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Reissue CDs Weekly: The Action | reviews, news & interviews

Reissue CDs Weekly: The Action

Reissue CDs Weekly: The Action

‘Shadows and Reflections’: classy box set celebration of the great, George Martin-supported Sixties band

The Action, looking the part outside London's Marquee Club in January 1966

From 7.30pm on Thursday 19 January 1967, George Martin and The Beatles spent the next seven hours at the Abbey Road’s Studio 2 working through takes one to four of “In the Life of…”, a new song which, when completed, would be retitled “A Day in the Life”. In late May, fans would hear it as the final track of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

For many producers, that would have been a good day’s work. However, Martin, engineer Geoff Emerick and second engineer Phil McDonald – both of whom also worked on that evening’s Beatles session – had been in Studio 2 earlier in the day mixing “Never Ever” and “Twentyfourth Hour”, the A- and B-sides of the fourth Martin-produced single by North London band The Action. George Martin was as dedicated to The Action as The Beatles.

The Action_Shadows and Reflections The Complete Recordings 1964–1968Of his reaction to first seeing The Action live in 1965, Martin said that “as soon as the group started playing, I realised that they were very good indeed and played with tremendous preci­sion. The three-part harmonies in particular were musically well constructed, and the lead singer was outstanding. The thing that really struck me, however, was the overall sound they created. It was tremendously exciting and full of energy, quite unique and unlike any other outfit I had come across at the time.” Astonishingly, the support of the period’s most visionary record producer could not help The Action break through into mainstream success.

Martin also reflected: “I remember The Action as an amazingly talented outfit; nice guys who were enormous fun to work with, and when they got together, they sounded brilliant. I loved the records I made with them, and I thought they all should have been hits. To this day I am baffled that they did not achieve superstardom – they certainly had all it takes to achieve it.” The Action made five singles with Martin for The Beatles’ label, Parlophone: ten tracks in total. But what they issued during their lifetime does not tell the full story.

The new case-bound box set Shadows and Reflections: The Complete Recordings 1964–1968 takes four discs to tell the story across 88 tracks by diligently collecting everything that exists, though for contractual reasons their pre-Action Sandra Barry & the Boys single is not included. Around two-thirds of what is heard has been out before on various CDs and records – some legal, some not, and most hard to find – this the definitive, Action-sanctioned statement on the band.

Beyond the other pre-Action tracks they recorded and issued while named The Boys, the set’s scope is defined by demos, tracks from audition sessions, backing tracks, studio outtakes which are effectively rehearsals and what they recorded after they left Parlophone and parted ways with Martin.

The Action_Shadows and Reflections The Complete Recordings 1964–1968_land of a 1000 dances adThere are also BBC sessions, off-air tracks taped from a television appearance on Ready Steady Go by Action fan Phil Collins and eight versions of the original single tracks which were remixes made in 1990 for their first appearance on CD. Until now, it has not been possible to hear The Action on CD as they actually were on their original singles – Disc One of Shadows and Reflections includes these ten sides as they were intended to be heard, mastered from the original tapes for the first time since they were initially reissued on vinyl in 1980, and in more dynamic and punchy sound than ever.

Amongst the other winning aspects of the well thought out, crisply designed Shadows and Reflections is Disc Two’s first 14 tracks: new stereo mixes created from the original multi-track tapes. All the band’s material was originally issued in mono. Instead of being sonically angular overhauls created for digitally informed ears, these sympathetic mixes are true to the feel of solid-bodied Sixties recordings. They were made by the set’s producer, the Grammy nominated archive and reissue expert Alec Palao – who undertook the same dexterous task for last year’s similarly definitive reissue of the equally important Action contemporaries The Creation. Palao has also contributed a fascinating diary style section to the set’s book on the band’s studio sessions.

As to why The Action are important and deserve this treatment, Martin said it all: they “sounded brilliant.” Although rooted in soul music and with a significant amount of cover versions in their repertoire, the band’s approach was unique. To further paraphrase their producer they, indeed, “played with tremendous preci­sion…the three-part harmonies…were musically well constructed, and the[ir] lead singer was outstanding. [They were] full of energy.” With their astonishing harmonies, a strong rhythm section and inventive, unpredictable arrangements – with and without Martin – they had their own sound.

The Action_Shadows and Reflections The Complete Recordings 1964–1968_shadows and reflections adOf course, after their name change from The Boys they were positioned as a mod band but quickly moved beyond that to embrace West Coast harmony pop in the widest sense, as evinced by their classic final single “Shadows and Reflections” and the psychedelic soul of its predecessor 45 “Never Ever”. Further stressing their breadth of scope, the BBC session tracks include a version of The Byrds’ “I See You” and, extraordinarily, John Coltrane’s “India”.

In the set’s main essay, the band’s Roger Powell underlines this evolution by encapsulating the band’s development as 1967 and line-up changes arrived: “We moved away from the Tamla stuff and start­ed doing West Coast numbers. We then went out on the road again, still as The Action, playing all this new material. I remember someone coming up to me in the audience and saying, ‘You’re not The Action. You didn’t play any of the songs that The Action used to play.’ So we never got rebooked because we weren’t reckoned to be the ‘same’ Action! After three months of doing all the gigs we used to do, we suddenly didn’t have any.” They may not have been the “same Action”, but what they recorded in 1967 and early 1968 for an aborted album – heard here in best-ever sound – was as convincing as what they had released in the previous two years.

The Action rode the changes of 1965 to 1968 with aplomb to seamlessly progress. In the process, they never lost sight of the song. The latest recordings here, from summer 1968, are tight and focussed on melody. The subsequent name change to Mighty Baby was notice that they had moved on.

This is a significant release. Not just for the fans who will want to have everything in one place for the first time, and in top-notch sound in a sympathetic package. Anyone with a passing interest in Sixties British pop at its best will also need this box set as it celebrates a band of which, when they were first reissued on album in 1980, Paul Weller said “15 or so years after these records were made and discovering them for the first time, they touch me”. That compilation was titled The Ultimate Action. Now, Shadows and Reflections: The Complete Recordings 1964–1968, is a fresh, conclusive take on the Action. The new ultimate Action.

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