Shaking Some Action: An Interview with the Flamin’ Groovies’ Cyril Jordan

The reunited Flamin' Groovies

The reunited Flamin’ Groovies

The Flamin’ Groovies are one of the most beloved early garage rock and power pop pioneers, but in their own time, they never truly got their commercial due. I had the chance to talk with Groovies co-founder and lead guitarist Cyril Jordan, who is playing at Red 7 tonight with a reunited Flamin’ Groovies for Psych Fest. I spoke with Jordan about the band’s two distinct eras, the early R&B-influenced period featuring Roy Loney as the frontman, and the more power pop oriented version of the band that is playing Red 7, with Chris Wilson at the front. We also spoke about how the band wound up on Sire at its peak, what happened to the manager that got them on Sire and why vinyl will always be the best way to listen to rock music.

Morgan Davis for Ovrld: The Flamin’ Groovies are set to play a reunion show here in Austin for Psych Fest, but you’ve already played well-received shows everywhere from Australia to Japan. Have you been surprised by the reaction?

Cyril Jordan: Yeah, really surprised, it’s been really great. We should have been forgotten. It’s been a long, long time since we played rock ‘n’ roll.

Ovrld: Do you feel like today’s music scene is in some ways more receptive to what you’re doing than the last time you toured together?

CJ: Yeah, a lot more.

Ovrld: Other garage rock groups from your era, like the Sonics, also seem to be get a great reception with their reunions. Would you say the garage rock scene today is thriving?

CJ: It’s funny because when the mainstream rock scene breaks down, and the stuff up there at the top flakes off, it always comes down to the underground garage level, the interest always comes back to that, that’s where the real roots are. We don’t come from the Julliard school. We come from oblivion. There are garages everywhere here in America. I think it’s really healthy when it gets back to that level.

Ovrld: You did a tour a few years ago with fellow Flamin’ Groovies founder Roy Loney, and I know he’s absent from this line-up, but I remember that you toured with members of Yo La Tengo and the A-Bones, what was it like working with those musicians, who kind of came up inspired by what you had done?

CJ: Those guys were friends first and fans second, so it was great because they really got the material. And they’re pretty much why we’ve come back, first with the tour with Roy and now the Shake Some Action stuff with Chris. If it wasn’t for the fans, we’d be out floating in the void. It’s the fans that have kept this thing going. Apparently we’re getting new fans too, because there are a lot of young kids coming to the shows.

Ovrld: The Flamin’ Groovies have been seen as a major influence on a lot of genres that are big now, everything from punk to power pop to garage rock. But you were also pretty influential in your own time, because Cheap Trick, the Cramps and ZZ Top have all cited you as an influence. What aspect of your style do you feel has been your greatest legacy?

CJ: You know, I think one of the main reasons we’re even still around is because we were on major labels back in the ’70s. Those companies have been bought up by huge companies so there has been a constant barrage of rereleases even though the band has been down for the count for pretty much the past 30 years. One album after another has kept coming out and the media image has been kept alive.

As far as the kids go, well, we’ve got a couple sides to us; we’ve got the Rolling Stones side, we’ve got the Beatles side and then we have our own side. So, it’s a little bit of folk rock, it’s a little bit of rock ‘n’ roll, it’s a little bit of grunge. And the other fact is that we were never really contemporary at any time we were working, so we had this chameleon-like ability to fit in because the music we were playing was a classic style of rock ‘n’ roll. By the time we got rolling in San Francisco in ’64 or ’65, that was seen as old hat, especially on the West Coast. We were all puzzled by it, because what we were doing was basically roots, we’re all about roots.

Ovrld: One of my favorite works of yours is Teenage Head, which Mick Jagger even infamously claimed was better than Sticky Fingers. What was it like to balance those kinds of accolades, and be seen as the West Coast response to the Rolling Stones?

CJ: It was really cool because they were our idols. We loved pop but we also loved R&B, and the Stones were some of the greatest guitarists of all-time. When we started as kids, that was basically where we were coming from because we wanted to be great guitar players. And we always got a kick, too, on doing a take off on something. I was a big fan of MAD Magazine too, and I grew up reading their crazy ads, take offs on real ads. By the time we got to do Teenage Head, Roy was really into that, too– Roy was kind of the king of great take offs, his writing was just fantastic back then. The combination of me on the arrangements and parts and Roy on the melodies and lyrics, we were pretty good at doing our version of the Stones.

But “Teenage Head” is also basically our version of Led Zeppelin. We had the idea “What if the Mothers of Invention did Led Zeppelin?” So that was “Teenage Head.” [laughs]

Ovrld: That’s crazy, that makes me view that song a whole different way now.

