The Electric Prunes

TrackAlbum / Single
I Had Too Much To Dream (Last Night)The Electric Prunes
Get Me To The World On TimeThe Electric Prunes
Are You Lovin' Me More (But Enjoying It Less)The Electric Prunes
The Great Banana HoaxUnderground
Antique DollUnderground
I Happen To Love YouUnderground
HideawayUnderground
Long Day's FlightUnderground
You Never Had It BetterReprise 0652
Kyrie EleisonMass In F Minor

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The Electric Prunes photo

The Electric Prunes (l to r): Ken Williams (guitar), Mark Tulin (bass, keyboards), James Lowe (vocals, guitar), Michael ‘Quint’ Weakley (drums)

 

 

Contributor: Rob Morgan

Of course it all started with Nuggets, but with this being a story which starts in the mid 80s it wasn’t a normal copy of Nuggets. By that point it would be hard to track down an original copy of the double album compiled by Lenny Kaye without paying through the nose for it. No, I bought a bootleg cassette of Nuggets for £3 from a record fair. I had read about it in Record Collector, seen it referenced by Julian Cope and Ian McCulloch, wanted to hear it for myself.

The first thing I heard was this weird throbbing note rising in volume, followed by an insistent repeating bass riff, a mysterious atmosphere akin to Paint It Black; a voice singing of shadows and loneliness. After 40 seconds a silence, a howl and a frantic snare drum and tambourine shake lead to the whole band hurtling in, the singer now snarling, more Jagger than Jagger… the song is speedy as hell, stops and starts, snarls and whispers and fuzz guitars so severe they could cut your ears off. After three minutes of drum rolls and cries, I Had Too Much To Dream (Last Night) by The Electric Prunes was over.

Wow, where did that come from? Far out!

Of course I wanted more and luckily those nice people at Edsel Records had issued a compilation called Long Day’s Flight which compiled the best parts of their output, or at least half of their output. You see, this is where it gets tricky … Even back in the mid 80s I knew something was different, that something had changed. The picture of the Electric Prunes in my 1981 “Guinness Book Of Hit Singles” has five slightly sinister long hairs in front of the strange shapes of an electricity substation – something I was already terrified by through overexposure to the “Play Safe” public information films of the late 70s. But on the back of my cheap reissue of Astral Weeks from 1983 there was an advert for an Electric Prunes album called Mass In F Minor. That didn’t tally with the image of the five long hairs. Hell, even my new hero Julian Cope mentioned Mass In F Minor during 24a Velocity Crescent, where he intones a litany of psychedelic classics … “In a gadda da vida … White Rabbit … When the music’s over… Mass in F Minor”. So Cope says it’s ok but the sleeve note to Long Day’s Flight was really snarky about it. Maybe I should let my own ears decide? As it turned out, I wasn’t that impressed by the second incarnation of the Electric Prunes. However, I absolutely adored the first incarnation, so the majority of this Toppermost is from the band’s first two albums.

The Prunes’ first two singles – I Had Too Much To Dream (Last Night) and Get Me To The World On Time – were mildly successful singles in the UK thanks to support from the pirate radio stations. However both songs were bigger hits in America and the Electric Prunes would be genuine freaky long hair psychedelic pop stars, before Jefferson Airplane or the Doors. However the band lacked the ‘voice of the generation’ which was bestowed on Grace Slick and Jim Morrison. The Prunes were a band who hid behind their effects, in a way, and this would lead to their eventual undoing. But for a while during the first half of 1967 the Prunes were ahead of the game. The mixture of some superb songs and the novelty of the effects pedal overload made for an intoxicating combination.

Sadly, their debut album would not live up to the standards set by the first two singles. Guided by producer Dave Hassinger (who had engineered so many of the Rolling Stones’ mid 60s recordings), the Prunes were encouraged to record songs provided by the songwriting team of Annette Tucker and Nancie Mantz who had written both singles. However, the material supplied wasn’t all top quality; songs like The King Is In His Counting House and The Toonerville Trolley were dire twee pop which are barely listenable. But when the material is great the Prunes rise to the challenge. Get Me To The World On Time is a pounding belter, built on a Bo Diddley beat with whirling oscillators heading skyward matched by screaming fuzz tone guitars and impassioned vocals. Are You Lovin’ Me More (But Enjoying It Less) is a moody beast; throbbing cello and guitars exploding into a chorus of harshly battered tambourine, threatening guitars and a Vox organ leading the way. Elsewhere, the band expand on the Stones’ Doncha Bother Me into their own Luvin’ and make a credible bluesy crawl, while Try Me On For Size has energy to spare but is slightly dodgy in the lyrics department. But the album is a schizophrenic listen; half wonderful and half awful. Still, the success of their two hit singles led to a higher profile for the band, and an infamous tie in with Vox, whose amplifiers, organs and effects pedals they used. The Electric Prunes recorded a radio ad to promote the Vox wah-wah – “it can even make a guitar sound like a sitar … play it, Prunes!” – which is a fascinating curio and time capsule.

