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Into the light: The Prisoners

Submitted by on February 8, 2010 – 9:44 pmNo Comment

This is a column for those lurking in the recesses of every genre. Occasionally name checked but rarely in the spotlight. They did it better. Just never got on the radar of Joe Public. Well, we’re going to make our own soupcon of restitution by shining our very own AAA battery torch on them for you, dear readers.

No 1: The Prisoners

For me the great English band of the 1980s were The Prisoners who have sat in the ‘most played’ column at my gaff for over 25 years. Although cited as major influences for a huge number of artists – White Stripes, Charlatans, Inspirals… – and eulogised by music journos like Steve Lamacq, they never received the wider recognition so clearly deserved.

Formed at school in Kent in 1980, Graham Day (guitar and vocals), Allan Crockford (bass), Johnny Symons (drums) were joined by keyboardist James Taylor in 1982 soon after recording their first demos. Taylor’s love of all sounds Hammond – at first via a Casio, driven through a valve amp – combined with Day’s superb song writing and powerful, soul filled vocals, define The Prisoners’ sound.

It also marked them out in the ‘Medway scene’ – a garage punk menagerie, centred around the Medway Indian Club (MIC) in Rochester. Medway mates included The Milkshakes (who once released four albums on the same day and with whom they shared two live albums), fronted by the more renowned punker, poet and artist ‘Wild’ Billy Childish.

The Prisoners always had dimensions others in the Medway set lacked and their sheer variety and versatility is astonishing – from the out-and-out 60s flick fest of Come to the Mushroom, to the brazen power pop of Melanie, to the uber-melancholy of Mourn My Health they could certainly turn a hand. Later pretenders such as the (appropriately named) Charlatans simply pale in comparison.

The first album, A Taste of Pink set the stall out (originally released on pink vinyl in 500 copies on their Own Up label). A crashing opener, Better in Black, through personal favourite Coming Home, to Say Your Prayers, it showcased a band that could combine a huge guitar sound, sulphuric lyrics, and a majestic organ, backed up by a tub-thumpingly meaty rhythm section and killer tunes.

Mixing influences from the Small Faces to Hendrix to Blow Up and Alfie-style film soundtracks, they were much more than 60s revivalists. They had a distinctly punk sensibility, an ability to reflect the down-right depressing mood of the times and a desire to confront the fakes and phonies of Thatcherite Britain. Described once as ‘cool but hard’, they may have been Prisoners but they rarely took any.

’Pink was soon followed in 1983 by The Wisermiserdemelza, on which a more psychedelic and richer sound emerged. There were some real belters on there – the single, Hurricane and Love Me Lies for two – but the band and some fans were less than satisfied with the producer’s inability to transfer the power of their live shows to record.

This was part of a troubled relationship between the band and the music business that entailed a string of dodgy managers, promoters, A+R men and producers. It was less love/hate than hate/hate, an attitude summed up perfectly in the bitter-as-a-thousand-lemons Pop Star Party. Legend has it that the tape of that very song had to be literally wrestled from the clutches of Stiff Records by Day and the crew in a fight in company offices.

Day later noted bitterly on a posthumous Rare and Unissued compilation that his mix of The More I Teach You, from their last album, ‘because of its remarkable likeness to the sound of The Prisoners was rejected by the record company because of its lack of commerciality.’ Part of the reason for this disjuncture was that The Prisoners were absolutely electric live and that could never easily transfer to vinyl (though their attempts weren’t half bad). I caught them in the act 3 times– headlining at the legendary Riverside club in Newcastle, supporting the Ramones in ‘86 and a fairly disorganised gig at Sankeys in Manchester as part of a short reformation in the mid 90s.

Riverside was the first and best. We rambled up in my Dad’s camper van, stuffed to the gunwales with a dedicated band of mods, punks, hippies, indie kids and New Paisley heads. Tight as the proverbial gnat’s chuff, they were pure raw energy – blistering guitars, pounding drums and Taylor’s soaring-then-staccato Hammond. Day was the focus – expending every ounce of his being into the performance, veins bulging out of his neck, he delivered power and melody, twin essentials in great rock songs. Raw, rootsy, unabashed, direct, masculine and punchy; at the same time soulful, melodic, mournful and experimental.

