The Electric Prunes – Then Came The DawnThe Electric Prunes: Then Came The Dawn – album review

Grapefruit

6CD/DL

Out now

The Complete Recordings 1966-1969 of The Electric Prunes, who became famous for the proto-punk psychedelic hits I Had Too Much To Dream (Last Night) and Get Me To The World On Time. Ian Canty keeps himself regular…

L.A. psychedelic trailblazers The Electric Prunes managed to weave themselves a decidedly odd career path after forming in the middle of the 1960s. Their second and third singles, written by the female songwriting team of Annette Tucker and Nancie Mantz, were red-hot. But after that…the hated prune suits they had to wear when playing live, the unsuitably material they were asked to record, mass changes of personnel, a virtual takeover by producer David Axelrod that resulted in two very strange albums and Kenny “Footloose” Loggins being a Prune for a short time. Even the band name was derived from as a joke, but over the years The Electric Prunes’ reputation has been restored and this new set Then Came The Dawn hoovers up all the recordings under the name 1966 to 1969.

They formed back in 1965 as surf/garage band The Sanctions, with a line up led by James Lowe and featuring bass player Mark Tulin, drummer Michael Weakley and guitarist Ken Williams. They then changed their moniker to Jim And The Lords in the late summer of the same year, after some demos were cut. There’s a strong female influence on the Electric Prunes’ fate, which began with a young woman by the name of Barbara Harris digging the band as they rehearsed in Tulin’s garage. She arranged for them to play a set at Annette Tucker’s husband’s birthday do and there she put the band in touch with Dave Hassinger, who was employed at RCA Studios in Hollywood. Liking what he heard, he wanted to produce the band, but thought they should change their name to something more memorable.

Thus the Electric Prunes were born. They signed to Reprise Records and cut the unsuccessful single Ain’t It Hard/Little Olive in 1966. The record flopped and Weakly left, to be replaced by Preston Ritter, with guitarist James “Weasel” Spagnola also joining up. Still unsure of their own writing talents, the band called in the Tucker/Mantz partnership for their second shot at single glory, I Had Too Much To Dream (Last Night). The incredible guitar work made an instant impact, making the record sound state of the art in late 1966 and the song suited The Electric Prunes’ image perfectly. It was a Top Thirty hit in the US and charted across the pond too. Follow up Get Me To The World On Time was a slightly lesser hit in America, but bigger in the UK, so a debut album needed to be quickly arranged to cash in on their status as one of pop music’s brightest new sensations.

The first disc of Then Came The Dawn features the self-titled debut album in mono and stereo forms. Those fine 45s are joined by punchy beat psych like Bangles and the occasional ballad like Onie or sappy 30s oldie About A Quarter To Nine. The echo-laden, wry Are You Lovin’ Me More (But Enjoying It Less), another Tucker/Mantz tune and a raucous Try Me On For Size gets nearest to the singles’ inspired mania. The toytown psychedelia of The King Is In The Counting House is a long way from the band’s proto-punk repute, but still measures up as good fun.

When the band actually got the chance to write a couple of songs, they really take advantage with the cool r&b thud of Luvin’ and a spaced-out goodie in Train For Tomorrow. A jokey Tunerville Trolley brings to end a somewhat confusing selection. The record is populated with a few seemingly contradictory sounds and styles. As a result the listener isn’t much wiser on whether The Electric Prunes wanted to be the prime punky psych-garage act they were in truth or instead wished to aim for a crossover to MOR success. This wasn’t the band’s fault, as many of these songs were forced on them by producer David Hassinger, who got Mantz and Tucker to write a range of material instead of concentrating on The Prunes’ natural aptitude for psychedelic mayhem. But having said that, the good stuff here is a real treat. I slightly preferred the mono mix, which is sharper which helps to achieve more impact.

Disc two repeats the trick of the first by having stereo and mono mixes of second LP Underground, which for me is a big improvement on their first and consistently endearing and innovative. By this time Ritter had left and Michael Weakley regained his spot behind the traps. The Prunes themselves get more opportunity to write their own material here and it begins with their energetic psych/garage ace The Great Banana Hoax, one of their best recordings. There’s some deft weirdness employed on Children Of Rain and Wind Up Toys trips out a soul strut with true authority. The guitar sound, always a strength of The Electric Prunes, is cracking throughout.

