Shadows And Reflections
Subtitled The Complete Recordings 1964-1968, this boxset brings together everything put down on tape by Kentish Town Mod favourites the Action, including their early efforts under the name the Boys. Many previously unreleased tracks feature among BBC sessions, demos and outtakes……LTW’s Ian Canty ponders the career of Reg King’s gang and Proto-Modernism in general…….
It is unlikely the original Modernists had much time for Pop groups. Being sharply clad fans of Modern Jazz, they probably saw the charts as a mere frippery, lightweight considerations offered for school kids and the terminally unhip. As their tastes developed and the numbers swelled, there was a marked adherence to the sounds of Soul and Rhythm and Blues. Black Music from the US was their love and obsession. I dare say some of the originals even thought the Beatles practitioners of jingles for the masses, lovey dovey songs bordering on light entertainment, nothing to really stack up against Miles or Ornette. Mod, we have to bear in mind at this point in its development, was very much an outsider pursuit.
Therefore when bands started to latch themselves onto the Mod scene, they were viewed with a certain amount of scepticism. The Who adopted Mod threads on the advice of publicist/manager Peter Meaden (rather cynically you might say, if you were feeling a mite uncharitable). Though in some quarters they are now seen to typify Mod music, the pioneers of the scene had doubts at the time. The Small Faces had all the undoubted right credentials though and perhaps more importantly given what we are talking about, the best gear too. However when they hit the charts and their gigs became scream-fests, it’s unlikely many self-respecting Modernists hung about too long. The Action were different, being seen as true Mod heroes from the start, despite a pre-history backing Sandra Berry as the Boys, where they looked more like a maître d convention done out in dark suits and dicky bows.
In truth they were set up in just the right way to ascend the ranks – in Reg King they had a great Soul singer, among the best in the UK along with Steve Marriott. The musicians, Alan “Bam” King and Pete Watson on guitars and a rhythm section comprising of Roger Powell and Mike “Ace” Evans, were highly adept in emulating the latest dance sounds from across the pond with an added Mod punch. Of course they really looked the part too, cool but with a moody wildness. Despite a stint with Parlophone and having the Fabs’ producer George Martin and Abbey Road at their disposal, they never could quite make that breakthrough to the charts. Nothing to do with the quality of their efforts, that hit would just not come. In terms of the Mods though, perhaps that oddly enough worked in their favour, keeping the band as ace faces on the scene, but not distant superstars.
Part of the reason why the Action may have not troubled the charts was that they did rely rather heavily on cover versions. Out of the five singles issued by Parlophone (a French only EP was also issued in 1967), only Never Ever was self-penned. It’s a fine tune and one wonders why they weren’t given their head to write more, but many bands of the time banked on a familiar song from the States to establish them initially. It just didn’t happen from the Action. They were however great interpreters of songs, particularly their stunning version of the Marvelettes’ I’ll Keep Holding On, a real classic.
The first part of this collection features the Action in their full-blown Mod Soul phase. All of the single sides are included, with debut waxing Land Of One Thousand Dances a very lively version with some nice guitar runs (actually the guitar playing of Bam King and Pete Watson is often an overlooked joy in the Action’s early recordings) and Never Ever really should have been a hit – parping brass, drive and real Pop nous in the chorus – it had the lot. The final single Shadows And Reflections proved that they could cut it during the Flower Power phase and Come On, Come With Me is bright and bouncy, with alternately acoustic and jangly touches. I will say on occasion there seems to be a little too much going on, the over-elaborations grafted on by production not always able to be squared with the natural fire of the band. Anyway, it’s a minor gripe and one that is more than adequately made up for on the rougher versions encountered later on in this set.
It is always a joy for me to hear the voice of the late Brian Matthew and on the BBC session on this disc he introduces the tracks and conducts a brief interview with Reg. The band were clearly on good form at the Beeb with versions of Baby You’ve Got It and The Byrds’ I See You standing out. The high energy attack of Mine Exclusively is really good too, an apt name as the song doesn’t appear anywhere else.
Disc two includes material recorded at the famous Abbey Road studios, including stereo versions, outtakes and alternate attempts. So most of it is included really for the sake of completism, which is not to say there isn’t plenty to enjoy here, though the songs are more or less the same as on disc one. Hey Sah-Lo-Ney sounds a little more dynamic here and the soulful Pop of I Love You (Yeah) is simply lovely. We get backing tracks which are interesting to hear, if not essential to all but the rabid Action fan. More absorbing for me the rehearsal takes. They are actually quite polished for rehearsals, the sound is pretty good and the sonic adornments that were applied during the band’s stint at Abbey Road aren’t really missed. Never Ever was a great single as mentioned above, but the Action sound just fine on their own with the brass stripped out, leaving the song bare, but simply better for this treatment.
