The Flamin Groovies: Bust Out at Full Speed: The Sire Years

The Flamin' Groovies
Bust Out at Full Speed: The Sire Years
DBK Works

The Flamin’ Groovies had no charting singles. Their only album to make the pop charts, Shake Some Action, peaked at a petty #142. They existed and continue to reside, posthumously, in some nondescript corridor of obscurity’s archive, occasionally dusted off by indebted modern-day bands like Yo La Tengo, who covered the Groovies’ “You Tore Me Down” on its 1990 album Fakebook. Like other San Francisco bands born in the mid-to-late ’60s (the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape), the Groovies had a weird name, perhaps too weird even for those who had freed their minds and were looking for new musical experiences. That name, however ridiculous and ill-advised as it may have been (its eagerness to come off as hip — as “groovy” — practically damns it to Squaresville, and its fiery adjective promotes hot-rod affiliations that had long since been disassociated from rock), was not the source of the band’s unsuccessfulness, though it more than likely prompted a few prospective listeners to take pre-emptive pause.

No, the Groovies weren’t strange and complicated, as their name may have suggested. They were steadfast traditionalists, which, in an industry driven by progressivism and shocking plot twists, was more a hindrance to their commercial success than their name ever was. In the mid-to-late ’70s, they championed rock ‘n’ roll from the ’50s and ’60s, the rollin’-over Beethoven variety; they were also shtick-less, which ensures that their retro appeal will never be rendered irrelevant like other throwback novelties. The Groovies’ songs court rock ‘n’ roll’s basics — that feel, that gut-blow of immediacy, that action that needs shaking — and its indestructible themes: crying in dark places, catching the next plane home, emotionally imploding with all the anxieties of love-derived torment. Though not anti-establishment or a challenge to the status quo, the band was just as unembellished and reductive as punk music (incidentally, in 1976 the Ramones were opening for the Groovies), but its courtship of early Beatles, Byrds, and Brian Jones-era Rolling Stones pop was a formal de-evolution incompatible with punk’s alarmist new beginnings.

At the time of their original release, the band’s three albums for Sire Records — Shake Some Action (1976), Flamin’ Groovies Now (1978), and Jumpin’ in the Night (1979) — were passed over as contrarian or antediluvian artifacts, reheated endorsements of a glorified golden era that held no consequence for a decade that strived so hard to speak a progressive musical language. Their Sire albums were half-and-half affairs (half original songs and half covers), with the covers representing the ’60s sound they so succinctly emulated — the band’s own songs bore a striking resemblance to those it chose to immortalize within its catalog. A song like “Yes It’s True” rewrote the structure and melody of the Beatles’ “All I’ve Got to Do”; “You Tore Me Down” resembles a number of transition-period Beatles tunes, such as “If I Fell” and “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party”; “Next One Crying” is marked by a tortured, echo-splattered Lennon blooze vocal; and the very lyrical setup of “Please Please Girl” is perilously close to “Please Please Me”. The band’s tendency to pilfer, liberally, from the mid-’60s British Invasion fakebook wasn’t innovative, much to the indifference of the pop-music fan majority and its needlessly fascination with innovation.

In their original incarnation led by lead vocalist Roy Loney, the Groovies made one record for Epic (1968’s Supersnazz) and two for Kama Sutra (1970’s Flamingo and 1971’s Teenage Head), all of which trafficked in hot-skillet rock ‘n’ roll raunch — a sort-of long-haired, scraggly reincarnation of the blues-rock British bands had stiffly fumbled through a few years earlier. Loney’s wildman persona — part Ronnie Hawkins and part Captain Beefheart; part ravenous blues hound and part counterculture spasm — was a typical affectation for the lead singer of a rock ‘n’ roll band to adopt at the time, given the fringe’s idolatry of raw-throated howlers like Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison.

In pursuit of a solo career, Loney eventually left the Groovies, who seemed to have stalled somewhere in the vortex of non-progressive trash-pop bands later relegated to compilations like Nuggets, around the time of Teenage Head‘s release. Guitarist and singer Cyril Jordan brought in Chris Wilson, also a guitarist and singer, as Loney’s replacement, and the two made an immediate aesthetic shift within the group: the Groovies continued to create regressive music, but their retro interests became buttoned-down, tightly harmonized, and passive-aggressively severed from the trends and tone of the ’70s. The Groovies weren’t willfully ignorant to the musical trends surrounding them; like the punk rockers’, their music was alien to the norm in order to reveal what they thought it lacked. Because everyone needs to object to something.

