From the ”mind-expanding“ flight of the 2,000-pound bumblebee opening to the liquid, screaming, droning guitars to the ”(I Can‘t Get No) Satisfaction“–derived drums, the Electric Prunes’ ”I Had Too Much To Dream (Last Night)“ induces supersonic flashbacks to the first chimes-of-freedom-flashin‘ daze of 1967.
The single broke out of the Pacific Northwest — leading to the persistent rumor that the band hailed from that particular neck of the woods, when in fact they came straight outta Garageland (Woodland Hills in the San Fernando Valley, to be precise) — and began a 14-week, market-by-market climb to No. 11 on the Billboard charts. Hitting the road in two station wagons, the quintet (vocalist James Lowe, bassist Mark Tulin, guitarists Ken Williams and Jim ”Weasel“ Spagnola, and recently recruited drummer Preston Ritter) played 60 cities in 45 days in support. They were all between 16 and 22 years old.
When the equally noble Bo-Diddley-meets-the-variable-speed-tape-operator follow-up, ”Get Me to the World on Time,“ topped out at No. 27 and the Prunes’ second album produced no hits, the band‘s real problems began. Unsympathetic producers, short-fingered management and a spectacularly ill-advised concept album, the brainchild of oft-sampledfuture cult hero David Alexrod, Mass in F Minor, led to wholesale personnel changes — the original, hit-making members didn’t even own their own nom de rock — and by the time ”Kyrie Eleison“ (one of the few Mass in F Minor tracks recorded solely by the Prunes) provided the underscore to the acid-in-the-whorehouse sequence for the 1969 Easy Rider filmsoundtrack album, anything resembling the actual lineup of the Electric Prunes hadn‘t played a gig in six months. Their last local engagement was February 23, 1968, at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, on a bill with Cream, Steppenwolf and Penny Nichols; tickets $2.50–$5.50.
Yeah, it’s a hoary story, but it doesn‘t quite end there. Drummerless tours with new front man Kenny Loggins and a set that included none of the hits. A second religious-rock concept album, Release of an Oath — The Nol Nidre, recorded by a completely different band, who rode the name into one last-ditch attempt at immortality, Just Good Old Rock and Roll.
But Satan works in mysterious ways, and a mere three years later Lenny Kaye kick-started his groundbreaking 1972 Nuggets compilation with the Prunes’ biggest hit, and the entire ”garage-rock“ genre made like Venus on the half-shell. In the meantime, 20-some-odd years of wild-eyed fanzine ravings finally produced a legal version of the Electric Prunes‘ live album, Stockholm ’67. Issued by U.K.-based Heartbeat Productions in 1997, this often-bootlegged, 45-minute Swedish radio broadcast recorded on their sole European tour finds the band standing at the crossroads of garage-rock and West Coast psychedelesia and destroys a pair of myths in the process.
First, the band‘s overall tightness and, especially, the dueling guitars of Ken Williams and Mike Gannon (who replaced ”Weasel“ when the latter caught hepatitis on the road) disprove any notion that the Prunes were entirely a studio creation of their producer Dave Hassinger, whose engineering credits stretched from the Rolling Stones to the Monkees.
Second, the presence of industrial-strength fuzztone grinder ”You Never Had It Better“ (a non-album B-side that Lowe and Tulin authored under pseudonyms in order to get it recorded) and the epic ”Long Day’s Flight (‘Til Tomorrow)“ (co-written by original Prunes drummer Mike Weakley, returning to the fold as ”Quint,“ and the son of former L.A. Mayor Sam Yorty!) shitcans the concept that because most of their material — and both hits — were written by outsiders, the band had no compositional talent. After all, Tulin remembers that the original demo version of ”I Had Too Much To Dream“ came in a lounge-act arrangement sung by Vegas crooner Jerry Vale, and ”I can guarantee that there was no Bo Diddley beat when [co-writer] Annette [Tucker] played ’Get Me to the World on Time‘ for us on piano.“
Domestic proof of the Prunes’ acid-drenched approach to sonik experimentation came earlier this year when local indie Birdman Records released Lost Dreams, which combines the best ‘n’ brightest moments from the band‘s first two Reprise albums with assorted rarities and previously unreleased tracks, including their renowned 1967 radio commercial for Vox wah-wah pedals: ”Make your guitar sound like a sitar“ and ”Play it, Prunes!“
Now comes word that the three principal members of the Electric Prunes — Lowe, Tulin and Williams, joined by their ’68 tour drummer Joe Dooley, who, like the late Mike Gannon (murdered by his gal-pal in Hawaii while on R&R from Vietnam), came to the Prunes from San Fernando Valley rivals the Nomads; new guitarist Mark Moulin; and Lowe‘s son, Cameron, on keyboards — have reunited to perform at Voxfest III in Riverside for what promises to be their first live show in 34 years.
Feel the buzz.
The Electric Prunes play at Voxfest III, Elks Lodge, 6166 Brockton Ave., Riverside, Saturday, June 16. (909) 686-8904, www.voxfest.com.