Flamin' Groovies: The Greatest Band You've Never Heard Of
His mom's water broke while she was at the circus, says Flamin' Groovies guitarist/songwriter Cyril Jordan, and that's when he must've first heard the roar of the crowd, he says—which might be why he spent pretty much his entire life in one of the greatest rock & roll bands in the USA.
Before he could even play, he'd sneak into shows at San Francisco's Cow Palace and watch the 1962 Beach Boys wobble through a live set with Brian Wilson on bass, Dennis Wilson on drums and terrifying Wilson father Murry popping out his glass eye to scare the girls up front. By 1965, he and Groovies front man Roy Loney started rehearsing; by 1966, they were a band, and he wouldn't retire till 1995—but only temporarily!
Besides his own formidable power-pop band Magic Christian, due for a date at Alex's Bar next week, he's back together with Loney for the first Flamin' Groovies shows on the West Coast since 1984. "It's funny," he says. "As time goes on, things in the past seem to be like gum on the shoes—you can't get 'em off."
But that's like . . . Keith Richards wondering why people can't get over that whole Rolling Stones thing. Jordan's Flamin' Groovies might not be a household name (except in all the best households!), but as with contemporaries Big Star, they were a foundational band who never quite got their break. And unlike Big Star, they held on for decades, becoming one of those rare acts that managed two distinct classic eras and at least two distinct masterpieces.
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First, there was the Loney-era rock & roll of 1971's Teenage Head. Groovies Fan Club president Miriam Linna—who'd go on to drum for the Groovies at a recent reunion—declared it to be an American answer to the Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers, inspired by the blues and rockabilly of Sun and Chess Records. After Loney left the band, Jordan regrouped with new singer Chris Wilson for the heartfelt (and sometimes heartbreaking) power-pop of 1976's Shake Some Action, with a title track destined to live forever.
But beneath those masterpieces? Even more masterpieces! Such as the barely released 1973 Capitol sessions, on which immortal non-album cut "Slow Death"—written in a Detroit hotel room in the midst of a local drug war—appears at its brutal best, capping a revved-up selection of Groovies classics delivered with Who or MC5-style ferocity. Or the stripped-for-speed Flamingo, recorded in just hours and declared finished only when the audio levels bled into the red. Or predecessor Supersnazz, the Groovies' full-length debut and most lavish release, which spins through garage, rock & roll, power-pop, slow-burning sad songs, even country and soul with barely a misstep.
As Linna wrote last year, the Groovies (even more than the Stooges and the MC5) were the "common denominator" of American proto-punk. "In the '70s, you just couldn't trust anyone without the Groovies in their personal stash. . . . There was something in their sound and style that made us feel like one of them."
"People want something real, you know what I mean?" says Jordan now, speaking from his home in San Francisco, where the Groovies began and released their own 10-inch EP decades before DIY became a viable alternative. "I remember AM radio before rock & roll at babysitters' houses—it was awful! 'Hernando's Hideaway' and 'Give Me Fever'—the squarest stuff you'd ever think of!"
This time around, the backing band are guitarist Larry Lee, drummer John Moreman and bassist Don Ciccone, a superfan who moved to the West Coast decades ago only to discover the Groovies breaking up. "I'm paying him back by letting him play bass in this version," says Jordan. And any animosity between Loney and Jordan is just one of many urban legends surrounding the band, he explains. Instead, although future Groovies dates are "up in the air," he says, with the right type of future shows, this "could keep going."
"We just ran the set last week—did about 18 songs, no problem," says Jordan. "After we did it, I looked at Roy and said, 'Doesn't this remind you of something? That night you picked me up in 1965 with my Vox amp and my 235 Gibson, and we just played one song after another?' By the end of the night, we'd become a band! And that's how bands are born!"
Exactly—and that's how bands are reborn, too.
This article appeared in print as "Reborn Again: The greatest band you've never heard of, the Flamin' Groovies, come back to life."
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