Flamin’ Groovies, Part 1
Shake Some Action All Over Again!
Okay, all you list-makers and mixtape-compilers, what’s the one song that should be on every goddam list, mixtape or, for that matter, K-Tel compilation of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll songs… ever. Think for a sec. Okay, got it? You sure about that? Positive? Hah. You’re wrong. It’s not “Tutti Frutti,” “Roll Over Beethoven” or “Heartbreak Hotel.” It ain’t “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” either. How about “All Along the Watchtower”? Nope. “More Than a Feeling”? C’mon, you serious? “Smells Like Teen Spirit”? Puh-lease. I got a shotgun cocktail for you right here to put you outta your misery, pal.
How about a few clues?
“Words and music are vehicles a writer uses to convey an idea and/or feeling, and this is a shining example of when the perfect choice of lyrics and melody are utilized to bring a great idea to life. This magical combination, along with a great performance, makes it a timeless, power pop masterpiece.“ – Fred Krc (Freddie Steady 5, Roky Erickson & the Explosives)
“The buildup of the beginning of the song, in its agitated quietude, lays the trap for when the riff comes in and coldcocks you.” – Peter Holsapple (dB’s)
“The greatest power pop song ever. Complex, compelling, poignant, defeated, desperate, soaring, incomprehensible – what else could you want? An entire religion in 4 1/2 minutes.” – Ira Robbins (Trouser Press)
“It is not the greatest power pop song – it may be the THREE greatest power pop songs all by itself!” – Eric Ambel (Del-Lords/Roscoe’s Gang/Steve Earle & the Dukes)
Boy howdy to that, Roscoe. We’re talking “Shake Some Action” by the Flamin’ Groovies. Hell, for nearly a decade, in these very pages, I penned an op-ed column called “Shake Some Action,” dutifully outlining many a musical obsession. And with that title, I also genuflected at the altar of the band who originally offered up the term shake some action via the song (and 1976 album) of the same name. Check those testimonials above; add to them the notation that your truly’s family has strict instructions to play “Shake Some Action” at my funeral; and know that to an entire generation of fans, critics and musicians, the Flamin’ Groovies will always represent something eternally pure, purposeful, righteous and right in the rock world.
“As the years went by, I would occasionally have people come up to me and want to tell me that it was that song for them. It didn’t pay the bills, but it seems we left a big footprint.”
That’s Flamin’ Groovies cofounder Cyril Jordan speaking, and not necessarily in an understatement. The Groovies did leave a footprint – by some reckonings (see above) an immense one – and for the past couple of years the San Francisco-born/based combo has been enjoying an unexpected revival powered by both old-school fans and newcomers to the cause. The group – Jordan (guitar) and cofounder George Alexander (bass), vocalist Chris Wilson (also on guitar) and drummer Victor Penalosa – is touring regularly, serving up sonic serendipity wrought by, yes, “SSA,” but also such timeless (and oft-covered) Groovies gems as Byrdsian jangler “I Can’t Hide,” rough ‘n’ ready garage growler “Teenage Head,” brawny Stones-styled anti-dope anthem “Slow Death” and innumerable dead-on covers of vintage early rock, R&B and Brit-Invasion pop nuggets.
“This is a second chance for us, man,” enthuses Jordan, a note of amazement creeping into his voice. You just never know about guys like us. We recorded all this stuff, and there’s a long, long paper trail, and sometimes, all of a sudden, these things happen for us. It’s amazing.”
The Groovies’ backstory is fairly well-known at this stage, but by way of introduction for those who walked in late: Originally forming in San Francisco in the mid ’60s and releasing a trio of well-regarded but commercially unsuccessful albums (1969’s Supersnazz, 1970’s Flamingo, 1971’s Teenage Head), the group really began to hit its stride when Wilson entered the fold, replacing original singer Roy Loney. They wound up in the UK recording with producer Dave Edmunds, who helmed the iconic Shake Some Action and 1978 follow-up Now, both issued by the legendary Sire label. By the time of 1979’s Jumpin’ In The Night, however, cracks in the firmament were appearing and the band eventually dissolved. In an earlier interview conducted in 2005, singer Wilson told me that things “sort of deteriorated badly. The last things we were doing, at Gold Star Studios, were just a complete debacle. It was horrible, deteriorating into farce. We just started having a lot of arguments.”
Jordan and Alexander would periodically resume operations as the Groovies with new members, but the name was put to rest for good not long after 1993’s Rock Juice.
