Album Reviews: ? and the Mysterians – Action / 96 Tears

 In 2010 Collectors’ Choice Music began an interesting and historically relevant series of reissues and repackages. Through a licensing agreement with a company called ABKCO, CCM gained access to the masters of music from the Cameo and Parkway labels. In the 1960s, Philadelphia-based Cameo-Parkway Records released albums and single by a number of notable artists, especially in that oft-maligned (by rock fans, anyway) period post-Elvis and pre-Beatles. Bobby Rydell, Chubby Checker, a number of Philly-based doo-wop vocal groups and the “cool ghoul” John Zacherle all recorded for the labels.

C-P had something of a foothold in Michigan as well: there the label had some minor success with Terry Knight and the Pack (the controversial Knight would later helm the success of Grand Funk) and now-legendary garage rockers ? And the Mysterians. The label eventually folded, and its assets and catalog became part of the ABKCO outfit. ABKCO, of course, is most well-known for its head: Allen Klein, the often-feared man who insinuated himself into the careers of Rydell, The Rolling Stones, Sam Cooke, The Beatles and many others. (Few of those names, it must be said, have or had anything good to say about Klein, though in his defense, he sometimes got them their money.)

Klein passed away in 2009, and it can’t be a coincidence that the Cameo-Parkway vaults only opened in his absence. Countless Cameo-Parkway titles had been long unavailable due to Klein’s unwillingness to re-release the material. His reasons aren’t known, but it’s fair to assume it was related to a belief that holding them back would yield greater financial gain in the long run. (But like the man said, you can’t take it with you.)

One of the most sought-after catalogs was that of ? And the Mysterians. So in 2010 when the material first started rolling out on CCM, I was excited to think that we would finally get legitimate releases of the band’s first two albums, 96 Tears (1966) and Action (1967). When I met and interviewed ? (who I’ll refer to here as Question Mark ’cause it reads better) in 2007, he fumed about the unavailability of these albums; they had been out of print for so long that he had had to record new versions of the material to satisfy fans’ demand. The original records command high prices on the used market, if and when one can find them.

As fate would have it, Collectors’ Choice Music (the label, not the catalog operation) folded before any plans were announced concerning the ? and the Mysterians albums. As of 2010, it looked like Mysterians fans’ hopes had been foiled yet again.

In the second half of 2011, however, former CCM head Gordon Anderson and a business partner announced a new label, Real Gone Music. As Real Gone began operation, it became clear that they would pick up right where CCM had left off (as far as the ABKCO product). One of the first announcements from Real Gone was the long-awaited release of the rare 96 Tears and Action albums.

Perhaps oddly, these reissues would not be offered as digital downloads. In fact, they wouldn’t be be put out as CDs, either. No, this pair of classic vinyl albums would be reissued in 2011 on vinyl. With careful reproduction of the original album art, right down to the paper labels on the LPs themselves, 96 Tears and Action are 21st century vinyl releases.

They’re that sought-after 180-gram stuff, too. But here’s where it gets a little bit odd: when I removed the shrinkwrap from 96 Tears and carefully dropped the stylus into the lead-in groove, the sound that burst forth from my speakers sounded more like Vanilla Fudge or the Rotary Connection. The Mysterians were a lot of things, but they were never sludgy. I quickly discovered the reason for this anomaly: the Real Gone Music reissues are mastered – for some reason; fidelity would be my best guess – at 45rpm.

Having corrected that small but critical issue, we have the music. ? and the Mysterians were – and remain repetitive, elemental, strange and oddly sexual. They’re also great. Those fans suffering the misfortune of not owning a phonograph player will have to content themselves with tracking down a copy of The Best of ? And the Mysterians: Cameo-Parkway 1966-1967, a misleadingly-named collection that in fact contains the entirety of these two albums (plus some inconsequential outtakes) in soulless digital.

But for those in the know, the Real Gone Music platters are the ones to have. The sound is top-notch: yes, the original recordings (produced by Neil Bogart, later to find fame or infamy working the boards for KISS) are surprisingly clear and high-enough fidelity.

Unlike many of their contemporaries (Beatles, Stones, Rascals, you name it), ? and the Mysterians’ debut album contained but one cover among its dozen tracks: a cover of the blues classic “Stormy Monday.” And for those who have only ever heard “96 Tears” by this band, a listen to the album shows a surprising variety in instrumentation. There’s barrelhouse piano on “Set Aside,” and a lot more guitar work (courtesy of Bobby Balderrama, who’s still in the group!) throughout the record. At 3:03, “Set Aside” qualifies as 96 Tears‘ epic track; nothing else runs as long. There’s plenty of cheesy organ, and at times the band sounds like second-division Rolling Stones clones (with a Farfisa), but to fans of the mid-sixties garage rock phenomenon, there is no higher praise. The swaggering, stomping “’8’ Teen” is reminiscent of “Night Time” by another garage-era act, The Strangeloves. The title track is here too, of course, but unlike a typical cash-in LP of the era, it’s placed as the last track on Side Two. Gutsy, that.

No sophomore slump for the Latino boys from Saginaw, Michigan. On the second LP, Action, the band does employ a bit more outside material, but it’s perfectly suited to the band’s – and the singer’s – style. Particular highlights are “Girl (You Captivate Me)” (read my interview with Question Mark for some tidbits about this naughty track) and “Can’t Get Enough of You Baby,” covered to successful commercial effect in 1998 by Smash Mouth. The packaging – again a faithful reproduction of the ’67 original – lets us know that organist Frankie Rodriguez has no dislikes(!) and that there is, naturally, “no information available” about the group’s mysterious vocalist, save that his favorite color is orange.

I have to mention this: as someone with tendencies that lean ever-so-slightly in the OCD direction – a useful quality for someone whose vinyl LP collection approaches 5000 units – these two reissue LPs do have one quite unnerving feature (besides the 45rpm thing). The titles printed on the spines run bottom-to-top. This means that when I place them on my shelf (between Queen and Rain Parade), I must do so upside down. A nitpick to be sure, but hey: it’s my blog. Nonetheless, the 2011 vinyl reissues of 96 Tears and Action are among the proudest additions to my always-growing vinyl library.

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