With a revived Groovies on the boards once more—including Midwest and East Coast gigs last week and this week—we pay tribute to the legendary power pop auteurs via a story from the archives.
BY FRED MILLS
Ed. note: With the recent reunion of the Flamin’ Groovies, featuring core members Cyril Jordan, Chris Wilson and George Alexander plus latterday drummer Victor Penalosa, it seems more than appropriate to present the following interview I conducted with vocalist Wilson in 2005, for the now-defunct Harp magazine as part of its “Indelibles” series about classic albums. (The Harp website is also gone, taking with it with all of its stellar content; as I was the Managing Editor for the final three years of Harp’s existence, I plan to republish much of that content here at the BLURT site.)
At the time of this interview three key Groovies albums had just been reissued by the DBK Works label: Shake Some Action, Now, Jumpin’ In The Night, originally released in 1976, ’78 and ’79, respectively. And as a lifelong Groovies acolyte, SSA in particular being in my all-time Top Ten album list, it was personally gratifying to finally get to talk to a member of the band about those records. I also communed with a number of other fans to get their testimonials on the song “Shake Some Action” itself, among them The dB’s Peter Holsapple, the Dream Syndicate’s Steve Wynn, author John M. Borack and Trouser Press editor Ira Robbins. You can see their comments following the main story. As Borack put things succinctly, about the tune, “It’s got it all, baby!”
Worth noting: the venerable 4 Men With Beards label has recently reissued both SSA and Now on vinyl, making the band readily available to any and all once again.
The Groovies are in Boston tonight (Nov. 14) and at the Norton Records bash in Brooklyn tomorrow night (Nov. 15). That’s followed by an appearance Nov. 20 in Oakland with, hopefully, more to come. And an EP of new material is apparently in the works as well—the group unveiled the track “End of the World” this week at Rolling Stone and you can check it out right here. Flame on! –FM
July 4, 1976: America is awash in Bicentennial festivities, but across the pond, at London venue the Roundhouse, a celebration of a different sort – spearheaded, ironically, by Americans – is going down.
Onstage are rock ‘n’ roll patriots the Ramones, making their UK debut and wowing pen-wielding critics and gob-spitting punters alike. They’re followed in short order by fellow Yanks the Flamin’ Groovies, whose rousing headlining set also becomes the stuff of legend. Dressed to the nines in matching outfits and Cuban-heeled Beatle boots, they storm through selections from their new album Shake Some Action as well as choice covers by the Stones and Paul Revere & the Raiders. In a subsequent review British weekly New Musical Express will hail the band’s “controlled ferocity that only evolves after years of practice and a genuine understanding of the whole ball game.”
Cut to 2005: Erstwhile Groovies vocalist Chris Wilson well remembers the Roundhouse gig. “It was the first time the Ramones had played outside of New York,” says Wilson, with a laugh. “Afterwards, John [Johnny Ramone] came offstage and he was in tears. He had spit all over him and he went, ‘I can’t even hold my guitar pick…’ ‘Well, man, don’t stand there and take it!’ I never put up with being spat on. I’d just leave the stage and start hitting people!”
Wilson chuckles again. “One of the greatest periods of my life,” he says, of that time nearly three decades ago, when he and his band were riding high on ecstatic reviews for Shake Some Action (issued on Sire, part of the Warner Bros. group), wearing expensive tailored clothing and being squired around London in limos. Nostalgia’s all well and good, of course. But lending currency to his memories is the simple fact that with SSA, Wilson took part in one of rock’s all-time, undisputed classics.
From the titular opening cut, which billows forth on a wave of shuddering riffs, a volcanic bass line and jubilant vocals (“Shake some action’s what I need/ So let me bust out at full speed!”) to closing number “I Can’t Hide” (Phil Spector meets the Byrds) – and not forgetting such mid-disc gems as the Beatlesque “You Tore Me Down” and a stomping cover of the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Let That Boy Rock ‘n’ Roll” — SSA positively soars. Scores of groups have plundered it, both for inspiration and cover material; “Shake Some Action” itself has been tackled numerous times in the past, by Cracker, The Farm, Tommy Keene, Steve Wynn, Eric “Roscoe” Ambel and others.