It’s Not Fair is pleasant enough and feels like a country rock throwback to the first record’s pursuit of variety at all costs. But that apart, this collection is non-stop, high-energy fun. A gutsy and fine take of Goffin/King’s I Happen To Love You soon gets thing right back on track. Tucker and Mantz come up with the goods on a speedy Dr Do-Good, where the guitar is a menacing buzz and the cool and lengthy I passes muster too. The eerie style of Big City could be a gothic Beach Boys and this gives way to the space blues of Capt. Glory and the LP’s crowning glory, psychedelic beauty Long Day’s Flight. Underground only made a minor impact in the US, but all things considered it was a stunning exhibition of The Electric Prunes’ art. Again I just rate the mono mix higher, there’s just a touch more punch to it.

Here’s where things start to get strange. Spagnola had bailed out during Underground with Mark Gannon taking his place and the muted commercial reception to Underground understandably set the band back a bit. Dave Hassinger didn’t like the album, so The Prunes’ manager Lenny Poacher introduced them to producer David Axelrod, who had the idea of hippie-fying a Catholic mass. Given the machinations the group had gone through already, they didn’t immediate baulk at an idea which seemed to flush any hopes of a pop success down the khazi. Soon though outside musicians had to be brought in because the arrangements were too complicated for The Electric Prunes’ garage punk talents, with members of the famous Wrecking Crew and Canadian band The Collectors playing on the album.

The third disc here has stereo and mono versions that album Mass In F Minor, the last collection released under The Electric Prunes name that can actually be considered to having anything much to do with the band that started out. Axelrod was firmly in the driving seat though, penning the entire LP in Latin. The album ensues with Kyrie Eleison, which also turned up in the movie Easy Rider. This is an unusual but intriguing mix of the Prunes’ trademark wigged-out pysch and choral voice with some great distorted guitar. Mass In F Minor then goes to the church organ intro of Gloria. The piece goes for the same formula as the opening number and it works rather well on the extended musical section that bring it to an end.

A more laidback beginning to Credo relies heavily on James Lowe’s double-tracked vocals, but it quickly gathers pace. The sedate sound of Sanctus eventually blasts forth with some inspired guitar wrangling and Benedictus juxtaposes a r&b strut with hymnal voice. Set closer Agnus Dei has some great singing from Lowe, he takes to what most have appeared an odd scenario with gusto. Strings and swinging garage rock see us to end, with this listener just trying to work out exactly what he has heard on the first play.

To sum Mass In F Minor up in a glib sentence, it is punky acid rock meeting choir vocals head-on. The album is strangely addictive and as mad as a box of frogs, with the vim of the performance that The Electric Prunes and their helpers put in making the record appealing, even if one is not too keen on the overall concept itself. It’s certainly unlike anything else you might hear and I found it a surprisingly refreshing sound, full of the kind of late 1960s madness you just can’t replicate. In my opinion, the stereo mix of this one worked better than on the two previous efforts.

The album was slightly bigger minor success on the US charts than Underground. Emboldened by this fact Axelrod pushed forward for his next project in the same mode, the Release Of An Oath album. The original Electric Prunes had gradually dropped out of the project, with Lowe and Williams quitting in early 1968 and after a tour with Kenny Loggins as a replacement Prune, Tulin and Williams left the band in the same year. Dave Hassinger had the rights for the name and recruited the band Climax as the new Electric Prunes. More Wrecking Crew members like the legendary Carol Kaye played on the LP, with the only “new” Prune to contribute to the recording being singer Richard Whetstone.

In attempting to work the same trick as Mass In F Minor, we have the dramatic, orchestral opening of Koi Nidre. The musicians do ape The Electric Prunes well, but inevitably something is lost. Even so the craft of Axelrod himself is plain to see, with him employing a larger helping of strings this time around. The garage rock trimmings are toned down a bit as a result. A ringing Holy You Are ends with skittering guitar heroics and General Confessional patiently picks its way and shimmers nicely.

Its sequel Individual Confessional brightly begins the second half of the album, but Our Father, Our King is just wide-eyed Christian rock with few of of the quirks that made Mass In F Minor so enjoyable. The Adoration starts similarly, but soon becomes mildly trippy, but the Closing Hymn lives up to its title in concluding Release Of An Oath. While both are pleasant enough listening in a straight-forward, orchestrated psych way, it wasn’t a shock that the album missed the charts. Despite some good ideas and tunes, the fans that stayed with The Prunes on their third LP could see little point as that band was totally replaced by newcomers.

Even so, Hassinger set the “New, Improved Electric Prunes” (which could have been looked into under The Trade Descriptions Act 1968) to work on their final album of the 1960s, Just Good Old Rock And Roll. Bluesy hard rock dominates on a collection that is nothing like any other long player in this set. There was a lot of this kind of music about at the time and it’s ok for what it is. But in truth much of it is far from memorable and misses the elements of originality that the real Electric Prunes had brought to their sound.

