Still Flamin’ After All These Years: The return of the Groovies
From Bucketfull of Brains magazine
This publication is named after a Groovies LP, “I’d like a bucket full of Brains “ (beer) being the warcry of Groovies roadie John Seaton. So when original guitarist Cyril Jordan, bass player George Alexander and guitar/vocals Chris Wilson plus new drummer Victor Penalosa popped up in London for a brace of shows we were delighted to grab a brief interview with Cyril.
After well-received gigs in Australia and Japan the Groovies played their first UK gig for twenty-six years supporting Bruce Springsteen at the Olympic Park. “I don’t know if Springsteen asked for us himself. We know Little Steven and we used to open for Southside Johnny. We were on the road in Australia and we got an email from Live Nation booking the Groovies and that was it. The gig went well apart from the fact that we could not hear our monitors at all. They had $100,000 worth of gear on stage and they might as well have had none. We went down better and better towards the end of our set”
“Before we started rehearsing fifteen weeks ago we hadn’t played together for 32 years. By the third day the engine was back, George started turning into George, Chris started turning into Chris, I started turning into Cyril…it’s like the day after we broke up with Chris in 1980. Seymour Stein at Sire records had somehow dropped the ball on us and that threw us into turmoil. Most bands when their label drops them, they have management, they can still do gigs. But I was doing everything back then. I got the record deals, helped book the tours. Nobody would room with me because on the road my phone would start ringing at about 630am. We were all on cocaine, completely out of our minds. So the whole thing fell apart. We were trying to keep rock’n’roll alive and it was dying. George and I went on for another ten years. We toured Australia and the UK in 1987 with a much heavier sound. We had brought in Paul Zahl on drums and he had persuaded me to bring in his friend Jack Johnson who was a real heavy-metal style guitarist. During this last tour in Australia a lot of people said “Thank God the heavy metal guitar has gone” – we’re really known for a more jangly guitar style.”
“When George and I started talking about playing live again I suggested it might be a good idea to pull out some gems from the back-catalogue. Back in the day we always used to play what we’d just recorded, rather than what we’d released. So by the time we were playing The Roundhouse in 1976 we’d already dropped Slow Death from our set. This time we’ve got to do all those songs but only from the Shake Some Action era”
Cyril is adamant that the new incarnation is more than a nostalgia trip. “ We’ve already had three days recording in our producer Joel Jaffe’s Studio D in Sausalito. We cut three new songs. Chris and I wrote a new one called End Of The World, we re-cut Let Me Rock, the first song Chris and I ever wrote together, and we finally did a studio version of our live favourite I Want You Bad. When we get back off this tour we’re going back in for another two days. Chris lives in London, George is in Tucson, I’m in San Francisco and Victor is in San Diego so we need to record whilst we’re still together. But we are not doing a retro thing: we are picking up where we left off.”
“We’ve been getting royalties but the internet download thing has really hurt us – ten years ago my royalty cheques went down big time. Last November I was down to my last $40. I went to bed thinking what am I gonna do. The next morning the phone rings and it’s an associate of Val Kilmer who wanted to pay me $1000 to write out the lyrics to Whiskey Woman so he can give them to his daughter for her 21st birthday. You never know who is a Groovies fan – Kurt Russell, even Lucian Grainge – CEO of Universal. He told the Financial Times that the reason he got into music was going to see the Flamin’ Groovies with his brother Nigel.”
During their spell signed to UA in the early 70’s the Groovies were living in Chingford and were regulars at The Roundhouse. “We used to set up our own Roundhouse shows with promoter John Curd and I always used to look for up and coming bands. One time we played with the Troggs, we were very excited. We got to the Roundhouse and we noticed the Troggs were second billing and we were headlining, I said to John Curd “What are you doing, we can’t be headlining over The Troggs, Wild Thing is like Louie Louie”. Giving a helping hand to other bands misfired when the support to the Groovies July 4th 1976 gig got more coverage than the headliners. “I became very good friends with the Ramones manager Linda Stein. She was a real pothead, one of the only girls I ever knew who loved pot as much as I do. Being from California I had some really good skunk. We got real tight. She said I am managing a group and I wonder if they can open for you. She said they’re called the Ramones and she showed me a photo and it looked like one of our early shots so I said let’s bring them along. “
“Contrary to what you may have read on the internet we did not support the Stooges at their legendary Scala gig in ‘72 although we did come to watch them that night. We had first met the Stooges on our first tour in ‘68, we hooked up with them in Ohio – the Golden Earrings. Love Sculpture, the Stooges and us all on the same bill and we toured together for about three months. I didn’t even know Dave Edmunds at that time, I didn’t realise until I met him again at Rockfield in ‘72 that he’d been in Love Sculpture. “
The 2006 Rhino compilation At Full Speed did a good job in bringing together all the tracks recorded for Sire. Cyril is adamant that there are no unreleased outtakes and no prospect of a sonic upgrade to the subsequent Gold Star Tapes EP. “We were doing that with two guys from France. They didn’t pay the bill at Gold Star studios so we didn’t get a copy of the master. The tape they used for the record that came out was made on a $30 cassette records that was snuck into the studio without us knowing and put on the board whilst we were listening to a playback. Finally we got a 2” master tape from Dave Gold via a friend of Chris’, he sent us the tape for the $15 cost of postage. We had to bake the damn thing to stop the oxide falling off the tape. It’s got two songs on it, one Phil Spector song recorded by Darlene Love called A Long Way To Be Happy and an original that we never finished with the working title Don’t Forget To Write. We did a little bit of work on the latter, vocals and stuff but the quality of the recording is not up to par. “
Key to the Groovies renaissance is Victor, who first played with Cyril in his solo band the Magic Christians about seven years ago. Cyril is fulsome with his praise “We couldn’t have got here this fast without Victor. He knows all the drum parts exactly as they were on the record. It’s a gas. “ Victor admits that the Groovies are one of his top three bands of all time and that he’s been listening to them since he was four. His partner in rhythm George is amazed at the fan response. “I’ve been off the grid for so long, I had no idea that I would be treated with so much respect and adulation from so many fans. In Japan we had a lot of young fans who had discovered us on the internet, only a third of the audience were old geezers. One of the scariest things about Japan I ever saw was when we started playing You Tore Me Down and some people started crying. I was shocked. “
No tears tonight at the Scala but a full house of happy fans, albeit mainly blokes of a certain age. The Groovies took to the stage all looking commendably trim and youthful. They were joined by Mathew Fisher from Procul Harum on Hammond organ, only audible in the second half of the set. Cyril sported his vintage plexiglass Dan Armstrong which delivered his distinctive warm tone. Victor played (and looked) like the young Clem Burke – loud, precise and enthusiastic. George sang Married Woman to great effect and swayed and grooved gracefully throughout. Chris delivered an effective lead vocal on Slow Death but elsewhere it was the songs sung in unison with Cyril that worked best – You Tore Me Down, Feel A Whole Lot Better, I Want You Bad and the set-closing Shake Some Action. Teenage Head is so indelibly associated with the Roy Loney-era that it sat oddly here. Sadly there was none of Cyril’s excellent slide playing, although he is hoping to introduce some into future gigs. Three encores were demanded and delivered including a rather ordinary Roll Over Beethoven. Minor quibbles aside this was an intelligent reappraisal of the Shake Some Action years. The band plans to work up other Sire-era favourites such as Jumpin’ In The Night and Don’t Put Me On and introduce some new songs into the mix. Forty years after it was first recorded Shake Some Action still resonates, and so do the Groovies.