Sunday, January 09, 2022

The Electric Prunes - Then Came The Dawn : The Complete Recordings 1966-1969

While the six CD box set Then Came The Dawn : The Complete Recordings 1966-1969 only covers a very short period of time it’s a fascinating look at The Electric Prunes, who over the course of just over two and a half years from late 1966 to mid 1969 managed to churn out five albums, while also going through some twists and turns stylewise and changing members quite a few times with the lineup on the fifth release ending up with no members from their debut (several original members band reunite in 1999 and released several more records, but this box set covers that initial time).  In addition containing all five albums (the first three in both mono and stereo versions) there’s also a live show from 1967, some early demos and a disc containing 19 tracks consisting of 45 Mixes, Rare Tracks and Extended Versions.

The Electric Prunes got their start as The Sanctions, who after recording twelve covers on an acetate, added a keyboard player and recorded 4 more demos under the name Jim and the Lords.  The band was working under that name when Barbara Harris saw them rehearsing in bassist Mark Tulin’s garage and got them a gig playing at Annette Tucker’s husband’s birthday and connected them with Dave Hassinger who worked at RCA studios.  He wanted to produce them but didn’t like the name, so they changed it to The Electric Prunes.  This brings us to disc one, which contains their eponymous debut release in both mono and stereo.  To the band’s dismay they ended up having very little to do with the songwriting on this release with Hassinger bringing in the aforementioned Annette Tucker to co-write eight of the twelve songs (six with Nancie Mantz and two with Jill Jones).  He also asked them to write in a variety of styles since the band was trying to find their sound, resulting in the album being a bit all over the place stylewise.  Having said that there is still plenty here to make this a very worthwhile release.   Kicking the disc off is “I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night”, a brilliant psychedelic garage rocker with stellar guitar work that became the band’s biggest hit and signature song.  There are a few other really strong tracks that stick to the garage rock vibe in "Bangles", which meshes it with some Beatles-like passages and "Are You Lovin' Me More (But Enjoying It Less)" with it’s really cool organ work.  Some of the other highlights are "Train For Tomorrow", which starts off as an infectious psychedelic tinged folk tune then halfway through evolves into a jazzy instrumental, the gypsy rock flavor of "Sold To The Highest Bidder" and the freakbeat sounding "Get Me To The World On Time".  They delve a little into R&B influenced rock on "Luvin'" with it’s early Stones vibe and the raucous "Try Me On For Size".  Unfortunately, with the exception of "Onie", a decent ballad, the remaining cuts are all over the place, from the nursery rhyme like "The King Is In The Counting House" and "About A Quarter To Nine", which sounds like a standard from the 30’s to "Tunerville Trolley" whose sound defies explanation, are really all over the place and not that good.  Although a little scattered  this is still a very worthy debut.  

For the follow-up release Underground, found on disc two (again in both mono and stereo versions), producer Hassinger wasn’t as involved with the production, and due to this, the band ended up contributing songwriting for seven of the twelve songs (Tucker and Mantz still contributed three) resulting in a more cohesive sound.  Opening the disc is the hypnotic, twisting and turning psychedelic rock of "The Great Banana Hoax", that in my opinion is every bit as good as “I Had Too Much…”.  The psychedelic rock continues, although in a bit more subdued manor, with "Children Of Rain" and "Wind-Up Toys".  Next up is "Antique Doll", an intriguing track with a really cool creepy vibe to it.  The band veer off into some country rock on "It's Not Fair", a tune that is catchy enough but tends to be a little cheesy.  They get back on track with the moody, acid rock of "I Happen To Love You", written by none other than the legendary Goffin and King, but follow it with another misstep in the novelty sounding "Dr. Do-Good".   From here on the rest of the album contains some really outstanding tracks from the slow and slinky "I", which musically sounds like The Doors at times and "Hideaway", a psychedelic rocker with a bit of a Middle Eastern vibe thanks to the sitar sounding guitar work, to the gorgeous "Big City", that’s a change of pace with a very strong Beach Boys feel, and the sunshine pop of "Capt. Glory". Closing things out is the straight-ahead no frills garage rock of "Long Day's Flight".  Ironically, while Underground was probably the truest representation of what The Electric Prunes were really about, that was all about to change drastically with the next album.

Due to the fact that Underground wasn’t exactly a commercial success, the band’s manager and producer Hassinger, whose company actually owned the rights to the band name, decided along with the label that the next album would be written and arranged by the classically trained musician David Axelrod.  They wanted a religious-based rock-opera concept album that would take their psychedelic rock and merge it with religious and classical elements and be sung in Greek and Latin.  When the band got together to record the album they saw that they couldn’t handle Axelrod’s arrangements to his standards.  While most of the band did perform on all the tracks, the album was largely recorded by studio musicians comprised of the Canadian group the Collectors with engineer Richie Polodor on guitar.  Comprised of just six songs and only running a little over twenty-six minutes, the resulting album Mass In F Minor (the last in the box to be presented in both mono and stereo) was definitely a different direction for the band and is almost better appreciated as one long piece as opposed to different songs. For the most part they have an undercurrent of psychedelic rock running through them, often with long instrumental passage that are then topped off with a string section and vocal chants.   They do stick pretty close to this formula throughout but do mix in a bit of an R&B groove to "Benedictus", while "Agnus Dei" has a bit more of a jazz side to it.  While there had already been numerous member changes at the time Mass In F Minor was released, by mid 1968, a few months after it’s release, the remaining members of the band had all left (interestingly, during the tour that finished right before the last members left, Kenny Loggins was playing guitar with the band). 

