(Real Gone Music)
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.