Monday 27 May 2024

The Prisoners - Live at The Roundhouse London, Friday May 24th, New Album "Morning Star" and New Book "A Taste of Ink!"

It's hard to believe it's 40 years since my first introduction to The Prisoners courtesy of the anarchic Friday evening music TV show The Tube - it was a short film on the Trash and Garage band scene with The Milkshakes, The Tall Boys, The Stingrays and closing the feature were a band dressed in Star Trek outfits, this band were The Prisoners and the song was "Reaching My Head" with swirling Eastern sounding organ, a manic Keith Moon style drummer pulling faces at the camera, a cool looking frontman and I can still remember the way the song suddenly dropped out half way through and a wicked bass riff took over. So, I kind of came to the band from the 60's Nuggets, Psych angle as I was into The Playn Jayn, The Fuzztones and Punk so I didn't really see them as a Mod band as such, although they would of course, be embraced by Mods and Scooterists. I bought their current album at the time which I found out was their second full-length release with a suitably Psychedelic title, "The Wisermiserdemelza" and the raucous Garage Punk rushes of "Hurricane" and "Somewhere" became my new favourite songs - then there were superb tracks like the B-Side "Tomorrow (She Said)" and the now classic anthem "Melanie" from the brilliant "Electric Fit" E.P.  Due to age and geography, I only got to see the band a couple of times back in the day - at the much-missed Clarendon in Hammersmith (I think Australian band The Scientists were also on the bill...) and then supporting the Ramones at the Hammersmith Palais and I dearly wished I'd seen them play more.

Fast forward 30 years and thanks to the Medway based band The Len Price 3, who had appeared at a few of my Retro Man Blog Nights at The Half Moon Putney, introducing me to Graham Day & Allan Crockford - I was honoured to be able to get their latest project, Graham Day & The Forefathers booked in for a gig. We would go on to do three successful, sold out Forefathers shows at The Half Moon - including one which nearly brought me to tears when I went backstage before the show to see Star Trek outfits hanging up in the dressing room. I continued branching out to include shows for Allan's new band The Galileo 7, Graham's instrumental project The Senior Service and two sold-out reunion shows for The Solarflares at the Water Rats in Kings Cross, which in a nice piece of synchronicity, was actually the location of that very feature for The Tube back in 1984, although the venue was called The Pindar of Wakefield at the time. It was an absolute pleasure as a fan to get to work with Graham and Allan but I don't think there was ever any inkling that The Prisoners would get back together again. Then, all of a sudden in 2021 the four original members, Graham Day, James Taylor, Allan Crockford and Johnny Symons made an impromptu appearance at the Billabong Club in Rochester playing a short set at an Auntie Vegetable reunion gig. This was followed in 2022 with another low key appearance although unfortunately in far more sombre circumstances - a memorial show celebrating the lives of three Medway locals including Allan's Dad, John Crockford who sadly passed away over the COVID pandemic. There is a lovely dedication in the foreward of the excellent new book "A Taste of Ink! The Prisoners Sentenced By Their Fans" to the important role that John Crockford played in the story of The Prisoners, especially in their formative years. As Allan writes..."without Dad's boundless support, encouragement, enthusiasm and patience, The Prisoners might never have escaped the garage and made it onto a stage". 