Since Hassinger owned the name he once again recruited David Axelrod to write and arrange Release Of An Oath (found on the first half of disc four) and since no members were left he recruited members of the band Climax and some members of the legendary Wrecking Crew to record it.  This time around Axelrod created an orchestral rock concept album based on the Jewish prayer Kol Nidre.  Gone are the chants, replaced by choral vocals and while there are some glimmers of psychedelic rock on a few of the songs, overall there is more emphasis on the string sections. Having said that there are a few songs that are good for what they are, but not really as The Electric Prunes.  "Holy Are You" is the best example of a track where the pieces of the puzzle actually work, especially in the instrumental sections where the guitars, string sections and drums really mesh together perfectly.  Also of note is the jazzy drumming of the legendary Earl Palmer, who really shines on "General Confessional" and "The Adoration", the last of which is another solid track with some really nice, subdued organ work fleshing out the sound. 

As if the story so far hasn’t been strange enough, the band’s fifth album Just Good Old Rock and Roll (found on the second half of disc four) has the band listed on the front cover as “the new improved Electric Prunes” and with the exception of Dick Whetstone, lead vocalist on Release Of An Oath, contains no prior member of the band.  In another twist, this is also the first album almost entirely written and performed by the band, with only one song not at least co-written by a band member.  At this point the orchestration, string sections, chants and choral vocals are gone and for a large part the psychedelic rock is gone having now been replaced by straight-ahead funk and blues rock.  Definitely the weakest album of the bunch with a lot of pretty generic tracks, it’s not without a handful of really strong tracks most notable being "Thorjon", a hard rocking tune full of fuzzed out psychedelic guitars that is worthy of the Electric Prunes name.  A few of the other standouts include "Finders Keepers, Losers Weepers", a catchy tune with a nice funk groove and some really tasty organ and the straight-ahead rocker "Giant Sunhorse". 

On disc five you will find a collection of single mixes, rare tracks and extended versions.  Kicking things of is their first single (released before their debut album) “Ain’t It Hard”, a catchy British Beat track with a bit of psychedelia mixed in, that was originally recorded by Gypsy Trips, and its flipside “Little Olive”, which is a reworking of a song they originally recorded as Jim and the Lords.  Next up is the single version of “I Had Too Much To Dream..” and it’s flipside “Luvin’” and the first of 8 tracks here found in their single version along with an extended version of “Long Day’s Flight (‘Til Tomorrow)”.  There are quite a few notable non-album tracks found on here as well.  The gritty “I’ve Got A Way Of My Own” and “World Of Darkness” are a couple of outtakes from their debut album that were released as a Record Store Day single in 2016.  Released after Mass In F Minor to hopefully get them back on track, “Everybody Knows (You’re Not In Love)” the next non-album single here unfortunately didn’t do that, but it’s an outstanding pop song written and recorded by the band after being asked by Hassinger ‘Why can’t you just do a toe tappable song like the Turtles “Happy Together”?’ and the flipside is a feedback-drenched, snarling garage rocker “You’ve Never Had It Better”.  Recorded for the movie The Name Of The Game Is Kill, “Shadows” is an ominous sounding garage rocker that initially had a very limited single release.  The last two songs are from another non-album single in the form of the bluesy rocker “Hey Mr President” and the laid-back psychedelia of “Flowing Smoothly”, and are the only representation of the final version of the band on this disc.  Both of these tracks are better than about anything on Just Good Old Rock and Roll and showed promise for what should have been.  Closing out the disc it a radio spot the band did for the Vox Wah Wah Pedal. 

Disc number six starts off with Stockholm 67, an eight track live album that was recorded by the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation on December 14, 1967 and was initially released in 1997.  Over the course of forty-five minutes they tear through an aggressive set of raw garage rock consisting of six originals and covers of “I Got My Mojo Working” and “Smokestack Lightning”.  With extended solos full of ripping fuzz guitar solos and a killer bottom end that shows the band in their element this set shows just how good they really were.  This is The Electric Prunes at their finest and it’s a shame they were never given control in the studio so we could really see what they were capable of.  Closing out disc six and the box set are the Jim and The Lords Demo Recordings, four tracks recorded in 1965 before the name change, that take us almost back to the beginning.  Consisting of pretty straightforward garage rock covers of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Leaves plus a version of the original “Li’l Olive” that was later included as the flipside of their debut single, there’s not much indication of where the band was headed, but they are nice additions to the package.  Completing this well put together box is an outstanding thirty-six page booklet full of pics and a very detailed essay of the crazy story behind the band.  

(Grapefruit Records)

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