It's not uncommon for someone to ask Cyril Jordan, "Who the f— are you guys?" Jordan founded San Francisco's Flamin' Groovies, rock 'n' roll stalwarts and punk progenators — maybe moreso to record crate diggers than the average Rolling Stones fan. (Legend has it, however, that Mick Jagger himself said the Groovies were doing a better job at what the Stones were trying.)
Band co-founder Roy Loney left after the Groovies' landmark 1971 album Teenage Head, and Jordan, along with bassist George Alexander and new guitarist Chris Wilson, focused on a more power-pop direction, with producer Dave Edmunds at the helm of 1976's Shake Some Action and 1978's Flamin' Groovies Now. In '76, the band toured the U.K. bringing along New Jersey's Ramones. The Ramones' impact there made history while the Groovies began to unravel. The Jordan/Alexander/Wilson lineup played for the last time in 1981.
But in 2008, Loney and Jordan reunited to perform Teenage Head material with some famous fans: Yo La Tengo and The A-Bones. (That lineup had a memorable performance at the 2010 Ponderosa Stomp.)
Another group of famous fans, Australia's favorite garage-pop sons the Hoodoo Gurus, heard that Jordan was considering getting Alexander and Wilson together. The band invited Flamin' Groovies to perform in Australia last year, kickstarting a Flamin' Groovies "classic lineup" reunion tour and inspiring a documentary about "the greatest rock band you've never heard."
Ponderosa Stomp and Aquarium Drunkard host a New Orleans tour stop at 10 p.m. Monday, April 28 at One Eyed Jacks (615 Toulouse St., 504-569-8361). The Men co-headlines. The Royal Pendletons open with DJs Matty and 9ris 9ris. Tickets $20.
Below, Jordan talks to Gambit about reuniting the band, surviving the Haight-Ashbury scene, The Beatles, and life without a computer or cell phone.
When you last toured here with Roy, you had members of Yo La Tengo filling in. How did they get involved?
Those guys are fans. [Yo La Tengo's Ira Kaplan] is an old friend and fan from way back. It’s the fans who have put this thing back together. After Chris and I saw each other a few years ago, and we hadn’t seen each other in 30 years, word got out that we were back together hanging out, and the requests just started coming in. We got an offer in Australia to tour with Hoodoo Gurus. That gave us about 60 grand to kickstart this project and we’re back on track now.
What is the chemistry like? Has it been difficult or is it like you’ve never left?
Exactly. It’s very strange. It’s 33 years later. By the third day of rehearsal last year it was like the day after we broke up in the '80s. We turned back into who we were back then. After about a day or two all of a sudden we’re acting how we were back in those days, and to hell with the last 33 years. It’s like time and space didn’t mean nothing. I still haven’t been able to figure that one out.
How did the documentary come about?
It's something that attached itself to us while we were on the road. It’s like how it used to be — we’d go somewhere and make friends and people start hanging out with us and pretty soon we’ve got a crew of people in this town and that town and they’re digging us. We went to the East Coast with our producer Joel Jaffe, who had done the last Ray Manzarek album. The filmmaker [William Tyler] was shooting Manzarek for a documentary, that’s how Joel met him. When we got to New York, Joe called up Bill and said "Why don’t you come and see the band, we’ll put you on the list." Bill showed up and 10 minutes later said, "I gotta get my camera, I’ll be back." Him and [filmmaker Kurt Feldhun] have been with us ever since. They tripped out on the band. Of course they’d never heard of us.
Yeah. And when they realized how good we were working together, he dug the music we were doing, they became fans, instant fans. It was a no-brainer from that point: "Hey, lets do a movie on you guys."
All these rock documentaries are coming out about these under-the-radar bands —
It’s cool, but a lot of it is overdue. There’s a Mike Bloomfield set that’s just come out, it’s got three CDs and a DVD, which is a short film of him. Al Kooper just put it out. It’s long overdue.
So these guys weren’t necessarily familiar with the Groovies.
