The Flamin' Groovies - Biography
The Flamin’ Groovies were a San Francisco band who began playing together in 1965, while the members were still in high school. Singer Roy Loney came out of an acting background and had previously played folk music informally with friends, before the advent of the Beatles steered him towards pop music. The band played the usual Beatles, Kinks and Rolling Stones covers at high-school dances and Battle of the Bands events.. Guitarist Cyril Jordan, the other mainstay of the band, was still learning to play guitar when the band made their first record, the 10” EP Sneakers, (1968 Snazz) released on their own label. The record, a blend of Lovin’ Spoonful-influenced goodtime jug music and fifties rock ‘n’ roll, helped to get them signed to Epic Records. They released Supersnazz (1969 Epic), their first proper album, the following year. The album continued the musical style shown on the earlier EP, but suffered from over-production that threatened to sink the simple rock 'n' roll numbers in string and horn sections. Supersnazz failed to sell and Epic quickly dropped the band within a year of signing them. Their second album, Flamingo (1971 Kama Sutra) found the band dropping the folkie side of their material in favor of harder rocking songs that still retained the humor of the earlier material, particularly in the almost vaudevillian melodrama of “Coming After Me.”
It has often been said that the Groovies’ music was out of step with the popular music of their time, but this viewpoint over-simplifies the matter. At the time of the release of Supersnazz, both The Beatles and The Rolling Stones had shaken off their psychedelic trappings and released albums that returned to their simpler, early 60s records. Bob Dylan had turned his back on the excesses of the Woodstock generation and released the quiet folk album John Wesley Harding and the double album Self Portrait, which consisted of mostly pre-rock 'n' roll cover tunes. And Creedence Clearwater Revival, (possibly the biggest American band at the time), with their workaday appearance, string of top ten singles and frequent covers of 50s rock ‘n’ roll, were the antithesis of hippy jamming and endless guitar solos.
The Groovies were also influenced by the high-energy Detroit bands, particularly The Stooges and The MC5. Flamingo shows these latter influences, from its clangorous Little Richard cover to originals such as “Heading For the Texas Border,” which could fit comfortably on a Creedence Clearwater Revival album. But like the previous release, the album suffered from a flat-sounding production, particularly the rhythm section, which sometimes sounds as if it were recorded from another room. Onstage Roy Loney was a powerful and compelling performer, a ball of energy, which went a long way toward masking his journeyman vocal skills. But on record, these shortcomings were more obvious.
The band stuck with Kama Sutra long enough to release their finest effort prior to Loney’s departure from the band. Teenage Head (1971 Kama Sutra) was reportedly compared favorably to the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers by Mick Jagger himself. Teenage Head melded their 50s influences and proto-punk sound into a mature and consistent whole. Opening track “High Flyin’ Baby” bears a very strong vocal and instrumental resemblance to Captain Beefheart’s “Sure 'Nuff 'n Yes I Do” - an unlikely source of influence for this supposedly retro-pop act. The rest of the album does evince a strong Stones influence, with acoustic and slide guitar-driven country pastiches, as well as a requisite Robert Johnson cover. Popular as the record was among fellow musicians and hardcore fans, it failed to sell in any great numbers, likely due to lack of label support and a lack of any serious touring.
Perhaps in part due to the band’s relative lack of success, as well as growing differences between Loney and Jordan, who wanted to take the band in a more pop direction, Loney left the band not long after the release of Teenage Head. Jordan, now firmly in charge, moved the band away from hard rock and towards a heavily Beatles-influenced pop sound.
Replacing Loney with singer and guitarist Chris Wilson, the band remained mostly quiet recording-wise, until 1976, when they recorded the album that most fans still regard as their greatest. Shake Some Action (1976 Sire), bore a strong Beatles influence, and featured a bass-heavy production by Dave Edmunds, himself a retro rocker skilled at re-creating both period production styles as diverse as the Sun Records reverb sound (“My Baby Left Me”), Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” style (Baby I Love You”) and the Everly Brother’s country pop (“Let it Be Me.”) The record was power-pop perfection. The choice of cover tunes was eclectic; Chuck Berry’s “Don’t Lie to Me” and WC Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” showed a continuing Rolling Stones influence, while the Lovin’ Spoonful song “Let the Boy Rock and Roll,” itself an adaptation of John Lee Hooker’s “Let the Boy Boogie Woogie,” was a nod to their earliest influence.
The band began to tour more heavily than in the past - mostly in Europe, where they notably appeared on a bill with the Ramones at the Roundhouse in London, on July 4th, 1976 — the American bicentennial. In a reversal of earlier musical cross-pollination, e.g., The Beatles bringing American soul and R&B back to an America that had forgotten or overlooked it, The Groovies brought the Beatles sound back to an England poised between pub rock and punk rock. It’s ironic that The Groovies largely abandoned their raw rock side just when that style began to find acceptance with the emergence of punk rock and a newfound popularity for bands with a similar sound to the earlier Groovies.
And while the band sounded at the height of its musical abilities on Shake Some Action, the over-obvious Beatles influence on cuts such as “Please Please Girl” betrayed a growing submergence of the bands individuality, in favor of rather unoriginal variations on Beatlesque melodies and vocals. Nonetheless, Shake Some Action became their most popular album and stands today as the finest work of their post-Loney days.
Follow-up album Flamin’ Groovies Now (1978 Sire) borrowed its title from The Rolling Stones Now. Its British invasion sound showed even more clearly than on the previous record. With several cover versions — including two Rolling Stone songs, a Beatles tune and the Byrds’ “Feel a Whole Lot Better,” the record revealed a band performing excellently performed note-for-note covers and a few originals distinguished mostly by their lack of any originality. Jumpin’ in the Night (1979 Sire) was nearly all covers. It showed a band largely devoid of fresh ideas and simply marking time. The Groovies effectively disbanded not long after the release of Jumpin’ In the Night. Jordan kept the band name and toured Europe and Australia with a new crew of musicians, but to little interest from labels and diminishing interest to fans.
Loney stayed in San Francisco and, after a few years of inactivity, resurfaced with Roy Loney and the Phantom Movers, who released several fine albums over the next several years. Loney had grown considerably as a vocalist, and the Phantom Movers — who often included the great Groovies’ drummer Danny Mihm — were a great live act as well. Loney continues to perform and occasionally record to the present day.
Jordan retired from the music business for a number of years, focusing on painting — his other creative outlet — and collecting comic books. In the last few years he has re-emerged with a new band, Magic Christian, after the Terry Southern novel. The band features young vocalist Paul Kopf, Cyril as sole guitarist, rock historian and former Sneetch Alec Palao on bass, and, at various times, ex-Blondie Clem Burke or Tubes alumnus Prairie Prince on drums.
Loney and Jordan remained somewhat estranged for a number of years, but the two have buried their differences in more recently, and have been playing shows togther as The Flamin' Groovies with various musicians filling backing them up. The band’s “Slow Death,” a live show highlight during the Loney years, has been covered and/or recorded by numerous bands, from Charlie Picket and the Eggs (who also crossed the Jordan/Loney boundary line to cover “Shake Some Action” as well), to The Dictators, who recorded the song for their third album, Bloodbrothers. (1978 Asylum). Fans of the Groovies generally appreciate both incarnations of the band.