THE FLAMIN' GROOVIES
Formed in San Francisco around 1965, and lasting for close on three decades, disbanding in 1992, with the odd partial reunion in more recent years, the Flamin' Groovies are one of the ultimate cult, or greatest hardly-known bands of all time. [Did I hear somebody say 'Never heard of 'em!'?] They never had a hit single or album in America or Britain - one album reached No 142 in the US - admittedly, that's not a lot of sales - where they were more popular. And while they weren't breathtakingly original, at their best they sounded wonderful. Originality isn't everything. Moreover, they had a fixation about being the next early Beatles, Rolling Stones and Byrds, even down to using the same guitars and amps as their heroes, not to mention the same clothes and haircuts. Those aren't bad examples to emulate. Oasis had a fixation about being the Beatles (similar tunes but without the chirpy harmonies) and Kinks (two constantly sparring brothers) reincarnated, and they did pretty well out of it. Keeping their songs short and punchy, with that marvellous ringing guitar sound but no overlong solos, no wonder the Groovies were an influence on and inspiration to some of the better punk and new wave bands around 1976 and onwards.
Crammed with 24 goodies and 75 minutes playing time, this delivers gem after gem with just the occasional so-so number to remind us that they were only mortal after all. 17 of the songs are original material, written mostly by singers and guitarists Cyril Jordan and Chris Wilson. 14 were produced by the masterful Dave Edmunds, in itself a recommendation that says plenty.
If you've never heard 'Shake Some Action', the opening cut, go and find it on Youtube. This is just - how do I put it - so damn infectious, with that hook line in the chorus, that unbelievably simple yet unforgettable guitar phrase, solid bass and drums. It came within a whisker of the British charts in 1978, about the only time the media ever gave them much attention, and crops up occasionally on Johnnie Walker's 'Sounds of the 70s' - an overlooked classic ripe for discovery. You might have guessed that I love this track to bits - too right I do.
'Teenage Head' is grafted on to the trademark Bo Diddley shuffle rhythm (think 'I Want Candy', think 'Not Fade Away'), and is almost quite funky, with a dash of snappy harmonica halfway through. Early Stones, I'd say, was the template here. Ditto for 'Slow Death', an anti-drug song with some fine slide guitar as well as a very creditable Mick Jagger impersonation.
Time for a cover version - and the choice is 'Tallahassie Lassie', best known as a Freddy Cannon hit in 1959 and recorded by many others since then. Like much of this album, what it may lack in originality is compensated for by the good-time spirit. Even their own original songs aren't groundbreaking, and they often wear their influences pretty lightly, but 'Yeah My Baby' is probably the best version ever of Lou Reed's 'Waiting For The Man' by anybody else apart from Lou Reed, while of the next two tracks, 'Yes It's True' clones early Beatles remarkably well, and then a Roger McGuinn Rickenbacker guitar plus spot-on vocal harmonies ensures that 'First Plane Home' is good news for anybody who misses the Byrds and wishes they hadn't disbanded around 1973.
And 'spot the influence' doesn't stop there. If you liked the Beach Boys best when they were trying to be Chuck Berry with early fare like 'Surfin' USA', you'll just love 'In The USA'. They even namecheck Chuck in the lyrics. A little later on they do Mr Berry's 'Don't You Lie To Me', and like Dave Edmunds (it was one of the tracks he produced), they play it probably far better than the writer has managed to for a good many years.
The Byrds-like fixation crops up again in 'Between The Lines', and if you played it to Roger McGuinn in his sleep, he'd insist that it was him on guitar and lead vocal on the session. 'You Tore Me Down' is another Beatles soundalike, this time from their more introspective melodic mode. If that isn't Paul and John harmonising together...hang on, let me make sure it's not a Beatles CD playing after all. No it isn't - I thought not. Likewise the almost folksy acoustic guitar intro on 'You Tore me Down' is a song that tips its hat respectfully to the Fab Four, and as for 'Please Please Girl' - now, where did they get that title from?
If you remember, and remember fondly, a 1972 Dave Edmunds single 'Down Down Down' (disgracefully, never a hit), written by Trevor Burton, former bassist with The Move and then the Steve Gibbons Band, you have a chance to hear it on here. If you don't, you'll love discovering it for the first time. This is one of those rock'n'roll songs that is so catchy it almost ought to have a government health warning slapped right across it. You will be singing this all weekend...
That makes 14 tracks so far. If you don't get the idea, you simply haven't been paying attention. Sorry to be so fierce - I don't do it that often. No, seriously, there's nothing radically different in the rest, so don't expect any 10-minute new age epics or gangsta rap. DO expect lots more of the same, with little variations in tempo, but basically going back to the Beatles and Byrds wannabe syndrome - and in the best possible sense.
I'll just single out for you what I think are the three best. 'Teenage Confidential' is as near as they get to a ballad, reminiscent of 1960s heroes The Searchers, with its gentle acoustic guitars and almost ethereal harmonies. 'Absolutely Sweet Marie' has always been one of my favourite Bob Dylan songs (check out the original on his 1966 'Blonde On Blonde' album if you don't know it), and the Groovies' version really is the bees knees, with that little Eddie Cochran-inspired 'Summertime Blues'-style bass, and echoey guitar playing what the organ does on the original. Finally, 'River Deep Mountain High' doesn't quite scale the heights of the original - none of them is Tina Turner - and they don't have the benefit of strings, but even so they make a pretty good stab at it.
For years, Status Quo's detractors used to say that they always sounded the same. (Except for 'In The Army Now', 'Rock'n'Roll', and about twenty others). The Groovies might possibly fall into the same bag. Much of their music sounds pretty similar, but there's a warmth and infectious quality to it, and I for one can't really get enough. Moreover, there is enough light and shade, with rock'n'roll alongside more melodic fare. Any album that can boast three genuine classics like 'Shake Some Action', 'Down Down Down', and 'Absolutely Sweet Marie' is going to be a strong contender for five stars, even if the remaining content is dross. And it's anything but.
Cyril Jordan not only co-wrote, sang and played throughout, but he also drew the Minnie Mouse-like creature playing guitar on the front and back. There's a five-way foldout insert providing a comprehensive history of the band as well. This record has must-have stamped all over it.
[Revised version of a review I originally posted on ciao]