with the project? When you were approached to be involved with the project was all the material that now appears in the set available to you or did more material start to emerge throughout the course of time?
A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to access some Action multi-tracks when the publishing company that owns the AIR catalogue (George Martin’s former production entity, which includes the Action masters) was looking for licensing opportunities. Though I had some ideas in mind – which weren’t a million miles away from what is coming out now – a release wasn’t possible at that moment. When the franchise for the Action material was recently picked up by Cherry Red Records, they had knowledge of my prior interest, and so I got involved in compiling and mastering the set for them, as well as contributing part of the liner notes. Most everything The Action recorded in the 1960s has been out in one place or another over the years, but never gathered together in one spot. So in some ways the box compiled itself, but I knew we had to base it around the original Parlophone singles masters, which haven’t been available since the 1980 Ultimate Action vinyl album, and certainly never on CD.
Where did the multi-tracks appear from? It’s remarkable that on some of the stereo tracks the songs now appear slightly extended than the original mono mixes. Was this how the songs appeared on the tapes? Did you have to do any work to those songs that appear with extended endings? Was it a special feeling working with something that no one had ever heard before?
As mentioned, Chrysalis, the owners of the Action material, possessed the tapes, and I thought it odd that previous licensors had never perused them, as the most interesting and instructive elements of an acts recorded legacy often lurk upon such session reels. And yes it’s always a thrill to dig down into the working elements of songs and performances that you have known and loved for years. An extra bonus was the fact that this was Abbey Road in its golden era, with the same producer, engineers and technical set-up as the Beatles in their heyday. As you surmise, the performances were heavily edited back in the day for release, so when mixing for first-time stereo, rather than try and precisely match the original mono balances and timings, I decided to let things run just as they went down in the studio. The Action were such good singers and players, that this makes for an added pleasure. The only bit of technical adjustment that I did was to reinstate the backwards cymbal on the choruses to Never Ever, which was added at the remix stage for the mono single but is not on the actual multi-track tape.
Were the rehearsal tapes amongst the same source as the multi-track tapes? Amongst the rehearsal tapes, are there more rehearsal takes available? Did you pull the cream from the crop you had? Or is everything that has been made available on the releases equate to what has been discovered? There are little snippets of audio at the start of some of the songs that appear on the stereo tracks. Was there much of this audio available?
Pretty much everything worth hearing on the Abbey Road session tapes appears on Shadows & Reflections, including the rehearsal takes. There are no other full performances, just brief false starts and fragments. The band rarely did more than a couple of takes of any song in any case. Save for few grunts from Reg or George Martin here and there, that’s the sum total of studio chat too. Some people might baulk at backing tracks or multiple versions of the same song, but for any enlightened listener, they provide further evidence, if needed, of just how good this band really was.
Did the original sources for the live tracks (Going to a Go-Go etc) become available to you? The work that you’ve done on the live tracks is noticeably different and of a better production than when they first appeared on the Uptight and Outasight set.
Yes, I did a complete upgrade on all the BBC stuff, going back to the original sources and keeping it true to the original sound ie no added reverb or loudness. Similarly, we had the original source reels for the Rolled Gold material, and I was able to make a significant improvement there also, although because of the intrinsic demo nature of those recordings, there is only so much you can do. If I had a frustration, it would be that the session tapes from that later era weren’t available, as there is some truly wonderful material, if quite different to the classic Abbey Road sides.
Is there anything that was not included on the set that you had access to? Is there any audio that is known to be in existence that isn’t included on the set, or is this set the definitive ‘what’s out there’ collection?
Only, as I mention above, the Rolled Gold session tapes, but who knows where those are, or if they even still exist. The group made other appearances on the BBC in 1967 and 1968, that are documented but don’t seem to have survived. There are also rumours of radio broadcasts from France. But as far as I can tell, there don’t seem to be any studio sessions missing. If there are others as yet undiscovered, they would more than likely be more publishing demos, not masters.
How long did it take for the remastering to happen? Out of everything on the set that you’ve worked on, what are you most pleased with? Finally, on the set, what are your 5 favourite tracks?
I don’t mind admitting I spent an inordinate amount of time tinkering with certain stereo tracks to get them right, but on the other hand, the original mono mixes of the Parlophone stuff all sound great as is, and required only the minimum of preparation. With the Rolled Gold demos, I did a lot of work to put some fidelity back into these essentially rough recordings and avoid the overly-pumped-up sound of previous issues. Ultimately, some folks will appreciate it all, others will probably grumble, but at least the correct versions of the original singles are available once again, and the extras I hope keep the hard-core Action aficionados happy. Mixing the Abbey Road stuff was of course a joy, particularly the more rhythmic tracks like The Cissy, Never Ever, and I’ll Keep Holding On. Otherwise, I am particularly partial to the rehearsal take of Something Has Hit Me, which ably demonstrates that Reg King could have sung the phone book and made it sound soulful. And of course Wasn’t It You, which still gives me goosebumps every time I cue it up . . .
You can buy the 4CD/limited edition vinyl set from Cherry Red website. The Action book In The Lap Of The Mods can also be purchased here. If you would like to keep up to date with The Action the best places are either the Action Twitter page and Facebook group.
All words by Matt Mead. Further articles by Matt can be found at the Louder Than War author archive page.