The Plastic Penny arcade of 1968


The Monkees are not the only manufactured 1960s pop group; there were probably quite a few. Labels scouted songs, recorded them with session musicians, and if they had a hit they quickly put together a band and toured it. Plastic Penny were such a band, as you might even gather from the band name…

‘Everything I Am’ – the B-side of the Box Tops’ 1967 debut single –  was recorded by Brian Keith together with session musicians at the suggestion of Page One label boss Larry Page and released in December of that year. By the beginning of 1968 it had reached no. 6 in the UK singles chart and a Plastic Penny band was hastily assembled.

A number of singles and two albums followed before the plastic finally melted down in the summer heat of 1969. However, sole “original” member Brian Keith himself had left already in May 1968, after their follow-up single and fist album ‘Two Sides Of A Penny’ had not managed to make any further impact.

Grapefruit Records have now kindly collected their entire output on a 3CD set appropriately titled ‘Everything I Am – The Complete Plastic Penny’. Apart from the first single from December 1967, a mid-69 outtake and their last single from July 1969, all of it is from 1968. And that is significant in its own right, since it shows a band too busy being caught up in the here and now of touring and recording to probably even notice that they are running the entire gamut from soppy ballads via rock’n’roll covers to instrumental workouts and the occasional yet quite tedious drum solo. 

They might have thought that they were chasing a hit, but it seems to meet that they were rather running too quickly for an increasingly confused audience to follow.

Instrumentally, Plastic Penny never evolved beyond a pop combo, and they attacked the varied styles with the same basic sound – an impression amplified by the fact that they used few studio embellishments beyond the odd string section. But what they lack in sophistication, they make up by seemingly breathing the energy of 1968.

Still, given the rather varied quality of their output, it makes a lot of sense to have everything collected in a box, so that you can cherry pick the good stuff. And there are some really excellent things here, although that first hit single isn’t one of them.

On the first album, the standout track is instead a golden psychedelic nugget titled ‘Mrs. Grundy’ complete with long instrumental outro and end screams. But there are some other great tracks, such as ‘Wake Me Up’, ‘Genevieve’, ‘So Much Older Now’ and ‘It’s A Good Thing’ although Brian Keith’s croon gets a bit taxing after a while, and he unfortunately sings on the majority of the tracks.

‘It’s A Good Thing’ is also the highlight among the first batch of BBC sessions where Brian Keith is still with the band. But then organist Paul Raymond takes over as singer and that makes the remaining BBC sessions more enjoyable, including the take of ‘So Much Older Now’ from the debut album. There are also great BBC session versions of ‘Your Way To Tell Me Go’ and the wonderfully intense ‘Give Me Money’ from the follow up album ‘Currency’ – and album that otherwise just like the first album is a hit and miss affair that is best served up for cherry picking in a box like this.

Activities then wound down due to lack of public interest. But the band petered out with a real bang: their final single is absolutely great. Although the A-side has previously been compiled with reasonably good sound quality on ‘Fairytales Can Come True vol. 4’, I only have the fantastic B-side reworking of ‘Genevieve’ as a crackly needle drop on the ‘A Walk In Alice’s Garden’ bootleg. So getting it in full technicolor sound distortion here is a real treat. Wow!

Speaking of sound quality, it is generally something of a revelation here, although Grapefruit are scant on source details apart from acknowledging that the BBC sessions are from transcription discs. The best previous editions I have are the Airmail paper sleeve releases of both Plastic Penny albums, but with this box the band literally step into my living room. It is that big a difference. 

Furthermore, ‘Two Sides Of A Penny’ is presented in both mono and stereo versions which I am sure will delight collectors, although I have to say that I am untrendy enough to prefer the stereo version!

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