Periodically this month, we’ll be looking at titles released in the latter part of 2018 that we either didn’t cover, or only covered briefly, the first time around! We hope you enjoy this look at “some nice things we’ve missed”…
Cherry Red’s Grapefruit Records imprint knows where The Action is. The label has collected the complete 1964-1968 recordings of the British mod group on a splendid 4-CD box set including original masters, alternate takes, outtakes, and more – adding up to every surviving recording released under the band’s name. The Action performed on the same circuit as other legendary bands such as The Yardbirds, Manfred Mann, The Moody Blues, and notably, The Who – the band whom The Action supported before manager Kit Lambert let them go from the slot at the Marquee for being too powerful. The Beatles and the Stones were reportedly fans of The Action; Paul Weller championed them years later. So why did The Action disappear? Listening to Shadows and Reflections, it’s almost impossible to believe that the band’s first five singles flopped so badly that their producer – one George Martin – dropped them from his AIR Productions roster. Parlophone, their label, followed suit. Fortunately, their high-energy, soul-infused recordings live on.
With an overall cleaner and more melodic approach to the soul music and R&B they were performing, nobody would have confused The Action with The Who. It’s apparent from this set that The Action – originally Reg King (lead vocals), Alan “Bam” King (guitar/vocals), Mike “Ace” Evans (bass/vocals) and Roger Powell (drums) plus additional guitarist Pete Watson – distinguished themselves as the mod scene’s foremost interpreters of the Tamla Motown songbook; at Parlophone under Martin’s aegis, they delivered faithful yet often muscular versions of songs introduced by Martha and the Vandellas (“In My Lonely Room”), The Marvelettes (“I’ll Keep Holding On”), and The Temptations (an attractively mellow “Since I Lost My Baby,” featuring George Martin on piano). The Action also tapped the Chicago soul scene with covers of The Impressions (“I Love You (Yeah)”) and Maurice and The Radiants (“Baby You’ve Got It,” in an arrangement that evokes The Temptations’ then-recent “Get Ready” and anticipates, in part, the mood of The Guess Who’s 1969 “No Time”). Their take on Bob and Earl’s “Harlem Shuffle” was hard-hitting.
The Action soon found themselves changing with the times, however. Inspired both by their newfound embrace of hallucinogenic drugs and exposure to new musical directions (particularly the West Coast sound of The Beach Boys, The Association, and their ilk), The Action began to move away from their Tamla repertoire. Pete Watson also left the band before 1967 began. The Action’s three-part harmony vocals had always set them apart, but with the mid-1967 release of “Shadows and Reflections,” co-written by the California duo of Tandyn Almer (“Along Comes Mary”) and Larry Marks, The Action embraced a more overtly “pop” sound. George Martin’s productions had always captured both the raw strength of the band as well as its subtler side; he added brass embellishments to “Shadows” as he had with their previous, catchy band-written single “Never Ever” – one of many candidates here for “The Hit Single That Never Was.”
A pair of Goffin and King songs (“Wasn’t It You,” also recorded by Petula Clark, and “Just Once in My Life,” most famous in The Righteous Brothers’ original version) were well-executed, but the move to pop alienated audiences. Reg King poured his heart and soul into a tormented and mournful “Just Once in My Life,” but the stripped-down arrangement doesn’t do justice to the song’s majesty so beautifully captured in the Phil Spector-helmed original. (Spector also co-wrote the tune.)
New keyboardist Ian Whiteman further stretched the limits of The Action’s sound, with his classical training and taste for jazz, which the other band members had been discovering as well. Psychedelia was in the air, and Whiteman and new guitarist Martin Stone helped bring the band a more expansive sound. Stone, especially, moved the group further away from their blue-eyed soul roots than ever before.
The first disc of Shadows and Reflections has the 17 mono tracks originally issued on Parlophone plus five live cuts from the BBC (including a smoking rendition of Kim Weston’s Motown stomper “Take Me in Your Arms (Rock Me a Little While),” while the second disc boasts robust stereo mixes of 15 of those songs (all but The Action’s first single, newly mixed by compilation producer Alec Palao) plus a treasure trove of backing tracks, rehearsals, and extended and/or alternate takes. George Martin’s contributions, of course, come into sharp focus on these additional tracks.
The third disc takes The Action squarely into psychedelic territory and away from the soul sound. Reg King, Alan King, Ian Whiteman, and Mike Evans all penned original songs which were intended to form the basis of a new album. Demos were recorded, and one song even got George Martin (briefly) back into the fold. “In My Dream,” with its psych-bossa vibe, was produced and orchestrated by Martin in a version which can be heard here alongside the original demo. But label after label, including Apple, passed on the demos. When an increasingly erratic Reg King left the band, he took the demos with him. (King returned to “In My Dream” as well as the Move-esque “Little Boy” on his 1971 solo album; he was backed by his former Action bandmates on that LP.) These demos came to be known as Rolled Gold after the intended album’s original working title; they finally saw the light of day in the CD era. The box collects all of the Rolled Gold tracks as first issued in 1985, 1995, and 1997.
Lastly, Shadows and Reflections offers an Action potpourri, Extra Action, on its fourth disc including the Pye single released under the early moniker of The Boys; the Decca audition songs; BBC sessions (featuring renditions of the Smokey Robinson and the Miracles favorite “Going to a Go-Go” and Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)”); and alternate mixes including the versions remixed for Edsel’s 1990 CD The Ultimate Action.)
The Action went on to reform first as Azoth and then as Mighty Baby, but the group is best remembered for its mod-soul days. Shadows and Reflections celebrates that era in comprehensive, stylish fashion. The book-style package includes 48 pages with an introduction by Lois Wilson, comprehensive essay by David Wells, and detailed timeline by compiler/remastering and mix engineer Alec Palao plus photos, tape box scans, and more. Without a doubt, this set is where the Action is.