The San Francisco garage rock legends kept the COVID summer alive in 2020 with a pair of essential reissues
The Flamin’ Groovies are, without a single doubt in my scrambled lil’ brain, the greatest American rock ‘n’ roll band of all time!
The New York Dolls may be more notorious, the Dictators have more street cred, and more people have bought Big Star records in the new century than ever did during the few years the band roamed the streets of Memphis during the ‘70s. Cheap Trick was more successful, but fizzled out creatively over the decades and NRBQ, although delightful, are far too eclectic in their musical tastes to be considered pure “rawk.” No, pound for pound, and album for album, nobody beats the Groovies…
Formed in San Francisco in 1965 and led by singer/guitarists Cyril Jordan and Roy Loney, the original Flamin’ Groovies line-up included guitarist Tim Lynch, bassist George Alexander, and drummer Ron Greco, who would quickly be replaced by Danny Mihm. Unable to find a label willing to sign the band, they pooled their financial resources and recorded the seven-track EP Sneakers in 1968, which they would use as a demo to attract label interest. Rock critic and music historian Richie Unterberger, writing for All Music Guide, said of Sneakers “the band mashed together garage rock, San Francisco psychedelia, the Lovin’ Spoonful, and blues for this derivative set. Nonetheless, there’s a good deal of charm in the over-amped, hyper-speedy execution, with less finesse than their more renowned Bay Area peers, and less pretension, too.”
AUDIO: Flamin’ Groovies Sneakers EP
The modest success of the Sneakers EP landed the band a deal with Epic Records that lasted for exactly one album – the poor-selling 1969 effort Supersnazz – a relatively unfocused work which has since become a sought-after vinyl collectible. The Groovies toured nationally in support of the album and, exposed to new music by other bands outside of San Francisco, brought a harder-rocking edge to the two albums widely considered to be among their classics – 1970’s proto-punk LP Flamingo and the following year’s blues-drenched Teenage Head, both produced by rock critic Richard Robinson, an early and enthusiastic supporter of the band. Neither album sold particularly well and the Groovies’ label, Kama Sutra Records, cut ‘em loose.
Tensions were increasing within the band over their musical direction, and Lynch would leave, replaced by guitarist James Farrell. Also disenchanted with the band’s fortunes, Loney took leave of the Groovies a few months later. In came 18-year-old singer and guitarist Chris Wilson who, like Jordan, was a British Invasion fanatic, and the pair moved the band towards a power-pop direction. They scored a deal with the British arm of United Artists Records and moved to England to work with musician and producer Dave Edmunds. The UA relationship resulted in a pair of engaging singles – “Slow Death” b/w “Tallahassee Lassie” and “Married Woman” b/w “Get A Shot of Rhythm and Blues,” but the label passed on releasing what would (much) later become one of the band’s signature tunes, “Shake Some Action.” The Groovies recorded seven songs total with Edmunds, all of which would finally be released on CD in 1995 as the A Bucket of Brains album.
With nothing else coming from their UA deal, the band kicked around the Bay area for a couple of years in a sort of rock ‘n’ roll limbo, losing drummer Danny Mihm during this time, to be eventually replaced by David Wright. The Groovies hooked-up with the like-minded Greg Shaw of the fledgling Bomp! Records, their Edmunds-produced song “You Tore Me Down” the indie label’s first release. Shaw became the band’s manager and got them a deal with Seymour Stein’s brand-new Sire Records label. The Groovies returned to England to once again work with Edmunds, who produced the band’s magnum opus, Shake Some Action. Released in 1976, and including previous versions of “Shake Some Action” and “You Tore Me Down” recorded with Edmunds in 1972, the album received mixed critical response at the time, with Robert Christgau notably writing in The Village Voice that the Groovies now “get their kicks playing dumb” and that although the album offered some good performances, “only cultists will ever hear them.”
AUDIO: The Flamin’ Groovies “Shake Some Action”
Although Shake Some Action peaked in the upper regions of the Billboard magazine albums chart (#142), it found a more favorable response in the U.K. where the Groovies’ throwback sound and unbridled energy influenced a generation of young punk rockers. The band’s influence could also be heard in the sound of American power-pop bands like the Plimsouls, the dBs, and the Romantics in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. All of which catches us up to the band’s last two albums of the decade, the criminally-underrated Now (1978) and Jumpin’ In the Night (1979), both of which are receiving long-overdue CD reissue by our friends at MVD Entertainment. Both of these essential pieces of the Flamin’ Groovies story have been out-of-print on CD for nearly 15 years, and it’s surely good to have them back!
