As the lead singer of the Action from 1965 to 1968, Reg King built a reputation as one of Britain’s greatest mod-soul singers, revered by everyone from Phil Collins to a young Paul Weller. One moment, he could belt out “Harlem Shuffle” or “Land of 1,000 Dances” with the impassioned catch-lightning-in-a-bottle clarity of a blues wailer; the next, he could coolly redefine Motown from Detroit to London, smoothing out the Marvelettes’ “I’ll Keep on Holding On” into mod nirvana—or giving such a drop-dead majestic performance on the Temptations’ “Since I Lost My Baby” as to equal the original.
But in spite of their talent, their live reputation, and the guidance of George Martin, who produced many of their sessions, the Action didn’t sell many records. Only one of their five amazing singles saw release in the States, and their experimentally-minded second album from 1967, Rolled Gold, went unreleased for 30 years, with members scattering to the winds of Mighty Baby by 1968 and, much later, Ace of “How Long” hit single fame.
King, on the other hand, drifted through production work for Gary Farr and various other projects, recording demos and awaiting his opportunity. In late 1969, it finally came when he commenced recording his first and only eponymous-titled solo album in sessions that would stretch out roughly over the next year and a half.
Reg King (center), with the Action
With a chaotic revolving cast of his old Action/Mighty Baby mates, B.B. Blunder, former Animals, and even Mick Taylor, Brian Auger, Doris Troy, and Steve Winwood, plus more than a few empty beer bottles on the studio floor, King conducted the fractured symphony that ultimately led to the release of the finished product in July 1971. Like Exile on Main Street without the drug-fueled legal intrigue or a heroin-stained heroine like Anita Pallenberg, Reg King was shaded gray in more than just its hazy atmosphere. Stoned, frazzled, and embittered by the unjust failure of the Action, yet pushing on, King hangs out every one of his conflicting emotions like laundry on the line, displaying them for the listener to absorb.
With its brilliant, descending minor-key riff and ambivalent overtone, “Must Be Something Else Around” sets the tone for the album. King, once the confident stylist filling the microphone with upbeat notes before crowds of adoring women, now sees fit to blend in the background with the music—and what a more appropriate way to do so than with a backing band led by two of his ex-Action mates, Mick Evans (bass) and Roger Powell (drums). And in contrast to King’s perfect enunciation in the Action, most of the murky lyrics are almost indecipherable, the odd complement of King’s rhythm guitar with a loudly mixed acoustic played by Brian Godding of B.B. Blunder giving the song a city/country blues feel. (This reissue includes two alternate takes of the song, one with a guide vocal and one an earlier mix—and both seeming to lack Godding’s acoustic.)
Other than symbolic references to “green” and “red”, plus the recitation of its title, “That Ain’t Living” is equally unintelligible—but the feel of the music and the offhand manner of King’s delivery make its message abundantly clear. Again backed by the Action/Mighty Baby rhythm section, plus Mighty Baby’s Martin Stone on guitar, the song is busied by layers of guitar overdubs, but succeeds on the strength of its forays into melody within the blues jam.
Similarly, the able backing of B.B. Blunder on the tortured blues rock of “10,000 Miles” provides a base for King’s once-again mumbled lyrics, which become entangled with a dissonant wall of Godding’s guitar tracks (both acoustic and electric). Along with “Nobody Knows Where We Are” (a non-LP single included among the bonus tracks), “10,000 Miles” (a version by Mighty Baby is also included) has a detached resignation typical of the post-’60s hangover, as the seasoned bar-band rock-blues casts a shadow over the idealism that marked the previous decade.
“Down the Drain” may also be about the early ’70s, but more likely, it reflects how King felt about his declining career at the time. Finally, one can make out the lyrics:
You pay your money
You take your choice
Who’s gonna listen
To your tearful voice?
I can’t help your situation
There’s something I can’t do
But a phone call to a loser’s
Like money down the drain
Don’t call on me
I won’t call you
It’s the right of a loser
And the fate of someone like you
When confused, take a break
To that sunny, sunny lake
Hot pace, join the race
Know exactly who you are
As King strains through his tortured message, horns rise out of the downbeat bluesy groove (featuring Winwood on piano) like a hungover alcoholic out of bed late in the afternoon, lazily adding to the aura just enough to make the track another standout. And “Down the Drain” also invites the questions: Was King indecipherable on the other cuts on purpose? Did he just not care anymore? Was he imbibing? Or all of the above?
But King hasn’t totally fallen victim to cynicism, and he hasn’t even given up on his old band just yet, revisiting two Action songs from their Rolled Gold sessions—“In My Dreams” and “Little Boy”—in arrangements true to the originals that are nevertheless colored by his overall mood; in particular, King’s warning about the real world to youth on the latter sounds a tad more earnest in spite of the song’s upbeat tone. Optimism also underlies the drinking blues of “You Go Have Yourself a Good Time”, which features gospel backing vocals by Doris Troy (of “Just One Look” fame), Peter Dale, and King himself. King’s quip that “my mind’s in a peculiar shape”, however, is quite telling—and once again makes one ponder what’s really going on. Those gargoyles making love to naked women on the cover, it would seem, might also be the ones in King’s head.
“Savannah”, which may or may not be about the picturesque Georgia town, is unfortunately a rambling 11-minute flight to nowhere, but the album closes with one of King’s strongest solo statements, “Gone Away”. With his richly resonant, soulful voice more up front in the mix than most of the album, King lets out all the joy, sorrow, and emotion of his musical journey on “Gone Away”, as his piano playing leads the band through a groove that ties things up neatly. It was also tragically prophetic: Reg King wouldn’t record again until the Action reunited a quarter-century later. But he left one great parting shot.