As 1966 gave way to 67 the Mods themselves split down the middle, with the harder adherents to the style keeping the obsessive sharpness in the tailoring, but expunging all elements of dandyism. This paved the way for the first Skinheads. The others drifted towards Psychedelia, though keeping their love of smartness long enough to not quite be classed as Hippies yet. Peter Watson had left the Action by this time and the band continued for a while as a four piece, incorporating more elements of whacked-out sounds of the underground.
So the Action flirted with that Kings Road trendy look and grafted the currently trippy sound onto their solid Soul roots and playing skills. Dropping the R&B covers though didn’t go down well with all their fanbase though, who deserted their gigs. At one, a fan remonstrated with with Roger that they were not “the Action, because they didn’t play the songs the Action played”. Nevertheless the band persevered with their new direction.
The balance of power really shifted for good when guitarist Martin Stone (replacing Peter Watson, Stone was later part of Chilli Willi And The Red Hot Peppers) and Ian Whiteman on keys joined, which effectively signalled a new Action, one which relied far more on their own composition skills. This version of the band developed a sound that was closer to what say Honeybus and the Move were doing at the time, snappy Psych that didn’t forget to put Pop hook-lines in. Martin Stone brought some fine and freaky guitar runs with him and Whitman was no mean player and songsmith too.
The third disc presented on Shadows And Reflections shows the Action in this metamorphosis, a change that would eventually lead to Reg King leaving and the remainder of the band carrying on as heavy Psych act Mighty Baby. Solely comprised of their own material, disc 3 shows that the band never lost their knack for being able to get the best out of a good tune and it doesn’t take a huge leap of faith to see Love Is All as a great big Summer Of Love hit – had it been released at the time. Things You Cannot See and Brain are both glistening Sunshine Pop with an added kick and the full length version of Really Doesn’t Matter Anymore is an eminently cool, blissed out singalong.
The tracks 15-19 on this disc present the recordings the Action made after Reg King had left, but don’t show any real drop in quality at all. The band were moving more in a Country Rock direction though, Dustbin Full Of Rubbish has a few C&W moves and An Understanding Of Love highlights the harmony singing which had slowly become an Action trademark. A Saying For Today is superb, Whiteman’s flute and some fine guitar helping form a quality piece of late 60s Pop Music. Things finish here with the demo of In My Dreams, the wilder vocal line trumping the orchestral George Martin produced take featured earlier. Left to their own devices, the Action usually came up with something better.
The final disc here rounds up all the odds and sods in the Action’s oeuvre, including three tracks recorded in their previous guise as the Boys. These have the early 60s Beat sound, but Reg’s voice sets them apart a little bit and they have a few unusual touches – an eerie organ in Fine Looking Girl and an odd structure to what was the pick for me, the frantic I Want You. There are also three songs from a Decca audition, which they must have failed, but I really like the version of In A Lonely Room. Perhaps even better than the Parlophone single? The selections from Ready Steady Go and BBC Live are rough and exciting (Land Of One Thousand Dances/Uptight almost falls apart, which adds to the thrill of the track), giving us a fleeting glimpse of the band’s live glory.
Three further BBC session tracks include the band’s go at John Coltrane’s India, a live highlight for the Action, an extended jam which left Reg with time on his hands. As is sometimes the case, the devil made work for his idle hands, leading to his ejection from the band when a palm tree climbing exercise in a break from vocals ended in both a literal and figurative plummet for the hapless singer. The collection finishes with eight “Edsel” mixes of their early era material that featured on the 1990 CD reissue of The Ultimate Action (which seem to have been overseen by original Action producer George Martin at the time of this reissue). These clean, slightly thin-sounding recordings seem to ratchet up the excitement levels a little. Never Ever, perhaps their best song and Twentyfourth Hour sound pretty good presented in this form.
The 1980 compilation The Ultimate Action reintroduced the band at the height of the Mod revival, but this new collection is more deserving of that title. The book format is great including a long and informative history of the Action by David Wells with input from the band and a detailed breakdown of their recording sessions. Neatly designed with lots of period photographs too. This all adds up to a very well turned-out and complete history of the Action, which is more often than not invigorating listening. A boxset with compiled with real style, love and attention to detail, it is exactly what those ultra-sharp blades they called the Action would have wanted.
All words by Ian Canty – see his author profile here