When The Action’s album’s worth of 1968 demos first sneaked out in the late 90s it offered an insight into their progression from exemplary covers band to a unit finally concentrating on their own material. With Reggie King still at the helm for a little longer, the songs were short and snappy, retaining elements of soul and incorporating a West Coast flavour influenced by The Byrds and The Association.
The Rolled Gold material was a work in progress with the audio quality less than pristine so, despite the obvious quality, there’s always been an element of ‘what if?’. What if the songs had been completed and recorded properly? What if it had been afforded a decent production? Would it sound more like The Notorious Byrd Brothers or Traffic’s second LP?
Sidewalk Society have taken up the challenge of rerecording the album. There’s no escaping this is the work of a Californian powerpop band (some of the cymbals crash a little loudly and there’s an occasional Who chord in the guitars) yet they’ve balanced being faithful to the originals and infusing them with extra touches: piano more prominent in the mix, a touch of brass here, a stirring of strings there. Few can sing like Reggie King so Dan Lawrence’s vocals are distracting at first but the ear gradually adapts and the songs are, even to a rabid Action fan, given a fresh sparkle with some of the original muddiness removed.
The Action were bold in their covers – Kentish Town lads take on The Temptations and The Marvelettes – and Sidewalk Society have been here, like the Action they’ve put themselves into the music. The brass and strings are highly effective, not too overpowering but enough to add extra layers so these recordings feel like the finished rather than simply copied versions.
Being an Action nut, I was sceptical about this project. My initial reaction was to expect one listen and to question the point but sustained plays has altered that view. It offers a greater appreciation how incredible The Action were during this phase before they morphed into a far looser incarnation as Mighty Baby. Such is the standard of material it serves to strengthen the bewilderment as to how such a set of musicians achieved so little commercial success. Strange Roads should escalate – if that’s possible – the esteem The Action are held in and does no harm to Sidewalk Society either. That’s got to be considered a success.
Strange Roads by Sidewalk Society is released by Fruits de Mer Records.
An edited version of this review appears in Shindig magazine.