A Legacy of (Electric) Prunes

By Steven Rosen
 
From Blurt 02/15/2013

ELECTRIC PRUNES

      
The Complete Reprise Singles

 

(Real Gone Music)

 

www.realgonemusic.com

 

It says something about how wacked-out the psychedelic 1960s were that not only could there be a rock band with the ridiculous name of the Electric Prunes, but that name was considered far more of an asset than the actual individuals who made the music using it. What a strange tale, and the 24 tracks and companion booklet of The Complete Reprise Singles reveal a sizeable but not complete portion of it.

 

It’s hard to figure out from the booklet the exact line-up changes that rocked the Prunes during its short heyday, 1966-1969. (A Prunes with original members had reunited during the last decade, but seems to have stopped following the death of bassist Mark Tulin.) It’s too bad the package didn’t include a personnel chart. Wikipedia lists the members of the original or “classic” Prunes (the band behind the 1966 garage-rock chart topper “I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night”) as singer James Lowe, guitarist Ken Williams, bassist Tulin, rhythm guitarist Jim Spagnola, and drummer Preston Ritter (who both replaced and later was replaced by Michael Weakley).

 

Coming out of the San Fernando Valley, the young musicians impressed Reprise producer Dave Hassinger, who requested a commercial band name. Incredibly, this is what they came up with. Yes, 1966 was the year of “Mellow Yellow” and bananas were cool, but prunes? Hassinger, who stayed active shepherding the band’s career, wound up having more to do with the fate of the Prunes name than did the original band members.

 

The songs from this incarnation of the Prunes are excellent garage-rock, very Stones-influenced (“Get Me to the World on Time” echoes “Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow?”) with some of the Yardbirds’ stomping flair. “Ain’t It Hard” has such cool attitudinal lyrics as Well you’re mother’s in the bathroom with acid in her head/and there’s no place to go cause the town’s all dead.”

 

“Too Much to Dream,” which reached Number 11 on the Top 40 in 1967, is still one of the best three-minute rock songs ever. A buzzy, fuzzy opening guitar riff directs the song toward the scary, minor-key melancholia of the opening verse. A thunderbolt drum beat kicks off the chorus and Lowe shouts out “Then came the dawn/And you were gone, gone, gone.” The song ends with sighs, or tokes, trailing off – a complete trip, downright operatic.

 

Listening to one of “Dream’s” follow-ups, the catchy “Are You Lovin’ Me More (But Enjoying It Less),” you might be struck about how un-macho it is for a mid-1960s garage-rock song. Asking the girl how she feels about the lovemaking? From Dylan to the Syndicate of Sound (“Little Girl”), this strain of rock tended to sneer at a girl’s feelings, not console her. Garage-rock was a man’s world.

 

Well, surprise, surprise. “Are You Lovin’ Me More” was written by one Annette Tucker, who – along with Nancy Mantz – also wrote “Too Much to Dream” and “Get Me to the World.” (She wrote “Are You Lovin’ Me More” with Jill Jones.) Further, the liner notes state, the Prunes rearranged “Dream” from a slow, “Vegas lounge-act” demo. That needs to be heard. And Tucker, Mantz and Jones deserve wider recognition from 1960s-rock fans. (They wrote other songs for the Prunes.)

 

As a rock band, a cohesive unit, the Prunes probably peaked with these songs and their first album – just called The Electric Prunes – from 1967. The singles from the period of the second album, 1967’s Underground, start to force the psychedelia. Still, “The Great Banana Hoax” has its anarchic charms and “You’ve Never Had It Better” has the trippy pop-rock swagger of a band who became the Prunes’ fruit-named rivals, Strawberry Alarm Clock.

 

It was time for a change. The gifted composer-arranger David Axelrod became convinced the Electric Prunes were the right band – and had the right name – to do a rock/orchestral version of the Christian Mass. (Too bad they weren’t called the Holy Prunes.) In reality, the idea was pretty good – this was years beforeJesus Christ Superstar. And the two-sided single from the album Mass in F Minor has beautiful musical ingredients – the guitar solo on “Credo” is involving, and the chanting vocals are lovely.

 

What it has to do with the actual guys who were in a band called Electric Prunes, however, is another question. Lowe and Tulin were still involved, apparently, but Axelrod needed session musicians to finish the project.