The fans, though, never gave up the ghost, subsisting on a regular diet of reissues and archival releases and periodically clamoring for a reunion. Noted journalist, author and power pop authority Ken Sharp puts things in perspective, saying, “In terms of the Groovies’ continued appeal, for me it comes down to their seamless ability to merge the sweet and dirty and come off as completely authentic without any artifice. When the Groovies get down live and on record, you know they’re laying their heart on the line and living for the moment and that passion translates across generations. We know intuitively when our artists are phoning it in and fakin’ it and the Groovies can’t help themselves from tethering tightly to the coiled incandescent spark of rock and roll and shakin’ some action.”
As things have a way of working out, Jordan himself apparently never gave up the ghost either. Several years ago he got back together with Loney for a small tour in which the pair resurrected early-era Groovies material. Asked by an interviewer how he’d feel if Wilson turned up in the audience, Jordan responded positively, and sure enough, Wilson came to see them at a London show. An old friendship was instantly rekindled, with no circling around one another warily, no dragging out of the old baggage.
“As soon as we saw each other, there were tears in our eyes,” recalls Jordan. “It was automatic. It made it seem like it was the day after we broke up! Like 33 years of time and space didn’t exist between us.”
It’s possible the seeds of the new summit were sewn in 2010 when Wilson cut a solo album, Love Over Money, as it featured a who’s-who of erstwhile Groovies: Loney, Alexander, James Ferrell and Mike Wilhelm. Or maybe it was just the rock ‘n’ roll gods finally answering the prayers of us greying fans out here in the hinterlands. Whatever the case, by 2013 the postmillennial Flamin’ Grooves were treading the boards, first at the behest of the Hoodoo Gurus’ Dave Faulkner, who invited them to be his special guest at the Gurus’ Dig It Up festival in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Perth. Additional shows were booked in Japan, followed by a sold-out homecoming in San Francisco. The release of another Wilson solo album in 2013, It’s Flamin’ Groovy!, featured the full participation of Jordan, and soon enough a new song billed to the Groovies surfaced, Jordan/Wilson composition “End of the World,” which Jordan describes, rather accurately, as having “a little bit of Blue Oyster Cult in it, a little bit of ‘8 Miles High’ also a bit of the San Francisco improv/jam thing in it.”
Could a full-length be in the works? The magic 8-ball indicates “signs point to yes”…
“I’m real excited,” Jordan says. “We’ve cut rockers, we’ve cut folk-rock, we’ve cut ballads, and stuff that’s a whole new sonic vista. Which is what we were always going for anyway. That was our attitude.”
Talking on the phone with Jordan, I’m struck by how genuinely relaxed and happy he sounds. Over the years he’d developed a reputation for being a tad prickly, perhaps resentful over the fact that other bands the Groovies had clearly influenced were the ones reaping the actual rewards. (Not to take anything away from Big Star, who I dearly love and who deserve every ounce of the latterday acclaim that’s amassed, but the Groovies were mining the power pop motherlode years before Alex Chilton and Chris Bell even convened in a studio in Memphis.) None of that was in evidence during the 90-odd minutes Jordan and I talked. At two points he even stopped the conversation in order to place the phone receiver in front of his stereo and play me some of the new material, clearly jazzed to be able to showcase it and get my feedback. (For the record: “Crazy Macy” is a Liverpool-styled raveup with patented Groovies harmonies, a driving beat and a sharp ascending/descending chord progression, while “Cryin’ Shame” is a 12-string powered folk-rock number with a psychedelic wah-wah guitar motif going on in the background; the latter tune has yet to have vocals added to it, but for my money it sound so perfectly Groovies-esque that a blindfold test would have even the staunches fan thinking it was cut back in the day during sessions for Now.)
Jordan always kept in touch with bassist Alexander, even during the protracted period during which he essentially retired from the music industry and earned a living writing and doing his art. (Go to CyrilJordan.com to view some of his visual work.) So the two of them resuming operations together in the Groovies was never in question. He also singles out Penalosa for special praise, citing both the drummer’s natural gifts and his affinity for the material. “Out of all the guys we’ve had in the past, Danny [Mihm, Groovies drummer for the first three albums] and the others, they’ve always been capable of coming up with great arrangements for new songs, but Victor – who’s in his thirties; he’s the baby! – is really fast. A session drummer whiz. And playing with him onstage, I’ll look at him and go, ‘You sound exactly like the record. Keep it up!’ Every part. And he corrects us, too! He’s having a ball, such a big Groovies fan.”
But Jordan cites his rekindled bond with Wilson as the key to what makes the Flamin’ Groovies Mk. 2015 special. “In truth, we were just getting started at the end of the ‘70s, and Chris and I were just discovering our songwriting abilities. We weren’t finished, but the band broke up. So this is really a great pleasure for us. From the first day in rehearsal, it was second nature to us. And the more we did it all of a sudden Chris and I were writing songs together again. Next thing we know, we’re in the recording studio. We’ve been in the studio for the past year and a half, working on the album.”