Stein must have liked what he heard on Shake Some Action, as he sent the band back to Edmunds’ Rockfield Studios in Wales to record Now. Sire Records had, by then, signed a distribution deal with Warner Bros. Records, which afforded the band major label-level clout, but they lost James Ferrell in the wake of the Shake Some Action tour, the guitarist replaced by Wilson’s friend Mike Wilhelm, from legendary SF Bay area band the Charlatans. Both Now and Jumpin’ In the Night featured an unusually high ratio of cover tunes to originals as Jordan was trying to negotiate a bigger slice of the publishing pie with Sire, which unfortunately also created friction with Wilson, his frequent co-writer.
So while Now offered only four new Jordan/Wilson originals and another pair of songs co-written with Edmunds, they’re every single one a winner, starting with the effervescent “Between the Lines,” which bounces an endearing melody off a literal wall of sound comprised of ringing guitars, droning bass, and rock-solid rhythms working together to create a sort of 1966-era Stones vibe. “Take Me Back” cranks up with some delightful 1960s-style vintage guitar strum before breaking into harmony vocals reminiscent of the Beatles while “All I Wanted” is the album’s masterpiece, a rollicking mid-tempo rocker delivered with British Invasion zeal and the innocent glee of the Beach Boys. The rumbling fretwork opening “Don’t Put Me On” melts into another Beatles-esque harmony paired with charismatic Link Wray-styled guitar until the entire song breaks down into instrumental chaos.
Of the album’s whopping eight cover tunes, they mostly sparkle like a crystal-strewn field. The Byrds’ classic “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better” (penned by the underrated Gene Clark) is provided a suitably jangly soundtrack with chiming guitars and gorgeous backing harmonies while the band’s take on Paul Revere & the Raiders’ “Ups and Downs” improves on the original with a bigger beat and brassier, machine-gun performance. The Cliff Richard U.K. hit “Move It” twangs ‘n’ bangs like a vintage ‘50s Gene Pitney hit and the King Curtis tune “Reminiscing” is transformed into a power-pop rave up with switchblade guitars and trembling harmonies.
The band dives into the Rolling Stones songbook on Now with mixed results – “Blue Turns To Grey” is delivered as a soulful pop ballad but “Paint It Black,” shorn of Mick Jagger’s malevolence-tinged vocals, suffers in comparison with the original…it’s not bad, but it’s not great, either. Much better is the Groovies’ take on the Lennon-McCartney gem “There’s A Place,” with pairs the band’s trademark vocal harmonies with a powerful sense of yearning which adds to, rather than mimics the original song.
A year after the release of Now, Edmunds’ was the band’s preferred choice to produce Jumpin’ In the Night. However, Jake Riviera, the Groovies’ new manager and the co-founder of Stiff Records, nixed the move. Instead, the album was produced by Jordan along with engineer Roger Béchirian, who had worked with artists like Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello and was also managed by Riviera (draw your own conclusions…). Honestly, I think the pair did a yeoman’s job in producing Jumpin’, imbuing the performances with a more intimate and immediate sonic dynamic. The Jordan/Wilson combo also provided six new original tunes to balance out the album’s seven cover tunes.
The album-opening title track stands among one of the best original songs the band has written, an up-tempo rocker that provides plenty of room for the musicians to get their groove on while delivering a real foot-shuffling performance. It also sets the stage for much that would follow, like the R&B-tinged “Next One Crying,” which displays the band’s typical Beatles influence welded to a musically-complex soundtrack that provides a bedrock for Jordan’s anguished John Lennon-styled vox. “In the U.S.A.” is an enchanting up-tempo track with some nice David Wright brushwork on the cymbals, an unrelenting high-speed boogie-rock rhythm, and minimal vocals. Another clamorous rocker, “Yes I Am” has British Invasion influence written all over the song’s arrangement, which offers clashing guitars, delightful harmonies, and big drumbeats.
