Saturday, May 26, 2018

THE FLAMIN' GROOVIES, Part 1: Red-Hot & Groovy

My history of The Flamin' Groovies appeared in the January 8th, 1993 issue of Goldmine. This is my original introduction to that piece as it appeared in print. My interview with Cyril Jordan will be posted separately as Part 2.

If you've heard of The Flamin' Groovies, that already puts you one up on most of the American record-buying public. In the history of rock 'n' roll, it is arguable that no band has ever been so good and at the same time been so little recognized as the Groovies. They have been and remain the very picture of a cult band: ignored by the world at large, but positively revered by a small but discerning group of loyal fans.

Surely, The Flamin' Groovies deserve recognition for the amazing tenacity they've shown over nearly three decades in the rock world. Some of the faces have changed--only guitarist Cyril Jordan and bassist George Alexander have remained constant fixtures since the group's inception--but the various incarnations of the Groovies have continuously adhered to their own concept of what "classic rock" really means. Then, as now, The Flamin' Groovies believe in the passion and commitment that lies at the core of the best that rock 'n' roll has to offer.

The Flamin' Groovies story dates back to 1965, when two members of a San Francisco folk outfit called The Capetown Singers decided the time was ripe to rock out. Guitarists Roy Loney and Tim Lynch set about the task of forming a new rock group, recruiting high school buddy George Alexander to play bass. Alexander, in turn, brought in a new acquaintance of his, Cyril Jordan. Jordan came to the group with drummer Ron Greco in tow, and the new outfit was complete.

Dubbing themselves The Chosen Few, the new group gigged frequently as a cover band around San Francisco, eventually changing its name to The Lost And Found. The Lost And Found soon broke up, but but regrouped in 1966 (with Danny Mihm replacing Greco) as The Flamin' Groovies.

The Flamin' Groovies' name was a joint creation of Jordan and Loney, based on one of Jordan's favorite expressions ("Groovy!") and expanded to mimic the cadence of fave rave bands like The Rolling Stones and The Lovin' Spoonful. The group's nonsensical name and good-time rockin' approach immediately set them apart from the Bay Area's then-growing heavy scene.

However, The Flamin' Groovies didn't exactly set San Francisco afire. Influential promoter Bill Graham took a dislike to the group, barring the Groovies from the great exposure a gig at the Fillmore might have offered. With this venue denied them, the Groovies had an even tougher time trying to sell their light-hearted vibe to the self-consciously hip Bay Area audience.

Still, this didn't stop The Flamin' Groovies from...well, grooving. There were venues aside from the Fillmore open to them, and an October 1, 1968 gig was recorded for posterity and eventually released in 1984 as Flamin' Groovies '68. This is the earliest known document of The Flamin' Groovies, and it shows a band very much influenced by The Lovin' Spoonful. In fact, three of the tracks on Flamin' Groovies '68 were covers of tunes the Spoonful did on their own debut LP: "Wild About My Lovin'," "Night Owl Blues," and "Sportin' Life." The remaining seven tracks are all Groovies originals, only two of which ("The Slide" and "My Yada") would ever resurface elsewhere.

Though interesting as Groovies history, Flamin' Groovies '68 was a bit tedious and far too beholden to a pedestrian interpretation of the Spoonful. Only "Good Morning Mr. Stone," an intriguing if overlong marriage of psychedelia and Richard Wagner, really stands out from the pack. The rest is occasionally worth tapping one's toe to, but no real indication of the Groovies' ultimate worth.

Unable to draw the interest of a record label, the Groovies' next move was nearly unprecedented: they decided to release their own record, presaging the late '70s D.I.Y. movement by a decade. The result, the Sneakers 10-inch EP, featured seven Loney originals (including "The Slide" and "My Yada," reprised from the '68 tapes). Though the Groovies' sound was still embryonic at this point, and the Lovn' Spoonful influence still held sway, the mere existence of Sneakers was a crucial step in the Groovies' development. More importantly, the buzz surrounding Sneakers' release served to attract the attention of a major record label. The Flamin' Groovies signed with Epic in 1969.