 

With management in control of the band’s name, an entirely new Electric Prunes was hired to join with session musicians for the equally complex, equally religious follow-up, Release of an Oath, which featured the Jewish Kol Nidre and other religious compositions done the Prune way.

 

This all sounds hard to believe, like Lester Bangs’ fictitious review of Count Five’s “unknown” post-“Psychotic Reaction” career, except…it really happened. And the two-sided single featured here from Release, “Help Us (Our Father, Our King)/The Adoration,” again has some damn good guitar work intertwined with the sumptuous arrangements. Axelrod knew what he was doing. (The original singles from both religious albums were marked PRO, which may mean they were promotional, only.)

 

For whatever reason, this new Electric Prunes was allowed to “return” to rock for one album, 1969’s Just Good Old Rock and Roll, and a series of singles. Principal members were Richard Whetstone, John Herron, Mark Kincaid and Brett Wade.

 

Here, the charm is gone – these guys made bad rock ‘n’ roll. “Hey Mr. President” is clunky, “Following Smoothly” is second-rate Crosby, Stills and Nash, and the remaining tunes just lurch along without any apparent notion of what an Electric Prune song is supposed to sound like. There’s a growling throat-shredding vocal on “Love Grows” that is downright terror-inducing.

It’s doubtful anyone, anywhere wanted to hear these third-rate songs. Well, maybe in Copenhagen. Prune Danish was at the time, and remains still, very popular.

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Felix Cavaliere Says the Reunited Rascals Are Broadway Bound

 

Move over, Frankie Valli: celebrated reunion of beloved band to be turned into true rock theater.

 

By Steven Rosen

 

Felix Cavaliere has announced that Once Upon a Dream, the Rascals’ reunion concert and multimedia show produced and directed by Steven Van Zandt, is Broadway bound. (Go here to read the BLURT review of the Dec. 13 concert in Port Chester, NY.)

 He said this from the stage at a solo concert Saturday night (Feb. 9) at the Fairfield Community Arts Centers’ theater in Ohio, near Cincinnati. “I’m happy to announce it’s going to be on Broadway. We’re going there — yeah!,” he said. “And then I hope it will come around the U.S. and you can come see the old guys still rock ‘n’ rollin.'”

 

Once Upon a Dream was mounted for a short December run — to ecstatic reviews — at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, N.Y. In addition to reuniting the four original Rascals — one of the biggest rock bands to come out of New York/New Jersey in the 1960s — or their first public concerts in some 40 years, Van Zandt ‘s Once Upon a Dream combined the appearance with filmed vignettes with members, filmed reenactments of their stories (with younger actors), and a massive sound-and-light show on a 50-foot-screen. The Rascals — singer/organist Cavaliere, singer Eddie Brigati, guitarist Gene Cornish and drummer Dino Danelli — sang and superbly played hits from throughout their career: “Good Lovin,'” “Groovim,'” “People Got to Be Free,” “How Can I Be Sure,” “See,” “Come on Up” and more.

 

(First reported for Blurt, http://www.blurt-online.com, on Feb. 11, 2013

How Ravi Shankar Helped Cincinnati’s Urban Renewal

By Steven Rosen

http://www.stevenrosenwriter.wordpress.com

ac_ravi_jf4

When Ravi Shankar died in December at age 92, Jim Tarbell’s thoughts turned to when he brought the great Indian classical musician to the historic — and endangered — St. Paul Church in the Pendleton District. 

At the time, in the early 1970s, Tarbell had created the Committee to Save St. Paul’s, and for a while had even moved into the parish house of the deconsecrated and unused then-120-plus-year-old Catholic church. He staged other events there, including a concert by the Jazz group Oregon, but Shankar’s 1975 appearance was the crowning achievement.

“It was the perfect match,” Tarbell says. “For someone with his mastery and spiritual side, it was the perfect setting.”

It was one of the most memorable activities Tarbell ever has been involved in — and he’s done plenty during a career that has included sponsoring Grateful Dead’s first local concert, owning the Ludlow Garage Rock club and Arnold’s Bar and Grill, championing Over-the-Rhine and Pendleton preservation and being one of Cincinnati’s most distinctive City Council members.

