San Francisco rockers the Flamin' Groovies epitomize the status of "cult legends": Few know their music, but most who do will champion it intensely.
The band's best albums are forgotten classics: 1971's Teenage Head is the American Exile on Main Street, all juke-joint sleaze and nihilist blues shuffle. It's laced with so much recklessness — and recorded so roughly — that it arguably qualifies as proto-punk. (If you enjoy the Rolling Stones of the late '60s and early '70s, but you haven't heard Teenage Head, stop whatever you're doing and go listen.)
Unfortunately, the Groovies have always been 10 years removed from whatever style of music was fashionable at the time. The band's first incarnation basically played '50s rock 'n' roll in late-1960s San Francisco. When the city's acid rock scene took off on the heady jams of bands like Jefferson Airplane, it made the Groovies' Chuck Berry worship look ancient and simple-minded. The band did find inspiration and kinder reception in Midwest cities like Detroit, where its members' heroes, the MC5, were based, but big-time fame never arrived.
In a later version, the band played '60s pop-rock in the mid-'70s, which proved significantly more successful: Shake Some Action, the latter Groovies' 1976 ode to the British Invasion, influenced the rise of power-pop and punk in America, and remains a vital document of that era. It's also the only Groovies album that rivals Teenage Head, even if the two sound vastly different.
That latter version of the Groovies — the cooler, more melodic incarnation led by guitarist and songwriter Cyril Jordan — is the version that's reuniting this week for its second S.F. show in more than 30 years. (The band also played a small, sold-out show at the Elbo Room in May.) The regrouping is not temporary: the core trio of Jordan, guitarist/vocalist Chris Wilson, and bassist George Alexander is also halfway through recording a new album. The Flamin' Groovies, in other words, are back.
"We're a real band now, we're ready to rock," Jordan says over the phone, revved up after a recent rehearsal. "We're acting exactly the way we did when we were young ... as far as we are concerned, we're starting up where we left off."
At least in one version. Roy Loney, the wildman vocalist and guitarist who left the band just after the release of Teenage Head, won't be on this tour — but not because he and Jordan aren't getting along. They've played numerous reunion shows, but eventually decided to focus those on the material Loney contributed to the band, and leave out the music that came after he left. We're getting the opposite incarnation this week, meaning Loney won't be participating — and so, presumably, this week's show won't feature songs from Teenage Head. (Tear.)
As for what motivated this reunion, Jordan is clear. In November, he was offered about $75,000 to play seven Flamin' Groovies reunion shows in Australia and Japan. "That was it," he says. "I called everybody and I said, 'Hey man, it's time.'"
If the Groovies had built a bigger presence, maybe that would sound crass. But this was never an outfit that found easy, sustained success, either in San Francisco or London, where it was later based. In '60s San Francisco, the band's raucous sound just didn't fit in. "There was a certain type of academic attitude attached," Jordan says of the city's fertile psych-rock scene, "and we were just a bunch of goof-offs. All we wanted to do was rock out and have a good time."
Even after the excellent Shake Some Action reestablished the then London-based Groovies to U.S. listeners, the albums were hit or miss. Their later records all contained a handful of excellent songs, but were filled out with covers of the Stones, the Beatles, Dylan, and the Byrds. Sometimes those covers justified themselves; often they didn't.
Still, there are more than enough solid latter Groovies songs to make an excellent show: Hearing the brutal "Slow Death" and Beatles-y "You Tore Me Down" live should be a revelatory experience. And it sounds like there's a chance that the new music might stand on its own, almost as a hybrid of the band's two best eras. "It's a lot closer to the power-pop sounds that we became kind of famous for in the '70s," Jordan says, adding that "we're also adding in Chuck Berry-style rock 'n' roll, which is pretty unique these days."
Jordan, who lives in his mother's old house in Glen Park, comes across as kind of a madman over the phone, speaking loudly and brusquely, like a teenager with a 64-year-old's voice. He sounds like he might actually have the fire required to render the Groovies' quintessentially amped-up rock. The question now — as ever, for the Flamin' Groovies — is whether anybody outside of the band's fervent cult will want to listen.
Jordan has his own apt description for band's status. "[It's] kind of like we're in braille on a billboard in a town full of blind people, and the billboard's up like about 100 feet," he says. "So it's like, some guys who climb up that ladder and feel their way across the billboard, they go, 'Oh, the Flamin' Groovies, far out!' But how many guys are going to do that?"