Epic treated the Groovies like stars, housing the group and its entourage in a Beverly Hills mansion once used by Elvis Presley, and spending a small fortune on the recording of the Groovies' first album, Supersnazz. The group understandably felt that it was on its way.

But Supersnazz died an ignominious death at retail. The single, a cover of "Rockin' Pneumonia And The Boogie Woogie Flu," scored some radio play, but it was difficult to find in stores. The album suffered from a woeful lack of promotion on Epic's part, and The Flamin' Groovies' dreams of imminent stardom were effectively dashed.

Though regarded with some disdain by Jordan (and many Groovies fans), Supersnazz was a fine album that deserved a much better fate. True, the original fell victim to inappropriate production (a situation rectified by the remixed 1990 CD reissue by CBS Special Products), but the songs were good and the performances were first-rate. No Groovies collection is complete without "Love Have Mercy," "Around The Corner," the ballad "Apart From That," and their dynamic covers of "The Girl Can't Help It" and "Somethin' Else"/"Pistol Packin' Mama." At least in its remixed form, Supersnazz is an underrated part of The Flamin' Groovies' canon.

The Groovies were still signed to Epic, but there seemed little likelihood of a second album. The Groovies toured nonetheless, and a gig in New York was caught by Buddah Records staffer and Hit Parader writer Richard Robinson. Robinson was sufficiently blown away by the Groovies to set about the task of recruiting them to Buddah. The group was somehow able to free itself from the Epic contract, and was soon signed with Kama Sutra, a Buddah subsidiary.

Robinson himself produced 1970's Flamingo, the Groovies' Kama Sutra debut. Flamingo rocked harder than any previous Groovies recording, displaying by now a more overt Rolling Stones influence. Nine of the ten tracks were Groovies originals, with a cover of Little Richard's "Keep A-Knockin'" paying tribute to roots. The Groovies' line-up on Flamingo was supplemented by Commander Cody on keyboards, but it's the Groovies who shine on the LP's keepers, "Second Cousin" and "Heading For The Texas Border."

There was no single or tour in support of Flamingo, and the album fared no better in stores than did Supersnazz. A 1970 rehearsal was recorded and much later (1984) released as Flamin' Groovies '70. Burdened by two interminable jams, the rehearsal's best moments were lively covers of "Louie, Louie" and Chuck Berry's "Carol," plus a rockin' run-through of "Heading For The Texas Border."

Kama Sutra was still willing to release another Groovies album, and the now-classic Teenage Head was issued in 1971. Often referred to as the best album The Rolling Stones never made (Keith Richards is said to have preferred Teenage Head to Sticky Fingers), Teenage Head was terrific, no-frills, slide-dominated rock 'n' roll. With great tracks like "Yesterday's Numbers," Randy Newman's "Have You Seen My Baby?" (later covered by Ringo Starr as "Hold On"), Jordan's lead vocal turn on "Whiskey Woman," and the signature title tune, it seems inconceivable that Teenage Head never became a monster hit, to be played to the point of utter contempt on '90s Classic Rock radio.

But Teenage Head, in spite of glowing reviews and encouraging word-of-mouth, sank without a trace. Teenage Head's commercial failure helped seal the doom of the original Flamin' Groovies line-up, though the seeds of that break-up had already been sown.

A drug bust had interfered with Tim Lynch's participation on Teenage Head; Jordan claims to have played almost all of the guitar parts on the album, but Loney insists that Lynch was, in fact, there for most of the recording. In any case, Lynch was soon out of the band. He was replaced by James Farrell, a guitarist recommended to the Groovies by longtime friend (and former member of The Charlatans) Mike Wilhelm.

More to the point was the imminent departure of Roy Loney from The Flamin' Groovies. By this time, there was no love lost between Loney and Jordan. Jordan felt that Loney had taken over the band, and that Loney took too much credit for for songs Jordan claims to have written. Loney countered that Jordan was far too interested in having the group perform covers, in effect living in the past. Whatever the actual case, Loney either left or was fired from The Flamin' Groovies in 1971.

