Saturday, May 22, 2010

Flash Metal Suicide: Flamin' Groovies "Teenage Head"

Flamin' Groovies
Teenage Head
Kama Sutra Records, 1971

The Flamin' Groovies are a bit of a difficult band to pin down. But in one sense, no. They've always been a kick ass rock n' roll band. In another sense, yeah--they've changed up quite radically within the framework of three or four chords, in that there's bound to be camps of people that like certain eras much more than another. You've got the early "Sneakers" and "Supersnazz" era, which is largely Sun Records influenced rockabilly. It's an underrated template for psychobilly--the Cramps undoubtedly learned some things on how to resurrect 50's music with a dash of humour and camp n' roll from the Groovies. Jon Spencer undoubtedly copped some of his "ironic Elvis" from singer Roy Loney. Then you have the later Cyril Jordan led period which is more garagey--Beatles/ Stones power pop. There could easily be a Flash Metal Suicide for all three eras.

My favorite is the mid period "Flamingo" and "Teenage Head" era--all Stonesy boogie and revved up blues. It's not really clear why exactly they did this for a couple of albums and then ditched it. But that's probably why they divided their own audiences and split their own vote, because I know more than a few people that are decidedly heavily into the Roy Loney era, or the non-Loney era. Loney and Jordan apparently disagreed on which direction they were headed in; Loney wanted the straight up rock, Jordan wanted the British Invasion. Such is life in a band, the cliched "creative differences".

It's possible that the band may have been perceived as a novelty due to the 50's revival thing, as well as Roy Loney's elastic, often spastic vocal style wherein he could go from a hiccuping Elvis to snivelling mental patient on release from the looney bin--often within the same song. Perhaps he just sounded like a bunch of different singers and different personalities. At times, it's hard to believe that it's the same guy singing. And on the cover of debut "Supersnazz" (though really, the true debut is "Sneakers"), the cartoon characters likely didn't help matters. They didn't really have an image either--a bunch of pretty ordinary looking dudes, the type that you knew were rockers in school, but they were all dropouts or burnouts or something like that. They just sort of wandered through the halls like the undead on a non-existent Halloween.

But it's safe to say that most of the bands that really move me, they were either way ahead of their time, or drastically behind. Or both. The Groovies were probably just too early for the rockabilly revival, and too late for the original wave of it; perceived as out of date and flogging an out of date trend. Adding insult to injury was that the band also was strongly influenced by the 60's, sounding alot like alot of Nuggets bands that were into "Louie Louie" covers and whatnot. So there had to have been alot of people that thought that the Groovies were horribly out of date when "Sneakers" came out in 1968 (released and financed by the band themselves, originally--DIY and protopunk credentials intact). Epic released their first album "Supersnazz", then when it sold poorly, it was back to the drawing board. That's a good reason for a Flash Metal Suicide right there.

The Groovies are also not really considered to be protopunk. In some circles they are, but in alot, no. But they'd eschewed alot of the high energy, good times no bullshit three chord rock n' roll that punk took most of it's cues from. With the Groovies, there also was no real gimmick. There wasn't any real "us versus them" mentality. There was no peanut butter. There was no White Panther revolutions. Just the music. Back in the hippie flower power San Fran scene in the late 60's when the Groovies started up, I imagine that these guys weren't exactly popular--no multipart 10-20 minute songs, just 3 minute blasts of good time music. Maybe if they were from Detroit or New York, they'd have been lumped in with the protopunks. I dunno.

