Finally, The Flamin’ Groovies
Nearly 50 years after it began, the legendary band is back together and will finally perform in Milwaukee.
Nearly five decades after they first began, the Flamin’ Groovies, who play next week Saturday, at Northern Lights Theater, are finally making it to Milwaukee.
The band’s long, strange trip from San Francisco circa 1965 to Brew City is not one that can be explained by a GPS. It is one marked with typical and not-so-typical destinations and detours for rock ‘n’ roll musicians: lots of lineup changes, hopefulness, drugs, disgust, delight, numerous record labels, bitter breakups, and several no-doubt, oft-covered, true blue classics: “Teenage Head,” “Slow Death,” “You Tore Me Down” and “Shake Some Action.”
The late music historian and Bomp Records honcho Greg Shaw described the Flamin’ Groovies in down-and-out yet heroic terms for an article he wrote about the band – a decade into its existence – for the spring 1975 issue of his celebrated magazine Who Put the Bomp!
“The Flamin’ Groovies have endured perhaps more hardships and disappointments than any of their fellow survivors, been screwed so many times by managers and record companies that it became a way of life, and been without a recording contract for so long that some of their best friends aren’t even sure if they are still together. … When the Flamin’ Groovies finally emerge, I can’t think of any band in the world with greater potential to create real mania and show the world what a rock & roll band should be.”
A few years before Shaw, whose first release on Bomp was a 45 of the Groovies’ “You Tore Me Down”/”Him or Me,” pounded out his proclamation, the band had undergone what would be its biggest transformation in 1971– the departure of original lead singer Roy Loney and entrance of Chris Wilson. With Loney and the songs he wrote with guitarist Cyril Jordan, such as “Headin’ for the Texas Border” and “High Flyin’ Baby,” the Flamin’ Groovies had made their name – or perhaps sullied it in some quarters – over three albums with wild-ass, R&B-based rock-n-roll that had bad intentions, loud guitars and heartwarming lines like “When ya’ see me/better turn your tail and run, ‘cause I’m angry and I’ll mess you up for fun.”
With Wilson on board, the band began to shift its focus to a more pop-oriented sound that took its cues from the Byrds, Beatles and others, but it would be five more years before the Flamin’ Groovies would put out another full-length album. In 1976, the Dave Edmunds-produced Shake Some Action began a run of three albums on Sire Records. The new Groovies songwriting team of Wilson and Jordan would substantially add to the band’s legacy, but once again “making it” wasn’t in the cards, and by 1981, Wilson was out of the band.
By that point, Wilson said in a phone interview with me, he and Jordan “couldn’t stand the sight of each other.”
“We were totally fed up,” he says. “I didn’t want to see anybody for years. I didn’t want to play music anymore. I was so pissed off and frustrated with the whole thing. I did give up for a couple of years.
“Ten years of living out of each other’s suitcases and have no flipping success, you know, it was really hard.”
Wilson moved to London and eventually joined another band (The Barracudas), while The Flamin’ Groovies would continue on for another decade, performing on and off. They put out their last studio album in 1992 and disbanded shortly afterward.
The seeds of the current reunion go back to 2008 when Loney and Jordan teamed to do some live shows with members of The A-Bones and Yo La Tengo that took them to London. There they met up with Wilson, who had hoped to enlist them both for a solo album he was doing. Wilson explains their shared agreement to put the past behind them this way: “I went down to a show to see them, and we all just went, aw f*#k, here we are.”
A-Bones drummer Miriam Linna, who runs Brooklyn-based Norton Records with husband and bandmate Billy Miller, is a Flamin’ Groovies expert and hardcore fan. She published a Flamin’ Groovies fanzine in the 1970s, and Norton has released several Flamin’ Groovies live albums, singles and rarities compilations. She offered her assessment of the dual appeal of the long-running band.
“Throughout many lineup variations over the years, the only constant has been Cyril Jordan. Without Cyril, there could not be a Flamin’ Groovies,” Linna tells me. “That said, neither can there be a true Groovies without one of the two lead singers – original and never-to-be-trumped main man Roy Loney of “Teenage Head” and “Flamingo” fame, and Chris Wilson of “Shake Some Action” fame.
“For many fans, for many years, the twain never met – in fact it was impossible that the twain could meet,” Linna goes on. “It was understood that Roy represented the original real rock ‘n’ roll-based band, and Chris represented the Shake Some Action era, which was unfortunately relegated to power pop status, a phrase that still gives me the willies. No one ever touched the hem of the Teenage Head garment, on the terms that the Loney-Jordan godhead established, and the same goes with the Wilson-fronted SSA lineup – they are simply unbeatable.”
Last year, Wilson and Jordan, along with original bassist George Alexander and new drummer Victor Penalosa did shows as the Flamin’ Groovies in Japan and Australia and a few dates around the United States. In November, Wilson and Jordan released the digital-only single “End of the World,” which was the first song they had written together in 32 years.
Writing with Jordan was like “falling off a log” – no trouble at all, Wilson says: “We’re constantly making each other laugh. Cyril’s a couple of years older than me, but we grew up in that period in America in the late ‘50s and ‘60s where everything was so cool and so funny. We’re actually mean, crotchety old bastards now. We always have had the same sense of humor and we finish each other’s sentences. He was like my brother. His mum was like my mum; she took care of me for 10 years. I lived pretty much with Cyril and his family. We’re old mates.”
Wilson says the band just finished recording two more songs in San Francisco that he co-wrote with Jordan, including “Like a Hurricane,” a song that they wrote for Merry Clayton, who was recently featured in the documentary 20 Feet From Stardom.
The Flamin’ Groovies hope to put out a full-length album of new material, Wilson says, but the band might first put out a few more songs as digital downloads.
“I try not to get involved with all that,” he says. “It’s enough for me to actually play and sing. I hate the business end of it because I really don’t understand it anymore – if I ever did.”
A documentary about the band, The Incredible Flamin’ Groovies Movie, is currently being filmed by William Tyler Smith and Kurt Feldhun. Information about it can be found at here.
“Get your tickets now,” Wilson said. “It’s going to be very funny. Very cinéma vérité.”
Linna said it is great to have to the Flamin’ Groovies back in all its versions. Alexander and Jordan joined Loney and past Groovies Mike Wilhelm and James Ferrell for Wilson’s recent solo album, It’s Flamin’ Groovy!
“The fact that both tag teams have reunited to serve up the majesty of the band whose fan club I ran as a teenager, is unbelievable,” she says. “The huge benefit of George Alexander coming to the fore on bass has resulted in the joyous, unchanged onstage guitar/bass bond that is transcendent. I’ll always love the music of the Flamin’ Groovies – always.”
8 p.m. Saturday, May 10, Northern Lights Theater. Tickets can be purchased here.