Perfect Sound Forever

The Action

he High Soul of Lost Mods
by Erik Hage (October 2000)

In a way, they were the ultimate Mod band. Mods hated commercialism, and once bands like the Small Faces became popular, they were suddenly teen stars, playing to a large screaming girl contingent. The Action packed the clubs like the best of their contemporaries, but their records never placed well. When the band would come to Brighton to play, the Mods would wait on their scooters on the outskirts of town for the band's van and then escort the group through the streets like conquering heroes. The Action supported The Who during their Marquee residency, and subsequently headlined at the legendary venue.

The Action's career trajectory is fairly short. The group formed in North London in 1963, and soon after backed up Sandra Barry as "The Boys." They released one single with her, "Really Gonna Shake," penned by Reg King, on Decca Records. They became The Action in '64, around the time that guitarist Pete Watson came on board. In clubs, they mostly did the Tamla Motown stuff they adored. Signed to Parlophone through AIR Studios and produced by George Martin, their early singles included a great version of "Land of a 1000 Dances" (compare that to The Creation's so-so version of the now equally ubiquitous--and corny--"Cool Jerk") and a guitar-driven "I'll Keep Holding On," with the band throwing in Marvellettes-worthy harmonies. They would continue to out-Soul their contemporaries in 1966 with "Baby You've Got It" and the aforementioned "Since I Lost My Baby." The group apparently had their Soul chops together from the outset: they turned out a remarkable rendering of the Impression's "I Love You (Yeah!)" in '64, with the band matching the near-falsetto Impressions on the harmonies… and sounding great.

So what's the basis of their reputation? George Martin produced them. Perennial Mod flame-keeper Paul Weller loves them. Indeed, Weller's credible Quiet Storm-ing on "Above the Clouds," from his 1992 debut solo album (which spurred his renaissance), or live performance of Marvin's "What's Going On," is much closer to singer Reg King's smoky baritone than Steve Marriot's high-strung soul dynamics (and much has been made of Weller's infatuation with the Small Faces). Paul even approximates part of The Action's take on the Goffin-King cover "Wasn't It You?" for The Style Council's "Whole Point of No Return."

But nobody really sounds like The Action. Sir George must have seen something: he signed the group to his new AIR Studios in 1965 and stuck with the group for two-and-a-half years, trying to produce a hit. As for the band's live performances, no less than Marriot himself, in an interview just before his death in 1990--published only recently in Bucketfull of Brains--said that his favorite groups to catch live in the '60s were "Jimi Hendrix, The Spencer Davis Group, The Action, and The Who." Not bad company.

Unfortunately, The Action don't provide many interesting "British band family tree" tid-bits. Even similarly forgotten (and easily dismissable) contemporaries The Artwoods offer enough neat connections to make them an interesting footnote. Observe: leader Art Wood was the brother of Ron Wood, who was in The Birds, another popular London club group--and great fucking beat band--of the period. Artwoods keyboardist Jon Lord would eventually be less gainfully utilized in Deep Purple. But no such family tree games can be played with The Action, though bassist Mike Evans, as an adolescent, did play with Keith Moon in a pickup band (there's sepia-toned photo of the group, with a grease-haired, barley pubescent Moon sporting a relatively unimpressive kit: one drum). Historically, they could perhaps be called George Martin's other band. Or George Martin's Mod band. Or George Martin's second-best signing.

The Action's chief weapon is lead singer Reg King, probably one of the best UK soul singers of his era--and, for my money, strides ahead of the Steves (Marriot and Winwood). Youthful Jam member Paul Weller noted in the sleeve notes to 1981's Ultimate Action compilation, "I reckon Reggie King stands as one of the best of the white soul singers. In some ways his rich, smooth voice sounds a lot more natural than Marriott's." The Action's solid musicians have none of the instantly recognizable histrionics of other bands on the scene, like Creation guitarist Eddie Phillips, whose pre-Page violin bowing, feed-back squalls and clanging power chords prompted The Who to court him as a second guitarist. Or Keith Moon, whose lead drumming antics at times placed him front and center in the already outsized theatrics of The Who. But The Action's Reg King was the singer for whom the term "blue-eyed soul" could have been invented--and he makes the term a capability rather than a limitation. The Action, judged by their following, were a Mod band. And Mod bands, when not trying to develop their own stuff, were white English kids doing amped-up, guitar-driven versions of American Soul. For example, in their early Decca days, The Small Faces popularized their own version of Sam Cooke's "Shake." Later in the band's career (on Immediate Records), Marriot would even sink his vessel-bursting chops into Brenda Holloway's "Every Little Bit Hurts."