Basically, "Teenage Head" rips from start to finish. You know that when you influence a band-- that became an influential band in their own right--to adopt your album name as their band name, it's gotta have a merit or three. "High Flyin' Baby" kicks it off in grand style; slide guitar licks from Cyril Jordan and Tim Lynch, youthful energy and establishing a rowdy, freewheeling atmosphere, with Loney in a maniacal vocal persona. "City Lights" is a slow swamp blues with more slide guitar, with saloon styled piano courtesy of Memphis legend Jim Dickinson, with Loney reflecting that "...well the nighttime girls are always laughing, movie stars are autographing". "Have You Seen My Baby" (Randy Newman cover) cranks the amps back up. The cymbal hit accents on every second note really sounds like the template for the first Ramones album. "Yesterday's Numbers" is a surprisingly reflective mid tempo pop song that--in a perfect world--would have bridged the creative differences in between Loney's madhouse rock aesthetic and Jordan's more pop oriented style for at least another album or two. "Have you ever been alone, so long you couldn't cry....did you ever have a home, did you ever tell a lie?" asks Loney. It's not the most revelatory of lyrics ever, but proves that the band did have a sense of introspection amidst all the power and speed, with Loney repeating the "tell me it's alright!" line for awhile into the outro to close out the album, as if he's trying to be reassured of the situation.

The title track is next, a snarling rocker, with Loney in the rabid, manic wiseass vocal persona; it's title taken from a Kim Fowley statement about looking for some "teenage head". As the lyric goes, it could be a motto for greaseballs, dropouts and everywhere--"i'm a monster, got a revved up teenage head...half a boy and half a man, i'm half at sea and half on land, oh my". There 'ya got the Cramps without the horror visuals and maybe Lux's leopard codpiece. It's a true classic. It should be up there with all the other classic rock tracks, but sadly, it's not nearly as revered in nostalgia circles other than "cult band" revery. When I hear this, it's instant air guitar time. Hell, i'll take your air guitar and smash it through a non-existent air amp.

"when ya' see me, better turn your tail and run...
'cause i'm angry and I'll mess you up for fun...
i'm a child of atom bombs and rotten air and Vietnams...
I am you,
you are me. "

A Heart Full of Napalm, but two years earlier, man. Gotta love it. That's about as political as you get from the Groovies--but it's not a political statement as much as they're saying that they don't even need a reason to pull the prank....hey man, it's nothing personal. And it's not even business. They do it because that's what they do, they get off on it, it's leisure.

Robert Johnson's "32-20" is next, and it's a rousing stompdown with just acoustic guitar, vocals, slide and mild percussion. "Evil Hearted Ada" follows, and it's sounds the most like the early Groovies out of all the songs on the album; hiccuping Evil Elvis surfaces here in our hero Roy the Boy for this one.

Rock n' roll isn't exactly science--you can only get so far away from your influences, but considering the ease at which the Groovies have always traversed between covers and their own originals, they're one of the few bands that do justice to the greats, and then hit you with a song that you're sure is a cover, but it's not. "Doctor Boogie" sounds like it's a cover, but it's a Loney/ Jordan original. I'm not usually a covers type of guy (if you can't rewrite three chords successfully in a rock n' roll band, you should give up), but the Groovies are one of those bands that I really enjoy hearing them play those standards, because like the Sonics, they rip 'em a whole new arsehole when they do do 'em.

The album ender, "Whiskey Woman", could be the highlight of the album, and again proves that the band has a mellow side to their attack. I like it better than "Wild Horses"--same sort of funereal gospel vibe (although "Wild Horses" sounds like the angelic version that ascends out of the ashes of said metaphorical whiskey woman's wreckage). E minor to C has been done to death, but if it works, why mess with it? It's probably what you could call their "Freebird"--has a Southern rock thing to it and then speeds up into an angry two riff rocker that pulverizes. It could easily be longer than it's 5 minutes--but the Groovies being about economy, they get it in, bash it out, and get out leaving you wanting more.

The Groovies would never again return to this sound. Loney left after this album, and Jordan resurfaced with the band on the Dave Edmunds produced "Shake Some Action" five years later in 1976--a great album in it's own right--but in alot of ways, it wasn't the same band anymore. The Buddha reissue/ remaster includes a bunch of bonus tracks--all covers, aside from "Going Out Theme" (version 2).

--Ryan Settee


Br1207yantScipio1 said...

Hard day......................................................................

Medicine Stu said...

F & TH are unstoppably amazing rekkids...good work. I think Mr Richards is said to have said at the time he wished Sticky Fingers was like Teenage Head. Too right. Sticky Fingers pretty limp.

Medicine Stu said...

Another one to add to the 'If you don't don't like Rock'n'Roll' a la JATS

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