The Flamin' Groovies

The Flamin' Groovies were arguably the best band this side of CCR to emerge from the '60s San Francisco scene. The problem was that the Groovies didn't conform to the expected psychedelic ballroom sound explored by the likes of the Dead, Airplane, Quicksilvers, and Grapes; instead the Groovies were a back-to-basics rock'n'roll band with a greasy, Stones/'50s inspired kick. Too bad, since unlike the rest of the '60s Haight-Asbury bands, the Groovies don't sound boring and dated today - they rocked! But I guess San Fran hippies were too stoned and lazy to know real rock'n'roll when they heard it (I mean, any scene that condemned CCR as boring sellouts while exalting unlistenable garbage like Jefferson Airplane was too drugged out to recognize decent music when it came round their neighborhood. Hippies suck and deserve to be mocked for that reason alone -- I guess bad LSD damages the eardrums). The Groovies never fit in with current musical trends, which led to the path of cult stardom. In the mid-'70s when basic rock'n'roll was coming back in style again, the Groovies made an about face and reemerged as Beatlesque power-poppers, delivering some of the freshest American warps on British Invasion pop since the Byrds lost Gene Clark. As usual, the Groovies were out of step with what the public wanted, and by the end of the '70s the band had finished their recording career (though they still play live gigs from time to time). Like the Move, the Groovies have aquired legendary status among hip record collectors -- a status that is quite deserved. Check out this fan's Flamin Groovies site -- there's a small treasure trove of printed material to dig through.

The Flamin Groovies: Flamingo (1970) **1/2

I expected some good rockin' tonite, but I can't seem to get excited about this one much at all - there's not even a single knockout track like "Teenage Head" or "Shake Some Action." If Teenage Head is their sleazy, derivative take on blooze-rock, Flamingo is their sleazy, derivative take on rockabilly, with a predictable loss in quality since rockabilly is a more limited and less interesting form of music than the blues. Their Chuck Berry imitation, "Comin' After Me," and their Jerry Lee Lewis imitation "Second Cousin," ("is going to be my first bride") are spot-on, but imitations are all they are, and what does it say when one of the other few songs that make an impression is a cover of Little Richard's "Keep A'Knockin'"? "Headin' For the Texas Border," has some pleasantly punky-fast energy, and in this context the nice ballad "She's Falling Apart," is a thankful relief, but most of these tracks are simply generic. I mean, the very title "Gonna Rock Tonite," is as generic as it gets. Of course to my ears 90% of rockabilly sounds generic, and at least the Flamin Groovies style has some really cool gritty and raunchy guitar tones to go on top of such antiquated chords. But despite the groovy guitar work, it's still only generic rockabilly. The reissue appends more of the same - covers of Eddie Cochran, Link Wray, Fats Domino, Gene Vincent, and Chuck Berry, plus an original, "Going Out Theme" (good title to end with, right?).

The Flamin Groovies: Teenage Head (1971) ***

They sound like a Beggars' Banquet tribute band on this early release: loads of bluesy slide guitars, intentionally sloppy and slightly thin arrangements, and a "white boys make the blues sleazy and exciting" vibe to it. Which is good, 'cause the blues are supposed to be sleazy; it ain't somethin' you're supposed to treat reverentially and boringly like Eric Clapton and 90% of the blues players in the past 30 years or so. The blues ain't no museum piece, you're supposed to fuck with the blues! Trash the blues, it's all garbage dug up from the muddy depths of the grimiest low-class shacks in Mississippi and the seediest pool halls in Chicago, fuck up and distort the blues for all it's worth. I mean, what good are the blues unless it sounds like something you want to get drunk to in the meanest redneck bar in West Memphis? Anyway, the Flamin Groovies' blooze rock may be derivative, but it's got some slabs of good greasy pork. "Yesterday's Numbers," starts with a jangly riff-hook very similar to "Street Fighting Man," but hey, it's a good song in its own right. 'Course it's no "Street Fighting Man," but what is? "Whiskey Woman," reminds me of "Knockin' On Heaven's Door," containing very similar atmospherics and melody -- but didn't Dylan write "Knockin' On Heaven's Door," a couple of years later? I have no reason to believe that Dylan would have been aware of the Groovies -- I'll have to scratch my head awhile over this coincidence, if indeed it can be called such. Their cover of Randy Newman's cuckold's tale, "Have You Seen My Baby?" rocks -- myself I always thought of Newman's albums as collections of demos for real bands to cover, anyway. The title track is an essential rock classic (the only one this album gave us), possessing a harmonica break that can shatter granite, and slide guitars that hit almost as hard. "Teenage Head," sends up the California born'n'bred mythos with a gusto that makes it one of the greatest Stones singles the Stones never wrote - it's almost as good as "Brown Sugar." Unfortunately there's an overabundance of filler -- "Evil Hearted Ada," "Doctor Boogie," (what a fascinating title), and even Robert Johnson's "32-02," are as close to boring generic blooze as it gets. Not a single thing interesting to say about any of those songs. "High Flyin Baby," and "City Lights," are just OK. The other problem is the album's too short - only a half hour? Well, given their shortage of good material, maybe that's a good thing -- the good tracks would have made a heck of an EP.

The Flamin' Groovies: The Groovies' Greatest Grooves (1989) ****

A 24-track collection (with cool liner notes from a pair of former Rolling Stone editors) that indeed contains many of the Groovies' greatest grooves. Though it skimps some on their early blooze/rockabilly period to focus on their later power-pop style (why only one song from Teenage Head?), this is a very solid, comprehensive selection. At 24 tracks, there are too many unexceptional songs to make this the knockout it could be - some of the ballads drag, and some of rockers are too generic - which shows that even on a compilation the Flamin' Groovies can be inconsistent. A handful of these songs, however, are classic rock in the best sense of the term, and essential for anyone who liked both the Beatles and the Stones (as the Groovies obviously did, since they try their hardest to combine the two). "Shake Some Action," is a strong candidate for the greatest rock single of all time: imagine the Byrds played with the intensity of the Stones, the incredible guitar hook leading into verse and chorus that define snotty, angsty adolescent frustration and rebellion. Just incredible -- I could scour my record collection for weeks and I still couldn't find another song that is the definition of rock'n'roll in all its attitude and glory like "Shake Some Action." The anti-heroin "Slow Death," is another justly legendary classic, from the early period with the most excitingly excessive slide guitars I've ever heard - they pour on those slides like some bands pour on strings! "I'll Cry Alone," with its rain-soaked, driving melancholy majesty, sounds like a great lost Gene Clark Byrds song. "You Tore Me Down," and "Yes It's True," are ringers for'64 Beatles, and those two originals almost as good as the Groovies' stunning cover of "There's a Place," -- the impossible has just occurred: someone covered a Beatles song, and improved on the original. There are a few other choice covers too, the best of which is the overlooked rockabilly gem, "Tallahassee Lassie,"; Chuck Berry, Dylan, and "River Deep, Mountain High," are done in fine style, too. "Don't Put Me On," is a great, overpoweringly snotty and angry number that sneers at false friends, while "I Can't Hide," captures the sugar-rush exuberance of a teenage crush. As I said earlier, the band doesn't maintain such a consistently high standard all the way through, but with such a generous helping of 24 songs, you can ignore the weaker moments, and hardly any of the weak songs are truly bad. You can find a tape of this in Camelot cut-out bins for a dollar all across this great U.S. of A., so what are you waiting for? I got quite a return on my investment of a George Washington.

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