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The Flamin’ Groovies (live at The Scala)

London
25 April 2016

Just as everyone thought that Spring had really, finally, definitively arrived, fresh and rosy-fingered, Winter once more puts its cold, cold hand back onto our shoulders. Arriving at The Scala (always redolent with memories of all-night Eighties quadruple bills and marathon Shock Around the Clock gorefests1) it feels more like January again than practically May.

Inside, I stake a place at the front of the upper tier, crack open a ridiculously over-priced can of San Miguel, and survey the scene. Faded nostalgic ghost films flicker across my Kopfkino as I picture the tatty auditorium as it used to be in years gone by: the cinema cat walking across my lap during a showing of From The Velvets to Voidoids; the seat I was in for the last film I ever saw here, preposterous Greek “experimental independent surrealist underground art filmSingapore Sling, about incestuous mother and daughter serial killers (where the Hell are you going to see a film like THAT these days?2); a guy wanking in the next aisle during a showing of Russ Meyer’s Up! Ah, happy days.

The Flamin’ Groovies live at The Scala

In the sound booth, playing to the gallery of floppy-hat and polka dot-bedecked Freakbeaters, the DJ is pumping out a steady diet of alt-Sixties classics: The Stones’ “Two Thousand Light Years from Home”, Love’s “The Daily Planet”, The Who’s “Substitute”. I love this stuff. I spent formative years hanging around at 284 Portobello Road. But for some reason, amidst the icy freeze of these George Osborne years, they aren’t doing it for me tonight. There is something about their swinging blasts of optimistic, psychedelic libertarianism that feels badly out of kilter with the times. Maybe it’s me though, as downstairs a groovy couple – all beads, Lennon specs and paisley shirts – are bopping away merrily.

Remembering those sage lines of advice gleaned from repeated viewings of Terminator 2 – “Chill out, dickwad” – I decide to adjust my head and simply accept that perhaps such escapist fun isn’t a frippery, but instead a necessity. At least for now, maybe it’s not such a political cop-out to recreate a dream of tuning in, turning out and dropping out that is now half a century old. At that precise moment, up comes the galloping rhythm of Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited”, and his sneering, searing lyrics, not to mention the ludicrous blasts of siren whistle, soon have me smiling away, my rebarbative earlier mood seeping slowly into the floor. And, right on cue, on come The Groovies in their twenty-first century iteration.

The Flamin’ Groovies live at The Scala

What a strange beast The Flamin’ Groovies are and, perhaps, always were. Roman historian Sallust once said that “Myths are things that never happened but always are”, and, notwithstanding Julian Cope’s celebrated comment on Faust, The Groovies have always represented something of the mythical in rock and roll’s history, eliding genres, defying expectations and slipping seamlessly between styles that purported to be irreconcilable opposites. What other band would possibly have dreamed of reinventing Merseybeat right in the middle of the punk maelstrom? Their protean musical oeuvre took in rock and roll, proto-punk, blues, power pop, new wave, the Mersey sound and more. Yet perhaps it was this same stylistic restlessness, their refusal to crystallise into any one particular thing, that actually did their career something of a disservice. Having been around at several important junctures since the mid-Sixties, their status remains a cult one, the mainstream perhaps never having given them their proper dues.

Now, however, after putting thirty years of bad blood and ill feeling behind them – the cause of their final implosion – The Groovies are back to remind people that, although others may sit on the throne, they were amongst the greatest of the kingmakers. Not for nothing did Mick Jagger himself rate Teenage Head as superior to Sticky Fingers in some respects. Featuring Groovie-in-Chief Cyril Jordon3, guitarist since their first emergence into the Californian daylight in 1965, lead vocalist Chris Wilson (who joined to take over from original frontman Roy Loney in 1971), long, long-serving bassist George Alexander and relatively fresh-faced new recruit Victor Penalosa on drums, they hit the stage at The Scala, a venue that also saw them here some forty four years ago, on the same bill as the legendary half hour performance by ‘Iggy Pop’ (don’t mention the other Stooges)4. Tonight, though, the stage is exclusively theirs, and they launch straight into a crunchy version of “Yeah My Baby”, co-written with Dave Edmunds during their time in Albion in the Seventies. And fantastic it sounds, too: tight, hard-edged, and yet played with a typical Groovie lightness of touch.