I wonder aloud if, given how he clearly relishes the “second chance” they’ve gotten, is part of this something that only comes with time and aging – that maybe there’s a lesson here worth relaying to younger musicians.
“It should come with age and maturity, yeah. Unfortunately, these lessons are hard to learn. The wisdom of letting go of anger. This is one of the great Christian ethics: those who maintain their anger slide into madness, and it can ruin their lives. And the other thing is, too, is that nothing last forever, and that includes tragedy. So there’s a certain amount of wisdom involved in finding this out. Hopefully people find this out. You asked me if it comes with old age – I don’t know if it does. You have to be lucky enough to realize it at one point in your life. You go to the Middle East and they are cursed – they can’t find the wisdom, and they don’t believe the wisdom of that Christian ethic, so look at what’s happened. This nomadic kingdom has collapsed, and there’s no unity.
“So my point is, that to have the knowledge that you need to have a good end to your life is quite intricate.”
Jordan laughs semi-ruefully. “I don’t know how we did it!”
Somewhere in the middle of all this is The Incredible Flamin’ Groovies, a Kickstarter-funded documentary about the band in the works by William Tyler Smith and Kurt Feldhun. Or perhaps more accurately, somewhere in the middle of all this is The Flamin’ Groovies, as the filmmakers have been following the band around on tour and at recording sessions, with an emphasis more on the current incarnation than earlier times, along with testimonials from “an eclectic range of talking heads, among them Mick Jones, Keith Richards, Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators, director John Carpenter and actors Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer.” (Maybe Smith and Feldhun should also interview the creator of daily newspaper comic strip Zits: in a strip that ran last August 27, teenage protagonist Jeremy’s impossibly square dad was spotted wearing a Groovies T-shirt!)
“There’s actually footage of us at that first rehearsal,” says Jordan. That will give you an idea of how fun and automatic it was for us. As it progresses, it’s mostly us onstage in different towns around the world. We’re interviewed separately too. I think the guys who are doing it are doing a great job. But there hasn’t been a session yet where they ask us about the beginning of the band, or the different versions and the other guys who were in it. I’m the guy who brought everybody in. Danny, James, Chris, Mike Wilhelm, David Wright, Victor of course. So I’m kinda like Phil Spector in that regard, where I’m kind of a supervisor. I get the positions together, I co-write with Chris, I do the arrangements, set up the session, I do all of that. Spector, or maybe Brian Wilson.”
The film’s Kickstarter pledge page does indicate that it will delve into the band’s history. There have been several trailers released to date, and included are priceless shots of adoring Japanese punters clustering around the band for autographs. The looks on the four musicians’ faces while they are onstage are equally memorable: here is a band finally getting its due not in the secondhand sense of a positive review or a namecheck in some other artist’s interview, but directly from the folks who count the most – the fans.
Jordan is quick to emphasize the role those fans are playing in his band’s new lease on life. In addition to the one-on-one feedback they get at shows, he’s particularly energized by the response to the new material, saying, “We’re pleased because a lot of people have said it’s very easy to immediately know it’s the Groovies. We’ve kept the same fans for so many fans, and we’ve got new ones now, a new generation, so it’s nice to keep that acceptance and to continue as we did.”
The Groovies will be touring throughout the spring (and most likely the summer as well), including a special show in San Francisco on April 17 at which they’ll perform the entire Shake Some Action album start to finish. In reflecting upon the enduring power of that record as well as his band’s signature song, Wilson told me in 2005 that he reckoned “Shake Some Action”’s initial appeal in the mid ‘70s could be “put down to being sort of the zeitgeist. The spirit of those times sort of came across in a big and easily translatable way. There’s some bits of nostalgia, perhaps. Somehow it was just the general ambiance of what was going around us at the time. How we felt, and how the world felt, too!”
Jordan adds, for the 2015 generation, “It’s like I was saying, there’s something unique and something familiar about it. Like with the Beatles, it was all brand new, sure, but they had something familiar, too, that rock ‘n’ roll root. Everybody knows that sound. And there seems to be a magic there.”
Summarizes journalist Ken Sharp, “The Groovies had it all; they merged ’50s rock rave-up energy with studied Beatles/Stones/Byrds classicism coupled with pop smarts of an educated music fan. That equation equals pure pop nirvana.”
Getting all that down? Good. Start shakin’, kids.
Photo by P Squared Photography.