The Flamin' Groovies
The Early Years by Ryan SetteeThe Flamin' Groovies' existence was, perhaps, either ten to fifteen years ahead of their time, or ten to fifteen years too late. They formed too late to have capitalized on any of the prestige that their Sun Records-influenced material would have afforded them had they been around in the mid '50's, yet they definetely had a hand in forming what I (and many others) consider to be the basis of the proto punk sound that went on to directly influence punk rock that had hit its eventual form in the mid to late '70's. Not only that, but I surmise that the Cramps--themselves a huge influence--took a large part of their trash culture and good times rock n' roll from the Groovies. The Groovies managed to distill all the elements of the ''50's and early to mid '60's into an inherently less studied version than pure '50's revivalists like the Stray Cats, Reverend Horton Heat and Dave Edmunds (the latter of which went on to produce 1976's Shake Some Action). With the Groovies, it really sounded like they were a bunch of hoodlums just out for a good time, and that their output was just a byproduct of that. There were no pompadours, no Bryl Creem, and guitarist Cyril Jordan even played a clear Dan Armstrong guitar--not exactly a trademark of '50's revivalists. But yet, they weren't hippies and their back to basics simplicity likely contributed to their limited appeal.
The band didn't have any clear scene in which to help them along- they weren't in New York and didn't have Andy Warhol or the Plastic Exploding Inevitable that the Velvet Underground had. Maybe if they were from Detroit, they would have had a sympathetic audience for what they were trying to do. It's hard to tell. But I've felt that they've often got the short end of the stick, even in nostalgia circles--some people also hold them up as a key factor in proto punk, but ironically, even though I've met some people that think that, I haven't met lots of people that thought the same thing. I'm just judging my own experience on what i've actually heard from word of mouth on the street in my lifetime.
It wasn't until a very long time into my life that I'd even heard of the Groovies, because they just never really got mentioned much at all. I think that you can sort of gauge things on that, what you've heard inadvertently over the years when you weren't actively seeking that information out. Maybe my view of that is skewed and maybe I never knew the right people, but I'm still sort of waiting for the Groovies to get their due in the way that the obvious proto punk bands have.
One gets the impression that unlike other bands from California at the time, they were the odd-band-out because they epitomized the punk lifestyle before it had a name. The Elevators sniffed glue far before the Ramones, because it was cheap and plentiful, and the Groovies sang about the perils of teenage boredom and glue sniffing in "Comin' After Me"--"my friends say I gotta stay away from the glue, how am I gonna keep it together?" The straight up 4/4 power that the Groovies laid out back in the late '60's was unmatched, I think, since the heyday of the mighty Sonics. The punk band Crime may claim to be "San Franscisco's first rock n' roll band", but such claims are dubious, since the Groovies had previously well-defined three chord rock n' roll as a rebuttal to their disapproval of how far rock n' roll had strayed from its roots, and how corporate rock had taken the lightning and swagger out of music and had effectively neutered it. In England, Marc Bolan was still singing about gnomes and unicorns in T-Rex's first acoustic incarnation as Tyrannosaurus Rex. The New York Dolls had yet to even form under their original Actress moniker with Johnny Thunders as frontman. Detroit had the Stooges and MC5, but the Stooges had even dismissed "We Will Fall" as filler and were getting into longer free jazz influenced songs on Funhouse, and the MC5--though Back In The USA was a concise back to basics album-- were already starting again to mess around with longer songs and more epic structures on High Time (likely rooted in their experimental origins such as earlier songs like "Black To Comm"). When you really boil it down, the Groovies were the only band that had adhered to the three chord formula, with an unwavering tenacity, from the '68 to '71 range, when simplistic rock n' roll was at a bare minimum.
That being said, the focus of this article ultimately is on the earlier Roy Loney-led era, with Cyril Jordan and Tim Lynch on guitars, George Alexander on bass, and Danny Mihm on drums. With all due respect to the later Cyril Jordan/ Chris Wilson version of the band, it never was quite the same. While the Groovies had always done many cover songs amidst their originals, towards the end of the '70's, the Groovies without Loney were becoming pretty much a covers only band-- this was disparaging considering that the band had always managed to twist the originals into something refreshing, while putting their own originals in there that could most often hold their own with the songs that they chose to hold up in tribute. The later Jordan/Wilson version was more like a resurrection of mod culture, in looks and sound (dapper suits, 12 string chiming guitars, etc), more British Invasion than anything they'd otherwise previously done. Roy Loney, although he came across like a madman (his vocal style certainly implied some sort of vocal schitzophrenia--going from a smooth crooner one minute, and then to a snarling wiseguy the next), was a better songwriter than history may give him credit for. Check out the introspective and reflective writing in "A Part From That" on Supersnazz. Its minor key chiming chords contrasted against Roy's unusually restrained vocal delivery. That's one of those album cuts that may confuse someone that may have otherwise thought that they'd assumed that they knew what the band was all about.
