Saturday 30 July 2011

Live: Flamin' Groovies at the Fforde Green, 1978

at ‘The Fforde Green’, Leeds (21st May 1978)
£1.50 admission

‘We’ve played gigs clear across the country’ drawls Chris Wilson, mouthpiece of the Groovies, ‘but this one’s sure the hottest’. ‘Bet you say that to all the gigs’ flashes back quicker than laser light in lunar night. Smart arse! The music lounge of the Fforde Green Hotel – on Roundhay Road, is cavernous, there’s a bar down one side that sluices sound into vicious shockwaves that roll across tables and aisles to make sonic assignations with naked eardrums. Chords and riffs trapped and piling up in corners shattered raw and fragmented. For decades these memories have lain fallow in my atrophied brain cells, now they’re regurgitating LIVE into grey memory chambers. My ears still abuzz with beautiful tinnitus.

First up is the Australian Radio Birdman, playing hard, fast, tight Rock. They’ve been doing antipodean dates around Brisbane for four years. Later, vocalist Rob quotes the Doors and the Stooges as influences to us, but there’s also sharp disciplined changes and a degree of control sometimes déjà vu-ing Lynyrd Skynyrd at their finest. They do mostly riff-orientated band compositions but for a mid-section insertion of memorabilia item “Hanky Panky” which they assert was a huge Australian hit for Tommy James & The Shondells. Birdman do it well too – it would’ve made a fine single for them. Interval. Audience jostling for better vantage-point positions, an odd mix of leathers and denims, slack-jawed retired hippies and last years brave young things, while Bowie ricochettes from the sound system. Roadies in freebee T-shirts juggle amps across an apparently fully interlocking lego-constructed stage made up of red canvas segments, the same self-assembly once stalked by the pre-Grundy Sex Pistols. As girls shunt intricately balanced towers of empty beer-glasses from the tables back to the bar for re-cycling.

Then the Flamin’ Groovies file on. The first jangling guitar-slivers of Gene Clarke’s “Feel A Whole Lot Better” separating out the lines of demarcation. The neglected flip of the Byrds’ “All I Really Want To Do”, they punch-out and sharpen its changes into a realisation of just how fine a song it always was. Then the embryonic Van Morrison garage-band standard “Baby Please Don’t Go” further delineates the musical interface. Radio Birdman have the accessible common reference points that could have resulted – in, say, two years time, in selling out American stadia. The Groovies finely-focused intensity of vision means they’re never gonna make it on that level. They’ve given up even trying. Their reference points are to the trash aesthetics of Rock history. Their reference points are too tied to subtlety and literary interpretation of its artefacts. In an impatient iconoclastic time, they treat vinyl archaeology like other’s savour wine. Not with over-reverence, more an impeccably calibrated hipness. They are five sharply-dressed rock archivists in perfectly observed, perfectly mixed/matched style – Cuban-heeled Chelsea boots, pressed chord pants, waistcoats, tab collars in Bridget Riley monochromatic stripes, reflector shades. Stylish selection right down to key-player Cyril Jordan’s Rickenbacker – and for one number a transparent Perspex model, smouldering cigarettes impaled on antennae-strings, hair slightly more stylishly receded than I remember from the Roundhouse Ramones double-header a few years back. Now, a few dates ago, the ‘partially crippled’ Jordan fell off a Brussels stage onto broken glass – his right hand in pink plastic bondage concealing the resultant severed tendons.

Next there’s “Nineteenth Nervous Breakdown” and “From Me To You” performed perfect as-the-record – vinyl groove for vinyl groove. The song-source pedigree is pristine, just as the bands own DNA is a self-contained fanzine in its own right. Jordan and bassist George Alexander go right back to the first 1965 incarnation of the Groovies, riding the changes through the ‘Supersnazz’ (1969) and ‘Flamingo’ (1970) albums, through the period when the anarchistic Roy Loney was co-writing the apocalyptical “Slow Death”. Chris Wilson and James Farrell were both grafted onto the band around the early Seventies, with the Groovies surviving through records put out by the Dutch Skydog label and Greg Shaw’s ‘Bomp’ releases. Previously they’d both played guitar with the Charlatans, a band who, according to Rock historian Lillian Roxon, were the first real perpetrators of the San Francisco ‘sound’. The Groovies drummer, David Wright, playing precise forceful pre-cussion configurations to the rear of the stage, entered the band around the same time via a production association with Kama Sutra’s David – husband of ‘Melody Maker’s Lisa, Robinson.

But this band, elegantly crouching, guitars slung low, leaning forward to give the sound an even sharper-edged momentum, have gone a quantum leap beyond ‘Teenage Head’ (March 1971). The band, with its four-guitar phalanx mowing down the idiot-dancers crammed into the space beneath the stage, hemmed in by amps and beery tables, can still rock younger than yesterday, newer than tomorrow. No fetishistic guitar-runs merely preserved in aspic. They concentrate on material from the two Dave Edmunds-produced Sire albums, ‘Shake Some Action’ (1976) and ‘Flamin’ Groovies Now’ (1978). There’s a blend of influences from their own compulsively contagious “All I Wanted”, “Between The Lines”, and the ponderous thundering “Don’t Put Me On”, alongside disinterred obscurities – what other current band even remember boogie-piano thumper Merrill E Moore, let alone play his “House Of Blue Lights” on a humid Sunday night in Leeds? The same band, I suppose, who not only remember Huey ‘Piano’ Smith, but personalised his “Rocking Pneumonia And The Boogie-Woogie Flu” as their debut single! But no, to re-emphasise the obvious – the Groovies are much more than revival merchants. Their whole fifties and sixties fundamentalist ethos, its nuances and stratifications predating the complications of Prog, are channelled through blistering power-punk 1980’s energy, spun through a twinkling multi-layered sound that perfectly off-sets the occasional lightness and/or lyrical trivia of the older stuff. Eclectic music for the mind and the body, indeed. The set closes with an encore, a mighty “Paint It Black”, churning and pulsating like the beating of huge metallic wings – then the band are gone, with surprising abruptness, and the whole thing breaks up beneath the deluge of house lights.

A niggling set regret would be the meagre selection of their own songs, the Jordan/Wilson stuff that forms the standout portion of their two most recent long-players. They even neglect to include their epic teen-manifesto anthem “Shake Some Action”, despite constant audience demands, ‘shake some action’s what I need, to let me bust out at full speed, I’m sure that’s all you need, to make it all right’. That’s how it felt, that’s what Rock was always about, and what those edgy energies provide. But to demand more is to nit-pick. Instead we wind up hanging around under the stars, gabbing to Rob Birdman beneath the door-awning to the car-park. It was a great night.

A ‘troubled’ venue, the ‘Fforde Green’ eventually closed. It is now a continental supermarket...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Only just found my way to this whilst trying to find pictures of the Fforde Grene in its , er, 'heyday'. Me and a number of my friends were at this gig too so was very happy to see your memories /review of it. We were right at the front and I recall dancing to Radio Birdman with a few others but nothing like the huge surge for the Flamin' Groovies. Amazing. One of my favourite gigs ever and many thanks for this reminder of it!