Then came the news that the band were to 'officially' re-form to celebrate the 40th anniversary of their debut album "A Taste of Pink" with two local shows at the Royal Function Rooms in Rochester - sadly the venue and building which also housed Jim Riley's legendary Ranscombe Studios - was due for 're-development', so it seemed a very apt place to host the shows. The demand for tickets was phenomenal and the two nights quickly expanded to four sold out shows and we were lucky enough to experience one of them, which you can read all about here. Although celebrating an album some forty years old is basically an exercise in nostalgia - the band all looked and sounded so fresh and energetic with an undeniable and infectious chemistry fizzing between the old friends on stage. It wowed the audience and all the talk afterwards was that surely, this is too good to stop, they must write some new material. And so it was that we got our wish. This year we were treated to a brand new album "Morning Star" which is packed full of so many great, immediate songs that it has already established itself as a bit of a classic. It's a masterclass in how to do a 'come-back' album - there's no hint of cynicism or tiredness - it sounds bloody marvellous, probably due in part to the music being recorded at Abbey Road studios and of course the quality of the songwriting and performances, all four members are at the top of their game. There's a feeling that this album is as much for Graham, Allan, James and Johnny themselves as for their fans or a wider audience as there's such an unabashed joy, running through the songs. Similar to my other 'favourite band', The Soundtrack of Our Lives, they unashamedly plunder all the good bits from their many and varied influences but add their own twist, whether its surfing in on an "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" riff with opening number "This Road Is Too Long", the pulsing synth intro, blitzkrieg drums, dexterous bass runs and windmilling guitar dynamics of The Who on "Going Back" or the punky Ramones-Phil Spector-Girl Group mash-up "Go To Him" with it's punch the air "just go, just go, just go" chant of a chorus. 

Somehow the band have managed to perfectly capture what it feels like to be a young fresh-faced band once again, back in the garage running through covers of their favourite songs before realizing their own songs are even better. Of course we get the pounding Motown beats, nods to Small Faces, Hendrix, John Barry, The Pretty Things, The Stranglers, Georgie Fame and Deep Purple, there are fuzzed up guitars, soaring backing vocals and harmonies, bittersweet lyrics and of course a trademark Barry Gray style instrumental "The Green Meteor", that could have graced any Gerry Anderson series. James Taylor not only impresses hugely with his peerless Hammond organ throughout but he also adds vocals to the brilliant tracks "My Wife" and "Break This Chain". Allan and Johnny cement themselves as one of the best rhythm sections since, well Moon and Entwistle of course, and Graham must be in the form of his musical life as a singer, songwriter and guitarist. Personally, I think "Something Better" and "If I Had Been Drinking" are up there with the very best things they have ever produced and the uplifting "Winter In June" is a work of musical art that could rival "Whenever I'm Gone" as their "should have been a Number 1 hit single if there was any justice in this world". At the end they even manage to sneak in a cheeky self-reference as the familiar melody line to "Thinking Of You (Broken Pieces)" plays with your senses. Yes, you might get the idea that I rather like this album and I find myself hoping that they play the whole bloody lot at the Roundhouse show. That's rare - usually a band announcing "now we've got some new songs for you..." sees a mass exodus for the bar - but not tonight. I'm very pleased to quickly discover I'm not alone - I'm right down the front and all around me people are singing along, they already know all the words to the new songs and there are a lot of them, most of "Morning Star" is delivered perfectly and nobody runs to the bar. I want to video "Go To Him" but all I get is 30 seconds worth of footage before I am thrown this way and that like a rag doll by the middle-aged mosh pit. It's testament to the quality of a new song when, not only do the crowd know all the words, but they go absolutely ape-shit crazy as soon as the first chords ring out. 

It's pretty mad down the front, the Roundhouse is packed, sure there were a few empty spaces on the balcony but I guess that was more a case of people vacating their seats to get down the front of the impressive but cavernous legendary venue. It's the band's biggest show - probably just pips the capacity of the Kentish Town Forum from the mid-90's reunion shows. I think I wasn't the only one to worry that the venue might be that little bit too big but people came out in their droves to be there for the experience. I heard Scottish, Irish, Geordie and Scouse accents - there were people from all over the place including Germany, Jersey, Sweden and Australia amongst other places I'm sure - I encountered loads of musicians, music journalists, DJ's, fanzine and blog writers - not there to work, just there as fans. There were people who had been with band from the very beginning to those that never got the chance to see The Prisoners play at all. It was also great to see so many familiar faces, lots of people who I got to know through my Retro Man Blog Nights for Graham Day & The Forefathers, Senior Service, The Solarflares and The Galileo 7 - lots of friends made just through our mutual admiration of The Prisoners. So, there was no need to have worried about the size of the Roundhouse and the added bonus of The Inspiral Carpets and long-time fan, DJ Steve Lamacq made sure the crowd were nicely warmed up for the main attraction. The band didn't seem out of place on the big stage and the perfectly plotted set-list along with that all important chemistry and sense of dynamics helped fill every nook and cranny of the Roundhouse's huge dome. 