I have an abiding memory of Crockford and Day – crouched down, intent and intense, guitars thrust forward, machine gunning their magic into the faces of an adoring and quite delirious audience. Jamie’s Hammond swirled like a soul tornado on acid, whipping around the others like some demented spirit, yet was met, toe to toe, with artillery salvos from Symons, keeping it in check as Crockford’s thundering bass and Day’s slashing guitar drove them on. Walls of sound, yet with enough space for a game of 11-a-side. Lyrics as pithy as an unpeeled clementine. Honesty, humour, anger and sadness all rolled up.

Singles were few and far between: the French Sky Dog-issue of There’s A Time in 1982; The Electric Fit EP in 1983, with the throw-yourself-out-of-the-window rock ’n’ roll of Melanie; Hurricane; and Whenever I’m Gone. There was also a slot (Reaching My Head) on the Four on 4 EP, a result of their only UK TV appearance on The Tube. And that was it. Yet there should have been so much more. I am the Fisherman, Wish the Rain, Who’s Sorry Now and All You Gotta Do Is Say should all have given the charts a bloody nose if there was any justice in the world.

The 3rd long player, back on their own label, followed in 1985 – the hugely influential Last Fourfathers. It is an absolute tour de force of an album – depth, matured song craft, eclecticism and bang on production making it perhaps their best effort. Day’s vocals had got better and better, revealing a more soulful side; as did Taylor’s keyboard skills – both exemplified on Thinking of You (Broken Pieces). It was voted by the NME as one of the best LPs of all time. And I’m not arguing.

Finally, in a last attempt at breaking into the mainstream they signed up with Stiff who released In From the Cold. Sometimes derided for lacking the serrated edge of live performances, this obscures the fact that it has some belting Prisoners cuts – Come Closer, Deceiving Eye, Wish the Rain, and All You Gotta Do….

Sadly, despite the title, they never did get the warm glow of mainstream success, partly as a result of Stiff’s implosion. Ferociously independent, skint, tired, disagreeing over future moves, they finally stuck two fingers up to everyone and split in 1986.

Of course, the end of The Prisoners was not the end of the story – although for the band’s members their legacy has annoyingly overshadowed later work. They even reformed, briefly, twice, with one single, Shine On Me. Day’s uncompromising attitude and determination to move forward was encapsulated on Rare and Unissued: ‘I don’t think of our disbanding as giving up the light, but rather as a victory against the evil clutches of the music industry which we managed finally to elude.’

Day and Crockford went on to form the fine Prime Movers and then Solarflares after the multi-talented Day had teamed up with Childish in The Mighty Caesars (on drums!). Taylor has been better known for the James Taylor Quartet who remain the one commercial success story, defining the Acid Jazz sound. He was equally unsentimental earlier this year: ‘I don’t really hold with the notion that we were this legendary amazing band being denied success by a cruel rock industry, primarily because being in the Prisoners was above all a good laugh, mostly at everyone else’s expense, which was admittedly self sabotaging.’

Graham Day and the Gaolers (Prisoners, Gaolers… are you following?) have now picked up the baton, already with a humdinger of a debut under their belts – Soundtrack to the Daily Grind. Another eagerly awaited album is due in the autumn and there is one UK live show, at the 100 Club in London in October. I’ll be there but, as the NME (belatedly) realised in 2007, ‘Someone get this man out of the Cult Hero clink and in the charts fast. Legends have been made of less.’

Catch Up At the Back
All four studio albums, plus Rare and Unissued and a Best Of are available on CD with great samples of live and demoed versions. The Gaolers’ wares are available on MySpace and from Damaged Goods Records. Grab them now.

Next: Husker Du

O This article was contained within the pages of the first ever AFL:SPG in August 2008. Another print version is in the process of being compiled for release before the end of the 2009-10 football season. If you would like more information, or to contribute please email: content@afinelung.com. Please do not recreate without permission.

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