CJ: Yeah, yeah. [laughs]

Ovrld: One of the things that really appeals to me about that song is that it’s full of elements that you wouldn’t think would work well together, but do work well together, like the combination of that stompy guitar lick and that harmonica that comes out of nowhere and the snotty vocal take. You spoke about the arrangements and I was curious about how you guys always managed to have this tight but chaotic sound. How did you hold it all together? Because it always sounds great, but it also sounds like something menacing is coming.

CJ: Well, we all were back then– and pretty much still are now– goof offs. We love to goof. Serious is all fine and dandy, but when we cut that material, we pretty much came up with it on the spot in the studio. So it was all very brand new. We got a gripe from one of the guys in the band, one of the drummers, he said “Hey man, I wish I had a little more time to work on it,” but I like the idea of someone being a little anxious in the recording session– it makes them a little more alert. It gives an edge to the recording that…I don’t know if the word is “chaos,” but I know what you mean, it sounds like it’s going to break loose. That’s because people aren’t used to it, I just showed them the song that day, maybe an hour before the session. So everyone was real anxious and nervous [laughs]. But they’re all playing well, it gives it this raw edge.

Ovrld: That album was also the defining statement on that era of the band, since Roy Loney left after that. Was it intended as a goodbye to that era of the group? When you were recording it, did you know you were transitioning from one era to another?

CJ: No, not really. We were always glad when we had the chance to cut another album. But we would wait until seconds before the session, even though we were real serious about it. He would have notes on this song, I would have notes on that song. Being a bunch of lazy guys, though, we would wait until the last second.

I remember when we got signed to Sire and Seymour Stein [Sire founder] came out to audition us, and he said “Play me some new songs,” and I looked at him and I said “You know, Seymour, I don’t really write new songs until I know they’re going to be produced on a new album.” And he just looked at me and said “Well, what can you play us?” I said “We can play ‘Please Please Me,’ by the Beatles…” So we did “Please Please Me” for him, right there, and he signed us on the spot because apparently that was his favorite Beatles song [laughs].

Ovrld: You guys had always had a Beatles influence to even out the Stones influence, and you even covered quite a few of their songs, right? I know you said the Stones were your idols, but since as a songwriter you have a more melodic side to you too, was it always a matter of balancing those two?

CJ: It’s really an artistic preference, because as a writer, the pop style of the Beatles is way more difficult to write than the R&B style of the Stones. To me, that’s always been a challenge, as far as I’m concerned. Some of the greatest melodies of all-time came out of the minds of Paul McCartney and John Lennon, especially John Lennon which you could see after he left the Beatles and was still coming up with really great ideas. That kind of music is much more difficult to write, I like the challenge of it.

When Roy was in the band, we had a singer who was like an R&B singer. We didn’t really have pretty boy voices. But when Chris [Wilson] came into the band, all of that changed. We were able to up our innovations and take our ideas to a level that would have been more challenging to me. I got a big kick out of that. But we never got rid of that raw edge side, because our last album [1979’s Jumpin’ In the Night] we stuck very close to songwriting in the style of [Teenage Head-era single] “Slow Death.” We never forgot that stuff, we still wanted to blow their barns. We may not have been getting hit records, but we were coming up with licks that Keith and Mick think are really cool. That was a good reason to continue doing it, even though the big bucks weren’t coming in.

Ovrld: When you guys joined up with Sire, you went in a more power pop direction, which fit in with what they were putting out at the time, too. Something that has always fascinated me about your Sire debut Shake Some Action is that it was co-produced by Greg Shaw [of Bomp! fame] and Dave Edmunds, which symbolized a marriage between two worlds of power pop, from Shaw’s West Coast and Edmunds being the pub rock producer of choice. Were you drawn to the pub rock scene because they were also attempting to merge pop and R&B in a raw way?

CJ: Oh yeah, for sure! When we moved to England in ’72, we got hooked up with a lot of the early players, guys like Nick Lowe [pub rock pioneer and long time Elvis Costello producer who also wrote “(What’s So Funny ’bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?”], we fit right in, it was amazing. We had cut the song “Shake Some Action” in ’72, but it was never released. I wound up owning the recording masters. So I shopped those tapes for about three to four years, it was very difficult to get signed.