In keeping with helping to pioneer some of the DIY culture before it actually had any real name or movement, the Groovies had released the Sneakers album on their own, before Epic picked them up to release the Supersnazz album. Technically Supersnazz is the official Groovies debut, though it's somewhat odd that Sneakers isn't the official debut at 7 songs long (mini album territory, I guess, but then again, check out how many 8 song albums were considered official releases back then). I think that Epic probably had eventually quickly realized that the band wasn't going to be of any real significance in terms of sales, but the interesting thing in hindsight about Supersnazz is that while it sports a more muscular overall R&R attack from the band (everyone's playing and writing seems to be fairly significantly improved over Sneakers, released just the same year of 1968), it sports the most embellishments of any Groovies album. There's horns, brass, backing vocals and piano on almost every song, and while maybe Epic had got the band to tone down their thing just slightly, I think that the album works well with the production touches. Though the Groovies always had piano on some of their songs (Jim Dickinson on some of Teenage Head, for example), here, it really seems like the piano player (Mike Lang) is a vital part of the band. And it really seems indispensable on certain songs like "Pagan Rachel"; sinister vaudevillian rock n' roll meets Broadway camp. The frantic flute (clarinet?) solo towards the end of "Bam Balam" signifies a lot of this album's overall curveballs; some may like those touches, while others may not. There's the regular rockers on here--"Love Have Mercy," "The First One's Free," etc, with some of the usual covers thrown in, but it's songs like the country-ish "Brushfire" with its choir-like backing vocals that make this record, and "Laurie Did It," an excellent pop song with baroque touches in the bridge that almost seem like a song within a song. An unexpected highlight (as mentioned earlier in this article) is "A Part From That," a reflective, acoustic major to minor key weeper (complete with strings arranged by Jack Nietzche), as well as "Around The Corner", which sports 3 or 4 part vocal harmonies and gives Buffalo Springfield a run for their money in terms of cosmic country psychedelia.
The band was dropped from Epic after Supersnazz, and released the album Flamingo on the Kama Sutra record label in 1970. In keeping with the band's output, it's again a sizeable leap in terms of execution and attitude. With each subsequent release, the Groovies had got more aggressive, a little bit more in your face with more swagger in their music. The Groovies had got more into power chords on this one. This is evidenced early on in "Gonna Rock Tonite" (seemingly a re-write of Bill Haley's "Rock Around The Clock"); especially on "Headin' For The Texas Border" and "Road House"- tracks that sounds the most in the spirit of Flamingo's successor in the Teenage Head album. There's the nods to '50's heroes--a cover of Little Richard's "Keep A Knockin", and (Jerry Lee?) in "Second Cousin" ("I'm gonna make my second cousin my first bride"). Strangely enough, the band does have a few psychedelic touches and perhaps concessions to the then current musical landscape on this record- crazy panned drums, the extended middle breakdown part in "Road House" (with weird delay effects) and other occasional flourishes here and there. It never gets out of hand though, and they always reel it back in. Perhaps the most unusual song on this record is "She's Falling Apart"- a mellow, Beatles influenced spacy psych track that still divides some fans of the group as to whether it fits on the album or not. It's tough to tell whether it was a song that the band did because they really had a psych pop obsession to air out, or whether it was an attempt at a possible single to get radio play to maximize a bit of wider appeal. Wisely, the band placed it as the second to last song, so whether one likes it or not, the rest of the album's high energy flow isn't otherwise broken up. Oddly enough, Loney solely wrote "She's Falling Apart", and one would assume that it was Jordan, since the ringing pop song thing seems to be more in line with the Groovies under the Cyril Jordan led version.
Then the Groovies released the Teenage Head album in 1971; arguably the best Loney era album. When you have an influential band in their own right take their name from your album for their group (Teenage Head, of course), you're onto something pretty good. With the album's name taken from an offhand Kim Fowley comment, Teenage Head also excels in its title- right away, you can tell what the music is about, because if you're gonna name an album something like that, you'd better be able to justify it. "High Flyin' Baby," (Randy Newman's) "Have You Seen My Baby," the title track, they're all examples of how rock n' roll should be played. In my opinion, there's been very little in rock history that can top the attitude, conviction and absolute 4/4 power that those songs and most of this album has. Even the slower songs like "City Lights"- with its saloon styled piano (courtesy of the aforementioned Jim Dickinson who I should mention has now since passed away) and Robert Johnson's "32-20" are all attitude and vigor. "Yesterday's Numbers" is probably the closest you get to a pop song on this album, and its well executed--tender, but still tough. Tim Lynch and Cyril Jordan's newfound reliance on the slide guitar is something new for this record and it works well, because it makes the songs hit a higher gear. Strangely enough, the band's earlier rockabilly influenced material is the minority on this record; "Evil Hearted Ada" (with Loney doing his best Elvis styled hiccup styled vocals) and "Doctor Boogie" are the only songs that really approach the earlier material or even most of what's on Flamingo. The final cut on the record, "Whiskey Woman," is unlike most of what's on the record, but not in a bad way- it's what you could probably term a power ballad for them, and maybe it's a bit like "Freebird" in the sense that it's Southern soul rock influenced, bordering on gospel tinged. It has acoustic guitars and some reflective singing from Roy Loney, eventually ending in a slow building crescendo before it bursts out into a faster tempo and ebbs itself out in a haze of echoed vocals and power chords. Top that off with non-album track (but conceived around the same time) "Slow Death," and you've got one heckuva band firing on all cylinders.
Then the usual band things happen--"creative differences," etc. etc. The reasons for Loney parting the band is clearly based on the directions that Loney and Jordan had gone afterwards when they weren't there to temper each other's natural inclinations with a good middle ground and compromise; Loney wanted to go in more of a '50's influenced garage direction, and Jordan wanted to go in more of the mod/British Invasion direction. Though there was the three albums (and the mini album of Sneakers). I've often wished that there was more by that lineup, that they could have held onto those compromises for a few more years, maybe a few more albums. It's tough being a pioneer, I guess- they didn't have a lot of support for what they were doing, but even though they never sold tons of records or entered public consciousness to any real extent, they'd left an important mark on bands and independent/punk culture. Long live the Flamin' Groovies.
*Of note, Roy and Cyril had recently played shows together a couple of years ago in 2009 and this year with various backing bands, for the first time since 1971. Whether it will be an ongoing thing, no one's really sure, but it's good to see that the two of them had rocked out once more together.
Also see our Roy Loney interview
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