First, a brief diversion: Their first post-Loney single, “Slow Death”, is a distinct exception to their unspoken rule. Its punctuated riff and vogueish swagger are both very much in league with the Stones’ and Faces’ recordings from the same decade. The band recorded the song with Dave Edmunds, a disciple of early rock ‘n’ roll who had recently had a hit with his single “I Hear You Knockin'” (1971) and who would later form the rockabilly revival group Rockpile with Nick Lowe. Those initial sessions with Edmunds (which, fittingly, given the Groovies’ revised beat-combo sound, took place near England in South Wales) yielded the material for Shake Some Action, the band’s first Jordan-and-Wilson-helmed LP for Sire that arrived five long years after Loney’s split.

Shake Some Action is remembered largely for its lead-off title track, an arresting power-pop song with echoing guitars that pre-date the Edge’s arpeggioed trademark, guitars that splinter from the pedestrian chorus to give the song its recurring payoff. It remains the Groovies’ best record hands-down, 36 minutes of pent-up Beatlesque bounce with moody eclecticism alternating between pop fury (“Please Please Girl”), pre-psychedelic English preciousness (“I Saw Her”), and Byrdsian middle-ground melancholy (“You Tore Me Down”). It also boasts well-picked cover tunes (the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Let the Boy Rock ‘n’ Roll”, Chuck Berry’s “Don’t You Lie to Me”, Gene Thomas’s “Sometimes”), an area in which the band would be increasingly criticized with subsequent albums. Robert Christgau described Shake Some Action‘s “muddy mix” as “mono electrically rechanneled for stereo,” which is an apt appraisal: the record, even in its most recent remastered form, is a technical nightmare with copious bleed and compression issues, not to mention the issue of Edmunds’s fondness for dousing arrangements in reverb. A technical nightmare, yes, but exactly the kind of imperfect fidelity that suits obscure diamonds in the rough.

The band’s next album, Flamin’ Groovies Now, also produced by Edmunds in South Wales, ups the ratio of covers to originals: eight of its 14 tracks were originally hits for likes of the Byrds (“Feel a Whole Lot Better”), Buddy Holly (“Reminiscing”), the Rolling Stones (“Paint It Black” and “Blue Turns to Grey”), and, yet again, the Beatles (“There’s a Place”). By this point, the Groovies had become pitch-perfect impressionists with some extra horsepower under the hood. They had ascended (or descended, depending on how one judges artistry) to the thankless rank of a great unknown bar band, one capable of summoning other bands’ very aura, channeling the jangly bite of the Byrds and the cold-hearted steeliness of the Stones for their respective songs. In doing so, the dividing line between original and cover songs is so obscured that every note evokes nostalgia — the good times continue to roll with absolutely no demarcation of decades or scenes or even locally concentrated geography.

Jumpin’ in the Night would be the Groovies’ final official studio album. It remains one of their most poorly reviewed, due largely to the prevailing consensus that they had run a tired formula into the ground. This criticism hones in on the record’s questionable cover material, and rightly so. Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” is both an odd contemporary inclusion and limply rendered. Bob Dylan’s “Absolutely Sweet Marie” fares only slightly better (though, given its verbal complexity, is perhaps just as odd of a choice). And three Byrds songs are simply too much for one album. But to dismiss Jumpin’ in the Night altogether is unfair and unwise. Inarguably, the album is frontloaded with its best stuff; still, the strong-armed opening of four originals (“Jumpin’ in the Night”, “Next One Crying”, “First Plane Home”, “In the U.S.A.”) is thrilling rock ‘n’ roll, and just as convincing as anything from the previous two albums. The record was produced by Roger Bechirian, best-known for engineering Elvis Costello’s records from the same period, and his more modern sensibilities pull the Groovies out from Edmunds’s traditionalist utopia and into some kind of contemporary context. Really, though, context and contemporary acceptance were the last things on the Groovies’ minds. They just wanted to rock ‘n’ roll, consistently, anytime, anywhere.

RATING 7 / 10