February 7, 2022

If you look through your record collection, it’s probably quite likely that you may be missing any albums sung entirely in Latin. Well, not any more. Enter Mass In F Minor

Never exactly a household name in the same way as many of their late-’60s contemporaries were, nevertheless The Electric Prunes (named, bizarrely, after the punchline of the joke ‘What’s purple and buzzes?’) boast a catalogue – and a story – to equal most of them. Over the course of five albums (all included in this bumper six-disc set, along with rarities and live recordings), they not only produced some genuinely groundbreaking and occasionally unique music, but also managed to effectively morph into an entirely different band over the course of three years! Indeed, the development of the band over this turbulent period is almost like a ‘Six Degrees Of Electric Prunes’ game to rival the famous Kevin Bacon variant. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves; let’s begin at the beginning with the self-titled debut album in 1967 (the 1966 part of the title refers only to some early demos later in the set).

That first album arrived accompanied – and opened – by their one true claim to real mainstream success, in the shape of the hit single I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night. It’s a terrific song, recognised as such when it was included as the lead-off track on the first of the seminal Nuggets compilations in the early 1970s. A cracking rocker replete with psychedelic effects and the like which were de rigeur at the time, and a chorus which will burrow into your head, it promises great things. On the whole, however, this first album doesn’t entirely deliver on that promise, being rather too formative, unfocused and lacking a clear identity. At times it ploughs a furrow similar to the Rolling Stones on Their Satanic Majesties Request, while at others it flirts with simpler mid-’60s R&B and pop, with even one or two novelty songs thrown into the mix. There are excellent moments, however – the follow-up single Get Me To The World On Time was nearly the equal of Too Much To Dream, while Train For Tomorrow and Try Me On For Size are also fine efforts. Even the singalong retro-novelty feel of the closing Tunerville Trolley has its own nostalgic, feel-good charm. But ultimately, with little of the album self-penned, the five-piece clearly had more potential, which was waiting to come out once they had gained in experience and songwriting confidence. It wasn’t long to wait for that to arrive, as the same year saw the second album, Underground, which was, and remains, superior in every way.

There were a couple of line-up changes from album number one, with the departure of both drummer Preston Ritter and heroically-named rhythm guitarist Weasel Spagnola. Previous percussion prune Mike Weakley returned in place of Ritter, though he had by now taken to calling himself Quint, for no discernable reason. These changes seemed to work, because as soon as the unusually arranged, percussive opener The Great Banana Hoax begins, it becomes clear that Underground sounds like a much stronger Prunes (if that doesn’t sound too unappetising). Written, like much of the album, by singer James Lowe and guitarist Mark Tulin, and named after the then-prevalent rumour that smoking dried banana skins could get you high (spoiler: it couldn’t), it’s a fine opener and a good indicator of what would follow. The album is packed with excellent stuff, moving from the R&B/psych roots of the debut and embracing what would certainly be seen as ‘proto-prog’ for the time. This was an album which was ahead of much of the competition in terms of its sound, and with the closing Long Day’s Flight and the longest track, I, being clear standouts things seemed to bode extremely well for whatever the Prunes would decide to do next.

Except that nobody – and in fact, that includes the band themselves – would have forecast exactly what that next move would be. With the Prunes making great strides with their songwriting, and managing to forge an impressive direction for themselves, their manager Lenny Poncher and producer Dave Hassinger, believing that they knew what was best for the band, elected in one of the most bizarre moves ever seen, even for the late 1960s, to bring in producer, conductor and arranger David Axelrod (also represented by Poncher) to entirely compose the material for the band’s next album. Not only that, it was to be a psychedelic reimagining of a Catholic mass. Now, if that sounds as if it might be an odd proposition, then think again. Because it’s far, far more odd than that.