Truth be told, the album’s moment in the sun, and by extension, the Groovies’, too, was relatively brief; the punk explosion took care of that. But as an archetype of pristine power pop, and as evidenced on DBK Works’ sparkling, newly remastered edition – first time ever on CD in the U.S. – it’s utterly timeless.
(Ed. note: at the time of this 2005 interview I also checked in with DBK A&R Director Pat Thomas, who indicated that the reissues had been freshly remastered from the original tapes which were still in the Warners vaults. “I always felt,” said Thomas, “that those original albums had sort of a ‘boxy’ sound, not a lot of high end, not a lot of overall punch—as if they’d been highly compressed, sort of like they were originally mixed to sound like a mid ‘60s AM car radio. I think we did our best to remaster them to sound as good as they possibly can.” He also explained why there was no bonus material despite the availability of a number of B-sides and additional tracks that had originally appeared on overseas versions of the albums: “There’s some rules and regulations about bonus tracks when licensing original albums from Warners. Only Warners themselves can do ‘bonus tracks’—any company such as ourselves can only do the original albums as they were originally done. Otherwise we’d have loved to include the different versions from the different countries.”)
The road to the Roundhouse actually began a decade earlier without Wilson, in San Francisco. The Groovies, a quintet based around the creative nucleus of guitarist Cyril Jordan and vocalist Roy Loney, began life as the Chosen Few. By ’67 they’d settled on Flamin’ Groovies, eventually scoring a deal with Epic Records, which released the LP Supersnazz in ’69. That and its two follow-ups, 1970’s Flamingo and 1971’s Teenage Head (both issued by bubblegum label Kama Sutra), were critical faves but, stylistically speaking, out of step with the times. The song “Teenage Head,” however, a sneering slice of garageabilly, would eventually enjoy a healthy afterlife at the hands of punk bands and even spawn a name for a Canadian outfit. Friction between Jordan, an obsessive pop fiend, and Loney, a rockabilly aficionado, eventually led to the latter leaving and Wilson, of Bay Area band Loose Gravel, being recruited as Jordan’s new foil and songwriting partner.
“Cyril and I at the time got on,” recalls Wilson, “and we had a lot of the same influences. For example, we really liked Dave Edmunds. So this is August or September of 1971 and Loose Gravel had no bloody work, I was living on foodstamps and doing odd jobs, and I couldn’t survive like that much longer. I’d even arranged for my family to wire me some money so I could come home. Word had gotten around to Cyril, Danny [Mihm, Groovies drummer at the time] and George that I was about to leave, so they turned up at the flat and they said, ‘Look, we’re sort of having trouble. We’re not getting along with Roy anymore and we think there’s going to be a parting of the ways soon. Would you consider joining the Flamin’ Groovies?’ At that time they had quite a record deal and all that, and I said, ‘Hell yes!’
“That was it. Roy was sort of told they couldn’t work with him a couple of days later. I moved in with Danny for a few weeks into his bloody haunted house – that’s another story! [laughs] And we just got on very well. Except for the fact that I, being the youngest guy in the band, and not as experienced of course, got shat on from a great height for sort of any mistakes or childish behavior, or any infraction of the many rules.”
Wilson and Jordan were hitting it off creatively as well, and quickly commenced writing together, with the former penning lyrics to the latter’s musical compositions. (“The first one that Cyril and I wrote, I think, was ‘Shake Some Action,’” he notes offhandedly. Talk about an auspicious beginning.) And the aforementioned Edmunds influence would prove prophetic. In ’72 the reconstituted Groovies lucked into a deal with the English wing of United Artists Records, who promptly flew them over to Britain and ensconced them in Wales’ Rockfield Studios with Edmunds as producer. The partnership clicked, and among the tracks recorded were “Shake Some Action” and “You Tore Me Down” plus a raunchy, Stones-styled cruncher called “Slow Death” which would also go on to become one of the Groovies’ oft-covered classics.
Wilson explains that the relationship with Edmunds developed almost by accident. “When we’d tried to get signed to United Artists in 1971, the company didn’t want to know about us in Los Angeles. So our fan and head of A&R in London [Andrew Lauder] said, ‘That shouldn’t be a problem – I’ll get you a spot over here.’ We’d heard that Dave had been producing, and of course he’d played and produced his own records, so we said we’d like to get him to produce. He said yeah, that’s no problem, Dave works with some of our bands. There were some Welsh bands on UA at the time.