That’s where they came up with the subtitle of the film: "the greatest rock band you’ve never heard of." Last year Chris and I were invited to play (a show) the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was having for the Rolling Stones, and when we walked onstage for the rehearsal, Steve Jordan called me the week before, he was the musical director. ... When we came for rehearsal, we fucking blew minds. Me and Chris ran through it, boom boom boom, and it sounded fucking incredible. They’re looking at us like, "Who the fuck are you guys? How come we don’t know who you guys are?" I looked at [bassist Willie Weeks] like, "This proves the point that this is a very large world we live in." If it wasn’t for Brian Epstein we wouldn’t have heard of the Beatles. Who knows how long they would’ve gone on. If they just went on like the Groovies, there’d be this gem in Liverpool waiting to be discovered.
A missing link.
A lot of writers now are calling the Groovies the godfathers or precurser of punk.
This has been going on for decades. The band breaks up in 1980 and all of a sudden a couple years later there’s this band cutting one of our songs. All these local bands are forming — this band does "Shake Some Action," another band does "Slow Death." It’s very strange. Someone asked me the other day, "How do you guys manage this chameleon type ability? You came from Haight-Ashbury in ‘60s, in England you’re attached to the punk scene." It’s puzzling to us. I kind of got a handle on it now, I realized all of a sudden we were never contemporary at any one period, because we were playing timeless classic-style rock. That helped us fit in whenever some new scene came… except for disco. There was no way for us to attach to that fucker. And rap music. It’s a big surprise to me that we didn’t get categorized as some retro thing.
Where did you fit in with San Francisco?
We really didn’t fit in. We were the only band that really was from San Francisco. The Grateful Dead, all those people were from the East Bay. [Quicksilver Messenger Service], all those guys were not born in San Francisco. Flamin' Groovies were all born in San Francisco. Before the Haight-Ashbury scene started, we were in bands, playing surf instrumentals or whatever. Then the British Invasion came and next thing you know we all have Fuzztones, doing "Heart Full of Soul" and "Gloria." By the time the music scene here started we were full-tilt boogie playing the type of garage rock we continued to play through all of it. We never got into the business to be some world famous rock stars and fuck every chick on the planet, or make a million dollars. We were kids. We decided we were going to be a band and decide what kind of music we were going to play and to hell with everybody else. That was the attitude. It’s the same attitude as the Beatles. Those guys couldn’t get signed in ’62 right away because everyone said, "Oh, they do 'Long Tall Sally,' they sound like the Everly Brothers. We already had this."
‘Guitar music is over’.
Yeah. I remember thinking as a kid they were heroes, to me and the guys, because they were proving them all wrong, "Guitar music ain’t dead. Listen to this!" They were total heroes to us.
Was there a divide over whether, "Are we a Beatles band or a Stones band?"
We were always both. We cut "Slow Death" after Roy left. After the end of that decade, we cut "Jumpin in the Night" which is pretty R&B. We love all kinds of music. When we do stuff like that, we’re emulating our influences. We didn’t did too much pop music when Roy was in the band because we didn’t have the ability to do three-part harmonies. George, Chris and I, and now with (Victor Penalosa), our drummer, in the band, we’re just like the Beatles. Everybody can sing. We got four singers in the band. It’s just a question of figuring out new songs — I sing this, you guys do harmony, or I sing that, or Victor sings one and we do a three-part behind him. We have the tools to do that. We’ll probably evolve into that and branch out into another realm of our style of music. I don’t know what it’ll be called.
Chris and I wrote our first new song last year, "End of the World." It got picked by Rolling Stone for streaming. Dave Marsh, who is an old friend, who we haven’t seen since 1969, he pretty much jumped off the Groovies bandwagon all those decades ago. He seems to be back on, with what he said about the new song. It was amazing. I had to read it twice, like, "Did he really say that?" I’m thinking to myself, "maybe this attitude we’ve had all this time, which is we’re going to do what we think is cool, maybe it caught on," I don’t know.
We did a couple shows in England last year. We opened for Bruce Springsteen at Olympic Park. It was incredible. We did a headline show in London. When we were in Australia a few months before that, we got an email from Matthew Fisher, the keyboard player in Procul Harum. He was the arranger on "Whiter Shade of Pale." He said, "I’d love to sit in." and we were like, "Oh wow, no shit." We figured he’d do two songs or something. We get there for rehearsal and he’s made charts for every song.