One of Loney's last gigs with the Groovies--an appearance at, of all things, the farewell festivities for Bill Graham's Fillmore, June 30, 1971--was captured on tape and released in 1983 as Slow Death--Live (or Bucketfull Of Brains in the U.S.). This was the earliest recorded appearance of "Slow Death," a maniacal, then-new Groovies tune about morphine addiction.

(Loney pretty much retired from the performing side of the music business for several years. He reemerged in 1977 with the Artistic As Hell EP, followed in 1979 by the Out After Dark LP. Out After Dark was the first record credited to Roy Loney and the Phantom Movers, a loose aggregation consisting mostly of past and present members of the Groovies, occasionally even including one Cyril Jordan. Roy Loney and the Phantom Movers have released several fine albums, the most recent being 1988's superb The Scientific Bombs Away! Loney's contributions should really be the subject of a separate article someday. For now, suffice it to say that fans of early Flamin' Groovies should actively and eagerly seek out Mr. Loney's work.)

Just as Mike Wilhelm had provided the Groovies with Tim Lynch's replacement, he was also the source of Loney's replacement, albeit unwillingly. Chris Wilson, the lead singer of Wilhelm's group Loose Gravel, was recruited over Wilhelm's objections as the new Groovies front man. With the line-up settled, the new Flamin' Groovies now had no place to go. They were no longer with Kama Sutra, and no new record deal seemed likely. They recorded some bootleg-quality demos, which were later issued (1974) as the Grease and Alive Forever (More Grease) EPs on the French Skydog label, and subsequently combined as Super Grease. They even changed their name briefly to The Dogs, reasoning that they should call themselves something appropriate to how the music business was treating them.

Then came an invitation from England's United Artists label, which led to The Flamin' Groovies relocating to Great Britain in 1972 for another shot at the big time. Through a strange sequence of events initiated by Jordan's expressed desire to work with Dave Edmunds, the Groovies found themselves in South Wales with Edmunds at Rockfield Studios.

At Rockfield, Edmunds and the Groovies set to laying the groundwork for a new Groovies album, tentatively called Bucket Of Brains (named for Brains, a Welsh beer that the band came to know intimately). Producer and band clicked immediately, and there were shortly six tracks in the can: covers of "Little Queenie," "A Shot Of Rhythm And Blues," and "Married Woman," plus original tunes "Slow Death," "You Tore Me Down," and a little something called "Shake Some Action." A seventh track, a cover of Freddy "Boom Boom" Cannon's "Tallahassee Lassie," was done without Edmunds.

These three originals formed the core of The Flamin' Groovies' potential reemergence. "Slow Death," the frenzied anti-drug rocker they'd introduced at the Fillmore, simply burned in its proper studio treatment. "You Tore Me Down" was an instant classic pop song, reminiscent of a more intense Byrds or Searchers, and "Shake Some Action" sounded like an announcement of pop-rock armageddon--stunning stuff.

"Slow Death" was released as a single (backed with "Tallahassee Lassie"), but its commercial promise was shattered when the BBC banned the song for its drug references. The follow-up, "Married Woman"/"Get A Shot Of Rhythm And Blues," faced no problem with the censors but held little hope of really catching the public's fancy. The Flamin' Groovies never completed Bucket Of Brains, and United Artists soon severed its ties with the band.

The first Flamin' Groovies record I ever saw, a 1976 EP combining the four UA single tracks
After the Groovies returned to the States, Danny Mihm was soon thrown out of the group. He was replaced by Terry Rae, who joined the group in time to make some demos for Capitol Records. A tougher take of "Shake Some Action" was recorded (the Rockfield original was still unreleased at this time), along with a new song called "When I Heard Your Name," but a deal with Capitol never materialized. Rae soon split to join The Hollywood Stars, and was replaced by David Wright.

Greg Shaw's independent Bomp! label issued "You Tore Me Down" as a single in 1975, rescuing this pop gem from limbo and backing it with a newly-recorded but terribly lame cover of Paul Revere & the Raiders' "Him Or Me--What's It Gonna Be?" Shaw's endorsement of the Groovies led to contact with Sire Records, and The Flamin' Groovies soon had yet another record deal.