“He lived in Monmouth, just down the road from Rockfield, and knew the two owners, since they were quite young. So [laughs] we finally get to England after months of wrangling. The first thing we did was play this festival, and then a couple of weeks later we were off to Rockfield. Strangely enough, Dave was sitting in the studio, and they used to get the music papers delivered at the beginning of the week, and he was looking at Melody Maker going, ‘Oh, who is this American group, the Flamin’ Groovies? They are recording at Rockfield.’ And Kingsley [one of the owners] went, ‘Oh yeah, yeah, these boys are coming, American band, very rock ‘n’ roll apparently.’ Dave read down a bit further: ‘Bloody hell, it says they’re being produced by Dave Edmunds!’ He was chuckling when we first met him because he’d had no idea, and he wasn’t actually sure he’d do it until he met us. He said, ‘I know nothing about this and I’m fucking off!’ But when he met us he thought, okay, I like these lads.”
The UA deal yielded a pair of British singles but it eventually went south before and album could be planned. Still, Edmunds would be the first person the Groovies would call when they got their next shot with Sire Records. By 1975 the band had a new manager (journalist Greg Shaw, who also issued “You Tore Me Down” as a single on his fledgling Bomp! label), a new record label in the form of Sire, and a new sound and look. Says Wilson, “[We had wanted] to get more melodic and do more harmony-type things. Then in 1974, ’75, Cyril got this Beatles fixation. Which, y’know, I’ve always been a fan of the Beatles and so were all of us. But Cyril had the strange thing of wanting to be them.” Indeed, out was the bluesy hard rock and the scruffy, hirsute appearance; in were 12-string jangles and lush vocal harmonies plus pudding bowl haircuts and the aforementioned tailored suits. It was as if Mick ‘n’ Keef had walked in one door only to emerge from the next as John and Paul.
Hunkering down once again at Rockfield with Edmunds, the Groovies set about creating their masterpiece.
“Rockfield is in the Welsh countryside and away from the distractions of London,” says Wilson, “so we just used to sit with the acoustic guitars in the kitchen of this 600 year old farm house and sort of batter away at stuff until we came up with something, then we could go down to the studio at any time of the day or night. Things sometimes just came out of nowhere – for example, ‘I Can’t Hide,’ that just came out one night. It was [during] the hunter’s moon in the middle of November, and it was really cold and frosty and really a sort of magical night. I think some of that came over a bit in that song. I mean, even that one bit in it where it goes — [sings “Derr-darrrng, derr…” part from guitar solo] — That was a mistake because Dave had started the tape machine and it didn’t catch on right away. And he went, ‘Oh Christ…’ And we said, ‘No, no, we can use it!’ So he explained to us, ‘Okay, we’ll just go over it, and you put your other instruments over that part.’ That was what was great about him. He could turn a fumble into a play.
“Basically, with Dave, we said to him, ‘Look, we want you to give it your treatment, like Spector did to his bands. Whatever you think is good – we’re willing to have a try at it.’ Because we didn’t think that he’d put a foot wrong. And he didn’t, as far as I was concerned! And he listened to everything we had to say as well. It was very democratic. He was great: If he thought something wasn’t quite right, he wouldn’t say, ‘No, that’s crap.’ He’d just say, ‘Come have a listen,’ and as you listened he’d make this funny face at some point, like, ‘Mmm, is that really quite right there…?’
“He was a fabulous producer and a great guy to work with.”
With “Shake Some Action” and “You Tore Me Down” from the ’72 sessions added to the new tracks, Shake Some Action, upon its release in 1976, enjoyed moderate chart success in England and found its way to fanzines and college radio in the States. Likewise with its Edmunds-produced followup, 1978’s Flamin’ Groovies Now, which among its gems include note-perfect covers of the Byrds’ “Feel A Whole Lot Better” and the Stones’ “Paint It Black.” Wilson fondly recalls this part of his career as “one of our most creative times – Now, I think, is actually my favorite album. I love all those songs and we had a brilliant time doing them. Ideas came thick and fast, my talent was burgeoning, everything just coming out in torrents. It was an absolutely wonderful time in my life. I was 23 years old, driving around London in Daimler limousines, wearing tailor made suits, living in the country. One of the few periods when there wasn’t any angst and things were working well.”