Even so, those two singles made a huge difference, even though there were problems with their image. Watch footage of the Prunes on American TV shows from 1967 promoting those singles and the band are wearing matching scarlet jumpers like some square junior high students, totally at odds with the futuristic sounds they made. By the time the band were promoting the first single from their second album Underground they were more appropriately dressed – mysterious capes and hats via David Crosby, Paisley tops, the full psychedelic trip.

That single is The Great Banana Hoax, built on an insistent guitar riff, rumbling tom tom drums and ricocheting organ lines, and a guitar solo which out snarls lead singer James Lowe, who himself is on top form here – brooding and anxious throughout the entire song, which leads to the final joke – as the song concludes Lowe sings into an echo chamber “I’d love to put you on …”, a riposte to A Day In The Life. The song answers no questions – what was the hoax? Bananas? Why the desperation? – but that just adds to the intrigue. As for the hoax itself (not mentioned in the song) it refers to the rumour spreading around the underground that smoking dried banana peel could get you high. Hmm. In a perfect world, The Great Banana Hoax would have been as big a hit as I Had Too Much To Dream (Last Night) but perhaps the Prunes’ moment in the sun was passing.

Still, The Great Banana Hoax was a great introduction to Underground issued later in 1967. This time Hassinger loosened his grip as producer allowing the band to write their own material, while the Tucker/Mantz songwriting team came up with more appropriate material this time. Add to this a choice song by Goffin and King which was rejected by the Monkees and a more confident and experjmental approach to recording and performing, and the result is a compelling psychedelic tour de force. Antique Doll is a twilight paean; dark corners and worrying disquiet swimming in an ocean of reverb. Dr Do-Good is a semi-serious spy theme full of extraordinary noises (for which guitarist Weasel Spagnola received an extra credit on the sleeve). Long Day’s Flight and Hideaway are both fierce stunners, the band firing on all cylinders and heading for the stars. There are quieter moments too, “I” is a low key groover with hints of improvisation, Big City is almost tender, a hymn to the night awash in autoharp. Best of all is I Happen To Love You, the Monkees reject from Goffin and King, a hushed and spooked dreamscape of wah wah guitars and whispered thoughts in the verse leading to a tense burst of energy in the chorus. A supreme song and a hidden gem of a performance.

By the end of 1967 the Electric Prunes were on a roll. A separate single issued after Underground matched the bubblegum pop of Everybody Knows You’re Not In Love with the heavy riffing thrust of You Never Had It Better, another wild rocker with a scorching guitar solo. They toured Europe and played to respectful and attentive audiences (see the Stockholm ˈ67 set for evidence of their live firepower) and everything seemed to be peachy in the Prunes garden. What happened next is hard to work out really.

Nearly fifty years on everybody remembers things differently but I think the story goes like this. David Axelrod approaches record labels with his ideas for an album combining rock music and Gregorian chants. Dave Hassinger signs him to Reprise and guides the Electric Prunes towards the project. As the album is recorded, the Prunes find they aren’t used to the music charts provided by Axelrod so session players are moved in and the Prunes slowly get pushed out. Eventually there is only one song on the album Mass In F Minor which is a true Prunes performance – the opener Kyrie Eleison features the whole band, fuzz guitars and effects plus Lowe’s vocals. After that, the music is more Axelrod than Prunes. The use of Kyrie Elieson during a scene in the counterculture blockbuster “Easy Rider” in 1969 helped give the song a second life, as did its placement on the soundtrack LP. The move from psychedelic rock to a religious mass rock opera was certainly a left turn for the band, and effectively destroyed them as an actual band, but it was successful enough for a second album of Axelrod’s music in that style to be made, Release Of An Oath. By this point there was no involvement from the original five members of the Electric Prunes on the album bearing their name. Axelrod moved on to his own career and Hassinger took control of the Prunes name, issuing a fifth album, Just Good Old Rock And Roll, with a Prunes lineup featuring no original members. Of course it was horrible. How could it not be?

What is peculiar is how the reputation of the second half of the Prunes’ career has changed over time. In the mid 80s the two albums were ignored as “not the Prunes”, but as time passed the crate diggers and DJs looking for hip hop beats realised that the stop start rhythms on Mass In F Minor and Release Of An Oath were perfect base material for their music. For instance, a quick search on whosampled.com shows Holy Are You being sampled by over a dozen artists including Howie B, French Montana and Rakim. By the end of the 90s Axelrod was being hailed as a hero in certain circles and playing his music at the Royal Albert Hall and the albums he made with the Prunes were reassessed as classics. But still, I prefer the first two albums, the fuzz and the tremelo, the snarl and the whispered threat. The original Electric Prunes have reformed and made new music which is the equal to their original vision, but their reputation stands on those early albums. Hell, their reputation is assured just by that first song on Nuggets. And isn’t that where we came in?

 

Mark Tulin – bass (1948–2011)

Preston Ritter – drums (1949–2015)

 

The Electric Prunes new official band website

The Electric Prunes website

Mass In F Minor color promo film 1968

50thirdand3rd interview with James Lowe (2015)

Craig Morrison interviews Mark Tulin (2001)

The Electric Prunes biography (iTunes)

Rob Morgan writes about the music he loves at his website, A Goldfish Called Regret. He is a regular contributor to Toppermost. He also creates podcasts of his favourite music at Goldfish Radio.

TopperPost #519

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