The Flamin’ Groovies – the biggest band you’ve never heard of. That’s how the story goes anyway. Well, accept for those in the know. As The Fleece in Bristol fills up, it seems those in the know have come out in abundance to see San Francisco’s unsung heroes. I give a quick cursory glance around the legendary venue and spy punks, mods, rockers, hippies and casual Joes of all ages. Is the word finally out some 40+ years later that the genre defying proto-punk / power pop / garage rock misfits (delete as appropriate) are finally getting the recognition they so rightly deserve?
To say I’m a Groovies fan is an understatement. I mean, Shake Some Action rang from some dodgy crackling speakers as I got married in my local registry office a few years ago. I’m in tow with my father-in-law tonight. He first witnessed the Flamin’ Groovies in 1978 at the Top Rank in Cardiff with Radio Birdman. Between us we’re like two excited kids on Christmas Eve. That said, my expectations aren’t too high. I’ve watched enough recent live YouTube clips to know that the vocals could be more than a little ropey on occasions. The word on the street outside the venue is that Chris Wilson has been behaving himself on this tour. My hopes have suddenly been raised.
After some technically difficulties, the Groovies open the set with their cover of Dave Edmunds‘ Down Down Down and we are instantly taken back to the 1970s golden era where the Welshman took the production helm of the Shake Some Action and Flamin’ Groovies Now! albums at Rockfield Studios just over the Severn Bridge. The word on the street was right; Chris has been behaving himself and the vocals are on point. Phew!
Cyril Jordan and Chris Wilson are joined tonight by a rhythm section featuring Chris Von Sneidern and Tony Sales. The latter being the son of Tony Sales Sr. (Iggy Pop / Todd Rundgren, Tin Machine with David Bowie). It’s a shame not to see original Groovies’ bassist George Alexander in the live frame on this tour but he does appear on the new album and hey, you can’t have it all. Tonight, Von Sneidern oozes rock ‘n’ roll cool on stage and forms a tight rear rhythm guard with Sales.
No sooner has the rollicking Down Down Down simmered, we are straight into the first Groovies’ original You Tore Me Down as Cyril Jordan’s trademark guitar sound sits beautifully with the lush power pop vocal harmonies. It really is stunning.
Mid set we get a live outing of What The Hell’s Goin’ On from Fantastic Plastic – Jordan and Wilson’s newly penned album and the first in how many years? As the new song is introduced, a wag in the crowd gives a massive “BOOOOO!” much to the grinning delight of the band. What The Hell’s Goin’ On sounds like, well, the Flamin’ Groovies! They’ve stayed true to their unforgettable sound that fans know and love, and it’s well received.
No sooner have we had time to digest what came before, we’re already into the final furlong. Teenage Head sounds magnifent as the primitive garage rock riff rings out. When you pigeonhole the Flamin’ Groovies as the forerunners of proto-punk, this is the noise that claims its stake in that department. Wilson does Roy Loney proud as he howls “I’m a monster” and it tastes like cocaine trickling down the back of your throat.
Cyril spins a yarn about the next track being 3 songs in 1, and that can only mean the band are about to launch into their classic Shake Some Action. And launch they do with all four members sharing vocal duties as one. It sounds equally as mesmerising as the original album cut. Surely this is one of the greatest pop rock songs ever written. To hear it live is an absolute joy as smiles project from the faces of the Groovies’ faithful in attendance.
The set closer is upon us as Cyril introduces the song that the BBC banned, the formidable Slow Death. I witnessed The Dictators doing their faithful take on the original a few years ago in this exact same venue. To hear the Groovies rip through this classic is a proper ‘hairs standing up on the back of your neck’ moment. The band leave the stage to rapturous applause before returning for a two song encore of Jumpin’ in the Night and Let Me Rock.
From first hearing the band via a 2003 Marco Pirroni compilation of songs that were played on Vivienne Westwood and Malcom McLaren’s SEX store jukebox on the King’s Road in the 70s, through to me rustling through old copies of the Bomp! fanzines, and onto my first live Groovies experience tonight – they deliver.
As the lights went up, Cyril and Chris happily mingle with the crowd, signing autographs and posing for photos at the merch table. No expensive modern day ‘meet and greet’ packages here. Just humble rock ‘n’ rollers that are out there doing what they love. As I leave I spot an old school friend of the band and I ask, “well?” With a shrug of the shoulders and a toothy grin he replies, “Hey, it’s the Groovies!” I cannot argue with that. Ginge Knievil.