[12 July 2007]
In a manner of speaking, the Electric Prunes only ever existed in name. The band owed its best-known song, the psychedelic rock anthem “I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night)”, to a pair of outsourced songwriters. Managers took over album direction midway through the band’s recording career. And the line-up changed so frequently that within a year of said career, none of the original members were left. However, because of this constant flux, the Electric Prunes’ last two records were both one of its most adventurous and one of its most mundane. Collector’s Choice has reissued the two albums in questions, Release of an Oath and Just Good Old Rock and Roll. With the help of detailed liner notes, these repackages document the tumultuous—yet fascinating—end of a band.
To completely understand Release of an Oath, a brief outline of the 12 months leading to the album is required. Since the band’s breakout with its second single “I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night)” in early 1967, the group released two albums and toured modestly. Though the group wrote most of its material during this period, frequent line-up changes and the influence of Annette Tucker and Nancie Mantz (the writers of “I Had Too Much to Dream”) kept the Prunes from forming their own identity. That said, the group enjoyed a modicum of recognition from the aforementioned song, which had become a psychedelic staple on AM radio. However, the band needed another push to cement its reputation. Late in the year, outside forces provided the necessary redirection. Manager Lenny Poncher and Prunes producer Dave Hassinger struck upon the idea of an orchestral rock version of a mass. In Latin.
Let that one sink in for a minute.
Though the idea conjures Gibsonian excess today, it was approached with the utmost sincerity at the time. Recruiting David Axelrod, who had established himself with his production work for Cannonball Adderley and Lou Rawls, to compose and arrange the music, the project had an air of gravity. However, at this point the role of the band conveniently began to fade. Expert session musicians performed the vast majority of the music, leaving the Prunes to record vocals and small parts here and there. Members of the Prunes also continued to leave, so musicians from a Canadian band Hassinger managed, the Collectors, were brought in supplement the line-up. The resulting Mass in F Minor album was so much a product of non-Prunes elements that when the Prunes were told to perform selections of the album for a promotional concert, the band rehearsed the final music for the first time the day before the show. Needless to say, the gig was not their best.
While Mass in F Minor enjoyed modest chart success, due largely to the presence of the single “Kyrie Eleison” which was featured on the Easy Rider soundtrack, the group continued to fragment. Another incarnation of the Prunes (including a young Kenny Loggins) toured briefly, but the last of the original members left by mid-1968. Poncher, who owned the band’s name, was undeterred and earmarked another album in the vein of Mass in F Minor. This time, he proposed an orchestral rock album centered on the Kol Nidre, a prayer recited on the eve of the holiest day of the Jewish calendar Yom Kippur. Hassinger and Axelrod were tapped again, so the new sessions became an extension of Mass in F Minor both thematically and musically.
The resulting Release of an Oath was a product of the Electric Prunes, in the broadest sense. To fill in for the recently departed Prunes, Hassinger turned again to his black book of bands under his management, and collected a new (and soon to be improved) group from two Colorado bands, Climax and the Astronauts, as well as from the Collectors again. Much of the same session talent returned. Naturally, Axelrod expanded on many of the arrangement techniques and tonal motifs he had mapped on Mass in F Minor and his first solo album Songs of Innocence (which was recorded around the same time as Mass), erecting a solid bridge to his later solo effort Songs of Experience. As such, Release of an Oath‘s heart and soul belonged to an entire cast of both credited and anonymous contributors.
In spite of these peculiar circumstances, Release of an Oath was a coherent and enjoyable record because of this crew’s synergy. With the Prunes’ role significantly muted, many of the sidemen and women, such as drummer Earl Palmer, bassist Carol Kaye, and guitarist Howard Roberts, rose to the challenge and shone through. After the introductory vocal statement of the melody on “Holy Are You”, Kaye and Palmer created a crisp and rock steady backbeat for Roberts to solo furiously over (“God, it was just insane,” Axelrod exclaimed of Roberts’ turn). Especially to his credit, Axelrod’s arrangements balanced moody strings and dramatic dynamics with enough space for his players to simply rock the fuck out. What could have easily devolved into an exercise in novelty was instead treated as a welcome opportunity to make challenging pop music.
Admittedly, the album peaked early. With a total running time of less than a half hour, the first three tracks (“Kol Nidre”, “General Confessional,” and the aforementioned “Holy Are You”) were so rich with ideas and emotion that they simply overwhelmed the latter half of the record. The centerpiece “Kol Nidre” opened the album with a fine example of Axelrod’s signature arrangement techniques; beginning with a foreboding reading of the prayer’s original melody, filled with tense strings and blustering brass, he allowed the orchestra to gain momentum briefly before quelling it with a quiet vocal statement, only to break that peace with another orchestral explosion. In this manner, he allowed pressure to build slowly, but sealed the valve momentarily to create an even more dramatic release. The same ideas pulse through “Holy Are You” and “General Confessional,” but contained even greater breaks and impassioned solos. The remainder of the album provided variations of these themes—“Individual Confessional” rumbled by at a brisk pace, “Our Father, Our King” used a lead voice in a more prominent role, and “Closing Hymn” played like “Holy Are You” in reverse—but nothing with the impact of the first half.
Release of an Oath proved to be a turning point for the Electric Prunes. The album failed to chart as well as its predecessor, and the group’s management seemingly stepped back. The Prunes that had been assembled for the Oath sessions were green-lit for another record, but were given little direction. Even through the recording of the fifth and final album, the band continued to lose and replace members. No amount of talent could reasonably be expected to salvage the situation.
That the resultant Just Good Old Rock and Roll contained the most amount of self-penned material of all the Electric Prunes albums was not so much ironic as it was unfortunate. The writing aimlessly zig-zagged across the rock map, but resembled a trip through outlet malls and tourist traps instead of major metropolises and undiscovered towns. Drummer and lead vocalist Dick Whetstone noted in the reissue’s liner notes, “We were fairly naïve in terms of guidance; we had none…” At best, the songs resembled the mediocre efforts of better bands: Grand Funk Railroad rocked groovily on “14 Years Old”; the Zombies lightly tripped on “Violent Rose”; and even
the Electric Prunes David Axelrod got aped on “Sing to Me”. If anything, the similarities simply continued the Prunes’ “tradition” of finding its voice through another’s. Though the musicianship was competent enough, the record deserved one courtesy spin, at most.
In truth, this lackluster ending was a rather fitting end for a band that never had complete control over its destiny. The Electric Prunes scarcely maintained any one line-up long enough to form a coherent identity (arguably, the reunited incarnation has the most consistent character, having been together since 2001 and released two albums to date). In a way, these two albums merely play out the logical conclusion to the band’s mannequin identity. As such, Release of an Oath and Just Good Old Rock and Roll provide an erratic, but adventurous bookend to a peculiar chapter in a rock band’s history.