A PIECE OF THE ACTION!
Album Review of:
‘ACTION PACKED’ by THE ACTION
(Edsel EDCD699, 2001) &
‘ROLLED GOLD’ by THE ACTION
‘What a day I have seen,
what a scene I’ve been in…’
(“In My Dreams”)
Reg King died of cancer 8th October 2010. Predictably, there were well-intentioned obituary tributes proclaiming the loss of a great English Soul voice on par with Stevie Winwood or Steve Marriott, which is the kind of hyperbole writers tend to reach for on such occasions. But it’s misleading. There was nothing of the raw power or anguished emotional depth of the two Steve’s about Reg King. In fact Zoot Money, Graham Bond, Eric Burdon, or Chris Farlowe are all more deserving of that ‘great English Soul’ tag above and beyond Reg King. That was neither the point of his music, or that of The Action, the career-trajectory with whom he’s most closely associated. The group he fronted roughly between 1963 and 1969. As part of the Mod subculture, the Action were a class act, they looked good, with youth and style on their side. But, as the obituaries fail to point out, rather than mere back-up for some super-charged front-man the Action were a genuine group. They worked together, as a tight unit. And it pays off.
Drop the stylus into the black vinyl play-in groove of “Land Of 1,000 Dances”, the ‘A’-side of their debut single released in October 1965. From the opening low jumpy bass-pulse and tambourine rim-shot finger-pops, the Action take the song closer to, say, the precise Temptations vocal arrangements as they move through the familiar silly litany of dance-craze names such as the Jerk, the Watusi, and the Mashed Potato. As a cover of the Chris Kenner song they retain the ‘na-na-na-na-na’ hook introduced by Cannibal & The Headhunters on their version of the song. But there’s a more easy relaxed groove as King counts in the ‘na-na-na’s before inviting the group-voices into a more call-&-response style with an ‘alright children’, and ‘Pony like Bonie Moronie’, all the while insisting ‘do it real bluesy’ and ‘I like it like that’ until the oozingly smooth vocal fade. It’s nice, restrained, controlled Blue-Eyed Soul, but what self-respecting Mod would choose this UK sound over Wilson Pickett’s frantically kinetic work-out? Not one. Although the Action single actually preceded Pickett’s, every Mod Club I frequented throughout this period favoured the wicked-wicked Pickett as a way to galvanize the dancers. The easy-on-the-ear Action might be good, but in different ways.
While, although produced by the mighty George Martin, the ‘B’-side merely lifts Holland-Dozier-Holland’s “In My Lonely Room” from the Martha & The Vandellas original. It gender-transposes Martha Reeve’s tears-of-a-clown misery so that now it’s his girl’s flirty ways that depress him so all he can do is hide in his ‘lonely room and cry’. Again, it’s a fair dancey shot at the song, but how can it hope to recapture all that Motown chartbusting magic, never mind the elitist rarity value of the label itself? After all, to the self-appointed In-crowd, the original is always the greatest. Sure, all the great UK bands, the Who and the Small Faces, never mind the Kinks and the Stones, started out with debut albums crammed to the sleeve with Blues and R&B covers, but it’s by graduating into their own material that they achieve credibility. After all, there were highly successful home-grown bands such as Jimmy James & The Vagabonds or Geno Washington & The Ram-Jam Band (and Geno himself was an exiled American) who built solid reputations and packed venues, but even at their best they were still stand-ins for the real Stax, Volt, Chess, or Motown originals.
