A Tale of Two Cults: the Flamin’ Groovies and Spirit
Two old faves recently surfaced on eMusic, and I must say it’s been a pleasure to renew their acquaintance. Both bands grew up in the California ’60s, polar opposites from southern El and northern Es, and were as much reaction to their hometowns as representative. Each had a cultish lifeline that has served to burnish their reputation since an early seventies heyday, and both made music of a heightened musical ideal and purity.
Spirit‘s first album in 1968 was, even in an era noted for its wide amalgamation of style, stylish: pop tuneful, flavored with jazz time signatures and fuzz solos and a strange quirked-out sense of humor: “Fresh Garbage” anyone? The guitar hero of the group was Randy California, who at 17 was a virtual prodigy; he even showed Jimi Hendrix a lick or two at Manny’s on N.Y.’s 48th St. in ’66 before joining “Jimmy James” and his Blue Flames for a summer at the Cafe Wha. There were two Randys in the band, so Jimi called him California, for that was the Los Angeles he hailed from, and where he returned to start a band with his stepfather, Ed Cassidy, on drums, along with Mark Andes and Jay Ferguson (later to form the nucleus of Jo Jo Gunne) and John Locke.
Spirit kept itself in flesh with a hit single (“I Got A Line On You”) and even a concept album (12 Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus) to their discography, but by the middle ’70s California was out on his own. And he stayed out there, despite reunions that saw him mix and mingle with various materializations of Spirit. A versatile and accomplished guitarist, he seemed at home in either rave-up or fingerpluck mode (“Taurus,” from Spirit’s debut album, presaged the chord progression of Led Zep’s “Stairway,”), and an abiding interesting in Eastern spiritual philosophies kept him spatial. His thick, sustained lead lines were a constant, and solo flights like Kaptain Kopter and the Fabulous Twirly Birds, or the wacky Potatoland (credited to Spirit), showed he hadn’t lost his penchant for sky diving.
It was ocean surfing that did him in, however, though he celebrated Neptune’s domain in his multi-part Sea Dream Suite, a work-in-progress left unfinished when California got caught in an Hawaiian riptide on January 2,1997 – all the more poignant because of the beautiful slide guitar version of “When You’re Smiling” that graces The Archive… An Introduction. This best-of from the many ’90s recordings California left behind as the oversoul of Spirit showcases his wry lyrics (“Shock Values”) and breadth of guitar overtone, whether acoustic (“French Apartment”) or amped-out electric (“Jam Free”), and his comfort in many contrasting genres (the rousing “Son of America,” the blues stomp of “Miss This Train,” the extraterrestrial “Neptune Caper”). “His Love,” especially, combines transcendental chant, Indian subcontinental textures and sinewy guitar lines in a fusion not far removed from the Holly-bolly of Slumdog Millionaire, or the Hare-son of George.
Randy resolutely followed his own path, and the same might be said of the Flamin ‘Groovies, who stuck out from San Francisco’s ballroom era like a sore thump. They had two incarnations, the first lasting until 1971 with Roy Loney as lead singer; the second picking up the pieces after Loney quit and the band moved to England with Chris Wilson vocalizing. The constant was always guitarist Cyril Jordan, and his comic-art sensibility and penchant for no-frills rock gave the group a sense of classicism, upholding traditional virtues that were simultaneously behind and ahead of their time. With Loney, they helped invent shock-a-billy, turning up the echoplex on the landmark Teenage Head (“I’m a monster…”), and after migrating across the sea, leaped wholeheartedly into the chiming harmonies and proto-Chuck Berry licks of the Brit Invasion.
This might have seemed like a case of Ten Years Before, though power-pop was right around the corner. The Groovies, at a moment when they might’ve become Cheap Trick or the Romantics, retreated into revivalism, even as their reputation reached toward the iconic. Cyril continued to flame on, along with bassist George Alexander who seemed to weather all the band’s personal upheavals, and a notable document of their tenacity is One Night Stand, a 1986 live concert in Australia.
SLOW DEATH: Amazing High Energy Rock n ‘Roll 1971-73! collects demos from a three-year gestation period that would take even longer to reach album form, enhanced with a roughshod sense of discovery that the official recordings buff to a higher gloss. The title track has an exhilaration that belies its drug denouement, and would soon be produced as a dynamic slice ‘o single by Dave Edmunds; “Shake Some Action” roll-and-tumbles; and for a bonus beat, there’s a whoop-it-up cover of “Tallahassee Lassie.”
Another interesting bit of Groovie-ana on eMusic is Volume 3 of Rock Masters, which couples their first homemade EP from 1968, Sneakers, which finds them in Lovin ‘Spoonful mode heightened by occasional off-the-wall side-trips (“Prelude in A Flat to Afternoon Pud”), with clean-edged seventies ‘studio sessions from Rockfield Studios.
Cyril can presently be found playing his see-through Danelectro guitar in Magic Christian, as ever truly groovacious. Howdy, ol ‘pal…found any good EC comics lately?