Photo: Russ Johnson
Ever since it wrapped in 1968, the cult British TV series The Prisoner has been an inspiration to artists in every medium. Its story, which involved the efforts of an unnamed secret agent played by co-creator Patrick McGoohan to escape a mysterious island where he’d been exiled after resigning from his intelligence agency, has been retold in spinoffs and remakes on television, movies, comic books, theater, and most especially, music. It’s easy to see why—the show was decades ahead of its time, bearing many of the hallmarks of what we identify as “quality” television long before such things were common, and its cryptic storylines, charismatic characters, and theme of rebellion against authorities, have a clear appeal for artists of all stripes. Amongst the names that have been inspired to set its themes to music are Iron Maiden, XTC, Roy Harper, the Clash, Dr. Feelgood, Supergrass, and Michael Penn. (Herbie Hancock‘s album The Prisoner, despite being released in 1969, was not inspired by the series.)
The latest to take a crack at it is bassist Max Johnson, a veteran of the New York improv scene who has assembled a quartet to tackle his own interpretation of the themes and ideas behind The Prisoner in an extended suite. (Buy it on Bandcamp.) The biggest name in the quartet may be sax player Ingrid Laubrock, here wielding a tenor; Mat Maneri, on viola, and Tomas Fujiwara on drums complete the outfit. They’ve been rehearsing and touring The Prisoner at various free music venues around the U.S. and Europe for almost a year now, and now they’re ready to release it as a standalone recording on tiny Lithuanian label NoBusiness Records.
As in the series, where no characters are given names to protect their former identities, the tracks here are generally identified only by number. The opener, “No. 6: Arrival/No. 58: Orange Alert,” is named after the show’s electrifying and compelling first episode. It begins in near-silence, with scuffling percussion and stretched-out bass work from the rhythm section laying down a foundation for Laubrock’s ethereal sax and Maneri’s minimal viola. Unlike the episode from which it takes its name, it lacks tension; it builds and rolls, but never explodes. Its second half is more satisfying, with a siren-like blast from Laubrock launching the group into a more cooperative and less moody venture.
“X04” shows that Johnson’s quartet is capable of swinging, with some bluesy bass work from the man himself segueing into a more avant-garde exercise as it develops. Next up is “No. 12: Schizoid Man/Gemini” (named for an episode when the protagonist, Number Six, is replaced by a savage doppelganger to weaken his sense of self). The music nicely reflects its theme, with Maneri’s viola finally getting to carry a number that begins with a creepy horror-movie tone and evolves into something much more mysterious. These are the two shortest tracks on the album, but they’re also two of the most effective, delivering on their intentions without overstaying their welcome.
One of the most brutal and powerful episodes of the series lends its name to “No. 24: Hammer Into Anvil,” which begins with an insistent, alarm-like bird call from Laubrock’s sax, shifting into scratching and straining tones from the viola doubling up and playing off it, before coming to an explosive end in its last few minutes. It’s a powerful set-up with an effective payoff, and a model that should have been used previously on the album, which often takes a bit too long to go nowhere special.
Based on a curious Western-themed episode, “Living in Harmony” reverts back to some of the suite’s earlier missteps, taking its time to give play to some repetitive improvisation that, unfortunately, doesn’t have much of a payoff. There’s stuff to like here, especially the interplay between Laubrock and Fujiwara about midway through the track, but it’s little reward for the investment.
“The New Number 2” is a shorter piece, still taking its time to develop, but featuring more to like along the way, including some lovely, moody sax that develops, by the end, into some of Laubrock’s most memorable playing on the album. The closer, “No. 2: Once Upon a Time/No. 1: Fallout,” is the longest track on the record and its showpiece in many ways. Like the series, it closes out with a two-part finale that’s very different in mood and intention; part one begins loping and slow before erupting into a chaos of strings grounded by Johnson’s best bass playing of the entire piece, while part two starts in a whirl and evolves into something almost like a funeral march.
Taking The Prisoner (the album) as a product of its inspiration is probably a recipe for frustration; the show meant different things to different people, of course, and it would have been dull if Johnson and crew had just offered a reinterpretation of the theme music (originally written by British TV legend Ron Grainier, who also penned the scores for Steptoe and Son and Doctor Who). Like the series, Johnson’s album varies from moment to moment, sometimes hypnotic and sometimes formulaic; and like the series, it’s not always what you expect—some of these tracks play quite differently live than they do in the cold air of the studio. It’s not entirely satisfying, but it’s fascinating to listen to—and, after all, the show didn’t give us all the answers either.