By this time, the Groovies had adopted an overtly retro-'60s look, inspired by the pop-Mod appearance of The Beatles. The new look dovetailed perfectly with the Groovies' implicit intention to create a sound based on a matrix of Beatles, Byrds, Stones, and Beach Boys as produced by Phil Spector. In 1975-76, The Flamin' Groovies rejoined Dave Edmunds at Rockfield to record their enduring classic, Shake Some Action.

Shake Some Action was the top, the Coliseum, the Louvre Museum, etc. Building on the two leftover tracks from their original Rockfield sessions ("Shake Some Action" and "You Tore Me Down"), the Groovies made a record as fine as any that's ever been done. On the down side, six of the LP's 14 tracks were covers, feeding charges that the band was in danger of becoming Mod-costumed revivalists. But each track, original or cover, was a gem in its own right. The album-closing "I Can't Hide" has joined the above-mentioned Rockfield tunes as an indispensable slice of essential Groovies. This was The Flamin' Groovies at their absolute best.

Although Shake Some Action didn't set any sales records, it did hit the lower region's of Billboard's album charts, which was encouraging enough. The Groovies found themselves, almost incongruously, grouped with the growing punk/new wave movement, and playing bills with such kindred spirits as The Ramones and Radio Birdman (and such not-so-kindred spirits as The Damned).

Unbelievably, the Groovies chose not to capitalize on their momentum. James Farrell was asked to leave the Groovies in late '76. His replacement was longtime Groovies buddy (and Chris Wilson's former bandmate) Mike Wilhelm. Wilhelm joined the group for the remainder of its European dates in '76, at the end of which the Groovies returned to the States and sat on their hands for about a year. This was probably not the strongest career move they could have made.

The Groovies returned to Rockfield in 1978 to record Now, with Edmunds again at the helm. This time, the covers outnumbered the originals. That in itself would have been okay if not for the fact that a couple of the covers ("Paint It, Black" and the Raiders' "Ups And Downs") were hopelessly outclassed by the original mid-'60s versions. All of the new Groovies compositions were fine, though, especially the Beach Boys-influenced "Good Laugh Mun" and "Don't Put Me On," a totally reworded and revamped version of More Grease's "Blues From Phyllis." Now fared respectably in England (better than Shake Some Action, in fact), but sank like a stone on the American charts.

[NOTE: There were two different versions of Now released in England. Both versions omit "Paint It, Black," which was included on the American issue, while the second issue of Now, also from '78, adds "When I Heard Your Name." "When I Heard Your Name," along with the remake of "Shake Some Action," were the demos the Groovies recorded for Capitol in '73. Neither track has ever been issued in America.]

The next Groovies album, 1979's Jumpin' In The Night, was intended to be their third straight with Edmunds, but Edmunds declined, leaving the production chores to Jordan and Roger Bechirian. The group's predilection for covers was even more evident here: one cover among the originals on Side One, but a mere one original among the covers on Side Two. Unlike Now, most of the covers were at least diverting (including an oddly endearing take on Warren Zevon's "Werewolves Of London," Dave Edmunds' "Down Down Down," and no less than three Byrds songs).

But the originals were the main attractions, particularly the majestic "First Plane Home," which should have been a single and should have been a hit. Alas, there was no U.S. single, and certainly no hit. Furthermore, this would be the last full-fledged Flamin' Groovies album for over a decade.

[NOTE: The U.K. issue of Jumpin' In The Night omits "Werewolves Of London" and "It Won't Be Wrong" and adds "19th Nervous Breakdown," "Boys," and "You're My Wonderful One," none of which has ever been issued in America.]

