Flamin’ Groovies, Part 2
Between The Lines:
Flamin’ Groovies Singer Chris Wilson Looks Back on the Band’s Classic Period
In the fall of 2005 I interviewed Chris Wilson from his home in England; at the time he was still somewhat estranged from erstwhile songwriting partner Cyril Jordan – intriguingly, he was also working on a Groovies-inspired project with some former members of the Barracudas – but he willingly discussed the Groovies salad days during the ‘70s. – Fred Mills
Going all the way back, tell me how Cyril snatched you away from your previous band in San Francisco, Loose Gravel.
In August or September of 1971, we had no bloody work, I was living on foodstamps and doing odd jobs, and I couldn’t survive like that much longer. I’d even arranged for my family to wire me some money so I could come home. We’d done a tour a couple of months before supporting the Groovies and Dan Hicks through the Midwest, and we’d gotten along pretty well. Cyril and I at the time had got on, we had a lot of the same influences – for example, we really liked Dave Edmunds. The word had gotten around to Cyril, Danny and George that I was about to leave, so they turned up at the flat and they said, “Look, we’re sort of having trouble. We’re not getting along with Roy anymore and we think there’s going to be a parting of the ways soon. Would you consider joining the Flamin’ Groovies?” At that time they had quite a record deal and all that, and I said, “Hell yes!”
Did you and Cyril start writing songs together immediately? Did you hit it off creatively?
Yeah, pretty much. The first song I ever wrote, I actually wrote by myself. It didn’t come out until years later – it’s called “All I Wanted” [on Now]. The first one that Cyril and I wrote, I think, was “Shake Some Action.” We didn’t use that right away either! Those things that came out on Skydog were also among the first things we wrote, like “Blues From Phyllis.” He mostly wrote the music and I wrote the lyrics.
In the United Artists period you still had what I’ll call, in general, a heavy Stones vibe. At that point were you already thinking about moving into the pop direction that would characterize SSA?
Not in a conscious fashion. Part of it I think was we began going through some personnel problems. Danny [Mihm, drums] wasn’t getting on with it. Cyril did want to get more melodic and do more harmony-type things, while Danny wanted to get more raunchy. James [Ferrell, guitar] was kind of undecided, and George would go with anything Cyril said. I was of two minds, but then I liked to sing and I liked what I was doing, so I sort of sided with them too. Then for some reason, in 1974, ’75, Cyril got this very strange Beatles fixation. Which, you know, I’ve always been a fan of the Beatles, and so were all of us. But Cyril had the strange thing of wanting to be them.
Not long after you hooked up with Dave Edmunds for the first time, right?
Yeah, and that’s a very funny story. When we’d tried to get signed to United Artists in 1971, the company didn’t want to know about us in Los Angeles. So our fan and head of A&R in London Andrew Lauder said that shouldn’t be a problem – I’ll get you a spot over here. We’d heard that Dave Edmunds had been producing, and of course he’d played and produced his own records, so we said we’d like to get him to produce. He said yeah, that’s no problem, he works with some of our bands. There were some Welsh bands on UA at the time. [Soon] we were off to Rockfield Studios in Wales. Strangely enough, Dave was sitting in the studio, and they used to get the music papers delivered at the beginning of the week, and he was looking at Melody Maker going, “Oh, who is this American group, the Flamin’ Groovies? They are recording at Rockfield.” And [Rockfield co-owner] Kingsley went, “Oh yeah, yeah, these boys are coming, American band, very rock ‘n’ roll apparently.” Dave read down a bit further: “Bloody hell, it says they’re being produced by Dave Edmunds!” He was chuckling when we first met him because he’d had no idea, and he wasn’t actually sure he’d do it until he met us. He said, “I know nothing about this and I’m fucking off!” But when he met us he thought, okay, I like these lads.
Did you have the songs for SSA written or did any of them unfold in the studio?
Lots of it unfolded while we were there. We often just had an idea, either a guitar lick or a few words. Because of where Rockfield is, it’s off in the Welsh countryside and away from the distractions of London and the big towns, we just used to sit with the acoustic guitars in the kitchen of this 600 year old farm house and sort of batter away at stuff until we came up with something. Then we could go down to the studio at any time of the day or night, and we’d always have an engineer around to lay something down if Dave himself wasn’t there. But he’d often be there because he loved being in the studio. And things did just come out of nowhere. “I Can’t Hide” was a song like that, that just came out that night. It was on the night of the hunter’s moon in the middle of November, and it was really cold and frosty and really a sort of magical night.
Tell me a little about the song “Shake Some Action.” There’s both an early version and the better-known album version that launched a thousand power pop versions – it’s clearly sped up compared to the other one.[There was a] first version, from ’72. There was also another version we did in ’73 along with something else, that we did at Capitol Studios with a guy called Terry Rae, who was in a group called the Hollywood Stars. The Capitol one was a different version because they said either change the arrangement or speed it up or slow it down or something because we don’t want it to be the same one that UA has produced. So I think we just wanted to have it different. We just went, okay, let’s try this, and [speeding it up] seemed to work!
As the Groovies were transitioning to that poppier sound, the SSA album came out during the punk era and you wound up touring with the Ramones…
I remember the first time we played with the Ramones in London. It was the first time they’d played a gig outside of New York, and afterwards John came offstage and he was in tears. He had spit all over him and he went [in moaning tone of voice], “I can’t even hold my guitar pick…!” And I said to John, “Well man, don’t stand there and take it!”… Our careers went one way and theirs [the Ramones] went the other.
Sire’s Seymour Stein did stick with you for three albums. That wouldn’t happen now, would it? You’d have that one-album shot.
You’re probably right. But they never gave us the push that we needed. I mean, we never had full-page ads or anything like that. We never had radio spots. And it was before groups were really advertised on television. And they just wouldn’t go the whole way, and that’s what was needed to get us into the real general public as opposed to people who loved music. Greg [Shaw] was managing us for a brief period and we thought that was great because he was a friend of Seymour’s. But then when Greg would stand up for us, trying to get something out of the label that we really needed like advertising, then Seymour would say, “No, I can’t do it.”
Okay, let’s talk a bit about Now and Jumpin’ In The Night – that one, of course, you didn’t work with Edmunds on. And then the band broke up not long after Jumpin’…
Well, I’ll tell you, Flamin’ Groovies Now, for me, was the most fun and I think my favorite one. It was an absolutely wonderful time in my life. I was 23 years old, driving around London in Daimler limousines, wearing tailor made suits, living in the country. And it was one of the most creative times for me too. I love all the songs we did for that album and we had a brilliant time doing them. One of the few periods when there wasn’t any angst and things were working.[Edmunds] said he was going to do [Jumpin’] then he turned up, took some of the “supplies,” if you know what I mean, that were on hand, and then never came back. We were quite disappointed by him. We found out that he was being managed by Jake Riviera at the time, and Jake had forbade him from doing it. Dave said, “No, I’m gonna do it.” And Jake said, “No, look at your contract. If you do, I’m gonna sue your arse.” Dave was terribly embarrassed about it and wouldn’t even speak to us, really, because of that for some years.
With Jumpin’ things were just starting go south in a lot of ways, you know? I think we were all pretty fed up with one another. Also, after Jumpin’ I got married to my missus in 1978, and there was sort of a jealousy there with Cyril because I wasn’t under his thumb anymore. Things sort of deteriorated badly. And unfortunately there was also a lot of drug abuse at the time. Dave Wright, our drummer, had health issues as well – he got fed up with the wrangling and the arguing and the shouting. It was like a messy family divorce.