While they were together Action released no LP’s, just five UK singles. Which is bizarre considering that now, check out Amazon, and there’s a bunch of albums, kicking off with the Edsel compilation ‘The Ultimate Action’ (Demon ED101, 1980). First available on vinyl it sports no less a Mod icon than Paul Weller scripting the sleeve-notes to the effect that ‘the Action had it in their soul’. It fleshed out their sparse back-catalogue roster by adding a German-only 1968 single consisting of “The Harlem Shuffle” c/w Goffin & King’s “Wasn’t It You”. For its 1990 CD format only there are also the previously unissued ‘B’-sides of late Edsel singles “Wasn’t It You” (Edsel E5001, 1981), group-composition “Come On, Come On With Me” (Edsel E5008, 1984), plus their take of the Righteous Brothers’ “Just Once It My Life”. The track-listing was later still rejigged and updated into ‘Action Packed’ (Edsel EDCD 699). Then there’s ‘Rolled Gold’, made up of raw demos recorded in 1967 and 1968, but not issued until 1995. Plus ‘Uptight And Outasight’ (Circle Records) drawing together live radio sessions from BBC’s ‘Saturday Club’ and ‘Pop North’ from 1966 and 1967, interspersed with little interview-clips of Reg talking to formal buttoned-up presenter Brian Matthews. It seems there’s cult here that goes way beyond mere nostalgia!
From Kentish Town in north London the Action grew up together, sharing a passion for music, clothes, and football. They started out as The Boys as early as 1963. Alongside vocalist Reginald King was lead guitarist Alan ‘Bam’ King (no relation), Mike ‘Ace’ Evans on bass and Reg’s school-friend Roger Powell on drums. In this incarnation, not only were there early records for Decca and Pye but there are also group originals too. Reg and Evans co-wrote both sides of “It Ain’t Fair” c/w “I Want You” for a November 1964 single, then Reg wrote “When I Get Married” for the flip of “You Really Gonna Shake” – a Decca single from March 1964 issued as by Sandra Barry & The Boys, while they were temporarily backing that popular girl-singer. But with the addition of second guitarist Peter Watson they re-signed to Parlophone as Action. Peter already had a track record. As part of Jack Martin & The Jets he’d toured US army bases in Spain and Morocco supporting the Tony Meehan Combo, where he was exposed to rare American singles.
Following "Land Of 1,000 Dances" the Action hung in there with Motown for the second single (February 1966), re-tooling “I’ll Keep On Holding On” from the Marvelettes back-catalogue. Written by Ivy Jo Hunter (no, not Ivory Joe) with Mickey Stevenson, backed up with ‘a song in my mind I been singing it all day’ called “Hey Sah-Lo-Ney” which hit a catchy groove, the single was critically well-received and became the closest they ever got to a chart hit. It’s fair to say most radio listeners were unfamiliar with the Marvelettes American hit, and the Action have a Power-Pop drive that shifts it into alternate gears anyway, the lyric urging the purposeful pursuit of the elusive object of his desire – ‘waiting, watching, waiting, watching, looking for a chance’. The record was well-familiar and highly-rated around the clubs. It came tantalisingly close. Their window of opportunity was definitely ajar, yet it failed to actually chart. Perhaps it was the high-point, the main chance, the moment at which – if they were going to break through big, this was their time.
Because instead they switched their imported repertoire to Chess for the third single – Maurice & The Radiants “Baby, You’ve Got It” (July 1966), with authentic dancefloor drums and heavy keyboards drawing it into the Northern Soul spectrum, while sticking with the familiar Motown template for the flip – Smokey Robinson’s “Since I Lost My Baby”. And while no-one does Smokey like Smokey, it’s worth teasing out that second side first, because it’s a stand-out performance, one of their finest. Reg is at his most yearning and affecting as he sings of how ‘the sun is cold and the new day seems old’, and while there’s ‘plenty of work and the bosses are paying’ without his lover ‘with money I’m poor’. It comes closest to Paul Weller’s perceptive insight that Action ‘not only capture the Tamla / Soul sounds, but actually shape it into their own style’. A fusion that Reg himself termed ‘Rhythm ‘n’ Soul’. The promo art-work for the single consists of an atmospheric ‘Blow-Up’-themed Nigel Dickson street-photo of Reg brandishing a pistol, moments after shooting down a trendy Mod girl who has just graffiti’d ‘I Hate The Action’ on a brick wall. The paint still dribbles from the final ‘n’ as the bullet took her. The rest of the group stand around in posed casual stances. Like a still from an unmade cult movie, or an incident from a teen-novel never written. I remember it standing out from the monochrome pages of the music press like a burst of energy.