It also showcased Tarbell’s belief in saving historic urban buildings as “living museums” with new uses. It was not a popular idea yet — a few blocks away, in downtown, movie palaces were being destroyed in the name of “progress.”

Tarbell booked Shankar for two concerts — Saturday night on April 26 and on the following Sunday afternoon — and connected them to University of Cincinnati’s Spring Arts Festival. He paid him $3,500. Spring Arts, itself, was a major event that brought Santana, Allen Ginsberg and the Living Theatre Collective, among others, to the Clifton campus.

Shankar, whose mastery of the sitar and use of droning had a consciousness-raising effect that inspired the Beatles and John Coltrane in the 1960s, had already come to Taft Theatre in 1968. But this was different; a unique setting that was unfamiliar and decidedly off-the-beaten-path for many of the hundreds who attended. 

“That was part of it — to do something sort of otherworldly that would be a good reason for coming to the neighborhood,” Tarbell explains.

Besides the significance and quality of the show, it was memorable because Shankar played his meditative ragas on the floor of the sanctuary, surrounded by lit candles and the glorious windows. 

James Wierzbicki, a critic for Cincinnati Post, began his review (among the material Tarbell has meticulously saved) this way: “Candles burned around the stage area and cloudy sunlight seeped in through the stained glass windows.

Part of the audience — mostly young, mostly in blue jeans — preferred to sit on the floor rather than in the church pews.”

With his tabla player Ali Rakha and an unnamed musician playing the droning tamboura, a stringed instrument, Shankar performed some spellbinding selections. Wierzbicki praised a 35-minute solo: “He could have continued the improvisation for hours without ever repeating himself.”  

The spacious church, which had opened in 1850, had suffered from declining population. There was a fear that it and its companion buildings — a parish house, two schools and a convent, all now part of a National Historic District — might be sold to a parking lot operator. Among the church’s architectural treasures were its stained-glass windows, including one 35-foot-tall depicting the Wedding Feast of Cana that let early-morning sunlight stream in.

The neighborhood, as well as the church, was struggling at the time. Roughly bordered by Reading Road and Sycamore and Liberty streets, it had (and still has) a spectacular European streetscape of close-together, brick multi-family buildings with first-floor shops, but the church-going population had declined after a Liberty extension cut it off from Prospect Hill to the north. And U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development had targeted the remaining enclave for absentee landlord-managed low-income housing.

Tarbell, who had been living in Over-the-Rhine/downtown locations, learned through the grapevine in 1973 that St. Paul was, essentially, surplus. 

Tarbell went to see recently appointed Archbishop Joseph Bernardin, who himself had made a point of living downtown. “I said to myself, ‘He gets it,’ ” Tarbell recalls. “He said, ‘What do you have in mind?’ I said, ‘Well, I’ll live there and pretend to caretake. I’m not shy to having activities going on. I’ve done that elsewhere. Maybe it will provide some goodwill for the church.”

Tarbell and some friends moved into the parish house (he had moved out before the Shankar concert). “I’d come over with my sleeping bag to sleep at the foot of the stained-glass window when the sun came up. It was a religious experience.”

Today, Pendleton — like adjacent Over-the-Rhine — is in full renaissance, with an active neighborhood council and new projects being announced almost weekly. The restored older single-family homes along Broadway are among the city’s most desirable. 

Inspired by his St. Paul experience — of which Shankar was the highlight — Tarbell went on to open Arnold’s in 1976 and began buying, renovating and living in homes on Pendleton’s Spring Street and Broadway. 

And, although it took a few more years and Tarbell was not directly involved, Verdin Co. bought the church complex in 1981 for its headquarters. Today, the church itself is Bell Event Centre; the other buildings are used by Verdin. 

Shankar’s visit was also a key moment for Pendleton’s fledgling community of young urban activists who already had started a “back to the city” movement — way ahead of their time. 

“That Shankar concert was one of the greatest things to happen down here,” said architect Ken Jones, who in 1970 moved into one of the beautiful old homes along Broadway. It was in foreclosure. Jones provided a carpet for Shankar and his two accompanying musicians.

“It was a magic moment. Looking back, we were extremely fortunate to have someone like that come to our neighborhood.”

(From Cincinnati CityBeat, 1-23-13. Photo of Jim Tarbell with Ravi Shankar material by Jesse Fox, CityBeat photographer.)