The quintessential cult act, the members of Flamin’ Groovies have remained deliberately and steadfastly out of step with the times. From their late ’60s roots in psychedelic San Francisco where they played their own brand of first-generation rock and roll to their British Invasion worshipping of the late ’70s that produced their most recognizable “hit” in “Shake Some Action”, Flamin’ Groovies have never been ones to go with the proverbial flow and make music aimed at a more commercial market. This has both helped and hindered them. Where their music could just as easily have been hugely successful if issued at a slightly different time, their influence and musical stick-to-itiveness has played a major role in liberating younger artists from adhering to prevailing trends and musical fads and instead sticking to their guns and powering straight ahead with their own singular artistic vision, corporate suits be damned.
It’s an attitude they’ve retained throughout their career and through each iteration: The early rock and roll years; British Invasion later years; and now, for their first album since 1993’s Rock Juice, the all new Fantastic Plastic, they return with an amalgamation of the two. And by doing so, they’ve managed a fine distillation of the band’s essence in all its forms, despite the group on record here being something of an augmented incarnation of the group’s Shake Some Action-era lineup. (It’s not for nothing that the back of the album proclaims, “Their all new album of all new hits!”) Vocalist and guitarist – and avowed Anglophile – Chris Wilson returns to the fold some 37 years after he originally parted ways with the group (this after having replaced the more rock and roll-minded Roy Loney), while Groovies mainstay and founder Cyril Jordan and longtime bassist George Alexander round out the core of the “original” lineup.
Sporting a Cyril Jordan original sleeve in the style of Mad magazine’s Jack Davis, Fantastic Plastic is a decided throwback to an earlier era from the cover on down. Opening track “What the Hell’s Goin’ On” features an opening guitar riff not too terribly far removed from “Shake Some Action” before settling into a mid-’70s, Tom Petty-esque rock groove. It’s a fine opening statement and indicative of much of what is to come: Wilson’s voice having settled into more of a growl better suited to the group’s more rocking tendencies; the twin guitars of Jordan and Wilson snaking their way in and around one another; and Alexander and newcomer Victor Penalosa (drums) providing a rock-solid, workmanlike rhythmic foundation. A no fuss, no muss approach, it’s a lean stripped down rocker that feels as timeless as the group’s best efforts.
Meanwhile, “End of the World” sounds like a lost Byrds tracks, Jordan and Wilson’s vocals coming together in glorious mid-’60s-styled harmonies atop a jangling heap of guitars. The appropriately-titled “Let Me Rock” does just that, with its Who-styled vocals and maximum R&B aping the sound and feel of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” replete with a call to arms for aging rock and rollers everywhere. “It’s been so long/ Since you played my songs / You took my soul/ But you won’t take my rock and roll!,” Wilson barks over the closing chorus, living and breathing each lyric.
Showing their affinity for the mid-’60s to have abated none, Fantastic Plastic features a cover of the Beau Brummels’ “Don’t Talk to Strangers” as well as the often similarly-minded NRBQ’s “I Want You Bad”. But the most impressive aspect of Fantastic Plastic is the strength of the Wilson/Jordan songwriting team. Having lost nary a step since their late ’70s heyday, the pair churn out a solid set of quality originals that remain true to the Flamin’ Groovies tradition while never sounding forced or pastiche. Indeed, it’s nice to hear a group return in such solid form after so many years away. Fantastic Plastic may not be the best Groovies album – that’s a debatable honor I’ll refrain from engaging in here, but let’s just say the first incarnation of the band holds a special place in this reviewer’s heart – but it’s still nothing short of a damn good slab of quality rock and roll.