When I met Greg Shaw, he had come out of the same cookie box we had come out of, being influenced by the British Invasion. A guy like Greg was always trying to find the next “pop” band. We all loved what the Beatles did, so he got really jazzed when he met us. At that point in time, we were doing more Beatles-style pop music. He was getting ready to become the Vice President of Sire Records, so we signed up with Seymour’s label and Greg became our manager. He went to England with us to do the album, Shake Some Action. None of us knew Greg was a diabetic, he kept that secret, and three weeks into recording the album, he was partying with us all night long, drinking all these bottles of wine. The next day we were on the M4– it was raining, I remember that– and he collapsed and he went into a seizure, we had to call for the police and an ambulance. They took Greg away and we never saw Greg again. He just vanished like a fart in the wind, it was fucking unbelievable. I guess after that he lost his connection with Sire and went back into the underground and stayed there for the rest of his life [Shaw died in 2004 from heart failure at the age of 55]. But he was a big help. Without him and his labels, the underground scene would have had a hard time staying alive. We owe Greg a whole bunch, and Seymour too. Seymour was the only guy in the recording industry that was on top of it, he had a lot of money, and he loved that style of pop music. He kind of got burned out after four or five years of putting money into it, and never having it go anywhere.

It was difficult back then for anyone in the music scene to try to bring that kind of melodic style of music. The competition was intense. I was thinking about it the other day and I must have been insane in my ’20s, because the competition was fierce, with stuff like Led Zeppelin, the Who, the Rolling Stones [laughs]. We were competing against some bands that had some incredible guitar players. Things were different then. We don’t have that kind of playing anymore. Clapton is still touring and whatever, but as far as the young kids go, I would imagine a lot of them don’t even know who he is. You know what I mean? [laughs] I mean, guys like you…you guys know. But the kids who listen to Bruno Mars, they’ve never heard of Eric Clapton. [laughs]

Ovrld: Well, it seems like the scene in the UK that you wound up in the middle of was coming from a similar place, with a group of kids deciding they wanted to take things back to a real primal form of rock ‘n’ roll. You mentioned Nick Lowe earlier, and guys like him wound up defining that brand of UK pop, with all the acts he worked with, from Elvis Costello to Ian Dury and so on. Did you feel like you were stuck between both worlds, since you were great players but also had a clear appreciation for that raw form of rock?

CJ: Pretty much, yeah. The fact is, we influenced each other, too. When we came over, we were still doing a lot of Chuck Berry-style rock ‘n’ roll. That pretty much gave us some clout with these new people in the garage and punk scene in England. Then ’76 came around, and the Sex Pistols came around. I remember we were on Warner Bros. through Sire, and of course the Sex Pistols were signed to Warners. There was a songbook called “Rock” that came out, and the cover had a picture of the Sex Pistols and a picture of the Groovies and a picture of the Ramones, and we were like “How did we get connected to this?” [laughs]. I think it’s because of the fact that we were playing a raw style of music, we were doing something that was looked upon as questionable by these other players who were writing music where they were trying to intellectualize it.

In the ’60s, when electric guitar got really big because of the British Invasion, a lot of people that were in universities and colleges and listening to Bob Dylan, they looked down on the music as a bubblegum, teenage thing. That’s why Dylan got in a bunch of trouble when he went electric. It was as if you played acoustic back then, you were grown-up. If you played electric guitar, you were like a kid or something. So this attitude kept building and building until by the time ’75 rolled around, we were looked at as idiots or something because we were covering early Beatles songs. I looked at these people like “How dare you put down this stuff, this stuff is why Dylan went electric.” If the Beatles hadn’t come out, who knows what the shape of the world would be today? It definitely would not be what it is. Not that it’s in good shape [laughs]. A lot of people don’t realize that stuff like the Beatles helped communism deflate. There was a big Beatles craze in Russia, apparently. All these groups in the underground were making Beatles records. They were making these bootleg Beatles records. They had these recording booths in Red Square, so soldiers could record a Happy Birthday message for their mom or something. So they’d be in there, making a copy of a Beatles record or something, in secret [laughs]. But the Beatles didn’t get the credit they really deserve because of this weird stigma of pop. And we’re far enough in the future now that that’s all been forgotten.

Ovrld: At that time, Shake Some Action‘s poppier sound must have seemed like a seismic shift to people used to your earlier sound. Did you feel people were caught by surprise with what you did with that album?

CJ: There are definitely two camps of Groovies fans. There’s the Teenage Head group of fans, and then there’s the Shake Some Action group of fans. Sometimes they clash. The funny thing is, when I did that tour with Roy, about a year and a half before Chris and I got together, the halls didn’t exactly fill up. It’s as though the people who know about Teenage Head are a little hipper or something. So there’s fewer of them. I guess the hip are always in the minority. But it doesn’t bother me. I mean, sometimes with this line-up, I’ll get up on stage and people will request stuff from Teenage Head and I’ll just have to tell them “You got the wrong band.” [laughs] That stuff is with Roy, we don’t do it with Chris.