Jumpin' In The Night was never intended to be the final Flamin' Groovies album for Sire, but that's how things worked out. There was talk of a sequel in 1980, to be produced by Phil Spector at his legendary Gold Star Studios, but all that resulted was a single--"River Deep, Mountain High" backed by the neat "Please Please Me" rip "So Much In Love"--and several rough-sounding demos (covers of The Beatles' "And Your Bird Can Sing," The Byrds' "She Don't Care About Time," and The Ronettes' "Do I Love You?"). Though all these tracks were indeed recorded at Gold Star, Spector was not involved. The single sides and the rough tracks were bootlegged by Skydog in 1983 as The Gold Star Tapes.

So this period of The Flamin' Groovies' history--arguably their finest--came to a whimpering end. A nice Jumpin' In The Night-era show was recorded and later released as the only officially-sanctioned Flamin' Groovies live album, Live At The Whiskey A Go-Go '79. Here, the band sounded confident and in control, even while ignoring audience requests for "Teenage Head." Meanwhile, time seemed to have passed The Flamin' Groovies by.

The Flamin' Groovies' relationship with Sire quietly faded into oblivion. David Wright split from the group in 1980, replaced by a series of fill-in drummers for small-time gigs. Mark Dunwoody joined the Groovies on keyboards, but the addition was offset in '81 by the acrimonious departure of Chris Wilson. The split was not unforeseen, as it had been preceded by violent arguments between Wilson and Jordan. Still, it seemed the final nail in The Flamin' Groovies' coffin.

(Wilson went on to join The Barracudas, a great British group who'd already recorded several singles and a terrific album, Drop Out With The Barracudas, before Wilson joined. He recorded two albums with The Barracudas--Mean Time and Endeavour To Persevere--before the group splintered. He followed 'Cuda Robin Wills into a new group, The Fortunate Sons, and eventually went solo. Wilson's first solo album was released circa 1990-91. The Barracudas have since reunited, but Wilson is not involved with the group.)

By any reasonable expectation, The Flamin' Groovies should have been considered kaput. The group soldiered on for a bit, with Danny Mihm even temporarily rejoining the fold (and, even more surprisingly, Roy Loney joining them onstage for a couple of one-off appearances). But, by late '82, this final incarnation of the original Groovies ground to a halt as Wilhelm, Dunwoody, and Mihm took their leave. Only Jordan and Alexander remained.

Jordan effectively went underground in the early '80s, resurfacing in 1984 to record more demos with Alexander and new drummer Paul Zahl. Zahl recruited a new guitarist, Jack Johnson, and the new Groovies laid down an album's worth of tracks, most of which have yet to see proper release. Small samples were made available: the excellent "Way Over My Head" was paired with "Shakin'" for an Australian single release in 1986, Bucketfull Of Brains (a magazine with an obvious Groovies influence) issued the John Lennon tribute "Thanks John" on a flexi-disc, and a former associate of the band would eventually release an album from these demos. But we're getting ahead of ourselves here.

In 1986, The Flamin' Groovies accepted an invitation from Aim Records owner Peter Noble to tour Australia. The group played to largely enthusiastic crowds in Australia and New Zealand, performing a mix of their newer material, some covers, and a cross-section of songs from the Groovies' recording career ("Teenage Head" and "Slow Death" were returned to the set list for the first time in over a decade).

While in Australia, the Groovies decided to document their show with a live-in-the-studio record. One Night Stand is more interesting as a souvenir than it is as a record. No new material was included, just run-throughs of "Shake Some Action," "Slow Death," "I Can't Hide," "Teenage Head," even The Hoodoo Gurus' "Bittersweet." A workmanlike cover of Paul Revere & the Raiders' "Kicks" was paired with "Slow Death" for a single.

By this time, Peter Noble had apparently become the band's de facto manager. A fan magazine, Flamin' Groovies Quarterly, was begun, with each issue including a seven-inch single of previously-unavailable Groovies recordings. This was generally live stuff, though the first issue did include the first appearance of the lovely "I'm Only What You Want Me To Be" from the '84 demos. Three issues of Flamin' Groovies Quarterly are known to have been published.

