Electric Prunes – The Complete Reprise Singles (Real Gone Music) review
The Electric Prunes created one of the strangest songs ever to hit the charts in “I Had Too Much To Dream (Last Night),” which just missed the Top Ten in 1966. As luck would have it, the band’s career would end up being even stranger. Unbelievably, The Complete Reprise Singles marks the first time this much-maligned band has had their output properly assembled on a single disc.
Hailing from California’s San Fernando Valley, the band first caught the attention of producer David Hassinger, who had engineered several Stones LPs of the mid Sixties. From the very beginning, he gave the ‘Prunes a similar, gritty sound and was open to experimentation. Their first single, the unsuccessful “Ain’t It Hard,” sounds very much like an early Stones outtake, but with some odd noises, and a surprising chord change in the middle. Then came “Too Much To Dream” – beginning with a buzzing that sounds like a psychotic bumble bee, the song is propelled by insistent drums, fuzz guitar, and singer James Lowe’s sneering vocal. Music historian Lenny Kaye thought so highly of the track, that he chose it to lead off his seminal garage-rock compilation Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From the Original Psychedelic Era. Here, it’s featured in a dry, mono mix that sounds better than any other released version (including Nuggets). The single’s b-side, “Luvin’,” was almost as good, featuring swooping guitar that recalls “Mother’s Little Helper.”
Long labeled a “one-hit wonder,” the ‘Prunes had trouble following up their initial success, managing only one more chart entry in “Get Me To The World On Time,” which begins with a droning sound and features the controversial “higher, higher” lyrics, before transforming into a Bo Diddley beat halfway through. Both of their hits were penned by the songwriting team of Annette Tucker and Nancie Mantz, and not the band – setting up the all-too-familiar power struggle between producer and artists. Sometimes, the formula worked – the b-side “Are You Lovin’ Me More (But Enjoying It Less)” featured a thumping bass, odd keyboard, and a part where everything just stops in the middle. Yet, other times Tucker/Mantz miss completely, as in the utterly bizarre “Dr. Do-Good,” where the special effects go way overboard, with Lowe totally camping it up – it sounds like a comedy sketch for Dr. Demento. The craziest part was, the madness was just beginning!
The fact that a major record label like Reprise would sanction the release of a single carrying the title “The Great Banana Hoax” says more about the time these recordings come from, than the band themselves. Unfortunately, the track lacks a hook, never quite living up to the title (although, in typical fashion, it does contain a searing guitar solo). “Everybody Knows Your Not in Love,” one of the band’s final singles, is oddly bouncy, coming off as more like mid Sixties Bee Gees than garage rock. The b-side, “You Never Had It Better,” sounded more like acid rock – it might’ve had a chance if it hadn’t contained a certain four-letter word that had to be bleeped out.
Then, things took a complete left turn. Producer David Axelrod concocted a plan to fuse classic religious themes into a modern rock setting. Entitled Mass in F Minor, it still stands as one of the most baffling experiments in all of popular music. The original Electric Prunes, a glorified garage band, were not up to the task of this heady material, disbanding somewhere in the middle of recording, leaving Axelrod to complete the album with session musicians. For a band that prided itself on weird songs, this took the frickin’ cake. The resulting single, “Sanctus” and “Credo” were both sung in Latin (ha!) and contained multiple time changes. The unfortunate part is there isn’t a hook here to be found, leaving the entire project virtually unlistenable.
With all original members gone, Axelrod had the freedom to bring in whomever he wanted, crafting ANOTHER religious album (because the first one was such a hit!). The album’s single, “Help Us (Our Father Our King),” was a little less pretentious (but that isn’t saying much). Again, the fact that Reprise was giving the green light to this stuff is mind blowing. Then comes “Hey, Mr. President,” because the band hadn’t yet been preachy enough – they come off as Three Dog Night trying to be Vanilla Fudge. “Violent Rose” sounds like a Donovan outtake, complete with lazy beat and dreamy guitar solo, while “Love Grows,” and it’s b-side, “Finder’s Keepers,” are both decent hard rockers – they’re just not representative of the Electric Prunes’ name.
The Complete Reprise Singles isn’t solid from start to finish, but there are some fine moments, as in the extremely rare “Shadows” promo single, recorded for the film The Name of the Game is Kill. Even the strange religious stuff is so off the wall, it’s worth hearing at least once. As an added bonus, they’ve included a commercial the original ‘Prunes cut for Vox, promoting their brand new wah wah pedal – it’s a hoot. Finally, a deserving set for one of the strangest stories in rock n’ roll. –Tony Peters