What’s bad for the heart is good for the art. Both sides are strong songs, delivered well. Their artful taste selection is impeccable, with fine-tuned instincts about their chosen field of endeavour. Their love of – and respect for, black American Dance Music is self-evident, propelled by a tight British beat-group curve on those hard driving R&B originals. Yet the group’s singles languish as more useful stand-bys than essential purchases. Live, the Action were always a big deal. With a drive and excitement they’re seldom able to transfer to vinyl. They headline all the sharpest Soho clubs, from ‘The Scene’ and ‘The Marquee’, to Manchester’s ‘Twisted Wheel’, and on down. And their club dates were rammed to capacity. Occasions where every Ace Face had to be seen to be Scene. Hordes of Lambrettas and Vestas flock outside every venue they play.
Yet despite this, and despite being signed to George Martin’s consistently-supportive AIR-productions, their considerable talent remained insufficiently recognised and rewarded outside the strict Mod ranking. Ideal for TV’s ‘Ready Steady Go’ – which was all about hip credibility, they never crossed over to play ‘Top Of The Pops’. Not that it mattered. The Mod combos who did breakthrough big – the Who and Small Faces, were bursting with anger, aggression and impatience, with a desperate urgency to make it. By contrast, the Action, largely, sound pleased with themselves and quite content to be making well-crafted club dance-floor records for a small but devoted cognoscenti. More in an evolutionary line with smooth sartorially-sharp Mod revivalists Secret Affair. Rather than an internal thing, the pressure to succeed commercially was largely applied from outside the group. From the label, and from producer George Martin. It could be argued that Hits can be extinction events for underground cultdom. According to that mindset, the Action never sold out. Action were one of those cliquey names attractive precisely because they were cult, because they were not seen on ‘Top Of The Pops’.
And anyway, from mid-1966 hip was already changing, with Mod going the way of all flesh. There was something in the air that sniffed of new, more esoteric influences. In some ways it was a smooth transition, into a more questioning and conflicted period. A different breed of sharp hipness. A new definition. What had been fairly straight-up in its intentions, with its Soul-heart worn unashamedly on its tailored sleeve, was to be not quite as in-your-ear. In a 1966 ‘Melody Maker’ interview Reg could be found praising, not obscure imported R&B, but the Beach Boys’ ‘Pet Sounds’. There were ruptures too. A scheduled US tour for August 1966 was pulled, Pete quit the line-up, ill at ease with the band’s shifting taste in chemical stimulants, and in April 1967 they parted company with manager Ricky Farr. Below the radar there were pharmaceutical changes, from Mod Purple Hearts, to LSD, with all the attendant shifts in perception that implies. The two final official singles both emerged within the first six months of 1967. Conveniently re-grouped together for a French EP, to better define a precise career-phase. In February – “Never Ever” c/w “Twenty Fourth Hour” were both group compositions. All four members get credits. A propulsive twelve-string acoustic strum play-in leads into a ba-ba-ba tunefulness, oddly reminiscent of Tony Hatch’s “Call Me” (for Petula Clark), and a forward-thinking lyric about ‘never ever think of bad times, just remember the glad times’. The equally strong flip recalls a kind of 365-days-a-year lyrical take on the Beatles’ “Eight Days A Week”. Then in June there was “Shadows and Reflections” c/w “Something Has Hit Me”. Out-sourcing composer-credits this time, with harpsichord and bouncing rhythms delineating one of Attack’s most attractive sides, Reg sings of returning to the ‘old vacant apartment above the shop in the square’ where the lovers shared their final moments. While the West-Coast vocal bell-chimes of the flip are punched out by strong Rickenbacker lines. The complex middle-eight harmonies are a clear development in one of the best-constructed tracks in their catalogue.