In America, though, it was a different story. Sire Records, attention increasingly fixed on its punk and new wave signings (Ramones, Dead Boys, Richard Hell, Talking Heads), was reluctant to loosen the purse strings for its band of popsters and advertising was half-hearted at best. Despite sticking with the group for three albums, something that wouldn’t happen nowadays, according to Wilson the label “never gave us the push that we needed. I mean, we never had full page ads or anything like that. We never had radio spots. And it was before groups were really advertised on television. And they just wouldn’t go the whole way, and that’s what was needed to get us into the real general public as opposed to people who loved music.
“Greg Shaw was managing us and we thought that was great because he was a friend of Seymour Stein. But then when Greg would stand up for us, trying to get something out of the label that we really needed, like advertising, then Seymour would say, ‘No, I can’t do it.’ Greg would remonstrate with him, so then he would say, ‘All right then. I’m not going to give you the money to back your new book if you’re going to take that attitude.’ We found that out right away, that Greg was sort of emasculated as far as dealing with Seymour, and that was a real drag.”
(Wilson is blunter when he suggests that Sire’s gay label head Seymour Stein, notorious for some of his private bashes, may have held a grudge against the band. “I used to get invited to his ‘parties,’ quote/unquote, and I just used to decline. I wasn’t really willing to do things against my integrity to further my career, and I’d get that thrown in my face – ‘Well, Dee Dee and Joey are coming…’ ‘That’s great Seymour, but I’m going out with my prospective wife tonight.’ Our careers went one way and [the Ramones] went the other.”)
Sire reluctantly funded one more album, 1979’s self-produced Jumpin’ In The Night, and while it, too, had a wealth of strong material, by then disenchantment was beginning to set in. “With Jumpin’ In The Night,” says Wilson, “things were just starting to go south in a lot of ways, you know? I think we were all pretty much fed up with each other too. And we were quite disappointed with Edmunds. He said he was going to do it, then he turned up, took some of the ‘supplies,’ if you know what I mean, that were on hand, and then never came back. We found out that he was being managed by Jake Riviera at the time, and Jake had forbade him from doing it. Dave said, ‘No, I’m gonna do it.’ And Jake said, ‘No, look at your contract. If you do, I’m gonna sue your arse.’ Dave was terribly embarrassed about it and wouldn’t even speak to us, really, because of that for some years.”
The next couple of years were marked by sporadic gigging, primarily just around San Francisco and to steadily dwindling crowds. Things finally came to a head when the band found a backer to fund sessions at Hollywood’s legendary Gold Star Studios. Wilson wanted to record new songs and clashed with Jordan, who was obsessed with painstakingly recreating other people’s material (notably a version of “River Deep Mountain High”). At one point Jordan spent three hours — at $1,000 an hour – slamming a door over and over in an attempt to get the perfect “kaboom” down on tape. “That was a complete debacle. It was horrible, deteriorating into farce,” says Wilson, adding that he’d gotten married after Jumpin’ and his personal relationship with Jordan began to deteriorate as well. “We just started having all these arguments, and there was a lot of drug abuse too. Our drummer couldn’t take it anymore. It was like a messy family divorce. I finally quit too.”
After the split, Jordan continued to helm a succession of Groovies lineups through 1992, when he quit the music business to work as an artist; in 2000 he emerged from retirement and is currently playing guitar with Bay Area band the Magic Christian. Wilson, for his part, moved to London, joined well-regarded group The Barracudas, and has stayed musically active, both with that band and as a solo artist. His latest project is an as-yet-unnamed combo featuring musicians from the ‘cudas and the Scientists performing Wilson originals and Groovies classics. Yet despite a long-standing estrangement from Jordan stemming from sundry post-breakup financial skirmishes, if response to the SSA, Now and Jumpin’ CD reissues is good, he won’t rule out the possibility of a Flamin’ Groovies reunion, quipping, “I’d dance with the devil if he paid for the dance, y’know?”
What, then, does Wilson think is the source of his old band’s enduring legacy – the song “Shake Some Action,” in particular, being one that people keep coming back to or discovering?
“I’d put it down to it being sort of the zeitgeist,” muses Wilson. “The spirit of those times just sort of came across in a big and easily translatable way. Somehow it was just the general ambiance of what was going around us at the time. How we felt, and how the world felt—it was a really nice place in the ‘70s, and maybe people don’t realize that.”
