The Flamin’ Groovies would prefer to take the oft-bestowed label as one of the "greatest rock 'n' roll bands you’ve never heard of" and kick it to the curb.
And yet, 50 years since their humble San Francisco beginnings, this sincere, yet dubious distinction given to them may be the kind of infamy that rewards them with an equally unlikely rock 'n' roll rebirth to once again “bust out at full speed."
The group has shared the stage with David Bowie, the Ramones, the Yardbirds, the Kinks, Iggy Pop, MC5, the Velvet Underground, and many more. Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Paul McCartney are fans.
How does such a band fly under the radar that long with those connections? Better yet, how and why have they persevered without record sales, fat recording contracts, and mass pop appeal?
“If I had known all this shit that I found out about trying to do this trip when I was 14, I probably wouldn’t have done this,” says band founder and leader Cyril Jordan, who just turned 68 and works 12-hour shifts at San Francisco's Orpheum Theatre. “It’s a fucking nightmare. It’s too late for me to stop doing it. I’m too good at it. I don’t want to brag, but I got Mick Jagger drooling 40 years ago.”
(Yes, Mick Jagger allegedly said that the Flamin’ Groovies had done a better modern blues than the Stones, when comparing the Stones’ 1971 Sticky Fingers to the Flamin’ Groovies’ Teenage Head albums.)
The story of this band got a video treatment by filmmakers William “Billy” Tyler Smith and Kurt Feldhun. Their documentary, The Incredible Flamin’ Groovies is tracing their comeback.
The doc, which is tentatively slated to hit the film-festival circuit and hopefully cable TV next spring, unfolds via interviews and concert footage from Smith, an award-winning filmmaker, who with the editing expertise of Feldhun recently completed a documentary about Doors’ keyboard player and producer Ray Manzarek.
“I met them and got a good vibe,” Smith recalls when he first set up some test shots in Brooklyn with the band. “It’s really important you don’t make a doc if the people are uncomfortable in front of the camera. If you got people who don’t open up, it’s difficult. Their personalities are so different that it works.”
Feldhun, an award-winning director, producer, editor, and composer who has worked with Frank Zappa, Herbie Hancock, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Bad Brains, agrees.
When Feldhun and Smith did some test shots at a local Hoboken New Jersey, show at the fabled Maxwell’s, the two filmmakers knew they were onto something new and original.
“As soon as I saw Cyril’s interview and how outspoken he was — nothing hidden, it’s all out there, and it’s a great story,” admits Feldhun. "It's lifelong rock 'n' rollers. The whole story was like truth is stranger than fiction, and you can’t make this stuff up."
The band sprouted up during the mid-'60s, energized by the Beatles' swan-song concert at Candlestick Park in 1966. This was in the face the psychedelic sounds of Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead. Undaunted, young guitarist/songwriters Cyril Jordan and Roy Loney hit the ground rocking, playing with bass/harmonica player George Alexander, guitarist Tim Lynch, and drummer Danny Mihm.
Their unique throwback style of '50s rhythm and blues and boogie-woogie swagger snagged them a major record deal on Epic for Supersnazz in 1969. This followed their Sneakers EP in 1968.
But it wasn’t until the 1971 release of Teenage Head that the band showed some real swagger. Memorable numbers “High-Flyin’ Baby” and the title track “Teenage Head” got them as much notice in the U.K. as it did in the U.S.
Teenage Head was down-and-dirty unapologetic rock, in contrast to the more soulful Stones’ release. Unfortunately, Sticky Fingers went triple platinum and Teenage Head did not.
Loney quit the band after the album, and soon would be replaced by an 18-year-old rocker Chris Wilson. The new configuration ditched the blues rock sound and replaced it with a more polished power-pop precision, complete with harmonizing Beatle-like vocals.
Despite having gone quiet and only releasing one single, a classic Groovie’s tune “Slow Death,” co-written by Loney in 1972 with Wilson on vocals, it was an incubation period of new creativity.
While working with British rocker/producer David Edmunds at the famous Wales-area Rockfield Studio, the band found its greatest success with the 1976 album Shake Some Action. The album reached number 142 on the Billboard Hot 200 chart.
Follow-up albums Now in 1978 and Jumpin’ in the Night would garner even more international fans, yet the band’s slow disintegration began. Sire Records' Seymour Stein began pouring money into younger punk bands like The Ramones, whom the Groovies had taken on multiple tours. The writing was on the wall financially, and Wilson split.
“After 10 years of hitting our heads against the wall, and coming out with what we thought were very commercial songs, we were just very frustrated and couldn’t see any end to it,” Wilson recalls.
Jordan and Alexander forged ahead. Several other band members filed in and out. A more punk version of “Shake Some Action” made it onto an MTV rotation by 1992, yet with no supporting label, no money, and a broken band, the group disbanded.
Wilson moved to London and began a longtime stint with surf band the Barracudas. Jordan hung up his guitar, and Alexander put away his bass and went to work for the post office.
“It was incredibly devastating,” shares Jordan, who turned to his affinity for creating Mickey Mouse comic illustrations for Disney. “I couldn’t listen to the Beatles' records anymore. It was too painful. I couldn’t listen to the Stones. I couldn’t listen to anyone. Something that I thought was going to be forever was this beautiful fuckin' music. All of a sudden, it just died.”
A series of events would lead them back. The first boost came when a cover of “Shake Some Action” was performed by Cracker for the 1995 movie Clueless. Royalties from this song would help fund the band's eventual revival.
In 2004, Jordan led a formation of the Groovies to Spain for the Azkena Rock Festival with the likes of the New York Dolls, Violent Femmes, and Urge Overkill. Jordan and Loney reunited in 2008 and were playing with the veteran rockabilly band the A-Bones. In 2012, at a London A-Bones show, he and Wilson would bury the hatchet.
"There is something very, very strange and indefinable about how easy it was," Jordan says of reuniting. "By the second day of rehearsal it was like 1981, the day after we broke up. Thirty-two years [later], time and space didn't mean shit."
“We just know what each other’s thinking musically,” notes Wilson of what makes them click as co-writers and bandmates. “When we are together, we correct each other’s mistakes and give each other inspiration. We feed off of each other.”
After reuniting Jordan, Wilson and Alexander, hired on Jordan’s drumming mate Victor Penalosa, from his short-lived alt-rock band Magic Christian. Penalosa had grown up on the Flamin’ Groovies music.
Not only has the band since played to packed houses across the U.S., but they've gotten similarly positive receptions in Japan, Spain, Australia, England, France, Sweden, and Belgium. They have also released two singles, “End of the World” in 2014, and "Crazy Macy” this past summer.
The Groovies will head to Annapolis, Maryland, to lay down some of the dozen newer tracks, for their first full-length album together since 1979’s Jumpin’ in the Night.
“It’s mind-boggling really. At our ages,” admits Wilson, who moved to Portland recently after three decades in London. “Victor is the youngest guy at 42, 43. I am 63, Cyril is 68, and George is 70. So we ain’t spring chickens. But we are hardened by seeing all these other bands. The Stones are all in their 60s and 70s.”
For Jordan, the future holds newfound opportunity for the band. His wish is not for fame and fortune though, even now.
“If we could write something and record something that these guys [the Stones and the Beatles] that we love would think is fucking incredible, then we have succeeded in what we had wanted to do in the beginning. Give them something back what they gave us.”
The Flamin’ Groovies come to Phoenix’s Rhythm Room this Sunday, September 4, for their first-ever Arizona show.
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