Monday, November 21, 2005

History: The Action + Mighty Baby

Ok, kiddies, time for a brief detour, as we walk through a brief history of one of the great overlooked bands of the 60s. If there's anything better than discovering a new band for the first time, it's stumbling across an old band you completely missed (if only because there's already a back-catalog of music to dive into rather than having to wait for the next new release). One of my favorite discoveries of the past year or so has to be The Action, and if you're unfamiliar with them, you're not alone. But here's hoping you promptly remedy the situation.
Action Packed
No need to give you the complete history of the Action; you can always check a site like for something like that. Briefly, though, they started out in the early 60s as something of a British Invasion also-ran. Beatles producer George Martin signed them; they even supposedly got kicked off a tour opening for the Who because they were "too good" (though you always have to wonder if such tales are merely apocryphal). In any event, while most of their peers looked to American blues and R&B for inspiration, the Action looked to Motown. Indeed, listen to their early tracks -- compiled on the great-sounding and all-inclusive Action Packed -- and it's hard to believe it's a bunch of white British kids. It's a great collection, although (a few decent originals notwithstanding) it's not exactly a cutting-edge piece of work. Still, for fans of Motown and early British Invasion pop, there's no good reason not to own (and love) this one.
Rolled Gold
However inexplicable, the band didn't really catch on, and they got dropped from their label. Which is really too bad, as that was when they started getting really good. They moved beyond their roots, recording a slew of tracks in 1967 that had a harder-edged, more psychedelic groove to them, placing them firmly in the Freakbeat camp alongside the Creation and mid-period Who. These tracks languished in obscurity for decades, finally seeing light of day in the Rolled Gold compilation in 2002. As these are largely demo recordings, the sound quality isn't exactly high fidelity, but we're talking some amazing music. Paul Weller is supposedly a big fan of these guys, and Rolled Gold goes a long way towards explaining why. The blueprints for the Jam are all over this thing. Lots of killer proto-punk riffs with a Mod sensibility. Tunes like "Brain," "Strange Roads," "Come Around," and a half dozen others are near-perfect mid-60's nuggets that are just shy of being absolutely essential for any fan of 60s Britpop.
Mighty Baby
Not surprisingly, recording some of the best songs of the era and never even seeing them released is not exactly conducive to morale, and the Action underwent various personnel changes. Nonetheless, the remnants of the band regrouped, trading one of the coolest band names of the 60s for one of the absolute lamest: Mighty Baby. Yet Mighty Baby, crappy name and all, managed to squeeze out a self-titled album in 1969 that is, if anything, even better than Rolled Gold. The band takes another step towards psychedelia, but like many 60s bands rooted in R&B, their brand of psychedlia was much harder rocking than a lot of the more twee flower-power meanderings of the time. New vocalist Ian Whiteman (who'd handled keyboards for the Action) was no less soul-drenched than original Action vocalist Reggie King, but the music was far more intense, with heavy duty Yardbirds-influenced guitar riffing, savage drums, and funky sax lines. At times, Mighty Baby sounds like the great lost Traffic album; at other times, they're nearly indistinguishable from Cream. Put the two together, and you essentially have what Blind Faith could (and should) have sounded like if Clapton & Winwood had a little less talent and a lot more passion. (Other songs find Whiteman sounding much more like Stephen Stills -- before Stills sucked, of course -- giving the album a Buffalo Springfield vibe as well.) Yes, it verges on the pre-prog that was just getting kicked off at the time, so it's a bit more badly dated than the Action's work. But it's still a killer album. The 1994 cd release includes a few additional unreleased Action tracks, which help explain a bit how the band transitioned from mod-pop to all-out psych-rock.

Three remarkably different cd's, any one of which will have you kicking yourself wondering why nobody's ever heard of these guys.


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