But consider The Action's spin on The Temptations standard (and Robinson/Moore composition) "Since I Lost My Baby." The Action have the ability, in certain songs, and this was reportedly true of their live sets, to sublimate any overtly British pop tendencies and roll out quality soul. And this is no mean task for Brit-poppers: consider the recently unearthed Small Faces offense, on their BBC Sessions album, against Holland-Dozier-Holland's "Baby Don't You Do It." It's safe to say that most English bands wouldn't stand up to a song's American Soul originators in a head-to-head comparison. But consider the Action up against The Temptations.

All of Motown seems to swing behind the Temps on their version of "Since I Lost My Baby." Strings sweep, you can see those dance steps and the guys singing back up like angels and kicking in with those bass "Oh Yeahs." The Action's take on the tune is vastly different--but just as good in its own way. Either Pete Watson or Alan "Bam" King strums the opening chords on a guitar, replacing the orchestrated sweep of the Temps original. But then, over those simple strums, King's warm, soulful voice begins to fill up all the spaces of the song, the rest of The Action providing low-key, yet dead-perfect backup. The group doesn't seek to merely borrow the song from its Motown owners: they stride into it like it's theirs. When Reg King sings the line "Next time I'll be kinder," it comes out pure regret and promise, the words nearly snagging in his throat. Comparatively, the Temps' David Ruffin seems to breeze by the passage; he signals the emotion by hitting a higher, yet beautifully fluid, note. (Oddly enough, Reg sometimes sounds "looser" than Ruffin, who in comparison can, at times, sound like he's over-enunciating.) The Temptations are pure masters; they charge through the tune with confidence and ease. The Action, while not as vocally skilled, master the harmonies, while Reg occupies emotional nooks the listener never even knew were there.

Another great cover--and this one actually outclasses the popularized version--is The Action's spin on "Just Once in My Life," the Goffin-King-Spector tune popularized by the Righteous Brothers (and produced by Phil Spector). The Action's do-it-yourself version makes the Spector overdubs of the other version sound silly. This song, unearthed for Edsel's CD release of Ultimate Action in 1990, and recorded before the Brothers' version, may be the band's best track. The chorus of the Brother's version is stilted and choppy next to King's vocals, which he delivers with the frustration of hot failure. Also, hear him wistfully trail through "that old pot of gold, ain't so easy to find" and then, seconds later, turn that around into fierce promise with "I will give you the world if you'll stand by me, girl," the way he hangs on "woooorld," underscoring the promise. Oddly enough, in a recent interview, drummer Roger Powell said he thought the song sounded unfinished. (He wasn't talking about production value, however, but pointing out that the band had not played it live, but learned it from a songwriting demo and then recorded it.)

The Action had some originals, but they were never as impressive as their soul and
R-&-B covers, and in the mid-'60s, Lennon/McCartney singer-songwriter tidal wave, that wasn't going to cut it. Consider how quickly The Who outdistanced their first 45 as the High Numbers--with both sides were penned by manager and devout Mod Pete Meaden--once Pete Townshend started writing.

The times changed, Mods disappeared, and a U.S. West Coast sound crept into the The Action's sound. In mid-'67, with guitarist Pete Watson gone and the band moving in a soft-psych direction, they were tossed off their label. King would go it alone, releasing a now very hard to find solo album in on Universal Records in 1971. The record causes hyperventilating for some record collectors because Steve Winwood guests on organ, billed as "Mystery Man," while Mick Taylor adds some guitar touches and Doris Troy contributes vocals. The rest of The Action, who had by this time become the West Coast influenced Mighty Baby, play on the King solo album.

Alan "Bam" King would later play with the pub-rock unit Ace, who enjoyed a U.K. and U.S. hit with "How Long" in the early '70s. But otherwise, members of a band that should be essential beat scene listening, dipped below the radar. Reggie was said to suffer an accident that involved brain surgery and then later, to be teaching at a South London college. Roger Powell has been restoring antiquarian books for a living for many years. But with the resurgence of interest in anything Mod, the band, a bit long in the tooth but looking healthy and together, reunited for an Isle of Wight show in '98, and then went on to play several other gigs. But, the whole affair seems to be retrospective rather than a vital resurgence, like that of the Pretty Things (In fact, Alan "Bam" King, has since returned to his adopted home, New Zealand).

In the last couple of years, The Action have played Mod rallies--whatever that means in this day and age--in the UK and Spain. 1999 performances at London's Tufnell Park Dome and the 100 Club were actually filmed for a documentary on the band, In the Lap of the Mods, that came out in June 2000 (which, creepily enough, features testimony from Phil Collins, who used to go see the band play the Marquee in the '60s). Keeping with the do-it-yourself ethos of the band's soul covers, the group is self-releasing the video via their Action/Mighty Baby website. As for their '60's record releases, Edsel put out the Ultimate Action compilation on CD, which is pretty much all you need. The band's sound has aged well, and if you're a fan of beat scene bands or British Invasion or British R-&-B, the remarkably overlooked Action are essential listening.

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