But it was also a time of frantic recording activity. Studio sessions resulted in a one-off German single, where they had a big following, and other material that would periodically emerge over the coming years. Including a highly-unlikely Dance-Craze shot penned by Reg called “The Cissy” – maybe a memory flashback to the Dance-menu listed on “Land Of 1,000 Dances”? which finally emerged in 1980, and “The Place” about being ashamed to show his face in the Mod Club since breaking up with his girl. Yet time was running out. Major labels were more patient then than they are now, but parent-company EMI was becoming anxious to recoup its investment in the Action. They pressured for a more ‘commercial’ approach. If either of those final singles had clicked with the wider audience, chances are, an album would have been issued. As it is, the singles misfired, and so they were denied the opportunity of completing the LP they’d already trailered in the press (in interview to ‘Rave’). Recorded at IBC studios at Portland Place, under the working title ‘Brain’ (tape-spools dated 3 May 1968), the intended album-tracks existed in varying stages of completion, some little more than demos. Georgio Gomelsky stepped in when the Action were finally dropped by Parlophone. Further work was done at Advision and ‘in a tiny demo studio beneath a shop on Old Compton Street’ in preparation for a stalled new deal with Polydor. And when that fell through, the tapes remained safely stockpiled in the archives waiting to be rediscovered and issued some decades later. They ultimately arrived, restored and re-mastered, in 1995, as ‘Rolled Gold’.
Yet the album stands up well as tuneful mildly-psychedelic late-sixties underground Rock. In the spirit, and the chemically-enhanced spirituality of the time there’s a melodic mayhem of ‘new awareness’ about the tracks. Opening with a studio count-in the rousing first track “Come Around” urges ‘let us walk in angel’s footsteps’, until “Look At The View” with its tempo-change nursery-rhyme coda sounds very much like a paean to a newly-stoned perception, as the title is repeated with escalating amazement, as though viewed through suddenly LSD-cleansed eyes. Laced with Ian Whiteman’s flute, “Love Is All” is a regulation love-and-peace message about living ‘in a world of dreams’. Further in, Alan King’s more muscular angular guitar figures on “Something To Say” frames a vaguely Beatles-esque ‘I’ve got something to say that might cause you pain’, while “Icarus” more ambitiously delves into the mythology of flying too close to the sun. All of the songs are group originals, the bizarre title-track “Brain” allegedly ‘made up on the spot’ with Reg spontaneously singing ‘take your brain it’s time to go’. More reflectively thought-through “Climbing Up The Wall” muses with a world-weary wistfulness of loss, ‘sometimes I wish that I was young’. There’s more trendy references to ‘wash my mind, I can see’, in the two takes of “In My Dream” – with its lyric about ‘try to reach tomorrow, but it’s not in sight’, the first take remaindered from a George Martin-produced session, the second a simpler Demo allowing Reg’s lead vocals to shine powerfully. Another highlight, “Really Doesn’t Matter” advocates a laid-back ‘whatever you’ve got to do, do it tomorrow’ attitude. Although ending in a loose percussive jam with what Alan King calls ‘off-the-planet’ backing vocals, there’s few indulgences, with the emphasis on West Coast-inflected harmonies and nice little concise instrumental fills, Alan’s tight ‘Revolver’-era curves and high keening guitar (on “Strange Roads”), plus moments of strangeness – the galloping horse effects on “Little Boy”, but nothing to excess. So, is it the ‘Great Lost Sixties Album’? Well, it certainly has moments as strong as anything from the ‘Nuggets’ or ‘Pebbles’ continuum. Some critics equate the album with the Zombies’ ‘Odyssey And Oracle’ – so, maybe. Potentially, yes. With the final edits and mix-downs it was denied, and a little sonic manicuring it’s not inconceivable.