The Inspiral Carpets

James Taylor, probably the one with the most experience of playing larger venues, played cheerleader, encouraging the crowd to clap and sing along, even though we didn't need much encouragement. Everyone was primed and ready to embrace this reunion - I've rarely felt such a palpable sense of excitement and adrenaline prior to a gig and the streets of Camden and Chalk Farm were positively buzzing with laughter and chatter beforehand. Then as the band took to the stage to huge cheers and blasted straight into "Hurricane" there was this huge release, an outpouring of adoration for this great band - justification for all those years of being labelled with words such as cult, underrated, unappreciated - and one in the eye for all those acts that plundered The Prisoners sound and made far more commercial in-roads - this was sweet. The band fed off the crowd's enthusiasm and treated us to a superb set that spanned their career from the early (now rare) single "There's a Time" to "Deceiving Eye" from their final 1986 album "In From The Cold" and then beyond to the afore-mentioned new album "Morning Star" - it was a great song selection. There were far too many highlights to mention but OK I'll try... a crunching "Better In Black", the slew of instrumentals including "Come To The Mushroom", "Night of The Nazgul" and "Explosion On Uranus", the emotional singlong of "Thinking of You (Broken Pieces)" and of course my old favourites "Melanie" and "Reaching My Head". They end the encore with "Hush" and the house lights go up but the crowd demand more so we get the added bonus of "Don't Call My Name" and then it's sadly all over and we file out into the night happy and satisfied, all wondering what might come next. I guess this could now go one of two ways, either a perfect full stop, a memorable and very special ending to be proud of, or it could well be just the start of another exciting chapter. I'm hoping for the latter...

Before the gig, it was nice to meet up with Elinor, Jeremy, Thomas and Michael, the editors and compilers of the superb new book "A Taste of Ink! The Prisoners Sentenced By Their Fans" which really is a must-have purchase for any Prisoners fan. The hardback version is a huge 385 page labour of love over three years in the making that collates pretty much every known photo, flyer, poster of the band from their schoolday origins right up to the December 2023 reunion show in Herne Bay. Based around contributions and memories from fans, long-time friends, other local musicians such as Billy Childish, Bruce Brand, Nitin Sawhney, Ian Greensmith, Wolf Howard and Sexton Ming all sharing their experiences - there are also set-lists, gig-listings, a musical family tree, timelines, old reviews and features and memorabilia scattered throughout this quite wonderful book. What makes the book even more special however, is the involvement of Allan's sister Elinor, as she was there quite literally at the very beginning of the band as a 13 year old experiencing the first rehearsals and line-up changes - tagging along with her dad as he ferried the band to their very first shows. Her diary entries and witty insights along with her invaluable collection of early photos and snapshots, make the book very special indeed. "A Taste of Ink!" has actually sold out so if you are interested, please do get in touch with them via their official Facebook page here and I'm sure there will be enough demand for another print run very soon.

Don't forget in our Retrosonic Podcast archive you can still enjoy the interview special with Graham, Allan and Wolf where they talk about the idea behind Graham Day & The Forefathers and we chat and play loads of great music that they have been involved with over the years. 

Check the Blog archive links on the right for all our Medway music related reviews and features and you can subscribe to our Retromanblog65 YouTube channel here for free for loads of original videos of Graham, Allan and Medway related shows and bands too. All photos copyright Retro Man Blog, please click the highlighted links throughout the feature for more information.

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