Jordan – whippet-thin and looking a long way away from his 67 years – takes over the lead vocal for a gorgeous rendition of The Byrds’ “Feel A Whole Lot Better” (a staple Groovie cover), before a slew of their strange hybrid Seventies-Sixties tracks: “You Tore Me Down”, “I Can’t Hide” and “Please Please Girl”. Like some crazed musical John Hammond, during the mid- to late Seventies, The Groovies created their own Jurassic Park by extracting the DNA of long extinct species and using it to reanimate the great beasts of the past. Introducing “Please Please Girl”, Jordan deadpans “This is a song we wrote for The Beatles, but they didn’t want to do it as they’d broken up five years earlier. I hadn’t really been keeping up with current events.” Jordan’s warm, engaging, self-deprecating conversation is nicely at odds with the deliberate and studied “Fuck you” emanating from his cover photos of the period, and it does much to draw in the audience emotionally. Chris Wilson too is respectful, chatty and humorous. Between them, it’s a winning combination.

The Flamin’ Groovies live at The Scala

A foray into the annals of rock and roll then follows, with a blistering version of Freddy Cannon’s classic “Tallahassee Lassie”, a stalwart of the band’s repertoire, and the “oldest song in the set”, WC Handy’s 1914 proto pop stomper “St Louis Blues”, sometimes known at the “jazzman’s Hamlet“. Playing The Dane tonight, The Groovies’ effortless musical alchemy turns Handy’s dusty innovation into hard-rocking driver.

George Alexander then takes control of the mic and treats us to a throaty version of “Married Woman”, showing off both his vocal chops and some fine rock and roll stylings into the bargain. There follows a mini-suite of “drug songs”: the pro-drug “Between the Lines”, which wasn’t banned by the BBC, and the superb, hip-shaking anti-drugs “Slow Death”, which – bizarrely – was. That’s one thing The Groovies and John Denver have in common, then5. The Groovies make sure to give a tip of the black Dylan cap to John Peel, who played the song for an extra three days after the ban before suffering the ire of his superiors at the Beeb.

The set closes with the iconic “Shake Some Action”, which Chris Wilson introduces as a song that “looms large in our legend”. It’s hard to disagree with such an analysis – its plaintive chord progression and achingly existential lyrics make “Shake Some Action” a true monster in the fist-pumping anthem stakes, even if it remains one not heard by nearly enough people.

The Flamin’ Groovies live at The Scala

The thunderous applause that greets the band’s exit from the stage soon, thankfully, draws them back out. I’m pretty sure I know what’s coming next, but even so, when Jordan gives the explanatory preamble, I still feel utterly made up. In October 1970, Jordan attended the Big Sur Folk Festival in the company of legendary pop impresario and borderline maniac Kim Fowley. Both blasted on acid, Fowley was soon trying to get a rise out of all and sundry by wandering around the site asking when he could get some “teenage head”. Linda Ronstadt, according to Jordan, was one particularly riled by Fowley’s deliberately un-mellow antics. “Eight hours on acid with Kim Fowley. It’s a wonder I didn’t end up in the nuthouse”, Jordan muses. Thankfully, instead of committal to an institution, Jordan took the neologism as a title and used it judiciously to summon up a seething, blank generational ogre of a song. “Teenage Head”, with its evil, growling riff and leering, threatening attitude, remains a high watermark of pre-1975 rock and, like they always promised, tonight The Groovies mess us up just for fun.

Hitting the night outside, by now I’m ready to shake some action of my own. I’m also hopeful that we can see The Flamin’ Groovies back on this stage again in another forty four years. Roll on 2060.

-David Solomons-

1 As I walk up the marble stairs, the shadow cast by Jörg Buttgereit’s horrifically unsettling Nekromantik looms over me, even some 28 years later. Rarely has the term “the climax of the film” ever been so disquietingly accurate.

2 Not online sadly. “This site can’t be reached” is the disheartening message…

3 Whose stacked-heeled boots and Dan Armstrong plexiglass guitar seared themselves indelibly into my consciousness on first seeing the cover of “Teenage Head” sometime in the early Eighties.

4 Billed as ‘Iggy Pop (ex-Iggy and The Stooges)’, in fact the slowly-reconstituting band were premièring material written during their London sojourn, and which formed the third album. It remained the only gig outside America played by the pre-1974 band. Many later British punks were – allegedly – in the audience that night.

5 Denver’s gentle ode to the state of Colorado was legendarily banned due to the assumed druggy connotations of the word “High”.

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