The Groovies’ cover of Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” was a ballsy move considering that the esteemed singer/songwriter had scored a Top 30 hit with the song just a few months previous. To their credit, the band doesn’t try to merely carbon-copy Zevon’s anarchic performance, adding a few enhancing musical flourishes. The band’s reading of legendary rock ‘n’ roll guitarist James Burton’s “Down Down Down” mixes a 1950s-era rockabilly rowdiness with a sort of Dave Edmunds’ styled British rock sensibility to good effect. Of the album’s three (!) Byrds covers, Roger McGuinn’s “It Won’t Be Wrong” shines brightly with delicious guitar and vocal harmonies while David Crosby’s “Lady Friend” is provided a lush instrumental backdrop for the band’s group vocals. You know there’s going to be a Beatles’ cover on a Flamin’ Groovies album, and “Please Please Me” is done nicely enough, with Jordan and Wilson adding a little extra to the song in their performance.
Although he initially seemed to be in the band’s corner, Stein and Sire Records did little to promote either Now or Jumpin’ In the Night. Interviewing Chris Wilson for Harp magazine in 2005, music journalist Fred Mills wrote “Sire Records, attention increasingly fixed on its punk and new wave signings (Ramones, Dead Boys, Richard Hell, Talking Heads), was reluctant to loosen the purse strings for its band of popsters and advertising was half-hearted at best. Despite sticking with the group for three albums, something that wouldn’t happen nowadays, according to Wilson the label “never gave us the push that we needed. I mean, we never had full page ads or anything like that. We never had radio spots. And it was before groups were really advertised on television. And they just wouldn’t go the whole way, and that’s what was needed to get us into the real general public as opposed to people who loved music.”
Continued clashes between Jordan and Stein, as well as ongoing tensions between the bandleader and Chris Wilson, would fracture the band; Sire dropped the Groovies in 1980, and Wilson left the band after a disastrous failed 1981 recording session for a new album at Gold Star Studios in Los Angeles. Jordan and George Alexander, the last men standing, would carry the band limping into the ‘80s, releasing a single album in 1987 called One Night Stand for a small Australian record label. The band finally broke up in 1991. Meanwhile, original Groovies’ guitarist Roy Loney formed the Phantom Movers with two former bandmates, guitarist James Farrell and drummer Danny Mihm, the band releasing several critically-acclaimed albums circa 1979-1993.
Chris Wilson hooked up with British garage-rockers the Barracudas for a couple of early ‘80s albums, and he released a number of solo albums, including an acclaimed 1994 collaboration with the Sneetches, Pop. The stars would align in the new century, however, and in 2009, Loney and Jordan reunited for a short tour, backed by members of the A-Bones and Yo La Tengo. During a U.K. tour date, Jordan hooked up again with Wilson, who was then living in England, and a number of Groovies alumni would appear on Wilson’s 2010 album Love Over Money. Jordan teamed up with Wilson and Alexander for an Australian tour put together by the Hoodoo Gurus, which indirectly led to the 2017 critically-acclaimed Flamin’ Groovies’ album Fantastic Plastic.
AUDIO: The Flamin’ Groovies “End of the World”
Sadly, neither of these new CD reissues includes bonus tracks, despite a veritable wealth of rock ‘n’ roll goodies by the Groovies collecting dust in the WB vaults. When the albums were last reissued fifteen years ago by DBK Works, that label’s A&R Director Pat Thomas told Harp magazine’s Fred Mills that “there’s some rules and regulations about bonus tracks when licensing original albums from Warners. Only Warners themselves can do ‘bonus tracks’ – any company such as ourselves can only do the original albums as they were originally done.” I can only assume that the situation hasn’t changed any since that time and that MVD had their hands similarly tied by the stingy major label.
“Don’t matter” as my buddy ‘Wonderful’ Wayne the DJ used to say, as both Now and Jumpin’ In the Night are perfectly fine amalgams that combine the Groovies’ disparate musical influences – British Invasion bands, American folk-rock, pop-psych, and soul from the Motown/Stax Records school – with their own unique songwriting perspective. Although I’d place both titles behind Shake Some Action and Teenage Head on the spectrum of Flamin’ Groovies albums, giving a slight nod to Jumpin’ In the Night above Now, both albums rock like a trailer park in a tornado, providing plenty of the cheap thrills required by classic rock aficionado (and both serve as an excellent introduction to America’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band!).