If you look through your record collection, it’s probably quite likely that you may be missing any albums sung entirely in Latin. Well, not any more. Enter Mass In F Minor, the fevered result of Axelrod’s eccentric compositions and the Prunes’ wild psychedelic playing style. Put bluntly, the album sounds as if a gang of priests, ripped to the absolute gills on acid-spiked communion wine, had been bundled into a recording studio with luminous walls, with only a stack of Hendrix, Beefheart and Zappa albums for company. It’s unlike anything you have ever heard before, and unlike anything you ever imagined you would want to listen to – and yet, partly for that very reason, it’s absolutely essential listening. The six tracks on the album (featuring titles such as Kyrie Eleison, Sanctus and Benedictus – you know, the usual stuff) essentially consist of a wild collision between vocals delivered in the style of Gregorian chant and insanely fuzzed up and untamed psychedelic guitar-led music. The opening track, Kyrie Eleison, sets out the template, before Gloria comes in and ramps up the insanity still further. For this track, it was seemingly decided that the combination of chanting monks, buzzsaw-distorted guitar soloing and flailing drums needed something extra. It gets it, in the shape of an equally fuzzed-up, manically psychedelic bass solo. Once again, to the astonishment of the listener, this actually works. By this time the captive hallucinogenic priests are probably getting the munchies and being fed magic mushrooms, as things don’t let up. Perhaps thankfully for the sanity of the listener, the album is astonishingly short even for the time, clocking in at a little over 26 minutes. It’s one of the most incredible works of unfettered experimentalism that the late-’60s ever produced, which is saying something to be fair – but sadly it took its toll on the original Prunes. With the fiendish complexity of the music composed by the manic Axelrod, the band were going over budget with the studio time, and in an astonishing move half of the band were effectively dismissed from the recording sessions for their own album, and the recording was finished off by musicians from another band entirely named The Collectors, who happened to be available. The band carried on as a live force for a short while – only ever attempting one disastrous performance of the Mass incidentally – before imploding in dispirited fashion. The three tracks on the first side of the album are the three which feature the Prunes in their entirety, while the latter three have them present to some degree (Lowe, Tulin and Quint remain) but augmented by a new guitarist and organist. It’s an astonishing album, but a heavy price was paid by the dissolution of such a promising band.

However, such is the nature of this psychedelic history lesson, that just because the Electric Prunes as we knew them had ceased to exist, that didn’t mean they stopped releasing albums. On the contrary, the plot was about to thicken. With the original band allowing permission for the name to be used, a ‘new’, ersatz Electric Prunes line-up was assembled, with four entirely new and unrelated musicians heading straight out on the road to play live under the Prunes banner. It was like an official ‘tribute band’, four decades before that sort of thing became widespread. However, in another left-field move, the megalomaniac Axelrod was writing another religious epic to follow up the surprising relative success of the Mass, but despite there actually being a new Electric Prunes line-up now, they were ignored entirely for the next album, Release Of An Oath, which was completed using session musicians for the whole thing, with the sole exception of vocals courtesy of new singing and drumming Prune Richard Whetstone. While this might call into question the validity of the record as an Electric Prunes album (basically, it isn’t), that should in no way detract from the quality of the work. This time taking inspiration from the Jewish Kol Nidre, a prayer in Hebrew and Aramaic which translates as ‘all vows’, in actual fact, it is an exceptional album, equal in quality to the Mass, but more evenly structured and tighter in terms of composition, and tracks such as the brilliant General Confessional and the closing one-two of Adoration and Closing Hymn are the equal of any fledgling prog rock which was being produced at the time. Be aware, however, that the brevity here is absurd, with the running time of the album making the Mass seem like a lengthy excursion, as it clocks in at under 25 minutes. It could fit onto one side of vinyl, essentially, which is somewhat ludicrous – one would have thought that the compositional maniac Axelrod could have come up with a couple more pieces to fill things out (or even – whisper it – use the actual band and let them compose something). Still, it is what it is, and at least what is here is all top quality. The album has in the past – logically – been released on a single CD with Mass In F Minor, but on this occasion it shares Disc Four of this collection with the follow-up album, from 1969.