Ovrld: The Shake Some Action line-up has had multiple revivals, because I know a lot of people came to your music through Clueless, which featured Cracker’s cover of “Shake Some Action.” Was it interesting to you to see a new generation of fans get turned on to your music through that?

CJ: The band had been broken up for at least five or six years when that offer came. That offer came in the mail, I got a letter from Paramount Studios one day. I was kind of puzzled. I looked at it and it had the Paramount logo, and I thought “What is this? Is this an advertisement?” And I opened it up and it’s this director [Amy Heckerling, who also directed Fast Times at Ridgemont High] and she’s telling me she’s going to make this movie, and these are the people that are in it. I didn’t recognize any of the names. I was in disbelief. I figured it would probably barely come out and not even be shown on airplanes. But I went ahead and did the deal anyway. And the next thing I know, it’s this big teenage hit! [laughs] It was pretty amazing, to have us be brought back and clued in to a new teenage market. It really helped us get back on the grid, we probably made more money from royalties from that than anything else. It was pure luck.

Ovrld: It seems like around that time, a lot of your stuff was also getting rereleased. I think I first found out about your stuff through the Buddha Records reissues, which were updates on the stuff Big Beat did. And Rhino has kept your stuff in print, with the inclusion of singles from around the time of the albums and other bonus material. Now that a lot of people are coming back to vinyl and are into collecting on that format, has that helped build interest in the band?

CJ: Definitely. The problem with CD is that the thing doesn’t have much weight. If you want to listen to rock ‘n’ roll the right way, you gotta get vinyl. I know they designed the CD format so they could basically resell their catalogs. And it did work to a point. But part of listening to rock music is playing it loud, and you’ve got to get vinyl if you really want to turn the volume up.

Ovrld: Plus there’s the art aspect. I know a lot of people who just like owning vinyl because the art is so much bigger, it’s more of an artifact.

CJ: It’s totally a work of art. CDs were down to like a quarter size of an LP. So the artwork’s quality went down a bit. When you’re looking at a CD, it’s really small, so who cares what the art looks like? I totally agree with you. When you own vinyl, it’s like there’s something magical about it.

There’s also a whole thing about ownership. Because people are being taught now to buy things in a virtual sense. Fact is, you really don’t own that stuff because it doesn’t exist physically. When I started in ProTools about ten years ago, I remember asking one of my engineers about an overdub I had recorded that we lost, “Where is it? And what is it made out of?” [laughs] And he looked at me and he said “Well, we really don’t know.” [laughs] It’s hiding out there in some circuits somewhere.

Ovrld: So my friend Mike Prezzato, who runs a label called FleshWave and has played in a number of punk and garage rock bands in Detroit, wanted me to ask you: “If you could only play one of your songs for the rest of your life, what would you choose and why?”

CJ: That’s a hard one. From the old catalog, huh?

Ovrld: Yeah, anywhere in the catalog…

CJ: It would have to be “Slow Death.”

Ovrld: Why that one?

CJ: Because that one, when Roy and I wrote it, we had been out in Detroit in ’67 or ’68 and around 1970, we were really looking forward to going back. Because we made a lot of friends there. And when we get back, we were in what must have been a hooker motel out in Dearborn, it had all this purple wallpaper, real rococo. And all the people we had met and been friends with were either in jail or dead. It was a big bummer. It was two in the morning after the show and Roy and I were back in the room, and I had written that riff six or seven months ago. I was just playing around with that lick, and Roy started writing lyrics, we wrote that song in about ten minutes at two in the morning in Dearborn. About nine months later, Roy left the band after cutting one of our most famous albums. It was a very strange period. The album was a flop, I mean, not artistically, but commercially it was a flop. But it really brought down Roy and he decided to leave. And when Chris came into the band, we worked up “Slow Death” and it was extremely amazing, the energy that would come off the stage when we played that song made it seem like we had struck some kind of chord with rockers out in the audience. Out of all the material we’ve recorded and wrote, “Slow Death” is the one that gives the most satisfaction when you play it, especially that intro, the way it opens up.

Ovrld: It’s interesting that it bridges both worlds of the band like that, too..

CJ: Yeah, I still don’t know why we didn’t put it on Teenage Head. The only thing I can say is that when we were ready to cut albums, whether it was with Roy or it was with Chris, the attitude was always the same, we would wait until the last second and start coming up with ideas right there in the studio. We must have forgotten about “Slow Death.”

Ovrld: I guess it worked out for the best, though…

CJ: You never know why things happen the way they do. Some people call it destiny. Some people call it seasons of motivation, or lack of motivation.

The Flamin’ Groovies will kick off PsychFest tonight with the Warlocks and more at Red 7.