This article is dedicated to Professor Jud Cost, my friend and fellow Flamin’ Groovies obsessive.
Groovie Testimonials: “Shake Some Action” – the greatest power pop song ever, or what?
John M. Borack, author of Shake Some Action – The History of Power Pop:
It’s got it all, baby: a hypnotic, killer main riff, a beautifully played guitar solo, unbridled passion beyond belief and one of those anthemic choruses that’s just made for shoutin’ along to. Someone should name a book after it.
Peter Holsapple, The dB’s:
I was already hip to them via Rock Scene and the exquisite cover of first LP Supersnazz. Plus [my early band] Rittenhouse Square had covered “Teenage Head” when it was new. So, “Shake Some Action”: the buildup of the beginning of the song, in its agitated quietude, lays the trap for when the riff comes in and coldcocks you. The compression all over the mix is pretty alluring as well. I still have no idea what the words are, after all these years!
Fred Krc, Freddie Steady 5; Roky Erickson & the Explosives:
Words and music are vehicles a writer uses to convey an idea and/or feeling, and “Shake Some Action” is a shining example of when the perfect choice of lyrics and melody are utilized to bring a great idea to life. This magical combination, along with a great performance, makes it a timeless, power pop masterpiece.
Eric “Roscoe” Ambel, Del-Lords/Roscoe’s Gang/Steve Earle & the Dukes:
Shake Some Action is not the greatest power pop song. It may be the THREE greatest power pop songs all by itself.
Steve Wynn, Dream Syndicate/Miracle 3:
My friend Tom Gracyk had a radio show called “Shake Some Action” when we were both DJs at KDVS (UC Davis) back in the late ‘70s and every show began with that song. So, not only is it a great song but it also brings back memories of every great punk and new wave song that I heard for the first time on Tom’s show. The song is very Pavlovian for me. It means good things are going to follow.
Dom Mariani, Stems/Someloves/DM3:
“Shake Some Action”? Always in my Top Ten if we’re talkin’ faves in a genre/style specific thing that we call “power pop.” A great pop tune with rock ‘n’ roll swagger!
Ira Robbins, editor of The Trouser Press Record Guide:
No question about it — for me, “Shake Some Action” is in a dead heat with Todd Rundgren’s “Couldn’t I Just Tell You” as the greatest power pop song ever. Complex, compelling, poignant, defeated, desperate, soaring, incomprehensible – what else could you want? An entire religion in 4 1/2 minutes.
Nick West, editor of Bucketful of Brains magazine:
At first you could, if you weren¹t paying attention, mistake it for just another British Invasion pastiche. Many did, some still do, and that’s their loss. Of course that¹s what it came out of, but to be this remarkable construction with its myriad of elements. Those shimmering burnished guitars, those plaintive yet assured voices, that “top of the world, man” confidence that let them make the perfect three minute single that lasted four and a half. It is the ultimate guitar pop record precisely because the guitars are given so much head and allowed to run. It’s half a minute before the voices arrive and a full minute before we actually reach “Shake Some Action’s what I need.” Then at around 2:15 there’s this marvelous shout of “Whoah!” and a full 40 second, sublime instrumental break follows. It hits now with a wonderful blend of nostalgia and possibility, but remaining fresh as the day it was made.
Fred Mills, BLURT editor:
My family has strict instructions that, when I die, they have to play SSA at my funeral. I want people leaving the church smiling and singing, not crying.
Flamin’ Groovies (Chris Wilson era) Selected Discography
Shake Some Action, Now, Jumpin’ In The Night (all DBK Works, 2005). Original Sire LPs (1976, 1978, 1979) remastered from original analog tapes; liner notes by Alec Palao and Steve Wynn.
Slow Death (Norton, 2002) and Sixteen Tunes: The Goldstar Tapes & More (Munster, 1991) Demos 1971-73.
A Bucket Of Brains (EMI UK, 1995) Dave Edmunds sessions 1972.
A Collection Of Rare Demos & Live Recordings (Marilyn/Bomp, 1993) Demos/live 1971-80.
Then (Tendolar bootleg, 1999) Live 1979 + UK-only tracks omitted from U.S. Sire LPs.
Groovies’ Greatest Grooves (Sire, 1989)