Starting out in San Francisco as early as 1965 (actually predating the Grateful Dead!), the Flamin Groovies were always out of step with the rock world. Ten years before bands routinely released their own independent records, the Groovies issued a 10-inch mini-album, Sneakers; in the ’70s, when that same do-it-yourself spirit was inspiring countless innovative bands to try and challenge the old boundaries, the Groovies retreated to make albums of beat group nostalgia, wearing period clothes and refusing to acknowledge that times had indeed changed.
Always more cult-popular and influential than commercially successful, the Groovies, led by irascible but talented guitarist/singer Cyril Jordan and (until 1971) singer/guitarist Roy A. Loney, always embodied the rebellious, youthful spirit that fueled punk, but held tenuously to their musical roots — ’50s American rock’n’roll and ’60s British pop. In effect, they provided inspiration for countless bands (how many covers of “Slow Death” can you name?) and are legendary for good reason.
The Groovies’ recording career, generally more exciting on hit-and-run singles than in a sustained album situation, began with the competent amateurism of Sneakers — Loney originals played with great energy and a slight psychedelic undercurrent — and continued on their major-label debut, Supersnazz, which encompasses a variety of disparate rock’n’roll styles (peaking with killer versions of Little Richard’s “The Girl Can’t Help It” and Eddie Cochran’s “Somethin’ Else”) but is more ambitious than impressive. Flamingo and Teenage Head (years later, the former was reissued as This Is the Flamin Groovies in Germany) are the band’s strongest early efforts, taking advantage of improved skills and equipment to make loud, brash records in sharp contrast to the era’s prevailing bland and puffed- up music.
Following Loney’s departure, the Groovies drafted talented guitarist/singer Chris Wilson and began heading in a new direction. They moved to England, hooked up with Dave Edmunds as their producer and, in 1972, recorded the music that would close one phase of the band’s career and open the next. Only things didn’t exactly work out that way. Later collected as The Rockfield Sessions mini-album, those first seven efforts yielded a pair of rock’n’roll singles (including the absolutely classic “Slow Death” b/w “Tallahassie [sic] Lassie”), a B-side of Chuck Berry’s “Little Queenie” and — most importantly — two harbingers of the Groovies’ new past that wouldn’t surface for four years. When the Groovies finally reemerged with the Edmunds-produced Shake Some Action in 1976, it was those two ’72 leftovers — “You Tore Me Down” and the amazing, apocalyptic Byrds-like title track — which most reflected the group’s power-pop reorientation.
Still Shakin was rushed out by their old label (Buddah and Kama Sutra being related) as a last chance to cash in, combining tracks from Flamingo and Teenage Head with a 1971 live-in-the-studio side.
Meanwhile, the Groovies were busy reversing into the future. Now and Jumpin’ in the Night delve further into the past, mixing studiously reproduced British Invasion (and related ’60s American) standards with soundalike originals. While these records are faintly ridiculous and too historically reverent to be taken very seriously, both contain catchy, melodic pop tunes that are impossible to disdain. Besides including the band’s fine “Yeah My Baby,” Now faithfully revisits the Stones (“Paint It, Black,” “Blue Turns to Grey”), the Beatles (“There’s a Place”) and — perhaps most convincingly — the Byrds (“Feel a Whole Lot Better”). Produced without Edmunds, Jumpin’ in the Night is less effective, with such inadvisable digressions as Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” and Bob Dylan’s “Absolutely Sweet Marie” joining the Beatles’ “Please Please Me” and the Byrds’ “5D,” “It Won’t Be Wrong” and “Ladyfriend.”
The Groovies didn’t issue any new recordings between 1979 and 1987, leading to suspicions that the band had ceased to exist. During that period, however, ongoing European (especially French) interest prompted the release of numerous reissues, compilations and vintage concert material. Slow Death, Live! and its equivalent American release, Bucketful of Brains, date from a 1971 San Francisco show at the Fillmore; Live at the Whisky A Go-Go ’79 is from an LA date and features such songs as “Shake Some Action” and “Feel a Whole Lot Better”; Roadhouse is a British repackage combining tracks from the two Kama Sutra albums. Groovies’ Greatest Grooves, a graphics-encoded 24-track CD, contains most of the non-covers from the band’s three Sire albums, as well as five non-originals and some earlier classics, like “Teenage Head,” “Slow Death” and “Tallahassee Lassie.”
Although a modest return by any measure, Cyril, bassist George Alexander and three new bandmates did record a new album in 1986: One Night Stand, which was done in a single day (two, if you count mixdown) in an Australian studio, sounds live and contains shaggy roadhouse renditions of classic originals (“Shake Some Action,” “Slow Death,” “Teenage Head”) as well as Paul Revere and the Raiders’ “Kicks,” the Who’s “Call Me Lightning” and other covers. If not quite a record to cherish, a reassuring audible reminder that the band lives on — and that Jordan’s heart is still in it.
A safe bet for neophytes (but by no means an exhaustive career overview) is Groovies’ Greatest Grooves. The 24-song compilation contains most of the original material from the band’s three ’70s albums for Sire as well as five covers from earlier Groovies greats. Cartoons by Jordan (who has long earned his living as a commercial artist) make it a nifty package; detailed liner notes by Michael Goldberg and Michael Snyder put the music in context.
Goldberg then took a more active role in the Flamin Groovies’ existence: he saw to the release of the band’s first real studio album in thirteen years. Crediting only Jordan and charter bassist George Alexander (while thanking the guitarist and drummer who played with them on One Night Stand), Rock Juice is perfectly pleasant Byrds-Beatles power pop. The bulk of the songs are new Jordan lost-love originals. “Hold on Me” is a sparkling keeper; “I’m Only What You Want Me to Be” layers on the stylistic dust for a convincing time-warp to early-’60s sap balladry; the Lennon tribute, “Thanks John,” is sweet in spite of its obviousness. To round things off and provide some vintage variety, the Groovies dig through the record collection to cover Bryan Hyland’s “Sealed With a Kiss,” the Modern Folk Quartet’s Phil Spector-penned “This Could Be the Night” and Billy Riley’s “Flyin’ Saucers Rock’n’Roll.”