It was all old geezers. We sold the place out, mind you, but they were all old people. The scene in Europe is completely detached — you’ve got the old timers and the new bands and the kids into the new stuff. There’s no unity. They’re completely isolated. We come to America and start playing the East Coast and start getting young kids at the show. By the time we play the Echoplex in L.A., it’s all young kids. We’re going like, "Holy shit, this is fucking great." One of the girls I work with, she’s in her early 20s, she came to our show last year. Later on I asked her what’d you think. She said, "It’s incredible, I knew you guys were old school but I didn’t know old school was so heavy."
I think a lot of the kids come to see us, they get off on it. Who couldn’t get off on a band playing rock 'n' roll music and doing it right? Especially when you’re a young kid and you’ve never heard it before. Something old becomes something new, after generations.
You’re playing with this band out of New York, The Men. You have these two bands doing great rock 'n' roll, one of young guys and —
You have the old geezers. (laughs) There are other new groups playing with us. We have the Muck & the Mires. [Evan Shore] called me a couple weeks ago, he said, "I heard you guys were touring. We’ll drive to wherever and open." … So they’re going to be on one of the shows. We get a big kick out of these kids starting rock bands, using us as a direction. It’s very flattering.
What goes through your mind when you see a band emulating what they think is new territory?
It was kind of neat 30 years ago when the band broke up and a couple of years later people were covering "Slow Death." It was a trip, like, "Thank God we haven’t been forgotten." Now, it’s very strange. How come it’s still going on? (laughs) That one I can’t figure out.
What are plans beyond "End of the World"? Is there an album in the works?
Yeah, since last year. We’ve cut four songs, new ones. We’re going in the studio and we’re going to lay down more tracks. We should have half an album finished by the time we tour. We’re thinking of putting out an EP for the summer, on vinyl and CD. Of course it’ll be up on iTunes.
The cool thing about iTunes, you don’t have to wait a year for royalties. In the old days, it would take ASCAP a year to collect. Last year we get off the road and a month later I get a check for $2,000 from Warner Bros. It’s all streaming, people downloading.
I’m like, "Wow, they pay this quick. OK, let’s move our organization to the computer." I’m one of those guys who still doesn’t have a computer. I don’t have a cell phone. I’m off the fucking grid. George and Victor, when we’re on the road, the first thing they do before they have coffee, they go to the computer. "Hey look that this photograph." I’m that guy who has a pad of paper and pencil.
(laughs) The other day I was at work, I work as an usher at the Orpheum in San Francisco for big musicals, I see all these young kids, they’re freaking out. "You’re on Wikipedia!" I’m like, "What the fuck is Wikipedia?" I asked, "Is that good?"
Someone else wrote your Wikipedia.
There you go. I got my 15 minutes like Andy Warhol said.
I’m very impressed with this computer age. I still don’t think I want to plug in. Seems to me everyone who does, there’s a great responsibility in doing this. you can’t ignore emails and texts. Frankly, I’m busy painting on canvas all day long, so I don’t really have time to be that responsible. I imagine if I did set something up like that, I would get in big trouble real quick. Everybody would get pissed off I wasn’t answering them.
This way you don’t have anything to worry about.
This way, I’m some eccentric weirdo.
You’re in town during Jazz Fest.
We’ll be there a few days. The filmmakers are going to meet us in New Orleans and we’re going to be shooting there. I thought it’d be great, man, what a place to make some film. The French Quarter, that’s a wonderful place to take photographs.
George and the rest of the boys in the band have never been to New Orleans. They’re really looking forward to it.
The Groovies never played in New Orleans?
We never did the South. We never did Texas. That’s why we’re calling it the Invasion tour.
We should’ve been dead for the count a long time ago. We were down and out and we were gone. There were years where it was like, "It’s over forever." All of a sudden this thing starts up again, like boy, shows how much I know.
Did you ever feel any desperation where that was the end of making music?
Oh yeah. That happened to me in the ‘90s when George and I split the band up.
There was a 10-year period where I didn’t play guitar, I didn’t listen to music. That whole part of my life was over. It was strange to be in this new land. I had grown up into this. when it was all over in the '80s and '90s, it was like, "Wow, what do you do with yourself?" I came to terms with it. It was fine, it’s over, I can move on. But it was dead and gone and never gonna come back. All of a sudden its back, we’re back together and we’re all kind of shaking our heads like, "How the hell did this happen?"
It’s the fans, really. The Hoodoo Gurus picked us for their tour because they’re fans. That was enough money to kickstart the project again. I would have to say the fans saved us.