During their remaining time together, although the original group-nucleus stayed intact, other musicians came and went. Multi-instrumentalist Ian Whiteman joined, quit, then rejoined. Martin Stone was recruited on guitar. There was even a temporary name-change to Azoth, before reverting to Action. Until the musical terrain had shifted too far to encompass the changes, exasperated by the frustrating recording impasse. Reg finally quit after a disastrous gig in Newquay’s ‘Blue Lagoon’ club which resulted in him footing the bill for the damage he’d caused. He went on to become briefly part of BB Blunder. There was also a solo album – ‘Reg King’ (United Artists UAS29157, 1971) with a roster of studio guests including Steve Winwood, Brian Auger and some-time Rolling Stone Mick Taylor. As the ‘Rolled Gold’ tapes were still locked up in the vault, he took the opportunity of salvaging two of the songs. “In My Dream” with its lyric about being ‘stoned all day, night time too’, and the driving “Little Boy” which advocates rediscovering and hanging onto a state of innocence, ‘take your time, learn how to play, and gradually the rules will fade away’. Despite the heavy guest-names, the solid back-up relies more heavily on the other members of Action, now trading as counter-culture band Mighty Baby. Under this new identity Alan King, Roger Powell and Mike Evans with Martin Stone and Ian Whiteman played the ‘Prog-Rock’ circuit and issued a series of fluid improvisational albums. When Mighty Baby ceased Alan King found himself part of Pub-Rock band Ace alongside eternal all-rounder Paul Carrack, ironically finally tasting chart success with the easy-on-the-ear global hit “How Long” in November 1974.
But there was to be a second life for Action. When the post-Punk Mod resurgence washed in on the ‘Quadrophenia’-wave, there was revived interest. The Action became the lost heroes, the name to drop, the code that signified an awareness of credibility. In 1998 the original Action line-up reconvened for the Isle of Wight festival, and played well-received on-&-off gigs for the next six years, a rejuvenation that resulted in a celebratory video – ‘In The Lap Of Mods’ (2000), capturing their history and bringing their story full circle. The Paul Weller connection extended to Reg contributing guest voice – a sweet reworking of “Since I Lost My Baby”, plus “Til I Lost You” to Weller’s bassist, and record-producer Andy Lewis’ solo ‘Billion Pound Project’ album (Acid Jazz Records, September 2005). Proving he was still in top vocal form. Action played a final set as part of the 2004 ‘Modstock’ Festival, but further possibilities ended when Mike ‘Ace’ Evans died 15 January 2010, followed by Reg himself as the same year closed. When journalist Pat Long penned his obituary in ‘The Guardian’ (7 November 2010) lauding the loss of a vocalist ‘the equal of Steve Marriott, Steve Winwood or Rod Stewart’ with a voice that was ‘smooth, unhurried and deeply soulful’ – yes, those who were there across the years know exactly what those words meant.
ACTION: THE FULL STORY
Issues as by SANDRA BARRY AND THE BOYS
(March 1964) “You Really Gonna Shake” c /w “When I Get Married” (R King) (Decca)
Issued as by THE BOYS
(November 1964) “It Ain’t Fair” (R King / Evans) c/w “I Want You” (R King / Evans)
(Pye 7N 15726) Produced by Kenny Lynch
Issued as by THE ACTION
(October 1965) “Land Of 1,000 Dances” c/w “In My Lonely Room” (Parlophone R 5354)
(July 1966) “I’ll Keep On Holding On” c/w “Hey Sah-Lo-Ney” (Parlophone R 5410)
