The Flamin’ Groovies are one of those American classic-rock bands that have never received the recognition they deserve. They were on the fringes of making it big in the ’60s and ’70s but it never quite happened, probably because their music didn’t chime with the times. Though coming out of mid-’60s San Francisco they were not part of the flower-power psychedelic movement, with their early music looking back to first-wave rock ’n’ roll and rhythm and blues. Later they moved towards proto-punk and became pioneers of power pop. Petering out after recording their last album in 1979, they re-formed in 2013 and are now touring Europe as part of their 50th anniversary.
Today the Flamin’ Groovies consists of founder member and lead guitarist Cyril Jordan, lead vocalist Chris Wilson (who took over after Roy Loney left in 1971), bassist George Alexander (there from near the start) and new recruit Victor Penalosa on drums. Playing the Scala again three years on, the band can’t recapture the raw energy of their famed live performances from 40-plus years ago, but the musicianship on show is still classy.
Proving once more to be ahead of their time, they start the gig 20 minutes earlier than advertised. Now well into their sixties, they receive a warm reception from a ‘mature’ audience. The spritely Jordan (wearing a rather ridiculous wig) introduces a lot of the songs anecdotally, with some slightly incoherent interjections from the stocky, blue-denim-clad Wilson. Wilson sounds a bit croaky at times, but Jordan’s garage guitar riffs have lost little of their edge. They may pause for breath between tracks, but the band still know how to rock.
Not surprisingly the set list leans much more heavily on the three later albums that Wilson features on, following a five-year break, rather than the first three albums with Loney, and the sound veers much more towards power pop than proto-punk. They don’t play the two new songs they’ve released since re-forming, the excellent End of the World and the rock ’n’ roller Crazy Macy (released just this last month), presumably because they don’t have much belief in them and/or they think audiences will only want to hear the old stuff.
They kick off with the Dave Edmunds co-penned rocker Yeah My Baby, then Jordan takes over singing duties for the jangly I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better (covering one of their biggest influences, The Byrds). With their sweet melodies and vocal harmonies You Tore Me Down and I Can’t Hide sound like a ’60s British invasion band, while Jordan jokes of Please Please Girl: ‘This is a song we wrote for The Beatles. They didn’t want to do it. They’d broken up five years earlier.’
Rock ’n’ roll takes over with covers of Freddy Cannon’s twangy Tallahassee Lassie and a Chuck Berry-style version of WC Handy’s St. Louis Blues, while Alexander huskily sings Married Woman. Jordan introduces Between The Lines as a ‘pro-drug song’ that wasn’t banned and the superb ‘anti-drug song’ Slow Death that was banned by the BBC though John Peel played it – which raises a cheer. They finish with their best-known song Shake Some Action, but come back for an encore of the raunchy, Stones-like Teenage Head, according to Jordan, “written when I was off my head on LSD”.
To some extent, the gig feels like a nostalgia trip but the crowd are more than happy to go along with it. There is apparently a new album in the making, though this has been delayed. Meantime, it’s good to hear The Flamin’ Groovies playing songs from long ago; songs that are not so much out of their time as timeless.