Love Grows is one of the better numbers, fusing a pop hook to a rolling rhythm quite well and So Many People to Tell offers a decent change of pace. The Standells’ Larry Tamblyn was involved in playing on some of the tracks and co-wrote the standard hard rock of Giant Sunhorse too. The album’s second single Finders Keepers, Losers Weepers is a pretty good piece of soul rock, with Thorjon shapng up as an able fuzzy rocker. Even so, Just Good Old Rock And Roll peters out after that and is very much the lesser of the albums contained in Then Came The Dawn.

Disc five of Then Came The Dawn mops up the single sides and rarities and is titled Shadows after the song recorded by the band for the film The Name Of The Game Is Kill. The second and third singles are classics of course, but debut Ain’t It Hard is a neat slab of blueswailing beat that could have done better. Folk rock outtake from the first LP I’ve Got A Way Of My Own is cool and from the same source the very danceable World Of Darkness has a good sense of purpose too.

The single version of Hideaway has energy and real zeal and an extended The Great Banana Hoax ably balances sensitivity and psychedelic thunder. The 1968 single Everybody Knows (You’re Not In Love) was supposed to re-establish The Prunes as a viable chart act again after Mass In F Minor. It’s a pure pop goodie that was unlucky not to fulfil its aim and the feisty, feedback-enhanced flipside You’ve Never Had It Better helped make it a belter of a 7 inch. The very fine Long Day’s Flight is also here in a longer take and Shadows itself is a prime slab of spooky psychedelia. The second version of the band feature with their Hey Mr President /Flowing Smoothly, which is quite good but not a patch on what has gone before. The disc ends with the Vox Wah Wah Pedal Radio Spot. The Vox company were The Electric Prunes’ sponsors in 1967 and this is a nice kitsch item.

The final disc of this set Stockholm ’67 was released by Bristol’s Heartbeat label in 1997. The first eight tracks are taken from a live gig in Stockholm, Sweden on 14th December 1967, during the band’s European tour of that year. The set survived because it was recorded by the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation for a radio show. Though the sleeve note tends to suggest that audiences on the tour were bemused by the band, after an extended tuning up The Electric Prunes explode through a set of heavy-duty garage punk goodness, starting with You Never Had It Better, which is snotty Stooges-anticipating snazz incarnate. Whatever their perceived shortcomings in the studio for Mass In F Minor, there is ample evidence here that they really cut it live.

I Had Too Much To Dream (Last Night) is taken at a slightly slower pace, but still comes over full of power and attitude. Try Me Out For Size lurches with dangerous might and drawn out dramatically and convincingly. They pile into “the song The Monkees didn’t want” I Happen To Love You with real fuzz-driven relish and blues standard I Got My Mojo Workin’ is refitted with acid guitar grandstanding and Lowe’s proto-Iggy vocals. Howlin’ Wolf’s Smokestack Lightning gets similar treatment and Long Day’s Flight is treated to a spiky reading. Ending with a vicious Get Me To The World On Time, Stockholm ’67 is a staggering and perfect psych punk statement. A highlight of the set and perhaps the “truest” Electric Prunes recording of all, remember them this way.

Added to the live set we have the four demos Jim And The Lords cut in back 1965. These were the only recordings to feature Dick Hargrave on keyboards, who was briefly a member of the band. Three covers of The Beatles’ I’m Down, the Jagger/Richards number I’m Free and Too Many People by The Leaves are joined by band original Little (Li’l) Olive, which was re-recorded for the b-side of the first Electric Prunes single. There isn’t much of a hint of what was to come, bar the snarl in James Lowe’s voice. But their I’m Free and Too Many People are good, punky versions and Little (Li’l) Olive moves along like the folk garage plum it is.

Like the recent set by The Beau Brummels, Then Came The Dawn has been remastered by Alec Palao and is housed in a rigid box with separate sleeve repros and in depth notes from Gray Newell that gives the reader the full s.p. on The Electric Prunes extraordinary story. Everything that could have been done to give the feel of a quality collection seems in place. Of the music, I enjoyed the fantastic Stockholm ’67 the most, a set that demands to be in any garage punk’s collection. Underground, Mass In F Minor and Shadows came next for me, all of those I found to be excellent listening too. The debut album and Release From An Oath aren’t bad either. Just Good Old Rock And Roll helps give a sense of completeness and has a few interesting ideas.

This boxset has clearly been assembled skilfully with love and care. The most important thing is though, most of it still sounds great and like no-one else. Then Came The Dawn charts The Prunes’ often brilliant, sometimes bewildering career with real style.

All words by Ian Canty – see his author profile here

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