(July 1966) “Baby, You’ve Got It” (McAllister &Vail) c/w “Since I Lost My Baby” (Robinson & Moore) (Parlophone R5474)
(February 1967) “Never Ever” (King / King / Evans / Powell) c/w “Twenty Fourth Hour” (King / King / Evans / Powell) (Parlophone R 5572)
(June 1967) “Shadows and Reflections” (Marks & Almer) c/w “Something Has Hit Me” (King & Jones) (Parlophone R 5610)
(1967) France-Only EP “Shadows and Reflections” / “Something Has Hit Me” / “Never Ever” / “Twenty Fourth Hour” (Odeon MOE 149)
(1968) “The Harlem Shuffle” c/w “Wasn’t It You” (Goffin / King) (Hansa, Germany-Only)
EP ‘ACTION SPEAKS LOUDER THAN’ (tracks recorded circa 1968, released by Castle Music in 1985) “Only Dreaming”, “Dustbin Full of Rubbish”, “An Understanding Love”, “My Favourite Day”, “A Saying For Today” (all tracks written by Whiteman)
‘BRAIN / ROLLED GOLD’ (Tracks recorded in late 1967 and 1968, but released only in 1995) “Come Around”, “Something to Say”, “Love is All”, “Icarus”, “Strange Roads”, “Things You Cannot See”, “Brain”, “Look at the View”, “Climbing Up the Wall”, “Really Doesn’t Matter”, “I’m A Stranger”, “Little Boy”, “Follow Me”, “In My Dream”, “In My Dream (Demo)”
‘UPTIGHT AND OUTASIGHT’ (Circle Records) CD1 – BBC Radio and Television recordings 1966-1967: “I’ll Keep Holding On”, “Land Of 1,000 Dances / Uptight”, “Mine Exclusively” (BBC Radio’s ‘Saturday Club’, 1966), Reg King Interview (‘Saturday Club’, 1966), “Baby You’ve Got It “ (‘Saturday Club’ 1966), “Take Me In Your Arms (Rock Me A While)” (‘Saturday Club’ 1966), “Going To A Go-Go” (BBC Radio’s ‘Pop North’, 1966), “Never Ever” (‘Pop North’, 1966), “Love Is All” (‘Saturday Club’, 1967), “I See You” (‘Saturday Club’, 1967), “India” (‘Saturday Club’, 1967), “Shadows and Reflections” (‘Saturday Club’, 1967) CD2 – Live recordings from ‘The Boston Arms’, London 1998: “Meeting Over Yonder”, “The Monkey Time”, “Baby Don’t You Do It”, “In My Lonely Room”, “I Love You (Yeah!)”, “Girl (Why You Wanna Make Me Blue)”, “Ooo Baby Baby”, “Crazy About You Baby”, “Heatwave”, “People Get Ready”, “The Memphis Train”, “Since I Lost My Baby”, “Harlem Shuffle”, “Baby You’ve Got It”, “I’ll Keep Holding On”, “Land Of 1,000 Dances”
‘THE ULTIMATE ACTION’ (Edsel Demon LP-ED + CD-EDCD 101, 1980) a compilation vinyl LP made up of The Action’s original UK singles, produced by George Martin: “I’ll Keep On Holding On”, “Harlem Shuffle”, “Never Ever”, “Twenty Fourth Hour”, “Since I Lost My Baby”, “In My Lonely Room”, “Hey Sah-Lo-Ney”, “Shadows And Reflections”, “Something Has Hit Me”, “The Place”, “The Cissy”, “Baby You’ve Got It”, “I Love You (Yeah!)”, “Land Of 1,000 Dances”. Reissued as ‘ACTION PACKED’, CD (ED-CD 699) with extra tracks “Wasn’t It You”, “Come On, Come With Me”, “Just Once In My Life”. There were also four spin-off singles issued using the same material:
“I’ll Keep on Holding On” c/w “Wasn’t It You?” (E5001, 1981)
“Since I Lost My Baby” c/w “Never Ever” + “Wasn’t It You?” (E5002, 1981)
“Shadows and Reflections” c/w “Something Has Hit Me” (E5003, May 1982) a ‘Melody Maker’ review says ‘as the press handout states, a lesson for all Sixties psychedelic revivalists’
“Hey Sah-Lo-Ney” c/w “Come On, Come With Me” (E5008, July 1984) a ‘Melody Maker’ review commends its ‘more timeless, poppy sound’
‘REG KING’ solo album (UAS29157, 1971. CD 2006) All songs by King & Dale: “Must Be Something Else Around”, “You Go Have Yourself A Good Time”, “That Ain’t Living”, “In My Dreams”, “Little Boy”, “10,000 Miles”, “Down The Drain”, “Savannah”, “Gone Away”