The storied rock 'n' roll band is back and the possible subject of a new documentary.
When I told Cyril Jordan of The Flamin’ Groovies about seeing the band play two nights at a banquet hall in Southern Ontario - the sort of thing you’d think would make an impression on a rock band - he answered, “Wow. I don’t remember that.” But it was the early 1980s and the band had more or less just come apart, fueled by exhaustion and drugs. The Groovies started in San Francisco in 1965 playing wild versions of songs from the first rock ’n’ roll era. The band’s Supersnazz album includes covers of Little Richard’s “The Girl Can’t Help It,” Huey “Piano” Smith’s “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu,” and Eddie Cochran’s “Something Else.” That incarnation ended in the early 1970s, and Jordan put together a new version with singer and guitarist Chris Wilson, and this more Beatles-oriented incarnation cut the classic “Shake Some Action” with producer Dave Edmunds and released three albums on Sire Records before being released. After that, the band imploded but the offers didn’t.
“We got a really good offer from [the] William Morris [Agency] to tour the East Coast,” Jordan says. “I quickly put a ragtag band together and brought Danny [Mihm, the Groovies original drummer] back in. Then that band broke down and George [Alexander, the Groovies’ bassist] and I put a band together and started working on Rock Juice,” the album the band released in 1993.
Jordan, Chris Wilson and George Alexander have reunited, and that version of The Flamin’ Groovies will play One Eyed Jacks tonight. A Kickstarter campaign has been started to fund a documentary film by William Tyler Smith and Kurt Feldhun about the reunion tour. It’s the story of the band that never got in sync with its time, particularly the ‘70s incarnation that made three very good albums - Shake Some Action, Now, Jumpin’ in the Night - at a time of The Eagles, Kiss, The Bee Gees and punk. “There was always enough people that went crazy when we played that we never got to the point of, Well, nobody digs us,” Jordan says, but eventually, banging their heads against that satin-jacketed wall broke them down and led to a lengthy rift between Jordan and Wilson.
“We were being dropped by Sire Records,” Jordan says. “We got tired. We were beaten up and cast aside, and the feeling was that this thing’s over, and you couldn’t stop that feeling with anybody in the band because it looked like it was.” When Wilson didn’t show up for a show and left Jordan to sing, it was over. The two made up a couple of years ago when Jordan and the first Flamin’ Groovies singer, Roy Loney, played England after playing the Ponderosa Stomp in New Orleans. “We probably would have made up sooner if we’d have seen each other. But he was in England and I’m here in California, and the distance kept us apart.”
The process of putting this incarnation together was a wake up call for Jordan. He found out that Danny Mihm had suffered a stroke and was unable to play, while other former members had lost interest in playing. “I live in a time warp,” he says. “I’m pretty much the same as I was 50 years ago. I still dig Famous Monsters magazine, Mad magazine, and found out that a lot of people have outgrown what I call ‘The Craze’ - the disease of wanting to be in a rock band.”
The Sire albums were sympathetically produced by Dave Edmunds, whose respect for rock ’n’ roll tradition and restraint made him the logical choice. “When we heard [Edmunds’ version of] ‘I Hear You Knockin’’ in 1969, the sound on the record was so great that we thought Rockfield was the new Sun recording studios,” Jordan says. Edmunds found out he was going to produce the band through the press. Jordan got assurances from their label that getting Edmunds would be no problem, so he did interviews with the British music press saying that Edmunds was going to produce the band.
“UA had never contacted Edmunds,” Jordan says, and Edmunds learned he was doing the session when the Rockfield Studios owner called him to say the Groovies were on their way and he’d better come over. “They all thought we were this big band from America.”
The sessions were productive. “We recorded all of our classics,” Jordan says. “We wrote ‘You Tore Me Down’ in 10 minutes. We cut ’Slow Death,’ ‘Get a Shot of Rhythm and Blues,’ ‘Talahassee Lassie’ and we’ve been living off those songs ever since. We were so excited to be there that all this originality poured out of us.”
“Slow Death” had been around since the Roy Loney days, written after seeing how many friends and acquaintances were dealing with heroin addiction. It was an odd choice for a single in England, and one that really didn’t work out when the BBC banned it because it mentioned morphine.
One of the high points from those sessions was “I Can’t Hide,” which features Chris Wilson on guitar because the other guitarist was done for the day and didn’t want to home back. “Chris came up with guitar parts that were so brilliant and complicated that I still can’t figure out what he was playing,” Jordan says. “We wanted to revamp the band to where we were when we recorded ‘I Can’t Hide.’”
All of that material is available on the band’s Sire albums including the last and least-loved, Jumpin’ in the Night. It has some pedestrian moments, but it also includes the rave-up title track, the great “In the USA” that emerges oddly and organically out of a drum beat, and covers of Bob Dylan’s Absolutely Sweet Marie” and, improbably, Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London.” They played the latter during a rehearsal and someone said it was better than Zevon’s and that they had to cut it. “The other thing is that we were having trouble with Seymour [Stein, owner of Sire Records], and Seymour gets half of our publishing. I figured, Fuck this, I’m not going to write any songs. So we cut a bunch of covers. We had four or five songs finished and ready, but we’re the kind of band that comes up with the goods when we’re excited. The sessions for Jumpin’, we kind of had the wind taken out of us, and that’s probably why we don’t have more originals on it.”
In the last few decades, The Flamin’ Groovies’ recording history has been shaky, with albums of uncertain provenance appearing on the market. For a while, even Jordan flirted with quitting. “Frankly, it’s been difficult to get out of this business,” he says. “It’s been like gum on my shoe. When the band broke up in 1990, I didn’t play my guitar for five years. I was working for Walt Disney doing Mickey Mouse comic book covers. I went back to art. One day I get a letter from Paramount Studios and it’s an offer to use ‘Shake Some Action’ in a movie some director’s making with actors I’ve never heard of. It turns out to be Clueless , so all of a sudden I’m sucked back in.”