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Music Review: The Electric Prunes – The Complete Reprise Singles

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During the heyday of the psychedelic sound, to borrow Grace Slick’s Woodstock phrase, there were “heavy groups” like Big Brother and the Holding Company, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and the Grateful Dead known for long jams and minimal AM radio airplay. On the other hand, there were lighter groups like the Strawberry Alarm Clock, the Blues Magoos, Status Quo, and the Electric Prunes. Such bands unashamedly gunned for Top 40 success. Even Kenny Rogers and the First Edition went for a slice of the psychedelic pie when they “dropped in to see what condition” their condition was in. Hard to believe country crooner Glen Campbell played the psyched-out guitar lead on that one.

Now it’s 2012 and psych/pop is enjoying a minor renaissance. Earlier this year, the Strawberry Alarm Clock released Wake Up Where You Are, their first album of new music in over 40 years. This spring, the Electric Prunes issued Return to Stockholm, a 2004 concert featuring three of the original members: James Lowe (vocals, guitar, harmonica, autoharp), Ken Williams (guitar), and (the late) Mark Tulin (bass). Around the same time, Real Gone Records released The Complete Reprise Singles by the Prunes. Truth be known, the label came up with a rather odd approach to the history of, more or less, two-and-a-half completely different bands.

Back in 1967, the real Electric Prunes felt they benefited from several lucky breaks. Their first producer was David Hassinger, fresh off his engineering work with the Rolling Stones on Aftermath. For their debut album, Hassinger gave the band songs written by the team of Annette Tucker and Nancie Mantz, whose piano-based demos were considerably re-arranged by the garage rockers. The Tucker/Mantz eye for word play resulted in singles like “I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night),” “Get Me to the World on Time,” and “Are You Lovin’ Me More (But Enjoy Is Less),” the latter a take on a then-popular cigarette commercial. Before the band went through many lineup changes, the early songs were performed by the gents listed above as well as James “Weasel” Spagnola on guitar (who sang “Are You Lovin’ Me”) and Preston Ritter on drums.

For the follow-up collection, 1967s Underground, the band wrote much more of its own material, none of which was destined for chart success. However, singles like the druggy “Hideaway,” “The Great Banana Hoax,” and “Wind-Up Toys” would become concert staples. It’s debatable whether or not the mad scientist, circus show silliness in “Dr. Do-Good” was right for the Prunes.

During this album, the Prunes’ first drummer, Michael Wheatley, who’d played on their first single “Ain’t It Hard/Little Olive” returned. Mike Gannon replaced Spagnola on guitar for two tracks as well as the under-appreciated, very radio-friendly single, “Everybody Knows You’re Not In Love” which did not appear on Underground. According to Jim Low, that song was his answer to The Turtles’ “Happy Together.” “Mark Tulin and I both wanted a simple sing-along and after playing with the Turtles we came up with that to try and please Hassinger who was eager for a hit so we could stay with Reprise.”

However, “Everybody Knows,” along with the 1968 one-sided 45, Shadows”—intended for a movie soundtrack—were the last hurrahs for the original Prunes. When composer David Axelrod conceived Mass in F Minor in 1968, represented on this collection by “Sanctus” and “Credo,” the plans were for the Prunes to play all the complex parts. All the members except Williams laid down some of the basic tracks and provided the vocals, but the instrumentation was augmented by other players who could work faster. Why anyone thought “Sanctus” and “Credo” would work as a single outside of the album’s context is questionable. Still, for listeners who only know Mass from “Kyrie Eleison” on the Easy Rider soundtrack, this collection offers two more samples showcasing some outstanding guitar work.

It’s equally surprising anyone thought the single “Help Us (Our Father, Our King)”/”The Adoration” from Axelrod’s next concept album, Release of An Oath, would make it on any charts. Not only were the lyrics straight-forward church liturgy—in English this time and not Latin—the emphasis was on strings, not rock. And not a single Prune is on record, most evident in the strained, raw lead vocals. Judging from the two songs chosen for the 45, Axelrod didn’t want to replicate any sounds from Mass. So why call it The Prunes?

This was even more true with 1969’s Just Good Old Rock and Roll. The “new, Improved Electric Prunes” were John Herron, Ron Morgan, Mark Kincaid, Brett Wade, and Richard Whetstone, the latter two sharing lead vocals on the next rather eccentric single, “Hey, Mr. President.” New? Certainly. Improved? Ah, not even close.

The bogus Prunes also put out “Flowing Smoothly,” “Violent Rose,” “Sell,” “Love Grows,” and “Finders Keepers, Losers Weepers.” There’s not a single psychedelic guitar lead on any of them. This band seemed to have tried for a low-budget soul sound, heavy on the Hammond organ. Ultimately, the fake Prunes knew it was time to retire from the charade—it would be years before the old, but certainly improved Electric Prunes would return. For this package, the originals return for one bonus track, an ad for Vox wah-wah guitar pedals.

So how can fans assess this overview of the various incarnations of the Prunes? It’s true the liner notes are helpful with some insights on how the original sounds were created. But while based on interviews with original members, the conversations are a bit dated and didn’t address one obvious question. How did the real Electric Prunes feel about the rip-off version and how do they react to their music being assembled with material they had nothing to do with? Strangely, no one asked them before. I did, and here’s what Jim Lowe wrote:

“I can’t think of another act hijacked in this way. I am surprised no one asked for my stage clothes. The thing is they did it half assed and the records suck. I would have thought THAT was what they were trying to correct. They just wanted a commercial product and now it is filler for a silly singles collection. I think some may think I would be sensitive to this thing. I don’t care much and I am sure the other players are not too happy about being fake Prunes.”

A “silly singles collection”? Well, Lowe has a point. But there are tracks worthy of a collector’s attention. While I admit hoping to some day hear “I Had Too Much to Dream” in glorious 5.1 sound, Real Gone’s presenting the songs of the original Prunes in mono makes good sense. Mono, after all, was still the preferred format for music mixed for airplay heard on those old transistor radios or played on single-speaker monaural players. For collectors, tracks like “Everybody Knows You’re Not in Love,” “Shadows,” and the Vox radio ad are rarities worth having.

But I can’t even suggest listening to the Release of an Oath and the fake Prunes tracks just once for curiosity. Even if you called those guys by any other name, the material is not only forgettable, it’s downright annoying. And, while Lowe is diplomatic in his thoughts, the inclusion of the fake Prunes on the collection is simply insulting to both the legitimate band and the purchaser. Had Real Gone Records included two or three songs from Just Good Old Rock and Roll for history’s sake, the result would have been a more credible package. As it is, The Complete Reprise Singles is like having two glasses: one is half O.J., the other is Tang with no water added.

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About Wesley Britton