In another strange twist of the Electric Prunes soap opera, at this point Axelrod picked up his compositional bat and ball and disappeared, leaving the new Prunes line-up this time to record an album themselves, entirely self-composed and played, and this time with eleven tracks making up a normal length album. The title, Just Good Old Rock And Roll, clearly makes a statement that they aren’t planning to take any more Axelrod-inspired journeys around the religions of the world, and instead just release a straightforward rock album. Unsurprisingly, with the appearance of four new guys who nobody recognised in the guise of the Electric Prunes, the album didn’t do all that well commercially (imagine a new Pink Floyd album arriving with a band line-up of something like Bob Jones, Phil Robertson, Alf Smith and Reggie Brown, for the equivalently absurd scenario today) – but somewhat more surprisingly it’s actually a very good album indeed. Yes, it might be stripped back from the wildly experimental psychedelic insanity which preceded it, but it doesn’t lack ambition or originality, ploughing a not unfamiliar furrow in parts to that which Uriah Heep were harvesting around the same time for the recording of their own debut album. There’s powerful rock, good strong melodies, plenty of light and shade and a few genuine jewels such as the brilliant Giant Sunhorse. It’s certainly on a par with the Underground album, for example, and were it not for the indescribable-yet-inspired Axelrod creations, would have followed on quite naturally. With even the album cover jokingly crediting it to the ‘New Improved Electric Prunes’ however, it was the last studio recording under the Prunes banner – at least until a reunion of the original band some decades later – and the last one to be featured in this set. After its release, there was one more bizarre line-up change, with two members leaving – that’s half of the band, including vocalist/drummer Richard Whetstone, the sole link to the Release Of An Oath album if you’re keeping up – and four more being drafted in to replace them. Yes, four. After a bold pronouncement that they were not only in a strong position as a band, but also planning to record a country-blues album, they finally, and perhaps fortunately, broke up.

It’s not the last of the music, however, as we still have two discs to go. Disc Five, entitled Shadows, is a grab-bag of alternate versions, out-takes, singles and B-sides which may not all be essential, but it has enough worthy material among its nineteen tracks to make up a cohesive and entertaining listen. In fact, it forms a better all-around disc than the debut album. There are extended versions of Underground highlights The Great Banana Hoax and Long Day’s Flight, both of which are better than their still-excellent original cousins, and several otherwise unavailable single-only tracks are rounded up in a very welcome fashion. There are even a couple of singles from the final ‘New Improved’ band which are very enjoyable indeed. Closing the disc is a hilariously cheesy radio ad for the Vox Wah Wah pedal featuring the band – a marvellous period piece.

With the sixth and final disc, however, we hit a completely unforeseen final triumph, with the bulk of the disc (apart from four disposable 1966 demos as ‘Jim And The Lords’) being made up of a 45-minute live set recorded in Stockholm in 1967, by the Underground line-up and just prior to the release of that album. I fully expected this to be a ‘completists-only’ release with a shaky performance and shakier quality – but boy, was I wrong! Showing the band to be a much stronger proposition live than on record at the time, it’s absolute dynamite practically from beginning to end. Opening with a scorching version of the non-album B-side You’ve Never Had It Better, that phrase turns out to describe most of the set, as the majority of the versions here surpass their recorded counterparts, and there’s even a mighty rendition of Smokestack Lightning which swings like a barn door in a gale. Get Me To The World On Time displays the band’s tight musicianship as it is extended to seven minutes, while the debut album track Try Me On For Size is totally transformed into a 10-minute vehicle for some exceptional jamming. With the recording quality (done for Swedish radio, but I don’t believe actually used) as good as any you have ever heard from 1967, the band turn out to be a revelation. As great as the Mass In F Minor album was, its part in causing the break-up of this line-up is, ironically, a sin. It’s just possible that this may even be the finest disc of the whole six, which I don’t think many would have expected. Gold dust.

What a journey, then. Over the course of five studio albums this trip takes us through Prunes, to Partial Prunes, to No Prunes and finally to New Prunes. Via Latin, Gregorian Chanting and the Catholic Mass. In three years. If there was a 1960s-based ‘prequel’ to Spinal Tap, they couldn’t use this as a plot as it would be deemed to be too far-fetched to have any credulity, and yet there we are. Just as a historical document this set would be fascinating, but when you take into account four superb discs, plus the still-entertaining debut album and Shadows round-up, you have something which I would deem to be absolutely essential listening to anyone with even a passing interest in the late-’60s musical landscape. The first three albums all come doubled up with their stereo and mono releases, but in this case, owing to the nature of the music and the production, the mono versions are inessential – though they are there if you want them, underlining the ‘complete’ nature of this set. Prunes. They’ve never been so good.