I listened to no new music between 1984 and 1987. Instead, an obsession with 60s soul and R&B led me down the path of dusty record stores, car boot sales and charity shops in an attempt to find some musical thrills. I made an exception for the Prisoners. The Medway-based garage rock four-piece were one of the most exciting live acts I have ever seen – in those days, as a callow youth, they were mind-blowing. A devastatingly good rhythm section consisting of Johnny Symons on drums, James Taylor on organ and Allan Crockford on bass, were fronted by guitarist-vocalist Graham Day, whose voice gave them a soulful edge and who wrote songs that were truly memorable.
The group had formed at school and made their debut album “A Taste Of Pink” as a document to their early days together, at a point when Taylor was supposed to be heading North to start university. It had a raw sound influenced by the Kinks, the Beatles, the Who and the Small Faces, but its inception was fuelled by the DIY ethos of punk. The sleeve was put together around Graham’s kitchen table and they took the resultant pressing to Rough Trade to see if they would distribute it. Taylor didn’t stay on at university, John Peel picked up on the album and the Prisoners suddenly found themselves with gigs in London.
Their presence in the capital saw them sign to Ace Records’ Big Beat label, where they recorded their second album, “The Wisermiserdemelza”, and the “Electric Fit” EP. This period saw the band record many of their best-loved songs, including ‘Last Thing On My Mind’, ‘Hurricane’ and ‘Melanie’, honing their influences and creating their distinctive sound.
A side effect of being with Ace was Graham’s access to the company’s latest Northern Soul LPs, which inspired him to write a new set of songs for their next album. That release, “The Last Fourfathers”, is probably their most satisfying recording. The group worked with Russell Wilkins of the Milkshakes and Graham’s vocals were captured to perfection on numbers such as ‘Nobody Wants My Love’, ‘The More I Teach You’ and ‘Take You For A Ride’, whilst on the electrifying ‘I Am A Fisherman’ you could properly hear Alan’s harmonies for the first time. Our CD version of the album contains a recording of the live highlight ‘Hush’, the Joe South song the Prisoners made their own, only to have their arrangement appropriated by the Charlatans on their hit ‘The One I Know’ and by Kula Shaker for their cover of ‘Hush’.
The group could never quite bring themselves to want success enough, but in 1986 they made one final attempt by signing to the Stiff Records subsidiary, Countdown, run by future Acid Jazz Records owner Ed Piller. The band didn’t like what producer Troy Tate was trying to turn them into and were on the verge of falling apart. The record that emerged, “In From The Cold”, contained impressive songs and performances, but the group advised their fans not to buy it. Stiff Records collapsed into bankruptcy at about the same time.
There was just enough time left for a swipe at the music industry with ‘Pop Star Party’, which was then partially wiped and lost, before the Prisoners called it a day. In the years since, all except Johnny have kept up a presence in music, making many great records in a variety of settings, whilst they have reformed intermittently to make triumphant returns to the stage. I am thrilled to have seen them at their peak. Big Beat have reissued their whole catalogue, with plenty of bonus material. If you don’t own every piece of music by the band, you’re losing out.