The Groovies also toured Europe, and continued to seek an American record deal. Meanwhile, Sire decided to take advantage of the burgeoning CD boom to assemble a retrospective of The Flamin' Groovies' career. Groovies' Greatest Grooves, issued in 1989, obviously concentrated on the Sire era, but also included "Teenage Head," "Tallahassee Lassie," and "Slow Death" (though nothing from Supersnazz, Flamingo, or the '84 demos). This was a superlative 24-track compilation, with few noticeable omissions, that served to introduce The Flamin' Groovies to a new audience. Who could argue with that?

(Groovies' Greatest Grooves was issued in the CD + G format, which allows a listener armed with the proper equipment to view computer graphics that accompany the music. Jordan himself designed the graphics on this disc.)

The Groovies, unable to score a new record deal (in spite of rumors of a reunion with Sire in the wake of Groovies' Greatest Grooves), went underground again, fueling speculation that the group had finally called it a day. Paul Zahl was replaced by John Meyder, but no gigs or recordings seemed forthcoming.

The group also severed whatever ties it had with Peter Noble, possibly under less than friendly terms. Whatever the final status of the Groovies-Noble relationship, it could certainly not be termed amicable in the wake of Step Up.

Step Up, released by Aim in late 1991, presented 13 tracks, mostly from the '84 demos. The previously-issued "Way Over My Head," "Thanks John," and "I'm Only What You Want Me To Be" were all included, as were dynamic new numbers such as "She's Got A Hold On Me," "Can't Stay Away From You," and the terrific title track. Step Up was snapped up eagerly by Groovies fans, starved for new product in the long wait since Jumpin' In The Night.

Unbeknownst to fans, however, Step Up was released without any input from Jordan, who was livid over its issue. According to Jordan, Noble used unfinished demos, slapping arbitrary titles on songs and packaging it with indifferent artwork. Noble's liner-note pleas for the world at large to finally notice The Flamin' Groovies seemed sincere, but Jordan was furious.

1992 finally did see a brand-new, official Flamin' Groovies album, Rock Juice. Many of the tracks from Step Up were reprised on Rock Juice, but the sharper sound and focus of Rock Juice leaves no doubt which is the official successor to Jumpin' In The Night. As the debut release from a new label, National Records, the new album brings with it promises of more records to follow, of a Flamin' Groovies tour, of The Flamin' Groovies finally taking their rightful place in the rock 'n' roll hierarchy. Only time will tell in that regard. (As an interesting--possibly apocryphal--side note, it was rumored that Roy Loney was invited to join the Groovies on Rock Juice's cover of the rockabilly raver "Flyin' Saucers Rock 'n' Roll." Loney reportedly even accepted the invitation, but got fed up while waiting around the studio and stormed out. Ah, well....)

Greg Shaw once bravely predicted that "1975 will be the year of The Flamin' Groovies!" Jon Storey of Bucketfull Of Brains later amended that as a question: "Will 1987 be the year of The Flamin' Groovies?" We'll stop short of making a too-optimistic hope for 1993. At this point, The Flamin' Groovies don't owe us anything, and the public has made it abundantly clear that it feels no debt to The Flamin' Groovies.

But the very face that there is still a Flamin' Groovies to talk about serves as some comfort, a reassurance that maybe you really can't keep a good band down. Like the misfit hero of Allen Ginsberg's "Amerika," The Flamin' Groovies may grumble and even despair, but they will ultimately put their queer shoulders to the wheel, and they will persevere.

And that pretty much defines groovy in our book.

COMING SOON: The 1993 Goldmine interview with Cyril Jordan!

ORIGINAL ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Goldmine would like to thank the following for their great assistance in preparing this article: Bill Delapp, Michael Goldberg, Cyril Jordan, Dave Murray, Flamin' Groovies fan extraordinaire Greg Ogarrio, and the good folks at Jack Wolak's Rare Necessities.

An extra special tip of the Goldmine lid to Bucketfull Of Groovies, a biography of The Flamin' Groovies published by Bucketfull Of Brains magazine in 1987, which served as an invaluable reference work for this article. And a great big hug to Brenda Nuremberg-Cafarelli, for meritorious service above and beyond the call of marriage vows.


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